Steve Painter and Rose McCann
spainter at optushome.com.au
Sat Sep 21 09:20:19 MDT 2002
Communists and the British Labour Party 1927-29: A sense of déjà vu
By Richard Price
Mention the term Third Period Stalinism and many on the left think they know
the territory. The trouble is, most know the history of the Third Period of
the Communist International from 1928-33 only in the most general terms, and
that usually amounts to knowing that in Germany, the KPD denounced its
Social Democratic opponents as social fascists, thereby sabotaging any
prospect of united front resistance to Hitler. Third Period Stalinism is
today seen almost universally as a bad thing -- even by today's shrunken
Communist Parties1 -- and therefore as an epithet it is applicable to only
the most case-hardened sectarians.
The problem is that the increasingly Stalinised Comintern did not arrive at
the wilder shores of sectarianism in one leap. By the early 1930s, the
Comintern's frenzied attacks, not just on "social fascists", but on
"anarcho-fascists", "liberal fascists", "clerical fascists", "left social
fascists", and of course "Trotsky-fascists", suggested that almost every
other political tendency beyond its own ranks supported or was conniving at
fascism. But to arrive at this lunacy had taken a series of shifts, the
study of which is highly instructive and of more than just historical
For two years from 1927 to 1929, the Communist Party of Great Britain was
caught up in a set of internal struggle whose central issues sound
remarkably contemporary over 70 years later:
* Was the Labour Party now simply a third bourgeois party?
* Should Communists be active in the Labour Party?
* Should they attempt to build a bridge to the Labour left?
* Should trade unionists pay the political levy?
* Should they fight for political funds to be controlled locally?
* Should socialists fight for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour
In fact, to compare these debates with debates under way within the left
today -- and particularly within the Socialist Alliance -- needs no laboured
analogy. Nor is this meant as an insult to Socialist Alliance comrades. The
CPGB in the late 1920s was a party whose members remained dedicated to the
victory of revolutionary socialism -- if anything they were impatient for
its victory. But the mistakes made by the party in this period echo down to
today, not least because they have been repeated in one form or another by
many who consider themselves Trotskyists. The struggle in the CPGB over the
"new line" marked both the last genuine political struggle within the party,
and at the same time the decisive period in which the party was finally
Attempts by the right-wing Labour leaders to take action against Communists
being active in the Labour Party gathered strength in the period running up
to the 1926 General Strike. The Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party in
autumn 1925 reaffirmed the previous year's conference decision proscribing
Communists from being individual members of the party, although they could
still operate as delegates of affiliated trade unions. However, as many as
100 divisional and borough parties resisted the edict and by the end of 1926
some 1500 Communists were still active as individual members. On the
strength of this resistance, the National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM) was
launched in December 1925, uniting Communists, Labour and Independent Labour
Party leftists, and trade union militants.
At its second conference in September 1927, 54 local Labour parties sent
delegates, claiming to represent 150,000 members. For the small CPGB, this
represented a considerable achievement. Its own membership, which had stood
at only 5000 in 1925, risen slowly to 6000 by April 1926, and then grown
rapidly to 10,700 by October that year under the impact of the betrayal of
the General Strike, had fallen back to 7400 by 1927. Yet through the NLWM,
and its widely read paper, the Sunday Worker, it exercised an influence well
in excess of its modest size. Whatever its limitations, it demonstrated --
as Trotsky would subsequently teach his own British supporters -- that such
a tactic can act as "the lever of a small group".
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