John McIlroy

Rehabilitating Communist History

The Communist International, the Communist Party of Great Britain and Some Revisionist Historians

John McIlroy’s unorthodox look at recent writing on the history of the British Communist Party fills a real gap.

Very little credence can be accorded to the Communist Party’s own histories published before the 1980s, and its present admirers prefer to ignore them. This is because they were so obviously written to justify the party’s zigzags, particularly the most recent ones. Tom Bell’s The British Communist Party: A Short History (London, 1937) was out of step with the change in the line from the Third Period to the Popular Front, and was criticised for ‘sectarian laziness’ as soon as it appeared by the writer of the authorised version, Allen Hutt (The Postwar History of the British Working Class, London, 1937) (Labour Monthly, Volume 19, no 6, June 1937, pp382-6). It is just as well that a libel action enabled it to be withdrawn. Robin Page Arnot’s Twenty Years: The Policy of the Communist Party of Great Britain from Its Foundation, 31 July 1920 (London, 1940) sank into oblivion when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. James Klugmann’s History of the Communist Party (Volumes 1 and 2, 1966 and 1969) had to be abandoned after the second volume, but since Klugmann’s record on truth is less than noteworthy (above, p167), it can hardly be considered a loss. Needless to relate, apart from those published by the Left Book Club, which functioned as one of the party’s fronts at the time, all these were published by Lawrence and Wishart.

But as the former members and admirers of the party retreated from the working-class movement into academe, the picture began to change in the 1980s. It is true that Lawrence and Wishart still produced much of the same, including John Attfield and Stephen Williams (eds), 1939: The Communist Party and the War (1984), Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Volumes 3 and 4, 1985 and 1997), and Francis King and George Matthews (eds), About Turn: The British Communist Party and the Second World War (1990). The party’s history group also continued to turn out similar material, such as Mike Power’s The Struggle Against Fascism and War in Britain, 1930-1939 (Our History, no 70) and Noreen Branson and Bill Moore’s Labour-Communist Relations (Our History, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, 1990 and 1991: cf Al Richardson’s remarks in Labour History Review, Volume 57, no 1, Spring 1992) as did its continuator, the Socialist History Journal (for example, no 19, 1992). The productions of the successor sects, if anything, carry even less conviction (for example, Max Adereth, Line of March: A Historical and Critical Analysis of British Communism and Its Revolutionary Strategy, 1994).

But since the party’s record in high politics could no longer be justified, emphasis now shifted to individual militants or their operations in industry, with the implication that they could not be held responsible for what was going on above them. The wider context of such activities was neglected completely, and such topics as espionage, the ‘front’ organisations, and the extent and organisation of the ‘cryptos’ in the Labour Party were now treated with the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, whereas direct bribery of trade union leaders by the Russians didn’t merit a mention at all. Here the range of publishers was wider, including Merlin, with Richard Croucher’s Engineers at War, 1939-1945 (1982) and the reprint of Francis Beckett’s, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1998), Pluto Press, with Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (1992), and the Scolar Press, with Nina (‘tactical voting’) Fishman’s The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45 (1994). A surprising number were now published by university presses, including Kevin Morgan’s Against Fascism and War: Ruptures and Continuities in British Communist Politics, 1935-41 (1989) and Harry Pollitt (1993), and Ralph Darlington’s The Political Trajectory of JT Murphy (1998). Stuart Macintyre’s A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain, 1917-1933, first published by Cambridge University Press in 1980, was reprinted by Lawrence and Wishart six years later. This consensus in labour history at the university level is all the more surprising, since no other discipline is so dominated by a body of opinion defending the historical reputation of a particular political party, especially one that no longer exists.

Nor are justificatory articles lacking in learned journals, such as Kevin Morgan’s ‘Communism in Britain and the British Empire’ (Science and Society, Volume 61, no 1, Spring 1997), his ‘More than Moscow Gold’ and John Green’s, ‘Puppet Performance’ in the New Statesman (25 February and 21 April 1994; cf Walter Kendall’s rejoinders, 25 March and 21 April), and the material by Andrew Thorpe and Matthew Worley mentioned in note 2 below.

More disturbing is the fact that these salvage operations on a sunken ship seem to be welcomed by those on the left who should know better. Whilst Dave Turner preferred Klugmann’s and Branson’s books to Willie Thompson’s (Labour Briefing, December 1992), Peter Fryer had little but praise for it (‘A History with a Blind Spot’, Workers Press, 18 July 1992; cf Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2, Spring 1994, pp148-51 and Volume 5, no 3, pp274-8). Chris Bambery regarded Nina Fishman’s book as ‘fine history’ (‘The Red Years’, Socialist Review, June 1995), and envied the party’s ‘ability to attract many of the best working-class activists’ (Socialist Review, September 1999), whilst Julie Waterson’s review of the same book (‘The Party at Its Peak’, International Socialism, no 69, Winter 1995-96, pp77-83) can only be described as gushing. Phil Watson continues to defend practically the entire past record of the CPGB (Weekly Worker, 15 May 1997, 11 June 1998, 30 March and 20 April 2000, etc). According to him, Morgan and Fishman ‘have rightly rejected the outworn dogma of the Trotskyites, intent on picturing the party as a mere reflex of the CPSU’.

On the other hand, independent histories of the Communist Party, however honest, suffer from a lack of respectability. Noted exceptions are LJ Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development until 1929 (London, 1966) and Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921 (London, 1969). Other accounts receive significantly less attention. Henry Pelling’s The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile (London, 1958) could be dismissed as ‘a late product of the Cold War’ (Kevin Morgan, Against Fascism and War, p7; cf Brian Pearce, ‘useful but shallow’, Labour Review, Volume 3, no 5, December 1958), since Pelling also contributed a chapter entitled ‘Great Britain: The Communist Party and the Trade Unions’ to Jeane J Kirkpatrick’s The Strategy of Deception, New York, 1963, pp310-40.

A surprising number of critical treatments of the record of the Communist Party written from a left point of view are barely known. They include Guy Aldred, Communism: Story of the Communist Party (Glasgow, 1943), Robert Black (Robin Blick), Stalinism in Britain (London, 1970), Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays in the History of Communism in Britain (London, 1975), James Hinton and Richard Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the Early British Communist Party (London, 1975), Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain: The CPGB from Its Origins to the Second World War (London, 1976), Ray Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (London, 1977), News Line, Fifty Years of Stalinism (London, 1980), and Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Two Steps Back (Ilford, 1983). None of these merit scarcely a mention, either by academe or the Stalinists. Even Alison Macleod’s superb book The Death of Uncle Joe (Rendlesham, 1997; reviewed by Ron Heisler, Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no 2, 1999, pp279-81) appears to have been largely ignored. Moreover, on the rare occasions when the existence of these books is even recognised, there is an unvarying tone of condescension (cf Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, New Left Review, no 154, November-December 1985, p35; Kevin Morgan, Against Fascism and War, pp6-7; Matthew Worley, ‘Reflections on Recent British Communist Party History’, Historical Materialism, no 4, September 1999, pp241-61).

The quality of the biographies of party militants remains uneven. At the honest end of the spectrum we have Harry McShane and Joan Smith, No Mean Fighter (London, 1978) and Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto, privately printed in London in 1978 and 1991 (reviewed by Peter Taaffe, Militant International Review, no 47, 1992, pp16-21, and Al Richardson, Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 1, Autumn 1993, pp132-4). At the other we have such as Mike Squires, Shapurji Saklatvala (Lawrence and Wishart, 1967), and Pervaiz Nazir, The Life and Work of Rajani Palme Dutt, which was published by the GLC’s Race Equality Unit (cf the review by Richard Price, ‘Palme Dutt: Stalin’s Henchman’, Marxist Review, Volume 1, no 3, June 1986, pp40-5). John Callaghan’s Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism (London, 1993) is more critical (reviewed by David Turner, Militant International Review, no 57, May-June 1984, pp31-2, and by Cyril Smith, Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, Autumn 1994, pp230-3). Kevin Morgan’s Harry Pollitt (Manchester, 1993), on the other hand, is just as uncritical, to the extent that the Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Edinburg, Victor Kiernan, felt that ‘Pollitt can be counted one of the great Englishmen of this century’ (Guardian, 29 July 1993). Ralph Darlington, The Political Trajectory of JT Murphy (Liverpool UP, 1998) is noticeably soft on his subject, while Dave Renton appears to find some hitherto unnoticed virtues in Dona Torr (‘The History Woman’, Socialist Review, November 1998), and Keith Flett even puts in a good word for GPU man Bert Ramelson (Guardian, 30 April 1994).

Academic literature, which bubbles with controversy in other disciplines, is strangely placid in this one, so for a critical eye we have to rely on the small circulation journals of the far left. Of the articles, Ian Birchall’s ‘Left Alive or Left for Dead? The Terminal Crisis of the British Communist Party’ (International Socialism, no 30, Autumn 1989, pp67-89) puts the whole thing in context. Peter Fryer summarises historical results up to 1994 (‘Fresh Light on British Stalinist History’, Workers Press, 15 October 1994; cf also ‘Rose Cohen and Your Pollitt’, 22 October 1994). Monty Johnstone’s ‘The CPGB, the Comintern and the War, 1939-1941: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know’ (Communist History Network, Newsletter, 1998) is refreshingly honest on the next four years’ findings. Paul Flewers investigated the rise of social patriotism in the CPGB in ‘From the Red Flag to the Union Jack’, New Interventions, Volume 6, no 2, June 1995, and his essay on the CPGB in wartime was printed in this magazine (‘Cornering the Chameleons’, Revolutionary History, Volume 6, nos 2-3, Summer 1996, pp74-104). Peter Fryer deals with new research on the crisis in the party over Hungary in ‘A Conference on 1956’ (Workers Press, 9 June 1990) and ‘New Light on CP History’ (Workers Press, 23 June 1990), as does Andrew Calcutt, ‘1956 and All That’ (Living Marxism, August 1990).

Many of the more valid points crop up in reviews. Richard Croucher’s Engineers at War was dealt with by Ernie Roberts (‘Class War and World War’, Tribune, 19 November 1982) and Ernie Jacques (Labour Leader, March 1983). Kevin Morgan’s Against Fascism and War was reviewed by Kevin Davey (‘Moscow’s Poodle’, Tribune, 26 January 1990), Peter Fryer (‘Before the Line Changed’, Workers Press, 3 March 1990) and Paul Flewers (Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 3, Spring 1991, pp50-1). His Harry Pollitt was criticised by David Turner (Militant International review, no 57, May-June 1994, pp31-2) and Cyril Smith (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, Autumn 1994, pp230-3). Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause was analysed by Martin Booth (‘The Disintegration of British Stalinism’, Marxist Review, Volume 7, no 10, October 1992, pp30-1), Dave Turner (Militant International Review, no 50, March-April 1993, p31) and Al Richardson (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2, Spring 1994, pp148-51; cf Volume 5, no 3, Autumn 1994, pp274-8). John McIroy’s critical survey of Ralph Darlington’s The Political Trajectory of JT Murphy appeared two years ago in this magazine (Volume 7, no 2, 1999, pp255-63).

So one historical question remains to be asked: if they were all so good, why did their party perform so lamentably?

H               H               H


UCH ink has been spilt in recent years on reassessments of the relationship between the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Communist International, or Comintern, the world democratic centralist party of which it was a national section. The conventional view, held by historians of all persuasions, such as Henry Pelling, Leslie Macfarlane, Mike Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Walter Kendall, EH Carr, Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy — albeit with different emphases and nuances — was that the Comintern exercised sustained hegemony over its British affiliate.[1] On all significant issues, of theory, strategy and tactics, the Comintern was the decisive influence and ultimate arbiter. Always the preponderant power in the Comintern, and by the end of the 1920s in complete control of the organisation, the Russian party elaborated theory and strategy. The British developed tactical adaptation of strategy and its detailed implementation, subject always to correction from Moscow on issues that mattered.

Today’s historical world prioritises novelty. In the universities, the new managerialism, Stalinist-style performance indicators and research assessment exercises inspire publications of sometimes dubious quality, and stimulate revision of even well-substantiated, robust and resilient orthodoxies. Empathy with the past struggles of Communists and the search for honourable revolutionary pedigrees may produce the desire for a healthier, more independent, more ‘interesting’, more creative, more native British Communism that is more distanced from the control and the crimes of Stalinism, safely focused on Stockport and safely excluding Siberia. History has always been about the historian. In the enthusiasm over the opening of new archives, there may be a reluctance to accept, particularly after prolonged immersion in them, that what they reveal adds to the detail, but does not significantly alter received theory or conclusions. Whatever our conjectures, the established approach has recently been challenged, by academics as well as by political activists, in a fashion which is far from historically convincing. The new claim is that the provenance of CPGB strategy, as distinct from its justification, is to be located as much in King Street as in the Kremlin, that the CPGB possessed a greater degree of political independence and autonomy than historians have hitherto accorded it, that indigenous British factors were as important, or more important, in strategic policy turns than Russian considerations, and, indeed, that key controversial changes in policy, such as the move from the united front to rampant ultra-leftism in 1928-29, would have taken place even if the Comintern had not insisted upon it.[2]

This article will engage with the latest wave of revisionism. It will expose its weaknesses and affirm that traditional conceptions of the political relations between the Comintern and the CPGB emerge unscathed. Given the need to provide reasonable detail, and mindful of considerations of space, my survey is confined to the period of 1920-34.

Much Ado About Nothing: Communist History in the Left Press

The discussion of Communist historiography has recently spilled over into the left press. An article by Mike Squires in the journal of the Communist Party of Britain exemplifies some aspects of the new revisionism, and is suggestive of some of its problems. Fundamentally, Squires rejects the view that ‘every policy turn [of the CPGB] was determined by the Communist International which was itself in hock to Stalin’s machinations in the USSR’. In the period of 1920-32, he asserts: ‘Changes of policy in the British party… were as much due to pressure from the party rank and file as to any dictates from Moscow.’[3] Squires has little to say about major changes in policy apart from the CPGB’s move to the sectarian ‘class against class’ policies of the Third Period. Here the Comintern played a secondary rôle, and change was produced, in his view, by ‘pressure from the party rank and file… plus some prodding from the Communist International’. However, from 1920: ‘The idea that the CI issued directives that were meekly carried out by compliant Communist parties is not the case. There was discussion and input, from national CPs before decisions were taken.’[4]

Let us first dispense with the last statement, for it is a diversion. So far as I know, nobody has denied that there was discussion and consultation or, indeed, the need for interpretation and problems of application of Comintern policy. What is in question is which was the decisive voice in the CPGB’s policy: the Comintern or the party? In denying the primacy of the Comintern, Squires acknowledges that he is contesting the view of ‘most historians of British Communism’. He is also challenging authoritative recent research which attempts to synthesise traditional work and new evidence from the Comintern archives in Moscow, work which contradicts each of Squires’ statements quoted above. Accepting that Stalin no more than Hitler directly took all decisions, a point made long ago by EH Carr, in relation to ‘Stalin’s machinations’, Fredrikh Firsov, for example, estimates that Stalin, directly and through his minions, ‘controlled the most important sectors of the Comintern’s activities’.[5] The first British historians to survey the Comintern archives, Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew, conclude:

Communist strategies were elaborated in the Kremlin and disseminated through the international movement by the Russian-dominated ECCI [Comintern Executive]. This meant that whoever controlled the Russian party apparatus controlled the Comintern… Stalin’s pivotal rôle in Comintern affairs from 1923-24 has been established beyond all doubt… The tension felt by foreign Communists attempting to balance fealty to Moscow with responsiveness to indigenous realities was invariably resolved in favour of the former… the class against class tactics were devised in Moscow, not ‘at home’ in Britain, and they were essentially imposed on the British Communists in the face of initial opposition.[6]

Contesting its well-furnished verdicts, Squires fails to engage with the existing literature, relying instead on a handful of examples to justify his assertion of British political independence. His first example refers to the tactical application of the united front which from 1922 the CPGB sought to build with other working-class parties. In August 1922, the CPGB decided that it would not stand candidates in opposition to Labour in the forthcoming general election. There was some opposition on the Executive; in Scotland, several branches had to be dissolved. Squires’ claims of ‘massive’ dissent is inaccurate; no opposition was organised over the issue, no sustained fight against it was mounted, and no breakaway occurred. The party was pleased with the results of the ensuing election, and the issue faded away.[7]

Squires makes much of a claim that at the CPGB congress in 1927, it was decided to stand candidates against the Labour Party, without any initiative being taken by the Comintern. In fact, the resolution entitled ‘The Labour Party and Parliamentary Action’ at the 1927 congress is not so explicit. It calls for ‘the return of a majority Labour government’, a policy soon to be ditched at the behest of the Comintern; and it states only that ‘the Communist Party specially concentrate on establishing a group of leading party members within parliament at the earliest opportunity’.[8] The issue, moreover, is shrouded in mystery: a communication from the Comintern urging opposition to Labour candidates had apparently been sent to the CPGB, but it did not arrive before its congress. When the change finally came, it took place not at the CPGB’s congress, at the initiative of the party, but at the Ninth Plenum of the ECCI in Moscow in February 1928, at the initiative of the Comintern.[9]

Squires’ final example of British independence is the vote of the British delegation at the Sixth World Congress against the Comintern’s theses on India. For Squires, this is the real thing: ‘… they stood alone against the weight of opinion of the entire world Communist movement… it shows one thing all too clearly — whatever its antagonists may say, the CPGB was prepared to defy the CI and its leadership.’[10] Once again, we need to introduce a sense of proportion into what is one incident, an incident which Squires uses to cast doubt on the CPGB’s sustained loyalty to Stalin’s faction. What we are talking about is one isolated vote over a period of 12 years. And after the vote? As Macfarlane observes: ‘This position could not be maintained once the decision had been taken.’[11] Pressing matters to a vote is surely very limited defiance compared with, say, organising a sustained campaign of opposition to negate or reverse the decision. And, of course, a vote against a thesis was still formally legitimate, if conventionally sub rosa, while real defiance, such as campaigning against the Comintern, risked excommunication. As EH Carr records, the British insubordination which Squires relishes was extremely circumscribed: ‘The leaders of the CPGB returned from Moscow in a chastened and somewhat bewildered mood. Never again would they venture to defy the united authority of the Comintern.’[12]

Squires thus fails to substantiate his quite sweeping assertions with any halfway worthwhile evidence. A dedicated part-time historian, he is to be congratulated for putting these issues before activists, but his work reflects some of the characteristic techniques of academic revisionism. There is the straw man, the implausible insinuation that British Communists submissively accepted self-explanatory edicts without any discussion or adaptation; the ‘pick out a plum’ approach in which a relatively isolated incident is plucked out of an otherwise sustained pattern of behaviour and inflated to suggest independence; the ‘iron curtain’ in which indigenous enthusiasm for Comintern initiatives is used to suggest a native genealogy — as if British Communists did not internalise a belief in the Comintern as the fount of political wisdom, read its press and pronouncements, and assiduously seek to follow, in some cases anticipate, its directives; and there is the terminological inexactitude in which a vote by the British against a motion is not differentiated from, say, the American leadership’s far more significant challenge to Stalin.

Similar problems can be seen in Phil Watson’s writings on CPGB history in the Weekly Worker. In the past, he assures us in language hewn from straw, ‘the CPGB had been crudely portrayed as a mere slave of Moscow, helpless in the face of Comintern manipulation ultimately stemming from the artful dodger himself, Joseph Stalin’.[13] Apart from vague references to ‘bourgeois thinkers’ and ‘Trotskyite accounts’ which have ‘merely tended to buttress the extremes of Cold War ideology’, Watson’s only specific attribution of this view is to Henry Pelling’s The British Communist Party. I will examine Pelling later: suffice it to say at this stage that readers seeking the ‘spine-chilling tales of Cold War dread’ that Watson attributes to old Henry will be sorely disappointed. Despite his crusade against Trotskyist historians’ ‘never-ending inability to engage empirical evidence’, Watson fails to provide in his original article a single example of the party’s political independence from the Soviet bureaucracy to counter the views he is excoriating. Under fire from critics, he deploys only two examples of what he terms ‘rebellion’. His first example is the situation in October 1939 when the CPGB changed its line: the anti-fascist war supported by the party was in two days transformed into an inter-imperialist war that it had to oppose. What wrought this amazing change was the arrival of an emissary from Moscow, the Russian spy Dave Springhall.

What is the essence of this episode? Watson’s language is inexact and unattractive, but in his parlance it is precisely the manipulation of the CPGB by that ‘artful dodger’ Joseph Stalin. What stands out for most historians is the party’s conformism, the fact that the vast majority of the CPGB’s leadership and members accepted the about-turn in accordance with the requirements of the artful dodger’s alliance with his fellow artful dodger and mass-murderer Adolf Hitler. Demonstrating a disabling lack of proportion, Watson focuses on the three members of the Central Committee, Pollitt, Campbell and Gallacher, who opposed their 21 comrades — he has absolutely nothing to say about this overwhelming majority — by voting against the resolution. That, by the way, is all this minority did. They then recanted and operated the new Stalinist line, with Pollitt resigning as General Secretary, and Campbell as editor of the Daily Worker, in the process.

That is very limited individual protest. It is rebellion only in the inflated vision of revisionist historians.[14] The same can be said of Watson’s second example, the miners’ leader Arthur Horner’s failure to fight for the new line in the South Wales coalfield. Horner never positively challenged the new line as it veered towards apologetics for Hitler, still less organised to change it. What was involved was what Watson would lament in another contemporary context as a succumbing to trade unionism and a dereliction of democratic centralist duty.[15]

If Watson’s work thus far strengthens rather than diminishes notions of the CPGB’s political dependence on Moscow, he is on firmer ground when he asserts that any full history needs to go beyond study of the party’s formal positions and expose how its politics were applied in the class struggle in the localities and in the unions. His warning that one-sided emphasis on local narratives may produce a disembodied universe of self-sustaining militants distanced from party politics is pertinent. The essential links between international and national politics, individual lives and sectional struggles must always be rigorously explored.

In this context, we might question some of the examples Watson gives. Nina Fishman’s study of Communist trade unionists, at least after 1935, comes just a little too close for comfort to the approach he criticises, one which examines activists ‘totally within the context of their own labour movements utterly unaffected by the Comintern and the leaders of their national parties’.[16] Another historian he cites, Kevin Morgan, muses somewhat evasively: ‘Historians, some of them minded to contest the primacy of the political, may accord a greater significance to the social and cultural movements of communism than did the Comintern itself.’[17] Those of us minded to affirm the primacy of the political, though not to the exclusion of all else, in political parties pledged to change the world, will accord an important space to social history — but to a social history which is integrated within political history, which neither is uncoupled from it, nor displaces it, nor pushes out to the periphery uncomfortable matters such as political autonomy and the relationship of British Communists to Stalinist despotism in studies centred on politically decontextualised struggles of Communist activists. The complex aspirations and activities of the CPGB’s rank and file did not transcend the ultimate domination of the CPGB by the Soviet leadership. However unedifying and uninteresting, this cannot be evaded by the conscientious historian.

A virtue of Watson’s writing, although I fear a source of the problems with it, is his reference to the recent work of two academics, Andrew Thorpe and Matthew Worley. This deals both generally with Comintern-CPGB relations and more specifically with the Third Period, and is based upon research in the archives in Moscow and Manchester. Critical engagement with their publications can help us to shed further light on the questionable techniques and conclusions of revisionism.

Academics and Straw Men

Any rigorous interrogation of the relationship between the Comintern and the CPGB must start from the formal subordination of the latter to the former in the 21-point constitution of the International which was cumulatively amended to tighten control, the growing absence of any real democracy, and the increasing political and ideological supremacy of the Russian party. It must take account of the self-willed political and ideological subordination that British Communists accorded the Russians, who alone had theorised and made a revolution; and the merging into each other of the Russian state, the Russian party and the Comintern. It is impossible to address the complexities of international-national relations without giving full weight to the Russian dimension. To take a fundamental point, to what extent did the Comintern by 1930 remain an instrument of revolution? To what degree did it represent, was marked by, or was influenced by, the diplomacy of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and the foreign policy interests of the new rulers of Russia? EH Carr, for example, concluded long ago that by 1929 the revolutionary vocabulary of the Comintern concealed the fact that ‘the promotion of revolution no longer occupied a central place in its agenda’.[18] Such fundamental questions as to whether by 1930, as Isaac Deutscher conjectured, the Comintern no longer interested Stalin so that its intervention in many countries was a side-show, are largely absent from Thorpe’s work.[19] In his 300-page book, there is only cursory reference to Russian developments. The Russian dimension is in turn deprecated by Worley.

This is part of a broader failure adequately to address and appreciate the existing literature. Readers of this now extensive work would hardly be paralysed by the novelty of discovering that representatives of the British party were consulted inside and outside Comintern bodies, or that ECCI and congress decisions were not always models of clarity, or that, commonsensically, Comintern directives required interpretation, application, amendment and correction in the light of experience. Earlier historians of British Communism would pass over without question the fact that the united front could be applied in ways that were seen as too opportunistic or too sectarian towards the Labour Party, that different tactics might be necessary in Scotland compared with Devon, or that different considerations might apply to tactics in the Transport and General Workers Union compared with the Tailor and Garment Workers Union. And to a man they would have accepted that there was dissidence, albeit dissidence that was limited.

Instead of starting from this vantage point, giving earlier work its due and emphasising precisely what he is and what he is not adding to it, Thorpe begins with sleights of hand and straw men. His central assertion, one which requires careful location among many vacuous formulations of prize-winning imprecision, such as ‘the Comintern was clearly not irrelevant to the British Communist Party’, is that ‘the Comintern’s influence over the development of British Communist politics has been exaggerated by most observers’.[20] Deft penwork compresses ‘most observers’ into ‘cold warriors’ and ‘Trotskyists’, and these categories are further compressed into just two authors — Pelling and Hugo Dewar — carefully chosen to illustrate the deficiencies of ‘most observers’.[21] Thorpe thus refuses to follow more exacting historical procedure by engaging with a range of other authors whose work is, in my view, superior to that of Pelling and Dewar, but whose conclusions as to Comintern domination of the CPGB differ very little in substance from theirs, although it is at once more precise, more detailed and more complex. They are, to put it bluntly, harder targets.

For example, in his study of the Minority Movement, Roderick Martin specifically affirmed the hegemony of the Comintern: ‘ideological, organisational and emotional pressures were strong enough to enforce Communist conformity to the Comintern policy’.[22] Likewise, in his portrait of the CPGB in the 1920s, Leslie Macfarlane concludes that Comintern domination ‘was in the main accepted by the party without question’. He mentions only two relatively minor examples of CPGB ‘resistance’, their protest over the Russian unions’ criticism of the rôle of the left-wing leaders in the General Strike, and the dissent over India noted above. He concludes: ‘In both instances the British party was required to conform.’[23]

Turning to what many academics would regard as easier meat, Thorpe encounters further problems. If we actually read Pelling, we discover that, however cursorily and inadequately — his work was thin, but after all he was writing in the 1950s — he does refer to problems in the interpretation and tactical application of the Comintern’s line, and to opposition to it.[24] Similarly, Dewar was writing as a veteran Socialist activist, rather than a professional historian with all the resources that this entails, in the still archive-free world of the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, he notes that in the early years of the Comintern, ‘there was exhaustive discussion’, while ‘national peculiarities were recognised and tactical flexibility accepted within the framework of the strategic general line’.[25] Yet in all his extensive writing on these issues, Thorpe never quotes, and gives only one reference to Dewar, what turns out to be a not particularly relevant statement on the CPGB’s attitude to the Second World War.[26] And he only once quotes Pelling — a half-sentence in which Pelling, a little excessively but he is writing metaphorically, states that during the Third Period the Comintern imposed ‘quasi-military discipline’ on the CPGB.[27]

Largely eschewing the well-tested historical methods of engagement with texts, quotation, citation and discussion, Thorpe attributes to Pelling and Dewar the view that the CPGB ‘rapidly became the slaves of Moscow’.[28] In the whole of Pelling’s book the only reference to ‘slaves’ is the single comment that by 1930 the party was ‘reduced to an almost slavish submission to Moscow’ (my emphasis).[29] Pelling’s specific, justified and qualified metaphor is then extended and transformed by Thorpe. ‘Many historians’, he proclaims, ‘have seen the British party as the epitome of slavishness to Moscow.’[30] So ‘almost slavish’ becomes ‘the epitome of slavishness’. The admittedly prolific Pelling becomes ‘many historians’. Once more, the only other member of the many who can be found to answer is Dewar, for Thorpe continues: ‘This was a view broadly echoed by Trotskyites like Dewar.’[31] I am not sure what Thorpe means by ‘broadly echoed’, but there is no comparable statement in Dewar’s book.

Indeed, Dewar would quietly but firmly have rejected the view of reality which Thorpe imputes to him of ‘a solid unbreakable chain of command from Stalin’s office in the Kremlin to the most minor CP member’[32] as pure parody. He would have pointed out that Thorpe was illegitimately conjuring the aspiration of the Comintern and CPGB into reality. ‘Unbreakable’? Dewar knew the reality of dissidence at first hand. Expelled from the CPGB in 1932 as part of the only opposition that emerged in the party’s first 20 years, Dewar had a somewhat closer acquaintance with the issues of discipline and dissidence than Thorpe.[33] Thorpe’s techniques are those of unsubstantiated dismissal, caricature and the straw man. On the basis of an unquoted half-sentence in a text published in 1958, much of the historiography of British Communism is saddled with a parody, all the better to illuminate the novelty of what is to come. It is a parody whereby nobody in Britain ever disagreed with what anybody in the Comintern said or with anything that was done on its behalf, a parody in which every detail of policy was clearly spelt out and submissively executed.

Wielding this straw man, which eliminates at the stroke of a pen the central fact that British Communists freely willed the leadership of the Comintern and internalised its political hegemony, Thorpe proceeds to lay waste both to a spurious orthodoxy and to correct statements and errors which nobody made in the first place. Thus at the CPGB’s foundation, ‘the mood was not slavish’; in 1921, the party ‘was not cravenly submissive’; by 1923, ‘the party was not slavish to Moscow’s every whim’; ‘the characterisation of British Communists as “slaves of Moscow” during this period is utterly misleading’.[34] At times, straw men slaves become straw men robots: ‘the idea that a flick of the lever in the Kremlin led to immediate and complete changes in CPGB policy’, Thorpe avers, is the substance of ‘myths and legends’,[35] myths and legends unworthy of scholarly assault.

If, as Thorpe hypothesises, the CPGB was more politically independent of the Comintern than has been previously allowed, the obvious question is this: which criteria are we to use to measure independence, on the one hand, and domination on the other? How autonomous, how conformist was the CPGB? Nowhere does Thorpe even begin to elaborate any criteria for answering these questions. Yet it is obvious that to do so we must, however roughly, differentiate between strategy and tactics, creation and application of policy, comprehension of international initiatives and the ability to fulfil them. We need some method of assessing the significance of issues and their importance to the Comintern and the CPGB, and some means of estimating in whose favour differences and disputes were solved. In measuring dissidence and independence, however crudely, it is clear that we need to differentiate between a minority vote at a conference, and the persistence of opposition and its organisation into a faction. Principled political refusal to carry out a Comintern directive is different from failure to act through lack of resources or a hostile atmosphere. And, of course, there were directives and directives, some major, some minor.

And, of course, there are the international dimension and the comparison of the CPGB with other national branches of the Comintern. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that scarcely a single leader of the British party can be found to stand comparison with the oppositionists in other parties, such as Brandler, Korsch, Fischer, Maslow, Kotter, Urbahns in Germany; Souvarine, Rosmer, Monatte, Treint, Doriot and perhaps more dubiously Barbé in France; or Nin, Maurín or even, perhaps, Bullejos and Adame in Spain. We might hypothesise from the similar absence of organised opposition that compared with other affiliates the British section was conformist and pliant in relation to Moscow.

Refusing to approach matters in any halfway analytical fashion, Thorpe unhelpfully fuses together different kinds of issues, decisions, disputes, resistances and disabilities, encasing the ‘pull out a plum’ approach in a dense empirical narrative which halts from time to time to applaud some audacious, if magnified, marvel of British independence. It is surprising, given his straw man of slavery and his conflation and inflation of dissidence that he can find so few. ‘At every turn of the line’, he announces, ‘there was dissent and this did not disappear once the line had been changed.’[36] He provides no evaluation of the quantity and quality of dissent in the four examples he cites.

In the first case, the dispute over parliamentary action and the question of affiliation to the Labour Party, he provides no evidence at all. There was incontestably vocal opposition, to be expected in an embryonic party, given the traditions of some of the groups which formed it. It was fragmented opposition, swiftly dissolved by Lenin’s authority. Thorpe’s second example — he points out that 20 per cent of delegates voted against the united front as part of the process of deciding policy at the 1922 congress — is surely a mild and normal example of dissent, if indeed it can be termed dissent with any exactitude. We will deal specifically with ‘class against class’ later. Thorpe’s fourth example of dissent over the Popular Front — Pollitt having to reassure delegates to a London District Congress that socialism remained the party’s objective — is, in the context of the argument, rather trivial.[37]

And triviality persists. Thorpe lists a number of occasions when the CPGB failed to carry out Comintern directives. Some, such as the failure to send a delegate to an international conference of farm-workers and to donate £50 to Inprecorr, are minor at best. Others, such as the decision not to establish the International Class War Prisoners Aid on the basis of individual membership, are scarcely of major importance, and were later reversed. On this slender basis he concludes with a disabling lack of judgement: ‘The party clearly believed that CI decisions were negotiable.’[38] The essential distinction between a £50 donation which the party failed to make and changes in political strategy, every single one of which the CPGB accepted, is lost. What are, on the whole, relatively minor issues are wrenched from their essential context of invariable agreement on all matters of significance. They are isolated, inflated and then declared highly suggestive of the CPGB’s independence from the Comintern.

The Comintern and the CPGB 1920-27: An Outline Record

If we very briefly sketch the relations between the party and the Comintern before 1927, it is clear that in spite of garnering a wealth of valuable detail from the Moscow archives, Thorpe adds little to traditional conclusions. He fails to disturb prevailing verdicts as to the Comintern’s political domination of the CPGB. If we restore a measure of proportion and look at the wood before the trees, then it is clear that in no instance was political strategy initiated by the CPGB: in every case it was initiated by the Comintern. The provenance of the grand, strategic decisions of the period, the break with ultra-leftism embodied in the orientation towards parliament and the Labour Party, the united front, recognising the retreat from the immediate conquest of power and prescribing critical alliances with other working-class parties, and the return of ultra-leftism with ‘class against class’, lay in Moscow, and were accepted by the British. The major difficulty in Comintern-CPGB relations was not acceptance, but implementation, not strategic orientation but tactical application.[39]

So, for example, the party’s campaign for Labour Party affiliation was supervised by a Comintern commission. Again, at a special ECCI meeting in July 1923, the Comintern criticised the CPGB’s ‘inadequate and aimless’ application of the united front, and called for a more critical approach to the Labour Party while maintaining entry work and the campaign for affiliation. An ECCI meeting in December 1924 corrected the party’s over-enthusiastic response to Labour’s election result in December 1923: it would not, as the CPGB believed, sharpen the level of class struggle, but defuse it by reforms which would strengthen capital. In consequence, detailed instructions were despatched from Moscow on the conduct of the 1924 election campaign. The following year, an ECCI commission recommended a firmer orientation to working with and criticising the Labour left and strengthening the Left Wing Movement.[40] Given the nature of the strategy, there was intensive discussion over how the united front should work. But the CPGB accepted the Comintern’s corrections, and did its best to implement them.

There was a similar orchestration in the trade union field. The Fourth Comintern Congress in November 1922 emphasised the need to go beyond party nuclei and construct united front organisations in workplaces and unions. The push towards the establishment of the Minority Movement from mid-1923 came from Moscow and the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). After reports from Borodin and Lozovsky, a meeting in Moscow in June 1923 criticised the party’s union work, and prescribed extensive reorganisation to get the new movement off the ground. The RILU had to keep the pressure on; it was ‘repeatedly forced to note that work of the British Bureau does not keep pace with the requirements and possibilities of the present labour movement of Great Britain’.[41] But by 1925, the Minority Movement had belatedly emerged as a significant actor in the industrial field. If insistence upon the conciliation of the trade union lefts in the domestic struggle did not stem from the Comintern, Stalin’s faith in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee certainly made life perplexing for British Communists. It required, at the least, great intellectual flexibility and finesse to argue that the left-wing union leaders would fail to protect British workers against the state while the Russian leaders were simultaneously creating illusions in the ability of the trade union lefts to protect Russian workers against intervention by the British state.[42]

In the run-up to the General Strike, the CPGB was once more to the right of the Comintern in what Moscow saw as its failure adequately to criticise left-wing leaders and to emphasise that a general strike would pose the question of power. The Comintern encouraged the CPGB to take a harder line. The party’s reservations about moving left and the danger of overestimating the problems of British capitalism opened a gap between Moscow and King Street which widened when the Soviet trade unions’ manifesto on the general strike condemned the rôle of the TUC general council, left and right. Despite protests, the Comintern successfully insisted that the CPGB publish the document, and thwarted an attempt to recall JT Murphy as the CPGB’s representative in Moscow because of his criticism (orchestrated by the Comintern) of the party’s rightist tendencies.[43] By 1927, a limited but discernible move to the left by the CPGB, with its origins in the Comintern, was underway.

Throughout this period, the Comintern maintained supervision of the implementation of policy, supervision that the CPGB viewed as part of the legitimate and valuable leadership that the Comintern exercised in relation to its British affiliate. Thorpe’s use of the term ‘control’ and his conception of the Comintern as an external force is misleading. British Communists projected their hopes and fears onto the Comintern, and internalised its authority. They themselves identified the Comintern with the Russian party and the Russian state, and willed their own domination.[44] This is clear from the documents in the Moscow archives, of which we can provide only a couple of examples. In early 1923, party leader Tom Bell was writing to Moscow after the Party Council meeting: ‘I am instructed to direct your attention to the specific resolutions passed upon the united front and the workers’ government and to [ask you] to convey to us your opinion as whether these resolutions conform to the mind of the Central Executive of the CI.’ He added: ‘I am instructed by the Central Committee to enquire from you specific directions with regard to the question of a programme. This matter was raised at the Party Council meeting and there is some confusion in our minds as to what the Communist International exactly requires of the national parties. We should like a clear direction…’[45] Having sought guidance on the Labour Party — ‘We would welcome some direction for the Central Committee.’ — Bell replied dutifully: ‘Your answer to my enquiry regarding the policy of sharpening the criticism of the Labour Party has been noted and we shall seek to carry out the decision of the Executive.’[46] The Comintern’s instructions on electoral work were detailed and peremptory:

The Executive sends the following instructions: a sharp principled criticism of the activity of the MacDonald government… Sharp agitation against the Independent Labour Party. On the whole, Labour candidates should be supported… Slogans of election campaign… How campaign should be conducted: Every candidate circulates Campbell’s appeal and signs it; Campbell issues another appeal to soldiers and sailors; Roy to be put up as candidate; to draw him into the election campaign if possible; send him a telegram; immediately turn Workers Weekly into a daily. Further instructions will follow…[47]

The Comintern received detailed information on the CPGB’s implementation of policy in the Labour Party, the unions, the cooperative movement, the Left Wing Movement, the Plebs League and other organisations. This was facilitated by permanent representatives in Britain, less impressively by Borodin, and more effectively by Petrovsky, short-term visits by Comintern functionaries, representatives from other parties who reported to the Comintern, and the knowing reports of the CPGB’s permanent representatives, as well as regular meetings of the ECCI, the British commissions, and the circulation of personnel between London and Moscow.[48] All this reinforced, as did the Comintern’s financial subsidies which kept the party alive, what was a primary ideological and political identification with the Russian state, which facilitated Comintern domination. Here it is worth looking at the financial allocations from the Comintern to the CPGB.[49]


Amount (Sterling)

Aug 1920–Dec 1921

55 000


18 500




16 000


16 400


54 000


45 000


38 000

In the face of this convincing orthodoxy, Thorpe flounders around, citing as significant examples of dissent 31 votes against Labour Party affiliation at the CPGB’s Fourth Congress in 1922, and ‘expulsions’ over the Trotsky controversy in 1924-25. The first is trivial, and the second an error, for there were no such expulsions.[50] Such is his determination to bleach what was indelibly Russian in the CPGB into Britishness that he even has the CPGB adopting democratic centralism before the Comintern insisted upon it. He overstrains our credulity in arguing that the Dutt-Pollitt-Inkpin report of 1922, written in order to bring the CPGB into line with the Theses on Organisation adopted at the Third Congress of the Comintern in July 1921, constituted an independent British initiative.[51] The terms of reference of the committee commence: ‘To review the organisation of the party in the light of the Theses and to make detailed recommendations to the Executive and to the Annual Conference for the application of the Theses.’[52] In stressing the independent British thinking of Dutt, Pollitt and Inkpin, Thorpe manages to overlook what they themselves wrote in their report: ‘It should be remembered that the proposals which are set out are not the ingenious scheme of a few individuals but represent the deliberately chosen policy of the whole International.’[53]

A final example of Thorpe’s method must suffice. Discussing the Comintern’s attempts to encourage a more critical stance towards a Labour government, Thorpe claims:

The implication in much of the literature that this was a Comintern diktat is a little misleading. It is clear, for example, that Radek who referred to a ‘reformist epidemic’ in the party had been briefed to this effect by Rothstein. Both Stewart in Moscow and to a lesser extent Pollitt in Britain had also seen there was a danger of the party moving too far to the right. There is also no evidence that the Comintern’s attitude was repulsive to the party leaders.[54]

Once again, ‘much of the literature’ boils down to just two authors — John Callaghan and Macfarlane. Neither suggests that there was a Comintern diktat, as distinct from a brisk educational. Callaghan talks of the need for a harder attitude to Labour being ‘drummed into’ the party leaders, while Macfarlane, in contrast, refers to ‘a compromise’.[55] A diktat is asserted so that it can be refuted. Another favourite straw man is then employed: the insinuation that as Pollitt and Rothstein held the same views as the Comintern, some of the provenance of political change lay in London. But, of course, Pollitt and Rothstein were acutely attuned to Moscow, and at this time had direct links with Comintern functionaries. Nor is the Comintern’s hegemony not challenged by the fact that, as Carr noted long ago, ‘parties sometimes anticipated views later adopted by Moscow’.[56] Nor can we judge the ascendancy of the Comintern only by its enforcement on the CPGB of decisions which the latter found ‘repulsive’.

Revising the Third Period: Reinventing the Wheel

The crisis developing in Russia from 1927, Stalin’s struggle with Bukharin, the traumas of forced collectivisation and industrialisation, and the hardening attitude of the imperialist powers, form the roots and the essential character of the Comintern’s new Third Period of capitalist crisis and radicalisation of the masses. Events in Russia produced the Stalinisation of the Comintern, a new adventurist line and the purging of those who resisted it, as the turn to the left in Russia was synthetically reproduced in the international sphere. National parties were now to break with the united front and pursue ‘independent leadership’ and the ultra-left policies of ‘class against class’ in the face of the ‘fascisisation’ of the Social Democratic parties and the trade unions. Initial landmarks in the descent of the CPGB into sectarianism were the visit of the party leaders to Moscow in November 1927, the Fifteenth Congress of the Russian party a month later, the Ninth ECCI Plenum in February 1928, and the Sixth Congress of the Comintern that summer. By the end of 1929, the Comintern had purged the CPGB’s leadership, and had installed violently sectarian policies in the party.

Early 1930 saw an arrest in the lurch to the left, marked by the ECCI Praesidium’s meeting in February and Stalin’s ‘Dizzy With Success’ speech in March. It was motivated by the problems that the brutal collectivisation drive was encountering, and by the fear that the bloodcurdling pronouncements of the Com­intern’s affiliates would strengthen the war danger and in particular alienate Ger­many from the Soviet Union, so important to Stalin’s foreign policy. Stalin was specifically worried about the anti-Soviet attitudes of the German Social Democrats. By the summer of 1932, the CPGB had begun to curb its wilder excesses. However, it was only international events, crucially Hitler’s accession to power, in which the practice of ‘social fascism’ played its part, and the need for a Soviet accommodation with France, which saw the Comintern and the CPGB begin decisively to pull away from ‘class against class’.[57]

Almost without exception, British historians have seen the Third Period as an unmitigated disaster. Imposed by the Comintern, anchored in the Russian situation, and reflecting the requirements of Stalin’s faction, it reduced the CPGB to ‘an absolutely parlous state’, and enduringly alienated its allies.[58] In fulsomely endorsing this judgement, Noreen Branson, the CPGB’s official historian, suddenly becomes coy over the involvement of Stalin. Her fellow Communist Willie Thompson has no such doubts — ‘Soviet considerations therefore determined the turn’ — and he echoes the judgement of Macfarlane: ‘The “new line” policy was fundamentally the translation onto the international plane of the new left policy of collectivisation and industrialisation.’[59] There has been only occasional disagreement, stemming from brief comments by Perry Anderson which raised the issue of indigenous influences on the new line. This work by Alun Howkins and Mike Squires have now been taken up, at times with minimal acknowledgement, by Thorpe and Worley.[60]

Rehearsing the existing literature in a cavalier fashion, Thorpe tritely pronounces its conclusions ‘suspect’. Moving into straw man mode, he opines, as if delivering a killer punch: ‘For one thing, Stalin was not solely responsible.’[61] This powder-puff reasoning continues. British Communists — he mentions Dutt, Pollitt and Bill Rust — also favoured the new line. Given its difficulties with the united front, he claims, the CPGB had no alternative but to discard it. Further, and clairvoyantly, Third Period politics in Britain ‘would probably have come about in any case, regardless of “orders from Moscow”’. Finally, he claims with characteristic imprecision, the new line applied to British conditions ‘was not wholly illogical’, and it ‘was not as unsuccessful as has been usually claimed’.[62]

Worley, too, insists against orthodox accounts that ‘it is essential to recognise that much of the logic that lay behind the party’s “left turn” was based on events unfolding within Britain itself’.[63] The Third Period was more complex than earlier analysts have recognised. It involved specific sub-periods and an inherent flexibility. The rôle of Stalin and the Comintern as well as the deleterious impact of ‘class against class’ have been exaggerated. The CPGB made significant gains in the field of culture and in work with the unemployed. The view that capitalism was collapsing, that workers were swinging towards the Communists, that revolution would soon be on the agenda, all this Worley terms ‘a cogent response to the events and conditions of the mid-late 1920s’.[64] And he echoes Thorpe: had the Comintern not intervened, the CPGB would have adopted this virulent ultra-leftism of its own volition.[65]

Worley’s attempt to reduce the part that Stalin played in all this is particularly instructive. He makes much, and fairly, of Bukharin’s rôle as head of the Comintern in developing the theory of ‘class against class’ — omitting to mention that at this time Bukharin was, in Carr’s words, Stalin’s ‘zealous henchman’.[66] Attributing to ‘cold war historians’ the view that ‘the Comintern was a tool of the Soviet state and subsequently Stalin’, Worley claims that with the opening of the archives, ‘such assumptions have been challenged and revised’. No proper account, he declares in language approaching caricature, can ‘give credence to the argument that “the Third Period” was engineered by Stalin to facilitate his rise to power’.[67] Citing McDermott and Agnew as an authority, he concludes, ‘such an argument has long been discredited’.[68]

Let us repeat what McDermott and Agnew actually state in relation to the Comintern:

Stalin maintained a decisive influence over the determination of the general strategies… It is clear that no major policy innovation was possible without his direct intervention or sanction… It is axiomatic for Western historians that the principle determinant of Comintern policy throughout the 1930s was Soviet raison d’état.[69]

McDermott does not, as Worley claims, support him; he contradicts him. He argues, contra Worley, that ‘class against class’ was the product, not of the class struggle in Britain, but of the struggle in Russia: ‘For the Stalinists, the international movement could not be spared this assault on the Bukharinists. A fierce campaign against the right in the Comintern complemented the attack on Bukharin in the Russian party.’[70] No, Stalin did not decide everything himself, nor pronounce on every detail or initiative. To repeat: that is another straw man. But as Firsov, perhaps the most assiduous Russian student of the new archives, concludes, by 1930: ‘Stalin personally and through Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich and Andrei Zhdanov controlled the most important sectors of Comintern activities.’[71] The Molotovs, and further down, ‘all these Kuusinens, Manuilskys, Lozovskys, etc… apparatus men’ did what they believed and intuited what the emerging vozhd desired.[72] The ‘Driver of the Locomotive of History’ was the final, decisive arbiter of Comintern policy.

Despite this, Worley persists in emphasising the British roots of ‘class against class’, citing in defence the CPGB’s move to the left in 1926-27. Two points are relevant here. Firstly, to the extent that the British did move leftwards after 1926, developing a harder line towards the Labour Party and calling for a general strike over the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, the primary influence was, as we have seen, the Comintern and the prompting of Moscow. Secondly, there was an intellectual and political caesura between the policies of 1926-27 and those of the Third Period. There was a fundamental difference between taking a harder line within the united front, and discarding the united front approach as opportunist and worse. The virulent strain of leftism after 1928 was distinctive compared with what went before. This is clear from the record. Pollitt, a dedicated leftist and Cominternist, only understood what was involved in the new line after an eight-hour shellacking by the Russians had set him straight. When the rest of the CPGB leadership were inducted, one of them recorded that the new policies ‘were thrown at us unexpectedly. The conclusions had the appearance to us of having no relation whatsoever to the situation actually in evidence in Britain. We objected to the conclusions.’[73]

There was a clear political difference between the CPGB’s leftism of 1926-27 and the ‘class against class’ politics imposed on the party by the Russians from 1928. This was acknowledged in the first official history of the CPGB, written by Bell just a few years after these events. Bell remarks that the CPGB interpreted its limited successes in 1927 ‘not as a swing to the left, but as a formal victory for the united front tactics of the party’ (my emphasis). In relation to the Comintern, he observed:

The majority in the Central Committee resisted the main theses of the new line. It denied in fact the changes since Lenin’s advice [against ultra-leftism towards the Labour Party, the hallmark of ‘class against class’]. It insisted that the process of disillusionment with regard to the Labour Party was not yet complete… It sought to prove that capitalist stabilisation in Britain was “still a force to be reckoned with”, that the revolutionary tempo was not yet as high as it had been in 1920, that the mass trend to the Labour Party was continuing and, therefore, it was necessary to continue our support for the Labour Party.[74]

The contemporary view that a line which failed to reflect conditions in Britain, rather than growing out of them, was imposed on a reluctant CPGB by the Comintern is once again corroborated by the modern researchers whom Worley erroneously cites to justify his own mistaken views: ‘… the strategies of the Third Period were devised in Moscow, were largely incompatible with national conditions and traditions and displayed an acute misunderstanding of the socio-political consequences of the economic crisis of capitalism.’[75]

Like Thorpe, Worley gives inadequate credit to existing writing. The Third Period was more complex, he charges, ‘than standard interpretations suggest… any attempt to perceive these years as an homogenous block risks oversimplifying’. Examination of the changes in Comintern policy in early 1930 and CPGB policy in 1932 ‘negate the “traditional” interpretation of the Third Period as an homogenous whole’.[76] This is not even a fair indictment of the much-maligned Henry Pelling, whose pioneering sketch revisionists use as a standard straw man text. Positioning change a little late, even Pelling notes in 1931: ‘Gradually, however, and at first almost imperceptibly, the Comintern “line” began to swing back towards a more effective policy.’[77] Before Worley set to work, Fishman was observing that Macfarlane and Martin — surely ‘standard interpretations’ — had noted precisely the turns within the Third Period which Worley now claims to have discovered.[78] By the 1990s, the view that ‘the Comintern line in the dramatic years 1929-33 was not a fixed entity’ was a commonplace. And, of course, as far as back as September 1930 Trotsky remarked in relation to the turn of 1928 that only after the disastrous impact of leftism in Russia and beyond ‘had clearly assumed a menacing character did the leadership of the Comintern make a new turn in February 1930 backward from and to the right of the lurches of the Third Period’.[79] Worley is once more reinventing the wheel.

If we are to address the assertion that the Third Period was not a complete disaster, as Worley and Thorpe insist, and address their claim that there was no alternative to it, we need firstly to rehabilitate its harsh reality — or unreality. Thorpe and Worley both produce benign, bleached accounts, sanitised of the period’s excesses of theory and practice. For example, nowhere in their work do we find any half-way adequate treatment of ‘social fascism’. Thorpe is particularly deficient. He demonstrates political illiteracy in claiming that the theory of ‘social fascism’ argued that ‘Social Democrats in office would act in just the same way as any other capitalist party’,[80] and he calls in justification of ultra-leftism MacDonald’s record in 1929-31. But in the CPGB’s theory, the Labour Party was not just any other capitalist party, it was, in Stalin’s words, ‘the moderate wing of fascism. They are not antipodes but twins.’[81] CPGB leader JT Murphy noted: ‘The fact that Mussolini’s Blackshirts seized power by a coup d’état and that MacDonald & Co theoretically disapproved of this method does not alter the fundamental unity between them.’[82] At the time, Trotsky ridiculed the ultra-left inanities of the Comintern’s theories which today’s revisionists treat with such empathy and understanding: ‘They say “The social fascists prefer the moderate and ‘legal’ application of bourgeois violence… they defend its democratic façade and try to keep as much as possible of its parliamentary forms.” Now we understand. A square is a triangle whose four sides intersect at right angles.’[83]

But this nonsense was not some esoteric theory; it was as directly applied to the situation in Britain as it was to the situation in Germany, albeit with less disastrous impact. ‘The leadership, both of the Labour Party and trade unions, is openly a social-fascist leadership.’[84] This was the trenchant verdict of Harry Pollitt, regarded by revisionists as a moderate struggling against sectarian excess. The party press carried headlines such as ‘Bradford Fights Labour Fascists’, while CPGB leaders excoriated ‘the Fascist Labour Party’, and ‘the fascist TUC’, noting with precision:

The present situation is characterised by a growing will to struggle on the part of the workers on the one hand, and by the fascisisation of the trade unions on the other hand… this evolution called social fascism finds its expression in the merging of the trade union apparatus with the machinery of the employers and the state.[85]

In this unreal, some might say demented, world, the party’s new daily lectured incredulous workers, ‘some people think we talk rubbish when we say there is fascism in England’, justifying its assertions with the rather lame example of deputies ripping up copies of a pit paper and harassing its sellers.[86] In this infirm vision, the Independent Labour Party was as infected as the Labour Party. The CPGB agitated for Fenner Brockway to be ‘driven off’ the Meerut Prisoners Defence Committee — ‘… there is no place for a tricky unscrupulous agent of the social-fascists’ — while the intellectual Ralph Fox lamented: ‘… it is our ideological confusion which prevents us from seeing correctly the real nature of the ILP as the left hand of British fascism.’[87]

The pragmatism and flexibility of the CPGB leaders like Pollitt emphasised by Worley were a little more complex than he allows. Insisting that ‘the trade unions are the chief instrument of the capitalists for smashing the workers’ struggle’, and proclaiming the need to fight ‘the social fascist government, a government of armed attacks on the Soviet Union’, the allegedly viscerally moderate Pollitt fought staunchly for ‘No Free Speech for Social Fascists’. He declared:

There should not be a Labour meeting held anywhere but what [sic] the revolutionary workers in that district attend such meeting and fight against the speakers whoever they are, so-called ‘left’, ‘right’ or ‘centre’. They should never be allowed to address the workers. This will bring us into conflict with the authorities but this must be done.[88]

Attention to the CPGB-controlled sectarian breakaway unions, the United Mineworkers of Scotland and the United Clothing Workers, has to some extent deflected attention from the CPGB’s disruption in the ‘reformist’ unions, which at time extended to organised hooliganism. After Communists had successfully broken up a meeting addressed by recent allies once prominent in the Anglo-Russian Committee, the Daily Worker editorialised:

To Swales, Conley, Hicks and Co free speech means freedom to lie and deceive the workers, freedom to break strikes and lower wages with the help of the employers, freedom to hurl the workers into another war behind the imperialist Labour government. The workers will not give any such ‘free speech’ to these swindlers and lickspittles. Let the workers all over the country follow the example of the London clothing workers and hound the leaders of the Labour Party and the reactionary trade unions off the platform.[89]

Revisionist accounts simply fail to take the measure of the CPGB’s virulent and catastrophic politics and their relationship to Russian rather than British realities during 1928-32. By 1929, the Third Period was perceived as ‘developing into a new directly revolutionary situation’. The Revolutionary Workers’ Government ‘seen in its most developed form in the Soviets of the USSR’ was on the immediate agenda.[90] The workers were on the march. ‘WAVES OF MASS STRUGGLE RISING EVERYWHERE’, the headlines screamed: ‘The great wave of mass revolt is rising in all the industries in the country.’ The CPGB proclaimed: ‘A REVOLUTIONARY CRISIS IS NEAR’[91] By early 1930, the party was heralding ‘the imminent downfall of British capitalism and its social-fascist allies and the approaching victory of the Revolutionary Workers’ Government’.[92] All this had nothing to do with the situation in Britain, and everything to do with the problems of the Russians, although, as many of us know from experience, in any situation ultra-left spectacles can easily transform strikes into insurrections, and pickets into red guards.

The Sixth Congress of the Comintern, the CPGB affirmed, had made the planned capitalist attack on the Soviet Union ‘the pivot of its analysis’.[93] Anglo-Soviet relations had deteriorated after the police raid on the Soviet trade delegation and the Baldwin government had broken off diplomatic relations. It was prudent for the Soviet government to consider the potential of capitalist antagonism turning into open aggression. But an exaggerated self-serving version of the ‘war danger’ became a sustained central component of Stalinist policies in Russia and beyond. The danger of the MacDonald government sending forces to attack the Soviet Union was minimal. Nevertheless, the CPGB’s press orchestrated hysteria over the ‘war danger’:


Dementia climaxed when MacDonald opened discussions on resuming diplomatic relations which would also include the question of Russian debts. This, Workers Life proclaimed in a fit of paranoia, was ‘a step that brings war on Russia right to the threshold of immediate reality’.[95]

That none of this had been thought up by the British themselves was axiomatic for contemporary Communists. The CPGB had no doubt that it was the Comintern which was developing this struggle in Britain: the social-fascist labour movement was ‘straining every nerve to crush the Comintern, which is marshalling the great wave’.[96] The CPGB dismissed the idea of Russian dominance of the Comintern, but openly acknowledged its hegemony. Writing in Workers Life in early 1929, Bell stated:

We in England are particularly proud of our association with the Communist International. It was under the guidance of Comrade Lenin that the British Communist Party was founded in 1920 and in pursuance of our tactical line we have always had the active assistance and leadership of the Communist International… In 1928 the Communist International again intervened to correct the tactical line of the party and to bring it on to the line of Leninism, in accordance with the new tactical line of the Communist International. Today the Communist International is actively leading and directing all the Communist parties in the 52 countries gathered under its banner.[97]

We have already noted the increase in the presence in Britain of Comintern agents after 1928. A glance at the CPGB’s press at this time also undermines the revisionist insinuation that indigenous support for the line suggests indigenous roots. If Inprecorr was too arcane and bilious for many members, they could regularly peruse messages from the Comintern in the party’s popular press. So in the run-up to the CPGB congress in December 1929, where rank-and-file revolt climaxed and the replacement of the old leadership was completed, members could read in ‘Comintern notes’ in Workers Life:

The Tenth Plenum laid particular emphasis on the need to purify the apparatus of all sections of the CI and to draw into the leading organs actual workers from the shops who have proven their potentialities for revolutionary leadership… The ECCI is determined upon this procedure.[98]

The rebellion of the CPGB’s rank and file against their ‘right-wing’ leaders was orchestrated from Moscow.

Comintern policies adopted by the CPGB bore no positive relationship to what was happening here, and they provided no basis for the working class and its tiny revolutionary minority to progress. They discredited revolutionary politics, and alienated workers from the CPGB. Nothing could be further from the truth than Worley’s assertion that Comintern theory ‘correlated to and [was] ratified by British determinants’.[99] Events in Britain provided no justification for the ‘class against class’ line. Viewed through the distorted vision and the magnifying glass of a party carried away by its loyalty to the Soviet Union, they provided rationalisations for adventurism. There is an important difference. It is one thing to use the move to the right by union leaders or Mondism to understand how ultra-leftism gripped Communists. It is quite another thing to use them to conclude that ultra-leftism is ‘cogent’ or ‘ratified’ by events, a valid reaction by Marxists to events in Britain in 1928-33.

This can be clearly seen by the revisionists’ evasion of the key factor in any Marxist analysis: the state of the working class. ‘The radicalisation of the workers’, the leading ultra William Rust reiterated, ‘is a basic pillar of the new line.’[100] Yet there was no such central, indispensable radicalisation. In the face of industrial defeat, workers were moving in 1928-29, not towards the CPGB, but away from it, towards the Labour Party, towards the left for many, at least in conventional terms, but towards ‘moderate fascism’ in CPGB terms. Insofar as it was moving in 1931, it was moving rightwards, towards the ‘fascism’ of the National Government. It was not moving towards revolution.

There was some recovery in the number of strikes, but this was far from the CPGB’s imagined ‘waves of mass struggle’. The number of stoppages and days lost declined in 1928. In 1929, there was an increase, 431 strikes provided 8.2 million days lost, but in 1930 the number of strikes declined to 422, and the number of days lost halved. In both 1931 and 1932, the number of strikes declined slightly, although the number of striker days picked up to over six million. The key point is that this level of struggle was dwarfed by the industrial turmoil of 1919-24: in 1920, there were 1607 strikes and 26 million striker days; in 1921, 763 strikes and 86 million striker days.[101] The class was more militant in the earlier years of the CPGB when the Comintern acted to crush a form of leftism that was less militant than that of the later 1920s, when the Comintern acted to extend leftism.

Despite all this, Thorpe and Worley claim that the CPGB was more successful than historians have acknowledged. Thorpe says that the CPGB’s membership increased from a low of 2555 in November 1930 to 9000 in January 1932.[102] This eliminates the fact that membership declined from 7300 on the brink of the Third Period to 2555 as the Comintern attempted to temper excess. And Thorpe’s 9000 is a blip; seven months later, membership had declined again to 5600. Too much can be made of membership figures; it remains true that in the Third Period they never reached the levels attained during the united front or the Popular Front. Nonetheless, such figures, whilst reflecting a high turnover and deterioration in membership quality, tell us little about the effectiveness of members and their interventions in the labour movement. The CPGB’s performance in the elections in 1929 and 1931 provide some pointers to its standing with the working class. In 1929, none of the party’s candidates was successful, winning an average 5.5 per cent of the vote. In 1931, none of the 26 candidates was successful, although the average share of the vote increased to 8.2 per cent. This compared with an average 25 per cent of the vote for eight candidates with one MP elected in 1924, and 38 per cent of the vote and one MP elected in 1935.[103] Such comparisons are always inconclusive. But the party’s electoral performance does little to detract from the characterisation of the Third Period as a complete disaster. More compelling is the judgement of a party activist in the immediate aftermath of that disaster: ‘Communists found themselves in a weaker position in the trade unions and among the organised workers in general than they had been before.’[104]

Demonstrating still further a lack of proportion, Worley unconvincingly weighs political decline against cultural regeneration. The CPGB, he asserts, ‘successfully forged a lively and distinctive culture centred around the party’.[105] This magnification requires tempering with Alun Howkins’ verdict that CPGB-sponsored cultural institutions ‘at most involved a few thousand people and their sectarianism excluded many’.[106] Similarly, the party’s work with the unemployed is cited as mitigating the disaster. Once again, the unpalatable realities, such as the argument that the Unemployed Workers Movement should cease being a ‘trade union’ and declare itself a ‘revolutionary organisation’, are overlooked. The CPGB’s ultra-left perspective could do little to help the unemployed, whose most obvious salvation lay in an alliance with the ‘social-fascist’ unions and the Labour Party, whom the CPGB leaders of the unemployed movement were savaging. Inspiring as the Hunger Marches were, they were accompanied by ‘the blind alley’ of leftism, condemning representation of the jobless in welfare cases as ‘a legalistic diversion’ from the drive to revolution. It is questionable whether the CPGB’s work with the unemployed was more successful in the Third Period than its more realistic initiatives in the early 1920s.[107]

Finally, one historian concludes not only that ‘class against class’ was a terminal disaster, but that there was an obvious alternative to it in the continued patient pursuit of the united front:

… it is hard to escape the conclusion that in the period of the new line, the CP abandoned a position which it could never subsequently recover. The organic connection which it had managed to establish with working-class culture and its institutions was peripheral, certainly… but had up to 1928 shown great endurance under the most unpromising of circumstances. To indulge in counterfactual reasoning for a moment: if from 1928 to 1931 the party had been seeking unity instead of division on the left, upon the shameful collapse of the MacDonald government in August of that year… the CP’s warnings and jeremiads would have sounded, in retrospect, immensely convincing and made it that more difficult for its opponents to keep up the barriers designed to exclude it as far as possible from the movement.[108]

In the end, however, such a counterfactual is implausible: for the CPGB was not an independent party like the Labour Party or the ILP. And it could not respond independently and creatively to British conditions.

Learning From the Past

In the period surveyed here, no revolutionary situation presented itself; indeed, overall, the balance of forces remained firmly against the working class.[109] Nonetheless, there were opportunities for increasing the reach of revolutionary Socialism in Britain, in 1921, in the upturn from 1924 and the General Strike. Assessing the rôle of the Comintern in the years before 1928, its positive and negative aspects, remains difficult. There were clearly positive features, such as Lenin’s correction of the initial tendency towards ultra-leftism, and successive attempts to remedy the CPGB’s illusions in labour movement lefts. But in the conditions of the 1920s, the drive towards building a mass revolutionary party through one-to-one recruiting was an endeavour that was unlikely to achieve success. The Comintern might have been better occupied in supervising the consolidation of a fighting propaganda group with a longer-term strategy of permeating the still relatively porous and plastic Labour Party and unions within a firmer, more dominant entrist perspective. After 1928, the Comintern was more intrusive and directive towards the CPGB than in earlier years, and its cataclysmic politics brought the CPGB to the brink of extinction. But the paradox is that without Comintern subventions, the CPGB would have collapsed sometime in the 1920s — if it had ever got off the ground in the first place.

Fundamentally, the central fact of the CPGB’s political subordination to the Comintern meant that ultimately it did not own its own political destiny. It voluntarily ceded significant political initiative to an organisation that was always limited democratically, and which became the vehicle for the interests of the rulers of Russia, who by the late 1920s were opposed to the building of socialism, at home or anywhere else. Some historians register the contradictory nature of the CPGB as both an agent of the Russian bureaucracy, and a reflection of the interests of British workers. But precisely because its politics were finally subservient to Russian interests, interests which increasingly excluded revolution, it could never be a party that was genuinely responsive to the needs of the class struggle in Britain, as the successive changes of line decided in Moscow demonstrate. The struggles of Communists in Britain should never be divorced from this essential context, nor pronounced upon favourably disembodied from this context.

The CPGB’s self-willed subservience to the Comintern is of importance for all historians, but particularly for Socialist historians. Unlike many revisionists, we believe that in broad complex ways we can learn from a proper understanding of the past: what happened yesterday is of relevance to what we do today. The manner in which the CPGB magnified working-class militancy during the Third Period has much to teach us about the need to curb illusions today. The way in which the Comintern counselled against ultra-leftism in 1920-21 and the way in which those lessons were later disregarded also has contemporary relevance. History underlines the importance of international organisation for internationalist Socialists. It also raises the immense problems involved, particularly when such an organisation is based upon a successful revolution that is subject and eventually succumbs to hostile pressures.[110] If we eliminate or minimise the dependence of the CPGB on the Comintern and the Russian state, we eliminate or minimise problems which require confronting. These problems range from the debilitating dependence of the CPGB on Russian funding and what became Stalinist theory, to the complicity of the leaders of the CPGB in the displacement of Socialism as workers’ power by Socialism as bureaucratic despotism and the Gulag. Revisionism stimulates interest in the past; as students of Stalinist history remark: ‘You never know what’s going to happen yesterday.’[111] As Socialists and historians, we have to be on constant guard against its methods and conclusions. If we do not properly understand yesterday, how can we learn from it today so that we can change the world tomorrow?



[1].      H Pelling, The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile, London, 1958; LJ Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, London, 1966; W Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921, London, 1969; M Woodhouse and B Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, London, 1975; EH Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929, Volume 3, Part 2, London, 1976; EH Carr, The Twilight of Comintern 1930-1935, London, 1982; K Laybourn and D Murphy, Under The Red Flag: A History of Communism in Britain, Stroud, 1999.

[2].      A Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, English Historical Review, Volume 112, 1998, pp636-62; A Thorpe, ‘Stalinism and British Politics’, History, Volume 83, 1998, pp608-27; A Thorpe, ‘The Communist International and the British Communist Party’, in T Rees and A Thorpe (eds), International Communism and the Communist International 1919-43, Manchester, 1998, pp67-86; A Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, Manchester, 2000; M Worley, Class Against Class: The Communist Party of Great Britain in the Third Period, University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 1998; M Worley, ‘Reflections on Recent British Communist Party History’, Historical Materialism, no 4, 1999, pp241-61; M Worley, ‘The Communist International, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the “Third Period” 1928-32’, European History Quarterly, Volume 30, 2000, pp183-208; M Worley, ‘For a Proletarian Culture: Communist Party Culture in Britain in the Third Period 1928-35’, Socialist History, no 18, 2000, pp70-91; M Worley, ‘“Left Turn”: A Reassessment of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the Third Period’, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 11, no 4, 2001, pp353-78; M Squires, ‘British Communists and the Communist International’, Communist Review, no 29, Spring 1999 (this is an extended review of R Darlington, The Political Trajectory of JT Murphy, Liverpool, 1999); P Watson, ‘Debating CPGB History’, Weekly Worker, 30 March 2000; P Sharpe and B Biddulph, ‘Letters’, Weekly Worker, 6 April 2000; P Watson, ‘Letters’, Weekly Worker, 20 April 2000.

[3].      Squires, op cit, p25.

[4].      Ibid, pp25, 27.

[5].      Carr, Twilight of Comintern, op cit, p vii; Firsov cited in K McDermott and J Agnew, The Comintern: A History of International Communism From Lenin to Stalin, Basingstoke, 1996, p91.

[6].      McDermott and Agnew, op cit, pp44, 74, 91, 214.

[7].      Squires, op cit, p27; Macfarlane, op cit, p101.

[8].      National Museum of Labour History (NMLH), CPGB Collection, CP/Cent/Cong/02, Congress Report, 1927, p96.

[9].      Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, op cit, pp359, 363.

[10].    Squires, op cit, p28.

[11].    Macfarlane, op cit, p209.

[12].    Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, op cit, p374.

[13].    Watson, ‘Debating CPGB History’, op cit. A response to the full range of Phil’s exuberant but ill-informed onslaught must wait another occasion.

[14].    For background, see F King and G Matthews (eds), About Turn, London, 1990.

[15].    See, for example, A Horner, Incorrigible Rebel, London, 1960, pp109-13; N Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941, London, 1983, pp85-8.

[16].    Watson, ‘Debating CPGB History’, op cit, citing Thorpe ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, op cit, pp638-9; N Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45, Aldershot, 1995.

[17].    K Morgan, ‘Harry Pollitt, the British Communist Party and International Communism’, in T Saarela and K Rentola (eds), Communism National and International, Helsinki, 1998, p185.

[18].    Carr, Twilight of Comintern, op cit, p4.

[19].    I Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, Harmondsworth, 1966, pp400-1.

[20].    Thorpe ‘The Communist International and the British Communist Party’, op cit, p68.

[21].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, pp637-8, 642-3.

[22].    R Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924-1933, Oxford, 1969, p189.

[23].    Macfarlane, op cit, p276. Thorpe distinguishes Martin and Macfarlane from Pelling and Dewar on the opaque — not to say flabby and evasive — grounds that they were more ‘sensitive to’ the Comintern’s rôle and willing to discuss ‘its precise extent’. He has nothing at all to say about their conclusions that agree with Pelling and Dewar in respect of the Comintern’s domi­nation of the CPGB.

[24].    Pelling, op cit, pp47-9, 183.

[25].    H Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain: The CPGB From Its Origins to the Second World War, London, 1976, p41.

[26].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, p643, citing Dewar, op cit, p142.

[27].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, pp642-3, citing Pelling, op cit, p54.

[28].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, pp637-8.

[29].    Pelling, op cit, p54.

[30].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, p642.

[31].    Ibid, p643.

[32].    Ibid, p662.

[33].    See S Bornstein and A Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-38, London, 1986, p86.

[34].    Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit, pp31, 44, 62; Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, pp638, 662. For an earlier comment on Thorpe’s use of straw men, see B Robinson, ‘New Findings From the Moscow Archives’, Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no 2/3, Summer 1996, pp257-60.

[35].    Thorpe, ‘Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920-43’, op cit, p662.

[36].    Thorpe, ‘The Communist International and the British Communist Party’, op cit, p74.

[37].    Ibid, pp74-5. I am being kind here. What Thorpe actually does is to infer from a routine statement by Pollitt, defending the Popular Front, that the strategy was under criticism within the CPGB. He provides no direct evidence at all of such criticism — see Communist Party London District Annual Congress, June 1938: For Unity in London, 1938, p18.

[38].    Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit, pp62-3.

[39].    See, for example, Macfarlane, op cit, pp60-2, 94-101.

[40].    Ibid, pp104-5, 109.

[41].    Martin, op cit, p30.

[42].    The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee was established in May 1925 by the British TUC and the Soviet trade unions (see Leon Trotsky on Britain, New York, 1973). Despite its importance, Thorpe has scarcely anything to say about its impact on Comintern-CPGB relations. The matter requires further scrutiny. For different views, see Woodhouse and Pearce, op cit, pp142-7, 166-7, and J Hinton and R Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the Early British Communist Party, London, 1975, pp35-9.

[43].    Hinton and Hyman, op cit, pp32-8; Macfarlane, op cit, pp168, 176.

[44].    Macfarlane, op cit, p276. See J McIlroy, ‘New Light on Arthur Reade’, above, p8, for the CPGB’s declaration of ‘implicit faith’ in the Russian party and Comintern.

[45].    Russian State Archives of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), Moscow, 495/100/113, Bell to Comintern Secretariat, 16 February 1923.

[46].    Ibid; RGASPI, 495/100/113, Bell to Comintern Secretariat, 13 April 1923.

[47].    RGASPI, 495/100/135, telegram from ECCI to CPGB Central Committee, nd [1924].

[48].    Here are incomplete details of Comintern and RILU functionaries in Britain during this period. Max Petrovsky (real name David Lipez, also known as ‘AJ Bennett’) was the CI representative in Britain during 1924-28, S Bamatter (‘Bill’) was a CI ‘Orginstruktor’ here during April-May 1927, Josef Lenz was the CI representative at the CPGB’s Tenth Congress in January 1929, and Walter Ulbricht was the CI representative at the CPGB’s Eleventh Congress in November 1929. Richard Sorge was a CI agent in Britain during September 1929, five CI agents known only as ‘Jakob’, ‘Key’, ‘Herman’, ‘Rice’ and ‘Groden’ were here in February-March 1930, and ‘Comrade E’, ‘Comrade Butler’ and Johannes Schröter were here as CI agents in May, July and November 1930 respectively. Other CI agents in Britain included ‘Rodney’ in June-July 1931, ‘Tappy’ in July-November 1931, ‘Comrade E’ and ‘Comrade Gerhardt’ in October 1931, and Richard Krebs (‘Jan Valtin’) in June 1932. An American known as ‘Comrade Mills’ was here as a RILU agent in March 1930. Two Young Communist League instructors, an American and a German known only as ‘George Morris’ and ‘Kitty’, were here in late 1930. Various ‘German Communists’ were here as by-election assistants in October 1930, and various ‘French and German Communists’ were here as election assistants in October 1931. An unnamed CI/RILU agent was here during June 1931, and an unnamed representative from the CI’s Women’s Secretariat was here during July 1931. Three CI instructors known only as ‘Doris’, ‘Jack’ and ‘Moor’ were here during February-June and February-April 1932 and at an unspecified time that year respectively (RGASPI, 495/100/346; 495/100/736; 495/ 100/737; 495/100/811; 495/25/312; 495/25/325; 495/25/344; 499/1/16; 534/7/52; NMLH, CPGB Archive, CC and PB Minutes; B Lazitch and MM Drachkovitch, Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern, Stamford, 1973; K Morgan, Harry Pollitt, Manchester, 1993; A Thorpe, ‘The Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-45’, Historical Journal, Volume 43, no 3, 2000; Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit; Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head: The Memoirs of a British Bolshevik, London, 1992; Worley, ‘The Communist International’, op cit.

[49].    RGASPI, 495/100/116; 507. Translated into current prices, the sums in the chart are princely ones. They underestimate the extent of the subsidy: additional sums were made available for such items as election expenses, ‘parliamentary work’ and party schools. The Comintern paid for all aspects of the CPGB’s activities, from the salaries of officials to its press and trade union work. In 1924, Inkpin told Moscow that the party’s own income was £100 and its liabilities £500. By the late 1920s, the CPGB’s income approached that of the Labour Party, with a fraction of its membership. There can be no doubt that, as JT Murphy opined — and he had first-hand knowledge — the CPGB would not have survived the 1920s without Moscow gold (Kendall, op cit, p417).

[50].    Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit, pp48, 63; J McIlroy, ‘New Light on Arthur Reade’, above, p31.

[51].    Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit, pp48-52.

[52].    NMLH, CP/Cent/Cong/01/05, Report on Organisation Presented by the Party Commission to the Annual Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 7 October 1922, p4.

[53].    Ibid, p5.

[54].    Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43, op cit, pp76-7

[55].    Macfarlane, op cit, pp104-5; J Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in Stalinism, London, 1996, p57.

[56].    Carr, Twilight of Comintern, op cit, p viii.

[57].    For a convincing restatement of the Comintern’s rôle in the Third Period based upon earlier work, such as that of Carr, and more recent archival work, see K McDermott, ‘Stalin and the Comintern During the “Third Period” 1928-33’, European History Quarterly, Volume 25, 1995, pp409-29.

[58].    Morgan, Harry Pollitt, op cit, p74.

[59].    Macfarlane, op cit, p278; Branson, op cit, pp17-52; W Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991, London, 1992. For Thompson, given the nature of the CPGB and its leadership, ‘there was really no alternative to doing what the International, that is, Stalin, required’ (ibid, pp43, 46, 50).

[60].    A Howkins, ‘Class Against Class’, in F Gloversmith (ed), Class Culture and Social Change, Brighton, 1980; M Squires, ‘CPGB Membership During the Class Against Class Years’, Socialist History, no 3, 1993, pp4-13.

[61].    Thorpe, ‘Stalinism and British Politics’, op cit, pp613-4.

[62].    Ibid, pp626-7.

[63].    Worley, Class Against Class, op cit, p74.

[64].    Worley, ‘The Communist International’, op cit, p188, adding evasively in a footnote: ‘This does not, of course, mean that either Bukharin’s theory or the Comintern’s policy was necessarily correct.’ (Ibid, p204) Of course, but was it correct or not?

[65].    Worley, ‘Left Turn’, op cit, p359.

[66].    J Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: EH Carr 1892-1982, London, 2000, p276.

[67].    Worley, ‘Reflections on Recent British Communist Party History’, op cit, p244; Worley, ‘Left Turn’, op cit, p358. Failing to engage with the indispensable Russian and German dimensions of the Third Period, revisionists do not attend to Deutscher’s comments that the Comintern’s politics were ‘so unreal that Stalin, in all probability, countenanced it only because he attributed very little practical significance to whatever the Comintern did in those years’. He adds that if this were so, Stalin was mistaken ‘for the ultra-radicalism of the Comintern had important, though only negative, consequences. This was especially so in Germany…’ Although the position was complex, Deutscher concludes: ‘Stalin must be held to bear his share of responsibility for the contribution which that policy unwittingly made to Hitler’s triumph.’ (Deutscher, op cit, pp400-1) While maintaining an understanding of the damage that the Comintern’s policies wrought on a CPGB with only a fraction of the influence and responsibility of the German Communist Party, it is important for historians also to depict the unreality of these policies in Britain, and to pursue further the extent to which German events were central to the Comintern, and the whole British experience was doubly derived from Moscow and Berlin.

[68].    Worley, ‘Left Turn’, op cit, p358 n16.

[69].    McDermott and Agnew, op cit, p94.

[70].    McDermott, ‘Stalin and the Comintern’, op cit, p111.

[71].    Cited in McDermott and Agnew, op cit, p91.

[72].    LD Trotsky, ‘The British Elections and the Communists’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, New York, 1973, p346.

[73].    Willie Gallacher, subsequently an enthusiast for the new line, cited in Branson, op cit, p19.

[74].    T Bell, The British Communist Party: A Short History, London, 1937, pp127-8.

[75].    McDermott and Agnew, op cit, p73.

[76].    Worley, ‘The Communist International’, op cit, pp193, 201.

[77].    Pelling, op cit, p75.

[78].    Fishman, op cit, pp36, 45 n34. ‘… the Comintern line in these dramatic years was not a fixed unchanging entity.’ (McDermott and Agnew, op cit, p90) Once more, the revisionists are recycling well-worn conclusions as something novel.

[79].    LD Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Harmondsworth, 1975, p10.

[80].    Thorpe, ‘Stalinism and British Politics’, op cit, p614.

[81].    Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, op cit, p639.

[82].    JT Murphy, ‘Growth of Social Fascism in Britain’, Communist Review, January 1930, p6.

[83].    LD Trotsky, ‘The Twelfth Plenum of the Comintern’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932, New York, 1973, p234.

[84].    Daily Worker, 29 January 1930.

[85].    Workers Life, 29 November 1929; Daily Worker, 31 January 1930, 20 June 1930.

[86].    Workers Life, 29 November 1929, 20 December 1929.

[87].    Daily Worker, 2 January 1930; Dewar, op cit, p151.

[88].    Daily Worker, 29 January 1930. In case any revisionists are offended by this focus on the unsavoury politics of the CPGB articulated in its press, we can supply chapter and verse as to their unsavoury application in practice. See, for example, S Lerner, Breakaway Unions and Small Trade Unions, London, 1961, pp129-40; A Campbell and J McIlroy, ‘Reflections on the Communist Party’s Third Period in Scotland: The Case of Willie Allan’, Scottish Journal of Labour History, Volume 35, 2000. Undoubtedly, veterans can be unearthed to tell us that they never paid the slightest attention to the party’s unhealthy politics, and were happily pursuing more creative and interesting Popular Front work with the Duchess of Atholl throughout the entire Third Period.

[89].    Daily Worker, 22 January 1930.

[90].    Workers Life, 8 and 15 February 1929.

[91].    Workers Life, 4 October 1929, 21 November 1929.

[92].    Daily Worker, 3 January 1930.

[93].    Daily Worker, 15 March 1930.

[94].    Workers Life, 2 and 17 May 1929, 30 August 1929; Daily Worker, 24 January 1930, 10 February 1930.

[95].    Workers Life, 9 August 1929.

[96].    Daily Worker, 24 January 1930.

[97].    Workers Life, 15 March 1929.

[98].    Workers Life, 27 September 1929. For the increase in Comintern agents, see n48 above.

[99].    Worley, ‘Reflections on Recent British Communist Party History’, op cit, p248, adding once again the evasive qualification: ‘This is not to say that Comintern or CPGB policy was “correct”, rather that changes… were not merely the consequence of political power play within the USSR.’ Where Worley refuses to answer this fundamental question for any historian, we can state quite firmly that they were not ‘correct’ by any revolutionary or reformist criterion, and that they were indeed the consequence of ‘political power play’ in Russia.

[100]Workers Life, 29 March 1929.

[101].  H Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism, Harmondsworth, 1992, pp302-3.

[102].  Thorpe, ‘Stalinism and British Politics’, op cit, p614.

[103].  FWS Craig (ed), Minor Parties in British Parliamentary Elections 1885-1974, London, 1975, pp18-19.

[104].  A Hutt, The Postwar History of the British Working Class, London, 1937, p242.

[105].  Worley, ‘The Communist International’, op cit, p187.

[106].  Howkins, op cit, p254.

[107].  R Croucher, We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers Movement 1920-46, London, 1987, pp113-5, 126-8. Arthur Horner recalled the mistake of the party’s prioritising of work with the unemployed and branding those with jobs ‘the aristocracy of labour’: ‘I said the organised working class in work must be the basis… we must concentrate on strengthening the trade unions and then building an alliance between the employed workers and the unemployed.’ (Horner, op cit, pp110-1)

[108].  Thompson, op cit, pp49-50.

[109].  This is to take the view expressed by Hinton and Hyman, as against that of Woodhouse and Pearce.

[110].  I say ‘particularly’ in the light of the persistent problems of the Fourth International.

[111].  A de Jonge, Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union, London, 1986, p33.