If any era should have provided a fertile breeding ground for radical socialism, it should have been the ‘thirties. Unemployment peaked at just shy of three million in 1933 (it was certainly higher in reality, as that was the figure for insured workers only); in Outer Britain’s depressed areas there were whole communities, famously Jarrow after Palmer’s went broke in 1935, in which the majority of the workforce were unemployed. Poverty was real, as was the humiliation of the means test, with all its echoes of the old Poor Law. And then a government led by a former Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, cut unemployment benefit. For socialists it was all too easy to imagine the imminent collapse of capitalism. Socialism’s hour had come: and not the failed reformism of Ramsay MacDonald, but full-blooded socialism.
The Communist Party of Great Britain had been founded in 1920 in an atmosphere of trade union militancy, the bienno rosso in Italy and, of course, the Russian Revolution. Pretty soon though it had to come to term with its own impotence, the rapid growth of the Labour party and the waning of union militancy in the face of the recession of 1920-21. The Communists looked to affiliate with Labour. Not were those overtures rejected, but the party also moved to expel Communists from its ranks.
Harry Pollitt was a member of the Boilermakers’ Society before the Great War. By 1917, he was part of what we might call the London left, associated with the Pankhurst’s, the Workers’ Socialist Federation and the Hands Off Russia movement. He joined the CPGB upon its foundation, and the following year he made the first of many visits to Moscow; from that moment his unwavering loyalty to Moscow was fixed.
In 1927, Moscow changed course, and with it the Communist International that directed Communist parties abroad. None was more slavish in following Comintern’s line than the CPGB. Now Moscow dictated that other socialist parties, such as Labour, were class traitors: ‘social fascists’. For most of its members Labour were the enemy, that is why they joined the party instead of Labour in the first place. Whilst opposition to ‘social fascists’ may have been congenial, it was also fruitless. Attempts to form separate communist trade unions failed, and the party itself was reduced to 2,555 members by November 1930.
Hitler changed that. By 1934, Moscow had adopted a new line: the ‘popular front’. Now, communist parties should cooperate with anti-fascist forces of all kinds, and they posed themselves as the leaders of anti-fascist political coalitions. This pose did gain the party some credibility. By 1939, it had 18,000 members. In the 1935 general election it only fielded two candidates in a gesture of solidarity with Labour it hoped the larger party would reciprocate. However, an appeal to affiliate was rejected once more, and it had to remain content with one MP (Harry Gallagher, MP for West Fife) and a measure of credibility on the wider left.
It is notable that, like the Labour left, the loadstone of its politics in the ‘thirties was not the depression, but the rise of Fascism, Nazism and, perhaps most of all, the Spanish Civil War. It was not what might have been expected: class politics in the face of the Great Depression. Communism per se made few inroads into the wider working class. Where it did, was when its face was subsumed within other working class movements. The communist trade unionist was a stalwart of British working class when I grew up: the Scottish miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, for example (or, indeed, I’m All Right Jack’s Fred Kite). Harry Pollitt was a originally a member of the Boilermakers. Most importantly, the communist shop steward, like Fred Kite, was a fixture. The irony is though that this was rarely because of their communism; instead, it was owed to their enthusiasm and capacity for hard work. Indeed, the TUC’s Black Circular of 1934 urged unions to bar both communists and Fascists: many ignored it. In the end, the work done by everyday communists in trade unions was, in the end, a sign of weakness rather than
strength. In the absence of communism’s imminent breakthrough, activists could at least achieve something in their trade unions. In the ‘social fascism’ era, one of the most prominent South Wales communists, Arthur Horner (right), refused to abandon his union: in the end, the party came back to him.
The party did have one success that did relate directly to the depression: the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Over half a million joined at some point during the ‘thirties. The NUWM filled a vacuum the trade unions could not fill: advising and representing the unemployed in benefit tribunals, for example. It played a role in the successful campaign against the reform of Unemployment Assistance (which cut benefits for some) in 1935. The NUWM’s hunger marches had little impact. Most tellingly of all, very few members of the NUWM became members of the CPGB. Similarly, the party’s role in campaigns for tenants’ rights in London, or in a Birmingham rent strike, saw few move from tenants’ rights activism to the party.
It was, above all else, anti-Fascism that gave communists a significant role, but that was once more in the context of broad left activism. Amongst Pollitt’s political allies were scions of the wider left such as Harold Laski, Victor Gollancz, and Stafford Cripps. Even then, a similar pattern might recur: very few of the thousands who took part in the Battle of Cable Street, where left-wing and Jewish activists stood against Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, became members of the CPGB. Even the prominent role taken by communists, Pollitt visited Spain five times during the civil war, was undermined as many came to realise that the pro-Soviet forces in Spain spent more time attacking left-wing rivals than they did Fascists.
That there was sympathy for Soviet communism is beyond doubt, but once more that was wrapped up in the wider left and belongs there, rather than in communism per se. Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club had 60,000 members in 1939, and most of its volumes followed a popular front line. The Soviet Union successfully duped the likes of HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw into being fellow travellers. The CPGB attracted stellar intellectuals and the literati: the poets Stephen Spender and WH Auden, or the scientist JBS Haldane, for example. Infamously, the Cambridge Apostles became the Cambridge spies.
None of those had much to do with the public party, which remained peripheral. When war came in 1939, the Communist party slavishly followed the Moscow line and supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Harry Pollitt’s passionate anti-Fascism initially led him to support the war. When Moscow and Berlin issued their joint declaration of neutrality on September 28th, the party line denounced the war. Pollitt was removed as General Secretary. Soon, devoted to Moscow as ever, he recanted. He was restored in 1941. He kept the portrait of Stalin that hung in his living room: ‘he’s staying there as long as I’m alive’.
British communism was never anything other than marginal. The failure of the Communist Party of Great Britain was, more than anything else, a consequence of the hegemony of Labour over the British left. Its place was that of a fringe group. Of greater significance the wider left, most of all the Labour party and the wider cultural left. British workers preferred the British Bevin to Bolshevism.