3. The Labour Party

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

Anti-Parliamentary Communism -- The movement for workers councils in Britain, 1917-45

by Mark Shipway

3. The Labour Party

Despite the limitations imposed by their relatively small numbers, the anti-parliamentary communist groups made every effort to involve themselves actively in the struggles of their fellow workers. This forced them to take up positions with regard to organisations and ideas which were dominant within the working class and through which workers' struggles were channelled. In terms of their numerical support and entrenchment within the working class, the most important of these organisations were the Labour Party and trade unions. The two remaining chapters of Part I are devoted to an examination of the anti-parliamentarians' attitudes towards these organisations.


Guy Aldred's account of his 'conversion' to revolutionary politics in 1906 hints at the basic elements of the anti-parliamentary communist attitude towards the Labour Party : 'My Anti-Parliamentarian and Socialist Revolt against Labourism dates from the elevation of John Burns to Cabinet rank, and the definite emergence of the Labour Party as a factor in British politics.' [1] A significant point is the connection drawn between the rise of the Labour Party and Aldred's opposition to parliamentarism. The anti-parliamentary communists believed that parliamentary action inevitably led to reformism, careerism and responsibility for the administration of capitalism. Aldred argued, for example, that 'Parliamentarism is careerism and the betrayal of Socialism', [2] and that 'all parliamentarism is reformism and opportunism'. [3] In 1906 30 of the Labour Party's 51 general election candidates were elected to Parliament. Thereafter, according to the anti-parliamentary point of view, the Labour Party could not avoid being anything but a careerist, reformist and opportunist organisation.

Every criticism which the anti-parliamentary communists made of parliamentary action in general was also applicable to the Labour Party in particular. When Labour candidates stood for election, like all other candidates they had to seek votes from 'an electorate anxious for some immediate reform'; consequently, 'the need for social emancipation' was set aside 'in order to pander to some passing bias for urgent useless amelioration'. [4] Labour's pursuit of electoral success could thus be said to be at the root of its reformism.

Aldred also argued that parliamentarians were primarily professional politicians whose own careers took precedence over the need for social change :

the Labour movement is regarded as carrion by the parliamentary birds of prey, who start in the gutter, risk nothing, and rise to place in class society . . . the emotions of the careerist belong to the moment and express only one concern : how to exploit human wrong in order to secure power.

The careerist exploits grievances. He never feels them. He never comes to grips with them. He never attempts to remove them. He uses grievances as stepping stones to office and then mocks those who have suffered. [5]

Thus a second significant point in Aldred's explanation of his arrival at the anti-parliamentary position is his reference to John Burns' career. Burns -- one of fourteen children in a working-class family -- was originally a member of the Social Democratic Federation and one of the 1889 dockers' strike leaders. In 1892 he was elected to Parliament on the Labour ticket, but tended to favour an alliance with progressive Liberals and did not look favourably on attempts to form an independent labour party. At the conference in 1900 which established the Labour Representation Committee, he declared himself 'tired of working class boots, working class houses, working class trains and working class margarine'. [6] By 1906 he had become President of the Local Government Board in the Liberal government. From the anti-parliamentary point of view Burns' career was seen as typical of the parliamentarians whose elevation from 'the gutter' to 'place in class society' was invariably accompanied by a steady rightwards evolution in political outlook.

The anti-parliamentarians also argued that by participating in Parliament the Labour Party upheld the class state and the capitalist system. Believing that the working class's revolutionary interests could not be expressed through Parliament, Aldred stated : 'The Labour Party is not a class party. It does not express the interests of the working class. It is the last hope of the capitalist system, the final bulwark of class-society . . . The entire outlook of the Labour Party is a capitalist outlook.' [7] In 1924 Aldred made explicit his belief that Labour's reformism, careerism and capitalist outlook were the inevitable outcome of its parliamentarism. Referring to Ramsay MacDonald, he wrote that 'High Finance has, among its political adepts, no more devoted servant than the Labour Premier of Great Britain', and explained that 'MacDonald's record . . . is the natural and consistent expression of parliamentarism. The remedy is not the passing of MacDonald, but the destruction of parliamentarism.' [8]

This outline of Guy Aldred's attitude towards the Labour Party has been drawn from sources covering a period stretching from 1906 to the mid-1950s. As this suggests, Aldred was consistently opposed to the Labour Party throughout the period discussed in this book. The same could not be said of the Dreadnought group. As was the case with the issue of parliamentary action, the early history of the WSF was one of gradual advance towards a position already held by Aldred and his comrades.


Far from being 'categorically opposed to any form of contact with the Labour Party' as one historian has claimed, [9] before 1920 the WSF was closely involved with the Labour Party in a variety of ways. In March 1917, for example, the WSF Executive Committee heard that Sylvia Pankhurst had attended the recent Labour Party conference as a Hackney Trades and Labour Council delegate. [10] The Dreadnought usually published detailed reports of Labour Party conference proceedings, and WSF members attended these conferences in order to distribute their newspaper. In April 1918 a WSF general meeting was informed that Sylvia Pankhurst had been elected to Poplar Trades Council and local Labour Party. In Pankhurst's opinion 'it was well for the WSF to be on the local Labour Party to start with', although 'the time might come when we could not continue in the Party'. [11] Accepting this view, the WSF Finance Committee agreed in September 1918 that the WSF should remain affiliated to Hackney Labour Party. At the same time Sylvia Pankhurst and Melvina Walker were appointed as delegates to the first Labour Party Women's Section conference, a report of which appeared afterwards in the Dreadnought. [12]

Although it was working within the Labour Party during these years, the WSF was certainly not an uncritical supporter of everything Labour did or stood for. One of the WSF's principal disagreements concerned the Labour Party's support for the war. The target for much of this criticism was Labour MP Arthur Henderson, who had joined the Coalition government in May 1915 as President of the Board of Education, before becoming a member of the new War Cabinet in December 1916. In Sylvia Pankhurst's view Henderson had 'sacrificed the interests of Socialism and the workers for the opportunity to co-operate with the capitalist parties in carrying on the War'. [13] Although Henderson resigned from the government in August 1917, in his letter of resignation addressed to Prime Minister Lloyd George he stated : 'I continue to share your desire that the war should be carried to a successful conclusion.' [14] Henderson's membership of the War Cabinet made him a widely detested figure since it implicated him in the imprisonment of socialists and the suppression of socialist propaganda, the execution of James Connolly, the introduction of industrial conscription tinder the Defence of the Realm Act, and the deportation of Clydeside labour leaders. Henderson was not alone in coming in for criticism, however, as the WSF levelled its attacks against the entire Labour leadership. In April 1918, for example, the Dreadnought stated : 'We shrink from the prospect of a Labour government manned by the Labour leaders who have co-operated in the prosecution of the War and its iniquities and who have been but the echo of the capitalist politicians with whom they have associated.' [15] Likewise, during the 1918 general election campaign the WSF criticised the Labour Party for the way it had 'crawled at the heels of the capitalist Government throughout the War'. [16]

The WSF's other main criticism concerned the programme and membership of the Labour Party. In December 1917 Sylvia Pankhurst complained that the agenda for the forthcoming Labour conference was 'loaded with palliatives, without a hint of Socialism, which alone can emancipate the workers !' [17] In March 1918 she argued that Labour's programme for 'A New Social Order' was 'mainly a poor patchwork of feeble palliatives and envisages no new order, but the perpetuation of the present one . . . Nowhere in the programme is the demand for Socialism expressed'. [18]

If the Labour Party's political programme did little to inspire Pankhurst's enthusiasm the new party constitution, published for discussion in October 1917, aroused her fears about the party's membership. Among the new constitution's proposals was the enrolment of individual members who had not passed through what Pankhurst called the 'narrow gate' of trade union membership, or membership of organisations such as the BSP or ILP. Pankhurst argued that 'the enrolment of individual members from the non-industrial classes . . . might prove a drag on the proletarian elements in the Party during the critical years which are ahead'. It would also attract self-seeking elements -- 'people of no settled or deep convictions may find membership of the Labour Party a convenient method of attaining to the management of people and affairs' -- while the rank and file working-class members would tend to be pushed even further into the background in the organisation and conduct of the party. [19]

The WSF put forward several proposals designed to put right the problems it had identified. When Sylvia Pankhurst attended the Labour Party conference in June 1918 she spoke in favour of Labour withdrawing from the Coalition government and ending the wartime 'political truce'. A resolution advocating the latter was passed, but Pankhurst's attempt to move an amendment to the motion adding that Labour Party members should resign from the government was ruled out on procedural grounds. [20]

The WSF's solution to the problem of Labour's war collaborationist leadership was to elect new leaders who opposed the war. The alternative to a party under the leadership of those who had co-operated in the prosecution of the war was to 'secure International Socialist leadership in the Labour movement'. [21]

The WSF also advocated changes in the Labour Party's programme; in October 1917 Sylvia Pankhurst wrote : 'The Labour Party should set itself to draw up a strong working-class socialist programme, and should act upon it vigorously and continuously.' [22] The WSF expected this to bring four main benefits. First, an uncompromising socialist programme would deter self-seeking elements. Secondly, all the various smaller Socialist organisations and unattached members will gradually be pooled within [the Labour Party's] ranks'. [23] Thirdly, insistence on agreement with a socialist programme as a condition of membership would have the educational effect of raising the political consciousness of the 'large masses of people who are vaguely revolutionary in their tendencies and always ready to criticise those in power, but who have never mastered any economic or political theory'. [24] Fourthly, the adoption of a socialist programme would keep the party leaders under control. If the party was rebuilt 'on a clearly defined basis, uncorrupted by considerations of temporary political expediency', there would be no scope for the leadership to engage in reformist or opportunist manoeuvres. [25]

These proposals were all formulated in the context of working from within to transform the Labour Party into a genuine socialist organisation. During 1919, however, the WSF abandoned this approach and began to advocate a regroupment of revolutionaries outside and against the Labour Party.

A major cause of the WSF's change of view was the group's perception of the role played by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), when it came to power in November 1918 in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval at the end of the war. One of the SPD's leaders, Gustave Noske, organised an alliance with the right wing paramilitary Freikorps to suppress and butcher the insurrectionary workers. In Guy Aldred's words, the SPD 'slaughtered to preserve the tottering power of Capitalism'. [26] For the WSF, the lesson of the SPD's leading part in crushing the German revolution was that 'when the social patriotic reformists come into power, they fight to stave off the workers' revolution with as strong a determination as that displayed by the capitalists'. [27]

A second important influence on the WSF's change of attitude towards the Labour Party was the formation of the Third International on the Bolsheviks' initiative in March 1919. Until the end of 1918 the WSF had hoped to see the social democratic Second International reconstituted, but when a definite attempt to revive the Second International was initiated at the beginning of 1919, Sylvia Pankhurst argued that it could no longer be considered 'a genuine International, because those who are today leading the Socialist movement -- the Russian Bolsheviki and the Sparticists of Germany -- will be absent from its councils'. [28] Subsequently the resolutions adopted by the conference in Berne in February 1919, which re-established the Second International, were criticised strongly in the Workers' Dreadnought, and the WSF Annual Conference in June 1919 instructed the WSF Executive Committee to link up with the new Third International.

This had important implications for the WSF's attitude towards the Labour Party. The invitation to the First Congress of the Communist International issued by the Bolsheviks in January 1919 had stated :

Towards the social-chauvinists, who everywhere at critical moments come out in arms against the proletarian revolution, no other attitude but unrelenting struggle is possible. As to the 'centre' -- the tactics of splitting off the revolutionary elements and unsparing criticism and exposure of the leaders. Organisational separation from the centrists is at a certain stage of development absolutely necessary. [29]

These views were reaffirmed by a resolution 'On The Berne Conference Of The Parties Of The Second International', adopted by the First Congress of the Third International in March 1919. [30] Since groups seeking to affiliate to the new International would have to adopt the same stance, the WSF's support for the Third International was obviously an important factor contributing to the group's split with the Labour Party.

The changes wrought by these factors could be seen unfolding in the WSF's internal life during 1919. In May the WSF's Bow branch was informed that three of its members (Melvina Walker, Norah Smyth and L. Watts) had been elected to Poplar Trades Council and Central Labour Party. [31] Soon afterwards the question of affiliation to Poplar Labour Party was raised at a WSF Executive Committee meeting, which accepted the view that local branches should have 'free autonomy to affiliate to Local Labour Parties'. [32] At the WSF Annual Conference in June, however, a resolution was passed instructing all branches affiliated to the Labour Party to disaffiliate. [33] The Executive Committee was instructed to begin talks with other organisations to form a communist party in Britain, and it mandated WSF delegates to 'stand fast' on the principle of 'No Affiliation to the Labour Party'. [34] A subsequent WSF membership ballot revealed that an overwhelming majority approved the Executive Committee's instructions. [35] Yet despite these decisions nearly two months elapsed before the Executive Committee learnt of Poplar WSF's expulsion from Poplar Trades Council, Melvina Walker's removal from the Executive Committee of Poplar Labour Party, and the revocation of Walker's mandate as a delegate to the Central Labour Party and London Trades Council. [36] On 20 July 1919 Poplar WSF members had

unintentionally provoked a crisis by making an unscheduled appearance at the Labour Party's meeting against Russian intervention, commandeering a trades council lorry as a platform, and haranguing the crowds on the virtues of Sovietism. The following week Norah Smyth received a curt letter from Poplar Labour Party informing her that the WSF had been expelled. [37]

The fact that Poplar WSF had been expelled from the Labour Party, rather than resign voluntarily in line with the resolutions of the 1919 Annual Conference, indicates that some WSF members may still have been in favour of involvement with the Labour Party. The WSF's federal structure, which gave considerable autonomy to local branches and individual members, easily enabled such dissenting views to be expressed. Melvina Walker, for example, was an Executive Committee member of Poplar Labour Party and the WSF, despite the latter's declared opposition to the former.

By the end of 1919, however, any lingering support for WSF involvement with the Labour Party had disappeared. The Annual Conference, the Executive Committee and a ballot of the full membership had all come out against affiliation, and in February 1920 this first unequivocal statement of opposition to the Labour Party was published in the Dreadnought, encouraging other groups to follow the WSF's example :

We urge our Communist comrades to come out of the Labour Party and build up a strong opposition to it in order to secure the emancipation of Labour and the establishment of Communism in our time. Comrades, do not give your precious energies to building up the Labour Party which has already betrayed you, and which will shortly join the capitalists in forming a Government of the Noske type. [38]

The final event which had led the Dreadnought group to make this open and unambiguous break with the Labour Party had been the first conference of the Third International's Western European Sub-Bureau, which began in Amsterdam on 3 February 1920. A resolution on trade unions adopted by the conference stated that Labourism (the pursuit of trade union interests by parliamentary means) was 'the final bulwark of defence of Capitalism against the oncoming proletarian revolution; accordingly. a merciless struggle against Labourism is imperative'. This point of view was elaborated by a resolution on 'The Communist Party and Separation of Communists from the Social Patriotic Parties', which described 'social-patriots' (that is, 'socialists' who supported the war) as 'a most dangerous enemy of the proletarian revolution', and insisted that rigorous separation of the Communists from the Social Patriots is absolutely necessary'. [39] During the debate about this resolution the conference chairman made it clear that the resolution precluded any member party of the Third International affiliating to the British Labour Party. When a vote was taken the only delegates against the resolution were Hodgson and Willis of the British Socialist Party; all the other delegates, including Sylvia Pankhurst and the British shop stewards' movement representative J. T. Murphy, voted in favour.

This set the final seal on the WSF's opposition to the Labour Party by appearing to lend the authority of the Third International to the WSF's position. The Dreadnought's first open statement of opposition to the Labour Party appeared immediately after the Amsterdam conference, and during a discussion about the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party at a communist unity meeting on 13 March 1920, 'Pankhurst quoted the Amsterdam resolution in support of her position.' [40]


It may seem odd that supporters of the Third International were debating whether or not to affiliate to the Labour Party, when the International had stated that the correct attitude towards the social democratic parties consisted of unrelenting struggle, unsparing criticism and organisational separation. The Third International did not require its supporters in Britain to transform the Labour Party into a genuine socialist organisation -- as the WSF had aimed to do before 1920 -- but to form a separate communist party within which all revolutionaries would be regrouped. This party would work to attract the working class, including those who belonged to the Labour Party, into its ranks. However, one of the tactics which was proposed to bring this about was that the communist party should affiliate to the Labour Party. As was the case with Revolutionary Parliamentarism, the tactic of affiliation to the Labour Party was heatedly debated in the unity negotiations in Britain throughout 1920.

The WSF Executive Committee's instructions to its delegates in June 1919, to stand fast on the principle of no affiliation, remained the WSF's position throughout. In March 1920, for example, the Executive Committee repeated its view that 'with regard to the Unity Negotiations . . . we should not in any event compromise on the question of Affiliation to the Labour Party'. [41] Support for the WSF's position arrived in May 1920, in the form of a communiqué from the Third International's Western European Sub-Bureau, clarifying the decisions of the Amsterdam conference. Underlining the conference's opposition to affiliation, the communiqué stated that the principle of non-affiliation was of such importance that it should take precedence over the need for unity : 'Much as we should like to see a united Communist Party in England, it may be better to postpone this ideal than to compromise on important issues.' [42]

This contribution to the affiliation debate proved to be one of the Sub-Bureau's final actions. The Sub-Bureau was dominated by left communists, which was not to the liking of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Moscow. Consequently the ECCI closed down the Sub-Bureau in May 1920 and transferred its responsibilities to the German Communist Party, which by this time had purged itself of the left communists in its ranks.

Around the same time, Lenin published his polemic against 'Left-Wing' Communism, An Infantile Disorder, in which he argued that the British working class's attachment to social democratic organisations and ideas could only be broken if the Labour Party actually took office and proved its uselessness: 'If Henderson and Snowden gain the victory over Lloyd George and Churchill, the majority will in a brief space of time become disappointed in their leaders and will begin to support Communism.' [43] Lenin advised communists in Britain to form an electoral alliance with the Labour Party and help it to take power, so that the working class could learn through its own experience that the Labour Party was an anti-working class organisation. This was the meaning behind Lenin's notorious remark about communists supporting the Labour Party 'in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man'. [44]

As we saw in Chapter 1, the WSF's opposition to affiliation was the greatest obstacle in the way of unity with other groups in Britain. At the end of March 1920 the WSF Executive Committee proposed that 'if the BSP refuses to withdraw from the Labour Party, we get on with [the] formation of [a] Communist Party'. [45] This decision was put into practice in June 1920 when the WSF initiated the formation of the CP(BSTI), which adopted non-affiliation as one of its 'cardinal principles'. [46] At the same time, although Guy Aldred and his comrades were not involved in the unity negotiations, nor in the formation of the CP(BSTI), the Glasgow Communist Group likewise declared its refusal to 'identify itself with any Unity Convention willing to recognise the Labour Party'. [47]

At this stage the Dreadnought group put forward three main arguments against affiliation. First, since the Labour Party's rise to power was 'inevitable', it would be a waste of time and effort for communists to affiliate in order to assist Labour into office. Instead, communists should devote all their energies to building an organisation which would be 'ready to attack' Labour when it took power. [48]

Secondly, the Dreadnought group took issue with Lenin's argument that communists should affiliate to the Labour Party in order to 'keep in touch with the masses', since revolutionary propaganda could still influence Labour Party members without communists actually having to be inside the Labour party. [49] Thirdly, the Dreadnought argued that affiliation was incompatible with other tactics advocated by the Third International. For example, Lenin urged communists to work closely with the Labour Party, but he also hoped to win the support of the British shop stewards' movement and the Industrial Workers of the World. These two objectives conflicted, since the IWW and the shop stewards' movement were both more or less hostile to the existing trade unions, which formed the Labour Party's backbone. Affiliation would also hinder the application of Revolutionary Parliamentarism, since communists inside the Labour Party would find it harder to be selected as Parliamentary candidates than if they maintained an independent existence. [50]

In 'Left-Wing' Communism, An Infantile Disorder Lenin had reserved judgement on the specific issue of affiliation, since he had 'too little material at my disposal on this question, which is a particularly complex one'. [51] In June 1920, however, Quilt and MacLaine, two delegates from the pro-affiliation BSP, arrived in Russia for the Second Congress of the Third International, and they persuaded the Comintern leaders that the British Communist Party -- when it could finally be completed -- should be affiliated with the Labour Party'. [52] Consequently the 'Theses On The Basic Tasks Of The Communist International' adopted by the Congress on 19 July 1920 came out

in favour of the affiliation of communist or sympathising groups and organisations in England to the Labour Party . . . communists must do everything they can, and even make certain organisational compromises, to have the possibility of exercising influence on the broad working masses, of exposing their opportunist leaders from a high tribune visible to the masses, of accelerating the transference of political power from the direct representatives of the bourgeoisie to the 'labour lieutenants of the capitalist class', in order to cure the masses quickly of their last illusions on this score. [53]

Lenin made two speeches at the Congress in support of affiliation. On 23 July he stated: 'Since it cannot be denied that the British Labour Party is composed of workers, it is clear that working in that party means co-operation of the vanguard of the working class with the less advanced workers.' [54] On 6 August he admitted that 'the Labour Party is not a political workers' party, but a thoroughly bourgeois party', yet cited the BSP's experience of affiliation to support his argument that 'a party affiliated to the Labour Party is not only able to criticise sharply, but is able openly and definitely to name the old leaders and to call them social-traitors'. Finally he added: 'If the British Communist Party starts out by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party and if Messrs Henderson are obliged to expel this Party, it will be a great victory for the communist and labour movement in England', because the Labour Party would have exposed its counter-revolutionary nature before its working-class supporters. [55]

Sylvia Pankhurst attended the Second Congress and spoke against affiliation in one of the debates about the tactics to be adopted by the communist party in Britain. [56] She also discussed the issue in private with Lenin, arguing that 'the disadvantages of affiliation outweighed the advantages'. However, Lenin 'dismissed the subject as unimportant, saying that the Labour Party would probably refuse to accept the Communist Party's affiliation, and that, in any case, the decision could be altered next year'. The issue of affiliation was not a question of principle 'but of tactics, which may be employed advantageously in some phases of the changing situation and discarded with advantage in others'. [57]

While the Congress of the International was taking place in Russia, the concluding communist unity convention, at which the CPGB finally came into being, was held in London. On the eve of the meeting the CP(BSTI) published an 'Open Letter to the Delegates of the Unity Convention', urging them to reject any association with the Labour Party. It argued that the Labour Party's leaders were intent on diverting the working class's struggles into harmless Parliamentary and reformist channels; that the trade unionists and parliamentarians who controlled the Labour Party had a bourgeois mentality which led them to support class collaboration and oppose class struggle : and that whereas communists stood for the dictatorship of the workers councils, the Labour Party based itself on bourgeois parliamentary democracy. [58] Advice of a conflicting nature came in a message to the Unity Convention from Lenin, criticising the CP(BSTI) and advocating 'adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent communist activity'. [59] In the event Lenin's arguments held sway, although the Convention's vote in favour of affiliation -- 100 to 85, with 20 abstentions -- could hardly have been closer.

Shortly after the Unity Convention the CPGB wrote to the Labour Party asking to affiliate, but its application was rejected on the grounds that 'the objects of the Communist Party did not appear to accord with the constitution, principles and programme of the Labour Party'. [60] A lengthy series of reapplications and refusals ensued. [61] The initial rebuff was one factor which helped to ease the CP(BSTI)'s entry into the CPGB at the Leeds Unity Convention in January 1921. The Dreadnought's account of the Leeds Convention noted with evident satisfaction that the affiliation tactic had thus far remained a dead letter. [62]

After entering the CPGB the Dreadnought group persisted in criticising the affiliation tactic. In July 1921, after the Poplar Board of Guardians (whose Labour majority included Communist Party members) had cut the rate of outdoor Poor Law relief, the Dreadnought asked:

Are we to exempt from criticism the Labour Party on a particular body, because in that Labour Party are members of the Communist Party?

Or are we to criticise that Labour Party and ignore the fact that the Communists are amongst the Labourists, sharing responsibility for the actions we condemn, and even initiating them, as in the matter of cutting down relief in Poplar?

Should we ignore the existence of such Communists, be sure the workers would find them out. [63]

Criticism of the tactic was voiced again in August 1921, after the CPGB and the Labour Party had both chosen to stand candidates in the Caerphilly by-election. Once more the Dreadnought attempted to expose the problems involved in applying the affiliation tactic. If the CPGB had been affiliated to the Labour Party and none of its members had been chosen as the candidate, would it have supported the Labour candidate, even a right wing one, or would it have stood its own candidate and risked expulsion? Was the CPGB candidate at Caerphilly a ploy intended to force the Labour Party to accept the CPGB's affiliation as a lesser evil than seeing the working class vote split, or would the CPGB stand candidates no matter what? In contrast to the confusions surrounding affiliation the Dreadnought's own position was clear :

do not affiliate to the Labour Party or enter into compromising alliances within it . . . Stand aside warning the workers that the Labour Party cannot emancipate them, because it is merely reformist and will not sweep away the capitalist system when it gets into power . . . the best propaganda that Communists can do at this juncture is to let the Labour Party continue with its effort to become 'his Majesty's Government', and to tell the workers that all such shams must pass; that the way to emancipation is through Communism and the Soviets. [64]

Such forthright condemnation of CPGB policy was one of the reasons why Pankhurst was expelled from the party in September 1921. However, the CPGB persisted with its attempts to affiliate to the Labour Party, and it is important to examine these efforts briefly in order to form a proper assessment of the affiliation debate.


On the sole occasion that representatives from the Labour Party and the CPGB met face-to-face to discuss affiliation, the contributions of the various participants revealed some of the ideas behind the affiliation tactic as well as some of the problems involved in trying to apply it. At certain moments during the meeting the CPGB frankly admitted that its objective was 'to be inside the Labour Party in order to meet its enemies face to face, and to expose in front of the rank and file of the Labour movement the political trickery of [list of names] and other Labour lieutenants of the capitalist class'. Thus Arthur Henderson, one of the Labour participants, truly grasped the purpose of affiliation when he complained that the CPGB had 'no intention of being loyal . . . Mr Hodgson hopes that the present crisis will show the masses the pernicious rule of the leaders of the Labour Party. It is for that reason that they will enter the Labour Party; in order to denounce the leaders.'

At other moments, however, the CPGB representatives claimed very different intentions. When asked whether the CPGB was hoping, as Fred Hodgson had been reported as saying, 'to sever the connection between the masses and the Labour Party', Arthur MacManus replied that this 'does not represent Mr Hodgson's opinion or the Party's opinion'. According to MacManus the CPGB believed that

any political organisation that hopes to influence the mass of the working class in this country in any particular direction in dissociation or in a detached form from the existing Labour Party, would simply be futile, and that consequently the effective way to do it was to operate their opinions inside the Labour Party and gradually pursue their opinions in such a way that if it did succeed in influencing opinion, the reformation would be based upon the Labour Party itself.

As MacManus put it later: 'We hope to make the Labour Party the Communist Party of Great Britain.'. [65] These latter remarks support the view that many CPGB members sought to turn the Labour Party into a revolutionary organisation and failed to understand that the affiliation tactic was not intended to radicalise the Labour Party but to expose, discredit and destroy it. [66]

The suggestion that supporters of affiliation failed to grasp its proper aims and intentions is perhaps not surprising, considering the convoluted and manipulative thinking which lay behind the tactic. For example, Lenin advised communists to help the Labour Party into office, so that the working class could learn from its own experience that the Labour Party did not represent its interests and then join the Communist Party. What Lenin failed to explain was why workers should suddenly have wanted to join the Communist Party so soon after making the painful discovery that what that Party had advocated (a Labour government) was of no worth to them whatsoever !

The longer the Labour Party persisted in its refusal to accept the CPGB's advances, however, the more the whole debate over affiliation tended to become academic, since hardly any of the claims made on either side could actually be tested in practice. One of the few claims on which a definite judgement could be passed was the Third International's contention that if the Labour Party took office it would cure the masses of their last illusions in the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class. This idea needs to be examined closely, since it was shared by the anti-parliamentary communists.

Guy Aldred's description of Labour as 'the last hope of the capitalist system, the final bulwark of class-society' [67] suggested that only the Labour Party stood between the collapse of capitalism and the victory of communism. This was a view also held by the Dreadnought group. In August 1921, for example, Sylvia Pankhurst urged communists to let the Labour Party 'get into power and prove its uselessness and powerlessness'. [68] Pankhurst returned to this scenario in June 1923, when she predicted the consequences of a Labour government taking office: 'The workers, expecting an improvement in their conditions, will turn to the Left. The Labour Party, unable to alter the position of the workers without overthrowing capitalism, will see its popularity departing and the growth of Left influences.' [69] Similarly, in December 1923 Pankhurst predicted that if a Labour government failed to satisfy its supporters' aspirations 'the ideals of the workers will speedily advance beyond the Labour Party'. [70]

After the announcement of the December 1923 general election results Sylvia Pankhurst commented that 'the increase in the Labour vote is pleasing to us, because we regard it as a sign that popular opinion is on the move, and ere long will have left the Labour Party far behind'. [71] Although the Labour Party was not socialist, its opponents had portrayed it as such during the election campaign; working-class Labour voters had therefore believed that they were voting for socialism. When the Labour Party did not achieve socialism its supporters would turn elsewhere to fulfil their aspirations : 'in the intention of the electors [Labour Party government] is an evolutionary stage beyond government by the confessedly pro-capitalist parties . . . The strength of the real Left movement . . . will develop as all the Parliamentary parties fail in their turn'. [72]

These expectations were put to the test in January 1924 when the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was invited to form a government. According to Harry Pollitt's analysis, at the end of 1924 this first Labour government was ousted from power 'because of the disillusionment of the masses with the policy of the Labour leaders'. The large majority with which the new government took office was 'in itself evidence of the workers' disgust with their leaders' pusillanimity'. [73] This sounds like the scenario envisaged by Lenin and Pankhurst -- except that it was not to the Communist Party that workers had turned in disgust and disillusionment with Labour; the government which replaced Labour in office was formed by the Conservative party ! Furthermore, the Labour Party received over a million more votes in the 1924 general election than it had done before taking office, while the CPGB's total vote, and its average per candidate, both fell. [74]

Yet the greatest illusion of the whole affiliation debate had little to do with what the CPGB could or could not achieve once it had affiliated, nor with the consequences of the Labour Party taking office. It was that the Labour Party would ever 'submit to being penetrated and manipulated by the Communists' in the first place. [75] The Labour leaders' reluctance to submit themselves to criticism, denunciation and exposure was evident at their meeting with representatives of the CPGB, and probably accounts for the contradictory interpretations of the affiliation tactic put forward by the CPGB members. Lenin did not take this factor into account: 'Communist infiltration could be real and effective only if the non-Communist "partner" consented to play the role that Lenin had written for him, that of victim and dupe. But if the partner, here the Labour Party, refused to play along, the tactic naturally failed.' [76] Lenin had sought to support the Labour Party as the rope supports a hanged man; the Labour Party simply refused to put its head in the noose.


After Sylvia Pankhurst's expulsion from the CPGB, every organisation associated with the Dreadnought included opposition to affiliation among its principles. The position of the Communist Workers' Party was 'to refuse affiliation or co-operation with the Labour Party and all Reformist organisations'. [77] The All-Workers' Revolutionary Union stated that it was 'opposed to the Reformist and Counter-Revolutionary Labour Party, and rejects all affiliations and co-operation with it and other Reformist Parties'. [78] The manifesto of the Unemployed Workers' Organisation announced: 'We are opposed to affiliation to a counter-revolutionary party [such] as the Labour Party.' [79]

In November-December 1922 the Fourth Congress of the Third International approved the tactic of the United Front between the Communist and Social Democratic Parties in order to defend the working class against the capitalist offensive which had been gathering force since the end of 1920. The Dreadnought group completely opposed the United Front. So too did Guy Aldred. In a debate with Alexander Ritchie in the Glasgow Worker during 1922, Aldred explained his reasons for rejecting the tactic. The Labour Party's leaders were a collection of 'traitors' who had repeatedly betrayed the working class. Communists could not 'achieve their revolutionary purpose' by uniting with 'Mensheviks and petty reformers'. Instead of allying with the Labour Party, communists should be redoubling their efforts to 'unite with themselves'. [80] In 1923 Sidney Hanson (a London member of the APCF) added another argument against the tactic: 'the Communist Party, seeking affiliation to the Labour Party, proposes a united front with it, and strengthens the illusion that the Labour Party is the party of the working class, the movement towards emancipation. But the Labour Party is really the anti-working class movement, the last earthwork of reaction.' [81]


The acid test of the anti-parliamentarians' view of the Labour Party as an anti-working class organisation came when the Labour Party actually took power in Britain. The remainder of this chapter therefore concentrates on the anti-parliamentary communists' attitude towards the Labour Party in office, using the examples of local government in the East London district of Poplar (1921-3) and the first national Labour government (1924).

During 1921 an 'employers' offensive' got under way in Britain. involving a widespread attack on working-class living standards and working conditions. In its role as an employer of wage labour the state joined in this offensive. In the summer of 1921, for example. the Labour-controlled Poplar Board of Guardians reduced the rate of outdoor Poor Law relief and cut municipal employees' wages. At the time of these actions the Dreadnought stated: 'The Labour Party is avowedly a Reformist Party; its effort is to work towards social betterment within the capitalist system.' [82] The problem was that any party which sought to take over the administration of capitalism in order to run the system in the workers' interests would quickly discover that the initial step ruled out the proposed objective, and would find itself having to run capitalism in the only possible way: that is, against the interests of the working class.

In January 1922 the Poplar Board was petitioned by National Unemployed Workers' Movement members demanding 'work or full maintenance'. Under this pressure the Board approved a scale of relief in excess of the NUWM's request. At its next meeting, however, the Board found that its financial resources would not cover the promised rate of relief. The imperatives of administering capitalism had reasserted themselves. The Board cancelled its previous decision, causing hundreds of angry unemployed workers to occupy the building where the Board was meeting. Melvina Walker, a Dreadnought group member and 'well-known local activist', told the Board: 'You appear to be hopeless and are merely the bulwark between us and the capitalist class to keep us in subjection.' [83]

A similar case occurred in 1923 when dock workers involved in an unofficial strike applied to the Poplar Board for relief. Their application was granted, but this precipitated another financial crisis. Faced with having to choose between taking the side of the workers or continuing to administer a part of the capitalist system, the Board opted for the latter and reduced its rates of relief. On 26 September a demonstration by the Unemployed Workers' Organisation, demanding that the Board should reverse its decision, ended in another occupation of the Board's premises. The police were summoned and with the Board's consent forced their way into the building, batoning everyone in their path (the Dreadnought reported 'Upwards Of Forty People Badly Hurt, Hundreds Of Slightly Wounded'). 'One thing stands out clearly', the Dreadnought commented :

the result of working class representatives taking part in the administration of capitalist machinery, is that the working class representatives become responsible for maintaining capitalist law and order and for enforcing the regulations of the capitalist system itself . . . working class representatives who become councillors and guardians assist in the maintenance of the capitalist system, and, sooner or later, must inevitably find themselves in conflict with the workers . . . The batoning of the Unemployed in Poplar is the first instance of the Labour Party being brought into forcible conflict with the labouring population in defence of the capitalist system . . . As the capitalist system nears its end, the reformists who desire to prevent the catastrophic breakdown of the system will inevitably find themselves in a position of acute antagonism to the people who are striving to destroy the system which oppresses them. [84]

When the Labour Party became the national government in January 1924, the APCF changed the masthead motto of its journal from 'A Herald Of The Coming Storm' to 'An Organ Of His Majesty's Communist Opposition', implying opposition to His Majesty's government, that is, the Labour Party. The same issue also contained a lengthy article detailing the new Labour Ministers' record of anti-working class statements and actions. [85]

A month later the APCF published an article titled 'The Two Programmes'. This outlined a twelve-point 'Parliamentarian' programme and opposed each of its points with 'Anti-Parliamentarian' positions. The 'Parliamentarian' programme amounted to 'the continuation of capitalism'; among its points were:

2. Workers' Interests subservient to capitalist expediency . . .

4. Parliament -- controlled by High Finance.

5. Nationalisation of some industries, yielding profits to state investors and loan sharks.

6. Political administration of Capitalism by workers . . .

11. Power left to the bourgeoisie.

Alongside each of these points the 'Anti-Parliamentarian' programme for 'the overthrow of capitalism' as set out :

2. Development of class conscious understanding. Undermining capitalist interests . . .

4. The Soviet or Industrial Council, directly controlled by the wealth-producers.

5. Socialisation of all industry.

6. No political administration of Capitalism . . .

11. All Power to the Workers. [86]

In context the 'Parliamentarian' programme was obviously meant to describe the Labour Party's policies. From the outset, therefore, the APCF was unambiguous in its opposition to the new Labour government.

The comments the Dreadnought group had made about the role of the Labour Party in the administration of the local capitalist state in Poplar would lead one to expect the group to have shared the APCF's attitude. In fact, this was not so. When the Labour government took office in the middle of a railway engineers' strike the Dreadnought stated : 'A Capitalist Government has to prove to its makers and clients -- the capitalists -- that it is able to ensure the best possible conditions for the business of capitalism. A Labour Government has no such duty.' The Dreadnought proceeded to demand the use of the Emergency Powers Act against the railway owners, and nationalisation of the railways. [87] The railway strike was followed by a dock workers' strike in February. Again the Dreadnought argued: 'impartiality should not be expected of a Labour Government, nor, indeed. tolerated from it . . . The duty of a Labour Government is to act as a friend of the workers in all cases.' [88]

Comments such as these sowed dangerous illusions. By drawing a distinction between what capitalist governments had done and what a Labour government ought to do, the Dreadnought implied that Labour was not a capitalist party and that workers should expect Labour's support in their struggles. However, the actions of the Labour government soon dispelled some of these illusions. During the dock strike, for example, the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald revealed that the government planned to use strike-breakers against the dockers : 'The Government will not fail to take what steps are necessary to secure transport of necessary food supplies, and has already set up the nucleus of an organisation.' [89] Similarly, when London transport workers struck in March 1924 the government appointed a Chief Civil Commissioner to administer the Emergency Powers Act and made preparations to run bus and tram services with military and naval labour. Consequently, in March-April 1924 the Dreadnought group began to adopt a more critical attitude towards the Labour government :

The Labour Government has again shown that it cannot work Socialist miracles with capitalist elements and by capitalist methods.

The more the Labour Government applies itself to an honest attempt to ameliorate social conditions [sic] the more it is seen that the only hope of real all-round improvement is to attack the system at the root. [90]

The Labour government was defeated in the Commons on 8 October 1924 and dissolved itself the following day. After the ensuing general election Ramsay MacDonald resigned from office on 4 November. The Workers' Dreadnought had ceased publication in June 1924, so we lack its definitive assessment of the first Labour government's record. The APCF, on the other hand, continued to publish the Commune and sniped at the Labour government throughout its term in office, but did not publish a full-length appraisal of the Labour government until two years later, with the article 'Lest We Forget: The Record Of Labour Parliamentarism' in the October 1926 Commune. This article was also published as a pamphlet titled 'Labour' In Office: A Record, first in 1926 and then in revised form in 1928 and 1942. These works, which belong outside the 1917-24 period, are discussed in Chapter 5. For the time being it will suffice to note that the APCF's considered opinion of the 1924 Labour government was essentially that it had 'functioned no differently from any other Capitalist Government' ; [91] none of Labour's actions in office had given the anti-parliamentarians cause to revise their pre-1924 views. When we examine the anti-parliamentarians' continued propagation of their ideas in the late 1920s and early 1930s, we will see that opposition to the Labour Party as an anti-working class organisation remained one of the anti-parliamentarians' basic tenets. Before that, however, this account of the anti-parliamentarians' basic principles can be completed by a discussion of the labour movement's industrial wing -- the trade unions.