Labour history uncut: The Communists come knocking

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

In November 1935, a letter flopped onto the Labour party doormat.  It was from Harry Pollitt, boss of the Communist Party of Great Britain, wondering if the time was right for a left-wing super team-up.

In the application to affiliate his party to Labour, Pollitt stated the Communists were prepared to work, “honestly and sincerely,” as part of Labour, “not as a manoeuvre or for any concealed aims.”

NPG Ax136094; Harry Pollitt by Howard Coster

Harry Pollitt – Communist leader and G-man

He was half right – he certainly wasn’t concealing his aims. The following week Pollitt made a speech saying that the Communists wanted to join the Labour party to “transform it into a real broad federal organisation in spite of the intentions of the most reactionary Labour leaders.”

“The most reactionary Labour leaders,” turned out to be basically all of them. The NEC responded to Pollitt curtly with a missive that included the twin sentiments of “off” and “sod”, not necessarily in that order.  

Pollitt wasn’t so easily discouraged though and set a target of forcing a vote on affiliation at Labour’s conference in October 1936.

He had some grounds for optimism. While Labour’s leaders were implacably opposed to mucking in with commies, the grassroots were not so sure.

Fascism was on the march on the continent and Labour’s response was hardly a model of vigour.

In December 1935, France and Britain had developed an ingenious plan to end the war in Abyssinia by giving most of it to Italy. This plan was then leaked to the French press. The result was an outraged public, the sacking of Samuel Hoare, Britain’s foreign secretary, and a sense that the British government was worryingly comfortable working with men in black shirts and armbands.

Labour’s reaction to all this was to put down a vote of censure. When this was predictably lost, they quietly shuffled on.

In March 1936. Hitler made headlines with a short visit to the Rhineland, accompanied by just a few thousand of his closest, most heavily armed friends.

Although the Rhineland was still part of Germany, meaning that Hitler was technically invading himself, it was still a breach of the Treaty of Versailles.

Labour didn’t seem to feel this merited even a slap on the wrist for Hitler. There was no call for intervention, nor sanctions, nor even five minutes on the international naughty step.

And then in July 1936, the democratically-elected, left-leaning Popular Front government of Spain got a message from General Franco. Franco declared that the Popular front was not so popular with him, so he was going to run the country instead, thanks to the mandate provided by “look at my big gun”.

General Francisco Franco continuing the noble tradition of dictators who look suspiciously like music hall comics

General Francisco Franco continuing the noble tradition of dictators who look suspiciously like music hall comics

Attlee’s response was to commit the party to support a vigorous programme of not doing anything. True, non-intervention was also vocally supported by Germany and Italy, but they were simultaneously despatching thousands of suspiciously grenade-and-gun-shaped care packages to their fascist friends in Spain.

Labour’s sole commitment was that if action was needed, it should be taken by the League of Nations – an organisation that, when it came to the crunch, had already proven to be as weak as politician’s punchline.

In contrast, the communist U.S.S.R was more than ready to get stuck in.

Stalin opposed the carve-up of Abyssinia, called for military action in the Rhineland and sent the Spanish republic armaments and supplies. Admittedly, the Spanish aid only came after Moscow had received all of the Bank of Spain’s gold reserves for ‘safe keeping’, but nobody knew that at the time.

With all this action, many activists felt letting the communists affiliate might put a bit of backbone into Labour.  Aneurin Bevan, ever sober and measured,  declared that it, “would lead to the spiritual reawakening of the British working class movement.”

The idea did seem to be catching on. By the start of August 1936, the communist Daily Worker was claiming that affiliation was supported by the miners’ union, MFGB, the rail workers of ASLEF, the engineers of the AEU, the Fabian Society, the Socialist League, 60 divisional Labour parties and every maker of Che Guevara tee shirts in the country.

Momentum was building towards the vote at conference.

The leadership looked on with concern. For them, communists were much like herpes, embarrassing, prone to painful flare-ups and impossible to get rid of.  

Worried party managers tallied up the likely votes on affiliation and it looked like it might be close. Worse still, the impetus for affiliation – unhappiness with the party response to fascism – threatened to undo Labour’s carefully fudged positions on defence and foreign affairs, exposing its deep-seated divisions on rearmament and international intervention.

But just as Labour leaders’ nerves were really jangling, they were thrown an unexpected lifeline by one J Stalin.

In Moscow, Stalin held the first show trials in which loyal old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamenev turned out to be dirty traitors, much to everyone’s surprise including their own. As they stiltedly confessed to everything from class treachery to shooting JR Ewing, Communist sympathisers in Britain began to wonder.

TUC general secretary Walter Citrine called for mercy for Zinoviev leading the Daily Worker to splash with the headline, “Citrine sides with the traitors.”

With this approach to winning friends and influencing people, Communist support across the union movement began to dissolve.

Walter Citrine wonders whether he can sue the makers of TUC biscuits for royalties

Walter Citrine wonders whether he can sue the makers of TUC biscuits for royalties

As conference loomed in October, the Communist tide was ebbing and with it the potential for a wider revolt on Labour’s response to fascism.

A debate on Labour’s stance on defence spending, which might have been tricky in July, was a different matter at conference.

Speaking for the platform, Hugh Dalton declared that Labour was absolutely opposed to an arms race. It was, however, committed to “Maintaining such defence forces as are consistent with our country’s responsibility as a Member of the League of Nations,” adding, “The armed strength of the countries loyal to the League of Nations must be conditioned by the armed strength of the potential aggressors.”  

So, almost exactly like an arms race, then.

Fortunately Attlee was on hand to bring clarity to the issue.  “We affirm our policy to maintain such defence forces as are consistent with our country’s responsibilities,” he said, adding, “We are not prepared to support a Government that has betrayed the League.”

In the vote, the motion to continue with current policy was passed. Nobody quite knew what that actually meant in practice, but it passed, so the leadership felt the thrill of victory.

On Spain, the leadership was equally incisive. They continued to talk supportively whilst backing non-intervention. This was partly due to a fear that intervention would trigger a world war. But it was also partly because Labour didn’t want to lose the important Catholic vote and the Catholic church, taking a “Jesus in jackboots” view, was squarely in the Franco camp.

Rebels accused Labour of wanting to support Spain with only ‘Sympathy, accompanied by bandages and cigarettes,” which was intended as a criticism, however much it sounds like the end of a good night out.

But the leadership didn’t mind as the vote was won and the status quo maintained.

And on the big affiliation question, the debate was almost a non-event. The proposal to let the Communists in was routed, with only 592,000 votes for and 1.7m against.

For the Labour leadership, it rounded off successful week in Edinburgh. Policy grey areas remained devoid of colour and contrast while the one clear decision that they wanted had been made: Labour was not open for business with communists.

If only someone had told the Communists.

A few days later, at the Communist party annual conference in Sheffield, Harry “Del Boy” Pollitt took to the stage, confidently predicting that affiliation would be achieved within the next year.

Unfortunately for Labour’s leaders, Sir Stafford Cripps and the Socialist League seemed to agree.

Pete and Atul are not historians

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2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: The Communists come knocking”

  1. swatantra says:

    And so the course of history would have changed.
    If the Communists had been allowed to affiliate, bearing in mind that Labour had a ‘federal’ structure, then WW2 would have been shorter; and we would be on excellent terms with the Russians, and not have required them to have come to our rescue, by opening up a second front.

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    Not for the first time swatantra hasn’t lost the plot, because he wasn’t sure what the plot was in the first place. Fascism was a response to the Bolshevik coup of 1917. No Lenin, no Hitler. Easy.

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