Peter Fryer 1969

Blimps With Little Red Flags

Source: Encounter, October 1969. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In 1937 a British Communist wrote an unofficial history of his party, and it was attacked by a fellow-Communist with such ferocity that an apology had to be made; the book, by Tom Bell, was nevertheless repudiated by the party’s Secretariat. Its critic, Allen Hutt, had held that ‘a strong case can be made out against the conception of a separate History of the Communist Party at this stage’. Three decades later, the British Communists have at last plucked up courage to examine their own history. [1] To be sure, only the first seven years are dealt with in these first two volumes — and even their promised successor will ‘probably’ not carry the story beyond 1932. Nor does the examination pretend to be objective or, save in quite superficial respects, critical. It is, however, official. And the choice of James Klugmann as Official Historian tells us much about the party’s present frame of mind, its attitude to its past, and its hopes for the future.

Klugmann’s previous attempt at Communist historiography has itself a sad history. Entitled From Trotsky To Tito, and published in 1951, it accused Tito and his colleagues of learning their tactics ‘from Hitler and Goebbels’. [2] In 1956, following the Soviet–Yugoslav rapprochement and the Khrushchev revelations, this book was withdrawn. Its author has never ventured publicly to explain how he came to write it, or to subject it to any kind of self-critical examination, or to draw any lessons from having allowed himself to be so grievously misled by fabricated evidence. But he does seem to have learnt one thing. Throughout the first volume of his new history there is no mention of Trotsky, who was one of the most prominent leaders of the international Communist movement in those early years (and whose informed interest in British politics was to be shown in his Where Is Britain Going?, written early in 1925). And the second volume dismisses the CPGB’s early encounter with ‘Trotskyism’ in just one page. No doubt it is better to play safe than be sorry a second time.

If Klugmann’s new book, unlike his earlier one, has no villain, it certainly does not lack a hero. The hagiography is a shade subtler than it used to be when personality cults were unbridled. Nevertheless, a young Lancashire boilermaker, not yet thirty years of age when the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded, is here credited with a degree of political wisdom and initiative that would have been remarkable in one twice his years. Almost single-handed, it appears, he carried through the party’s reorganisation from an uneasy conflation of propagandist sects into a democratic-centralist proletarian vanguard, with ‘fractions’, ‘nuclei’ and ‘Party training’ (and with an elaborate apparatus of Political Bureau, Organising Bureau and Secretariat to run a party of a few thousand members) — a process known at the time, though Klugmann coyly conceals the fact in the first volume and is understandably apologetic about it in the second, as ‘Bolshevisation’. This young man alone, if Klugmann is to be believed, was immune from political error. Glancing neither to Right nor ‘Left’, flirting with neither opportunism nor sectarianism, he ‘personally’ stopped the Jolly George, carrying munitions for use against Soviet Russia, in 1919; corrected the sectarian approach of the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern) in 1921; and edited the party’s first daily newspaper in 1922. [3] It was he, not JR Campbell, who wrote the ‘Open Letter to the Fighting Forces’ that sparked off the famous ‘Campbell case’ in 1924.

This paragon was Harry Pollitt, and one would hardly guess from Klugmann’s account that he was not from the outset the party’s ‘leader’, as it later became mandatory to style him. Even when Klugmann records the setting up of a Central Women’s Department at the party centre, he finds it necessary to add a solemn footnote: ‘With Harry Pollitt as one of its members.’ (I, p 338, n 5) By comparison, the party’s Secretary during most of the period covered, Albert Inkpin, emerges as a shadowy and colourless figure; and it will be interesting to see how Klugmann and his collaborator in the promised third volume, Jack Cohen, deal with Pollitt’s eventual appointment as General Secretary, as late as 1929, on Moscow’s insistence and against the wishes of a large number of members.

* * *

Klugmann writes in the emphatic, repetitive, itemising style so familiar to those who have ever sat at his unstraying feet during one of his lectures, with their headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings neatly ticked off on his fingers. Whole chunks of those lecture notes, key words underlined, are here transcribed, mutatis non mutandis, with such results as these:

Of those who, on the surface, were convinced, some still saw such participation as a purely negative act... Nor did they see how the combined struggle, inside and outside, could win concrete gains... (I, p 195)

It showed what could be achieved by a united working class ready to fight for its demands by militant action, including the strike weapon on political as well as economic issues. (I, p 87)

It was necessary... to win support for the colonial peoples’ struggles, to see that this was a common struggle that equally concerned British workers and colonial peoples... and to call for an equal fraternal struggle of comrades facing a common enemy and to give, where possible, direct support to the struggles of the colonial people. (II, p 293)

Such a style might be tolerable if one could rely on Klugmann’s accuracy. But he is unsure even of the date on which his party was born. On page 167 of the first volume we read:

The CPGB was formed on 1 August 1920. From 2 August it became the major target of hatred, slander, attack of the capitalist class and its propaganda machine.

Sixty pages later, this becomes:

The Communist Party of Great Britain was founded on 31 July 1920. From 1 August 1920, it has been the most attacked, slandered, smeared organisation from the side of the British capitalist press. (I, p 229)

Again, slips of this sort might not matter overmuch if one could be sure of Klugmann’s desire to find out the truth and tell it to his readers. Unfortunately, he is evasive, not to say slippery, precisely on those points where his party’s critics are eager to have the benefit of his researches in those ‘seldom-examined archives’ the blurb alludes to. In particular, he is evasive about his party’s relations with the Communist International, and about the closely connected question of the party’s internal disputes. The Comintern is here castrated. Orders from Moscow? Instructions? Intervention? One can see Klugmann’s sad smile as, half melancholy and half amused at the critics’ cynicism, he portrays the Comintern and its Russian masters and paymasters as a rather jolly, helpful bunch, who had the true interests of the British workers at heart. When, that is, he bothers to mention the Comintern at all.

The names of its leading members, apart from Lenin, cannot for the most part be given, since they later perished in Stalin’s purges or were otherwise disposed of, and their present status is doubtful. Thus we are told that ‘many of the leading Soviet revolutionaries of the day’ (I, pp 216-17) wrote for the party’s monthly journal, Communist Review; but we are not told who they were. [4] It is unlucky for Klugmann that the ‘Zinoviev letter’ affair forces him to name the still unluckier Zinoviev — though even then he cannot bring himself to admit that Zinoviev was at that time President of the Comintern Executive. Klugmann’s otherwise very detailed account of the party reorganisation in 1922-23 makes no reference to the Comintern Commission, appointed to investigate the British CP; nor to the Commission’s failure to arrive in Britain; nor to a certain Comrade Peet’s successful trip to the Continent to ‘seek out the commission’ and bring it home with him; nor to its subsequent ‘exhaustive inquiries into the whole of the party’s affairs'; nor to the special meeting of the Comintern Executive, held in Moscow in February 1922 to discuss the British party’s problems, attended by its Chairman Arthur MacManus (whose ashes rest in the Kremlin wall). [5]

Klugmann claims that the change of leadership ‘in 1922’, ‘far from being... the imposition by the Communist International of a new leadership on the British party, was much rather the reverse’ (I, p 212). (If this means anything at all, it means that the British party imposed a new leadership on the Comintern: a novel suggestion.) But what about the change in the summer of 1923, not 1922, when the British party’s entire Central Committee set sail for Moscow to confer with the Comintern for the best part of a month? Did not the Central Committee’s organisational report to the next party congress (Manchester, May 1924) speak of changes ‘insisted upon by the Presidium of the Comintern'? [6] (According to Klugmann (II, p 349), the Comintern Executive did not have a Presidium to do any insisting; this is an outrageous error.) Only one passing and exceedingly uninformative reference is made to the role of the official Comintern representatives in Britain, Michael Borodin ('George Brown’) and D Petrovsky ('AJ Bennet’), and they are not named. [7] Not least, no reference whatever is made to the British party leaders’ sudden decision, in the summer of 1924, to oppose ‘Trotskyism’: a decision taken without the membership being consulted, after the Central Committee had heard a report from Petrovsky on the controversy in the Russian party, [8] and only four months after the party’s journals had been presenting Trotsky’s case with scrupulous fairness. So when Klugmann, towards the end of the second volume, at last brings himself to record the British party’s anti-Trotsky resolutions of November 1924, May-June 1925 and August 1926 — the discussions within the Russian CP and the Comintern having been mysteriously ‘brought to the attention of the British party’ (II, p 327) — he writes, misleadingly, as if this had been the start of the struggle against ‘Trotskyism’ in Britain. No mention of Petrovsky’s report. No mention of the way the party Executive condemned Trotsky’s The Lessons of October (1924) without having read more than a summary of it — or the way the inimitable Andrew Rothstein told those who objected to this hasty decision that ‘they have a terrible deal to learn yet before they become real Communists’. No mention of Rothstein’s reference to Lenin’s so-called ‘Testament’ as ‘a gross forgery’, or of R Page Arnot’s statement that the Trotsky opposition in Russia was confined to a few students and of no interest to the Russian workers. [9]

* * *

One need not agree with all or even part of Trotsky’s early critique of Stalinism to object to Klugmann’s account of how it was received in the British party. The point is not who proved right in the controversy but how the British leaders handled it. They swallowed, or pretended to swallow, everything the Russian leaders told them. They passed virtually overnight from fulsome praise of Trotsky to wholesale condemnation, and they did so before enough evidence was available to enable any responsible student of politics to make up his mind. Here we have the earliest example of Stalinist methods inside the British CP. There are of course countless later examples, many of which are still more shameful and, no doubt, of more pressing current importance. But here was how it began. Here was the first occasion on which Moscow took snuff and the British leaders obediently sneezed. It is obviously of the greatest interest to students of British working-class history to examine this first example in some detail. But Klugmann conceals so much and distorts so much that his book, on this as on so many other aspects of his subject, is practically valueless to the serious student.

Thus he dismisses Trotsky’s article on ‘Problems of the British Labour Movement’, published in the Communist International magazine in 1926, as presenting ‘a picture of a helpless Communist Party’ and containing ‘an acutely sectarian approach to the left in the labour movement’ (II, p 327, n 5) — though no less an authority than R Palme Dutt was to repeat Trotsky’s criticisms at length, if without acknowledgment, in the September 1926 Labour Monthly, though similar criticisms of the ‘Left’ group on the TUC General Council were contained in the Comintern’s June 1926 ‘Theses on the British General Strike’, and though Trotsky’s ‘sectarian approach’ was as the cooing of doves compared with the ‘social-fascist’ terminology to be adopted by the CP from 1929 to 1933.

* * *

One can sympathise with the Official Historian. If he were to devote more than a page to the Trotsky controversy, he could hardly avoid retailing some highly embarrassing stories. Here is one that has escaped his net. Trotsky’s Lenin (English translation, 1925) was condemned in the Labour Monthly as ‘the book of a sick and neurotic man... as pathetic a book as was ever unwisely given to the world’, and in the Communist Review as ‘a complete failure’ — whereupon JF Horrabin pointed out that the only section of the book yet published in the British press had been featured as the star item in the previous July’s Labour Monthly, edited by Dutt, ‘but that was before the party ukase against Trotsky had gone forth; so that, presumably, its poor quality was not apparent to faithful Communists at that time’. Horrabin went on to remark that ‘some folks — on certain subjects — do their thinking to order’. [10]

How an historian of British Communism treats the Trotsky controversy of the 1920s is a touchstone of his integrity. Klugmann’s page on this topic falls below the standard, low as it is, of the rest of his book.

* * *

As for domestic disputes, Klugmann omits them whenever he can; and when he cannot, he glosses over them by choosing the less outspoken contributions to controversies and parading these as if he had done all that scholarship requires. For example, he refers in a footnote (I, p 325) to criticisms of the leadership made by A Hawkins and EW Cant early in 1924, but omits JT Murphy’s complaint about the lack of discussion in the party and TA Jackson’s still more trenchant and prescient words:

Is an ignorant membership necessary to the working of the plan of organisation...? ... Our job is only to carry out all instructions at the double, and stand to attention until the next order comes... This... is... the sort of party that seems to be desired by many who have had a hand in the process of reorganisation during the past 16 months. [11]

And that, of course, was the sort of party they got: a party of yes-men, doing their thinking to order, rubber-stamping the decisions of whoever happened to be in power in the Kremlin with such alacrity that, by 1926, Thälmann could note (Inprecorr, 17 March 1926) that it was the one major party that had no differences with the Comintern Executive, while Stalin himself could praise it as ‘one of the best sections of the Communist International’. [12]

* * *

In his second volume, Klugmann’s main concern is to glorify the British Communist Party’s contribution to the 1926 General Strike. His chapter on this topic runs, with appendices, to 140 pages. He admits there were weaknesses in the party’s political appeals and statements during the strike, but he finds them ‘overwhelmingly correct’. As for its practical activity, that was nothing short of ‘magnificent’ (II, p 193).

Validating this claim causes the Official Historian some embarrassment. He has to show that the Communists were the most active, energetic, courageous, self-sacrificing and altogether magnificent members of the various local committees that sprang up during the strike. But he has to do so without offending non-Communist readers, who may be aware that a certain number of non-Communists also organised, picketed and got themselves arrested and sent to prison. So he hops gingerly from one foot to another. On the one hand, ‘the Communist Party had pioneered the campaign for many of the forms of action which became essential parts of the activity of the most effective strike committees and Councils of Action’. On the other hand, ‘no one should attempt to paint the tremendous apparatus of strike committees and Councils of Action... as the monopoly of the Communists’. On the one hand, ‘Communists were everywhere in the most active mass pickets, editing and distributing bulletins, manning key positions in the strike committees and Councils of Action’, and ‘Communist Party members were initiators, organisers, activists’ on ‘many of the best’ of the Councils of Action in London. On the other hand, ‘thousands and tens of thousands of non-Communist miners and other militant trade unionists, ILPers, members of Constituency Labour Parties, helped to form and man the Councils of Action’. [13]

Klugmann resolves his dilemma, as best he can, by calling for ‘much more research to pin down the specific positions held by Communist Party members... in each particular committee’. But this concession to scholarship does not satisfy the party patriot; despite the lack of research, the CP’s ‘vanguard’ role has to be asserted:

Though much more research still needs to be carried out, it would seem that in very many of the Councils of Action which were most militant and most effective in their activity... Communists participated, often in leading positions. (II, p 149)

‘Would seem’ — ‘very many’ — ‘often’ — such woolliness demonstrates that Klugmann simply does not know the relative contributions made by members of various working-class parties to rank-and-file activity in the 1926 strike. Where he is able to give statistics, the CP contribution is seen to have been somewhat less than superhuman. The Lanarkshire Council of Action had a Communist chairman and seven other Communists amongst its 40 members. In Battersea there were ten Communists on a Council of Action of 124 and four on the executive of seven. In Stepney there were four Communists on a council of fifteen. And so forth. Klugmann estimates that over 1000 Communists were arrested during the strike; two in five of those arrested, in other words, were CP members.

It would be idle to deny that British Communists worked very hard and made many sacrifices during the General Strike. But this is not the essential point Klugmann is making. He is seeking to show that the Communists were, as a body, politically wiser than any other organisation. For his account to carry conviction, he has to omit the large amount of evidence that the party as a whole ‘failed to play the role in the General Strike which most people, friends and foes alike, had expected it would play’. [14] The first detailed CP analysis of the strike, by JT Murphy (soon to be expelled), recognised that its start had caught the party by surprise. According to Laski, writing a few months after the strike, ‘the Communists played practically no part at all’. On the strike’s seventh day (10 May 1926), Hamilton Fyfe wrote in his diary: ‘The Communists have... kept very quiet... They have sunk out of sight.’ [15]

A few months after the strike, EH Brown, a member of the party Executive, admitted that ‘our factory groups were weak and did not function properly during the General Strike’, while ‘in some districts the groups stopped functioning altogether’. [16] George Hardy, another leading Communist, declares in his memoirs that ‘the Councils of Action, with a few exceptions, functioned only in a limited way’. P Braun, a Comintern functionary, admitted that the party had not believed in the possibility of the General Council’s calling off the struggle; the party, he added, ‘did not do all it should have done to warn the workers against betrayal and to make betrayal impossible’. And Murphy wrote in 1934 that the party ‘tried unavailingly to stem the return to work’, but ‘held no decisive positions’ which would have made that possible. [17]

All this Klugmann ignores, for he is interested in perpetuating a legend, not in establishing the facts.

* * *

By the sly irony of history, Klugmann’s first volume appeared a few weeks after the British Communists and their daily paper, greatly daring and not without anguish and internal opposition, broke with the Comintern tradition of unquestioning acceptance of every Soviet word, thought and deed. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was too much for even them to stomach; and those members and ex-members who thirteen years ago were calling for a more independent stance have had the pleasure of seeing Pravda’s London correspondent chiding the Morning Star for its pro-Czechoslovak coverage and its doubts about the impartiality of Soviet journalists (The Times, 17 September 1968). The British Communist Party has evidently changed since 1956. It has changed still more since 1920.

What is left today of the revolutionary doctrine and revolutionary enthusiasm of those 3000 or so members of the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, and the other groups and grouplets that gathered under the Comintern banner? How much in its present-day language and activities would they recognise, those stalwarts, a third of them unemployed, who were prepared to work for their party for thirty bob a week, who took arrest and imprisonment in their stride, who regarded Lenin’s Russia as a beacon of hope for suffering humanity? Precious little, is the answer. Of the ‘three fundamental principles’ on which the groups amalgamated, one, the dictatorship of the proletariat, was long ago silently omitted from the party programme. Another, ‘soviets’ as organs of working-class struggle and power, was likewise repudiated long ago. [18] The third principle, affiliation to the Communist International, was formally abandoned in 1943, when the moribund Comintern apparatus was finally wound up. But only a political innocent would deny that the Comintern tradition of finding out what the Russian comrades wanted doing, doing it at the double, and standing to attention till the next order came, died hard at No 16 King Street.

Now that this principle, too, has finally been abandoned, in practice as well as theory, it is difficult to see what role remains for the British Communist Party. No longer a revolutionary organisation, no longer the local apologist for the Socialist Sixth of the World, overtaken on the Left by youthful militancy, regarded by politically aware young people as a joke, unable to face its past record with any degree of honesty, dolefully contemplating a future in which it could easily follow the ILP into oblivion — why on earth should it not wipe the slate clean by dissolving itself? This is the logic of its backing Czechoslovakia against the Soviet Union. Klugmann’s book is clearly part of yet another effort to rally the ranks, furbish the party’s image — primarily amongst its own members and show how essential the CPGB was, is, and always will be.

* * *

For the Official Historian is not so much concerned with history as with current politics. His history is basically a running polemic against his party’s present-day critics. His insistence that the party ‘was not in any sense a foreign creation’ is the key phrase in his first two volumes. This is the thesis he sustains for over 700 pages; but he can sustain it only by telling half the story. It is true enough, so far as it goes, that the CPGB was home-grown, in the sense that it developed out of existing organisations in this country; but to state this without qualification is to sidestep the Comintern’s derailing of a whole generation of revolutionary socialists in Britain. So the Comintern is systematically played down. We are given Hamlet without the King and Queen and Prince.

Thanks to the Comintern, international solidarity was twisted into bureaucratic docility; revolutionary zeal was transformed into a sort of Left-Wing Blimpishness; and Marxism was reduced to a set of formulas learnt by rote. This process began in the period Klugmann covers, and it is his aim to conceal its beginnings from his readers. That he fails, despite all the omissions and evasions, is the sole redeeming feature of these impudent volumes.


1. James Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Volume I: Formation and Early Years, 1919-1924; Volume II: 1925-1927: The General Strike (Lawrence and Wishart, 63s, 70s). Allen Hutt, ‘How Not To Write Communist History’, Labour Monthly, XIX (1937), p 382, reviewing Tom Bell, The British Communist Party: A Short History (Lawrence and Wishart, 1937). For statements by the Editorial Board (’the tone of this was far too sharp and personal’) and CP Secretariat (’this book should not be considered as a history of the party’), see Labour Monthly, XIX (1937), p 453.

2. James Klugmann, From Trotsky To Tito (Lawrence and Wishart, 1951), p 157.

3. This was the short-lived Daily Communist (Glasgow), the date of whose first issue Klugmann gives variously as 11 November 1922 (I, p 189, n 4) and 10 November (I, p 218).

4. From its first issue (May 1921) to the end of 1924, the Communist Review ran five articles by Zinoviev, four by Trotsky, three each by Bukharin and Radek, and one by Stalin.

5. Report of the Executive Committee of the CPGB (1922), as quoted by LJ Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development until 1929 (MacGibbon and Kee, 1966), p 75. Macfarlane’s useful account should be supplemented, for the period 1920-26, by two articles of ‘Joseph Redman’ (Brian Pearce): ‘British Communist History’, Labour Review, II (1957), pp 106-10; ‘The Early Years of the CPGB’, Labour Review, III (1958), pp 11-22.

6. Speeches and Documents of the Sixth (Manchester) Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain (1924), p 51. The changes ‘insisted upon’ (my italics — PF) included the reorganisation of the Political Bureau, with Pollitt and William Gallacher replacing JT Murphy and Bob Stewart, and the addition of Arthur Horner and Wal Hannington as full members and JR Campbell and J Walton Newbold as substitute members.

7. Petrovsky’s British wife, Rose Cohen, disappeared in Moscow during the 1930s. I cannot say whether the British party leaders tried, then or subsequently, to find out what happened to her or what she was accused of. According to a prominent woman member of the CP, ‘she must have opened her big mouth too wide...’.

8. Cf Workers Weekly, 6 June 1924.

9. Workers Weekly, 23 January 1925. These statements were made at the celebrated London ‘aggregate’ (general membership meeting) of 17 January 1925, where an amendment regretting the party leaders’ hasty vote against Trotsky was defeated by a considerable majority. This not unimportant meeting is dealt with by Klugmann in forty words.

10. WN Ewer, Labour Monthly, VII (1925), p 2; Arthur MacManus, Communist Review, VI (1925-26), p 47; The Plebs, XVII (1925), p 214.

11. Communist Review, IV (1923-24), p 539. Tommy Jackson, a formidable theoretician, lecturer and activist of the period, is virtually ignored in Klugmann’s book. One looks in vain, for instance, in the accounts of the party’s unsuccessful applications for affiliation to the Labour Party, for Jackson’s often-quoted words about taking the Labour Party leaders by the hand ‘as a preliminary to taking them by the throat!’ (The Communist, 25 March 1922, p 8).

12. JV Stalin, Works, Volume VIII (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954), p 173.

13. Cf II, pp 190-91: ‘The tens of thousands of “unknown soldiers” of the class war who... manned the pickets, led the Councils of Action, printed and distributed the bulletins, were members of the Labour Party, of the ILP, non-party trade unionists, as well as Communists.’ Pruning the Official History of such repetitions would, I estimate, have reduced its length by some 25 per cent.

14. ‘Joseph Redman’ (Brian Pearce), Labour Review, III (1958), pp 11-12. I am indebted to this article for several of the quotations which follow.

15. JT Murphy, The Political Meaning of the Great Strike (1926), p 80; Harold J Laski, Communism (1927), p 195; Hamilton Fyfe, Behind the Scenes of the Great Strike (1926), pp 68-69.

16. As quoted by O Piatnitsky, Communist International, IV (1927), p 175.

17. George Hardy, Those Stormy Years (1956), p 188; Labour Monthly, IX (1927), pp 25-26; JT Murphy, Preparing for Power (1934), p 235.

18. In The British Road to Socialism (1951), a document which held it slanderous to suggest that the party aimed at setting up ‘Soviets’ in Britain. The party’s 1935 programme had been entitled For Soviet Britain!, but this did not prevent Stalin’s personally insisting — as I was informed in 1956 by a then member of the CP’s Political Committee — on the insertion of this oblique repudiation into the draft of the 1951 programme.