Workers Hammer No. 221
The struggle to forge Communist parties
Britain 1919: class struggle, racism and Labour reformism
The following article is based on remarks made by an ICL comrade in the discussion following Jacob Zumoff’s presentation at the Historical Materialism conference in London in November 2012.
The intervention of the Comintern into the newly founded Communist Party in the United States that provided a corrective on the black question was part of a broader effort to impart the lessons of the Bolshevik revolution to the fledgling Communist parties internationally. The American party had the considerable advantage over its British counterpart of having been forged from among the most vibrant elements of the left at that time, including many immigrants, syndicalists and others who formed the left wing of the socialist movement. The Comintern sought to regroup into its ranks those sections of the working-class movement that were breaking from the Second International during and after World War I. In Britain, the task was to win those elements who rejected the treacherous Labour leaders to the concept of a Leninist party.
The year 1919 saw a proletarian upheaval in Britain that shook capitalist rule to its foundations. Soldiers returning from the trenches of the interimperialist slaughter faced economic slump, poor housing and a scramble for a dwindling number of jobs. The demobilised soldiers included a number of young black men from Britain’s former colonies, who often bore the brunt of vile racism. Asians, blacks and other minorities were scapegoated, including by Labour leaders, for the rising unemployment level that was caused by the capitalist system.
In 1919 Claude McKay, a young black man who grew up in Jamaica, moved from the US to London where he lived until 1921. By the time he arrived in London McKay was a committed socialist and radical poet. He was appalled by the level of racism he encountered, not least among Labour Party and trade union leaders whom he had previously admired. George Bernard Shaw, the person McKay most wanted to meet in London, saw fit to ask why he chose to become a poet rather than a boxer.
McKay was in London during a grotesque racist propaganda campaign led by ED Morel, a supporter of the Independent Labour Party who campaigned against the enslavement of blacks in the Congo under Belgian King Leopold. Morel was incensed by the presence of black troops in the French army of occupation in the German Ruhr following World War II. The Daily Herald published Morel’s racist tirade under the grotesque headline: “BLACK SCOURGE IN EUROPE” and railed about “Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine”. An expanded version of this filth was distributed as a pamphlet to delegates attending the annual Trades Union Congress in 1920.
McKay wrote a letter to the Daily Herald protesting Morel’s campaign. But the letter was returned to him by the editor of that time, George Lansbury, a prominent Labour “left” figure who assured McKay that he was not personally prejudiced against black people, but refused to publish his letter. Lansbury led the Labour council that was elected in 1920 in Poplar, east London. To this day “Poplarism” remains a model for the reformist left, who foster the illusion that the interests of the working class can be served by administering the capitalist state at local council level. (See “When Militant ran Liverpool: Down with executive offices of the capitalist state!” Workers Hammer no 210, Spring 2010.)
In the letter that Lansbury refused to publish McKay said:
“I do not protest because I happen to be a negro
I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between the whites and the many members of my race, boycotted economically and socially, who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European War.”
— Quoted in Staying Power, Peter Fryer (1984)
McKay is referring to a shameful campaign in the ports by leaders of the seafarers unions to exclude immigrant seamen from jobs on British ships. Many seamen drawn from overseas — Indian “lascars” as well as Chinese, Arab and other sailors — had been employed on British merchant ships during the war, when British crews were enlisted in the Royal Navy. With the demobilisation of the armed forces, the competition for jobs intensified. Prominent among the leaders of the anti-immigrant campaign in Glasgow was Manny Shinwell, who went on to become a Labour MP. Effectively, the seafarers unions — including the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, the British Seafarers’ Union (of which Shinwell was Glasgow branch leader) and the National Union of Ships’ Stewards, Cooks, Butchers and Bakers — excluded non-British sailors and in some cases campaigned for their deportation by the state. The chauvinist campaign by Labour leaders led to violent racist attacks on immigrant areas by enraged mobs in Glasgow, Cardiff, London, Liverpool, Tyneside and other port cities.
Shinwell’s anti-immigrant tradition was revived in 2009 when strikes and protests on construction sites erupted under the slogan “British jobs for British workers” (later “local jobs for local workers”). These were fully supported by the Socialist Party, and given back-handed support by the Socialist Workers Party. The Spartacist League/Britain denounced these strikes as poison to the interests of the multiethnic working class, pointing to the necessity for “a fight for jobs for all, through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, and to undertake a union organising drive”, including low-paid immigrant workers (“Down with chauvinist campaign against foreign workers!” Workers Hammer no 208, Autumn 2009).
The newspaper that did publish McKay’s protest against Lansbury’s Daily Herald was Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought. McKay later said that he could not have survived a year in London if not for the fact that he was an active communist. In a letter to Leon Trotsky in 1922, McKay recalled: “I was working at that time in London in a communist group. Our group provided the club of Negro soldiers with revolutionary newspapers and literature, which had nothing in common with the daily papers that are steeped in race prejudice.” McKay was a supporter of the Workers Socialist Federation, led by Pankhurst, which was anti-racist and tried to attract to its ranks black soldiers who ended up in London after the war. Pankhurst was battle-hardened in the fight against chauvinism, having led the left wing of the women’s suffrage movement before WWI. McKay himself wrote that Pankhurst “was always jabbing her hat pin into the hides of smug, slack labor leaders” (McKay, A Long Way From Home, published by HBJ, 1970).
The strike wave of 1919 that swept the cities of Glasgow, London and Belfast was part of a post WWI wave of proletarian struggles throughout Europe. Workers of Glasgow’s “Red Clydeside” mobilised behind the engineers, who struck for a 40-hour week. With workers battling police in the city streets, the government sent troops to Glasgow to restore order, but it was an open question whether the soldiers would have attacked the strikers, or sympathised with them. In the event the troops were not tested: the strike leaders were arrested and the engineering strikes were settled. However the threat remained of a major class confrontation between the government and the Triple Alliance — the unions representing miners, transport and rail workers. The treachery of the union misleaders was shown when prime minister Lloyd George called their bluff by pointing out that a joint strike by these three powerful unions would, in effect, pose the question of taking power. “Are you ready to take the power?” the prime minister cleverly asked these fakers. As miners leader Robert Smillie remarked, from that moment “we were beaten and we knew we were”.
The Communist International urged the formation of a unified Communist party from among the best elements of the British far left. These included revolutionary syndicalists like John Maclean and Willie Gallacher who led heroic proletarian struggles during WWI. These struggles were waged not only in opposition to wartime restrictions and state repression but also in defiance of the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders who opposed strikes as damaging to the “war effort”. Yet the Communist Party of Great Britain that was founded in 1920 did not include the most militant, internationalist elements of the socialist movement. Thus it lacked a leadership core that was experienced in fighting the politics of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. The Labour Party cynically positioned itself to contain the revolutionary upsurge, not least by adopting a formal commitment to “socialism” which was enshrined in its constitution in 1918. Lenin wrote his 1920 pamphlet, “Left-Wing” Communism — An Infantile Disorder to help win over the left-wing leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst to an understanding of the need for tactics to win the mass of the working class away from Labour reformism.
As we observed in a seminal article on the origins of British Communism, the best revolutionary elements did not make the transition from syndicalism to Leninism, and the party that was founded in 1920 was ineffective in its strategic task of breaking workers from Labour reformism. The article noted:
“This study of the British [Socialist Labour Party] illuminates in one important, concrete case the historic problem of forging Communist parties in the West out of the subjectively revolutionary elements in the pre-1917 socialist and anarcho-syndicalist movements. It also adds appreciably to our understanding of why the Communist Party in Britain was stillborn. The sterility of the CPGB and absence of a real Leninist tradition in Britain have been key negative conditions for the complete hegemony of Labourite reformism over the workers movement right down to the present.”
— “British Communism Aborted”, Spartacist [English language edition] no 36-37, Winter 1985-86
The article “Britain 1919: class struggle, racism and Labour reformism” (Workers Hammer no 221, Winter 2012-2013) incorrectly stated that the French military occupation of the German Ruhr took place following World War II. It took place after World War I.