5. The Late Twenties and Early Thirties

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

by Mark Shipway

5 The Late Twenties and Early Thirties


After the issue dated 14 June 1924, the Workers' Dreadnought ceased to appear. For several years this weekly newspaper had kept its readers in touch with worldwide political developments and had published the views of the most radical international communist groups. In July 1921, after Sylvia Pankhurst had been censured by the CPGB for publicly criticising the conduct of party members belonging to the Poplar Board of Guardians, she defended her actions by arguing that only by criticism and discussion can a knowledge and understanding of Communist tactics be hammered out by the Communist Party and communicated to the masses'.1 It was in this same spirit that after Pankhurst's expulsion from the CPGB the Dreadnought continued to publish information, analyses and debates about which most workers would have remained unaware had they relied on the pro-Comintern publications for enlightenment. At the same time the Dreadnought group's political views were thoroughly radicalised by the impact of the political events that it reported, and by its contacts with revolutionary groups in other countries. In short, during the period of its greatest intellectual vitality and creativity the Dreadnought group was alive to, and sustained by the controversies of the international communist movement and an unprecedentedly high level of class struggle. The disappearance of the Workers' Dreadnought was, therefore, both a sign and a consequence of the ebbing of the great wave of radical actions and ideas which swept over most of Europe after the 1917 Russian revolution.

By 1921 most revolutionaries had reluctantly begun to acknowledge that their confident expectations of widespread revolutions, fuelled by 1917 and its aftermath, were not going to be fulfilled in the immediate future after all. When the Glasgow Communist Group brought out the first (and only) issue of the Red Commune in February 1921, for example, it remarked: 'Some will think that we could not have chosen a more inopportune moment . . . Unemployment is spreading throughout the country. Misery, sorrow, poverty, inability to sustain the propaganda exists everywhere. The Communist movement is divided into factions and fractions.'2 During the same month the Workers' Dreadnought made a similarly pessimistic assessment of the situation when it warned that 'it would be folly to pretend that the hour is fully revolutionary'.3 Nor were the British anti-parliamentarians' comrades abroad any more sanguine. In the summer of 1922 the Russian anti-parliamentarians expressed the view that 'the situation of the Proletariat throughout the world is at present an extremely difficult one' , 4 while the KAPD at its Fifth Special Conference also concluded that 'the revolution for the time being is at a standstill'.5

The fading prospects of revolution naturally caused a steady haemorrhage of members from the anti-parliamentary communist groups in Britain. In the first six months of its existence (that is, between June and December 1920) the CB(BSTI) had attracted a membership of around 600, organised in more than 30 separate branches, two-thirds of them located outside London. When the Dreadnought group tried to set up the Communist Workers' Party in February 1922, however, it managed to established only three branches outside London, in Sheffield, Plymouth and Portsmouth. This illustrates the drastic loss of support suffered by the Dreadnought group in the space of less than two years.

The anti-parliamentarians aligned with Guy Aldred and the Spur were similarly few in number. When the Glasgow Communist Group's headquarters were raided following the publication of the 'seditious' Red Commune in February 1921, the police 'took possession of 51 membership cards, some bearing the name of Glasgow Anarchist Group and some Glasgow Communist Group' (the two groups had united at the end of 1916).6 This figure ties in with John McGovern's recollection that in 1921 'a number of us in Shettleston formed a branch of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation . . . We started off with between fifty and sixty members'.7 From the outset the APCF's strength lay where it would always reside: in Glasgow and the surrounding areas. However, it would not be unreasonable to reckon that the APCF, like the Dreadnought group, also suffered a steady loss of membership after the start of the 1920s.

When the Workers' Dreadnought ceased to appear after mid-1924, therefore, it was because Sylvia Pankhurst and her comrades had finally succumbed to the intense pressures imposed by trying to sustain communist propaganda during a period in which their efforts were receiving practically no encouragement in the form of support from the working class.


Two historians of the German left communist movement, Authier and Barrot, offer this assessment of Sylvia Pankhurst:

In her period as a communist, she always based herself on experience. Her radical positions were not based on intellectual reasoning nor on reference to the traditions of the movement, but always relied on her own personal experiences. Her evolution is interesting insofar as it was not at all an intellectual development. She approached communism under the pressure of events and abandoned it when it declined as a practical movement.8

Raymond Challinor expresses a similar opinion: Pankhurst 'was never a theoretician, with a firm grasp of Marxism; her significance came from a tremendous courage and dedication, a total commitment to the struggle of working people'.9 The implication of these observations is that if the struggle of working people declined then Pankhurst's activities would focus on other issues; or that if working-class struggle became less radical, so too would Pankhurst's political views.

This proposition is borne out by the nature of Pankhurst's activities after 1924, when her publications covered subjects as diverse as national independence for India,10 the adoption of 'Interlingua' as a common world language to promote international understanding and friendship,11 translations of the work of the Rumanian nationalist poet Mihail Eminescu,12 and (with the approval of, among others, her one-time enemy Arthur Henderson) a proposal for a universal free maternity service.13

After writing historical accounts of The Suffragette Movement (1931) and of her activities on The Home Front in London's East End during the First World War (1932), opposition to fascism became Pankhurst's main political concern. Following the Italian invasion and conquest of Abyssinia in 1935-6, she began publication of a newspaper called the New Times and Ethiopia News to champion the Abyssinian cause, and during the Second World War she gave her wholehearted support to the Allies' fight against the Axis powers. Pankhurst's support for the Second World War is evidence of the unbridgeable gulf which by then had separated her both from her own revolutionary past and from the remaining anti-parliamentary communists, who, as we will see in Chapter 8, remained prepared to suffer imprisonment for opposing capitalist war.


The disappearance of the Dreadnought left the APCF as the sole surviving anti-parliamentary communist organisation in Britain. This chapter is mainly concerned with the APCF's continued propagation and occasional elaboration of the basic elements of antiparliamentarism developed in the earlier period. To begin with, however, it would be useful to outline the circumstances in which the APCF was active during the years 1925-35.

Several of the trends which had emerged during 192()-1 continued.14 Wage rates and the cost of living both fell slowly but steadily until the end of 1933, when they gradually began to rise again. This meant that on average living standards rose for those in full-time employment -- but this is a crucial qualification, since short-time working was widespread and unemployment rates were high: 10.4 per cent of insured workers were unemployed in 1929, 16.1 per cent in 1930, 21.3 per cent in 1931, and 22.1 per cent in 1932.

The debacle of the May 1926 General Strike, and the defeat of the miners' strike in support of which it had been called, had an immediate effect on industrial militancy. In 1927 there were only 308 stoppages of work in all industries (302 in 1928), involving 108 000 workers (124 000 in 1928) with 1.7 million days 'lost' (1.38 million in 1928).

Briefly, this was a period characterised by advantage being taken of the weakened state of 'organised labour' (there was a steady fall in trade union membership), with the introduction of the Trades Disputes Act and the principle of contracting-in for the trade union political levy in 1927; a growth in 'class-collaborationist' ideas, with the 1928 Mond-Turner talks between members of the TUC General Council and leading employers about 'industrial peace', the growth of company unionism in the mining industry, and a right-wing attack on the CPGB-dominated National Minority Movement within trade unions and trades councils; and a turn away from industrial to political action, culminating in the return of a second minority Labour government in 1929.

The world capitalist crisis (1929-33), which covers most of the second half of the period under consideration here, saw a revival of industrial militancy relative to the level to which it had fallen after the General Strike, but this recovery came nowhere near to regaining the levels of the pre-1921 period, and it would be hard to over-emphasise the differences in circumstances between these two periods.

Of these changed circumstances two in particular should be stressed. One concerns the international context. By the end of the 1920s a generation of militant workers had been physically defeated and ideologically disarmed. In Russia the working class faced a dictatorial regime masquerading under the guise of communism, plus increasingly ruthless exploitation to meet the demands of rapid capital accumulation. In Germany revolutionary workers had been crushed by social democracy and now faced the rising threat of Nazism. In Italy Mussolini's fascists had been in power since 1922; the capitalists had extracted their revenge for the biennio rosso ('two red years') of 1919-20. Inspiration from abroad, which -- in the form of the Russian revolution -- had been so important to the development of the post-war revolutionary movement in Britain, was largely absent in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was reflected in the anti-parliamentarians' publications. International news and translations of the texts of groups in other countries had been a vital feature of the Workers' Dreadnought; by comparison there was a dearth of such material in the APCF's Commune. The anti-parliamentary movement's political views became increasingly influenced not by major world-historical events as had been the case in the earlier period, but by essentially local issues such as the Glasgow Green 'free speech fight' in the early I930s (see Chapter 6). Not until the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain in 1936 did the movement in Britain regain something of its former vitality.

The second difference in circumstances concerns changes in the composition and fortunes of the working class in Britain. In this respect the years 1925-35 were typical of a much longer period in that they saw a steady decline in the numbers employed in 'traditional' working-class occupations (such as mining, engineering and shipbuilding) and a rise in the number of workers employed in service industries and 'white-collar' office jobs (such as distributive trades, commerce, banking, insurance and finance, and local government service). At the same time, industries such as mining, engineering and shipbuilding experienced rates of unemployment which were for the most part far above the national average.

Table 5.1 Percentage of workers unemployed (yearly mean), 1925-35

All Coalminers Engineers Shipbuilders workers

1925 11.3 11.5 13.3 33.5

1926 12.5 9.5 15.1 39.5

1927 9.7 19.0 11.8 29.7

1928 10.8 23.6 9.8 24.5

1929 10.4 19.0 9.9 25.3

1930 16.1 20.6 14.2 27.6

1931 21.3 28.4 27.0 51.9

1932 22.1 34.5 29.1 62.0

1933 19.9 33.5 27.4 61.7

1934 16.7 29.7 18.4 51.2

1935 15.5 27.2 13.6 44.4

Source: Department of Employment and Productivity, 1971.

Thus previously militant sections of the working class, and the geographical areas in which they had been concentrated, became centres of high unemployment, dire poverty and demoralisation.


During 1925-35 the anti-parliamentary communists appear to have had three main theoretical preoccupations: an analysis of the state and economy established in Russia after 1917, opposition to parliamentary action and opposition to the Labour Party and trade unionism. We will now examine the APCF's treatment of each of these issues, beginning with Russia.

During 1925 Guy Aldred's bitter quarrel with Emma Goldman and Freedom over the anarchists' criticisms of the Bolshevik regime continued, with Aldred still defending the Bolsheviks. In May 1925, for example, the APCF stated: 'we take our stand by the Soviet Union', and called on the Third International to abandon its opposition to left communism ('a grave error of judgement') so that 'unity of association' between the APCF and the Comintern could be re-established. 15

In November 1925, however, on the occasion of the eighth anniversary of the Russian revolution, the APCF suddenly announced a profound change of view, It denounced the commemoration of the anniversary as a celebration of 'counter-revolution', in which the APCF would not be participating. Instead, it would be thinking of 'our persecuted comrades in Russia' and 'our comrades rotting in Soviet prisons. 16 The reasons behind this bolt from the blue were never explained at the time, but a clue can be found in a pamphlet written by Guy Aldred 20 years later. Recalling that during his quarrel with Goldman and Freedom he had been 'unwilling to believe the allegations of despotism and imprisonments of revolutionists', Aldred admitted that, in retrospect, 'this scepticism was most unjust to the imprisoned and persecuted comrades in Soviet Russia. 17 In the same passage he referred to a book published in America in 1925 by the International Committee for Political Prisoners. This had been reviewed in Freedom after its publication in England in 1926. Endorsed by a score of well-known intellectual sympathisers and fellow-travellers of the Russian regime, it brought to light detailed documentation of the persecution and imprisonment of hundreds of revolutionaries by the Bolsheviks during 1923-4 alone.18 Thus the most likely explanation for the APCF's change of view would appear to be that the amount of trustworthy evidence which had accumulated in corroboration of the anarchists' claims had finally become too great for the anti-parliamentarians to ignore or dispute.

With a zeal typical of converts to a new-found point of view the APCF began to publicise the plight of persecuted revolutionaries in Russia, giving particular attention to the case of Workers' Group member Gabriel Miasnikov, whose cause had first been championed by the Workers' Dreadnought in December 1923.19

The first signs of the APCF's adoption of the Dreadnought's view that capitalism existed in Russia also began to appear. In the November 1925 Commune the Communist Party of Great Britain was said to stand not for 'the emancipation of the proletariat either in Russia or in Britain, but for bureaucracy, capitalism and militarism The CPGB's conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat really meant 'the rise to authority of a new ruling class, and not the end of class society'. The APCF's conclusion as that 'not Communism, not Socialism, but capitalism and militarism, exactly as in Britain, now exists in Russia'. 20The same point of view was repeated two months later. Warning the working class that 'The Communist Party . . . has nothing in common with Communism or the working-class struggle', the Commune predicted that before long the 'Moscow Janus' would be 'dismissed with scorn and loathing from its place of proletarian honour by the enraged and enlightened workers of the world. 21

The APCF's explanations of how capitalism had emerged from a revolution originally hailed as the inauguration of communism echoed the Fourth International's analysis of 1917 as a dual revolution -- part proletarian-communist, part peasant-bourgeois -- in which peasant interests had eventually triumphed. In 1926 the Commune argued:

Lenin sought to found the Communist order not on the interests of the industrial proletariat, but on an attempted combination of these interests with those of the peasants. This policy gave birth to the question how far, politically and economically, one could meet the demands of the peasants without deviating from the real aim of Socialism or Communism, without estranging the workers, the real power of Sovietism. The Anti-Parliamentary answer is that the interests of the peasants cannot be reconciled with those of the industrial proletariat.22

References in the APCF's press to the Bolsheviks' 'abandonment of Communism in 1921' 23(the date that the NEP was introduced) followed on from this analysis.

In 1934 the first part of a revised edition of Aldred's 1920 pamphlet on Bakunin was published by comrades of Aldred in France. In this work Aldred referred to 'the counter-revolutionary fallacy that an agrarian country can build a socialist state surrounded by capitalist nations', 24 thus echoing two explanations previously put forward by the Dreadnought: that the material preconditions for socialism in terms of the development of the productive forces had been absent in Russia ('an agrarian country'), and that the Bolsheviks had been forced to compromise with capitalism because of the absence of successful working-class uprisings elsewhere in the world.

Further light on Aldred's explanation of the 'reversion to capitalism' in Russia was shed by one of the crucial differences between the original and revised texts. In the 1920 version Aldred had argued forcefully in favour of the need for working-class dictatorship during the post-revolutionary transitional period. In the 1934 version, however, Aldred added a significant caveat: the workers' dictatorship had to be 'the living power of action of life in revolt; not the dead power of decrees and a new state authority'. In Russia this living power of action of life in revolt -- in other words the working class's autonomous activity -- had been overpowered and defeated by the Bolsheviks, and 'a dictatorship established on the basis of the worker's surrender to an external central bureaucracy'.25 The Bolshevik-controlled state, rather than the Russian workers themselves, had established its own direction and dictatorship over all economic, political and social activity.

As a corollary of this point of view the APCF developed an analysis of Russia as a state-directed capitalist economy. In 1928 it was pointed out in the Commune that 'The State of Labourers and Farmers, the Workers' and Peasants' Republic, owns the means of production in opposition to the workers themselves'. Thus socialism did not exist in Russia, since the fundamental categories of capitalism had not been superseded: 'The Soviet state-labourer remains a wage-labourer. Industry brought to the State is based on surplus value robbery, the extortion of labour-energy, and liquidation of industrial power. The State Communist Party of Russia has destroyed Sovietism and prepared the way for private capitalistic production.'26

The APCF also reassessed its view of the Third International. In 1927 the Commune published a leaflet written by the Group of International Communists (GIC) in Holland about a recent agreement between the German and Russian governments, under which Germany was allowed to manufacture aeroplanes, munitions and poison gas on Russian territory. Observing that the German Communist Party's Reichstag deputies had supported the agreement, the Dutch group's leaflet concluded: 'The Third International is only a weapon in the hands of the new Russian capitalist class . . . under the mask of Communism, the interests of RUSSIAN CAPITALISM are being advanced and protected.' The Commune commented: 'We endorse every word of this manifesto of our Dutch Anti-Parliamentarian comrades. The Third International represents the counter-Revolution, and the Moscow "Communists" stand for anti-Socialism, pure and simple.'27

Thus the APCF had adopted a critique of Russia and the Third International closely resembling that pioneered by the Dreadnought group. Both saw the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921 as the decisive turning-point in the fortunes of the revolution, after which Russia had become a state capitalist regime. Both explained the failure to establish communism in Russia by reference to the same basic factors: the insufficient development of the productive forces; the predominance of a peasant class intent on acquiring petit-bourgeois property rights; the inability of the working class to establish its own control over all aspects of the economy, politics and society; the self-seeking ambitions of the Bolshevik party, which had acted in opposition to the working class; and the fatal isolation of the revolution within Russia's boundaries. Finally, both groups came to regard the Third International as the tool of the Russian capitalist state's counter-revolutionary foreign policy.

Despite criticising the Comintern in such terms the APCF's federalist inclinations in organisational matters, along with the international decline of the revolutionary movement, caused the group to take no part in trying to build a new International. The Commune talked of 'the relative non-importance and non-usefulness of International Congresses'; it supported the idea of forming a new International 'for propaganda purposes . . . but not as a practical organisation of action, issuing decrees, and passing binding resolutions'.28 In 1927 some of the surviving left communist groups in Germany and Holland made renewed contact with the APCF and tried to forge closer links, but to no avail. In 1933 the secretary of the Fourth (Communist Workers') International complained that 'the British groups have not made any effort to come into closer contact with the comrades here. Although I fully agree that things should not be precipitated, I don't see why international linking should be neglected so obstinately as your groups do.' 29

This section on Russia can be concluded with some remarks about the APCF's attitude towards Trotsky. When the Trotskyist Left Opposition within the Bolshevik party first came to its attention, the APCF described it as a 'worthless sham', since Trotsky had no intention of forming a new organisation to oppose the 'Stalin party of Thermidor', and also because Trotsky had declared his ultimate loyalty to Russia as the 'proletarian fatherland':

This Trotsky Opposition stands, therefore, on the same platform as Stalin, the delivery of shells to the German bourgeoisie, the forming of blocks with the bourgeois States, and the forcing of the toilers of those States to fight with and under the banner of their bourgeoisie, at the instruction of the Third International and the request of the Soviet Union.30

Trotsky's opposition to Stalin was regarded as a power struggle within the ruling class of a capitalist state, while the Trotskyist Opposition's persecution by a state apparatus it had helped to create evoked irony rather than sympathy. The Trotskyists were being hoist by their own petard.31

Nevertheless, when Trotsky was eventually exiled from Russia and forced to move from country to country to avoid offending reluctant hosts or being silenced for ever by Stalin's hired assassins, Guy Aldred stated his support for Trotsky's right to engage in political agitation wherever he chose, and for his right to return to Russia by virtue of his heroic role in the revolution.32 Some anti-parliamentarians also helped to distribute Militant, the newspaper of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the USA,33 and in the 1930s there were occasional moves towards co-operation between the anti-parliamentarians and Trotskyist groups in Britain and America. More often than not, however, such contacts were based on a misunderstanding of Trotsky's views. In 1932, for example, Aldred wrote that the APCF agreed with Trotsky's analysis of Russia, which as they understood it was that 'Socialism does not exist in Russia, and cannot exist there because of the peasant problem within the USSR, and the dictates of the surrounding capitalist nations, with whom the Soviet Union has to trade.'34 The APCF inferred from this that Trotsky regarded Russia as state capitalist. Yet in The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, Trotsky stated: 'The attempt to represent the Soviet bureaucracy as a class of "state capitalists" will obviously not withstand criticism.' In his view, 'the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state' remained 'basically defined' by 'the nationalisation of the land, the means of industrial production. transport and exchange, together with the monopoly of foreign trade'.35 Despite what they may have thought, therefore, the anti-parliamentary communists' view of Russia was completely different from Trotsky's.


Whilst it was falling into line with the critique of Russia formulated earlier by the Dreadnought group, the APCF carried on with the task of propagating the basic principles of anti-parliamentary communism that have been discussed in Part I.

The case against parliamentary action continued to be argued along the lines sketched out previously. According to the APCF, Parliament, as an integral part of the capitalist state, served no interests except those of the ruling class. Its 'only function' was to conserve the private appropriation by the few of the wealth produced by the many . . . No government can sit and talk at Westminster except it serve the interests of its master, High Finance' .36 This capitalist institution could not serve the cause of working-class self-emancipation. As Guy Aldred argued in 1926: 'Parliamentarism . . . can never secure to the wealth-producers the ownership by themselves of the means of production and distribution. Access to the means of life proceeds from direct action. A class-conscious proletariat will emancipate itself by spontaneous action.'37 During the course of its 'spontaneous' revolutionary actions the working class would have to uproot and destroy all the existing institutions of the capitalist state -- such as Parliament -- and create new institutions -- the councils or soviets -- to express its own authority over the rest of society.

The APCF also continued to warn of the reformist, careerist and opportunist snares which would inevitably entrap anyone who participated in parliamentary politics. 'The parliamentary runner seeks not to emancipate the workers but to elevate himself', stated the Commune,38 while Guy Aldred likewise argued: 'A parliamentarian has no principles, and but one purpose: to oust from fame and office another parliamentarian, and so attain place and distinction.'39

Parliamentarism was also rejected as a diversion from the essential tasks of the working class and its revolutionary minorities. This particular argument was summed up most succinctly by a Commune statement: 'A Socialist Proletariat is more important than a Labour House of Commons.'40 Parliamentarism engaged the working class in 'the impossible task of discovering honest representatives to play at capitalist legislation, instead of addressing itself to the Socialist education of the masses'. 41

The view that socialist education and propaganda was a vital precondition of social change revealed the essential difference between parliamentarism and anti-parliamentarism. 'Parliamentarism' was a synonym for any sort of political activity that 'makes the task dependent on the ability of leaders'; 'anti-parliamentarism' encompassed all political activity which 'makes the struggle the task of the workers themselves'.42 Parliamentarism 'empties the proletariat of all power, all authority, all initiative'43 and so had to be opposed, since the working class needed all the power, authority and initiative it could muster if it was to achieve its own liberation. This self emancipatory aspect of working-class revolution was constantly stressed in the APCF's writings, for example by Guy Aldred in his 1929 pamphlet At Grips With War: 'No parliamentary discussion can end war. Only the direct thought and action of the common people can stop war . . . The one hope of world peace is the direct social and individual self-emancipation of the working class from the thraldom, economic and therefore mental and moral of class society.'44 In 1928 Aldred criticised the Socialist Party of Great Britain's view that the working class could use the parliamentary apparatus of the capitalist state for revolutionary purposes, and its apparent reduction of the working class's role in the revolution to the passive act of marking a ballot paper. Aldred reasserted his view: 'The only way to secure the emancipation of the workers is for the workers to take control of the machinery of production and distribution, the economic organisation of life.45 This would not be achieved if the working class relied on leaving everything to the few individuals who stood for or were elected to Parliament. The great mass of the working class had to actively take matters into its own hands where the source of its greatest potential power lay -- on the economic field.

To a large extent this view dictated where the most effective arena for revolutionary activity was thought to lie; hence another of the APCF's reasons for rejecting participation in elections and Parliament: 'It withdraws to the parliamentary arena men and women who should be working and agitating directly amongst the workers on the field of production, spreading the gospel at the street corners, in the lecture-hall, and wherever the workers assemble to consider and discuss. '46


In the APCF's view the counter-revolutionary consequences of parliamentarism were perpetuated by all parties which participated in parliamentary politics: 'Whatever party persuades the workers to accept the political machinery of capitalism deprives the workers of their consciousness of revolutionary political power on the industrial field, and so betrays the interests of the workers.'47 This was one of the angles from which the APCF attacked the Labour Party during this period, just as the anti-parliamentarians had done in earlier years.

A new development in the anti-parliamentary attack on the Labour Party was the formulation of a detailed critique of the 1924 Labour government. In the October 1926 Commune the APCF published its first full-length assessment of Ramsay MacDonald's administration, indicting its record under such headings as Reparations, Disarmament, Empire Administration, Nationalisation of Industry, Unemployment Relief, Housing and Education. This article was also published in pamphlet form in 1926 and 1928 -- the latter edition including an added passage on Military Strike Breaking.

The thrust of the APCF's argument was that the Labour government had 'functioned no differently from any other Capitalist Government'48 and that 'Labour Parliamentarism does not menace, but on the contrary serves to preserve, the business interests of capitalist society'.49 In its remarks on Military Strike Breaking, for example, the APCF alleged that 'the MacDonald Government rejoiced in recruiting cannon-fodder and strike-breaking military material, under the specious pretence of patriotic efficiency, in order to prove that Labour could govern capitalist society in capitalism's interests'.50

The Labour government's basically capitalist nature was also brought out in the APCF's comments on Nationalisation of Industry:

Government ownership, or nationalisation of industry, is not Socialism. Capitalist necessity may dictate the transfer of industries to state ownership and of certain services to municipal ownership. It remains joint-stock administration just the same. Anti-Socialists have nationalised railways and coalmines without benefiting the workers. Strikes have been ruthlessly repressed, under Briand, on the State Railways of France. The same thing has occurred on the State Railways of Canada. Sweated conditions exist in the Post Office and the Mint. Municipal employees have been victimised. There is nothing radical, nothing essentially Labour, nothing fundamentally serviceable to the workers, in municipalisation and nationalisation. Socialisation, involving complete change of industrial administration, and a Labour Democracy only, is the only solution of the poverty problem. But the Labour Party, confusing the workers' mind with the parody of nationalisation for socialisation, stood for nationalisation. 51

The APCF's attack on the equation of nationalisation with socialism represented one of its strengths in comparison with the Dreadnought group. During 1914-18 the demands of organising and sustaining the economy on a war footing had forced the British state into exercising direct control over many sectors of the economy. Some revolutionaries saw state intervention of this sort as leading towards a state capitalism more thoroughly repressive than private capitalism. In October 1917, for example, Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that

Under the pre-war system of nationalisation, which we see in such departments as the Post Office, the workers are scarcely better off on the whole, and in some respects even worse off, than in private employment. The system of State control of munitions factories, railways and mines which has grown up during the War, has preserved capitalism and the capitalist, whilst rendering still more rigorous the conditions under which the workers are employed.52

However, the Dreadnought's opposition to pre-war and wartime nationalisation represented only one aspect of its attitude towards nationalisation. In March 1917 Sylvia Pankhurst criticised government intervention as 'not State Socialism, but state-aided capitalism'53 While Pankhurst opposed 'state-aided capitalism' -- meaning industries being taken over and run by a capitalist government -- she was in favour of 'State socialism' -- that is, industries being taken over and run by a 'socialist' government. This distinction enabled Pankhurst to describe as 'both just and practical' the demand 'that industry shall be nationalised, and that all workers in it shall combine in its management' ,54 and she herself put forward detailed proposals for the implementation of this demand. In May 1917, for example, Pankhurst outlined a 'scheme of nationalisation extending from the farmer and the importer to the consumer' under which the government would buy, produce, ration and distribute food for the nation's population as a way of overcoming wartime food shortages.55 These proposals were shortly afterwards adopted by the WSF at its 1917 Annual Conference.56

When workers in industries such as mining and the railways put forward demands for nationalisation at the end of the First World War, one aspect of the Dreadnought's response was its argument that 'nationalisation of the mines, so long as the capitalist system exists, will not end the exploitation of the mine-workers'.57 This was similar to what Guy Aldred and his comrades were arguing at that time: 'To nationalise the mines would be to give them to the State: but the State represents the non-producing class: therefore the miners have nothing to gain from the nationalisation of the mines. '58

The Dreadnought also argued, however, that 'unless the workers are strong enough to control the Government, the capitalists who are behind the Government will never allow the workers to maintain control of the mines'.59 In view of the group's previous support for 'State socialism', this statement can be interpreted as implying a distinction between nationalisation carried out by a state controlled by private capitalists and nationalisation carried out by a workers' government'. Thus when Sylvia Pankhurst reviewed a South Wales Socialist Society pamphlet titled Industrial Democracy for Miners: A Plea for the Democratic Control of the Mining Industry, she agreed with the authors' argument that nationalisation under the control of a Minister responsible to Parliament would involve only a 'minute' change from being exploited by the existing mine owners, and approved of the pamphlet's proposals for nationalisation under the administration of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain.60 Pankhurst also put forward proposals for nationalising the railways, which included equal wages for all rail workers, no share dividends, a pension equal to a wage for those unable to work, and control of the railways by the railway workers.61

It was the Dreadnought's analysis of Russia as a state capitalist regime which eventually forced the group to recognise that widespread state ownership, even by a so-called 'workers' government', would not change the basically capitalist nature of the economy after all. In August 1923, for example, Sylvia Pankhurst argued that 'State Socialism, with its wages and salaries, its money system, banks and bureaucracy, is not really Socialism at all, but State Capitalism'.62 At the same time, the Dreadnought group also sustained its opposition to ownership by capitalist governments. In January 1923 Pankhurst's view of state-owned enterprises was that

The bulk of the work is done by hired servants whose status, in essentials, does not differ from those employed in Capitalist enterprises. They have no stake in the concern, no security of tenure, no voice in the management, no power to choose their work or the persons who are appointed to direct it.

It is not thus that the socialised industries will be administered when Capitalism disappears.63

Yet even despite such statements the Dreadnought group's attitude remained inconsistent. As we saw in Chapter 3, for example, in January 1924 the Dreadnought demanded that the Labour government should nationalise the railways. Thus the APCF's unambiguous opposition to nationalisation in the period after the disappearance of the Dreadnought group represented an important advance in the clarity and consistency of the anti-parliamentarians' attitude towards an issue which remains to this day a source of widespread confusion.

Besides criticising the Labour Party's capitalist policies -- such as nationalisation -- the APCF also continued its well-documented attacks on prominent Labour individuals. In August 1925, for example, a 'Special "Empire Socialism" Exposure Issue' of the Commune was devoted to attacking J. H. Thomas, Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1924 Labour government. A month later the APCF poured scorn on proposals to commemorate the sixty-fifth birthday of the old dockers' union leader Ben Tillett, a notorious jingoist who had touted war-recruitment speeches around music halls during the First World War. The mere fact that people were actually planning to honour 'this lying knave whose speeches sent thousands to their graves simply illustrated the urgency of the need to 'destroy the existing so-called "Labour movement" and on its ruins rear a genuine Socialist movement'.64 The October 1925 Commune contained the first in a long line of articles criticising the 'renegade' John S. Clarke, an ex-member of the SLP who had abandoned anti-parliamentarism to stand as a Parliamentary candidate for Labour. In the May 1927 Commune Clarke was criticised for having been among the minority of Labour councillors in Glasgow opposed to boycotting a forthcoming royal visit to the city.

Other targets included miners' union leader A. J. Cook, who shortly after criticising socialists who wrote for the capitalist press had contributed 'a pure and simple capitalist essay' to John Bull,65 and Ramsay MacDonald, who had dined with the Governor of Boston responsible for decreeing the judicial murder of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.66 After Arthur Henderson had been billed to speak at a public meeting in Shettleston in January 1929, the APCF published a special 'Henderson Visit Outrage' issue of the Commune Anti-Parliamentary Communist Gazette, calling for Henderson's expulsion from the labour movement on account of his complicity in the anti-working class actions of the wartime government (see Chapter 3)67 There were seventeen arrests for 'disorderly conduct' when Henderson's revolutionary opponents disrupted the Shettleston meeting, but this did not deter the APCF from publishing a second edition of the Gazette when Henderson went on to speak at Clyde-bank. In addition to repeating the charges against Henderson, this issue also called for John Wheatley and David Kirkwood to be ostracised on account of their willingness to associate with Henderson.

In terms of method and content these attacks were typical of the way the APCF criticised trade union leaders and labour parliamentarians. Aldred described this method as 'not just so much deductive reasoning from theory as inductive reasoning from experience'.68 By sheer weight of empirical evidence the APCF sought to prove beyond doubt the truth of two key anti-parliamentary assertions: that the rise 'from the gutter' to 'place in class society' was invariably accompanied by a rightwards shift in political outlook, and that no matter what their initial intentions might be, those who participated in the parliamentary circus always ended up administering the capitalist system against working-class interests.

The APCF's view that 'there exists as much Socialism in the constitution and the activity of the Parliamentary Labour Party as there is divinity in the priesthood'69 also led it to attack the CPGB, since the Communist Party was still seeking to affiliate to the Labour Party, and (until 1929) was still peddling the United Front tactic. As it had done previously, the APCF refused to have anything to do with affiliation, on these grounds: 'If the Labour Party WERE a Socialist Party, every Communist should be inside. It is precisely because it is an Anti-Socialist party that no communist should associate with it.'70 The APCF also continued to oppose the United Front -- a tactic which it considered could only profit the careerist aspirations of Labour politicians and assist to power such anti-working class administrations as the 1924 Labour government.

From August 1924, with the formation of the National Minority Movement, the CPGB's efforts to put the United Front tactic into practice focused mainly on attempting to build rank and file movements within the trade unions and on forging alliances with left wing union leaders. The APCF rejected the Minority Movement's arguments that a United Front within the unions could be an effective way of resisting attacks on working-class living standards, since the tactic offered no prospect of a permanent solution to the working class's problems. 'Coming together for the social revolution' remained 'the only logical and the only effectual resistance to capitalist aggression.71 When the National Minority Movement drew up a list of demands which included calls for a 44 hour working week and a £4 per week minimum wage, the Commune responded by publishing an article written by the anarchist Albert Parsons at the time of the Eight Hour Day agitation in America in the 1880s. Parsons opposed this demand on the grounds that the capitalists had no 'right' to any amount of the working class's labour, and because workers could never dictate their conditions of labour so long as the capitalists controlled the means of production. Commenting on this the Commune stated: 'The position adopted by Parsons in 1885 is that adopted by the Anti-Parliamentary Communist movement in 1926. It defines our opposition to . . . the Minority Movement.'72

This section can be concluded with a brief look at the APCF's attitude towards the labour movement's industrial wing. In May 1926 the APCF published a General Strike issue of the Commune Special Anti-Parliamentary Communist Gazette. Against the CPGB's slogan of 'All Power To The General Council' (of the TUC), the APCF called for 'NO Power to the General Council' and 'ALL POWER to Labour through its Strike Committees and Mass Meetings'.73 It was a sign of the anti-parliamentary communist movement's decline, however, that the APCF did not manage to publish its General Strike Gazette until four days after the strike had been called off by the TUC. In its post-mortem on the strike in the July Commune, the APCF repeated its demand for industrial action to be conducted on the following basis: 'All Power to THE WORKERS THEMSELVES, through their mass meetings, their D1RECTLY controlled strike committees, and the federation of their districts for power and action.' Mass struggle of this sort would abolish 'centralised negotiation' and thus defeat the power of the 'self-seeking treacherous bureaucrats, who crawl and squirm like worms in the hour of crisis'.74 The 'eternally infamous' conduct of trade union leaders -- right wing and left wing -- during the General Strike 'debacle' strengthened the APCF's view that trade unions had become 'part of the machinery of the Capitalist State for facilitating the exploitation of the Working Class and keeping it in subjection'.75


As far as the history of anti-parliamentary communism in Britain is concerned, the differences between the years before and after 1924 can be summed up as follows. The earlier period was characterised by intellectual ferment and high hopes of revolution, the later period by intellectual stability and dwindling expectations of revolution.

Between 1917 and 1924 the Dreadnought group evolved from a federation of suffragist reformists into a party of revolutionary antiparliamentary communists; from working within the Labour Party and trade unions to standing outside and against them; and from enthusiastic supporters of the new Bolshevik state to pioneering critics of its state capitalist nature. These rapid changes in political outlook all took place in the context of the firm belief that the world revolution lay just around the corner.

By contrast, the years after 1924 saw the anti-parliamentarians consolidating the intellectual advances won previously. The anti-parliamentarians' views on the Labour Party and the trade unions were tested by the 1924 Labour government and the 1926 General Strike, and found to be correct. What was remarkable about the APCF's maintenance of anti-parliamentary communist positions after the disappearance of the Dreadnought group was that they upheld these views during a period when the prospects of revolution had suffered a series of seemingly decisive defeats.

Towards the end of 1923 one of the Commune's correspondents wrote:

The recent history of the working class since 1918 has been a record of steady misfortune from the time of the miners' lock-out [1921] . . . Very many comrades have lost heart in the losing fight and have fallen out of the struggle. The high hopes of 1918 have vanished and now the lament is 'Not in our day; we will not see the Revolution; perhaps in 50 years' time.76

As members of the working class themselves, no doubt the revolutionaries who belonged to the APCF could not help feeling downhearted by the defeats of their class. To their credit, however, they did not become disillusioned and drop out of the struggle. To the best of their abilities they carried out the essential tasks of keeping the idea of communism alive, and nurturing the basic principles borne from previous periods of struggle.

Thus the anti-parliamentary communist movement's numerical decline during the 1920s did not result in any weakening in terms of theoretical clarity. Since the forerunners of the APCF had been organised on the basis of a revolutionary political programme long before the post-war revolutionary wave, their existence as a revolutionary group did not tail-end the ups and downs of the class struggle to anything like the same extent that the Dreadnought group's existence did. Therefore they were far less likely to disappear when the level of class struggle declined. The communists who remained loyal to anti-parliamentarism during these bleak years had to be the hard core of the movement simply in order to keep going, and so were the best suited to carrying out the tasks appropriate to the period.

The stagnation in the class struggle also had the effect of giving the APCF's existence some stability. Undisturbed by having to come to grips with any new developments, it could peacefully propagate the lessons of the earlier period. But this period of calm would not last for long. By 1933 the anti-parliamentary communists had become divided amongst themselves. Typically, this was a rupture provoked by differing responses to new events which cast doubts on the relevance of established ideas. It is to an account of this split and its aftermath that we now turn.