Introduction

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

by Mark Shipway

Introduction

This book developed out of an interest in a political
movement known as 'left' or 'council' communism, which
achieved brief prominence -- particularly in Germany -- at
the end of the First World War.

Before the war the future left communists generally
belonged to the left wing of the social democratic parties
of the Second International. After these parties had lined
up in support of their respective ruling classes at the
outbreak of the armed conflict in 1914, the left
communists were soon to be found among the revolutionary
minority which called on the working class to 'turn the
imperialist war into civil war'. At the same time they
also began to formulate a radical critique of the social
democratic ideas which had led to the Second
International's integration into capitalist society and to
its support for the war.

The left communists were quick to acclaim the 1917 Russian
revolution and in its wake participated in the formation
of communist parties as constituents of a new, Third
International. The left communists confidently expected
their Russian comrades' support in the struggle against
the treacherous social democratic and trade union
leaderships, and against outmoded forms of working-class
action such as parliamentarism. These hopes were soon
dashed, however, when the Third International adopted the
tactics which Lenin had outlined in his notorious attack
on the left communists, Left-Wing Communism -- an Infantile
Disorder.

Besides disagreeing with the Bolsheviks over the most
appropriate tactics for use in the class struggle in
Western Europe, the left communists were also critical of
the direction taken by events within Russia itself,
especially after the introduction of the New Economic
Policy (1921). which they regarded as a 'reversion to
capitalism'. Eventually the left communists argued that
Russia was a capitalist state run by the Bolsheviks and
that the Third International's policies simply reflected
the interests of the Russian capitalist state in the field
of foreign policy. Thus the left communists were driven to
form a new -- anti-Bolshevik -- Fourth International. in
which the interests of the world revolution would take
precedence over the interests of any of the new
International's constituent national parties. Consequently
the term 'left' communism soon became obsolete, since the
'orthodox' communists (that is, the Bolsheviks) were now
recognised as belonging to the capitalist political
spectrum. Thereafter the left communists became more
widely known as 'council' communists, because of their
emphasis on workers' councils (or soviets), rather than
political parties, as the means which the working class
would use to overthrow capitalism and administer
communism.

In the chapter of 'Left-Wing' Communism, An Infantile
Disorder which dealt with the revolutionary movement in
Britain, Lenin's attack was mainly directed against a
group called the Workers' Socialist Federation. The WSF
had started out as an organisation of militant
suffragists, but its political views were transformed in
the direction of revolutionary communism by the impact of
the Russian revolution. The WSF existed until mid-1924 and
changed its name several times during this period, so for
the sake of convenience it is usually referred to in this
book as the Dreadnought group, after the title of its
weekly publication the Workers' Dreadnought, which was
edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

It was as a history of the Dreadnought group - left
communism's representatives in Britain - that this book
was originally conceived. As the work of researching the
Dreadnought group's ideas and activities during 1917-24
progressed, however, it was exciting to discover that
other anti-parliamentary communist organisations existed
in Britain at that time and that anti-parliamentary
communist ideas survived the Dreadnought's demise.

As well as in the pages of the Workers' Dreadnought
anti-parliamentary communist ideas were also put forward
by a newspaper called the Spur, which was edited by Guy
Aldred. Whereas Sylvia Pankhurst and her comrades were
chiefly influenced by post-First World War left communism.
Guy Aldred and his comrades drew much of their inspiration
from nineteenth-century anarchists such as Bakunin. The
Spur was not the publication of any particular
organisation, but had close links with several
revolutionary propaganda groups throughout Britain. As far
as the history of anti-parliamentary communism is
concerned the most significant of these was the Glasgow
Anarchist Group an organisation which could trace its
lineage back through a succession of Clydeside-based
groups which had propagated an anarchist-influenced
version of anti-parliamentarism since the 1890s.

In 1920 the Glasgow Anarchist Group renamed itself the
Glasgow Communist Group in order to express its affinity
with the Russian revolution and its support for
revolutionary unity in Britain. However, the Glasgow group
also soon became disillusioned with the tactics foisted on
the Western European revolutionary movement by the
Bolsheviks, and in 1921 it took the initiative in the
formation of an Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation to
directly oppose the Russian-backed Communist Party of
Great Britain.

The APCF sustained the anti-parliamentary communist
tradition in Britain until the end of the Second World
War. During this time it suffered two splits in its ranks.
The first of these took place in 19334, when Guy Aldred
and some of his comrades broke away to form the United
Socialist Movement. The second split took place in 1937,
with the departure of some anarchists who were later
involved in the formation of the Glasgow Anarchist
Federation at the beginning of the Second World War. In
this book the APCF is regarded as the genuine
standard-bearer of anti-parliamentary communism in Britain
during the 1930s and 1940s, but the ideas of the USM and
the Anarchists are also examined and discussed.

As research brought more and more information to light
about the history of anti-parliamentary communism in
Britain, the need for an accurate, comprehensive and
sympathetic study of the subject became increasingly
obvious. Biographies of Sylvia Pankhurst dwell at length
on her pre-1917 suffragist ideas and activities;
references to her years as an anti-parliamentary communist
are conspicuous only by their absence. Nor are the
histories of the early years of the CPGB much more
enlightening. The Dreadnought group participated in the
communist unity negotiations which preceded the formation
of the CPGB, but its ideas were at odds with the tactics
which the CPGB eventually adopted. This enables historians
of the CPGB to portray the Dreadnought group as an
'infantile' tributary flowing into the Leninist
mainstream, later to emerge as an effluent which
disappears into the void. None of them assess
anti-parliamentary communist ideas in their own right, and
even their most banal 'factual' comments about the
anti-parliamentarians are frequently mistaken.

Guy Aldred and his comrades have escaped such treatment,
but only because they withdrew from the unity negotiations
at an early stage. Their reward for this has been that
historians ignore them altogether -- a fate which has also
befallen the anti-parliamentary communists active in
Britain after 1924. Only the few present-day revolutionary
groups which acknowledge a political debt to the past work
of the anti-parliamentary communists have shown any
interest in setting the record straight. Yet all too often
even these groups accounts are flawed by superficial
research and a tendency to bend the facts to suit their
own preconceptions.

This book is, therefore, the first serious, lengthy and
detailed account of the theory of anti-parliamentary
communism and of the history of the groups which adhered
to this theory in Britain between the two world wars. Yet
it would be misleading to give the impression that it has
been written simply out of a concern to establish the
historical truth. There is a political assumption
underlying this book's choice of subject. That is, that
the anti-parliamentary communists are worthy of our
attention because the views they held place them among the
relatively small number of groups and individuals which
have put forward a genuine alternative to world-wide
capitalism.

This alternative, which the anti-parliamentarians
described interchangeably as socialism or communism, was
far removed from what is popularly understood by these
terms, such as the policies of the Labour Party or the
system which developed in Russia after 1917. For reasons
which this book will explain, the anti-parliamentary
communists regarded the Labour Party as a capitalist
organisation and Russia as a capitalist state. The
socialism/communism advocated by the anti-parliamentarians
meant the complete abolition of the system which forces
the dispossessed majority into dependence on wage slavery.
producing wealth for exchange in a market economy, to the
profit of a privileged few who rule society in their own
interests. It would involve wrenching the world's
productive resources out of the hands of their present
controllers, and transforming and developing them to
produce wealth directly for use, so that everyone's
individually-determined needs would be provided in
abundance.

Political organisations popularly identified with
socialism/communism have often paid lip service to such
ideas. On attaining power, however, they have always
maintained in existence the very money-market-wages system
they purported to oppose. At no time have the measures
advocated by the anti-parliamentarians ever been put into
practice in any of the so-called socialist or communist
states in the world. Capitalism still exists everywhere,
with all the consequences of its normal way of
functioning: unemployment, war, relentless insecurity and
material deprivation for the vast majority of the world's
inhabitants, and so on. As long as this state of affairs
continues groups such as the anti-parliamentary communists
will always be important, because the socialist/communist
ideas they propagated offer the working class its only
solution to the wars and barbarism which the present world
system holds in store. As the anti-parliamentarians
frequently warned: 'All Else Is Illusion.'

The relative obscurity in which the anti-parliamentary
communists expended most of their efforts has made the job
of researching some parts of their history a difficult
task. It can be confidently asserted, however, that enough
material has been located to form the basis of a detailed
and comprehensive account of what the
anti-parliamentarians were doing and thinking at each
stage of the period covered. What is just as certain is
that this book is unlikely to be the final word on the
subject. For example, not long after the original research
for this book had been completed and submitted for
examination as a doctoral thesis, a comrade in Norway
informed me that in an archive in Copenhagen he had come
across correspondence revealing the practical solidarity
given to two council communist refugees from Nazi Germany
by anti-parliamentarians in Glasgow in the mid-1930s.
Unfortunately, this discovery came too late for its
findings to be included in this text. Nevertheless, it is
to be hoped that this book will inspire others to take an
interest in its subject, and to make similar discoveries
which will help to correct, improve or expand the account
presented here. If this happens the hard work which has
gone into writing this book will have been well worth the
effort.