Cyril Smith 1994

Review: John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt, and Kevin Morgan, Harry Pollitt

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, 1994. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1993, pp304, £19.99

Kevin Morgan, Harry Pollitt, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993, pp210, £40.00

Now that Stalinism is being flushed down the historical pan, it is important that we carefully assess the history of its devastation of the workers’ movement. These two books demonstrate how the job should not be done.

Despite the many differences between their points of view, they have an essential unity of purpose. Each of their authors has examined the vast amounts of paper left behind by his subject, as well as the Communist Party archive material now available. Together, they give us a lot of useful information about their lives and work. But, beneath this scholarly load, a false conception is smuggled in. It is that the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain is a single whole, the direct contrary of the true story: the derailment of the struggle to establish a Communist leadership, and the substitution of a Stalinist monstrosity.

Occasionally, Morgan does refer to the opposition between the Communist efforts of the CPGB’s early days to the Stalinist policies which took over. But then he presents the former as youthful ‘idealism’, and the latter as ‘realism’. Callaghan, on the other hand, never wavers: he takes every opportunity to paint Dutt’s utter devotion to Stalin’s murder machine as if it were identical with the outlook of Lenin’s Bolshevism.

The two personalities whose lives are described projected strikingly contrasting images. Pollitt appeared as the ‘honest English workingman’, fond of a drink and a joke. Dutt, on the other hand, was the ‘brilliant intellectual’, regarding all humour with grave suspicion. Who knows if it concealed some reservations about ‘the line'? Together, these two acted for nearly four decades as instruments of the lying, murdering Soviet bureaucracy inside the British working-class movement.

Before 1914, Pollitt, a young boilermaker, participated in Syndicalist groups. He fought against the imperialist war and rallied to the October Revolution and the Communist International. Dutt, the son of an Indian doctor and a Swedish mother, moved rapidly from Indian nationalism to Socialism, and had the distinction of being expelled from Oxford University for his opposition to the imperialist slaughter.

The partnership of this unlikely duo sprang from the 1922 appointment by the Comintern of a Reorganisation Commission in the CPGB. Its task was to replace the loose combination of propaganda groups which had come together to form the CPGB with a centralised organisation, living up to the standards of the Comintern.

The Commission was born out of the ‘Theses on the Structure of Communist Parties’, adopted by the 1921 congress of the Comintern. This was the resolution on which Lenin expressed his grave doubts in his strange last speech to the Comintern in 1922. His misgivings, incoherently expressed, were that organisational considerations were coming to predominate over the aims of the movement. Typically, Callaghan does not mention these doubts, while Morgan refers only to Lenin’s remark that the resolution was ‘too Russian’ (since it had been moved by a German, Könen, this can only have been directed at Zinoviev).

For the next seven years, Dutt and Pollitt worked to clean up the CPGB’s leadership, and to establish a machine entirely ‘loyal to Moscow’, that is, to the bureaucracy which was taking control of the Soviet state. In the beginning, this enthusiasm might have been mistaken for determination to establish a revolutionary leadership. But it soon revealed its bureaucratic content.

Although Dutt married the Estonian Salme Murrik in 1924, the association seems to have begun four years earlier. So, even before the formation of the CPGB, Murrik had been a direct link between Dutt and the highest circles of the Comintern. In 1921 Dutt was set up with his own personal magazine, Labour Monthly, and his ‘Notes of the Month’ thereafter reflected with startling accuracy every shift in Comintern policy.

As a leading trade unionist, Pollitt had been brought into the leadership of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) at its formation. So his rise within the CPGB was fuelled from Moscow from the start.

These three – Salme Dutt, Palme Dutt and Pollitt – were forged into the spearhead for the Stalinisation of the nascent Communist movement in Britain, even before the process had begun. It was 1923 when Dutt first proposed that Pollitt become the General Secretary of the party. Six years later, this aim was achieved.

It would be particularly interesting to trace the real meaning of that strange interlude in 1925, when Dutt found himself using some of Trotsky’s arguments in his ‘Notes of the Month’, and writing his famously favourable review of Where is Britain Going?. Callaghan mentions this episode, but cannot explain it.

It would also be useful to investigate further the strange fact of Dutt’s exile in Brussels from 1924 to 1936. Vague references to health considerations certainly cloak his work on the West European Bureau of the Comintern. But this implies that Dutt’s role in Stalin’s Comintern must have been considerable. Callaghan gives us some useful information, too, on Dutt’s importance in the formation of the Indian Communist Party. This was also a long-range affair, since he never visited the country until 1946. In every case, Dutt’s role was to find out what Stalin wanted, and give it a ‘theoretical’ cover, complete with quotations from the works of Lenin.

The story of the switch from the opportunism of 1925-27 to the ‘Third Period’, loony-left phase is distorted by both authors. This was the chance that Dutt and Pollitt had been waiting for. Stalin’s crazy line had to be rammed down the throats of the CPGB’s membership, and they were the men for this job. Final victory for the faction was consummated in 1929.

Callaghan’s attitude to Trotsky is a powerful obstacle here. Since the very existence of a Left Opposition to Stalin, basing itself on Lenin’s ideas, runs directly counter to his fundamental thesis, he is obliged to misrepresent it whenever it appears. In particular, Trotsky and his followers have always to be shown in the guise of ‘ultra-leftism’. So he is pleased to mention the role of the Balham Group in 1928. At that time, Reg Groves and his friends were wild young sectarians, harrying the Rothstein-Inkpin-Campbell leadership of the CPGB for their caution in following the Comintern’s ultra-left turn. That is why Dutt could use them for a time against his opponents, turning on them when they had served their purpose.

What Callaghan takes care not to mention, however, is that this group had shed its ‘leftism’ long before it was expelled from the party in 1932, and became the first British followers of Trotsky. That is why Trotsky’s letter to them in that year concentrated on the issues of work in the unions and relations of Communists to the Labour Party.

Morgan describes Pollitt’s role in the ‘Left Turn’ of 1927-28. But he can’t fit it into his general stress on those occasions when Pollitt’s instinctive drive towards the ‘broad labour movement’ led him to try to soften its crazier forms of expression. Of course, when he comes to the switch of 1934 towards the renewed and far deeper opportunism of the ‘People’s Front’, and then after 1941 to support for Churchill’s war, Morgan can let himself go in showing Pollitt’s ‘finest hour’.

It is here that the most glaring weakness of both books is to be found. The key to understanding both the CPGB’s previous and its subsequent history is its response to the Moscow Trials. Only by recalling their enthusiastic welcome for every murder, and their eager retailing of every foul slander of the leaders of the October Revolution, can the gulf between Stalinism and Bolshevism be measured.

In Morgan’s book the Moscow Trials only crop up in relation to the explosion which followed Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956, while Callaghan mentions them only in passing. But without the training they received in the period of 1936-39, when many of their most important recruits were made, and when their influence inside the Labour Party was at its highest, the ability of the British Stalinists to become the most treacherous liars in the labour and trade union movement can never be understood.

Morgan and Callaghan give us some of the raw material from which the story of British Stalinism can be reconstructed, and reveal the wealth of sources now available for this work. But, for all their ‘scholarship’, their prejudices prevent them from seeing what this material means.

One day, we can hope, this history will be written. Until then, the work of Brian Pearce, well over 30 years old as it is, is still the very best source for such knowledge. Let me remind readers that it includes studies of the formation of the party, its work in the General Strike, the switch to the ‘Third Period’, the coming of the ‘Popular Front’, and, absolutely essential, a detailed account of the writings of the CPGB, including Dutt and Pollitt, on the Moscow Trials. (See M Woodhouse and B Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park Publications, 1975.)

The failure of both Morgan and Callaghan to refer to this work – Morgan gives it a tiny mention in a minor footnote – is a clear sign of their bad faith, and their inability to carry out their proclaimed tasks.