Alan Campbell & John McIlroy. Labor History. Volume 59, Issue 5. October 2018.
Entrism—the infiltration of political organisations by competitors—is typically associated with Trotskyism. Large-scale Communist entrism in the British Labour Party has been neglected by historians and reference in the literature is slight and impressionistic. Archival material permits reconstruction of a sustained attempt by the Comintern and British Communists to subvert Labour Party policy between 1933 and 1943. Documenting the development and dimensions of Communist entrism, this article establishes that, by 1937, 10% of Communist Party (CPGB) members were operating secretly inside British Labour, campaigning to change its policy on affiliation and engineer a Popular Front. Biographies of 55 such Communists provide new data and permit a typology of entrist activity. The episode sheds new light on Popular Front initiatives and the extent of genuine support for them within Labour. It illuminates the conspiratorial side of Stalinist activity at a time when the CPGB presented itself as a conventional British party.
What is Entrism?
The contest for the leadership of the British Labour Party in 2016 provoked renewed interest in Trotskyist infiltration (Aitkenhead, Stewart, & Elgot, 2016). ‘Entrism’ was a feature of labour movement politics through the twentieth century. The best-known episode involved the expulsion of the Militant Tendency from Labour in the 1980s and 1990s (Callaghan, 1984, pp. 67-81; Crick, 1986, 2016). But it is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. In the 1920s, U.S. Communists operated secretly inside local Labor and Farmer-Labor Parties and, in the 1930s and 1940s, inside the Democratic Party in California, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The best documented case is the entry of the Workers’ Party led by James P. Cannon and A.J. Muste into the Socialist Party (SP) (Alexander, 1991, pp. 779-793; Cannon, 1972, pp. 216-256; Venkataramani, 1964). The pervasiveness of the practice is witnessed by the fact that when the Workers’ Party entered the SP, they encountered activists linked to the Communist Party and Jay Lovestone’s Communist Opposition (Alexander, 1981, pp. 109-110). France has provided entrism’s most fertile field, from ‘the French turn’, the entry of Trotsky’s followers into the Socialist Party, the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO) in 1934, to the exploits of the Organisation Communiste Internationale (OCI) after 1968 (Alexander, 1991, pp. 348-354, 384-389; Nick, 2002, pp. 217-264; Trotsky, 1974, 1977). In 2001 then French prime minister and sometime entrist, Lionel Jospin, confessed to maintaining close links with the OCI while working his way to the pinnacle of the Socialist Party (Nick, 2002, pp. 244-265; Schwartz, 2001). Entrism has been recorded across Europe, Asia and Australia (Alexander, 1991).
It has been broadly defined as ‘infiltration into a political organisation to change or subvert its policies or objectives’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary,1995). One historian describes entrism as ‘the infiltration of a mass organisation by a small revolutionary group that hopes thereby to grow at the expense of the larger party’ (Callaghan, 1986, p. 380). Restriction to ‘a small revolutionary group’ may be questioned: the British Communist Party (CPGB) undertook incursions in the Labour Party with a membership of 10,000 in 1926 and 7500 in 1935 (Thorpe, 2000, p. 284). Although the phenomenon is associated with ‘covert factional activity’ (Callaghan, 1984, p. 380), its initiation, it should be stressed, may be open and consensual. The event from which the term derives, the 1934 ‘French turn’, was negotiated by the Trotskyist leaders and their SFIO counterparts and provided for some factional rights (Alexander, 1991, pp. 348-354). The passage of the U.S. Trotskyists into Norman Thomas’s party was likewise agreed, although they joined as individuals, forfeited their factional rights and dismantled their press (Cannon, 1972, pp. 216-256; Myers, 1977, pp. 107-142; Venkataramani, 1964, pp. 10-11). In both cases, the inauguration of entrism was transparent and ‘infiltration’ a misnomer. However, the underlying purpose of the project was subversive and factionalism soon surfaced. The intention was to build French and American Trotskyist parties at the expense of the SFIO and SP.
The definitions quoted above simplify a diverse phenomenon. Entrism can take different forms and dissolution of the invader’s own external organisation with all its members entering the host should be distinguished from partial entry and maintenance of the aggressor’s external organisation. If Callaghan’s formulation is overly restrictive in some aspects, in other ways it appears too broad. The inclusion of trade unions may be questioned. Political parties demand a degree of political homogeneity and discipline. Unions are typically politically heterodox, open to all workers in specific employment categories, regardless of belief. Revolutionaries should not be classified as interlopers, any more than Catholics or Conservatives, who have also established factional organisations within trade unions. Limiting the term entrism to political parties enhances precision and clarity.
Entrism demands reconnaissance. Protagonists may be alerted to its potential by a turn to the left and emergence of tendencies sympathetic to the entrists within the targeted organisation. Having gained access, entrists endeavour to secretly recruit members of the host, typically insisting they remain within the host as agents of its competitor: success depends on converting indigenous members who will make further converts. Infiltration is a means, not an end. Its scale may differ as some entrist organisations send a fraction of their members into a targeted body while others enter en masse. Unpacked, the aim ‘to grow at the expense of the larger party’ (Callaghan, 1986, p. 380) may cover a range of ambitions. In the early 1950s, the International Socialists entered the Labour Party simply because they saw little possibility of development as an open organisation and needed an established political framework to resource even modest growth. Aspirations ‘to change or subvert policies or objectives’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary) may be deemed unrealistic or eschewed on the grounds that they sow illusions in the host. Other entrist groups may press revolutionary demands on reformist leaders as a means of exposing them (Callaghan, 1984, pp. 73-76; Crick, 1986, pp. 70-84). In some cases, such as the CPGB’s suborning of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) or the U.S. Trotskyists’ foray into the SP, the objective may be to take over or, should that prove impossible, decisively weaken a competitor. One leader claimed undermining the SP constituted ‘a great achievement because it was an obstacle in the path of building a revolutionary party … Every other party is an obstacle’ (Cannon, 1972, pp. 252-253).
The purpose and progress of entrism influence its duration and whether it concentrates on creating a semi-permanent faction or organising a relatively speedy exit. There are tactics within the tactic and entrism may be conceived and conducted in different ways. In 1926-1929, the CPGB sponsored the National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM) as a bridge between the party and sympathisers inside Labour (Macfarlane, 1966, pp. 189-229, 280-281). Likewise maintaining an open organisation in the 1940s, the Revolutionary Communist Party’s entry fraction handed contacts over to external activists (Bornstein & Richardson, 1986b, pp. 192-194). Gerry Healy’s ‘Club’ in the 1ate 1940s and Sean Matgamna’s International Communist League in the late 1970s, conducted entrism within broader left Labour formations—the Socialist Fellowship and the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory (Alexander, 1991, pp. 496-498; Jenkins, 1979, pp. 91-112). Others, starting with the Revolutionary Socialist League’s formation of the Militant Labour League in 1937, have established their own fronts (Bornstein & Richardson, 1986a, pp. 272-273). The Militant Tendency, in contrast, operated more directly (Crick, 1986, pp. 84-86).
History is indispensable to any discussion. Commonly associated with Trotskyism and disparaged by official Communists, entrism was an integral part of the Stalinist tradition. Its roots lie in the approach to party-building adopted by the Comintern and its national sections, as well as dissident currents, notably the Trotskyists. The tactic can be traced back to the Bolsheviks, adhesion to whose methods was prescribed by Lenin in his Theses for the Second Congress of the Comintern:
In every organisation, union or association without exception, beginning with the proletarian ones at first, and afterwards all those of the non-proletarian exploited masses (political, professional, military, cooperative, educational, sporting, etc.) must be formed groups or nuclei of Communists, mostly open ones but also secret ones … These nuclei, in close contact with one another and the Communist Party, exchanging information and experiences, carrying on the work of agitation, propaganda and organising, adjust themselves to all the branches of social life. (Callaghan, 1986, pp. 380-382; Lenin, 1920)
Lenin insisted on the centrality of penetrating the Labour Party:
So long as the Labour Party continues to leave its member organisations free to criticise, act, make propaganda, agitate and organise on behalf of the dictatorship of the proletariat and on behalf of Soviet power … Communists should make every effort and be willing to accept certain compromises in order to have the chance of influencing the great mass of workers, of denouncing their opportunist leaders in public forum where the masses can see and hear them … so as to rid the masses as soon as possible of their illusions on the subject. (Lazitch & Drachkovitch, 1972, p. 361)
Labour was crucial, despite its subordination to the state, because its umbilical connection with the trade unions, its undeveloped programme and rudimentary constitution ensured it possessed widespread working-class support and political and organisational malleability. As the revolutionary atmosphere of 1920 dissolved and the differences between Labour and the CPGB hardened, the former moved to isolate the latter: freedom to prosecute revolutionary politics within Labour diminished, concealment increased. Burning his boats with the Comintern, Trotsky maintained some of its methods. He initially applied entrism to small ‘centrist’ formations moving to the left. The tactic continued to be predicated on the open expression of revolutionary politics and envisaged as an episode of limited duration to recruit members rather than change policy. In France and the U.S.A, it lasted around a year (Alexander, 1991, pp. 351-352; Cannon, 1972, pp. 249-252).
But the device was essentially opportunistic: experience and changing circumstances provoked development and adaptation. From the mid-1930s, both Trotskyists and Stalinists concentrated on the reformist Labour Party and adopted subterfuge to deflect detection. Raids mutated into longer term settlement premised on permeation of the host party’s institutions and culture. During the early Cold War this emerged as entrism sui generis, total entry, whereby the Trotskyists went into both Communist and Labour parties for an indefinite period on the basis that the international situation and likelihood of war precluded the construction of revolutionary parties (Alexander, 1991, p. 28). From the 1950s, less apocalyptic forms of ‘deep entrism’ were employed, such as that practised by the Militant Tendency and its co-thinkers around the globe (Crick, 1986; Revolutionary Socialist League, 1959). Entrism has registered small successes but never transformed the balance of forces within the labour movement. At times it has divided revolutionaries, some of whom have opposed it as an illegitimate and ineffective method of party building, turned disguised revolutionaries into genuine reformists, corrupted the currency of politics and discredited its protagonists.
Comintern Entrism: The British Case
Entrism is identified in public discourse and historiography with Trotskyism: Stalinist activity has attracted less attention. In distinction to the Trotskyists’ predilection for total entry, the official Communists, given their greater numbers, pursued partial entry by means of ‘fractions’ working inside Labour. Launched by the Communists in 1926 and terminated by them in early 1929, the NLWM has been considered a vehicle for ‘systematic entrist activity in the Labour Party’ (Callaghan, 1986, p. 385). It would be mistaken to minimise the degree to which the NLWM was directed and resourced by the Comintern and CPGB (Macfarlane, 1966, pp. 189-229, 280-218; Pearce, 1975). Matters are complicated by the fact that the movement crystallised around the 1925 decision to exclude Communists from individual membership of the Labour Party and opposition not only from Communists but ‘native’ Labour Party members. The main component of the CPGB, the British Socialist Party, had been affiliated to Labour. So many CPGB members possessed and maintained dual membership. They were legitimate Labour Party members and even stood as Labour candidates in elections. Exclusionary measures had been mounting since 1920 and would develop further (Howell, 2002, pp. 380-403; Shaw, 1988, pp. 1-31). But toleration of Communists lingered among a sizeable minority and the NLWM possessed appreciable organic support in Labour’s ranks; it was far from clandestine, publishing a popular weekly newspaper, advocating a socialist programme. The CPGB employed the NLWM to build the CPGB. But a powerful element in the movement’s animating dynamic was resistance within Labour to its leadership’s attempt to finally close the frontier between Labourism and Communism.
Bans on Communists and extensive powers for Labour’s National Executive (NEC) to enforce them became entrenched. With the introduction of the proscribed list in 1930, the dividing line was firmly drawn—a process facilitated by the CPGB’s turn away from Labour in the ultra-left Third Period. In 1929 the NEC reported: ‘practically all difficulties experienced in constituencies in recent years owing to Communist activities have now been overcome’ (Shaw, 1988, p. 15). The classic conditions for entrism now prevailed. Yet the CPGB’s major essay in entrism, which embraced the Popular Front years and beyond, has been neglected. This may be related to the Communists’ subsequent denigration of ‘the cynical, dishonest strategy and tactics of “entryism”‘ they had pioneered (Morning Star, October 15, 2016). The tactic was abandoned during the Second World War and the 1950s witnessed the CPGB acting as an informer in exposing the entrism of opponents. The new century found its successor advising Labour’s general secretary:
Should you or your staff have any evidence that Communist Party members have joined the Labour Party without renouncing their CP membership or engaged in any similar subterfuge, please inform me so that action can be taken against them for bringing our party into disrepute. (Wright, 2016)
It is therefore unsurprising that Communist historians who represent Popular Front politics as the apogee of CPGB achievement and respectability omit to reconstruct the insalubrious underbelly of those politics. Branson (1985) deals with entrism perfunctorily and evasively. She blandly states that from 1935, ‘more and more local Labour Party members applied to join the Communist Party. Some of them were encouraged to stay in the Labour Party and work to change it. Indeed, some of them became Communists in secret’ (p. 157). This process was short-lived, terminating in 1939, when ‘they were all asked to come out into the open as Communist Party members … those who did not ceased to be members of the Communist party’ (Branson, 1985, p. 157). Nothing is said about CPGB members disguising their political allegiance to join the Labour Party; the active agency of the Comintern and CPGB headquarters in King Street in organising entrism is deleted. The CPGB is cast as little more than a responsive helpmate to Labour Party members coming to Communism of their own volition. As an activist in the CPGB during this period, it beggars belief that Branson was unaware of entrism as a project to undermine Labour—and indeed she refers to it in a contemporary internal bulletin (Branson, 1936, p. 19). Other accounts by Communist are even less revealing.
Academic historians have not greatly advanced matters. Like Branson, Morgan (1989) passes favourable judgement on Popular Front politics and his study of the CPGB 1935-1941 disposes of entrism in a paragraph. Like Branson, he portrays an impetus to collaboration originating inside the Labour Party; despite unrelenting efforts by the NEC to define and enforce a dividing line, he depicts flexible frontiers. In short:
throughout the late 1930s impetuous spirits within the Labour Party discovered their common cause with the Communists. The dividing line between the CP and the Labour left was virtually indefinable, not least because an unquantifiable number of Communists pursued their Popular Front activities within the Labour Party. (Morgan, 1989, p. 36)
This is less organised entrism than an autonomous meeting of minds across fluid party boundaries. If Branson illustrates the problems with history written by Communists, Morgan exemplifies the difficulty of accepting, without reservation or corroboration, the recollections of Communist officials on controversial matters. Branson’s conclusion is echoed through uncritical rehearsal of the assertion of the CPGB’s London organiser in the 1930s, Ted Bramley: ‘It was not a case of Communists being sent into the Labour Party, according to Bramley, but rather of new recruits to the CP being asked to remain within the Labour Party the more effectively to work for unity'(Morgan, 1989, p. 36). We now know that Bramley played a leading role in supervising the CPGB’s policy of entry which required Communists to be sent into the Labour Party as well as new recruits being asked to remain as secret Communists.
This is touched on by Thorpe (2000) who alludes to the CPGB Central Committee (CC) discussing ‘sending thousands of [CPGB] members into the Labour Party’ where they would ‘link up with Communists already inside’ (pp. 232-233). Contrary to Bramley’s testimony, this suggests that the CPGB aspired to plant a significant proportion of its then 11,000 members inside its antagonist. Thorpe’s handful of references conclude by following Branson—in 1939 Labour activists began to ’emerge openly as Communist sympathisers’—and contribute to the narrative of normalisation. The notion that entrism was subversive is downplayed:
It seems likely that Communists had joined the Labour Party since the early 1930s. This might have had a sinister aspect—the CP inveigling its members into the larger organisation so that they could be ‘turned’ at the appropriate time. But in many parts of Britain, there was a more prosaic reason. In localities where the CP organisation was very weak or non-existent, it made sense for people to join the existing Labour organisation rather than to form a CP branch with one or two members (Thorpe, 2000, pp. 232-233).
For whom it made sense and how this related to King Street planning to draft thousands of Communists into the Labour Party is not explained. A later discussion by Morgan and his colleagues (Morgan, Cohen, & Flinn, 2007) attempts to further normalise matters:
… the very concept of infiltration … is freighted with ambiguity. In contemporary polemics, and sometimes academic accounts, it involves the construction of communism as an ‘outside’ presence bringing in alien values and loyalties like a Stalinist version of the Midwitch Cuckoos … the notion of infiltration, always implicitly from outside, can be positively misleading … even the clearest cases of factionalism or dissimulation tended to rest on a significant process of internal conversion which the suggestion of externality only obscures. (p. 130)
No academic—and no academic account is cited to support this contention—needs to construct Communism as an outside presence because in relation to Labour it was, politically and organisationally, an outside presence. The CPGB, as we shall demonstrate, sent its members from ‘outside’ to infiltrate Labour with the purpose of winning converts and influencing Labour policy on affiliation and the Popular Front. It is difficult to see how such infiltration can be considered ‘ambiguous’ because it depended for success on ‘internal conversion’. That the latter is a key objective of the former is common sense and commonplace in the historical record. The notion of infiltration by the CPGB is only ‘misleading’ if we fail to understand what the Stalinist entrism of the 1930s was: a process by which the external became internal and the internal external through subterfuge. In contrast with some contemporary Trotskyist initiatives, entrism equalled external infiltration plus secret internal conversion.
Morgan et al. cite no academic account which in any way likens the intervention by Stalinists in the Labour Party to the impregnation of women by aliens in John Wyndham’s fantasy. Nor is proper substantiation provided for their claim: ‘extensive common ground between the communists and many Labour activists meant that in practice there was little constraint on the expression of current communist policy’ (p. 132). Insistence that ‘the great majority of the CPGB’s undercover members appear to have joined the Labour Party either before or more or less simultaneously with their adhesion to communism’ (p. 131) may be true. But no evidence is offered to support an assertion minimising the role of outsiders; or the further claim that active concealment of their affiliation by Communists operating inside Labour was exceptional. What proportion of Communists had been infiltrated into the Labour Party or received secretly into the CPGB after reading its literature and/or encountering Communists working outside or inside the Labour Party is a relevant question; but it is one which requires testing via further research. Estimates based on impressions neither detract from the reality of infiltration as an integral component of Stalinist entrism nor render it ambiguous.
This account tells us little about the policy of entrism beyond a claim that ‘the sustained campaign dated only from 1937’ and a precise statement that the following year ‘almost a fifth of the CPGB’s entire membership’ operated clandestinely inside the Labour Party (p. 131). Communists operating inside the Labour Party are explained by reference to geographical isolation from fellow CPGB members, migration and local political ecumenism: ‘the significance of local factors in shaping political affiliations survived the seemingly formalised divide between the Labour and Communist parties. In certain periods it was even sanctioned and exploited by the CPGB itself’ (p. 30). A footnote refers to a study documenting collaboration between Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and ILP branches decades earlier (p. 287, n. 78). The evidence for survival of such impulses permitting dual membership in the 1930s is slight. In Oxford, it is asserted, ‘covert membership of the Labour Party was so general and ill-concealed as scarcely to be undercover at all’ (Morgan et al., 2007, p. 44). No source is cited and while this was true of the student milieu, evidence is required as to the different situation in the City Labour Party. The claim that Tom Mitchell in Letchworth and Fred Westacott in Hampshire operated without concealing their CPGB membership may again be true. But it derives solely from their memories—in the latter case a sentence—50 and 60 years, respectively, after the event (Morgan et al., 2007, p. 44). By then both had been full-time CPGB officials. Both were reminiscing at a time when entrism had fallen into disrepute among Communists. And both their accounts are detached from their political context: the prevailing policy of entrism.
For their part, historians of the Labour Party have documented CPGB attempts to engage Labour in collaboration against fascism and its equally unsuccessful endeavours to secure affiliation. The story they tell is of a leadership, apparatus and majority of members not only opposed to welcoming Communists into their party via affiliation but to working with them in a united front. A minority supported cooperation. There is little evidence they shared CPGB politics or tolerated ‘unconcealed’ CPGB activists operating within their party. Far from the divide being ‘virtually undefined’, by 1934 few leftwing Labour activists could have been unaware that the CPGB was a proscribed outsider. However, standard histories of Labour which cover the period say nothing about entrism. Specialist studies contribute little more. Pimlott (1977) makes a couple of vague references (p. 222, n. 12); Callaghan (1987) baldly asserts that the CPGB pursued entrism ‘for the first twenty years of its existence … But by 1940 the tactic was dropped … as constituency parties withered away’ (p. 189); Worley (2005) suggests that ‘a number’ of Labour Party members held what he euphemistically terms ‘joint membership’ with the CPGB during the 1930s (p. 210).
Overall, the historiography affords entrism scant attention. Work on Communism addresses the phenomenon in sanitised, fragmentary and impressionistic fashion. It contains conflicting estimates of timeline, scale and operation; infiltration, secrecy, dissembling and disguise are minimised. Conclusions light on evidence speak more of symbiosis and a consensual desire for unity on the part of members of two parties, the boundaries between which were virtually indefinable, rather than a manipulative enterprise orchestrated by the Comintern and resisted by a Labour Party which was very clear about what divided it from the CPGB and the latter’s subversive intentions. King Street’s efforts to suppress its past have not been adequately challenged. CPGB general secretary, Harry Pollitt, told the Political Bureau (PB) in 1935 he did ‘not think that in any circumstances, or in any document we should refer to the question of organising the Left wing inside the Labour Party. It becomes a question of the “Trojan Horse”‘. If the secretive nature of the project renders full recovery hazardous, data from the Russian archives enables us to at least reconstruct its contours and memoirs and manuscript material permit recuperation of some of its protagonists. Politics is frequently an ignoble pursuit. The tale of political parasitism which follows confirms that the labour movement was not immune to the malaise. It demonstrates that entrism was integral to the Communists’ Popular Front strategy which some historians have treated favourably. And it reinstates the conspiratorial, Machiavellian aspects of the CPGB, subdued in recent literature, which, inter alia, distinguished it from other British parties.
Popular Front Entrism: Background, Initiation, and Organisation
In the autumn of 1937, CPGB activists were recording gains garnered from four years of entrism and deliberating future possibilities:
During recent months the Party position in relation to the Labour Party has considerably improved. In Liverpool we now have something like 45 Communist Party members inside the Labour party. One of these comrades is the secretary of the District Labour Party and one is the Secretary of the Ward Association. The reflection of the work which the Party has undertaken inside the Labour Party is shown by the fact that we have [sic] six Communist Party members standing as Labour Party candidates in the recent Municipal Elections …[In Manchester] only 25% of the Trade Union Branches available for affiliation to the Borough Labour Party, are affiliated to it, and if our drive was intensified among the trade unionists in order to secure their affiliation … this would in all probability enable us to overcome the majority which the right-wing Labour leadership has on the Borough Labour Party and secure the removal of the right-wing leadership itself.
The ‘drive’ dated from 1934. However, the previous year, Labour’s NEC, documenting the proliferation of CPGB ‘fronts’, had observed: ‘Communists in disguise are now at work in Labour Party and Trade Union and Cooperative Societies’. By early 1934, London Communists were beavering away
to get a political foothold in the Ward Committees of the LP … there are members of the Executive of the Labour Party and Socialist League who have expressed a desire to join the Party, but our comrades advise them to remain in to penetrate further with their work.
Comintern directives called for extension of reconnaissance and small-scale initiatives. In April 1934, Moscow instructed British Communists ‘to establish connections and close comradely association with the Labour Party workers, drawing them into the United Front fight’; compile lists of sympathisers within Labour; and pave the path for ‘Party fraction comrades to be invited to speak at Labour Party Branches’. A month later, Pollitt pondered ‘how can we develop the opposition movement inside the Labour Party’, while R.W. Robson reflected uncertainty in the ranks: ‘I think that there is an underestimation by the Party comrades of the work that can be done inside the Labour Party.’
The following year, party minutes recorded a measure of success. Pollitt informed the CC:
We have got two Party members adopted as Labour Party candidates in places where as Communist candidates we could not get a look in… In one of the newer districts we are in a position where everyone is a member of our Party. It has been done by very careful consistent work, by choosing the right people who would work in closest conjunction with the Party … what has been done in these places can be done in other places … we carefully choose Party members who are 100 per cent trustworthy, not open to reformist persuasion, and deliberately send these comrades into local Labour Parties to develop that opposition. Under no circumstances [must they] speak about Communism.
Thus, by 1935 entrism already constituted a significant aspect of CPGB activity. It was not left to isolated individuals, a side line innocent of collective agency and purpose; nor did policy commence with existing Labour Party members converting to Communism. To achieve that aim, CPGB members were infiltrated into the Labour Party. That they were ‘100 per cent trustworthy’ suggests they were not invariably recent recruits to the CPGB. Communists undoubtedly exploited areas where Labour organisation was rudimentary and their own affiliations unknown. Evidence of CPGB activity in London, Liverpool and Manchester indicates that this was not always the case. Pollitt’s insistence on omerta concerning Communism is redolent of ‘deep entrism’; but entry was far from total and the CPGB maintained its external apparatus.
The developments prompting entrism require emphasis. Before 1933 there were cases when a Communist joined Labour where the CPGB was weakly organised, ‘as a means of taking my communism inside the enemy camp’. The policy of ‘Class Against Class’, which characterised Labour as a third capitalist party, precluded entrism of any significance. Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933 stimulated a return to proposing a united front with working-class parties to combat the threat to the Soviet Union. The second factor was the divide between the parties and Labour’s refusal to countenance collaboration. As entrism gathered momentum in 1934, Labour’s NEC declared that any united action or ‘loose association’ with Communists or their front organisations was incompatible with Labour Party membership—a decision overwhelmingly endorsed at that year’s annual conference. Labour leaders perceived the CPGB as devious, ruthless and purveying ideas alien to its own philosophy. Successive overtures were rejected in the knowledge that the united front was ‘a tactical manoeuvre devised to bring [Labour] members into touch with the Communist intelligentsia and ultimately under their leadership’. The CPGB was ‘a secret society’ employing ‘conspiratorial methods’ and subterfuge: ‘A denial by a person that he is a Communist may be true, or it may unfortunately not be true’.
The third consideration was the CPGB’s inability to influence Labour by conventional means. It had 5800 members at the end of 1934; Labour’s individual membership (as distinct from its affiliated trade union membership) was over 400,000 (Thorpe, 2000, p. 287; Labour Party, 1936, p. 59). Lacking leverage to change Labour’s policy from outside, the Communists moved inside. A fourth factor was a small but vocal Labour left, disaffected by party leaders’ failure to take effective action against the National government or address a deteriorating international situation. The left was open to working with the Communists but weak—the Socialist League (SL), a remnant of the ILP which had disaffiliated from Labour in 1932, had fewer than 3000 members (Corthorn, 2006, p. 1 and passim; Pimlott, 1977, pp. 41-76). Its fragility suggested an opening Communists might exploit to develop internal opposition under CPGB hegemony. A pincer movement from outside and inside stood a better chance of propelling Labour towards unity than external pressure alone.
The Seventh Comintern Congress in August 1935 marked a new stage in promotion of anti-fascist ‘people’s fronts’ embracing not only workers’ parties but ‘progressive’ Liberals and Conservatives. The CPGB now presented itself as a conventional British party, downplaying revolution, espousing patriotism, and conciliating amenable labour movement leaders, liberals of all parties, the ‘progressive’ middle class and intellectuals (Branson, 1985, pp. 112-29; Fyrth, 1985). The Comintern’s demand for ‘a single mass workers’ party in each country’ produced the CPGB’s formal application for affiliation to Labour in November 1935. To achieve that end, intensification of entrism was necessary—diplomatically expressed as: ‘More attention to the organisation of the left-wing inside the Labour Party’. A significant motivation of the subsequent adoption of anglicised organisational forms and terminology—’locals’ were replaced by ‘branches’, a term ‘familiar to workers in this country’, and ‘cells’ by ‘groups’—was the need to develop ‘closer relations with Labour Ward Committees’ (Robson, 1936, pp. 25-26). Every branch member was to be organised in their ‘appropriate Labour, Co-operative or Trade Union fraction’ (Branson, 1936, p. 19).
It would be unrealistic to expect extensive discussion of the tradecraft of clandestinity in CPGB documents. Labour’s hostility to Communism is well-documented and officials such as Morgan Phillips in London, Len Williams in Yorkshire and Arthur Woodburn in Scotland were experienced gatekeepers. The hierarchy’s writ did not run everywhere and proselytising for unity was not the prerogative of interlopers. The fact that CPGB policy was increasingly reformist helped. Judging by autobiographical accounts, many concealed Communists were taken at face value as Labour enthusiasts of the Soviet Union and Popular Front, rather than intruders. Some converts welcomed their new double life: one expressed delight ‘when I was instructed to carry on with my [Labour Party] membership’ and predicted further recruits if it was made clear that ‘the [Communist] Party expects them to continue their work in the organisation in which they are at present members’ (Morris, 1937, pp. 12-13). In recollections corroborated by the historian, John Saville, briefly a CPGB branch secretary, Branson stated the party cards of secret members were held by party headquarters or the relevant district secretary (Branson, 1985, p. 157; Saville, 1991, p. 26, n. 10). Duplicity was formally licensed: trade unionists were instructed to deny CPGB membership in order to attend Labour Party meetings but had to clear things with national or district leaders before protecting their position. In 1937 a Special Branch informant reported:
Instructions are being issued that party members who have obtained positions in the Labour Party must hide the fact that they are communists. If they have compromised themselves in this respect in the past, they are to say that they have resigned from the party, if challenged.
Unlike subsequent entrists, the CPGB nurtured few illusions that Labour could be transformed into a socialist party. Unlike later infiltrators, it eschewed schemes for a breakaway based on the CPGB, the SL and the ILP, in which it was also conducting entrism. That might bring into question the leading role of the Comintern. The purpose was rather to push the Labour Party as presently constituted into a Popular Front alliance on the French model by securing CPGB affiliation. The primacy of affiliation and consequent need to demonstrate respectability ensured that the CPGB did not attract attention and appear disruptive by espousing manoeuvres common in entrist narratives, seeking cover by colonising existing Labour groups—or inventing new ones. It did discuss infiltrating the SL. Elaborating ‘on Communist fraction work inside the Labour Party’ in June 1935, CPGB organiser, Dave Springhall, urged:
we should put special chosen people to work in the Socialist League … In London, there are a number of middle-class elements and workers who cannot be used for open Party work, who can be drafted for work inside the Socialist League and the Labour Party.
There was more ambivalence about the Constituency Parties Movement (CPM) which campaigned for increased representation of local parties on Labour’s NEC. There is little evidence Communists played a leading role here.
Entrism encouraged accommodation to Labour. In the 1935 general election, the CPGB fielded only two candidates and urged support for the party recently excoriated as ‘social fascist’. There was some disorientation among activists, ‘as if they’ve got to take back all they said in the past concerning the Labour Party. An inner feeling they’re making some kind of surrender’. But there was no let-up in entrism. The Lancashire organiser, William Rust, argued:
where there are people in the Labour Party who are prepared to join the [Communist] Party we should carefully consider whether they should remain in the Labour Party. We should consider still further the sending of people into the Labour Party in order to win leading positions, to have in every [CPGB] District Committee somebody responsible for work in the Labour Party and nationally.
It was accepted that every district should have a cadre in charge of entry work ‘without any revelations being put in the press’. But there was concern over making concessions to reformism. There was uncertainty about whether the weight of entry work should be borne by new recruits remaining inside Labour or those sent in by the CPGB; and differences regarding the extent to which recruits should be pulled out to build the CPGB as open Communists. Mindful of the Comintern leader, Dimitrov’s, strictures against ‘right opportunism’ and an instruction from Moscow to ‘correct’ over-identification with Labour, Pollitt was critical of his party’s election activities:
We have not asked any of the Labour Party workers to join our Party … it would be a tragedy if we, in the carrying out of united activity, tend to succumb to reformist lines or encouraged a belief in them … And we recruit every member of the Labour Party into the Communist Party who wants to join … This does not mean that they should break their connections.
Walking the tightrope between working within Labour and conciliating reformism, between pedagogic adaptation and political capitulation, required hands-on guidance from the Comintern. Ruminating ‘we can very easily go wrong unless we are very careful’, Pollitt travelled to Russia. The Comintern maintained its stance against ‘liquidationist tendencies’ and rejected suggestions that the CPGB should complete what some perceived as the logic of entrism by acting as a recruiting sergeant for Labour. Suitably emboldened, Pollitt on his return renewed his criticism of the party for ‘submerging its independent line’ during the election: ‘the propaganda was for voting Labour on exactly the same line of argument as the ordinary trade union reformist type of Labour worker, and this constitutes a very serious danger for the Party’. He urged greater recruitment into the CPGB to counteract accommodationist tendencies. If Labour Party militants felt they could do their best work there, ‘nothing but disaster lies in front’. Support for publicly recruiting workers who were neither in the CPGB nor the Labour Party into the latter came from the party full-timer, Emile Burns. Others resisted this as a step towards total entry and dissolving the CPGB. But it resonated with activists. Pollitt reported that at a CPGB conference in Nottingham, ‘the line of half was affiliation and the other half said we need a change in line so badly we should liquidate the CP and get inside the Labour Party’.
This latter group believed the urgency of a Popular Front demanded total entry to challenge Labour opposition more effectively. Rust and Pollitt articulated the Comintern’s position. Rust rejected illusions ‘that the Labour Party can be made into the Party that will bring socialism in Britain’; Pollitt stressed ‘our fight against social democracy must be carried on more bitterly than before’. Quoting Dimitrov, Manuilsky and Stalin, Pollitt repudiated Burns’ proposal as tantamount to dissolving the CPGB. Worry that the affiliation campaign and entrism could, paradoxically, constitute an avenue via which Communists became Labourites and condemnation of Burns’ ‘right-wing errors’ was reiterated by the CPGB’s representative at the Comintern, Robin Page Arnot, addressing the Marty Secretariat in Moscow: ‘there were Party members in London who were openly discussing and expecting the liquidation of the CP’. This caused consternation and Comintern representatives demanded reassurance it was a minority view. Affiliation, bringing in its train legitimacy for the CPGB and a diminished need for dissimulation, could have ameliorated these problems. But it was rejected at Labour’s 1936 conference by 1.7 million votes to 592,000 (Labour Party, 1936, p. 208).
From Popular Front to Imperialist War: Progress, Problems, and Demise
Defeat prompted further affirmation that entrism should be prosecuted more energetically to facilitate future affiliation. At the post-mortem in October 1936, the party’s leading intellectual, Rajani Palme Dutt, maintained, ‘we have got to strengthen our work in the Labour Party. We want to get more and more active members in the Labour Party fighting on a common programme’. Pollitt went further, dubbing infiltration ‘the biggest task of the party … we have literally to send thousands of our members inside the Labour Party’. The CPGB’s sole MP, Willie Gallacher, insisted his party must become ‘an integral part of the Labour Party’ and form ‘an alternative leadership inside the Labour Party’, but queried: ‘How is it to be done?’
The SL’s pliability promised a possible solution: led by Sir Stafford Cripps, it favoured a united front with the CPGB and the ILP. Negotiations, monitored by the Comintern, culminated in a Unity Campaign in January 1937. It lasted less than three months, as Labour’s NEC moved decisively to proscribe the SL: ‘The Socialist League is now seeking to provide a bridge to make the Communist invasion of our ranks easier’. The PB supported the League’s decision to dissolve, with its members continuing to agitate individually for a united front. Pollitt had never been impressed by its utility as a vehicle for Communist permeation of the Labour Party. Initiating the Unity Campaign, the Comintern had re-emphasised infiltration: ‘The Communist Party must give more attention to sending into the Labour Party trusted comrades who can be relied upon to develop the mass movement for unity within the Labour Party.’ In its aftermath, Arnot reassured the Marty Secretariat that despite the furore over the SL, ‘[Ernest] Bevin and [Walter] Citrine don’t know … that there are many hundreds of members in the LP who are Communists’.
In August 1937, before departure to Russia of another delegation, a CC review highlighted progress with the entrist tactic but continuing problems in applying it. Applauding ‘splendid results’ in London, Bramley argued the ‘new situation’ required the CPGB to recruit to the Labour Party workers not yet willing to join the CPGB:
We stamped on this a year ago. I agree we have got to put more and more of our best people in the Labour movement … but is it not true that the great bulk of people that follow us are not yet Communists … there must be thousands of workers who would go into the Labour movement and not fall under the influence of Transport House but under the influence of our organised fractions.
If CPGB infiltrators could be augmented by non-CPGB Labour Party sympathisers, why not reinforce the latter by recruiting to Labour? Burns concurred:
we have to regard the Labour Party ward associations under our leadership, as … a part of our organisation. [Recruiting to them] does not mean bringing members of the working class under the influence of reformist ideology … They are very rapidly brought forward under the influence of our comrades.
Appreciating recruiting to a reformist party had been anathema to revolutionaries, Rust opposed blanket recruiting but offered a pragmatic prescription for entrists who won positions: ‘You cannot have a local secretary or executive that refuses to recruit. We have to have strong ward associations where we have the people there.’ He reported that Communists had ‘captured’ positions on the executive of the Manchester Labour Party and ‘we had to work out with these comrades the whole plan of campaign in the Labour Party’. Maurice Cornforth agreed. Communists who held positions had to recruit but this was different from a public declaration that the CPGB would recruit for Labour. In ‘the Eastern Counties’, sending ‘some of our best comrades’ into the Labour Party had exposed the need to finesse CPGB control over the work: ‘there is a tendency to leave the Comrades alone not knowing what to do and therefore they do not act in the most effective manner … we have to get them linked up together, to supervise and lead their work.’
Other speakers noted the difficulty in drafting in seasoned Communists whose reputation may have preceded them but accepted the need to expedite infiltration and strengthen its oversight. Springhall claimed that in the capital it would be possible ‘to put in another five hundred or more in the next few months’. It was vital that entrists start from bread-and-butter issues and proceed to high politics, ‘by getting down to the question of the actual problems of the local labour movement and linking them with the big national campaigns, at the same time carrying through our propaganda for Marxism’. Fraction work should be supervised from the centre ‘in a much more organised way than has existed in the past’.
In Moscow, the CPGB delegation laboured with a Comintern commission over a resolution, ‘The Next Steps in the Fight for Working Class Unity’. Endorsed by the Comintern secretariat, the text emphasised that the affiliation campaign should ‘be more than ever energetically carried forward’; recognising differentiation in Labour, it stressed the importance of appealing to the centre and isolating the right. To that end, the Comintern authorised its British affiliate to announce it would abide by Labour’s constitution. The CPGB should ‘seek by every means’ to extend ‘local unity in all forms’, while the ‘struggle for correct working class policy inside the Labour Party’ was counterposed to ‘self-liquidation chatter’. Pollitt presented the document to the CC, insisting its origin be concealed from members: ‘this resolution is the product of British circumstances and conditions’ and should be ‘popularised … without any references to discussions having taken place either here or elsewhere’. Meetings would be held in every district to ensure its implementation. Antagonism from Labour’s leadership and most members remained strong. The 1937 conference overwhelmingly confirmed the banning of the SL and opposition to cooperation with Communists. Moreover, further discussion of affiliation was caught by the ‘three-year rule’ and could not be reopened until 1939.
Renewed concern about the organisational looseness of fractions inside Labour led the CC to establish ‘a secret department … set up to control members of the party who have obtained official positions in local Labour Parties … They will not attend the Party meetings and, in order to maintain contact, they will secretly be called together from time to time, when the Party line will be explained to them …’. The department was under the general direction of Bramley, assisted in the London district, an important locus of entrism, by Jack Gaster. In February 1938, a ‘closed’ meeting of CPGB fraction leaders in the Labour Party in London was attended by around 50 people and chaired by Bramley, accompanied by Gaster. A letter sent by Gaster convening a further ‘secret’ meeting was reported to be phrased in such a way as to conceal from the ‘uninitiated’ that it dealt with ‘Communist Party contact work in Labour organisations’. Each copy of the letter was individually numbered and it was clear that Gaster was making every effort ‘to keep as secret as possible this phase of Communist Party activity’. A report of the meeting revealed Gaster expounding party policy: ‘All members should get their local Labour Parties to send a deputation to Transport House on the question of unity … The immediate programme of the Communist Party contacts in the Labour Party should be (1) Campaign for arms for Spain (2) Concrete plans for adequate air-raid precautions (3) Closer cooperation with industrial workers …’. He announced plans to significantly strengthen the ‘Labour Party Bureau’ on the CPGB London District Committee and that ‘The Communist Party Group in the Labour Party’ would have representation and voting rights at the London District Party Congress.
Gaster energetically prosecuted his new responsibilities; for example, an informer reported that he had visited the Kingston branch of the CPGB and it had been agreed that four members would be ‘ostensibly leaving the C.P.’ in order to ‘concentrate on gaining Labour Party cooperation in the United Front’. Testimony to the results of such interventions was provided some two years later by the well-publicised resignations of the secretary and chair of the Kingston District Labour Party, together with those of the secretary of the Kingston Borough Labour Party and a former Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, as well as six others, a number of them announcing their intention to join the CPGB.
Nevertheless, the landscape was darkening. Springhall reported tensions between the Labour Party fraction and open Communists. When CPGB branches mounted public campaigns, ‘our people who are in the Labour Party advise against this … because by doing so we harm the chances of developing their work and would tend to reveal them as Communists in the Labour Party’. A few months later, Dutt identified ‘a new type of secret member—the half-baked Communist, who has never had experience and full outlook of the Communist Party, but has only known existence as a secret member of the Communist Party’. There was a danger of dilution so that the CPGB would be starved of forces to mount effective independent campaigns. Dutt questioned the assumption every Labour supporter who wished to join the CPGB should become a secret member inside the Labour Party; this would restrict open recruitment to ‘miscellaneous elements outside of the Labour Movement’ and adversely skew the party’s social composition. There was, moreover, the possibility that clandestine members would never achieve ‘a Communist outlook and understanding’. Dutt concluded that only those who held important positions in the Labour Party should remain, while ‘everyday Labour Party workers’ should be encouraged to join the CPGB openly.
Failure to achieve a breakthrough was breeding more critical attitudes to entrism. Frictions between open work and undercover operations, working through an organisation hostile to Communism, were increasingly recognised and the quality of a party built this way increasingly questioned. In March 1938, Pollitt reiterated Dutt’s concerns. Recruitment to the CPGB was faltering. Pollitt blamed this on sympathisers who believed that joining the CPGB would hinder them in fighting for Communist policies in the Labour Party and trade unions. If they were advised to belong to both parties, ‘you get called hypocritical … it gives an atmosphere of double dealing to the fellow you are putting this to. He has got already to be one hundred per cent to be able to carry through that successfully’. Despite possibly two to three thousand members inside the Labour Party, many ‘become susceptible to the pressure and are not active as Communists’.
By 1939, the failure of the campaign for a Popular Front was underlined by the heavy vote against at Labour’s Conference. As Soviet foreign policy shifted, so did the CPGB’s always expedient and Comintern-contingent attitudes to Labour. The renewed application for affiliation in July had a formulaic feel and no hope of success, even before the Hitler-Stalin Pact was announced the following month. In June, Rust, charged by the PB with presenting a new policy towards entrism, had rehearsed to the CC the difficulties the party had experienced. While initially a productive stratagem, tensions had arisen between ‘concealed’ and ‘active, open’ members; there were also political costs: ‘the tendency is to pull strings instead of directly developing the political agitation … a tendency to replace the mass activity by the method of working through fractions’. Moreover, Transport House discounted resolutions from Labour organisations known to be penetrated by Communists. The CC therefore decided on ‘the withdrawal of comrades from the Labour Party, but with certain qualifications‘ [emphasis added]. In consequence, there would be ‘a number of people coming into the Party openly with quite good names and reputations’ and this would be accompanied by appropriate publicity.
Two weeks later, the Daily Worker announced that Eric Gower, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Stretford and ‘actively associated with the campaign for a People’s Front’, had joined the CPGB, his conversion allegedly accomplished through reading The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, although suspicions of his Communist affiliation were long-standing. His defection was the first of many in the following months, including the secretaries of the Oxford, Rottingdean, Mitcham, Woking, South Kensington, Hammersmith, Old Oak and Putney Labour Parties, chairs of the Brixton, North Montscombe, Watford, Woking and Hollingsbury Labour Parties, the vice-president of Hornsey Labour Party, and numerous less prominent office-holders. Cripps lamented these ‘desertions’ and urged ‘all good socialists’ to remain inside Labour. The CPGB retorted that those joining the party could work more effectively for ‘working class unity by building a strong Communist Party’. It made no general appeal, it insisted, for workers unable to accept its full programme to abandon Labour: ‘On the contrary, the interests of the working class will best be served by such workers remaining within the Labour Party, supporting all progressive measures and fighting for working class unity’.
Tortuous phraseology helped obscure the fact that withdrawal was not total. Contradicting claims that entrism ended with the outbreak of war, renewed Communist activity was reported to the NEC by George Shepherd, National Agent, in December 1939; the committee encouraged him to take ‘all necessary disciplinary action’. Three months later, a memorandum to the NEC lamented the continued presence of members who followed ‘every line of the changing policy laid down by the Communist Party’. These members were not a residuum of individual ‘impetuous spirits’: that CPGB entrists remained organised was evidenced by a meeting of the Communist fraction inside the Labour Party convened by Gaster on the eve of Labour’s 1940 annual conference.
Nevertheless, the phased withdrawal of the CPGB’s cadres continued with accompanying fanfare. Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the banning of the Daily Worker in January 1941, the paper reported that some 35 local Labour officials had resigned from the party in disgust at national policy, many of them declaring their intention to join the CPGB: in December 1939 alone, 10 such resignations were announced. In addition, it was claimed in June 1940 that 18 members of the general council of the North Kensington Labour Party had resigned since the start of the war, most transferring allegiance to the CPGB. We do not know how many were already clandestine Communists. Some may simply have been disillusioned Labour activists attracted to Communist policies. But we do know that some of those resigning to publicly ‘join’ the Communists were entrists, including George Matthews, Kenneth Campbell, Bill Rounce, Howard Hill and William Ross. The staggered nature of their withdrawal suggests it was carefully choreographed to provide maximum embarrassment to Labour and sustain the momentum of recruitment to the CPGB.
The Labour leadership continued to combat its enemy within. In July 1940, the NEC approved dissolution of Hammersmith Labour Party because of ‘disruptive activities’ and reported Sheffield Trades Council and Labour Party had been ‘re-organised on a basis of loyalty to the Labour Party’. In September, the Belper party was disaffiliated for supporting the National Vigilance Committee (NVC), ‘established by expelled members of the Labour Party with the backing of the Communist Party’. Labour’s Annual Report concluded that: ‘Since the outbreak of War and the aggression of Russia against Poland and Finland, the Communist Party of Great Britain has intensified its underground work in certain sections of the Labour Party’ (Labour Party, 1940, p. 20). In the summer of 1940, the CPGB and the NVC had launched a campaign for a People’s Convention aimed at securing a ‘people’s peace’ and, despite the implacable hostility of the Labour leadership, had organised a well-attended conference in January 1941. Labour’s officials conducted a determined counter-offensive, interviewing dozens of members, requesting they withdraw support for the Convention: 132 refused, including 20 members of the Reading party, and were expelled. Continuing anxiety over the opportunities for entrism offered by the ‘organisational decay’ induced by wartime disruption was such that the selection of prospective parliamentary candidates was suspended in October 1941 (Thorpe, 2014, p. 231).
By then the CPGB’s bouleversement following the German invasion of Russia had transformed the situation. The People’s Convention was wound up and the focus shifted to building an Anglo-Soviet Unity movement. The Soviet Union’s new-found popularity led to rapid expansion of CPGB membership and growth of influence in the trade unions under conditions of full employment (Croucher, 1982; Hinton, 1979, pp. 27-32). When the CPGB launched a renewed campaign for Labour Party affiliation in 1943, the primary locus of its hopes lay in its new battalions in the unions rather than among any residual entrist cadres. Although the proposition attracted 712,000 votes, the largest ever in favour of affiliation, it was rejected by 1,951,000 (Thorpe, 2014, pp. 234-238).
Popular Front Entrism: Dimensions
‘Communists have eaten far deeper into Local Labour Parties than is realised’, the Labour Organiser warned in 1936 (Drinkwater, 1936, p. 202). A subsequent Comintern review of the CPGB concurred: ‘With the goal of strengthening the campaign for unity within the Labour Party in the last year, many members of the Communist Party have secretly been sent for work in the internal local organs of the Labour Party’. From this and other reports, we have ascertained the number of such members for the five largest CPGB districts in November 1937 and, using district membership data, the percentage of entrists in these localities. See Table 1. These districts embraced 83% of the party’s total membership. While there was significant variation between districts, the overall figure of 10% of Communists operating inside the Labour Party is derived from a large sample of the party. If we accept the suggestion that entrism was more prevalent in industrial backwaters, this may be a slight underestimate. In the small CPGB branch in York in 1937, most of the 10 members were also members of the Labour Party, while in Harrogate all eight members were in the Labour Party. In Jarrow, an industrial town but in a region where the CPGB was exceptionally weak, five out of the seven Communists were reported to hold Labour Party cards (Wilkinson, 1939, p. 194).
CPGB members in the Labour Party, 1937.
|CPGB District||Number of covert CPGB members in Labour Party||CPGB District membership, Nov. 1937||Percentage entrists|
|Total for above districts||1216||11,973||10.2|
Sources: RGASPI, 495/74/37, Report on some of the fundamental tactical, organisational and cadre problems for the Communist Party of Great Britain, December 27, 1937; CPA, CI 16, Report on South Wales membership, PB, November 12, 1937. Primarily covering South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
The total number of entrists indicated in Table 1 is broadly consistent with Rust’s claim that during 1938-9: ‘we have had somewhat more than a thousand of our members, 1500 at the present time, who are concealed members’ [of the Labour Party]. Our figure contrasts with higher estimates by academics that around 20% of CPGB members worked inside Labour. While 1500 entrists represented 8.5% of CPGB membership in July 1939, it may be contrasted with Labour’s individual membership of 409,000 in that year. However, Labour’s members were distributed across the entire country. The crude total tells us nothing of the health of local Labour organisations. Nor should it obscure the disproportionate role energetic Communists might play, particularly given their geographical concentration in localities such as London and Lancashire. Burns noted: ‘in most of these [Labour] ward organisations the number of members is extremely small and the number of active members smaller still (in most cases smaller than the number of active members in our Party areas)’. Tenure by Communists of elected positions as Labour representatives confirmed this. In 1937 Bramley reflected that in London: ‘We have eight members of the Council now and are nearly in a position to double our number. We have members of the E.C. of the Labour Party.’ The following year, CC member Idris Cox claimed: ‘we have inside the Labour Party 32 Communists who are Councillors in London and Labour Party MPs and others’.
Further examples of Communists who were Labour councillors or leading activists in local Labour parties are provided in Table 2. This tabulates information about 55 CPGB members or sympathisers who were simultaneously members of the Labour Party. This sample is illustrative, not representative, drawn in an ad hoc manner from a range of sources. Nevertheless, our data question the character of entrism posited in earlier literature. While a handful operated in non-industrial counties, the majority were active in cities or industrial areas. Only Horace Green, and perhaps Malcolm MacEwen, fitted the template of a Communist joining Labour because of geographical isolation from other members of the party. In the context of the primary materials’ repeated insistence on concealment, the only claims that it was unnecessary remain those of Mitchell and Westacott—two out of 55 entrists in our sample (see Table 2).
A sample of Communist entrists in the Labour Party and Labour League of Youth.a
|Name/Locality||Occupation||Category of entrist||Date joined CP (or YCL)||Date joined LP/LLOY||Date left LP||LP positions||Notes|
|Sam Apter (1917-?) London||n/a||Classic||1938 (1932)||n/a||1939?||Sec., of LP Ward; Mgt Ctee, Mile-End LP 1938-39|
|Robert Barnes (1911-?) London||Teacher||Classic||1934||1935||1938||ex-ILP member; ‘worked in West Ham Labour Party’, 1935-38.b|
|Kay Birbeck (1901-?) London||Telephonist||Recruited||1938||1936||1940||Worked in ‘LP fraction’ Enfield, 1937-1940|
|George Boath (n/a) Edinburgh||Lift engineer||Classic||pre-1936||pre-1936||1940||LP councillor, 1939||Continued to sit as CPGB councillor until 1946|
|Dave Bowman (1913-96) Dundee||Railwayman||Recruited||1940||c.1935||1941||Municipal election Agent, Dundee||Expelled from LP Feb. 1941 for supporting People’s Convention|
|P. J. Broomfield (n/a) Somerset||Printer||Recruited||1939||pre-1938||1940||EC of DLP; LP Councillor, Chilton RDC, 1938-40||Left LP when forced to leave district following victimisation|
|Bernard Buckman (1910-?) London||Businessman||Recruited||1938||1931||1939||Propaganda Sec., Hampstead LP||‘I first joined the Party in 1938, although in 1937, under the instructions of [the local CPGB secretary] I worked in the Labour Party … Under [CPGB] guidance I worked with the Labour Party and became propaganda Secretary. I began open air meetings and did many meetings jointly with our Party. I became May Day organiser for the Hampstead Labour Party and was their delegate to the China Campaign Committee.’|
|Kenneth John Campbell (1909-2002) Welwyn Garden City||Architect||Recruited?||1930s||1938||1939||In charge of Miners’ Welfare Commission, West Midlands|
|David Chalmers (n/a) Edinburgh||Industrial worker||Classic||pre-1936||pre-1936||1940||LP councillor, 1938||Continued to sit as CPGB councillor until 1947|
|Frederick Dickenson (n/a) Gillingham, Kent||Engineer||Recruited||1936||1935||1940?||Divisional Labour Party||Sec., Gillingham TC, 1939; active in People’s Convention movement|
|Dorothy Edwards (1912-?) Manchester||Typist||Non-Card||1939||Mid-1930s||1939||In charge of Rusholme LLOY||‘For some time I was the Social Secretary for the [Manchester] Anti-War Council … The Communist explanation of the causes of war seemed to me the only logical one and I became a Daily Worker reader … The Anti-War Council was campaigning for affiliations from the LP … and it was agreed that a number of individual members should join the LP. I joined the Rusholme Division … where the leftwing was quite strong and we fought continuous battles for a united working class movement, against non-intervention in Spain etc.’|
|Dick Etheridge (1909-85) Halesowen||Shop assistant||Classic||1929||1929||1939||Sec., Halesowen LP; Del. to DLP; LP Municipal candidate||‘Joined the Party in 1929. Was instructed to work in the LP.’|
|Reuben Falber (1914-2006) London||Hairdresser||Recruited||1937||1935||1937||‘In the Labour Party I worked with other left-wing people and regularly sold Party literature at the ward meetings.’ On recruitment to the CP ‘I was told not to leave the Labour Party … Unfortunately I took the law into my own hands and resigned from the Labour Party and was sharply rebuked by the Party branch secretary.’|
|Jim Foulds (n/a) Colne||Unemployed||Classic||1938||1938||1939||Elected Chair of LP Ward at first meeting||‘Rather strangely, it appeared to me at the time, the comrades suggested I should join the Labour Party at the same time [as I joined the CPGB] … By July  it was decided I should resign from Labour Party and take up open Party work.’|
|Sally Freedman (n/a) London||n/a||Classic||1928 (1924)||pre-1935||n/a||Sec., Holborn Anti-Fascist League; Holborn LP||‘In 1935 started on a special assignment that lasted two years’; trained as a CPGB radio operator in Moscow, code name SILVIA|
|Eric Gower (1903-?) Manchester||Trade union official||Non-Card or Recruited||1939||pre-1926||1939||Sec., Manchester LP, 1926-31; PPC; Chair, Manchester LP, 1937||Removed as Chair of Manchester LP for Communist associations; resigned LP to join CPGB 1939|
|Horace Green (1907-?) South Yorks||Boot repairer||Non-Card||1938||1924/1936||1935/1940||Sec., Brierley LP; Del., DLP; LP Municipal Candidate||Left ILP 1935; rejoined LP 1936 as a ‘fellow traveller’; joined CP in 1938, ‘whilst remaining in local Labour Party, I developed a Left Book Club Group, from that a Labour Monthly Discussion Group, and eventually recruitment in the locality gave us the basis for a [CPGB] branch … in 1940.’|
|Peter Grimshaw (1914-?) Salford||Engineer||Recruited||1937||1933||1938||EC of DLP; former Sec., LLOY||Withdrawn from LP work ‘to lead work of a new [CPGB] group’|
|John Griffiths (1913-?) Tunbridge Wells||Hospital Administrator||Recruited||1936||1931||1938||Vice-President, Sutton DLP|
|Charlotte Haldane (1894-1969) London||Journalist||Recruited||1937||early 1930s?||1941||LP Councillor, 1940||Secretary, Dependents’ Aid Ctee; Expelled from LP over support for People’s Convention; left CPGB 1941|
|Christine Harper (1902-?) Cardiff||Garment worker||Recruited||1935||‘for many years before joining the [Communist] Party’||1939||‘in 1935 being at that period undercover was Secretary of the Penarth Trades and Labour Council for seven years… represented the LP on all committees such as Assistance Board, Public Assistance, etc.’ Resigned LP and CPGB 1939; rejoined CPGB 1941|
|A.G. Harris (1905-?) Reading||Railwayman||Recruited||1936-7||1932||1938||EC of Local LP||Sec., Reading branch of Socialist League, which he founded|
|Owen Heather (1918-?) Manchester||Student||Recruited||1936||pre-1936||?||Expelled from CPGB 1938 and joined ILP but retained LP membership throughout|
|Mary Higgins (1914-95) Oldham||Typist||Recruited||1940||1930/31||n/a||Sec., Failsworth LLOY||Sec., Oldham CPGB; ‘I joined the Communist Party in Oldham but still felt that I could do better work inside the Labour Party … I am still  a member of the Mossley LP and delegate to the Mossley DLP’|
|Howard Hill (1913-80) Sheffield||Electrician||Classic||1934-35||1930s||1940||LP Councillor, 1938-46||Required to resign from LP for chairing DW rally in May 1940; retained council Seat until 1946. Full-time Sheffield CP District Secretary from 1943|
|Stanley Hughes (n/a) North Wales||Miner||Recruited||1937||1930||1938||LP branch sec.; LP candidate, Parish Council||‘Joined the C.P. 1937 covered member until I should come out openly I was forced to resign from Wrexham TLC with a letter of regret.’|
|Douglas Hyde (1911-96) London||Dental technician||Classic||1928||1938||1938||Edited local LP paper||News Editor, Daily Worker; left CPGB 1948|
|Reed Jenkins (1907-?) South Wales||Miner||Classic||1932||mid-1930s||late-1930s||…||‘There was no Labour Party in Trelewis so I attended the Communist Branch meeting in Bedlinog and advanced the view that the main task in our area was to get the re-election of this sympathetic [to the CP] Labour man … I re-formed in Trelewis the Labour Party. After [the] election I again joined the Communist Party but worked for a time under cover. When it was considered fit, I emerged into the open and assisted in the general activities of the Party. The LP is not functioning to any extent now’|
|Lawrence Kirwan (1900-?) St Albans||Journalist||Recruited||1934||1931||1939||Sec., Ward LP; Council candidate|
|Albert Kitt (1898-?) Eccles||Engineer||Classic||1931||post-1931||pre-1943||‘Worked inside the Labour Party … for 5 years under Party guidance’|
|Miriam Llewellyn (1906-?) Neath||Housewife||Recruited||n/a||n/a||n/a||Sec., LP Women’s Section||‘Moved to suburbs. Formed a section LP there and this proved [Communist] Party stronghold. Husband expelled from [Labour] party. I continued but found I had played out so joined openly the [Communist] Party’|
|Kay Loosen (?-1997) St Albans||Typist||Recruited||1934||pre-1934||n/a||Sec., Cuffley LP; del. to St Albans DLP||Sec., Aid Spain Ctee; when in LP paid CPGB dues ‘to comrades in Enfield’|
|Harry Lubbock (1912-?) London||Accountant||Classic||1931/2||post-1932||pre-1939||Chair, Hampstead LP ‘with knowledge of Party Centre (pre-war)’||Chair, CPGB Commercial Branch|
|Malcolm McEwen (1911-96) Inverness||Lawyer||Non-Card||1941 (1935)||1935||1940||LP County Councillor, 1938-40; LP PPC||Student Communist, 1935-7, but did not join CPGB until 1941|
|Rena Maitland (1912-?) Glasgow||Factory worker||Classic||1937||1938||1939||Sec., Ward LP||Sec., Glasgow Peace Council; ‘during 1938 and 1939 worked only in LP and trade unions’|
|George Matthews (1917-2005) Bedfordshire||Farmer||Recruited||1938||1937||1939||LP PPC, Mid-Bedfordshire||First elected to CPGB Central Committee, 1943|
|Frederick Meredith (1895-?) Farnborough||Aeronautical engineer||Non-Card||n/a||Pre-1934||n/a||Leading activist in local LP||Scientific officer, RAE; from 1938 head of physics at Smiths Aircraft Instruments; in 1949 confessed to spying for Soviet Union 1936-39 but not charged|
|Ralph Milner (1912-?) St Albans||Barrister||Classic||1932||1934||1937||Prospective LP Councillor, St Albans||Joined CPGB at Cambridge; Sec., St Albans Spanish Aid Ctee|
|Tom Mitchell (1915-?) Letchworth||Foundry worker||Classic||1936||1936||n/a||Secretary, Letchworth LP||Later Secretary, CP SE Midlands District|
|Tom Murray (1900-?) Edinburgh||Temperance organiser||Classic||1930||1922||1943-45||LP Councillor; Sec., Labour Group; PPC, North Midlothian||Commissar, International Brigade; President, Edinburgh Trades and Labour Council; later a Maoist|
|George ‘Myke’ Myson (1903-?) Harrow||Dental technician||Recruited||1938||1937||1939||Active in Left Book Club Theatre Guild|
|James Oldbury (1904-?) Warrington||Train driver||Recruited||1935||c.1932||1941||‘Joined CP 1935 but was instructed to still retain membership Labour Party. About this time elected on to the EC of TC, playing a prominent part until expelled in 1941 for association with the People’s Convention.’|
|Jack Owen (1887-1957) Manchester||Engineer||Recruited||1936||1920s?||1940||LP Councillor, Vice-Chair, Manchester LP||Ex-SDF member involved in Ruskin College strike, Plebs League; expelled from LP for chairing DW rally; immediately joined DW Editorial Committee and became regular DW columnist|
|George Pemberton (1904-?) London||Butcher||Recruited||1933-4||1932||1938||Sec., Central Wandsworth LP||‘recruited 20 party members from LP’|
|Dave Priscott (1919-1995) Portsmouth||Apprentice||Non-Card||1938||1934||1938||Del., DLP||Later secretary, Yorkshire District CP|
|Denis Pritt (1887-1972) London||Barrister, MP||Non-Card||n/a||1919||1940||Labour MP, 1935-40||Expelled from LP 1940; independent MP 1945-50|
|William Ross (1901-?) Corby||Steel worker||Classic||1926||1937||1940||Labour councillor; Sec., Corby Trades Council||Having moved to Corby from Lanarkshire, joined LP after consulting CP District Secretary; later Birmingham CP Organiser|
|Bill Rounce (n/a) Jarrow||Joiner||Recruited||1937||pre-1937||1940||Labour councillor, 1938||Deselected for being CPGB member|
|Les Smith (1909-?) London||Factory worker||Non-Card?||1938||1935||1938||LP Ward Sec.||‘Finally decided I would have to join CP if I wanted to fight for Unity, the People’s Front, and the Spanish People. On application was told to remain in LP, but came out openly as a party member the later end of 1938. A number of others from the ward joined the party with me.’|
|Frank Truefitt (1912-?) Salford||Joiner||Recruited||1937 (1933)||1931||1938||Chair, Salford LLOY; Sec., Salford LP||‘Was in charge of fraction work in LP in Salford up to or just previous to Munich’|
|Wilfred Vernon (1882-1975) Farnborough||Aeronautical draughtsman||Non-Card?||n/a||pre-1934||PPC, 1938; MP, 1945-51; LP Councillor, post-1951||Convicted for breach of Official Secrets Act, 1938; later confessed to espionage on behalf of Soviet Union|
|William Ward (1921-) Blackpool||Clerk||Recruited||1939||1938||1941||‘Worked simultaneously in the Party, the [Young Communist] League and the Labour Party, the local LLOY becoming more or less defunct … This was the position up to being called up in May 1941’. Later CPGB organiser in Lancs and Cheshire|
|Fred Westacott (1916-2001) Winchester||Fitter||Recruited||1937||1932/1935||1940||Sec. Local LP; delegate to CLP||CP full-time worker South Wales, 1942|
|George Whomack (1883-?) Bexley||Gun examiner||Non-Card?||pre-1927||pre-1934||n/a||LP candidate, Bexley UDC, 1934||By mid-1930s, still attended CP demonstrations and espoused CP policy but was not known to be a CP member. This may have been due to his employment at Woolwich Arsenal and his membership of a Soviet espionage ring there, for which he was convicted in 1938|
|Syd Wilkin (1908-89) Rotherham||Factory worker||Recruited||1937||1935||1942||EC of local LP||‘In 1937 I joined the CP although a member of the LP. I remained in the LP until 1942.’|
Sources: CPA, CP/CENT/PERS/1-8, Personal files; LPA, NEC Minutes; TNA, Security Service Files: Frederick William Meredith, KV2/2199, KV2/2202, D.N. Pritt, KV2/1062-1065, W.F. Vernon, KV2/994-996, George Whomack, KV2/1237, E.D. Weiss, KV2/2230; Daily Worker, 1939-40; Stevenson (n.d.); Flinn (2005); Haldane (1949); MacDougall (2000); McHugh (2001); Morgan et al. (2007); Priscott (1984); Weinbren (1997); West (2005). Although the CPGB conducted extensive entrism inside the Labour League of Youth (LLOY) through its youth organisation, the Young Communist League (YCL), we have not included individuals who were solely involved in entrist activity in the LLOY. However, our sample includes some who initially joined the YCL or LLOY and progressed to entrism in the adult Labour Party. Unless otherwise stated, quotations are from CPGB personal files.
Although 12 entrists for whom occupational information is available were middle-class, 26 were manual workers and 12 were in clerical or white-collar employment. Only one was a student, a group whose mobility, it has been conjectured, facilitated concealment, while two (Milner and MacEwen) had become Communists at university. Subterfuge was indispensable for some manual workers, such as Dave Priscott, an apprentice in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard where CPGB membership could lead to dismissal. Reed Jenkins demonstrated that even in the closely-knit mining communities of South Wales, Communists could successfully operate undercover. That 20 of those listed remained Labour Party members after 1939 confirms the qualified nature of the CPGB’s withdrawal that year.
Even allowing for the small-scale, unrepresentative nature of the sample in Table 2, and the problems of ascertaining precise dates of recruitment, it is notable that 17 were CPGB members who infiltrated the Labour Party, compared with 29 who were recruited to the CPGB when already Labour members. Of the 17, the data are sufficient to show that five had been Communists for two years or more before they entered the Labour Party while four had been Communists for up to one year. Only one of these four, Jim Foulds, unequivocally joined both parties simultaneously: ‘the comrades suggested I should join the Labour Party at the same time [as I joined the CPGB]’.
Stalinist Entrism: Protagonists
It is difficult to classify Labour Party activists working for the CPGB with precision. Given the secrecy which shrouded the enterprise, categorisation can only be rough, boundaries between groups are approximate and classification has to acknowledge fluidity and internal differentiation. We can largely, although not completely, exclude the Popular Front fellow-travellers anatomised by David Caute (1988, pp. 166-174) from the entrist paradigm. The majority neither espoused the CPGB’s programmatic politics nor acted under its discipline; they differed from most Labour activists in their attitude to the Soviet Union and/or determination to collaborate with the Communists in the fight against fascism. However, some had a closer, if still ambiguous, relationship with the CPGB. For example, Dorothy Woodman, forced to resign from the chair of a proscribed CPGB front by Labour’s NEC, was described by MI5 as a ‘near communist’; dismissed by Cripps from the editorship of the erstwhile popular-frontist Tribune in 1940 for continuing to plough a Stalinist furrow, H.M. Hartshorn is variously designated a ‘fellow-traveller’ (Caute, 1988, p. 168), ‘a near Communist’ (K.O. Morgan, 2007, p. 64) or ‘a secret member of the CP’ (Anderson & Davey, 2013, p. 859). There is continuing controversy over whether John Strachey, classified in the past as ‘a fellow traveller strictly adhering to the party line’ (Wood, 1959, p. 43) may have been for a time a card-carrying Communist. Characterised by one historian as somebody who ‘should probably be counted with the communists in all but name’ (Morgan, 2009), D.N. Pritt himself described membership as ‘a technical matter’, a judgement which certainly applied to his own case.
Caute (1988, p. 173) similarly countenanced against fetishising possession of a party card and Jack Cutter, the anti-Communist columnist of the Labour Organiser, claimed each entrist fraction contained ‘ordinary’ and ‘party’ members:
‘Ordinary’ members are Union or Labour Party delegates who are prepared to put the CP case and use CP tactics in the organisations to which they are delegated. To comply with LP and TUC rules they do not take out CP membership cards, but seasoned members of the CP attend their meetings to act as ‘guides’. (Cutter, 1940b, p. 55)
‘Ordinary’ members were ‘to all intents and purposes’ members of the CPGB, ‘and in close cahoots with that organisation’. Cutter observed of the underground operative:
He does not possess a CP membership card, and if he made formal application for CP membership he would probably be refused because he is doing much more valuable work for them inside the Labour Party. The Americans have a word for this kind of under-cover man. They would call him a stool pigeon. (Cutter, 1940a, p. 26)
Cutter may have over-generalised—as we have seen, CPGB activists were, at times, under pressure from their leaders to recruit sympathetic Labour activists into the CPGB and some secret members had CPGB cards held by party officials. Whatever the formal position, it is clear from autobiographical accounts that, card or no card, ‘ordinary’ members acted as CPGB members. On that basis, and allowing for diversity, entrists may be broadly and provisionally grouped into three categories: classic entrists (Communists infiltrating the Labour Party); recruited entrists (Labour Party members who joined the CPGB but remained active on its behalf inside Labour); and non–card–carrying Communists (Labour Party members who did not formally join the CPGB but strictly adhered to its line).
The organisers of entrism should not be overlooked. The tactic was driven from the top by the Comintern and Pollitt. But as we have seen, the CC and district functionaries were involved; indeed, it is implausible that conscientious activists remained unaware of the policy. Bramley and Gaster directed operations and were well-fitted to that role. An engineering trade unionist, Bramley had been active in the Labour Party in the 1920s. He himself had been recruited to the CPGB in 1927 by Communists who had evaded expulsion and was familiar with clandestine technique. A CC member who had attended the 13th Plenum of the Comintern Executive in Moscow in 1933, he held a pivotal position as London Organiser. From a bourgeois Jewish background, Gaster brought a lawyer’s skills to subversion. He had known Bramley in Westminster Labour Party in the 1920s and joined the CPGB from the ILP where he had become well-versed in the world of factionalism and Communist entrism (Cohen, 2001, pp. 190-209).
Douglas Hyde exemplifies the first category of entrist. When he moved to Woking in 1938, he adopted ‘the familiar communist infiltration methods’ in the local Labour Party. After his first meeting he engaged ‘keen young members’ in discussion:
I noted the most hopeful and sat with them at the next meeting … Two or three weeks later I got the first of them into the Party, telling them to keep quiet about his membership and to continue to work in the Labour Party. Then another, another and another … When the Constituency Party’s Annual General Meeting came round we decided in advance whom to support … The group captured a majority of the positions and was soon doing most of the work of the Labour Party in the district. (Hyde, 1950, pp. 64-65)
Gathering his recruits together, Hyde revealed the strength of the CPGB caucus and launched a Labour Party newspaper which disseminated the CPGB line. When the CPGB leadership decided that ‘most of the undercover members in the Labour Party should come out into the open’ almost the entire group resigned, severely disrupting Labour organisation in the district. (Hyde, 1950, p. 66). Although Hyde wrote as a critical ex-Communist, his recollections are supported by the Daily Worker which reported in July 1939 that the chairman, vice-chairman, secretary and a committee member of Woking Labour Party had resigned to join the CPGB.
Tom Murray was another successful infiltrator. He had been an ILP and Labour Party member from 1919 before joining the CPGB in Edinburgh in 1930. At some point he became involved in what he described as the party’s ‘policy of clandestine underground activity’ and joined the Labour Party. By 1936 he was a Labour councillor, supported in his campaign by Communists who ‘were subterranean like me’ (MacDougall, 2000, p. 292). He recalled three other councillors who were secret CPGB members. Jack Kane claimed only a brief, nominal membership. The two others, David Chalmers and George Boath, elected in 1938 and 1939, respectively, came out openly as Communists by 1940 and served as CPGB councillors until after the war (MacDougall, 2000, pp. 294-5, 537-8, nn. 259, 261). Murray, by then secretary of the Labour group as well as prospective parliamentary candidate for North Midlothian, made no similar admission and continued to play a leading role among Labour councillors.
Murray’s career is testimony to the difficulties Labour faced in identifying and removing entrists. His ability was suggested following the outbreak of war when the CP appointed him to lead a small group in Scotland charged with preparing for illegality: ‘reliable comrades who would cease to be prominent in open party activities, and indeed who would preferably appear to be renegades from Party organisation… in no circumstances were they to be seen reading the Daily Worker…‘ (MacDougall, 2000, pp. 274-275). Despite such precautions, Labour officials had grounds for suspecting his political sympathies. Murray had been secretary of the Scottish branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union and twice visited Russia; he led the Scottish delegation to the International Peace Congress in Brussels in 1936; was a commissar in the International Brigade in Spain between April and August 1938; and served on the Presidium of the International Conference on Refugees in Paris in 1939. The same year he attended the Conference of Petition Committees protesting against the expulsions of supporters of Cripps. While many suspected Murray and his fellow ‘subterraneans’ were ‘very close to the Communist Party if not actually members … they couldn’t prove anything’ (MacDougall, 2000, p. 294).
Appointed Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in 1939, Murray became president of Edinburgh Trades and Labour Council in 1941. He subsequently claimed pressure of union work led him to resign his parliamentary candidature in 1940 and his council seat in 1942. Although Woodburn had prevented Murray from securing parliamentary nomination in Dundee, he was unable to repeat this in Midlothian where Murray had strong support. However, following an interview with Labour’s Scottish Executive concerning his ‘attitude to Party policy’, he agreed to withdraw his candidature. His politics provoked his removal as Trades Council president in 1943 following a vote of no confidence, critics accusing him of using his office to assist the Communist Party. Murray stood for the town council as a Communist candidate in 1946. Although his election report claimed that Labour Party organisation in the ward had been ‘developed by the C.P.’, he came bottom of the poll. Disillusioned with what he termed the CPGB’s ‘desertion of the infallible guiding principles of Marxism-Leninism’, he resigned in 1965 to become a Maoist. His retrospective evaluation of his ‘infiltration and clandestine activity was that it was a failure …because people just don’t tolerate that sort of thing after a certain experience of it’ (MacDougall, 2000, p. 292).
Many Labour activists recruited to the CPGB continued working inside the Labour Party. Lawrence Kirwan, a journalist, joined Labour in 1931 aged 21. Largely inactive, he had been galvanised by the failure of the Vienna revolt in 1934 and had switched to the Chiswick branch of the CPGB, moving the following year to Enfield where there were only four other party members:
The five of us linked up and recruited most of an active group of Socialist Leaguers and we soon had a functioning branch … All this time I had retained my Labour Party membership. I joined the Enfield Chase Ward Labour Party and quickly was elected Secretary and a delegate to the Divisional General Council. Soon almost half our then small membership was in influential positions in the LP there.
Kirwan stood unsuccessfully as a Labour council candidate in 1938. The following year, in conformity with CPGB instructions, he announced his disagreements with Labour policy and that he ‘was going over to the CP (of which of course [he] was already an active member)’.
Like London, Manchester was a stronghold of entrism and Jack Owen one of the most effective of those who operated inside the Labour Party after his recruitment to the CPGB in 1936. A veteran of the SDF, Owen lent authenticity and tradition to entrism. He had participated in the 1909 Ruskin College strike, graduating to work in the Plebs League and the pre-1914 syndicalist upsurge, as well as the wartime shop stewards’ movement. He was particularly useful as he combined activity in the Amalgamated Engineering Union with his undercover endeavours in the Labour Party where he became a Labour councillor and vice-chair of the Manchester City Labour Party. Like many entrists, Owen came out in 1940 when he was expelled for chairing a Daily Worker rally. He became a member of the editorial board and subsequently the full-time staff of the Communist newspaper.
Frank Truefitt, from a left-wing, republican family in Salford, had joined the LLOY aged 19 in 1931. Two years later he was recruited to the ‘YCL [Young Communist League] fraction’ and underwent ‘quick development’, becoming Chairman of the Salford LLOY and attending three national conferences. He joined the CPGB in 1937 and progressed to covert work inside the adult Labour Party, although, echoing the concerns of the CPGB leadership, he recalled he initially displayed ‘tendencies to carry Labour Party background into Party work’. Truefitt was elevated to command of the CPGB’s Labour Party fraction in Salford and thus represented a significant asset: the ‘decision to withdraw me from LP was slow, as it was thought advisable I remained in after the Munich crisis’ (of September 1938). His selection for ‘special work’ on the outbreak of war—in similar fashion to Murray and Hyde, who was placed in charge of CP underground activity nationally in 1939—bespoke skills developed as an entrist. His political reliability was underlined by his appointment to the CP’s Cadre Commission in 1942.
The journalist Charlotte Haldane, was a Labour Party member of many years standing when she was recruited to the Communist Party. A secret member of the CPGB under ‘Party discipline’ from 1937, she followed Pollitt’s personal instruction in 1939 to attend meetings of the South-West St Pancras Labour Party: ‘It was a small group, but even here there was a strong Party fraction, of which, of course I was a member also. In due course the fraction got my nomination to the Borough Council. I became a member of the Labour Group on the council on January 17th 1940’ (Haldane, 1949, pp. 238, 182; see also Adamson, 1998, pp. 97, 137). This corroborates the qualified nature of the CPGB’s ‘withdrawal’ from entrism in 1939. Haldane was eventually expelled from Labour for supporting the People’s Convention and, disillusioned with Stalinism following service as a war correspondent in Russia, resigned from the CPGB in 1941.
The intricacies of entrism and the complexities of classifying entrists are apparent from the case of Malcolm MacEwen who may be viewed as a recruited entrist or a non-card-carrying Communist. He joined Labour at Edinburgh University in the mid-1930s but soon became associated with the YCL. To all intents and purposes, he was a Communist when he enrolled in the Labour Party in Inverness in 1937. He retrospectively explained this decision on the grounds that the CPGB mustered only two members in an area unprepossessing for Communists and his apprehension of the adverse impact open affiliation to the CPGB might have on his family’s law firm. Nonetheless, there was an expectation that in these circumstances Communists would enter Labour. Although MacEwen described himself as a fellow-traveller, he religiously read the Daily Worker and faithfully followed the CPGB line, being elected a Labour councillor and adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate for Ross and Cromarty. The Hitler-Stalin pact failed to shake his faith and his resignation from the Labour Party over its condemnation of the Soviet attack on Finland confirmed his Communism. He worked for the Daily Worker, supported the People’s Convention and stood as what he termed ‘the Crypto-Communist Candidate’ in the East Dunbartonshire by-election in 1941. On his own account, CPGB leaders assumed MacEwen was a member, although it was only when appointed a CPGB organiser that ‘I then got my Party card’.
The barrister D.N. Pritt was perhaps the most prominent non-card-carrying Communist. Converted to Stalinism following a visit to Russia in 1932, and quickly utilised as chair of the legal commission established by the World Committee for the Victims of German Fascism into the Reichstag fire, Pritt was elected Labour MP for Hammersmith North in 1935 and a member of the NEC in 1936. He was initially cautious in his public dealings with the CPGB. Invited by Springhall to an ‘open conference’ organised by the party in 1935, Pritt declined, explaining that he was already suspected of collaboration: ‘I have to be particularly careful to do nothing to jeopardise my chances of doing useful work in the future’. His utility was demonstrated by his apologia for the Moscow trials. His attendance at Zinoviev’s trial in 1936 was secured by Arnot with difficulty, but the CPGB representative in Moscow concluded that ‘when he gets back … it ought to be thoroughly useful’. Pritt’s book endorsing the proceedings realised Arnot’s expectations. Expelled from Labour for supporting the Soviet invasion of Finland, Pritt became treasurer of the People’s Vigilance Committee and a frequent speaker on CPGB platforms where he deployed his non-membership of the party to legitimise his pro-Soviet views. In private, he came close to joining the party on several occasions but does not appear to have done so. While not a formal member, the Security Service judged that ‘in every other respect he is an ardent Communist’.
Pritt’s value was underlined by his involvement with another apparent ‘non-card carrier’, Wilfred Vernon, a technician at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). An active member of the Farnborough and Cove Labour Party, police surveillance concluded he was ‘closely connected’ with CPGB headquarters, Hampshire’s Chief Constable labelling him ‘a fanatical communist’ who distributed the Daily Worker to his workmates. A Special Branch informant alleged that Vernon, along with an aeronautical engineer and fellow Labour Party activist, Frederick Meredith, were members of ‘an active and dangerous Communist cell at RAE’. Although he distributed CPGB literature, propounded Communist policies and organised meetings for a variety of leftwing causes, Vernon emphasised the importance of discretion: ‘It is very necessary to be careful how we go about things and not to run into trouble unnecessarily. We must choose our jobs. I, being a civil servant, have to be particularly cautious’. Although both men were justifiably suspected of Communist sympathies—Meredith had signed a letter to the Daily Worker office ‘Yours sympathetically’—there was no hard evidence that they were CPGB members. According to a moderate official of the local Labour Party,
Meredith is 100% [Communist] but has not openly stated so before the [Labour] Party, so cannot be expelled; Vernon runs him very close … I have tried all along to keep the Party clean Labour, but not always successfully I am afraid.
Following a burglary at his home, Vernon’s notes on classified documents were discovered among stolen papers. Charged under the Official Secrets Act, he was defended by Pritt, who emphasised the ‘difference between this case and one of spying’. Pritt insisted there was ‘no hint’ of his client making ‘improper’ use of the information and, denying Vernon’s Communist connections, protested: ‘There was not a single word of truth in that’. Fined and dismissed from the RAE, Vernon alleged political victimisation, strenuously denying he was a Communist. Sympathisers established a ‘Vernon Defence Fund’ and his local Labour Party petitioned the NEC. Sentence was pronounced the day the NEC met and the committee agreed that Pritt (an NEC member) should discuss matters with the chair. Pritt’s successful advocacy permitted Vernon’s adoption as a prospective parliamentary candidate in 1938 and he was elected Labour MP for Dulwich in 1945.
The involvement of Vernon and Meredith in Soviet espionage was only revealed after the war, following the discovery of Gestapo files in Paris relating to a Soviet spy ring (West, 2005, pp. 228-235). That Pritt’s defence had been disingenuous was suggested by Meredith’s assurance that Vernon had told Pritt ‘the whole story of his espionage connections’. Meredith confessed he had spied to MI5 interrogators in 1949. Vernon was not questioned until 1952, having lost his seat in the 1951 election. He admitted espionage but denied CPGB membership. His denial cannot be accepted uncritically since he was then a Labour county councillor and parliamentary candidate, but, given it was normal for Soviet agents to distance themselves from local Communist parties, it remains plausible. In 1939, an MI5 informant reported meeting Vernon who, he claimed, was ‘working up the Labour Party and CP at EAST DULWICH … Says CP latest instructions are that—all Communists are to leave the weak-kneed Labour Party and concentrate on building the CP. Some areas are to work openly. Others—like Aldershot—are to build up secret Parties.’ If Vernon did not carry a card, he was at least well informed on current party policy.
A Normal British Party?
This paper has reconstructed an under-researched aspect of political history and extended and clarified the existing historiography. Communist entrism, a specific, often overlooked, variety of the species, was on a smaller scale than some historians have estimated. Nevertheless, by 1937 around 10% of CPGB members were operating inside the Labour Party and some held office. Entrism commenced earlier and concluded later than has been assumed. Exploratory moves were in train in 1933, coinciding with the CPGB’s initial united front overtures to Labour Party leaders. Entrism was prosecuted from 1934, and thereafter with mounting vigour. It functioned as a significant adjunct to successive campaigns for Communist affiliation to facilitate a Popular Front. Our findings question the perception in the literature that sustained entrism began in 1937 and was abandoned after 1939. Assets remained in place until the downturn in Labour activity and dissolution of the Comintern in 1943.
Biographical data validate party documents: like later entrism, the Communist variant involved infiltration of CPGB members to stimulate the defection of Labour Party members and organise their retention as secret Communists or collaborators who augmented the process of winning recruits to Communism and influencing Labour Party policy. Largely absent from existing accounts of the period, entrism constituted a significant aspect of Communist strategy. Its character, secrecy and limited demands contrast with the relative openness and socialist programme of the NLWM. It raises questions about the degree to which Popular Front sentiment inside the Labour Party was organic or artificially stimulated and casts new light on the relationship between the CPGB and the Labour left. To present entrism as a semi-spontaneous alignment of ideals and goals, across porous political boundaries between Communist and Labour activists, is to diminish the element of organised agency apparent from the primary materials; minimise the borders between the two parties; and dissolve the secrecy and subversion intrinsic to the tactic. What was involved was, as Pollitt conceded, ‘a question of the Trojan Horse’.
The Stalinist entrism of the 1930s has some claims to be considered the major modern essay in covert factional activity based on infiltration of a mass party. It is, moreover, important to situate the episode in its broader context. From one vantage point, the CPGB was a conventional British party, an image it strenuously cultivated in the Popular Front years; from another, it was a Russian-directed and financed, conspiratorial organisation, a reality it sought to suppress in these years. Consideration of entrism confirms that secrecy and double-dealing was integral to the CPGB’s modus operandi, as much part of British Communism as campaigning for arms for Spain, mobilisation against the Blackshirts, struggles for higher wages and union democracy—or adulation of Stalin. There was a unity between the ‘normal’ facets of British Communism and its identity as a conspiratorial avatar of Soviet policy. The latter, as the Comintern archives substantiate, directed and infused the former. In any attempt at holistic history, both aspects demand attention; neither should be disregarded. A small vignette illuminates the way in which the different worlds of Russo-British Communism were connected. In early 1943, Pollitt reported to Dimitrov via the NKVD intelligence network on what he considered the successful progress of the CPGB’s latest affiliation campaign, intimately related to the entrist project. Not to be outdone, Pavel Fitin, Head of the NKVD Foreign Department, countered that his resident station chief in London had taken time out from supervising British Communists spying for Russia to assess the affiliation campaign with his own practised eye. Fitin concluded that Pollitt’s estimation did not ‘correspond to reality’ (Firsov et al., 2014, p. 191).
Nonetheless some academics who focus on the ‘normal’, ‘British’ features suggest that scholars who focus on ‘the secret world’ are ‘fixated’ on it. In contrast, the eminent historian and former Communist, Dorothy Thompson, reasserted its significance, both for political and social historians: ‘”undercover” work formed a part at least of the political lives of many comrades, among them the most committed party members. They were part of the “front” activity and should perhaps show up somewhere in the social history of the CP membership’ (Thompson, n.d., p. 4).
Latter-day Communists admitted the CPGB maintained a list of secret members, not for nefarious reasons but to protect civil servants, teachers and others in similar employment who feared victimisation because of their party membership (Griffiths, 2008). This overlooks the denial of party membership and resort to subterfuge of Communists operating in voluntary institutions, from the trade unions through the Union of Democratic Control and the League of Nations Union, and a plethora of student and youth organisations, to the National Council of Labour Colleges, the ILP and, of course, the Labour Party. Converts to Communism embraced duplicity with a vengeance. In the light of other evidence, there seems little need to question the recollections of Oxford University in the late 1930s of the then Communist, Robert Conquest: ‘Nearly all the committee of the Labour Club, with over 1,000 members, and all the committees of the League of Nations Union, Liberal Club and Student Christian Movement, together with two of the five Conservative Club committee were also in the CP. So, extraordinary as it seems, were two even of the ten British Union of Fascists!’ (Conradi, 2009, p. 82). Together with its subordination to the Comintern, the Soviet state and bureaucratic centralism, entrism stamped the CPGB as far from a ‘normal’ British party.
Yet entrism produced problems. There were tensions between building a centralist party which proclaimed itself the vanguard of the working class, and marshalling members to construct an undercover caucus inside a competitor with a fundamentally antagonistic, organisation, politics and culture. The contradictions even posed a kind of premature Browderism, the unintended, existential issue of dissolving the CPGB. There were conflicts between ‘open Communists’ and ‘subterraneans’, anxieties about the quality of Labour Party recruits and difficulties in organising and executing a changing line while evading detection. Some entrists became inactive; others felt the pull of the politics they simulated. And it was not only Labour’s leaders but many members who did not take kindly to deception. In the end, an intriguing enterprise in which the Comintern in Moscow mounted a covert operation to systematically subvert what was, in contradistinction to the CPGB, a very British party foundered on the antipathy to Communism and suspicion of its methods that the majority of Labour Party activists shared with their leaders.