As we have seen, there was a very strained relationship between Murphy and other leaders of the CPGB from the mid-1920s onwards. There had been the major argument immediately after the General Strike, with Murphy's polemical article in Communist International (with Page Arnot) attacking the party's failure to criticise the ‘left’ trade union leaders. Then there had been Murphy's critique of the party's acceptance of the TUC's instruction to trades councils to disaffiliate from the Minority Movement. This was followed by the bitter and protracted battle to gain the party's acceptance of the need for a sharp leftward turn towards the Comintern's ‘Third Period’ new line, exemplified by the political bureau's attempt to prevent Murphy attending the Ninth ECCI Plenum and Murphy's resignation from his leadership position within the party in September 1928. Moreover, Murphy's proposal for a Workers’ Political Federation, and his distinctive position on such tactical issues as the non-payment of the political levy, had even pitted him against those members of the central committee who agreed with the general thrust of the new line, such as Pollitt and Palme Dutt. Such tensions were reflected in a number of bitter exchanges within the political bureau during 1930 over a range of tactical issues, which resulted in Murphy's appointment to, and then removal from, the industrial department within the space of just a few days. This chapter explores the way these tensions were further exacerbated in early 1931 over a conflicting assessment of the Labour Party's fortunes, which eventually culminated in May 1932 with Murphy's expulsion from the CP over an argument about credits to the Soviet Union. It also charts his subsequent political trajectory towards left reformism.
A ‘DISINTEGRATING’ LABOUR PARTY?
The conflicting assessment of the Labour Party was a major turning point. In early 1930 Murphy was appointed head of the CP's parliamentary department and, as part of the political offensive against Labour, he stood as the party's candidate in a by-election in the Sheffield constituency of Brightside against the Labour candidate Fred Marshall. Murphy wrote a special pamphlet entitled The Labour Government: An Examination of its Record, which explained how:
A noticeable feature of Murphy's political trajectory after his expulsion from the Communist Party was his growing distance from the working-class movement in which he had earlier played such a prominent role. Thus, as a member of the Socialist League's national leadership, he found himself amidst a predominantly public school and university educated group of people. Amongst the 23 people who served as national council members between 1932 and 1937 there were two Etonians, three Wykehamists, and one old Harrovian. At least nine had been at Oxford or Cambridge, and four at London University. The formal education of only two, one of whom was Murphy, ended at elementary level.Ironically, despite the fact the Labour Party had a primarily working-class membership, Murphy now mixed in a social milieu which was less than ideally suited to the task of enticing the labour movement from its inherent suspicion of left-wing middle-class intellectuals.
In addition, Murphy increasingly began to write for, and closely associate with, a number of liberal reformist journals which were linked to different middle-class groups and individuals. There was Adelphi, which was owned by John Middleton Murry who espoused a form of Christian communism and who grouped around him a number of young writers with a ‘synthesis of aestheticism, post-Impressionism, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence and socialism’. As well as writing for the journal, Murphy became particularly friendly with its editor, Sir Richard Rees, whom Murphy's wife Molly described as ‘a typical representative of the English intelligentsia, a pacifist and well-dressed gentleman’. There was also New Britain, a journal connected with a Bosnian Serb intellectual, Dimitrije Mitrionovic, who set up a national organisation known as the New Britain Movement (NBM) that operated between 1933 and 1934. It called for personal alliance (individuals consciously entering into unity with others to achieve a new unity), Monetary Reform, Industrial Guilds (which would run and control industry), the Three Fold State (separate parliamentary ‘houses’ for politics, economics and culture), and the Federation of Western Nations. In addition, there was the House of Industry League, a successor body to the NBM, which formed in 1936. It sought collective ownership of industry in an Economic Chamber, to be known as the ‘House of Industry’, representatively based on national Industrial Guilds.
After the war Murphy was only just able to survive on the meagre unemployment benefit he received by selling some furniture and books and with financial support from his mother. However, freed from the constraints of work, he was able to throw himself into full-time activity as chair of the Sheffield Workers’ Committee and assistant secretary of the National Administrative Council of the SS&WCM. He also became active in the Sheffield branch of the Plebs League, which organised study classes among trade unionists, and gave two weekly Labour College lectures on Marxist economics and industrial history. In addition, after being elected an executive committee member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), he went on to play a central role in reshaping the party's policy and in conducting socialist unity negotiations with other revolutionary groups that eventually led to the formation of the British Communist Party.
Of major significance during this period of 1919–1920 was his political evolution from syndicalism to communism, as he combined his own wartime shop steward experiences with the events in Bolshevik Russia to develop a new form of revolutionary socialist politics. This involved three main features: an appreciation of the soviet as the chief agency of socialist revolution and the need for the working class to conquer state power; the central role of a vanguard political party; and the relationship between revolutionary socialists and the Labour Party. He also further developed his wartime analysis of the trade union bureaucracy.
THE THEORY OF SOVIET POWER
It was only after the war, in the context of the Russian revolution and revolutionary turmoil throughout Europe, including massive labour unrest in Britain, that the full revolutionary implications of their own wartime practice of independent rank-and-file organisation came to be appreciated by Murphy and the others shop stewards’ leaders. Aided by theoretical developments within the SLP and the BSP, which their own practice helped to promote, the stewards’ leaders initiated a new burst of theoretical activity during the autumn of 1918 which was to extend beyond the concept of rank-and-file independence to the idea of the seizure of state power by the Workers’ Committees, which were now conceived of as embryonic ‘soviets’, the economic and political nucleus of a future workers’ state similar to that which existed in Russia.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great deal of morbid symptoms appear.
It is too early to say. [Chinese leader Zhou Enlai in 1989, when asked about the effects of the French Revolution.]
The party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law?
Sinn Féin's decision in January 2007 to accept the legitimacy of the PSNI completed a process that fundamentally changed the nature of Provisional ideology, and radically transformed the contours of politics throughout Ireland. The hand of history was felt on a great many shoulders in this period, but, for once, the description ‘historic’ was no mere political soundbite. The logic of Provisional politics from the late 1980s seemed to lead inexorably towards this point, a process described by one Provisional as ‘moving from an historical position, strategy and culture of resistance to one of engagement, negotiation and governance’. It reflected a widely-held view that the vote signalled not merely the end of one form of Provisionalism, but, more generally, the passing of militant Irish Republicanism as a historic force.
Beginning with the abandonment of abstentionism in 1986 and ending with the vote on policing in 2007, the Provisionals had revised so many positions previously regarded as fundamental and crossed so many Rubicons that this sense of a qualitative historical shift within Republicanism seemed fully justified. Just as cultural critics had defined Ireland as a ‘post-nationalist’ society, it now seemed possible to use similar terminology to define the Provisionals as ‘post-Republican’.
It became commonplace to compare the Provisionals’ trajectory with other revisionist projects. For example, the Provisionals’ effective public relations and ideological modernization drew comparisons with New Labour's vacuous politics of presentational slickness and abandonment of core values. Other comparisons were prompted by historicist parallels between the Provisionals’ evolution into ‘constitutional revolutionaries’ in the 1990s and Fianna Fáil's embrace of ‘slight constitutionality’ in the late 1920s. The Big Lad was following The Chief: the latest ‘legion of the rearguard’ had been transformed into yet another ‘party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law’.
The majority of the population live in clustered housing estates where sectarianism … extortion, poor health and paramilitaries are too ordinary to raise any comment. These conditions have attracted vast sums of money to Northern Ireland, but the beneficiaries are not on the housing estates. Those who manage the money [and] apportion it … are part of a vast public sector who depend on outside money. In the leafy Victorian suburbs, those who live outside the conflicts fought in the housing estates … are on benefits just as much as those on the ‘bru’.
The thirty-year war between the Republican movement and the British state has primarily been considered as a military and political conflict: in comparison to these main battlefields, social and economic factors have been relegated to peripheral roles. In particular, the terrain of civil society and its relationship with the state has rarely been theorized as a decisive factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The power of the contemporary state is often characterized by the degree to which it can successfully create and reproduce political and social hegemony, a type of power that rests on complex forms of consent as opposed to simple coercion. In post-Gramscian theorization, for example, this dominant consensus is produced by a multifaceted interaction between the state in all its forms and ‘independent’ civil society.
The very term ‘civil society’ is itself problematic in political theory. Some readings in the 1990s saw civil society as an intermediate layer standing apart from, and independent of, the state, providing a transcendent element that could ensure democratization in societies undergoing transition, such as in Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. Many hoped that after the Belfast Agreement such a form of civil society could develop in Northern Ireland as a means of weakening communal and sectarian division.
In 2005 General John de Chastelain, chairman of the international body responsible for the oversight of paramilitary decommissioning, announced that, on the basis of personal observation by himself and his colleagues, he was satisfied that PIRA had honoured its pledge to put weapons and materiel ‘beyond use’. Two clerics, the Catholic Father Alec Reid and the Methodist Reverend Harold Good, who had been present as observers during the decommissioning exercise, eloquently expressed their conviction that a crucial stage in the ‘peace process’ had indeed been reached.
This news was greeted with the greatest satisfaction by Governments in London, Dublin and Washington, and the hope was expressed that early inter-party dialogue would lead to the revival of the Assembly Executive, the return of devolved government, and the fulfilment of the promises embodied in the Belfast Agreement of 1997. These hopes were to be lowered if not dashed by a response from unionist politicians which was at best guarded and, in the case of the newly dominant DUP, sceptical to the point of hostility. The ‘blame game’ showed early signs of shifting from republicans (‘Why do they retain their arms and persist in criminality?’) to unionists (‘Can we not now see that, whatever others deliver, they will never share power with nationalists?’).
This grudging reaction to the satisfaction of a demand constantly reiterated can best be explained by the length of delay in the decommissioning process, a persistent unwillingness to trust the motives of the republican movement, the lack of any clarity about the future role (if any) of PIRA, a suspicion of continuing republican involvement in criminality and localised ‘enforcement’, and the continuing absence in the statements by Gerry Adams and others of any convincing element of regret or remorse. There was indeed a strong inference in such statements that victims of the violence in the Army or police had been wholly legitimate targets, combatants in a ‘war’.
Yet the acts of decommissioning, following the earlier statement that the ‘armed struggle’ had been brought to an end, clearly represented a significant turning point in Northern Ireland's affairs. In the distant days of 1968 Terence O'Neill had used the imagery of ‘Ulster at the crossroads’. Now, once again, Northern Ireland had reached a crucial turning point. But in what direction would it choose to turn?
When I read Modern History at Oxford in the late 1940s, there were relatively few well-known and reliable works about the history and politics of Northern Ireland. The ‘special subject’ options available in the final year of the course did not include – as they do today – a study of the recent history of the Province.
As a by-product of the turbulence to come, we now have available a huge variety of accounts: biographical, autobiographical, journalistic, polemic or sociological. We are able to read the accounts of a wide range of eminent historians, journalists or protagonists. It would be tempting to conclude that yet another book would simply add a further cairn to the mountain of controversy and analysis.
I would not have put pen to paper if I could not hope to offer a distinctive perspective. The son of English parents who settled in Northern Ireland in 1929, I bring to the consideration of controversial events no overwhelming baggage of inherited loyalty or affiliation. True, I am associated with the Protestant tradition; baptised into the Church of England, confirmed in the Church of Ireland, but also at various times a member of Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. My ‘baggage’ is essentially British; but while I personally remain at ease with Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, I have always been comfortable with the concept that ultimate status should be determined by majority opinion, that peaceful advocacy of an end to partition should be regarded as a wholly legitimate political activity.
I have never been a member of any political party. In spite of this I can, I believe, validly claim to have been closer to political events in Northern Ireland throughout a most turbulent period than any outside observer and most political protagonists. Now and then I was a subordinate player in important events; more often a privileged and fascinated spectator.
Between 1956 and 1991, save for relatively brief intervals, I was involved in a close working relationship with the political leaders of Northern Ireland. My appointment in 1956 to be Private Secretary to the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, Captain Terence O'Neill, led on in time to my senior role in the Northern Ireland Cabinet Office under the last three Unionist Prime Ministers – O'Neill, Chichester-Clark and Faulkner.
Significantly, as the historian of the movement has pointed out, the tenor of the wartime shop stewards’ thinking was organisational and its innovations lay in the field of industrial tactics, not of political strategy as such. By and large, its leaders were practical figures whose thinking, so far as it rose above everyday matters, was more concerned with elaborating tactics than debating the long-term strategy or ultimate goals of the class struggle. Even Murphy, probably the most intellectually able of them, did not, at least during the war years, progress beyond tactical thinking, important and often original though that was. Nonetheless, the practice of the shop stewards’ movement and its theory of rank-and-file organisation as set out in Murphy's The Workers’ Committee and other writings did represent a decisive advance on the pre-war syndicalist tradition. Whilst it was only after the war that the full revolutionary implications of his wartime practice became clear and the transition from syndicalism to communism became complete, a full appreciation of Murphy's subsequent political development is impossible without first tracing his pioneering wartime attempt to advance revolutionary tactics on the shopfloor and within the unions.
ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE UNIONS
Initially, Murphy attempted to clarify the revolutionary attitude towards the unions. He argued that the growing level of class struggle and the dynamic changes of the war period meant trade unions were increasingly becoming a transitory form of labour organisation, which would tend to disappear as industrial processes became more social in character. In particular, he believed the structure of the unions had become an obstacle to the development of the natural unit of organisation in industry, which was the workshop or industrial group. But under the pressure of the ‘march of events’ or historical development of society, new organisations would emerge that would better fit the needs of the working class, namely Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committees, which would lead to an industrial form of union organisation.
During the period that Murphy was based in Moscow as the CPGB representative on the ECCI, his relationship with the British Communist Party leadership, already tense in the wake of the post-General Strike debate, continued to be very strained. Involved in monitoring the political situation in Britain and advising the CPGB on strategy and tactics, he gradually became embroiled in major arguments concerning a contrasting assessment of the political situation inside the British labour movement in the wake of the General Strike and the attitude communists should adopt towards the Labour Party, as well as over the question of the role of the national bourgeoisie within colonial countries in the struggle for national liberation. This internal party conflict was to culminate eventually in the party's adoption of an ultra-left ‘new line’ of refusing to collaborate with social democrats. Before exploring the nature of these arguments and their implications for the policy of the CPGB, it is necessary, as with the previous chapter, to understand the broader political context in which they took place, namely the internal struggle for power inside the USSR and the Comintern, and the way this profoundly shaped Murphy's role in the whole process.
THE RUSSIAN CONTEXT
By late 1927 Russia faced an immense economic and political crisis, a result of problems that had built up during the New Economic Policy (NEP) period. Between 1921 and 1925 the NEP enabled the economy to grow at considerable speed. This was because both industry and agriculture were able, partially, to recover from the devastation of the civil war period. On the basis of this economic recovery, a stabilisation and improvement in social life in general occurred. But the very success of the NEP period hid from the rising Stalinist party leadership deepening problems below the surface, namely the weaknesses in agriculture (especially in grain production), a low per capita output of industrial goods, very high levels of unemployment in the cities, and a high rate of inflation. Also the low level of military expenditure left the country very poorly defended if one of the western states were to launch an attack. Such conditions made imperative more rapid industrialisation, but there were not sufficient resources to accomplish this.
On his return to Britain in December 1920 from the Second Congress of the Comintern, Murphy immediately went to visit his ex-girlfriend Ethel (‘Molly’) Morris in London. Molly had been active in the pre-war suffragette campaign as the organiser of the Sheffield branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), involved in distributing leaflets, organising meetings and putting firecrackers into letter boxes. In 1913 she had sold Murphy a copy of the newspaper The Suffragette at an open-air meeting near Sheffield Town Hall, a regular meeting place for radical protest groups. Whilst Murphy was sympathetic to the suffragette cause, as a syndicalist he looked to industrial not parliamentary activity to achieve change. But it was the seller that attracted Murphy more than the paper and he became a regular visitor to the WSPU shop where Molly worked. Over the next two years he proposed marriage to her three times, only to be turned down on each occasion. Their paths separated when she left Sheffield to train to become a nurse, although they remained good friends and wrote to each other occasionally. On his return from Moscow, Murphy visited her at the West London Hospital, and after relating his exploits travelling across Europe to revolutionary Russia and meeting Lenin, invited her to return to Moscow with him. She accepted the proposal and two weeks later they were married in Manchester, with George Peet (the national secretary of the SS&WCM) acting as best man. After only a week's honeymoon in Llandudno, they set off for the long trip to Russia, via Amsterdam, Berlin and Tallin. But they were in Moscow for only six weeks when Molly discovered she was pregnant, and shortly afterwards decided to return home to have the baby. Murphy stayed on for the Red International of Labour Unions Congress and Third Comintern Congress, before returning back to Sheffield in time for the birth of a baby boy named Gordon in December 1921. At a Socialist Sunday School naming ceremony for Gordon, everybody joined in expressing the fervent hope that ‘he would grow up to become a good socialist’.
The Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci argued that the working-class movement needs the services of what he termed the ‘traditional intellectuals’, theoreticians like Marx, or indeed himself, who had been trained in bourgeois academic skills but were willing to break unequivocally with the ruling class. But Gramsci also insisted that every class needs its ‘organic intellectuals’. In the case of the capitalist class, these include the managers, civil servants, journalists and politicians who organise its rule on a day-to-day basis. Similarly, the working class also needs its own ‘organic intellectuals’ if it is to seriously challenge the power of the capitalist class. Thus, the key task for a revolutionary party, Gramsci explained, is to weld together and develop such a layer of ‘organic intellectuals’ inside the working-class movement.
There is no doubt that during the 1920s the leadership of the British Communist Party bore all the hallmarks of the worker-intellectual polymath Gramsci saw as necessary. A whole generation of shopfloor trade union militants emerged, such as Harry Pollitt, Willie Gallacher, Arthur MacManus, Tom Bell, William Paul, Johnny Campbell, Wal Hannington, Harry McShane and J. T. Murphy, who educated themselves within the socialist movement before and during the First World War, and then went on to become leaders of the Communist Party. The energy and determination of such worker-intellectuals were displayed in their extraordinary hunger for reading books and the pursuit of knowledge, albeit outside the established institutions of learning. It was characteristic that J. T. Murphy's agitational pamphlet on shop steward organisation should list the famous writers, playwrights and poets Lewis Morgan, Havelock Ellis, Walt Whitman and Henrik Ibsen among the further reading recommended. Experience of religious doubt and an interest in materialism, against the background of a growing radicalisation of the working-class movement, helped to shape the intellectual curiosity of these autodidact trade union militants and led them on the road to Marxism. But significantly, they became committed to understanding the world not merely for its own sake, but in order to change it, so as to overthrow capitalism and establish an entirely different social order.
A further phase of the British Government's role opened with the arrival of Peter Brooke as Secretary of State in July 1989. The son of a former Conservative Home Secretary (Henry Brooke) at a time when the Home Office still handled Government relations in Northern Ireland, and with substantial family links with Ireland, Brooke was one of those unusual figures thrown up by the Conservative Party from time to time (and probably now obsolete). Scholarly, courteous and honourable, with a manner vaguely suggestive of the Bench of Bishops, Peter Brooke concealed an ingenious and analytical mind behind an avuncular exterior. His manners and methods were in the Whitelaw mode. So far, in my view, history has not done him justice. A long shadow was cast over his reputation by an absurd episode during the Gay Byrne television show in Dublin, when his innate courtesy, allied to discomfort about a previous line of questioning, led him to break into song on the day of a notorious PIRA multiple murder. It was, as he readily admitted, a real error of judgement, but it was peculiarly unlovely to witness those local politicians who had hitherto found him consistently courteous and helpful elbowing each other out of the way to cast the first stone.
His major contribution to political development was to make it absolutely clear that the British Government regarded the pursuit of the republican objective of Irish unity, if undertaken by peaceful and constitutional means alone, to be as legitimate as the defence of unionist views. In a particularly controversial and significant statement (later to be re-echoed both in the Downing Street declaration and in the Good Friday Agreement itself), Brooke affirmed that the British Government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic role in Northern Ireland’. These few words were to be construed and misconstrued as if they were the Dead Sea scrolls. Irish commentators were sometimes prone to insert a non-existent comma between the words ‘selfish’ and ‘strategic’, with the implication that the British Government had no interest whatever in Northern Ireland's destiny. Like many high-profile statements too often interpreted out of context, the controversial phrase needs to be viewed against the wider argument of the whole ‘Whitbread’ speech (as it came to be called).
Early interest in suffrage on Merseyside coincided with the growth of socialism. In April 1905, both collided at the annual general meeting of the LWSS when an argument about organisation developed. Although the society was attracting attention, it had made no effort to extend its committee or alter its working practices. Concerned with the limitations of this approach, two socialist supporters brought an amendment to the AGM suggesting that, instead of automatically re-electing the committee en bloc, there ought to be a ballot of members. Mr Buxton, the proposer, explained that wholesale re-election was
calculated to deprive the members of any share whatever of representation on the committee… ninety per cent of the women who would be enfranchised by the Women's Enfranchisement Bill would be working women, and yet [they] had no representation on the committee…
Mrs Alice Morrissey, seconding, had further criticisms of the society:
She had been a member… for twelve months and had been very much disappointed in the work. She had thought the society would be a real live organisation and she would wish to take an active part in it. No headway would be made unless meetings were to be held in different parts of the town…
Buxton, who refused to negotiate the point in private, added that he ‘strongly resented the idea that the committee should be reserved to ladies of a particular class or clique’.
Stung by a public attack from fellow suffragists, the leaders of the LWSS retaliated. Mr T. Patterson, from the Chair, felt that the difficulty faced by ‘Miss Rathbone and the ladies… on the committee’ was ‘how to induce the working women of Liverpool to take an interest in the movement’ which the socialists denied. Eleanor Rathbone, who found the motion ‘distinctly discourteous’, remarked cuttingly that
If the committee which had worked for the movement for many years before the lady and gentleman who brought forward the amendment entered the society… had been advised that there was a desire for a more democratic organisation, they would have been delighted to agree.
The meeting rejected the amendment almost unanimously.
The campaign for parliamentary suffrage provided local Conservative women with the organisational base that the Primrose League had failed to deliver. It also had far-reaching effects on the local political development of the Liberal and socialist parties. For women who continued to work within parties there were difficult and painful choices between their personal wish for the vote, the official attitudes of their parties towards the question, and the perceived political opportunities that their parties continued to offer them. The WLF eventually split over the Liberal government's repeated attempts to avoid the issue in Parliament, while socialist women attracted to the WSPU found themselves forced either to prioritise their allegiance to men from their own class within their party, or to follow the WSPU's directive to stop party work until the vote was won. Or at least that was the national picture. Locally, it is possible to discern occasions when individual women circumnavigated these choices, buoyed up by support networks of close friendships and political camaraderie. Their actions demonstrate that political activism is rarely as simple as studies of national movements would have us believe.
Liberal Party Women
Local Liberal women were in a very difficult position in 1905. The election of a Liberal government should have given them cause for celebration, but many of them were committed suffragists and the government was somewhat reticent on this question. Furthermore, the local party was in decline following a series of municipal defeats. Conseqeuently members had to be very careful in any criticism of government policy for fear of being left open to accusations of furthering the local Liberal demise.
By 1905 the WLF had local branches at Wavertree, West Toxteth, East Toxteth and Birkenhead. Kirkdale and Walton had folded but had been replaced at Waterloo and West Derby in 1906, making a total of six branches which remained until the First World War. Membership of these provided women with direct political experience and they continued their successful work as Liberals on the Boards of Guardians. However, this often resulted in the WLF losing some of its best workers. In January 1905, for example, Miss Japp resigned the Chair of East Toxteth WLF ‘to the great regret of all, [due to] pressure of work’ as a Guardian.
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