Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike: The Lost Internationalist World of A. A. Purcell

Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike: The Lost Internationalist World of A. A. Purcell

Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike: The Lost Internationalist World of A. A. Purcell

Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike: The Lost Internationalist World of A. A. Purcell

Synopsis

Part of a three-volume series, this work examines attitudes to Soviet Russia as a way of opening up questions about the character of the British left between the 1890s and the 1940s.

Excerpt

In March 1926, the communist-edited Sunday Worker ran a poll to identify the labour movement leaders most popular with its readers. Topping the list with nearly 4500 votes was the unofficial leader of the Labour left, George Lansbury. Also making the readers’ top ten, as the coal crisis loomed, were three militant miners’ officials, A.J. Cook, Robert Smillie and Herbert Smith. Two further Labour politicians, John Wheatley and Ramsay MacDonald, were separated by three communist ones, Tom Mann, Harry Pollitt and the MP Shapurji Saklatvala. Sandwiched between Mann and Pollitt in sixth place was a name nowadays more difficult to place, that of Albert Arthur, or ‘Alf’, Purcell. Alone of the ten, Purcell and Smillie await some sort of biographer – and even Smillie found a ghost-writer to recount his ‘life for Labour’. Again according to the Sunday Worker, Purcell was the labour movement leader most abused by the movement’s opponents. But who is there now that can remember why?

There seemed reason enough at the time. Not only did Purcell combine membership of the House of Commons with honorary membership of the Moscow Soviet; he was notably more enthusiastic about the latter. Twice he had taken part in official Labour delegations to the new workers’ Russia. The second time he provoked an international outcry, to which in due course even the Tintin adventures contributed. Purcell had moved the resolution that brought into being the British communist party (CPGB). He also assisted in the declaration of a ‘Red Trade Union International’ and founded one of the handful of working guilds inspired by guild socialism. When he was elected MP for the Forest of Dean, a constituent wrote to King Rama VI of Siam warning of a looming global conflagration that would lay waste property, law and religion, and which did not spare even Gloucestershire. For three years Purcell was president of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), in which time he managed to antagonise every one of its sections but the British. When a Russian cartoon depicted him as a muzhik with a concertina, he commented, ‘A desirable caricature. Not unlikely! Anything possible today.’Izvestia gave him front-page accolades, but in America the Washington Post demanded his deportation. The anarchist Emma Goldman called him the ‘fake Purcelle’; the communist Dutt warned of his genial militant fuzz; MacDonald as Labour leader disowned him; for the establishment he was the epitome of the irresponsible rabble-rouser. For Sunday Worker readers, on the other hand, Purcell was one of their own; and when American leftists for the first time sent their own delegation to Russia, its vehicle was a so-called Purcell Fund. If the Webbs can personify the intellectual pro-Sovietism of the 1930s, none better than Purcell encapsulates the pro-Bolshevik disposition of British Labour in the years immediately after the revolution.

More Andy Warhol than Labour’s forward march, Purcell’s passing celebrity now appears a mere five minutes in the spotlight – from the shadows of a provincial union office and back again, all within a decade. Contrasting with the longevity of a Mann, a Lansbury or a MacDonald, this mayfly-like appearance must partly explain his subsequent obscurity. But there is also an obvious political consideration. In all its disparate manifestations, Purcell’s notoriety was that of the foremost of the TUC ‘lefts’ who aroused such foreboding and expectation in the years of crisis and disaffection that followed the First World War. Even the communists extended him their credit – as one wrote from Fife, he had at least ‘more or less stirred the Boss’. It was the General Strike of 1926 that proved his moment of reckoning. As chairman of the central strike organisation committee, Purcell was at its heart, and when the strike was called off while still unbroken, and with its objects unachieved, the precipitancy of his descent was matched only by its comprehensiveness. Even as the miners battled on in 1926, competing narratives of the strike were being promulgated that would underpin the sharper delineation of Labour reformism and a stalinised revolutionary tradition. Purcell’s career had flourished in the indeterminate space between these emerging forces; now he had a place in neither.

Purcell had had a good deal in common with the miners’ leader Cook. Cook’s awareness of the mobilising power of rhetoric, which some thought simple demagogy, did not preclude a capacity for undeceived political calculation and some well-documented manoeuvring in 1926. Though liable to caricature by more mainstream historians, his public persona nevertheless emerged unscathed for those supportive of his militant stance, and decades later Cook was still being lionised as embodiment of the miners’ cause. Industrially, Purcell has lacked this identification with any key group of workers or moment of struggle. Politically, moreover, he has had the further liability of personifying the hopes which the emerging stalinist leadership of the Soviet communist party briefly vested in the TUC, and which were symbolised by the short-lived Anglo-Russian trade-union committee (1925-7), in whose formation Purcell was instrumental. Trotsky in his autobiography noted that ‘the behaviour of the General Council during the general strike signified the collapse of Stalin’s hopes of Purcell’, who thus appeared a sort of empty vessel whether viewed from the left or from the right. Just once in the 1970s, a later . . .

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