Saklatvala speaking in Hyde Park, demanding the release of the Reichstag fire suspects in Germany (1933)
The British trade union leaders’ surrender of the 1926 General Strike after nine days, as the strike was spreading and growing stronger, came as a shock to the mass of organised workers. Communists had played a central role on the ground and taken the brunt of repression; yet they too were ill-prepared for what took place.
For two years the Communist Party had campaigned around the slogan “All Power to the [TUC] General Council” (meaning give the General Council power to mobilise the whole trade union movement, not give the General Council state power). The leadership of the USSR had formed a diplomatic front with British union leaders through the Soviet trade unions (the Anglo-Russian Committee), and presented it as a lever to radicalise the British labour movement. Now the bureaucratic-left-wing leaders the Communists had promoted and muted criticism of were leading the betrayal.
The surrender of the General Strike produced a wave of sackings, raids and arrests. The CP, fighting to rally workers for self-defence and in solidarity with the embattled miners while their strike continued, quickly doubled its membership from 6,000 to 12,000.
Shapurji Saklatvala, the party’s only MP, had been arrested just as the strike began, after a speech calling for soldiers to refuse to attack it. Held in Wormwood Scrubs for two months, he was in Parliament two hours after his release attacking the Tories and the ruling class. Speaking in Battersea and across the country in the months that followed, Saklatvala was hailed as a hero by angry workers.
As reaction set in, however, the British labour movement retreated and moved to the right. Union leaders campaigned for “industrial peace”, rolling over to employers and the government while warring against the Communists and other left-wing activists who worked with them. The Labour Party moved to seriously implement the ban on CP members it had initiated in 1924-5. A number of left-wing local Labour Parties which refused to comply, including Battersea North, had already been expelled on the eve of the strike; now more were purged and new local parties set up.
Saklatvala: “The people who have set up rival Labour Parties in Battersea are the ones who are always complaining that the Communists are ‘splitting the movement’. Here we have an example of the lengths [they] are prepared to go to in their efforts to show the bosses the Labour Party means them no harm.”
Within a couple of years, the CP was reorienting itself not by a considered, measured shift to the left but by a wild swing. Reflecting the “ultra-left” turn enforced by the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia – the “Third Period” – this swing doubtless appealed to some in the context of British labour leaders’ betrayals, and was accepted by most members of an increasingly Stalinised party. It alienated the CP’s periphery, allies and potential allies, leaving it isolated and powerless.
The party liquidated the National Left-Wing Movement, made up of disaffiliated local Labour Parties and left-Labour groups in other constituencies (its Sunday Worker had by far the widest circulation of the CP-associated press). It effectively liquidated the National Minority Movement in the unions. It abandoned any united front approach towards Labour, refusing critical support even in elections where the CP was not standing.
When the Great Depression started in late 1929 – unfolding under a Labour government elected with the votes of eight million workers – CP membership was much lower than it had been before the General Strike. Bureaucratic ultra-leftism reinforced demoralisation after the abandonment of the strike and the defeat of the miners.
In Battersea, to break the CP’s influence, the Labour machine went in hard after 1926. Following a period of warfare between the disaffiliated, Communist-led but wider-based left-wing local Labour organisation and the new official Labour Party, the CP was marginalised, in large part because its more and more sectarian stance pushed away its allies.
Previously an enthusiastic supporter of working in and with the Labour Party, Saklatvala was frustrated and disgusted by its record in Parliament and in office, particularly the 1924 Labour government’s record in the colonies. He became an early advocate of the kind of “new line” which the CP consolidated in 1929. In 1925 he declared, extravagantly, that Labour was no longer any different from the old Liberal Party.
After 1929 that type of politics hardened and became ascendant.
With the Communists pushed to the side in Battersea, Saklatvala lost his seat to Labour in the 1929 election, coming third with 18.6%. The campaign that ousted him was run by his former friend and close ally John Archer, London’s first black mayor.
Saklatvala remained a committed revolutionary socialist, as he understood it, and loyal to the CP for the rest of his life (including after it turned away from Third Period policies to the Popular Front, from 1934-5). He stood as a Communist in elections across the country, but never again won office. He remained a hyperactive speaker and campaigner, helping build up the party and leading British activism for the imprisoned “Meerut” trade unionists in India and for the Scottsboro Boys, black teenagers falsely accused of rape in the US.
All efforts to overturn the ban on him travelling to India were in vain, and he was never able to return to the land of his birth. After a strenuous final few years, he died in London in 1936, aged 61 – eliciting warm tributes from across the international labour movement and the Indian liberation struggle.
There is no denying that Saklatvala became a Stalinist. In her biography, his daughter Sehri cites him saying he regarded criticism of the Bolsheviks as “like a sin against the Holy Ghost”, and that does not appear to have changed later on, when Bolshevism was supplanted by Stalinism. His final visit to the USSR was in 1934, as the Great Terror was starting. He came back flowing with enthusiasm – mainly about “Soviet” Central Asia, which he contrasted favourably to British India.
Saklatvala was always going to be a somewhat unusual Stalinist. Challenged in Parliament about “socialism in one country” during a speech about internationalism in 1928, he sought not so much to defend Stalin’s nationalistic policy as to redefine it out of existence. But in general he accepted and carried out the twists and turns of the Stalinist line.
He died before high Stalinism took shape, with the Moscow Trials. Sehri told later biographer Marc Wadsworth she thought her father would have opposed fully-consolidated Stalinism in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution) and 1968 (the Prague Spring).
In any case, Saklatvala's later going along with Stalinism does not erase what is distinctive in his earlier record and contribution. On the basis of that record, Saklatvala belongs to us – to the internationalist, class-struggle, revolutionary left. We can learn from him.
Lessons and inspiration
Whom Saklatvala “represented”, on various levels, is worth considering. The first "BAME" Labour MP – and the last until six decades later, in the 1980s – he blazed a trail for later generations of black and Asian radicals in Britain. He was the only member of a colonised subject people to sit in the “Imperial Parliament” at the height of the British Empire, and did not let anyone forget it. Despite his bourgeois background, he saw himself as championing a growing trend towards political representation specifically for the working class, as did the Battersea labour movement, large numbers of his working-class constituents, and many workers beyond.
What gave depth and power to these various forms of political representation was of course not Saklatvala’s “identities” by themselves, but their combination with ideas and struggles that represented the best of the radical global labour and anti-colonial movements of this period. He was able to use his talents and position to “represent” very different groups of working people because he was part of a strong, consistently built-up working-class movement - in Battersea, across the UK and internationally - and its class-struggle, internationalist wing.
He was a remarkable figure in a galaxy of remarkable labour movement leaders and organisers, in many countries. In the British context, he should be considered alongside his comrades Minnie Lansbury and Charlotte Despard, also class-struggle socialists who organised at the intersections of multiple oppressions and identities.
His distinctive contributions were not limited to his time as an MP – but his contribution as an MP was outstanding and unique, quite different from those of even the best left-wing MPs today. He focused heavily on supporting and organising working-class struggles, devoting his parliamentary position and influence to that over-riding priority. Despite a large ego and forceful personality, he undoubtedly conceived of himself – and for the most part acted – as an advocate and organiser for collective and democratic workers’ movements.
He made vocal propaganda, inside Parliament as well as outside, for workers to organise and act as a class against the capitalists and their system. He used his platform to propagandise for a new, socialist society, explaining the difference between reforms to capitalism – however extensive – and its overthrow by the working class.
Saklatvala’s militant approach to politics stands in bright contrast to the dominant culture in today’s labour movement and left – and certainly among its elected representatives – of avoiding difficult issues and not saying things you know are true and important for fear of controversy and criticism. He relished debate, did not fear unpopularity, and was eager for disapproval from the rich and powerful.
He remained committed to class-struggle revolutionary socialism, and organisations he believed embodied it, in the face of heavy pressure to compromise his politics so he could “get ahead”. After his election he rejected many offers of a career in the Labour Party if he would abandon the CP, and instead got ostracism, police surveillance, arrests, imprisonment and permanent exile from India.
Despite his intransigent politics and the often lonely battle he was forced to fight as an MP, he remained an affable and good-humoured man who made friends all over and in surprising places.
Above all, Saklatvala was an internationalist. He stood up against the nationalist and imperialist shift of the leaders of the British labour movement in his day, and pushed to solidify and energise British Communists’ commitment to anti-imperialism. The Indian national struggle was also a priority, but he insisted and proved in practice he was “no narrow nationalist”. His work as an MP and after for Irish freedom, African liberation movements and black liberation in the US made him well-known and admired far beyond his two home countries.
He understood internationalism as an urgent matter of solidarity between the workers of every country, and in particular he laboured to “pull [Britain and India’s] two working-class brotherhoods together”.
He was embraced by an overwhelmingly white working class in Battersea and other areas, for instance in South Wales' mining communities, largely because of his anti-imperialism - not despite or regardless of it. An important part of Battersea's working class was Irish, and drew connections between the two anti-colonial struggles.
For socialists who want to use intervention in mainstream political life, including elections and Parliament, to build up working-class organisation and struggle, and a revolutionary force rooted in the working class, all this is full of lessons and inspiration. Doubly so, in an ever more globally interconnected capitalist system and a UK whose working class is ever more diverse and “global” - and where BAME and migrant workers are at the leading edge of working-class struggle.
British Stalinism has made relatively little effort to celebrate Saklatvala. In 2015, with the rise of “Corbynism”, there was a flurry of interest on the Labour left, quickly subsiding. Attempts to link him to Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, whatever the merits of these figures, dramatically underestimate his radicalism and importance. Saklatvala is part of an alternative tradition, far more dangerous to those working to keep labour movements subordinated to national states and the interests of capitalism.