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Review: Paul Corthorn – In the Shadow of the Dictators

Categories: Features Reviews

Gareth Beynon offers his thoughts on Paul Corthorn's 'In the Shadow of the Dictators'.

In the Shadow of the Dictators looks at the ways in which the British left, with an emphasis on the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Socialist League, responded to the economic and political crises of the 1930s. It is detailed and thorough in its analysis of the debates which took place within these organisations but frustratingly pays very little attention to agitational and propaganda work carried out by the left.  Anti-fascist mobilisations and the hunger marches are barely mentioned. This is a significant omission; it leaves the accounts of the debates on the left abstracted from their political context. The impression this can sometimes give is of individuals railing against one another for no particular reason which is deeply inaccurate. One cannot gauge the validity of the various responses of forces on the left without understanding the challenges and opportunities thrown up by the movements.

The emphasis on the Socialist League and the ILP, at the expense of the Communist Party, is understandable given the plethora of work available elsewhere on the CPGB in the 1930s. However one is left with the impression of a missing chunk of the analysis as we are left with little serious comment on one of the three component parts of the British far left. This book would have benefited from an appreciation of the crisis of the CPGB following the line of ‘class against class’ between 1928 and 1933 which led to isolation from the wider working class and plummeting membership figures and the more open approach to politics which typified the approach of the CPGB for the rest of the decade. The suspicion which the Labour left and the ILP held for the CPGB is instead left largely unexplained by Corthorn.

What Corthorn does well to capture is the extent to which the near ubiquitous pro-Soviet Union identity of the British left served to undermine it. The left leapt at any tentative signs of democratisation in theUSSRand ended up looking exceedingly foolish when they were proved to be false dawns. Soviet membership of the League of Nations threw the left into crisis, as did the show trials and the Stalinist line onSpain.  The crimes of theSoviet Unionand the alacrity with which the left defended them made it easy for moderates in the Labour Party and the right to discredit and outmaneuvered the left. This attitude may well have informed the lack of democracy in these left organisations.  Sir Stafford Cripps did whatever he liked, often in contradiction to the positions taken by the Socialist League. The ILP parliamentary group repeatedly flouted party discipline too with scant regard for the democratic process within the organisation.

This book has more than a little contemporary resonance.  We too face a profound economic, political and imperial crisis of capitalism today. The left was reeling from the disaster of the great betrayal, when Ramsay MacDonald and various allies defected from Labour to form a National government with the Tories. The result was that Labour took a pummeling in the 1932 general election.  An unpopular coalition government and a left disorientated from the experience of a series of defeats does not seem so very different from our current situation either. A serious study of the left and its responses to the crises of the 1930s therefore makes for interesting reading. However the omissions from the narrative and flaws of the approach taken leave a frustratingly incomplete account of the period.

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