What was the National Left Wing Movement (NLWM) of the 1920s?

The National Left Wing Movement (NLWM) was an oppositional force in the Labour Party led by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It was formally launched as a national organisation in September 1926, although a London wing had emerged in 1925.

1. The National Left Wing Movement and the Comintern
Often erroneously thought of by the British Trotskyist left as the CPGB adapting itself politically and organisationally to non-revolutionary ‘left’ elements such as George Lansbury, the NLWM was in fact set up to ‘crystallise’ the politics of the Labour left so that the CPGB could win over large elements of Labour to a mass communist party. The NLWM was set up under the aegis of the Comintern’s policy of ‘Bolshevisation’, which proposed, in part, that CPGB interventions in the labour movement became more professionalised, centralised and anchored around differentiating the party’s politics from the rest of the British left. The reality of the NLWM — patchy, diffuse and somewhat disorganised — was somewhat different to the idealised Comintern vision.

2. The Sunday Worker and the NLWM
The Sunday Worker had a strong symbiotic relationship with the NLWM, even though it had been launched earlier in March 1925. The paper itself was designed to play a role in the organisation and education of left-wing workers active in the Labour Party; the trade unions; trades councils; the Independent Labour Party (ILP); cooperative societies; the National Council of Labour Colleges; the Plebs League; the Minority Movement; and the CPGB itself. The paper received a Comintern subsidy of £20,000. There has also been a misconception that the Sunday Worker was a ‘broad left’ newspaper; however, the reality was considerably different as through 1925 the paper strove to debate with and, at the same time, differentiate communist politics from those of softer elements in the Labour left.

3. The National Left Wing Programme
The NLWM adopted a programme in 1926 that was not limited to a tedious shopping list of narrow economic and minimal demands. Instead, it had a highly focused set of principled, ‘high political’ demands. These were designed to clearly delineate the Labour left from the monarchist and pro-imperialist practice of the right. The NLWM called for the abolition of the British empire and support for the struggles of the colonial masses; opposition to capitalist war credits; nationalisation of the banking and credit system; full political rights for police officers and those in the armed forces; full adult suffrage for both sexes; and the abolition of the House of Lords and monarchy.

4. The end of the National Left Wing Movement 
At the CPGB’s January 1929 congress the party’s executive committee, reflecting Comintern instructions, recommended that the NLWM should continue as an organisation, but the rank and file defeated the resolution by 55 votes to 52. This was mainly, according to reports, on the grounds that the NLWM was thought of as redundant and the idea that it did nothing the CPGB could not do itself. Previous to this, the Labour Party leadership had moved to disaffiliate those local Labour branches that refused its instructions to expel and stop collaborating with communists, so much of the NLWM was probably outside of the Labour Party by early 1929. The NLWM could, partially, be viewed as a victim of the Comintern’s ‘third period’, although this would ignore the fact that even those elements in the CPGB that wanted to continue working in the Labour Party viewed it as a flawed and disintegrating organisation. The NLWM was formally dissolved by its own national committee in March 1929.

About this project
I began researching and writing about the NLWM in early 2016. These researches will eventually appear in a self-published monograph that is set to appear in 2018. Some of my work has appeared in the CPGB’s Weekly Worker newspaper, although the author has no political or organisational ties with that organisation. To register an interest in the forthcoming monograph, please write to this address.