The Balham Group and the World Anti-War Congress of 1932

World Congress

A friend of mine asked me to look at some historical documents from the inter-war period she had inherited on the subjects of trade unions and opposition to war. These were documents linked to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and belonged to my friends Great Aunt’s Ex-Husband (whom we shall call PW). With it being the centenary of the October Revolution which established Bolshevik rule and the Soviet Union this year, I thought it would be a good time to write about my findings.

The first document that I have is headed, “To our comrades in the Communist Party from the ‘Liquidated’ Balham Group.” This document is interesting because it details the issues around the split between Communists in Britain, during the early years of the 1930s. The Balham Group were the first Trotskyist group in Britain, set up by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1932. They were expelled in 1933, setting up the Communist League of Great Britain. They were expelled due to their attitude towards the World Anti-War Congress when they complained they were not allowed to discuss it.

Many of the papers in this collection are related to the World Anti-War Congress (also known as the World Congress against War) which was held on the European mainland in August 1932. The earliest document in the Congress collection was a typed report of the South-West London Anti-War District Committee meeting. There were also hand-written notes in preparation. The meeting took place in July at the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Hall, Bedford Road, Clapham and was attended by 40 – 50 people. The main speaker was the Earl of Listow, who was described in the notes as an, “unfortunate… whose social status antagonised the meeting.” His speech was described as “academic” and “historical rather than practical.” According to the Earl’s obituary in the Independent newspaper, the peer had “turned to socialism in the early 1920s [after] experiencing a profound shock on discovering how poor children lived in a slum near his parents home in London.” Back at the meeting, the Earl of Listow castigated the League of Nations as being ineffectual at bringing peace. This was not the first time I would find such criticisms levelled amoung the documents. Back to the meeting, once the speaker had finished, it turned to other business. A discussion was had about the Anti-War Congress. The event had originally been planned to take place in Geneva but that had been cancelled and so a new venue in Paris was arranged for the Congress to meet at, on 28 August. Delegates at the meeting were asked for nominations which were to be received by the committee no later than 6 August.

Comrade PW was sent a letter, dated 23 July 1932 from the local Secretaries of the Amalgamated Engineers Union (AEU) in Clapham, asking him to attend a meeting of AEU Engineers to find a nominee to send the to the Anti-War Congress on behalf of the South-West London Anti-War Committee. Vauxhall and Wandsworth Branch members would also be included for nominations. PW was the chosen candidate and he received a letter from the South West London Anti-War Committee on 13 August 1932 confirming that he would be their delegate for the Congress. In this letter, Amsterdam is the location for the event rather than Paris, as the venue was changed again. There was also a mention of a demonstration taking place on Clapham Common on 21 August where PW was invited to speak on the menace of war. After the demonstration, a march was planned from Clapham Common to Wandsworth prison in an attempt to:

Cheer up one of our comrades who has taken up temporary residence there.

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Further letters followed to PW – one on 15 August with details of arrangements for the Congress. Travel to Amsterdam was to cost £3-18-0 including sleeping berths and a questionnaire was sent out asking for delegates requirements. The Congress was to be opened by Henri Barbusse (a French Novelist and Communist Party member who had married a Russian Woman and joined the Bolshevik Party but consequently left), on Saturday 27 August at 11am. PW received a further letter on 17 August asking him to make sure his passport was up to date and also included names and addresses of five other delegates to Congress who lived nearby. There was a suggestion that they might want to meet up and travel together.

Other documents received included:

  • Receipt for £8-16-0 from the World War Congress on August 23
  • List of people on a blank letter-head detailing the British delegation, backing the Congress including: Fenner Brockway, G D H Cole, J F Horrabin, E Pethick-Lawrence, Tom Mann, Ethel Mannin, H Pollitt, Ellen Wilkinson, Virginia Wolf.
  • Ticket book for second class train travel from London Liverpool Street Station – Amsterdam – via the Hook of Holland and Flushing, with the L&NE Railway Company
  • Congress delegate card
  • Receipt for coffee on 27 August 1932 at Amsterdam’s Central Station

Many of the actual Congress documents are in Dutch, so I am unable to translate them but they do include a Congress bulletin and arrangements for the fringe meetings. One document mentions speakers including Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland and Klara Zetkin (the German delegate). However, I have been able to extract more information from a document titled “United Front against War.” This pamphlet, written in English, contained the report and manifesto for the Congress which represented 2,196 delegates from 27 countries representing 30,000 organisations and 30,000,000 people. The report named Henri Barbusse as the originator of the Congress who spoke from the Rostrom with Muzenberg of Germany, Cachin of France and Tom Mann of the UK behind. Also named as attending were Mrs Wright of the Scottsboro Case; Patel, a supporter of Ghandi’s non-violent methods who represented the Indian National Congress Party and Mrs Despard of Ireland. Einstein (the Scientist) and Romain Rolland were noted as missing due to illness. The whole Russian delegate which was supposed to be led by Maxim Gorky, and as such details were kept quiet until the last minute, were also missing as they were denied entrance to Holland. However, the report said,

The Congress rose to cheer the red banner which the Russians sent as a token of their intended presence. 

People also attended from Japan, China, the Balkans, South America and the USA. The hall was decorated with streamers and banners. German and Italian delegates spoke of liberty and the fascist terror and the French, of solidarity with German workers. Cachin spoke on the disillusionment with the League of Nations. And The British delegation told the story of Invergordon, where the previous year 1,000 Sailors in the British Atlantic Fleet staged a three day ‘mutiny.’

The aims of the Congress were listed in a manifesto. The idea was to organise a vast movement of mass resistance to war which was creeping ever closer, at the insistence of Barbusse and Rolland. The document noted that scientists and writers heeded the call joined but the workers of the world through Trade Unions and in Britain, the Co-op Guilds, ILP, Labour Party members and communists who had organised within three months. The manifesto denounced:

  • Existing wars, world wide and imperialist
  • War propaganda and the distortion of truth
  • Imperialist rivalries, the cause of economic crisis and wars
  • Capitalist breakdown, which caused food poverty
  • The Versailles Treaty, causing economic problems
  • Futile pacifism
  • The League of Nations and its hypocrisy
  • The Second international, which had been hostile towards the Congress

It was also suggested that Congress swear a pledge which would be anti-fascist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.

In the back of the pamphlet the make-up of the British delegation is listed as being:

  • 4 miners
  • 12 metal workers
  • 4 Railway men
  • 4 Dockers / Seamen
  • 10 Co-operators
  • 30 delegates made up of ex-servicemen
  • 14 Women

The final piece of documentation regarding the Anti-War Congress which formed part of PW’s archive was a letter dated 3 September 1932 and contained reports from the International Medical Conference which took place in Amsterdam as part of the Anti-War Congress. People attending the medical conference represented most of Europe, the Far East and many delegates were Doctors. The report, “Appeal of the Doctors against the War” noted that 10 million men died in the war, 17 million were wounded and a further 28 million people died from disease and starvation. Cases of TB rose from 13.7 in 10,000 a year to 23 in 10,000 in Prussia. In England it rose from 13.5 to 17.6, Italy from 14.9 to 20.9 and Holland from 14.2 to 21.2. Bad medical conditions had been inflicted on women and children from the War resulting a re-introduction of rickets, vitamin deficiencies, small-pox and typhus epidemics. Women, working in the munitions factories, were undernourished and anaemic which affected the health of their children. They claimed there was evidence that post-war diseases were increasing, as were signs of mental deficiency in the war generation. A British delegate quoted the Ministry of Health’s findings that

No data of any ill effects of the war on public health existed in England.

 Meanwhile, a Czech Doctor spoke of the stress of the economic crisis and increasing abortion rates while the Austrian’s worried that there was no way of protecting workers from gas attacks and that a wave of nationalism was coming. A German Doctor spoke of the need for collaboration regarding health matters between doctors, workers and Labour organisations.   The conference made the decision to carry out education on the medical evils of war and create an International Medical Bureau to ascertain public health facts.

Back to the Balham Group, and their criticisms towards the Congress as voiced in “To Our Comrades in the Communist Party from the ‘Liquidated’ Balham Group.” Criticising the Congress organisers and their followers the Balham Group said that:

This anti-war congress has been convened by Barbusse, the advocate of fusion between Amsterdam and the Comintern, and Rolland, the devotee of Ghandi. Around these two have gathered intellectuals, pacifists and left socialists, the parlour defenders of the USSR. To seek allies among the most sincere and courageous of the petty bourgeoisie pacifists is one thing. To entrust them the leadership of the struggle against war, it quite another… while this oriminal farce at Amsterdam is described as a fight against war, the actual danger of war grows greater. The growth of Fascism in Germany menaces the existence of the party and the workers organisations and brings Germany near to the anti-Soviet block. Whatever happens in Germany will decide for years ahead the fate of the European workers.

Did the Balham Group have a point? The following year, Hitler came to power with the National Socialists and following the 1932 Congress the World Committee against War and Fascism was formed. However, these documents show an interesting period in twentieth century history. They remind us of the evil of war and their consequences. They show the reaction of ordinary trade unionists who fought to avoid further conflict and fight for a better world along with the importance of solidarity rather than factionalisation. In 1932 Europe was standing on a precipice. Those seeking a different way of organising politics were in disarray. The rest is history.

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