Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Debating Political Education - Part 3 - The Labour Party

 If the IWCE analysis is applied to the Labour Party and trade unions, then both training and education are essential requirements. As with Unison every organisation will have its own approach to the content of its ‘political education’.

There are debates about this in the Labour Party.

Last May Lara McNeill argued  in Tribune that with its membership ‘now exceeding 550,000, Labour Party members must be encouraged to organise and formulate their own political demands, enhance their political understanding and self-confidence, and be equipped to make use of democratised policy-making structures.’ (1)

In August 2018 Sean Bennett suggested: ‘The ambition is not to create socialists only within our party, but to equip our mass membership with the knowledge to strengthen and inform conversations which are happening in the homes, social spaces, and workplaces up and down the country by people who would never label themselves as ‘political’. (2)

Tom Blackburn discussed the issues in New Socialist June 2018. (3)

Croydon Councillors And Political Education

It is clear from Croydon’s current financial crisis that Councillors are ill-equipped to run the Council. Training is being recommended, but it is in danger of being dominated by managerialism. Councillors need to set managerialism within the context of their political vision for what they want the Council to do, so that it is a means to achieve it. That vision will be determined by the values of whichever political party they represent, and this should be subject to ‘political education’ within the party.

Croydon Council is run at the moment by the Labour Group. Its Councillors are chosen by Labour Party members. The motives of Labour Party Councillors across the country often seem to be based on wanting local personal prestige, and a need to be lay social workers. The final decisions are often taken on who can obtain the most votes in each ward branch based on past personality relationships and factionalism, rather than skills, experience, common sense and a questioning/probing approach.

Labour And Political Education

One of the flaws of the national Labour Party is the lack of consistent continuing training and political education, even though each ward branches and constituencies can elect Political Education (PE) and Policy officers.

Back in the early 198Os in a paper I wrote for Battersea Labour Party I suggested that there appeared to be no common agreement among PEOs on what political education is and what their functions are. Views ranged from the provision of internal education to Party members to external education of the public.

‘Political education seemed to be about stimulating people to think about the theoretical and practical problems facing them, assist them to increase their knowledge and understanding about those problems, and to assist them develop their skills as activists in the political process.

Political education should pervade very activity the Party undertakes, whether at simply organisational level in trying to build up the strength of a ward branch, or in the public work of the Party. It would in my opinion be self-defeating to expect the Political Education Officer of a constituency to handle all matters which may have a political education content. Firstly, to do so makes the task implementing political educational unmanageable, Secondly, it concentrates too much power and responsibility in one person. Firstly, it will frighten most people off so that either there will be no one acting as PEO, or if they are elected they do not function.

Since there is a danger of concentrating too wide a range of functions on the PRO, simply because they have some political education aspect, the GMC and EC of a Constituency must think clearly about what it wants in the way of political education and how it wants it organised. They should clearly define a minimum role for the PEO. If they want their PEO to do more, and can find the person willing to do more, then that is their prerogative, but their should be aware of the risks.

What should constitute a minimum PEO role?

The first principle is that the task of the PRO should be a manageable one. It may be, according to the capacities and interests of individuals that the different functions of PEO might be shared. What are the functions that could make up the minimum concept?

Given the reservations about the dangers of too wide a role, the responsibilities of the PEO should be largely political education of Labour Party members. This can consist of:

1.       Assistance to Branch Secretaries in arranging their programmes of sneakers.

2.       Finding out what Party members want ‘education’ on.

3.       Organising programmes which concentrate on:

(a) Concepts of democratic socialism

(b) History and organisation on the Labour Party

(c)      Development of skills as party activists and representatives

(d) Party policies

4.       Suggest how political educational material coming from Region and Headquarters can be used.

5.       Suggest how material from outside the Party which may contribute to the development of political education can be used.

6. Ensuring that current political problems are discussed in depth within the Party, whether by speakers at GMCs, branches, day schools, conferences.

Above all the PEO should take an overview of the political education needs of the Party, identifying tasks and activities that could/need to be undertaken, and organising specific political educational events within the Party for Party members.

It does not mean actually doing everything.

The PEO may feel that a bookstall operation is needed to provide a range of literature to assist Party members in individual and collective self-education. But running the bookstall is a job in itself, and the PEO cannot afford to take on that responsibility, because there will be little time to do anything else.

It may be that the PEO identifies the need for development of skills among Party school managers and governors. The PEO may organise the occasional one-off conference for them. But here are issues involved with them which go beyond the remit of the PEO, such as choice of the people to serve, welding them into a group, making the accountable to the Party. It may therefore be that a Constituency may therefore want to PEO to organise an initial day conference for governors and managers, at which it establishs a Schools Sub-committee accountable to the GMC for the oversight of all Party nominees and governor and managers, and review of education policy.

It may be that a Constituency wants to run an internal news sheet for its members, as a way of improving communication within the constituency. Given the amount of words involved it would be unwise to give the responsibility for his to the PEO, although g the PEO may wish to be a contributor from time to time.

One of the best forms of political education is participation and accepting responsibilities. The wider the degree of involvement, the more healthy and active is the CLP.’

At the time I wrote this within Battersea Labour Party I was working in the national Party’s  Research Department. A colleague and I wrote an internal note on political education. We listed the following as aspects of political education:

·         Introduction of new members to the Party’s history and ideas

·         Explain existing members what our policies are

·         Wider theoretical considerations on which policies are based

·         Education of the public in the political process

·         Lessons from campaigns elsewhere

·         Projection of the party to the public

The use not only of written information and meetings- but also theatre groups, outings to the cinema, study groups.’

‘People can learn as much from their experience of local campaigns as they can from more formal’ political education meetings. The danger is that so much time and energy is spent in campaigning that the lessons are not learnt.  For example, what are the ownership links between the company against which an immediate campaign is being fought and other companies; do those other companies invest in South Africa contribute to the Conservative Party.

More formal kinds of political education are needed to explain basic ideas of. e.g. economic theory.’

The Labour Party has changed considerably since the early 1980s. The following comments made then would need to be assessed as to whether they are still relevant.

‘In many areas the most important contribution that Head Office can provide is to facilitate the transfer information between constituencies. It would be helpful, for example, to produce video/posters/ leaflets, etc) showing how constituencies already organise. And to demonstrate practical skills: how to run a bazaar, a bookstall, to raise funds, to speak in public.’

We suggested that the Research Department ‘was a wasted resource. ‘We could formalise arrangements to enable us to explain policies throughout the country. This could also help us to test ways of presenting ideas.’

Political Education in Battersea Labour Party

For a while when I was Battersea’s PEO we held a meeting designed to enable new members to meet each other, to meet Officers and representatives, and to discuss how the party operates. Having explained the basics about the constituency and branch structure and the decision making process, and a brief word about the financial cost of running the Party, I concluded:

‘Party activity can be varied and fun: socials, dances, walks. etc. But the success depends on members participating in supporting tend organising, and in contributing their ideas. The basic motto is ‘if you want to see something done, work up our idea, present it within the party, and take responsibility for putting it into effect.’ The Party is us and reflects us.’

A Practical Example: Lambeth 2017

In 2017 I was asked to run a series of political education sessions for a section of the Labour Party in Lambeth. This included a quiz to understand existing knowledge, a PowerPoint presentation and material on the Party’s history, and discussion around a number of questions I posed and those raised by people taking part raised. Mine included:

·         What do you think are the on-going positive and negative legacies of Thatcherism?

·         What do you think are the major social and economic changes in Britain since 1997?

·         What do you think is the balance sheet of the Blair Government?

·         What do you think was the balance sheet of the Brown Government?

·         What are the challenges facing Labour in the continuing process of BREXIT negotiations?

·         If the May Government falls apart should Labour seek to form a Coalition Government with anti-Tory parties or insist on a General Election?

·         Can Labour’s manifesto be implemented if Britain remains in Europe?

In relation to Lambeth Council:

·         What do you think of the policies being pursued by Lambeth Council under Labour control?

·         How do you make the Councillors accountable?

·         How can you influence what is does?

·         How can you influence the manifesto?

What Now?

Over three years on how would I start a political education session? The Labour Party has become a centralised undemocratic organisation preventing members from debating issues the Leadership and the bureaucrats want buried. For me this contempt for members goes back to 1996 when I resigned the Party because of growing centralism under Tony Blair. The issue of inner party democracy debate should be a key element of local Parties’ political education programmes, along with two superb articles printed in The Guardian Journal today (20 February):

·         Brexit left the elite unharmed: a truly English revolution by Rafael Behr

·         Who’s the one millionaire the Tories dislike? by Marina Hyde – about Marcus Rashford being more successful in changing Government policy than the Labour Leader. 




A PDF of the three sections is available on  request at 

Debating Political Education - Part 2 - History

 History Is Political Education

As a historian who has been involved in local affairs in Croydon, Lambeth, Merton and Wandsworth and in a variety of national issues over the years, I see community, trade union, co-operative, women’s , Black & Asian histories, history from below, hidden histories, people’s history, as ‘political’ because they all seek to redress the balance of the political way in which the teaching of Britain’s history has downplayed the roles of ordinary people and their organisations and the struggles to influence the political decision making that shapes our daily lives. For me ‘political education’ should be integral within, for example, community organisations.

In the 1990s I organised the workshops at the annual conferences of Community Matters, the national association of community associations, which examined not just issues involved in running them, but also ‘the use of history’ and the relationship with Government policy. In the early 2000s I was a guest tutor on the community work course at Goldsmith College. An important theme was developing an understanding of the local community context and how, why and by who it is shaped. Both sets of activities involved a mix of training and education as discussed by Colin Waugh.

While working at BASSAC 2000-2 my involvement in the discussions on the role of community organisations in neighbourhood renewal and reviewing civic engagement led me to argue that there was a lack of appreciation of the role of community and voluntary organisations of the long tradition of ordinary working people creating organisations to meet particular needs, and engaging in collective activity to influence their lives and lobby for economic, political and social inclusion and justice.

‘Community history is not some abstract concept outside our own lives. Activists in political and community campaigns help make it. The personal is not just the political but the historical. All history is ‘political’ in its broadest non-party sense.

Community history activity can contribute to writing back into history the stories of ordinary people, their struggles, redressing the imbalance of more official and establishment histories. All historical specialisms and approaches are useful routes into the historical picture. Large numbers of people want to protect and celebrate the historic local environment. 

The friendly, loan, building and co-operative societies, and  the trade unions:

*        provided a glue that linked people together at work, and because work and home were often close, between work and community

*        built an amazing infrastructure of social welfare and income support in the absence of a Welfare State

*        were seedbeds for building experience in running organisations and in participative and representative democracy

*        forced a response that made Britain more inclusive in electoral politics, and moderated the worst effect of economic forces through social and employment reform

The militant trade unionism of the period 1888 to 1892 set in motion a new social and economic agenda based on the eight hour day, fair wages, direct labour and the public service role of local government, an agenda which continued through to 1976.

The trade unions created the Labour Party in 1900 as a political vehicle to represent the interests of working people in Parliament. Together they became a major electoral force, and in the 1945-51 period brought in the building blocks of the modern Welfare State, including the National Health Service and the expansion of public services. It is no coincidence that in 1945 community associations received a boost with the formation of the organisation now known as Community Matters, and black organisations came together at the Manchester Pan-African Conference.

The pursuit of social and economic justice has never been easy because of the effects of economic cycles and the resultant changes in types and location of jobs. Once the movement began to win control of local and Central Government it had to face the problems involved in policy implementation and management. In the process all kinds of mistakes were made.

In my view the biggest mistake in the post-war period was the 1976 International Monetary Fund deal under which the Labour Government began to roll back public services, paving the way for the Tory monetarist destruction from 1979.

From 1979 there was a great increase in poverty and deprivation and the abandonment and betrayal by private and public services of the needs of the people living in the large number of what are now called deprived neighbourhoods. In the process individuals, families and whole communities experienced hopelessness and brutalisation. One of these is Glasgow's Easterhouse Estate.

Easterhouse is symbolic. It has its own Community Champion in Bob Holman, the Christian Socialist academic who went to live there and work with local people. But no amount of collective self-help community organisation has been able as yet to tackle the mountain of neglect, the need for good quality job creation and investment, and to fundamentally address the underlying problem of low incomes and means-testing dependency.

Tackling the legacy of this deprivation was at the heart of the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy for England. The Strategy fitted uneasily within a set of tensions within Government policy:

·         central control versus decentralisation and democratisation

·         acceptance that it will take 15-20 years to achieve fundamental change, versus the need to be seen to deliver results in the short timetables dictated by the electoral cycle

·         impatience with the time it takes to deliver noticeable change, versus a recognition that it takes time to achieve the massive cultural change needed by local government, health authorities, private business and the community and voluntary sector to work together 

·         co-option of the community and voluntary sector to the Government's agenda versus a recognition of its independence.

However neighbourhood renewal will not be achieved just by beavering away in one's own silo activity. Part of the social glue function of community organisations should be to build a common sense of justice, understanding, and positive interaction between all the different sub-groups and interests within the neighbourhood community. There needs to be activity that brings people together, especially in those areas where adversely affected by racism and ethnic segregation.’ (1)

That remains a challenge particularly now that the COVID pandemic has highlighted the extent of inequalities and the Black Lives  Matters movement the extent of racism.(1)          My discussions on mutuality, regeneration and radical politics for Independent Labour Publications  in 2001 and 2002 can be seen at

Part 3 follows on the next posting.

Debating Political Education? Some Personal Thoughts - Part 1


On 14 January I gave a short talk for Norbury & Pollards Hill Labour Party about the history of the local library which has been modernised but awaits re-opening when COVID lockdown ends. I highlighted the residents campaign for the library to be provided, the innovative pioneering approach that had been spearheaded by Stanley Jast, the Anglo-Polish Chief Librarian until  May 1915, who opened it  in May 1932, and the campaign to prevent the Tories from closing libraries when they ran the Council pre- May 2014. I ended by discussing outstanding issues about its future management.

Since then I have asked myself: can this be developed into a political education session? I think it can. It could concentrate on discussing the pros and cons of issues such as:

(1)          campaigning to have new services provided and defend existing services

(2)          imaginative creative non-bureaucratic service provision

(3)          the role of how local Councillors

(4)          partnership between the Council and local community organisations in managing local services

Almost anything can be used as the starting off point for political education: a song, a piece of music, a poem, a novel, a painting, a person, an event.

There is a growing amount of debate about the state of political education within the labour, trade union and and socialist movements. Unison states:

‘Political education helps raise awareness about how we can help challenge attacks on public services, and campaign for greater rights for working people.’ (1)

This fits in with wider views held within the labour and socialist movements.

The Real Democracy Movement

The Real Democracy campaign, for example, is working with others to create a free online political education course that people can do in their own time.

After consultation it has devised three units which it is now working on developing in greater depth and detail with a view to putting on the course online later this year.

‘The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a cruel, unjust and unequal economic and political system and compelled many people to consider alternatives. Our course will contribute to learning about how to bring about revolutionary system change.’

The units are:

·         Composting capitalism

·         The state and democracy

·         From theory to practice, to changing the world  

The detail is impressive and appear to be very challenging and intensive, which will not suit everyone. It will therefore be one of many different ways in which ‘political education’ can be provided.

The central questions are what ‘political education’ is and how is it delivered and promoted. The answer will vary within the community, history, labour, socialist, Black rights and women’s movements according to the type of organisation.

Independent Working Class Education (IWCE)

For a while I was involved in the Independent Working Class Education (IWCE) initiative of Labour and socialist activists, having to drop out because of the need to reduce commitments.

In its draft manifesto Colin Waugh argues the importance of distinguishing education from the process of learning. ‘All education involves learning, but only some learning is education.’

‘Conventional definitions of education as a process usually present it as the politically neutral handing on from one generation to the next either of ethical norms or of knowledge as outstanding individuals have developed it to that point.’

IWCE rejects ‘this definition as both inadequate and false. For us, education is a planned process of teaching and learning … (which ) involves people working with one another to produce some or all of them as bearers of an enlarged and/or enhanced capacity.’

‘This capacity, in turn, necessarily comprises the ability to apply techniques and procedures (in short, skill), the ability to call up memorised information (in short, knowledge) and the ability to use and develop concepts (in short, understanding).’

Education and training are not the same.

‘Training is a process of instruction plus systematic practice. Its goal is that at the end those undergoing training will be able to apply specific techniques and procedures in specific spheres.’

‘All education has some training as its necessary condition’. But for ‘teaching and learning to count as education there must always be the possibility that it will take a direction and/or move forward to an extent that has not been decided - or even imagined – beforehand.’

In education ‘questions put are characteristically open-ended ….. designed to pose problems about the subject matter that will enable both teacher and students, working together, to understand it better.’

‘Education and training are two ends of a continuum, and the more a given process of teaching and learning tends towards the education end of this continuum, the more it becomes a dialogue between and amongst those taking part, in which all involved can learn from and teach one another.

Colin then analyses the implications of this approach to class struggle suggesting ‘three broad fields of activity’:

·         ‘intellectual production: the generation, development, elaboration or refinement of ideas.’

·         ‘dissemination of ideas, either as propaganda (many ideas to a few people) or agitation (a few ideas to many people), which in the latter case normally implies that the ideas disseminated will give rise to activity.’

·         ‘a sphere in which ideas and activity overlap, a sphere in which dialogue takes place between those whose role at that moment is mainly to elaborate ideas and those whose role is mainly to organise activity. ‘

‘Education properly so called tries on principle to make available to students the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the topics it’s dealing with (of course at a level and to a depth that is feasible given their existing knowledge and experience). ‘

‘Mis-education, in contrast, sometimes tells outright lies, sometimes distorts the truth, sometimes leaves out crucial information, sometimes smuggles in false assumptions, or sometimes does all of these things at once. And so, by means that are often very subtle, it deliberately narrows students’ freedom to think for themselves.’ (3)

Other Approaches

There are several other approaches to the concept of ‘political education’ such as ‘citizenship’, ‘community’ and ‘democratic’ education.

The Politics Project aims to empower young people ‘through an effective democratic education; one where they feel informed, inspired, and empowered. At its best, this is an experience that goes beyond the usual limits of the classroom or town hall, and engages with people in a personal way that makes politics matter.’(4)

There are a growing range of organisations that can be seen to fit within the realm of ‘political education’, such Journey for Justice (5), and the Ella Baker School of Organising (6), the latter developed from the United States.

In the United States The Center for Political Education (CPE) ‘is a resource for political organizations on the left, progressive social movements, the working class and people of color. CPE’s approach is non-sectarian, democratic, and committed to a critical analysis of local, regional and global politics. We believe that movements are strongest when their organizing and activism are grounded in historical knowledge, strong theory and rigorous analysis.’ (7)

Part 2 follows in the next posting









Friday, 8 January 2021

Is Saklatvala’s Influence Fully Understood? A review of Marc Wadsworth’s Comrade Sak

‘At a time when news is abuzz with talk of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ an American website published on 3 September a profile of Shapurji Saklatvala by Sant Nihal Singh. ‘Witty and insightful, Singh not only recreates Shapurji’s remarkably contradictory persona – being related to and working with the Tatas, while pursuing the Socialist dream – but also a sense of what it took and meant for an Indian to ‘make it’ in British politics in the early decades of the 20th century.’ (1)

Two months later on 12 November Alfie Hancox wrote about Saklatvala in a critical assessment of the Communist Party of Britain in relation to current assessed ‘global politics and problems facing the working class, whether these are theoretical and practical obstacles facing left parties, the rise of fascism, or environmental disaster.’ (2)

On 21 December the Ella Baker School of Organising planned to run an on-line training session considering the circumstances and influences to the election of Saklatvala as MP in 1922, around the question: ‘At a time of powerful narratives of racism and empire, how and why did the Battersea working class choose a communist immigrant to represent them in Parliament?’ It had to be cancelled/ (3)

The Black Lives Matters movement has brought into sharp focus the inter-relationship between the importance of black collective self-organisation and self-determination and the relationship with white allies. It is therefore timely that the activist Marc Wadsworth has had his up-dated  biography of the left-wing politician Shapurji Saklatvala (Comrade Sak. Shapurji Saklatvala MP. A Political Biography) published by Peepal Press. The original book was published in 1998.

Saklatvala – Anti-Colonialism and Anti-Imperialism

Mumbai-born Saklatvala was a campaigner for Indian and Irish independence and against colonialism and imperialism at a time when the Black (African, Caribbean and Asian) used in its political sense) population was small in Britain. He understood the need to work with white allies and also to critically assess and try and influence the strategy and tactics of other Black and white activists. His journey through the Social Democratic/British Socialist Party, and the Independent Labour Party into the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain was partly influenced by what he regarded as the failure of the two Parties to be rigorously anti-colonial and anti-imperialist.

This did not mean that he did not have disagreements within the Communist Party, which focussed more on Indian independence, and regarded Africans as organisationally more backward. Like Sak the Communist Third International was critical of the British Party. Saklatvala passionately believed the class struggle should unite both Black and white workers, and this was one of the reasons he was critical of Gandhi, the leader of the Indian Congress party, who he considered was racist and pro-imperialists when the Mahatma worked as a lawyer in South Africa.

Saklatvala is best known for being Battersea’s Labour MP in 1922 and then independent Labour and Communist MP from 1924 to 1929. Despite the previous biographies by Mike Squires and the Sak’s daughter Sehri, his importance has been underplayed. John Callaghan’s biography of the Swedish-Indian Communist theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt has very little discussion on Saklatvala. (4)

Apart from being a member of the Party’s Executive Committee (1926-1929) Sak had no major role within the Party despite the important part he played from 1926 in its adoption of the Class Against Class strategy in which the Labour Party was seen as part of the enemy. His marginalisation in the CP may well have been due to the disagreements over him being an MP between those who supported Lenin’s advocacy of involvement in parliamentary politics and those against.

While loyal to the Party he was also independent with his own networks of contacts through his activities in organisations such as the Workers Welfare League for India, the East-West Circle and later the League Against Imperialism. With his adherence as a Parsi to Zorastianism, his independence and pragmatism appears to have been less tolerated by the Party than that allowed to Dutt as a leading theoretician and editor of Labour Monthly from 1921. (5) Further work on the history of the Communist Party suggests that despite the concept of democratic centralism, Party discipline was weak with many individuals acting independently.

There were Black led organisations such as the Union of African Students in England, the Union of Students of African Descent, the African Progress Union, African, Arab and Indian student organisations, and the League of Coloured People’s (from 1931),

As one of founders of the Labour Party Black Sections Marc suggests that Sak did not ‘have to grapple with the question of Black self-organisation in the Labour Party, trade unions or any other such group. We do not know, therefore, what his position on this issue would have been. What is clear, though, is that Sak was much more open to new ideas than his more orthodox colleagues on the left in Britain. And … he was most certainly for self-determination.’ If Sak had lived it would have been likely that he would have supported the growth in Black (African) organisation in Britain stimulated by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Marc discusses the problems in the relationship between Black and white activists from the 1940s, including the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Anti-Nazi League. Marc’s view needs to be re-assessed in the light of the newer studies of the period, particularly the postgraduate thesis work of Daniel Edmonds - see below.

Despite its weaknesses Sak saw the CP as an integral part of the British labour movement. In 1926 he told the House of Commons ‘I am the product of the British trade unionism. I am a member of the Communist Party because rightly or wrongly, it honestly appears to me to be pointing the way through which the objects of the Labour Party are to be achieved.’

Saklatvala’s Life

Born in India in 1874 into a minor branch of the successful commercial and industrial Tata family, Sak came to England in 1901 as the firm’s representative. He married Sally Marsh in 1907 and they had five children.

He joined the SDP in 1907 and the Independent Labour Party in 1909. Having moved around the country the family settled in Highgate. He joined the City of London branch of the ILP in 1916, a fellow member being Arthur Field from Battersea. Norman Angell has a description of Saklatvala addressing an ILP meeting in the early 1920s: ‘Saklatvala … argued the case for the class war with tense, fierce passion.  “We must fight on the principle that he who is not for us is against us.”’ Angell went on to say: ‘He would quite cheerfully have sent eighty or ninety per cent of the British population that were not “for us” to perish in Arctic Labour Camps if only he had the power.’ (6)

He was a member of Annie Besant’s India Home Rule League and urged Indians to support the Labour Party. Along with Field he set up the Workers’ Welfare League for India; another member being Battersea’s socialist trade unionist Duncan Carmichael. Because Sak supported Indian nationalism he was spied upon by the Criminal Intelligence Office.

In 1919 he spoke at the London session of the Pan-African Congress on colonial affairs. He was introduced by the session’s chairman John Archer, a leading Battersea Labour Party Councillor and President of the African Progress Union. In 1921 Sak became a member of the newly formed Communist Party, a merger of the British Socialist Party (formerly SDP) and other groups including the Battersea Herald League. In 1922 his supporters got him selected as Battersea Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for North Battersea constituency and endorsed by the national Labour Party. The Irish Nationalist and socialist and leader of the Women’s Freedom League Charlotte Despard had stood for North Battersea and the Irish nationalist Arthur Lynch, who had fought with the Boers, for South Battersea unsuccessfully against the national Coalition candidates.

Sak was elected but lost the following year, and was re-elected in 1924. By then the national Party had been imposing bans against members who were also members of the Communist Party. The Parliamentary Party refused to accept Sak as a Labour MP. The Battersea Party, which had won control of the local Council in 1919, opposed the bans and continued to support Sak as its MP. As a result it was disaffiliated in February 1926.This did not deter the local Party from its Borough activities and major role in the General Strike in May. (7)

At the beginning of the Strike Sak was arrested for sedition and imprisoned. The police found a letter in which he urged the Communist Party to smash the Labour Party. This letter was made public. It alienated many of his supporters including Archer, who took a leading role in establishing new Party organisations affiliated to the national Party. The Battersea movement was split with both affiliated and disaffiliated parties competing for local and national electoral support. Sak remained MP backed by the disaffiliated parties and the local Communists. (8) Archer was election agent to William Stephen Sanders, a former key figure in Battersea, who won the election as the official Labour candidate in 1929. (9)

As well as his support for Indian and Irish nationalism, he supported the Russian Revolution and was one of the founders of the People’s Russian Information Bureau in 1918. He visited the Soviet Union in 1923, 1927 and 1934. He visited India in 1927 campaigning in support of the left-wing of the Congress.

He was the target of racist abuse, especially from his Liberal opponent in the 1924 General Election. He warned his children about the discrimination they would face.

He did not abandon Battersea after 1929. He failed to be elected in the 1930 by-election in Glasgow Shettleston. Having completed his studies at the Lenin School in Moscow, Harry Wicks went from Battersea to help with the campaign where he stayed with Peter Kerrigan. (10)

Sak was the CP candidate in North Battersea for the London County Council and the General Election in 1931, and the LCC again in 1934. He unsuccessfully stood for St Pancras Council in 1934, though the Indian Labour Party activist Krishna Menon was elected. After his visit to India he suffered ill-health and while remaining active in the CP he died in January 1936.

The above summary is just part of the complex life and range of activities of Sak. Marc’s new biography includes a lot more information from further research and the availability of new archive material. He has wisely chosen not to present Sak’s life chronologically, but in chapters about different aspects of his life: India and Tata representative; his role in Battersea; anti-imperialism activities; his relationship with the Communist Third International; black politics and empire insurgents; and his final years. Marc includes appendices of original documents, including speeches in the House of Commons, and tributes to him in Labour Monthly after his death in 1936, which are examples of the way people are honoured regardless of previous personal differences. One of the International Brigade British battalions was named after him. (11)

Problems Facing Biographers

One of the problems facing all biographers is ensuring that they know about what is being published. The poor quality of most books indexes does not help. Saklatvala is not in the index of Hakim Adi’s book Pan-Africanism and Communism. Marc therefore does not cite the references to Sak that Hakim makes. He suggests that Sak proposed that the League Against Imperialism conference on negro issues be held in London. ‘His proposal was based on that fact that there were a ‘large number of Negroes under the British Empire,’ but also because there was a hope that the conference would help to expose the new Labour Government which had taken office in June 1929. Saklatvala subsequently took part in some of the planning meetings for the London conference, as did British members of LAI Executive…’ Hakim refers to the ‘British-based Indian Seamen’s Union led by Saklatvala’ in 1931.He also cites Sak’s critical views of the CP’s treatment of colonial issues in A Few Thoughts on Party Work memorandum in 1934. (12)

There is also the challenge of keeping up with the continual additions on the Internet. One example of the latter is the Open University posting on the British Shipping (Assistance) Act of 1935. The Act aimed to subsidise the industry including safeguarding white British seamen’s jobs. ‘(M)any ship-owners sacked all but their white employees, and numerous Indian lascars found themselves suddenly without employment.’

The Act was opposed by the Colonial Seamen’s Association led by Chris Braithwaite. In May 1935 Sak ‘gave a speech decrying the Act at the Coloured National Mutual Social Club in South Shields.’ (13)

This speech is not mentioned in Richard I. Lawless’s study of the Arab community in South Shields. (14)

Another example relates to Sak being denied permission to visit the United States in 1925. The American socialist leader Eugene Debs protested upholding the right to urge revolt by citing George Washington. (15)

Further examples come from the British Pathe News archive showing Sak speaking in Hyde Park at the May Day Rally in 1930 and in 1935 protesting there against the arrest of those accused by the Nazis of burning the Reichstag.

Saklatvala and Palme Dutt

Whatever their personal relationship and differences of view about the achievement of Indian independence, Dutt published articles in his independently controlled Labour Monthly by Saklatvala on India. (16) 

Biographers also face the problem of new information becoming available after submission of final copy and publication, such as the 2020 article on the early British Communist leaders 1920-23. They only refer to Sak as MP in a footnote. He is not included in another footnote listing CPers who might form the basis of ‘An exhaustive account of the national leadership would discuss others significant in the party if marginal to its governance’. Perhaps there most important comment is ‘Dutt’s standing as an arriviste intellectual, lack of proletarian credentials and impatience with opponents, certainly militated against his integration into a collective leadership.’ (17)

Has Saklatvala’s Importance Been Under Played?

As a result of reading Marc’s book and thinking about this review a number of concerns arose. While Marc shows from a modern day political perspective why Saklatvala is important, I am left wondering to what extent he was more influential at the time than Marc is able to show, especially within the Indian communities and activities in Britain, when a book like Shompa Lahiri’s Indians in Britain has nothing to detail to say about Sak. (18)

We need much more information about organisations like the Workers’ Welfare League for India and the East-West Circle, and about the role of his friend and sometimes critic Arthur Field. As a historian of Battersea I have always found Field a shadowy figure in the background. The most known about him is in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. (19)

Daniel Edmonds’s 2017 thesis is a valuable contribution to this discussion, containing as it does chapters on Arthur Field and Saklatvala. He argues that Sak played a much more important role in the League Against Imperialism (LAI) transferred its International Secretariat to Britain in 1933 than it is usually credited.

He examines Field’s ‘attempt to create a Communist-Islamic anti-imperialist alliance in the 1920s’, and Sak’s work ‘in forging transnational anti-colonial labour organisations during the interwar period.’

 ‘Arthur Field attempted to draw together Irish Republicans and British-based Muslims alongside CPGB members and diplomats from majority-Muslim states in a failed attempt to launch solidarity campaigns with Islamic societies facing imperial encroachment. Saklatvala made use of contacts from the ILP, Indian trade union and nationalist movements, and the Battersea radical milieu to advocate for transnational anti-colonial labour coordination. His campaign gained resources from the Comintern and transformed the CPGB’s approach to anti-colonialism, but ultimately fractured due to both the growing disunity between international Social Democracy and Communism and the decline of his independent power base.’ (20)

Field drew ‘heavily from the political ideology of the Young Turks and Dusé Mohammed Ali, an early pan Islamic and pan-Africanist activist whose central political concern was the political independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. He would shape Field’s understanding of imperialism as a political project based on the primacy of the white race and Christian faith.’ He provided ‘Field with a political praxis that centred anti-imperialism during a juncture when many of his comrades eschewed such a focus, would also lead to his political isolation within the CPGB. Despite moments of engagement with other key activists who were influential within Comintern networks, Field insisted on the viability of religious identities as a basis for anti-colonial resistance.

But he was ‘marginalised during a period of growing ideological homogenisation and international centralisation within the Communist movement.’ (21)

Edmonds examines ‘the connections that Saklatvala was able to develop beyond the remits of the CPGB, drawing on personal relationships with fellow Indian émigrés, students, and barristers to develop a political network that could coordinate action between groups of activists in Britain and India. Whilst his efforts to gain support from the CPGB at the organisational level were largely unsuccessful in the party’s first years of operation, he used his own personal financial and political resources to root this network in both British and Indian labour movements. Using a discursive strategy which, whilst overstating the size of India’s industrial working class, was able to articulate a commonality of popular interests in both countries, Saklatvala stimulated greater labour attentiveness to the question of Indian independence. This allowed him to organise financial support for Indian strike waves and establish formal connections between British and Indian labour movements.’ Edmonds argues that Saklatvala only came to meaningfully engage with the international structures of the Comintern after this connection had been established and his resources diminished, complicating existing biographies of this leading Communist figure which portray a straightforward relationship with the CPGB. This shift from subaltern cosmopolitanism to formal internationalism only occurred once his independent activities had caused some of his political rivals to systemise their connections with the colonial world, and marks Saklatvala as a key figure in transforming the British Communists’ attitudes towards anti-colonialism (22)

‘He developed a model of ‘positive Orientalism’ which would underlie his advocacy, and would become fundamentally incompatible with a growing image of Islam as the epitome of backwardness within the Soviet world. Thirdly, the political tactics and alliances that Field attempted to develop, based on his previous advocacy on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, were alien to the united front praxis of the wider party membership. Finally, Field himself was not well-placed to cohere and build an effective network; despite his extensive range of contacts, his past political associations had tarnished his reputation, whilst his personality led many to not view him as a credible potential leader. Field was an unorthodox Communist who ultimately could not adapt to the shift from the looser Marxist political associations of the pre-war period to the increasingly centralised organisation and totalising political philosophy of the interwar CPGB. (23)

‘In 1924 Field and Saklatvala relaunched the East-West Circle. This organisation appears to have received greater interest within Communist circles than Field’s previous endeavours, and its foundation came just after the CPGB had been chided by the ECCI for its lack of anti-colonial work, boding well for its potential securing of party support. Kate O’Malley has noted how the group was able to provide a hub for meetings between Communists, Indian nationalists and Irish republicans, allowing for the sharing of funds, strategies, and resources. (24)

Edmonds analysis is far more nuanced than the debate between Marika Sherwood and John Callaghan. (25)

While Edmonds drew on my 2010 article about Archer (26) he was unable to draw on the more additional information about Archer, especially on the split with Saklatvala after the General Strike on my 2014 pamphlet. (8) It is to be hoped that Edmonds will seek to publish this thesis as a book.

A Fuller Biography of Saklatvala Still Needed

Unless they create a biography of several hundred pages no biographer can cover every aspect of someone’s life. Such a biography is not Marc’s intention. The books by Mike Squires and Sehri Saklatvala remain important sources along with more recently added studies. Harry Wicks autobiography also contains useful detail. He recalled that Sak ‘had long shared platforms with Charlotte Despard, as co-fighter for the right of national self-determination of all colonial people, particularly the Irish and the Indians.’ He also recalls that Sak visited the Battersea Young Communist League branch during the 1924 election to thank them for their election work, bringing his 12/13 year old son with him. (27)

Mike Squires cites Despard’s support for Sak in 1922, for whom she made a special appeal to women and the Irish. ‘I appeal to you – to Labour which I have always honoured, to women, women workers and mothers who are the greatest workers of all – I appeal to my Irish fellow countrymen and women in North Battersea – support the Party and support the man, Saklatvala.’ She continued to support him after the split in the Battersea Party. During the General Election of 1929 took place she came over from Ireland to support him at several of his meetings. (28)

Sak’s involvement with the local Party is probably greater than biographers have realised, For example he gave the key address on ‘Current Problems’ at the local Party’s Second Conference of trade unionists and members of labour organisations at the Labour Club Hall at 81-83 Falcon Rd, On Sunday 13 September 1925. The Conference discussed running a local Labour newspaper, workers’ control in industry, industrial unity, co-operation and Labour, industrial assurance, Labour and Royal functions, LCC tramway improvements, the difference between men and boys’s work at a local factory, and the organised unemployed workers movement. (29)

The relationship between those pro and anti Saklatvala in Battersea could be venomous. When William Stephen Sanders, the official Party’s prospective Parliamentary candidate, published his reminiscence Early Socialist Days in 1927 he was bitterly attacked by T.A. (Tommy) Jackson of the CP. ‘It is not the fact that he is palpably wrong that makes this book so annoying - it is the insufferably smug self-righteousness that oozes from its every pore. ….

It can be said plainly and unhesitatingly that either Mr Sanders knows nothing of Marx (in which case he has lied about his studies) or he knows Marx and lies about him deliberately to the greater glory of Ecclestone Square and the enlargement of his chances against Saklatvala…..

He emerges again to earn a few more crumbs of bourgeois gratitude by a Judas attack upon Saklatvala from behind. He is typical of the smooth-tongued pharisees who conceal a hatred and contempt for the proletariat under a desire to "represent" them in Parliament there is to ensure that the "inevitable" will be very, very "gradual" indeed.’ (30)

Sanders refused to shake Saklatvala's hand at the nomination on 20 May 1929. "I do not want to speak to you" he said, and turned his back on him. Saklatvala had not complied with "certain decencies in the public life of England". He had called Sanders a "murderer" because he had served in the War.’

As the Communist Party became more hostile to the Labour Party, left-wingers found it more and more difficult to work with Saklatvala and the Communist Party.  They resigned in June 1928 and the disaffiliated party, now totally under Communist Party control, put up no candidates in the local elections in November 1928; in December, Saklatvala pronounced it dead. (32)

There are likely to be many examples of Sak’s speeches in Battersea and around the country especially in his final years such as his participation in a debate proposing “That the Labour Party is Not a help but a hindrance to the emancipation of the workers’ held at Croydon’s labour movement Ruskin House on Sunday 13 December. (33)

There is his 1933 speech at the Battersea meeting of the Relief Committee for the Victims of German Fascism. 

Sak’s widow Sarah remained welcome in Battersea after his death. She supported the Aid Spain movement in Battersea opening in 1937 a Bazaar and Fun Fair and in 1938 the North Battersea Women’s Co-operative Guild concert. Battersea Communists held a meeting to welcome the leader of the Saklatvala Unit of International Brigade. 

As a historian of Black Britain and of Battersea reviewing Marc’s book has highlighted the serious gaps in my knowledge and understanding, which will require me to re-examine all the material I have on the period 1916-1936 as part of the book I am trying to write on Battersea’s labour movement.

Sak and Dutt

A study of the relationship between Sak and Dutt is particularly needed within the context of the CP’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialism work up to Sak’s death in January 1936. It seems to me that more analysis is needed on the Class against Class period of the CP’s hostility to the Labour Party. Mike Squires is a supporter of the political correctness of the policy, while Marc is not. Any consideration of the policy needs to take account of the views of A. L. Morton who joined the CP at the end of 1928. In his review of Noreen Branson’s The History of the Communist Party, 1927-41 he remembers ‘scratching his head over long articles in The Communist Review’ in which ‘the struggle within the party leadership was being fought out in a coded language’. He agrees with Branson’s view that the new line was ‘a disaster, but says that the members called for it and welcomed it. (34)


Marc’s book is not just a political biography about a complex individual with both weaknesses and strengths, it is a political education tool. As an anti-racist activist and a co-founder of the Black Sections of the Labour Party, Marc links Sak’s life with the continuing struggle for Black (African, Asian & Caribbean) rights and social justice and alliances between Black, Asian and white organisations based on Black and Asian self-organisation and self-determination. It is therefore essential reading as part of the on-going Black Lives Matters debate.

As a professional journalist Marc’s book is very readable for the general public and therefore a welcome addition to the collection of anyone interested in knowing more about a fascinating aspect of Britain’s hidden history.

Comrade Sak, Shapurji Saklatvala MP, a political biography can be purchased using this link





(2)     Alfie Hancox. British communism’s patriotic disease. Ebb Magazine.


(4)      Mike Squires. Saklatvala. A Political Biography. Lawrence & Wishart.1990; Sehri Saklatvala. The Fifth Commandment. Miranda Press. 1991; and John Callaghan. Rajani Palme Dutt. A Study in British Stalinism. Lawrence & Wishart.1993.

(5)      Another CP concern may have been that Sak’s involvement with Zoroastrian organisations brought him into contact with the former Indian MPs Dadabhai Naoroji (Liberal 1892-5) and Sir Mancherjee M. Bhownaggree (Conservative 1895-1906) John R.Hinnells & Omar Ralph. Bhownaggree. Member of Parliament: 1895-1906. Hansib. 1995)

(6)     Sir Norman Angell. After All. The Autobiography of Norman Angell. H.Hamilton. 1951. p.231

(7)      Sean Creighton. Battersea and the General Strike. Agenda Services

(8)      Esuantsiuwa Jane Goldsmith, the organiser of the Black Lives Matters rallies on Tooting Common in the summer of 2020 recalls that her white grandfather was a member of the Battersea Communist Party. He told her about Archer, but she does not mention whether he also told her about Sak. The Space Between Black and White. Jacaranda. 2020

(9)      Sean Creighton. John Archer. Battersea’s Black Progressive and Labour Activist 1863-1932. History & Social Action Publications. 2014

(10)    Harry Wicks. Keeping My Head. The Memoirs of a British Bolshevik. Socialist Platform.1992. pp. 126-7. As a member of the CP at Sheffield University in the late 1960s I clashed with Kerrigan’s daughter Jean in her capacity as Yorkshire organiser of the Socialist Labour League the Workers. Jean later settled in Lambeth becoming a tenants activist and in recent years has been a leading member of the Brixton Windmill group. I handled the sales of the Wicks autobiography for Socialist Platform. It had been edited for publication by Logie Barrow, who I knew through the History Workshop movement.

(11)  ‘(H)is 18-year-old daughter Sehri Saklatvala arranged an event “FOR SPAIN, India Evening” in London in March 1937, which was organized by the Spain-India Committee. One of the speakers was Indira Nehru, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Her father urged Indians to support the fight in Spain. ‘The India League founded the “Indian Committee for Food For Spain.” In the fall of 1937, the Spain-India Aid Committee donated an ambulance to “the courageous Spanish democrats.”’ ….On July 17, 1938 at the second anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Nehru addressed a crowd of 5,000 in Trafalgar Square in London at a rally in aid of Republican Spain. One of the British based Indians who joined the Saklatvala Battalion was Gopal Mukund Huddar alias John Smith. The Volunteer. Founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. 25 August 2016.

              Joe Monks was an Irish member of the Saklatvala Brigade and his                                      reminiscence With the Reds in Andalusia was published by the John                                    Cornford Poetry Group in 1985.


(12)    Hakim Adi. Pan-Africanism and Communism. The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939. Africa World Press. 2013. pp. 94-5, 131 & 278. There is a useful discussion by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta on his memorandum and the context in History re-examined: anti-imperialism, the Communist Party of India and international communism in David Howell, Dianne Kirby & Kevin Morgan John Saville. Commitment and History. Themes from the life and work of a socialist historian. Lawrence & Wishart & the Socialist History Society. 2011. p.123-5. Gupta’s Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India 1919-1943. Dialectics of Real and a Possible History (Seribaan. 2006) would also need to be looked at.


(14)    Richard I. Lawless. From Ta’izz to Tyneside. An Arab Community in the North-East of England During the Early Twenthieth Century. University of Exeter Press. 1995. This is an important book because of the detail on Arab and Islamic collective self-organisation, but also on the details of the divisions within the white local labour movement. An earlier short study of the 1930 riots in South Shields was discussed by David Byrne of the North Shields Community Development Project in The 1930 Arab ‘Riot’ in South Shields. A race riot that never was. Race & Class. Vol. XVIII. No. 3. 1977.


(15)    DEBS DEFENDS SAKLATVALA.; Upholds Right to Urge Revolt, Citing George Washington. The New York Times. 25 September 1925


(16)    India in the Labour World. November 1921; India and Britain. June 1927; Who is this Gandhi? July 1930; The Indian Round Table Conference. December 1930; The Indian Round-Table Conference A Danger to World Peace and Socialism. February 1931; India as in Fact It Is. January 1935. Transcribed on

               Sak also wrote in The Communist: British Capital and Indian                   Revolt. 2 December. 1922.


(17)   John McIlroy & Alan Campbell. The early British Communist leaders, 1920–1923: a prosopographical exploration, Labour History Review. pp. 423-465.

(18)    Shompa Lahiri. Indians in Britain. Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930. Routledge. 2000

(19)   John Saville. Arthur Field. The Dictionary of Labour Biography. Vol XIII. Palgrave Macmillan. The material on the League in Partha Sarathi Gupta Power. Politics and the People: Studies in British Imperialism and Indian Nationalism (Anthem Press. 2002) needs to be looked at.

(20)    Daniel Edmonds. Unpacking Chauvinism. The Interrelationship between Race, Internationalisms, and Anti-Imperialism among Marxists, 1899-1933. DPhil Thesis. Manchester Univ. 2017. p. 13.

(21)    Ditto. pp. 28-9. Duse Mohamed Ali only mentions Saklatvala and Field once each in his autobiography. ‘The late Saklatvala’s election to the Commons was a mere flash in the pan of Communist propaganda and had little to do with Indian politics,’ (p.45). He writes that in 1913 ‘Arthur Field, the untiring secretary of the Anglo-Ottoman Society, requested that the names of those interested in the integrity of the Turkish Empire should be sent in to my office at as early a date as possible with a view to foundation of the Ottoman Committee.’ (Mustafa Abdelwahid. Duse Mohammed Ali 1866-1945. The Autobiography of a Pioneer Pan African and Afro-Asian Activist. The Red Sea Press. 2011. p. 131). Any assessment of Ali and Field in relation to the Committee and its successor Anglo-Ottoman Society has to take into account Vol. 2. Of the PhD thesis of the late Ian Duffield on Duse Mohamed Ali and the Development of Pan-Africanism 1966-1945. file:///C:/Users/Acer%20user/Documents/Saklatvala/duse-mohamed-ali-and-the-development-of-pan-africanism-1866-1945_compress.pdf

Particularly important is Duffield’s statement that ‘the sum of the activities centred on 158 Fleet Street’ (Ali’s office) between 1912 and 1921 made it a virtual if informal central secretariat of Negro Pan movements, through which they could fruit- fully interleave with various Islamic and Asian movements.’ (p. 784)

(22)    Ditto. p.29

(23)    Ditto. p.127

(24)    Ditto. p. 159. Marc does cite Kate O’ Malley’s book Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish radical connections 1919-64. Manchester University Press. 2008

(25)    Marika Sherwood. The Comintern, the CPGB, Colonies and Black Britons, 1920–1938. Science & Society. 60:2 (1996). pp.137-163; and John Callaghan. The Communists and the Colonies: Anti-imperialism between the Wars, in Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party. 1995); and John Callaghan. Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’. Science & Society. 61:4. Winter 1997/1998. pp.513-525. Evan Smith discussed the differences and particularly the post-1945 aspects in “Class Before Race”: British Communism and the Place of Empire in Postwar Race Relations. Science & Society. 72:4. October 2008. pp. 451-488

(26)    Sean Creighton. John Archer and the Politics of Labour in Battersea (1906-32). In Immigrants & Minorities. Vol. 28. Issues 2/3.July/November 2010. pp. 183-202

(27)    Wicks. op.cit. pp. 31 & 40

(28)    Squires. op cit. pp. 77 & 103

(29)    Battersea Trades Council and Labour Party. The Second Conference. Leaflet with agenda.

(30)   T.A Jackson. A Fabian With an Honourable Past and an Inglorious Future". Review of Early Socialist Days. The Sunday Worker. 27 November 1927. Cited in (31)

(31)   Sean Creighton. William Stephen Sanders. Agenda Services. Update edition is being finalised for publication.’

     (32)   Terence Chapman. Caroline Ganley. History & Social Action Publications.                           2018

(33)    Croydon News. Vol. 3. No. 1. December 1931. I found this while researching Croydon material at the Working Class Movement Library, which was appropriate given the support Sheri Saklatvala was to give it in her final years living in Salford.

(34)    A. L. Morton. Communist Party History. 1927-41. Our History Journal. 1985. Reproduced in Margot Heinemann & Wille Thompson. History and the Imagination. Selected Writings of A. L. Morton. Lawrence & Wishart.1990. pp.317-320


A PDF version of this review is available on request from