Walter Citrine’s dealings with communism and communists

Walter Citrine served as TUC general secretary from the time of the General Strike to the arrival of the post-war Labour Government. Though sometimes seen as a hardline anti-communist, his relationship with communism in the UK and internationally deserves a more nuanced understanding, as his biographer Dr Jim Moher explains

Known as the ‘Witchfinder General’ of the Left by some and ‘communistic in sympathy’ by others, Walter Citrine (1887-1983), TUC General Secretary 1926-46, and President of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) 1928-45, defies easy categorisation on the socialist spectrum. Citrine started as a young militant trade unionist in Liverpool (1906-11), a city renowned before and during the first world war for its very left-wing, militant union and Labour movement. Although never a communist, he was conversant with many of the more serious Marxist texts (Capital, Value, Price and Profit and so on). As an electrical worker, he also came under the influence of his workmate, Tom Brett, of the small but influential Social Democratic Federation, who plied him with Marxist pamphlets and argument. But by 1911, he had settled in the left-wing but decidedly social democratic Independent Labour Party. Part of his formative development – apart from his avid reading – was in Robert Blatchford’s Clarion movement, a social as well as political club which then proliferated in the north of England with its mass circulation newspaper, its cycling and socialist caravan-touring movement. It became a source of many participants’ radical Labour Party socialism. Citrine’s early writings for the Electrical Trades Journal (1912-14), published by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) of which he was a member, were also distinctly anti-capitalist and to a degree, syndicalist – Industrial Unionist – ideas, which appealed to many militant workers.

Walter Citrine, by Howard Coster (1938). © National Portrait Gallery.

J.T. Murphy, one of the leaders of Shop Stewards’ Movement, a Sheffield syndicalist, who became an executive member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1920 to 1928, later recalled meeting Citrine as a delegate from a branch of the ETU at a shop stewards’ conference during the first world war. He was clearly in sympathy with the developing Shop Stewards’ Movement then and fostered such representation as District Secretary on Merseyside from 1914-20. As the ETU’s elected national secretary in Manchester from 1920, Citrine’s financial reforms were instrumental in saving the union from bankruptcy during the deep depression of 1921-22. For the first time, this brought him into conflict with branch officials, jealously guarding ‘their’ autonomy, though the leakage of union funds was threatening the entire union. But his first serious challenge came from the syndicalist/communist-run ETU London District Committee (LDC) and many branches especially in west London. The LDC and these branches especially, were then controlled by revolutionary-minded militants, who had affiliated to the Moscow-led Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) since 1920. Those syndicalists and communists saw the potential ‘power of the electron’ as having serious revolutionary potential, which could ‘plunge London into darkness’ during disputes. By removing the fuses, the LDC secretary forced the Albert Hall to allow a post-war rally, and this was seen as a triumph for the use of industrial muscle for political purposes. However, the ETU Executive Council were summoned to the Home Office and warned of the consequences of such unlawful action viz., arrest and fines. Citrine, as the senior ETU national finance officer, was sent down with a union auditor to investigate suspected abuse of funds by the LDC. When they finally forced open the books, they found widespread misuse of those funds for non-union industrial and political causes, including the publication of a totally hostile anti-Executive Council journal called The Electron. Their report also identified other serious abuses and made a series of recommendations for strong action, though the Executive backed off a serious confrontation with the large London section of the union. Ironically, Citrine was then as enthralled as the London militants by the Russian revolution and what he called Lenin’s Electric Republic. ‘I accepted almost at its face value, without critical reservations, practically everything which emanated from Russian official sources’. He firmly believed that the harnessing of the Soviet Union’s vast hydro-electric resources would deliver ‘the advantages of a planned economy and the blessings of modern civilisation’. Nonetheless, he was not prepared to exonerate the LDC militant syndicalist activities in breach of the union’s rulebook, being a stickler for such rules. His 1921 guide to the conduct of meetings, The Labour Chairman (forerunner of his famous ABC of Chairmanship), had been incorporated into the ETU rules. So, his first brush with the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) activities in the unions would not have impressed Citrine. My book, Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress, (2021), explores this early period of union activism, and shows that he had as good a pedigree as most union leaders.

In January 1924, after arriving at the TUC to take up an administrative role as Assistant General Secretary, ‘the new boy’ looked forward to the arrival of a Soviet delegation ‘with eagerness’ as ‘the one topic which excited my imagination…’ The TUC General Council leadership had just passed to the left, as a number of right-wing members were recruited as Ministers in the first Labour Government by Ramsay MacDonald. A new team, led by the vice-chair of the General Council, syndicalist/communist-minded, Alf Purcell, from the tiny (about 20,000) left-led National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association (NAFTA), assumed the key vacated positions. Purcell became Chair and President of the Hull Congress in September 1924. At the same time, Purcell became President of the IFTU, as the position usually went to the largest affiliate. His like-minded (fellow NAFTA former national officer), Fred Bramley, had become the first full-time General Secretary in 1923 and he too was very pro-Soviet Union. This led to a period of intense strife in that Amsterdam-based IFTU, as the TUC leaders pressed hard to merge it with the Soviet trades’ union body, the All Russian Central Council of Trade Unions (ARCCTU), in response to an initiative of Mikhail Tomsky, the Soviet trade unions’ leader.

Since Lenin and Trotsky had set up the Communist International, (known as the Comintern), in 1919 and RILU as a hostile rival, relations with IFTU had been poisonous, as the Bolsheviks and their supporters in Germany and all other countries excoriated the social democrat led Amsterdam-based body as ‘Yellow’. This policy failed abysmally to weaken the social democrats’ hold on the mainstream European unions, so Tomsky tried a different tack in 1923, courting a merger of both federations instead. He found Bramley as General Secretary and then Purcell as President, in attendance at most IFTU executive and other council meetings around Europe, most accommodating, though not the German, French, Dutch or Belgian IFTU executive members. The continental unions’ experience of Soviet abuse and intrigue left them most suspicious of/hostile to any close relations, let alone merger. Purcell and Bramley led a TUC/Labour delegation to the Soviet Union in November-December 1924. This was mainly aimed at rebutting the scurrilous forged Zinoviev Red Letter, which caused such a stir in the 1924 general election, but while there, the TUC leaders agreed to set up an Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Committee (ARJAC), to circumvent resistance by the majority on the IFTU executive. It caused severe concern at Amsterdam but did not give any pause on the General Council. Due to Bramley’s increasingly frequent sick absences, Walter Citrine substituted ably as joint secretary of ARJAC with Tomsky. He was enthusiastically in favour of the TUC leadership’s policy and worked closely with Purcell and Hicks as Chair of the General Council and of the International Committee, respectively. Tomsky was invited to address the Trades Union Congress in Scarborough again in September 1925 (he had wowed them at Hull the previous year), to reinforce the ARJAC policy. So impressed was Tomsky by Citrine (clearly the likely heir apparent to Bramley, that he was desirous to cultivate him), the Soviet ARCCTU leader invited Citrine to visit the Soviet Union. He was accompanied by Purcell’s close ally and General Council colleague, George Hicks, General Secretary of the builders’ union, the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW) and chair of the TUC’s International Committee. Hicks and Purcell had both been active together in the International Syndicalist Education League. Citrine was also on close personal and political terms with Hicks, as he first resided in the Clapham area where Hicks’ union offices were. The three socialised together.

Although the visit to the Soviet Union was quite successful in terms of consolidating the alliance of the TUC and ARCCTU, and reinforcing their shared ARJAC aims, Citrine proved a different ‘kettle of fish’ to Bramley, adopting a more questioning attitude to what they saw. He tackled Tomsky particularly about the lack of independence of the unions in the Soviet state. In a meeting with Zinoviev (then President of the Comintern), who raised the Labour conference decision of that year in Liverpool to deny the CPGB’s bid (again) to affiliate to Labour. That conference went further and banned individual communists from being Labour delegates. Zinoviev was puzzled by the different reception that the communists received at Scarborough a month before at the TUC, when Tomsky was again warmly received. Citrine explained that he shouldn’t be surprised as ‘while on the whole we were not unfriendly to the Communists, at the same time we did not feel that they were an inherent part of our movement’. On the independence issue, Tomsky and his team, all Communist Party of the Soviet union (CPSU) members, argued that as the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, no possible conflict of interest could arise. Citrine argued that their experience with the Labour Government of 1924, (which was prepared to invoke the Emergency Powers Act against dockers’ and transport workers’ strikes), suggested otherwise. (Four years later, Tomsky and most of his executive, would be removed for resisting the removal of union safeguards during the first Soviet Five-Year Plan and the Soviet ‘unions’ were transformed into ‘conveyor belts’ for production, with mainly welfare functions!) But in 1925 Citrine came back still hopeful for and supportive of, the ‘first workers’ state’ and ARJAC pressure for merger of the Soviet trade unions with IFTU. This fascinating, but little-known episode of ‘TUC Lefts’ pursuit of ‘international workers unity’ with the Soviet trade unions, is explored more fully in chapter 4 of Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress.

Black and white photo of conference delegates, including those named in the caption.
ARJAC 1925: Walter Citrine (left back), and the ‘TUC Lefts’ Hicks, Purcell and Swales (right back).

Bramley died while Citrine and Hicks were in Russia and Citrine was recalled in October 1925 to become Acting General Secretary of the TUC. He was tossed straight into the biggest industrial/political dispute of the twentieth century – the General Strike of 1926 – a ‘baptism by fire’. He rose to the occasion so well that he was nominated for the substantive position by Ernie Bevin and the TGWU and supported by Arthur Cook and the MFGB. His ‘ring-side’ seat on the General Council, close relations with Cook (another syndicalist and briefly CPGB member) and Herbert Smith, and with the other key TUC leaders, Arthur Pugh (Chair), Jimmy Thomas (NUR), Ernest Bevin (TGWU), makes his autobiographical (vol. 1, Men and Work, 1964), five-chapter account of the strike a major source. He was also the officer to the TUC negotiating team which met Baldwin and the Cabinet, and so privy to the real issues and the attempts to settle the underlying coal industry dispute. Citrine was a strong supporter of the miners’ cause but became disillusioned by their leaders’ intransigence in rejecting the compromise which the TUC brokered.

Still Secretary of the ARJAC, Citrine and the General Council felt the full blast of the Comintern, CPSU and CPGB (Minority Movement)’s anger at what they charged was a ‘betrayal of the miners’ in calling off of the General Strike. Trotsky led the attack in the CPSU and Comintern, saying that the TUC Lefts’ ‘betrayal’ of the miners and ‘their kowtowing to the notorious Citrine’, was only to be expected. ‘All you could expect from the likes of Hicks, Swales and Citrine was betrayal’, he said. Instead, he argued, that the CPSU should have backed the true revolutionists in the Comintern and the CPGB’s Minority Movement, in a Britain that he considered ripe for revolution! He demanded that ARJAC ‘should be liquidated forthwith.’ The CPSU leadership’s (i.e., Stalin’s) support for Tomsky’s ARCCTU initiative became one of the two big issues between the Opposition and the majority CPSU Central Committee in their deadly 1927 power struggle for control of the party and the future direction of the Russian revolution. Trotsky described the TUC General Council as ‘a collection of well-placed strike-breakers’. In a major speech at the July-August CPSU Central Committee, even Stalin felt obliged to deny that they had ever ‘banked’ on the ARJAC or on what he now called the ‘reactionary’ TUC. They had only temporarily associated with them, and he cited the deity Lenin’s approach to such compromises with enemies in the Labour movement. Tomsky, embarrassed by his attempt to rescue ARJAC at a meeting with Citrine and all the TUC Lefts in Berlin the previous Spring, was now given to sending long diatribes (3,000-word abusive telegrams) to the TUC. Purcell, Hicks and Swales (AEU) were now ‘traitors, renegades and capitalist lackeys’ for the Comintern. This finished the ARJAC with the TUC and any prospect of them continuing to press for a merger with IFTU, was abandoned at the 1927 TUC Congress in Edinburgh. Citrine became President of IFTU in 1928, so he was doubly in the sights of the Communist International.

This assault was not confined to the TUC but extended to most of the other major union leaderships, who were ‘tarred with the same brush’ by the CPGB and the Minority Movement. The MM, as it was known, was a home-grown and so, far more effective front organisation than RILU, masterminded as it was by Harry Pollitt, Johnny Campbell, Willie Gallagher, Arthur Horner, J.T. Murphy and other leading communists of the time. Citrine had considerable respect for many of these militants, such as Pollitt and Horner, whom he encountered at annual Congresses and other meetings and described as ‘inherently decent fellows… except when Communist dogma bemused them’. Up to the time of the General Strike so-called ‘betrayal’, the MM had widespread influence in the trade union movement, travelling as they were in parallel to the ‘TUC Lefts’ leadership. However, with the General Council decision to call off the strike and the confused way in which no return-to-work agreement was reached, war was declared on the trade union leaderships, when ‘the line’ from Moscow changed. Now their slogan became, ‘Don’t Trust Your Leaders’ and ‘Change your Leaders’ and secretive caucus activities spread across the union movement.

These caused serious alarm and concern amongst the union leaderships (even in the AEU and MFGB), but it was Citrine who stepped up with a bold lead to combat such activities. In 1927, he published a series of well-researched articles in the joint Labour/TUC Labour Magazine, exposing what was going on. He said that ‘after two years of careful thought, observation and mature deliberation’, he was urging all union leaders ‘to abandon a negative attitude towards the problem of communist propaganda and to make up their minds positively on the question of whether the cancer of Communist influence is to be allowed to grow.’ Though still a small but significant minority, their manipulative secret caucusing was causing serious disruption. The international Moscow-financed resources of the communist movement were also quite a formidable weapon against those they targeted. So, it was a brave step Citrine took to confront them openly. His articles, based on MM caucus documents which had fallen into the hands of a number of unions, evidenced serious grooming of conference delegates and other manipulation of agenda items. It led to a major debate at the Edinburgh Congress of September 1927, which carried a strong denunciation of the Minority Movement by a crushing majority of 3,746,000 to 148,000. The Swansea Congress of 1928 set up an inquiry into the MM’s activities and confirmed the initial fears of many union leaders. Citrine’s Labour Magazine articles were reproduced as a pamphlet by the TUC in 1928, as Democracy or Disruption? – an Examination of Communist Influence in the Trade Unions. This was followed by action in most unions to isolate communist and MM activists from holding positions in the union or at conferences. Notably, the Miners Federation turned strongly against the MM on account of their considerable influence in the MFGB’s rejection of all attempts (even by Cook) to settle the losing battle, late into 1926. So Citrine’s lead (ably assisted by senior union leaders of the time such as TUC/TGWU figures like Ernie Bevin) was vindicated and Communist Party membership slumped to about 2,500 by 1930. His ‘mature deliberation’ included intelligence from his IFTU colleagues as to how the Communist/Social Democrat divisions split the German and other European Labour movements. Democracy or Disruption? was by no means an ideological attack on communist ideas or the Soviet Union. It worked in persuading many on the left in the British movement that ‘the cancer of Communist influence’ should be faced up to and not allowed to grow.

From this time, we may trace Citrine’s reputation on the left as a communist ‘witch-hunter’ but his action as TUC General Secretary was open, measured and proven to the satisfaction of his union peers. It is true that from here on, he was always on the lookout for the influence of communist nuclei caucusing in the various front organisations they majored on manipulating. He set out the facts openly for discussion at the TUC Congress, showing how it was disrupting their internal democracy. He made out a strong charge, one that was overwhelmingly endorsed by two successive Congresses. But by ‘sticking his head above the parapet’ in this way, Citrine made himself a target for what he termed, ‘the standardized abuse of the communist press’ (The Worker, Workers’ Life and The Sunday Worker forerunners of the Daily Worker). He complained that ‘no innuendo, no aspersion, no abuse was too scurrilous to be hurled at me.’ He was accused of being in the pay of Scotland Yard and his material for the pamphlet as being ‘supplied by Government spies’ (some of the evidence about communist activities were available in a Home Office publication following the Arcos Raid on the Soviet ‘Travel’ Agency in 1927). He sued for damages and got apologies from the printers and publishers, but the company which owned them absconded simply by transferring the assets to ‘friends of the movement’. These statements are explored fully in chapter 6 of Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress. Resourced generously from Moscow, the CPGB revived in the early 1930s under the more pragmatic leadership of those like Pollitt and Campbell. As unemployment, grew many of their activists, such as Wal Hannington, stood out as champions of the unemployed.

As President of IFTU, whose Executive Committee and conferences he chaired at Amsterdam (1928-31) and later Berlin (1931-33), Citrine had to watch the destruction of the trade union and socialist movement in Germany by the Nazis from January 1931, when Hitler became Chancellor. They tried to get the main German union federation leadership, the ADGB (their President, Theodore Leipart was on the IFTU Executive), to resist. However, after promising a general strike, the ADGB capitulated after meetings with Goering, who had promised them immunity if they cut their international and socialist links. It did not avail them and Leipart was afterwards arrested and incarcerated for years). The once-powerful ADGB had been severely weakened by the massive Weimar unemployment from the late 1920s – eight million. They were also overawed by the Nazis’ control of state power and support within the unions due to their promises to tackle that unemployment and their nationalist revanchist appeal. So, an IFTU boycott of German goods which Citrine and Shevenels tried to organise, proved a ‘damp squib’.

In his landmark report to the General Council and Congress in 1933, entitled Dictatorships, and the Trade Union Movement, Citrine identified the attacks on the SPD (Socialist Party) by the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) since the failed revolution of 1918 as also a major factor. The Comintern’s fuelling of those bitter divisions (their Class against Class programme from 1928, labelled the social democrats as ‘social fascists’), made matters worse. So, when the Comintern’s line changed in 1934-35 to advocating a United Front with social democrats, it was hardly surprising that IFTU and the TUC General Council believed that it was just another ploy to gain influence in the unions. Nevertheless, Citrine did appreciate that an alliance with the Soviet Union offered the best safeguard against Hitler’s aggression and was strongly in support of a Soviet-French-British pact negotiations aimed at halting the German fascist dictator’s progress. So, despite the misgivings of his colleagues in London and Paris (then IFTU HQ), he accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union again in 1935, this time in a ‘personal’ capacity with his wife. Although he was not persuaded by what he saw to advocate a change of policy as regards joining a United Front with the communist parties, the book he published based on his daily diaries (I Search for Truth in Russia), was a fair and balanced account of the progress which had been made there since his first visit in 1925. But it was hardly in print in 1936, when the Moscow Trials of former Bolsheviks began. These included his friend Tomsky who Citrine had insisted on meeting in 1935. Part of the Bukharin group, Tomsky, an old Bolshevik, would commit suicide rather than face arrest and trial. This appalled Citrine and threw the socialist movements in western Europe into a tailspin about their proposed Communist ‘allies’. As a result, the TUC overwhelmingly threw out a CP-inspired motion to join a United Front. Nevertheless, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the Soviet assistance to the Republican government, communist influence revived around initiatives such as the International Brigades.

So, there were good reasons why the Communist Party and its zealots were always viewed suspiciously by the mainstream trade unionists and their leaders, such as Citrine. They would become most unfriendly when the Comintern insisted that local communists should attack Labour leaders as ‘social fascists’ from 1928 onwards. And in Britain, communists, apart from a few like Willie Gallagher, had no electoral credibility and were seen mainly as the agents of a foreign power. Nevertheless, being fiercely committed and seeing themselves as part of a world-wide noble movement, communist cadres, were not easily put off by this brush off by the mainstream union movement or by their isolation and fringe position. The Soviet leadership’s subsequent pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and their invasion of Finland (the front line of which Citrine visited on a Labour delegation in support of the Finns), finished off even the French Popular Front.

Then the invasion of Russia by the Germans in 1941 changed everything. Citrine was one of the first to advocate an Anglo-Soviet alliance, leading a TUC delegation there by sea at the same time (October) as Nazi forces were approaching Moscow. Some pro-communist historians have minimised the bravery of this initiative, seeing it as just a manoeuvre by the TUC leadership to prevent credit for the popularity of the Soviet resistance in Britain going to the CPGB! The TUC delegation formed an Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee with the Soviet trade union leaders, which met also in London later that year when a large delegation of Soviet workers came to Britain. Molotov met the TUC delegation in Kuibyshev at his request and encouraged their union initiative very warmly. This was the start of a firm wartime alliance to cement the wider national one. At the request of Molotov and Shvernik (the Soviet trade union leader), Citrine went next to the United States to bring the American unions into the committee and make it a global alliance. This failed due to objections from the fiercely anti-communist caucus in the main American Federation of Labour Executive and the failure of the coalition government (including Attlee and Bevin) to support the initiative. However, Citrine persevered with his efforts for international workers unity. When a new World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was set up in 1945, with the Soviet trade unions and the other American Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) included, they looked to Citrine to chair it, which he did in Moscow that year before retirement. In fact, the Soviet leaders wanted Citrine to continue in that post, rather than see the place taken by Arthur Deakin of the TGWU. They thought Deakin would be unduly influenced by his predecessor and mentor, the now very anti-Soviet Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. However, Citrine, in the tradition of his classic ABC of Chairmanship, despite his misgivings about rising communist influence in WFTU, was an exemplary impartial chair.

Black and white photo of the three men named in the caption at a dining table.
1945: Walter Citrine in Paris as President of World Trade Union Committee with General Charles de Gaulle and Soviet trade union leader Vasili Kuznetsov.

After his departure from the TUC in 1946, Citrine took up a position as Director of Training and Welfare with the National Coal Board. Though he was only there for under a year, he made an impression on, of all people, Arthur Horner, his old CPGB/MM adversary, then secretary of the renamed mineworkers’ union, the NUM. Horner, in his autobiography, Incorrigible Rebel, said ‘we owe a lot to his [Citrine’s] early work’ – extension of pithead baths to all collieries with the Coal Board paying, replacement of bad lighting in mines and cumbersome equipment, a system of summer schools and proper machinery for joint consultation. Horner also praised him for his pioneering work on miners’ training, something which the old coal owners neglected and even the union had limited horizons about. All in the short time before he became chair of the British Electricity Authority Board. Here Citrine had to deal with a number of unofficial strikes by ETU militants, his old union, then firmly in left/communist control. Unlike the Minister of Fuel and Power, Hugh Gaitskell MP, who saw the unrest as entirely inspired by the communists, Citrine ‘was not so sure’. He dealt with the underlying causes of discontent, impressing Gaitskell by ‘his determination and firmness.’ He had, in fact, built a strong negotiating relationship with the chair of the workers side of the Electricity National Joint Industrial Council, one Frank Foulkes, who happened to be President of the ETU and ‘an avowed communist’ (he was removed in the ETU ballot-rigging scandal of 1960). Together they defused the BEA unrest.

After he stood down as chair of the BEA, Citrine appeared regularly in the House of Lords and made a number of contributions which were listened to with interest on both sides of the House. During the 1960s when unofficial strikes were common and were often thought by the Fleet Street press to be a communist conspiracy, Citrine made this thoughtful contribution:

 “Your Lordships should remember that these people genuinely believe that the employers and workers are in two hostile camps…. Do not dismiss this as some kind of malicious thinking, because this thought is present in the minds of many good and competent workmen who have been misguided enough to find their way into the Communist Party or under their influence. They do not want industrial peace. Why should they? They believe that the capitalist system is collapsing. …But the Communists see things tottering… a crisis of unemployment … and the class war… I myself think that it is a fantastic interpretation of history, but there are thousands who believe it.”
 (J. Moher, Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress, p.290)

So, Walter Citrine emerges from a full biography of his long life (aged 95 when he died in 1983), as hardly the demon anti-communist passed down to history by his adversaries. A reassessment of these and other perceptions in the British left and academia, is surely overdue.

Dr Jim Moher is the author of Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress: JGM Books, 2021, pp. 402, h/b, £24.99, ISBN 978 0955710728.

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