Palme Dutt, British Communist from the 1920s

Palme Dutt

“I’m going to take a substantial journey to the land of memory…”

A well-attended and lively meeting on the subject of “Palme Dutt: His Attributes and Failings” was held at Marx House, Clerkenwell Green, on October 15th, 1993. An audience of about fifty was addressed for an hour by Jim Mortimer, and a well-informed discussion (within the parameters of Marxism) followed for another hour.

[Rajani Palme Dutt was on the Executive Committee of the British Communist Party from 1923 until 1965.  He was the party’s chief theorist for many years. 

[“His father, Dr. Upendra Dutt, was a Bengali Hindu surgeon and Indian national, while his mother Anna Palme was Swedish; he was thus half-Bengali and half-Swedish. Anna Palme was a great aunt of the future Prime Minister of Sweden Olof Palme”.[A]

[Such a background might seem normal now.  In the 1920s, you were only likely to find such a person prominent in politics as a Communist.  Another instance of Communism before 1945 defining what is now seen as normal.[B]]

Mortimer, a Labour Party pragmatist, was a surprising choice to lecture on the ultra- theoretical Dutt. The chairman of the meeting, Bill Alexander, suggested that Mortimer’s credentials in the Labour movement were well known to the audience so he did not detail them.

Since three-quarters of the audience was well on the far side of middle-age, he was probably right. But since Mortimer belonged to the left social democracy, and therefore to an era which is as bygone as that of the Communist Party, perhaps we should explain that he was in the earlier part of his life a trade union official, that he became an academic lecturer on trade union matters and wrote the histories of a number of trade unions, and that he was General Secretary of the Labour Party in Michael Foot’s time, just before Kinnock’s adaptation of Labour to Thatcherism discarded the culture of left social-democracy.

Mortimer said his knowledge of Dutt was derived entirely from books as he had never met him. Dutt was born in 1896 of Swedish and Indian parents. He was expensively educated, and his sister went to Rodean. At Oxford in 1915 he joined the I.L.P., which was against the war, and became a Marxist. In 1916 he was expelled from Oxford but was allowed to return very briefly to take the exam. He gained 14 Alphas in 14 papers, and the Master of Balliol, the premier intellectual college, commented on his fine scholarship. This was ironical in view of Dutt’s subsequent career as a politically committed intellectual.

Despite his brilliant academic performance he had difficulty getting a job. He taught for a while at a public school, (Leighton Park), before becoming a professional in the Labour movement. He was one of the founders of the Communist Party. In July 1921 he established Labour Monthly, which he edited until 1964.

One of the things that distinguished him among the Communist leaders was that at every turn of Soviet policy he found reasons to justify it. With others the realities of British working class politics sometimes broke through, but never with Dutt.

He chose the most difficult kind of scholarship. He was a contemporary historian, while being a soldier in the battle, totally committed to the idea of socialism. That was an important attribute to recall at the present time when so many in the British Labour movement have not only cast socialism aside, but never even refer to it.

He saw the reality of imperialism more clearly than any other activist in the British Labour movement. He saw it as a drive to control the sources of raw materials and overseas markets, and to acquire military staging posts around the world. And he saw how it created riches on the one hand and poverty on the other. And even in the twenties and thirties he saw the possibility of another imperialist war.

His second positive attribute was that he saw the significance of the 1917 Revolution. And there can be no doubt that it was significant as a challenge to capitalism on a scale the world had never seen, and to imperialism. And he was one of those who did not think the Soviet Union would collapse under the fascist onslaught.

Thirdly, he understood the nature of fascism. But his book on fascism was written before Dimitrov’s speech and so it contains references to social democracy which arc wrong. He recognised that fascism was the reactionary rule of capitalism in its militaristic form. He never let up on the struggle against fascism, but mistakenly, he did not distinguish between left and right social democracy with relation to it.

Fourthly he recognised the responsibility of the capitalist powers for the Cold War, and the principal responsibility of the USA, with the object of rolling back the frontiers of socialism. We need to adhere to that point of view. Governments, whether capitalist or Labour, have acted to roll back the socialist and resistance movements. The Soviet Union was on the side of those who were struggling for a new kind of world order.

And Dutt saw that British commitment to the Cold War imposed a heavy rearmament cost to the detriment of economic development.

He saw the importance of the colonial liberation movement, and many of its leaders were given a platform in Labour Monthly.

One of his greatest attributes was his sense of history, “this moving panorama of interrelated events, each having its roots”, and you felt this when reading Labour Monthly. He saw the world in its contradictions.

His principle failing was that after 1918 he was so strongly influenced by the Russian Revolution that he really did share Lenin’s view that Western Europe was on the verge of a revolutionary situation, and therefore he put forward the idea that in preparation for proletarian dictatorship we should eliminate the reformist leaders and explain that liberal democracy was an illusion. And that was when a majority of the workers were still not even voting for the Labour Party.

We should never underestimate the significance of the English Civil War, which Christopher Hill has done so much on, because through it the people identified themselves with Parliament. And the Chartist demand was for the working people to be represented in Parliament. And the purpose of the ILP was to gain Labour representation in Parliament. And in 1920/22 when the Communist Party was applying for affiliation to the Labour Party it was putting forward revolutionary solutions while most class conscious workers were looking for a Parliamentary majority. Dutt must bear heavy responsibility for this.

The 1928 Programme of the Communist International said, after a period of capitalist stabilisation, there was a rising tide of revolution, and left-wing social democracy was the most dangerous political tendency because it was the last and most reliable support of capitalism. Pollitt, Homer and others sometimes kicked against this view but Dutt never did. Me lived abroad between 1924 and 1936 and never seemed to look at the actual situation.

His second failing was about the roots of social democracy, which he saw as crumbs from the capitalist table: the upper strata of workers corrupted through imperialist super-profits. In fact the roots of social democracy were in the consciousness of millions of working class people and not just in the upper strata.

They wanted improved conditions, not a revolution, and looked for improvement through a Labour majority in Parliament. Of course this was Bernstein’s policy. But Bernstein and Right Social Democracy made the error of seeing this as a permanent solution to the problems of capitalism. But it will not bring about the end of unemployment and the other contradictions of capitalism

The basic explanation of capitalist stability was not imperialist exploitation but the productivity of the system. German capitalism today gives a higher standard of living without colonies. A work to be recommended, though given little publicity by Marxists, was Engels’ 1895 Preface to Marx’s Class Struggles In France in which he discusses the struggles of the German workers for the franchise.

Dutt’s third failing was that while he rightly saw the Soviet Revolution as being of great historical significance, his attitude to it throughout his life was uncritical. He must have been aware of some of the injustices committed. He must have known some of the victims. But he never criticised.

At the start of World War 2 he thought it had both anti-fascist and imperialist elements, but when Moscow declared it was imperialist he agreed at once. The savagery of his attack on Pollitt for holding to the view that it was anti-fascist was inexcusable. There was some truth on either side. It was a mistake to categorise the war as imperialist.

At the end of the War Dutt must have had a major hand in the Communist Party policy of favouring a continuation of the National Government.

While it was true that the USA was responsible for the Cold War, exposure of this was made more difficult by such things as the Lysenko affair, the denunciation of Yugoslavia, the Doctor’s Plot and the executions in Eastern Europe. Tito was an even greater man than they had thought. Dutt defended all these things. And then in the 1956 criticism of Stalin he would only concede that there had been spots on the sun.

And lastly, he was always certain he was right and was therefore intolerant of differences. But was it not Marx who said: “Doubt everything”

Dutt had many Himalayan attributes, but also, like all human beings, he had failings.


The meeting was well conducted in an old- fashioned style, so there was a period strictly for questions to the speaker, followed by a discussion period. Your correspondent, as an impartial reporter, did not get involved in the discussion, but thought he might ask a question.

Regarding the assertion that Dutt had never let up on the struggle against fascism, he asked if Mortimer had read the Labour Monthly editorials between the fall of France in 1940 and the invasion of Russia in 1941 in which Dutt represented fascism, on the ground of it being totalitarian, as the advanced form of capitalism, and liberal democracy as the reactionary form. Mortimer said he had read them. His explanation of why he did not see this as a defection from the struggle against fascism, if only for a year, was unclear.

The discussion centred on the Dutt/Pollitt disagreement over the war. Monty Johnston, for many years the leader of the Young Communist League and an opponent of Dutt, said that in early September 1939 Dutt congratulated Pollitt on his pamphlet supporting the war as anti-fascist, but when the telegram came from Moscow on September 14 he did an about face and declared it to be an imperialist war.

(But Johnston’s critique of Dutt has never extended to taking account of the fact in 1940/41 he was in effect aligned with the fascist side of the inter-imperialist conflict).

Johnston’s statement about September 1939 was rebutted by a speaker who said he had joined a South London branch of the YCL in the Summer of 1939. They discussed the possibility of war, and decided that in the circumstances it could only be an imperialist war. When war broke out and Pollitt declared it to be a peoples’ war against fascism, they put a picket on King Street (the CP headquarters).

They camped on the steps and argued with everybody going in and coming out, demanding a reasoned explanation of why it was not an imperialist war. They were given no satisfactory explanation. They had needed no telegrams from Moscow to take the view that it was an imperialist war. The telegram from Moscow had only brought the leadership into line with the membership. He was not saying they were right. He had been wondering about this for over thirty years. He only wanted to set the record straight

This speaker also said he had heard Pollitt say that of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, the greatest of these was Stalin. And he never heard Pollitt being critical of Moscow any more than Dutt.

Another speaker said that once when Pollitt was going to Moscow she asked him to make inquiries about an aunt who was being accused, and was killed. Pollitt didn’t know how to cope with this.

Other speakers criticised Mortimer for taking the consciousness prevalent in the British working class as being a self-sufficient cause when it was a consequence of Britain’s imperialist position in the world, and they saw it as a merit on Dutt’s part that he was rigorous in his critique of British imperialism and in tracing its effects on British domestic politics, even though this might seem to have been inexpedient from a domestic political viewpoint.

One speaker said it just wasn’t good enough as Marxist criticism to look back eclectically and say how much better it would have been if policy had been entirely different in one particular feature without envisaging what sense that would have made in the circumstances of the time, and what its consequence would have been for policy as a whole.


This article appeared in May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and