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The Labour Party driving away socialists from its membership on often spurious grounds is nothing new. Marc Wadsworth would know.

The journalist and anti-racism campaigner from Thornton Heath was expelled from the party in 2018 on unsubstantiated charges, which he still disputes today.

Wadsworth’s disappointments with his party, though, have not stopped his tireless campaigning work against racism,  nor his journalism, including the book Comrade Sak.

Shapurji Saklatvala was the Indian-born Communist who won the Battersea North parliamentary seat in 1922. Wadsworth’s biography charts Saklatvala’s movement from privileged Parsi beginnings in the Tata family – yes, that Tata family – to revolutionary communist and fierce critic of empire and colonialism.

Saklatvala’s privileged beginnings in India’s richest commercial dynasty contrasted sharply with his uncompromising radical politics. The book examines his quarrel with Gandhi over the goals and tactics of the Indian independence movement and Saklatvala’s not-always-easy relationship to the Communist International.

Above all, the study documents Saklatvala’s role in a radical phase of British Labour politics and the traditions of local activism, which made his “Bolshevik Battersea” constituency such a welcoming home.

Clearly, it had not always been so. In 1886, when Dadabhai Naoroji, a distinguished academic of Indian background, stood in the General Election, the Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury declared: “However great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudice, I doubt if we have yet got to a point where a British constituency would elect a black man.”

Inspiring: Saklatvala addressing the crowds in Trafalgar Square during the General Strike

Naoroji lost that year at Holborn, but he won Finsbury Central for the Liberals six years later.

Like Saklatvala, Naoroji was a Parsee. After Saklatvala’s election in 1922, where his opponents conducted an overtly racist campaign, there would not be another British MP from an ethnic minority background for 60 years.

In the book, Wadsworth seeks to draw a parallel between what happened then and the tensions and divisions in the Labour Party and left-wing politics today and the effect of propaganda.

Ramsay MacDonald’s government called a general election in 1924, but Britain’s first Labour government was heavily defeated with the red-scare of the forged Zinoviev Letter, printed in the Daily Mail four days before the election, playing a crucial part in driving away supporters. Finding parallels to 21st Century politics was not difficult for Wadsworth. Russian-linked interference in western elections did not start with Donald Trump.

Saklatvala’s radicalism led to police raids on his home, arrest and imprisonment during the General Strike, for a speech appealing to soldiers not to open fire on workers (quite the opposite approach to his contemporary, Winston Churchill).

Comrade Sak had had the backing of the Labour Party in the elections of 1922 and 1923, but in 1924 Labour cut its links with him for being too radical. Saklatvala stood again as a communist and won, as Labour seats were falling elsewhere.

Saklatvala was considered dangerous by the Conservative government, as declassified MI5 and police documents show. He intervened more than 500 times in his relatively short parliamentary career (calling the Speaker “Comrade” more than once) on a range of  issues, including India, naturally, but also social and industrial conditions, workers’ rights and Irish independence.

On their way to Bow Street: Comrade Saklatvala, ‘the Parsi Communist’, in the left-most image on this October 1925 Mirror front page

Wadsworth holds that Saklatvala was primarily responsible for getting the left and liberals to focus on trying to end imperialism at a time when Labour leaders such as Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and others returned from visits to India proposing reforms which sought to diffuse the “unrest”.

Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929. He remained active in politics until his death in 1936.

According to The Independent, “Wadsworth, in Comrade Sak, has produced a thorough, well-researched and rich biography of a politician of colour who is little known, but played an important role in highlighting racism and imperialism at a time when such criticism was met with hostility and retribution by the establishment.”

Wadsworth’s book draws from Saklatvala’s speeches and writings, his passionate and radical voice speaks clearly to our times. This is a comprehensively revised edition of a study first published in 1998.

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