Denis Nowell Pritt

Denis Nowell Pritt

Denis Nowell Pritt was born in Harlesden, Middlesex, on 22nd September 1887. After being educated at Winchester College and London University and in 1906 he joined the Middle Temple. As a pupil of R. F. Colam, he was called to the bar in November 1909. Just before the First World War Pritt joined the Labour Party.

According to his biographer, Kevin Morgan: "About 1924 he joined the chambers of R. A. Wright, an outstanding specialist in commercial work, and in 1927 became king's counsel... his extensive practice had to this point betrayed no strong political convictions."

In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included D. N. Pritt, William Mellor, Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts.

In April 1933 G.D.H. Cole, R. H. Tawney and Frank Wise, signed a letter urging the Labour Party to form a United Front against fascism, with political groups such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. D. N. Pritt was a strong supporter of this approach. However, the idea was rejected at that year's party conference. The same thing happened the following year. Although disappointed, the Socialist League issued a statement in June 1935 that it would not become involved in activities definitely condemned by the Labour Party which will jeopardise our affiliation and influence within the Party."

In 1934 he successfully defended the veteran socialist Tom Mann, on trial for sedition with Harry Pollitt in 1934, and the same year won damages against the police for the organizers of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. Pritt also worked for the recently formed National Council for Civil Liberties. In August 1936 he attended the first Moscow show trial. His account, published as The Zinoviev Trial, gave support to the attempt by Joseph Stalin to purge his political opponents. Margaret Cole pointed out that Pritt had "fallen in love" with Soviet socialism.

D. N. Pritt was elected to represent Hammersmith North in 1935. A strong supporter of a military alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, Pritt wrote a series of books and pamphlets on foreign policy including Light on Moscow (1939), Must the War Spread? (1940), Federal Illusion (1940), Choose your Future (1940) and The Fall of the French Republic (1940). Pritt was expelled from the Labour Party in March 1940 after defending the Red Army invasion of Finland. George Orwell argued that in this period "perhaps the most effective pro-Soviet publicist in this country".

In the 1945 General Election D. N. Pritt successfully defeated the official Labour Party candidate, who lost his deposit, in Hammersmith North. In the House of Commons Pritt associated with a group of left-wing members that included John Platts-Mills, Konni Zilliacus, Leslie Solley, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, Lester Hutchinson, William Warbey, William Gallacher and Phil Piratin.

He continued to write books and pamphlets and during this period he published USSR Our Ally (1941), India Our Ally? (1946), Revolt in Europe (1947), A New World Grows (1947), Star-Spangled Shadow (1947) and The State Department and the Cold War (1948). In 1949 Pritt and four other expelled Labour MPs, John Platts-Mills, Leslie Solley, Konni Zilliacus and Lester Hutchinson formed the Labour Independent Group.

Pritt's opposition to the Cold War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made him an unpopular figure in post-war England and he was defeated when he stood as an Independent Labour candidate at Walthamstow East in the 1950 General Election.

His biographer, Kevin Morgan, argued: "Internationally, he retained a more considerable reputation: in 1954 he was awarded the Stalin peace prize, while his standing with anti-colonial movements was confirmed by his defence of Jomo Kenyatta and five other defendants in the Mau Mau case that began in 1952. Pritt's commitment to such political cases had long since meant the shrinkage of his general practice, and this was now reinforced by the fiercer anathemas of the cold war. Pritt retired from the bar in 1960, honoured far more in other countries than his own."

Pritt continued to write and his books included Spies and Informers in the Witness-box (1958), Liberty in Chains (1962) and The Labour Government, 1945-1951 (1963). He also Professor of Law at the University of Ghana (1965-1966), Chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform and a member of the World Peace Council.

Other books by Pitt include Neo-Nazis, the Danger of War (1966) and three volumes of autobiography: From Right to Left (1965), Brasshats and Bureaucrats (1966) and The Defence Accuses (1966).

Denis Nowell Pritt died at his home in Pamber Heath, near Silchester, Hampshire, on 23 May 1972.

Primary Sources

(1) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977)

The Socialist League was socialist first and radical second; like the ILP and the CP its approach was fundamentally utopian. It accepted as an article of faith that unemployment was an endemic feature of capitalism. William Mellor prefaced his proposals for a short-term programme by means of which Labour could tackle unemployment with the note: "The plans out-lined are not presented as a cure of this scourge of capitalism. Socialism alone can change compulsory Unemployment into remunerated leisure, with the machine as a servant, and effective demand equal to productive capacity." Thus non-socialist planning could at best - when carried out by a Labour Government with genuine socialist intentions - bring a temporary alleviation, pending the transition to socialism. At worst, when carried out by a capitalist government, it reinforced the control of industry by capitalist and financial interests, at the expense of the workers.

The latter possibility was especially abhorrent because of the strong Guild Socialist background of the League. In this respect Cole, the effective founder of Guild Socialism, was the major figure. In spite of his tactical differences with the League, his intellectual influence remained strong. He played a large part in the formulation of the League's policy document, Forward to Socialism; he continued to deliver lectures to, and write pamphlets for, the League; and several of his former SSIP colleagues remained on the National Council. Two of these, Mellor and Horrabin, central figures in the League, had a particularly strong Guild Socialist background. Both had been members of the Labour Research Department group of Guild Socialists with Cole in the early twenties. Mellor had been a Guild Socialist delegate at the Foundation Conference of the CPGB. It was therefore not surprising that the Socialist League put a very strong emphasis on workers' control, or that it put up an intense resistance to any scheme for industry which seemed to negate it.

(2) Victor Gollancz, speech at Left Book Club rally in the Albert Hall (7th February 1937)

What we say is rather... that in the Left Book Club we arc creating the mass basis without which a true Popular Front is impossible. In a sense, the Left Book Club is already a sort of popular front that happens to have happened. It is a body of people who happen to have come together and happen to agree on a number of vital topics. Sooner or later, in their various organisations, it is absolutely inevitable that they will act on that agreement.

This brings me on also to the next question, which is: "Are you a new political party?" The answer is emphatically "No." Rather are we a body of men and women of all progressive parties, hammering out our differences, coming to agreement, and then acting in our various organisations.

My feeling is this: if we succeed on a big enough scale in creating this mass basis, then all objections to a Popular Front, from whatever quarter, necessarily and automatically vanish.... Now if I have made myself clear, you will not misconstrue me or think I am describing this as a Popular Front meeting when I say that the whole idea of the Left Book Club is reflected in the composition of our platform this afternoon. We have here Professor Laski, who since I first knew him at Oxford before the War (we are living in such an atmosphere that I had almost said before the last War) has devoted himself unswervingly to the Labour Party. We have Mr Acland, one of the Liberal Party Whips. We have Mr Strachey whom some people allege to be a Communist. We have Mr Pollitt, who certainly is a Communist. We were to have had with us this afternoon, as you know, Sir Stafford Cripps, and it is really with tremendous disappointment that I tell you that he cannot come because lie has influenza. Sir Stafford, as you know, has been in a thousand fights for peace and the working man... And then we have my very clear friend, if lie will allow me to call him so, Pritt, who has also been a tireless worker for peace and freedom... Now Pritt, as you know, is a member of the Executive of the Parliamentary Labour Party. I do not know what his views may be on the question of the United Front and the Popular Front, which his party has boycotted, but I know he clearly has no objection whatever to the sort of unity I have been putting before you; otherwise lie would not be on the platform.

(3) Jim Higgins, International Socialism (February 1975)

As a member of the executive and editor of Labour Monthly, Dutt occupied the role of leading theoretician as populariser and apologist for the line of the Comintern in whatever direction it happened to be moving... Together with D.N. Pritt he was an enthusiastic apologist for the Moscow frame-up trials. Russian communists he had known, some as friends, disappeared in the horror of the great purge, not a words, not a whisper escaped Dutt’s lips or his pen to indicate anything but peace and socialist construction were going on in Russia under the avuncular beneficence of Joe Stalin.