Jim Higgins

The Origins of the Communist Party

(October 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, pp.33-36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Every individual, every organisation, every movement should be aware of their own history. In the case of individuals and most organisations and movements it is quite possible for them to live out their existence with a history built on myths, half-truths and plain untruths, indeed, in the case of many individuals and political organisations an objective and impartial history would be an absolute bar to further existence. For the socialist movement history as a collection of sustaining myths is possible but undesirable. Unfortunately that is often what it becomes. Too frequently, in our movement, the history books are resorted to provide a substitute for rational argument in the present, historical experiences are transposed to other and quite inappropriate situations. The words are examined, often with microscopic care, while the context in which they were written is studiously ignored. In extreme cases a type of historical lunacy is observed in which the sufferer relives the high points of the lives of great revolutionaries in the petty details of his own political work. A study of Walter Kendall’s book (The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 5 gns) will provide a welcome addition to much over-used Russian revolutionary heroes and villains in the lesser, but important, figures of British revolutionary history. More importantly it will, in its careful research and detailed exposition, provide an antidote to some of the more poisonous myths that abound. Most pernicious of the myths and one that was recently aired in the pages of New Left Review is that which denies the British working class any meaningful revolutionary tradition of militant organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ferment that took place in the British Labour movement under the influence of revolutionary ideas and revolutionaries in the early years of this century changed the face of the trade union and labour organisations in quite fundamental ways. The Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labour Party, the Shop Stewards Movement, the Plebs League and the syndicalist movement all acted and reacted in a medium that was ripe for change.

That all these organisations had shortcomings and made countless mistakes, some of cardinal importance, is a simple matter of record. They were sometimes opportunist, more frequently sectarian, oriented mainly on propaganda and more inclined to talk at the class rather than work with the class when the opportunity existed and their notion of revolutionary change and how it could take place was hazy in the extreme but through internal fights and splits, through the study of a rich international experience and in their own practice and experiment they maintained a clear revolutionary tradition that it is possible to trace to the present day.

It is fashionable today to find these early struggles rather naive and to treat them with condescension, but for all our latter-day sophistication none of us has been able to organise 4,000 out of 10,000 workers into a new radical industrial union (The Industrial Workers of Great Britain) and to maintain a strike for nearly three weeks as members of the SLP did at the Singers factory in 1911. John Maclean was considered such a dangerous adversary during the course of the 1914-18 war that he was sentenced to eight years in gaol for anti-war agitation. This same Maclean had 500 students enrolled in his Marxist economic classes in 1917. The great Dublin strike of 1913 [1*] was led and assisted by members of all the revolutionary groups. At its high point in 1912 the BSP (British Socialist Party) claimed 40,000 members and although this is probably exaggerated their average over the period 1900-1920 is probably in excess of 10,000 and while this is far from being a mass party it is rather better than we can muster today. The SDF (subsequently BSP), the largest and oldest of the British Marxist organisations, had, particularly under the Hyndman leadership, a somewhat chequered history punctuated by bouts of chauvinism and in Theodore Rothstein’s words a general assumption:

‘that the educational work ... can be carried on mainly, if not solely ... by bringing our principles before the public ... things which, despite our professed programmes, very frequently leave us indifferent, are of the utmost importance to the proletarian class ...’

The trade unions and the organised workers were, despite the odd resolution to the contrary, seen as fixed entities that must accept the SDF’s message whole or be consigned to the outer darkness. But throughout its history there was a long battle against the line of the leadership, conducted by Rothstein, Maclean and many others, for a consistent revolutionary line on internationalism and working-class struggle. In 1916 Hyndman and his supporters split from the organisation, having clearly lost the fight against the now predominant, anti-war ‘Internationalist’ Wing of the party.

The Socialist Labour Party, which never numbered more than a few hundred members, derived from a split in SDF in 1903. Dedicated to a harsh Marxist orthodoxy, as revealed by Daniel De Leon, the British SLP had an influence on the tradition far beyond the areas of its strength (the Clyde) and its sparse membership. The reasons for its influence and, at the same time, its failure to reach take-off point as an organisation derive from an interesting contradiction. The SLP theory counterposed the revolutionary industrial union to ‘bread and butter’ trade unionism. The working-class through a pervasive industrial unionism would build up the organisation and experience to control society. Straight political and electoral activities were of secondary importance, at the moment of achieving electoral victory the party would hand over power to the industrial unions. The notion of the one big union arrived at a fortunate time. The existing trade unions were rotten with craft exclusiveness at a time when industrial expansion was bringing more and more unskilled and semi-skilled workers on to the scene. These workers were excluded from existing organisations at the same time as they occupied an important place in the productive process, potentially they were a powerful industrial force. It is in this context that a very few advocates of industrial unionism were able to recruit thousands of workers in the large-scale industries of the Clyde. It is at this stage with very real success to their credit that the problems began.

A too rigid revolutionary theory can be more disastrous than a reformist practice, with the latter it can at least be changed in the future, with the former every struggle has to be seen in cataclysmic terms. Every fight that is not the final battle with capitalism is seen as a capitulation, an accommodation with ‘bread and butter’ trade unions. The SLP was caught in this contradiction. The quite profound insight into the development of industrial society and the elucidation of a theory and tactics to approach the new working-class was made fruitless by an inability to lead them anywhere but direct to the promised land particularly if you have no boots, only a rudimentary map and no compass. While it is impossible to overthrow capitalism by licking its boots (no matter how rough your tongue) it is also impossible to deliver a knockout blow if it’s standing on your fingers.

The SLP’s rigid theory also encompassed rigid organisational discipline. The internal regime was such that probably only a member of the present-day SLL would find himself at home there (indeed, with the transposition of Trotsky for De Leon they could probably accommodate the lot, theory and all). Kendall, in his book quotes the example of one unfortunate SLPer who ‘had entertained Neil Maclean the expelled national secretary, in his home; he was threatened that he would be »severely dealt with« if he did it again’. Despite all this members of the SLP along with members of the BSP and affiliated and unaffiliated Marxists and syndicalists formed the backbone of the Clyde Workers Committee and the Shop Steward’s Movement, and subsequently the driving force for the formation of the Communist Party.

All of these developments are examined and explained with admirable precision and clarity in Walter Kendall’s book together with a great deal more. The syndicalist movement in Britain and its particular British development into dual Unionism is detailed. Its failure, inherent in the anarcho-syndicalist position, to unify the rank-and-file movement that it influenced because only through a coherent political organisation could the necessary links be made. This revulsion from politics affected many of the revolutionary militants and condemned the Clyde Worker’s Committee and the shop stewards generally to isolation and an inability to mobilise their full potential.

As I say all of this, and much more, is in Kendall’s book. As an explanation of the development and history of the organisations that eventually coalesced (in part or in whole) into the CPGB it fills a long felt want. It would be pleasant to continue in this vein and to be able to report that Walter’s conclusion flow logically from his material and that the continuing revolutionary tradition has at last been vindicated. Unfortunately this is not the case. Flying, as I believe, in the face of all his own evidence, Kendall marks an abrupt break in the British revolutionary tradition at the formation of the CPGB in 1921. His conclusion, and it is hardly original, is given most clearly on page 234 of the book, as follows:

‘The view of the CPGB was in some sense the logical culmination of previous developments propagated by the Communist Party is far from the truth. The evidence suggests that the Russian ideological and organisational conceptions were so far divorced from the logic of British reality that, without outside intervention, and without the provision of relatively speaking enormous subventions, they would never have taken root at all.’

Now all this, and it is quite a lot, is a bit more sophisticated than the usual Moscow Gold type of analysis, and it is delivered in the text more in sorrow than in anger, but it comes from the same stable.

According to Kendall, Russian money, Russian ideology and Russian organisation combined to ensure the infant CP’s isolation from any meaningful participation in British politics and eventually condemned them to subservience to a Stalinised Comintern.

Superficially there is some evidence to support these conclusions. The Russian revolution did mark a turning point for British Marxists. The prestige of the Bolsheviks did confer added interest and validity to their organisational and ideological principles. It is almost certain that they disbursed money to the sections, or would be sections of the CI. But so what? I have no doubt that the man who discovered fire was considered something of a genius by his fellows and if he was kind enough to share a bit of the warmth a generous and splendid genius and certainly a chap to be listened to on practical matters like cooking and central heating; so with the Bolsheviks.

Walter Kendall’s proposition that the formation of the CP was out of line with the previous experience and tradition of British Marxism, is of major importance. It goes without saying that without the Russian revolution the development of the British movement would have been quite different, but then so would all of post-1917 history. The logical development of a Marxist organisation does not take place in isolation from the real world. In a very real sense the pre-war struggles in the BSP and SLP, the syndicalist experience and its limitations, the struggle against the war and a discredited social democracy prepared the disparate Marxist groups in Britain for a united revolutionary organisation. This did not happen in Britain alone, the situation that led Lenin and Luxemburg to break with the corpse of the Second International and to call for a new International were reflected to a greater or lesser degree throughout the international movement. That Lenin formulated his ideas with greater clarity and audacity does not detract from the fact that his conclusions were a brilliant exposition of the logic of the situation for revolutionary socialists. In Britain, as in Germany, France, etc., the experience of the Russian revolution and the assumption of the Soviet power clarified the ideas of a whole generation of the most dedicated revolutionaries. To say that would not have happened this way without the Russian revolution is not helpful, to say that it should not have happened that way is, if one is serious, to take on the responsibility of providing an alternative path that avoided the pitfalls (and there were many) of the CP on the one hand and on the other build a principled revolutionary organisation unencumbered by the crimes of social democracy, in a world that was polarised between the Soviet power and reformism. The ILP tried it, the KAPD tried it, the Swedish Social Democrats tried it and they all failed and failed miserably. To deny the necessity for the Third International in 1919 is to justify the Second International. This is, of course, a point of view and it is held by many, but for a Marxist to reject the 21 conditions for affiliation to the CI and then to swallow whole the traitors of 1914 and the allies of counter-revolution in 1917 and 1919 is to show a lack of discrimination that borders on the perverse.

What was the policy that the CI wished on the British Marxist Groups in the strict context of Britain? It was for a unified revolutionary party, working within the mass organs of the working class (the trade unions and the Labour Party) and dedicated to the overthrow of British capitalism. According to Kendall’s own testimony the organisations in Britain while paying lip service to the need for a unified party were busily paddling their own canoes. The BSP’s attitude to the trade unions was half hearted and sectarian, the SLP’s attitude was fixed in De Leonite orthodoxy imbued with syndicalist notions. With the exception of the BSP all the constituents of the united CP were violently opposed to Labour Party affiliation. Walter Kendall criticises and rightly criticises the policies of Shop Stewards, the BSP and the SLP and then complains when the advice and direction emanating from Moscow coincides with his own estimation of the situation. It is certainly not a matter for regret that the unity of revolutionaries in Britain was achieved. Anyone who has anything to do with attempts at regroupment of the left will be aware that probably no lesser event than the Russian revolution would be sufficient to unite the different groups and set them on a fundamentally correct political and industrial strategy. Walter Kendall’s second proposition concerns the malign influence of the Comintern functionaries and the effects of Russian money. In by far the least satisfactory chapter of the book (The Russian Influence) the evidence is produced. Most of it is hearsay and some of the sources are, to put on it the best construction, dubious. It is in this chapter that phrases like ‘it seems unlikely that ...’ or ‘it seems likely that ...’ occur frequently, as in:

‘On February 26, 1918 Litvinov took Kamenev, a member of the Russian Politbureau to see the Webbs. That Litvinov would have introduced Kamenev to the Webbs and not the British revolutionaries seems unlikely. Tom Bell tells us that in February he was urgently called to London by MacManus, where he discussed the British and Russian situation with Litvinov. It seems likely that the other Russian present on this occasion was Kamenev.’

Leaving aside the fact that ‘the other Russian’ has crept into the text for the first time in the last sentence of this quotation there is still sufficient there for us to get the full flavour of the evidence. Further on we have the evidence of .a Special Branch Officer called Fitch who apparently arrested a man called Segal who ‘was an official representative of a powerful revolutionary society in Moscow who had brought with him £4,000 in gold and bonds ...’ with this money Segal was apparently going to set up a press ‘... for producing anarchist literature ...’ A courier called Zachariassen is alleged to have brought Sylvia Pankhurst ‘the sum of between £280 and £6,000’, let’s hope that the CI’s accounts were better arranged than Sylvia’s.

To bolster up his case of the lavish, scale of CI subventions to its sections Walter Kendall calls in aid that scandalous old gossip Angelica Balabanova. In 1917 Balabanova was working for the Bolsheviks in Stockholm. In her memoirs My Life as a Rebel (this is the quotation used in Kendall’s book, page 250) she quotes a letter from Lenin:

‘... the work you are doing is of the utmost importance and I implore you to go on with it. We look to you for our most effective support. Do not consider the cost. Spend millions, tens of millions if necessary. There is plenty of money at our disposal. ...’

Now this, if true, is quite a significant piece of evidence, the lady, who was subsequently to become the secretary of the Comintern, is authorised by no less a person than Lenin to spend tens of millions to further the sinister Bolshevik design. Unfortunately it is not true, it is indeed a lie. The quotation above is taken from the 1938 edition of Balabanova’s book. In the German edition of her book (published in Berlin in 1927) the Lenin letter is quite different:

‘Bravo, bravo, your work, dear comrade, deserves the highest recognition. Please do not spare any means ...’

There are, you will see, no tens of millions and no promises of any. There is no reason, I suppose, why Walter Kendall should be aware of Balabanova’s tendency to bend the facts a little, but he does have some responsibility to evaluate his evidence. The best advocates always ensure that their witnesses can stand up to cross examination. Evidence from Special Branch men, distraught and disillusioned old ladies and speculation as to who met who and when are not evidence but hearsay.

It would of course be strange if the Comintern had not sent cash its more impoverished sections, indeed it would probably be cause for even greater criticism, if they had not. The scale of the aid was almost certainly less than Walter Kendall suggests and is undoubtedly less than Balabanova’s mythical ‘tens of millions’. The scale of the activities of the early CP do not suggest, despite the enthusiasm and energy of the members that the Comintern aid went further than the sort of fraternal assistance that one would expect. Whether the assistance was entirely disinterested or not – and how many members of political groups can truthfully say that when, for example, they assist workers on strike and make their donations to strike funds, they are totally completely disinterested – there can be no doubt that any whiff of suspicion that the price demanded by the Comintern in return for an organiser’s wages, or assistance with the printing bill would be conditional on being the CI line would have resulted in a considerable scandal. But why is all this important? Why should we feel it necessary to defend the early years of a Communist Party that did degenerate and degenerated rapidly, whose subsequent record of grovelling subservience to Stalin and Stalinism is second to none. The reason, and I have touched on this earlier, is that October 1917 did represent a watershed in the socialist movement. All that is genuine in the revolutionary tradition derives in some way from that experience. From the gains of October and the world communist movement came the left opposition as the revolutionary response to the isolation and degeneration of the Russian revolution. Of the pre-1917 British tradition that did not join the CPGB there remains the SLP, wrapped up by endless reprints of De Leon and with a member for each word of their name, the ILP was a past, lots of money and no future and the SPGB, fixed like an chicken in aspic in the halycon days of 1907. All of them bankrupt, if not in cash, in ideas.

There really is no other tradition of value and meaning (unless there is value in nostalgia and historical wishful thinking). The possibility for revolutionary change in the future resides in the inheritors of. the early communist movement.

The other and related reason to dissent from Walter Kendall’s conclusion is this: If it was the fact that the Leninist CI of 1919 imposed upon its sections an alien bolshevism that ensured the latter subjugation of each and every section to the dictate of Stalinism then there is completely justification and validity in the formula Leninism equals Stalinism.

If this is true then the ‘river of blood’ that divides Bolshevism from Stalinism is bridgeable, indeed it does not exist, one hundred and twenty years of Marxism have gone for nothing, the Russian revolution far from heralding the liberation of mankind is merely a more subtle instrument for mankind’s enslavement. A review of this kind is really not a place to argue against this proposition, for those who find it at all attractive I recommend a study of Trotsky’s work on the question, there is no better antidote for this particular poison.

It is unfortunate that in reviewing Walter Kendall’s book I have had to dwell at such length on, what I consider to be, its defects. There are in its pages a number of extremely good things. John Maclean is rehabilitated after years of smearing and character assassination at the hands of the CP and the grossly over-estimated Gallagher. Both Gallagher and Maclean are restored to their rightful places in importance in Kendall’s book. The chapter on the shop stewards is particularly useful and detailed and a useful corrective is given to those who over-emphasise the importance of Clyde Worker’s Committee. The book is a good one despite its faulty conclusions. It is this perverse judgement that stops the book from being of the highest quality.


Note by MIA

1*. In the published version the date is given incorrectly as 1907.


Last updated on 30.12.2007