James Klugmann

The Foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Source: Marxism Today, January 1960, Vol. 4, No. 1 pp. 1-11
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Background

IN 1914, on the eve of the First World War which was to sweep millions of British workers into the armed forces to kill or be killed by their fellow workers of other lands, there was a profound contradiction within the British Labour movement.

On the one hand there were great mass organisations—the trade unions and T.U.C., the Co-operative movement with all its manifold societies, the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party, together embracing millions, but without a socialist outlook, led by men who preached and practised reformism and class conciliation—mass organisations without socialism. On the other, there were a number of socialist organisations, accepting scientific socialism, the ideas and approaches of Marxism, courageous but small, isolated, often sectarian—socialism without the masses.

With the war, all the oft—voted and oft—applauded resolutions against war of the Second International, Stuttgart, Basle, etc., were quickly forgotten. The official trade union movement, as the Webbs put it, became “part of the social machinery of state”. Trade union and Labour Party leaders recruited workers for the trenches to fight against workers recruited by German trade union and Social Democratic leaders who had also tried to transform their organisations into a “part of the social machinery of the state”.

There were of course very many workers in Britain who resisted participation in the war. Many (in the I.L.P. for instance) lacking revolutionary clarity, and finding no organisation or leadership to guide them in the struggle, expressed their opposition in individual resistance, pacifism, conscientious objection—courageous but ineffective. The British Socialist Party (B.S.P.) and Socialist Labour Party (S.L.P.) were both divided at the beginning of the war, and it was not until the 1916 Conference that the anti-war and internationalist section of the B.S.P. defeated the pro-war leadership. John Maclean on the Clyde-side gave a stirring example of how to lead masses of workers into political resistance against imperialist war. As the war continued, and with all the suffering that war entails, new organisations arose from the militant rank and file, mainly led by Marxists and revolutionaries, organisations in the factories, shipyards and pits, like the shop steward committees and, above all, the Clyde Workers’ Committee, that fought, first against the effects of the war (dilution of labour, industrial conscription, rising prices and rents) and then, step by step, began to direct their fire against the war itself.

But with all these examples of individual and collective opposition and action, something was lacking. Lacking was a political party of the working class, a Marxist party, a new type of party, capable at one and the same time of explaining to the workers and the people the reactionary unjust nature of the imperialist war, and of leading them in the struggle against it in an organised, disciplined and effective way. As the war inexorably moved on, from month to month drawing its toll, many militant workers—in B.S.P., S.L.P., in shop stewards’ and workers’ committees, in I.L.P. or trade union branches—came, not yet clearly, often half unconsciously, to feel the urgent need for some new type of organisation, for some new type of party that would meet this crying need of the British working class.

In Tsarist Russia such a party existed, and that party, the party of the Bolsheviks that was to become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had not only organised the mass political struggle against imperialist war but led the workers and their allies onwards to the triumph of the October Revolution. The October Revolution aroused in Britain not only a deep enthusiasm amongst the mass of the workers, reflected later in a widespread and effective fight against British intervention in Russia, but it led the more advanced socialist workers, especially in the B.S.P., S.L.P., in the Workers’ Socialist Federation (W.S.F.), in the socialist societies in Wales, in the Shop Stewards’ movement and in the left wing of the I.L.P., to pose the key question, what is it that with all the long British traditions of working class organisation, the long experience of struggle, with all the British Marxist group’s and societies, what is it that they in Russia had that we had not, and to reflect on the need in Britain for a new type of political Marxist revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to win political power.

The war ended. The brief post-war boom swiftly turned into the deep post-war depression. The promised land “fit for heroes to live in” became the land of dole and desolation. Unemployment figures topped first a million then the two million mark. Miners, engineers, railwaymen, cotton textile workers, moved into struggle; even the soldiers and the police force showed militant signs of rebellion against the old order. From all over Europe came reports of revolutionary struggle; in the whole colonial world great national liberation movements arose. Communist Parties began to be formed, and then in 1919, the Communist International. The struggles and opportunities of the stormy post-war years heavily underlined the need for a new revolutionary party.

It began to be clear that the old Marxist groups, though their role had been very courageous, very honourable, and at times of the highest importance, were no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the British working class. Something more was needed than loosely organised federations of socialist propaganda groups. A party was required that would at one and the same time fulfil three main tasks, that would:

1. Give the working class a scientific socialist theory, a socialist perspective, a socialist consciousness based on Marxism; help the working class and its allies to understand the capitalist system under which they lived, how to end it by winning political power and to replace it by a system of socialism.

2. Give leadership to the struggles of the working class and working people on all the issues which confronted them from day to day—wages, prices, social services, rents, issues of peace and democracy—that would lead, guide and co-ordinate such struggles from the most simple right up to the struggle for political power.

3. Provide the vanguard, the most conscious section of the British working class, with a new sort of organisation, a revolutionary organisation capable of leading the struggles of the working people.

It is true that this need was not yet seen with full clarity and there was much confusion and controversy amongst those militant revolutionary workers who strongly felt the need for the new party. But that a new party was needed was appreciated. The situation demanded it; experience had proved it, the struggles of the international working class movement, and particularly in the Soviet Union, confirmed it. History, as it were, was shouting aloud for the formation of a Communist Party.

Preparations and Negotiations

A new type of party was needed. History puts tasks before the working class, but the forces to fulfil these tasks come from living individuals and existing organisations with all their experiences and conceptions, with all their strength, and with all their weaknesses. What were the socialist and revolutionary organisations and groups in Britain from which the Communist Party emerged?

First the oldest, largest and most important was the British Socialist Party (B.S.P.), direct descendant of the Social Democratic Federation (S.D.F.) founded in 1883. The B.S.P. had been a constituent member of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, had quickly (and incorrectly) quitted it, becoming re-affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916; a constituent member, too, of the Second International. Divided in its attitude at the beginning of the war, the internationalist anti-war section had defeated the old pro-war Executive, led by Hyndman, at the 1916 Conference, and henceforth, with its organ The Call, carried out a consistent and courageous struggle against the war and against the British intervention in Russia. For forty years (with its predecessor) it had educated and developed a succession of outstanding revolutionary leader, keeping alive and spreading, though with some weaknesses, the understanding of Marxism. Organisationally it was weak, a loose federation of clubs and branches, mainly propagandist, and very isolated from the mass of the workers. Amongst its leaders in 1918-20 were Albert Inkpin (Secretary) and J. F. Hodgson, who together played a leading part in the negotiations to merge the Marxist groups and form a Communist Party; A. A. Watts (Treasurer) and F. Willis. John Maclean of the great Clyde battles had, by 1919, broken his associations with the B.S.P. William Gallacher was a member, but at this time was more involved in and identified with the Shop Stewards’ movement on the Clyde. Harry Pollitt at this time was a young member gaining a growing reputation as a courageous fighter and militant speaker for socialism. Theodore Rothstein, who had spent years in Britain as a refugee from tsarism and an active theoretical leader in the S.D.F. and B.S.P., returned soon after the end of the war to his Soviet homeland.

It was the B.S.P. that was the principal initiator, most consistent negotiator for the formation of a Communist Party, and whose members formed the majority in the Communist Party once it was established.

The Socialist Labour Party (S.L.P.), which had begun as a Left split from the S.D.F. early in the century, and whose strength was overwhelmingly in Scotland, had a good record of militant struggle against the war and against the intervention in Russia. Its small membership, in the main in the shipyards and machine shops around the Clyde, was deeply entrenched in the Shop Stewards’ movement and provided many of the best leaders of the great shop steward struggles during and immediately following the war. Among its leaders were men of outstanding mass experience and also some of outstanding narrow dogmatism. The S.L.P., like the B.S.P., accepted Marxism. Though much of its Marxism was abstract, general, doctrinaire, it played an outstanding role in spreading socialist education amongst the Scottish workers, and its press and publications section had an influence completely out of proportion to its membership, bringing some of the classics of Marxism and some of the writings of Lenin to the British workers for the first time. Within the S.L.P. there was a strong sectarian trend; its constitution forbade its members to hold official positions in the trade union movement. Above all, in its hatred of the corruption of the right-wing Labour leaders, it drew the conclusion that it should stand against contact with and affiliation to the Labour Party.

The S.L.P. was, therefore, a combination of positive, militant and negative doctrinaire aspects. Its leadership ranged from experienced mass leaders like Arthur MacManus, Tom Bell and William Paul, to men of a narrow dogmatic outlook like Mitchell and Clunie. Along with the B.S.P., the S.L.P. played the main part in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Workers’ Socialist Federation (W.S.F.) which participated throughout the negotiations for a Communist Party, was a very small group based almost exclusively in the East End of London. Led by Sylvia Pankhurst, an active and extremely personally courageous leader of the left wing of the pre-war women’s suffrage movement, the W.S.F., with its paper The Workers’ Dreadnought, opposed the war and was extremely active in making known and rallying support for the October Revolution and the young Soviet Republic. But the W.S.F., and above all Sylvia Pankhurst herself, brought to the movement an extremist “super revolutionary” sectarianism, almost contemptuous of the mass organisations of the working class. The W.S.F. preached anti-Parliamentarianism; it was categorically opposed to any form of contact with the Labour Party; it belittled immediate action on partial economic issues and participation in the struggles of the trade unions. It stood for “pure revolution”, for a “straight”, “undefiled”, “uncompromising” revolutionary advance without stages, halts or alliances. It brought an atmosphere of intrigue and “personality” into the unity negotiations.

The South Wales Socialist Society (S.W.S.S.) was the fourth continuous participant in the main unity negotiations. The mining valleys of South Wales had long traditions of extremely militant struggle. The South Wales Socialist Society was descended from the Miners’ Reform movement, a militant opposition within the mining unions that had grown up before the war. Its trend was somewhat akin to syndicalism, mass revolutionary struggle through revolutionary trade unionism, suspicious of political parties and of the official trade union leaders. Organisationally the S.W.S.S. was extremely weak, in fact a loose federation of local socialist clubs, but behind it stood the deep revolutionary feelings of the Welsh miners, especially in the Rhondda. In fact it ceased to exist, as an organisation, before the negotiations were completed, and was replaced by the South Wales Communist Council (S.W.C.C.).

Shop Stewards

There were a number of other working class and socialist organisations directly or indirectly involved in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee movement arose as a co-ordinating committee of the militant Shop Stewards’ organisations that emerged in the First World War. Shop stewards had existed before, particularly in the engineering industry, as part of the normal trade union machinery. The great area of militant shop stewards’ struggle was the Clydeside, but the movement spread to Northern England and to London. The Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committees began their struggles against the economic attacks of capitalism resulting from the war, but, inevitably, in the fight against direction of labour and conscription, they became more and more involved in political struggle against the war itself. The Clyde Workers’ Committee, founded in 1915 under the leadership of William Gallacher, became later the Scottish Workers’ Committee with its organ The Worker. In 1916 the N.S.S. and W.C.M. was founded. Opposing the war, the shop stewards’ movement from the very outset hailed and supported the October Revolution, fought against intervention in Russia, voted their support, on its foundation, of the Communist International. The movement involved some of the most militant, class conscious workers from the factories, was strongly anti-reformist, but contained within itself a multitude of trends. In general the shop stewards’ leaders were revolutionaries in outlook, were suspicious of parliamentary activity, and, hating the corruption of the right-wing leaders of the trade union movement and the Labour Party, became suspicious of “Labour politicians” as such. They tended not to see clearly the need for a political party though they wanted revolution, and often felt that it was the industrial movement itself that should carry through the political leadership of the struggle. Many of the leaders of the shop stewards’ movement supported the formation of the Communist Party, including W. Gallacher, J. R. Campbell, J. T. Murphy, Ted Lismer and David Ramsay. But the shop stewards’ movement itself, a broad movement of shop stewards’ committees involving workers of different political outlooks, was not as a whole, of course, directly concerned in the formation of the Party.

There were a number of smaller groups from whom militant workers came to work for the formation of the new united Party. Among these were some Herald Leagues, the Guild Communists (including R. Palme Dutt and R. Page Arnot), and the Socialist Prohibition Fellowship, led by Bob Stewart, who had spent a considerable part of the war in jail for his resistance activities.

Lastly, inside the I.L.P. there was a left-wing group drawn towards Marxism, inspired by the October Revolution, who came to understand the need to break with reformism, secede from the Second International, affiliate to the Communist International, and form in Britain along with the other revolutionary groupings a united Communist Party. In 1919-20 a number of such left-wing I.L.P.-ers organised themselves loosely into a “Left-Committee” which at the end of 1920 and early 1921 put out a paper—The International. Amongst these were Emile Burns, E. H. Brown, Shapurji Saklatvala, Helen Crawfurd, J. R. Wilson and J. Walton Newbold. They maintained personal relations with the Committee negotiating the organisation of the Communist Party, but for the moment confined their activities to an attempt to win the I.L.P. away from reformism and for a revolutionary policy.

Opportunism and Sectarianism

Such were the main groupings out of which the Communist Party was formed. Despite the militant revolutionary feelings in the working class movement in post-war Britain of the early ’twenties, reformism was still very strong and its influence very deep. Reformists sat in all the key positions of the mass Labour organisations. Even amongst many militant workers who fought capitalism in fact in their factory, pit or depot, who hated capitalism, who had a burning desire for a new socialist system, there was a deep belief that this socialism could be achieved by small continuous reforms within the framework of capitalism. In the centre of world imperialism it was inevitable that reformism should become entrenched. Opportunism, the sacrifice of the long-term interests of the working class to some immediate gain, the sacrifice of the interests of the class as a whole to the temporary interest of some part of it, was deeply based in the British Labour movement, not only in right-wing leaders but in the minds of very many of the workers themselves.

From this stemmed a second problem. Revolutionary British workers who had come by their own experience to hate and reject the corruption, the opportunism, the policies of the reformist leaders, when they began to tear themselves away from this opportunism, could very easily, as it were, tear themselves out by the roots from the Labour movement itself and, in their sincere revolutionary disgust with right-wing betrayal, isolate themselves from the mass of workers still under opportunist influence. Sectarianism was the reverse side of opportunism, born of it and against it, but often aiding it unawares.

Sectarianism took many forms. Some militant workers, seeing the contemptible role of Labour M.P.s for whom they had sweated their guts out and collected their pennies, came to see all participation in parliamentary activity as a danger to the working class. Some, seeing the class conciliation of many official trade union leaders, began to turn away from the trade union movement. Some, seeing that there was no other path to socialism than the revolutionary path, the winning of political power by the working class and its allies, disgusted with the policy of petty reform under right-wing leaders only too content to find a niche in capitalism, belittled or denigrated the fight on immediate demands as “palliative measures” or “the patching up of capitalism”. Many thought that militant workers should have no truck with or contact with the Labour Party.

Thus with many different approaches, different backgrounds in different sectors of the Labour movement, different loyalties to their own particular group, and inevitably a few whose revolutionary attitude was skin deep because at that time revolution was “in the air”, and there were just a few who thought they could have all the glories of revolutionary success, without the patience and sacrifice, the setbacks and defeats, needed for socialist victory in what had been the centre of world imperialism—it was not surprising that the preparations and negotiations for the formation of the Communist Party were prolonged and complex.

The Negotiations for Unity

The actual negotiations fall into three main stages. In the first phase, from the end of the war to March 1919, there were a number of discussions between the B.S.P. and the I.L.P. and S.L.P. The Seventh Annual Conference of the B.S.P. (March 31st to April 1st, 1918), on a resolution from the Openshaw branch, called for “the co-operation of all active socialist forces with a view to formulating a common working basis”. A number of meetings took place with the I.L.P., but it soon became clear that men like Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald were not interested in a united socialist organisation, that they represented reformism, that they were utterly opposed to everything militant or revolutionary. By March 1919 it had become clear that the socialist unity that was needed must be on the basis of Marxism, and though a number of the rank and file of the I.L.P. might be won towards a united Communist Party, continuation of official negotiations with the I.L.P. could bear no fruits.

The second and main phase of the unity negotiations took place from March 1919 to May 1920. There is not the space to deal with all the problems, controversies and setbacks in the succession of unity discussions that took place in the main between four organisations, the B.S.P., S.L.P., W.S.F. and S.W.S.S. The first unity meeting was held on May 13th, 1919, and already the main difficulties became clear. On the most fundamental issues there was virtually no disagreement. All accepted affiliation to the Communist International. All rejected class collaboration and reformism. All stood for revolutionary struggle, the overthrow of capitalism, the winning of political power by the working class, the establishment of the dictatorship of the working class to replace the present rule (dictatorship) of the capitalists. All supported the Soviets or Workers’ Councils as the type of organisation that could both fight for and establish political power, and represent the democratic rule of the working class and its allies, the vast majority of the people.

The differences arose on two tactical questions. First, on what should be the attitude to parliamentary action? Should the new Party, once formed, work to get its representatives elected to Parliament? How should they work if elected? Secondly, what should be the attitude of the new party to the Labour Party? Should it or should it not apply for affiliation? The B.S.P. and S.L.P. stood for, and in practice carried out, parliamentary activity, and fought to send their representatives both to local councils and the House of Commons. The W.S.F. and S.W.S.S., strongly opposed parliamentary activity, considered it an impermissible compromise that would open them up inevitably to capitalist corruption.

The B.S.P., itself affiliated, strongly affirmed that the new party should apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. Against this, all the other three organisations opposed any relations whatsoever with the Labour Party, including affiliation.

For the next year (May 1919-May 1920) there followed a period of many discussions, polemics, debates both between and within the organisations concerned, the details of which cannot be given here. Only in May 1920 was the decision finally taken to call a Unity Convention, and to leave to the delegates assembled at that Convention the decision of the attitude of the new party to parliamentary activity and to affiliation to the Labour Party. On this decision the B.S.P. was completely united, but the S.L.P. had split. The original members of the S.L.P. sent to the unity negotiations were Arthur MacManus, Tom Bell and W. Paul, some of the most experienced propagandists and organisers of the working class struggle who, whatever differences they might have with the B.S.P. on tactics, saw that the British working class needed a united Marxist party. But within the Executive of the S.L.P. was a hardened rump of deadened doctrinaires who were determined at all costs to make no concessions, and who at a certain stage disowned and expelled their own representatives on the unity negotiating committee. Under the leadership of MacManus and Bell an unofficial conference of members and branches of the S.L.P. was held at Nottingham in April 1920, which won the support of the big majority and all the best known figures. They, under the name of the Communist Unity Group (C.U.G.) continued the negotiations for a Communist Party when the S.L.P. had withdrawn into its own isolation.

The W.S.F. broke away from the negotiating committee in the early months of 1920 and began to work for an organisation of an anti-parliamentarian character.

The last stage of the negotiations began with June 1920. The Unity Convention had been agreed, and had been fixed to meet in London July 31st-August 1st, 1920. Now it was a question of preparatory organisational work. A joint provisional committee was set up to carry through the practical arrangements, with representatives from the B.S.P., C.U.G. and the South Wales Communist Council, which had now replaced the S.W.S.S. In July a public “Call for the Communist Party” was published. On July 29th the B.S.P. Journal The Call in its last issue issued its farewell notice: “With the holding of the Communist Unity Convention, the B.S.P. will cease its separate existence and its branches and members will be merged in the new Communist Party.” The Unity Convention opened on Saturday, July 31st. The prolonged complex negotiations had ended in success.

Communist Unity Convention:
July 31st-August 1st, 1920

The Unity Convention opened in London in the rather unusual atmosphere of the Cannon Street Hotel, more accustomed to City dignitaries; it adjourned at a later session, to the more familiar, but more crowded, International Socialist Club in the East Road, long a traditional meeting place of the socialist clubs.

Some 160 delegates attended with 211 mandates, of which 96 represented B.S.P. branches, 25 branches of the C.U.G. and 36 miscellaneous groups including I.L.P. branches, Shop Stewards’ organisations, Guild Communists, Herald Leagues and local socialist clubs and societies. A detailed report of the unity negotiations was accepted. Fraternal messages were read from different parties and individuals, including from the veteran Socialist Clara Zetkin, from Tom Mann, from the left-wing group of the I.L.P. But the greatest enthusiasm of the delegates was for the personal message from Lenin, in which he stated that he was in complete sympathy with the plans for the immediate organisation of a Communist Party in Britain, that he considered the W.S.F. and Sylvia Pankhurst wrong not to participate, that he, personally; was in favour of participation in Parliament and of “adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent Communist activity”.

The convention passed to the discussion of fundamental strategy, on which there was no disagreement and which, therefore, was unanimously accepted. It then turned to the controversial debates which all the delegates were expectantly awaiting—first on parliamentary activity, and then on affiliation to the Labour Party.

The resolution on parliamentary action was moved by Tom Bell. It repudiated the reformist conception that socialism can be achieved by purely parliamentary activity and successions of parliamentary elections, but proclaimed that electoral and parliamentary activity provided a valuable means of propaganda and agitation for socialism. The new Communist Party, it stated, must carry out electoral activity both in the local councils and the House of Commons, and its representatives, when elected, must fight for the policy decided by the Party.

The discussion took the form of a direct debate—speakers taking sides and arguing for or against. Six speakers opposed the resolution and thirteen supported it. What was the essence of the polemic?

The main case of those who opposed parliamentary and electoral activity was that—and they spoke from long and bitter experience—Parliament corrupts and that no matter what measures were taken elected M.P.s could not, under capitalism, be controlled or recalled. How many of those sent by the efforts of militant workers to council or Parliament, full of fight and promise, forgot their past struggles and promises, and deserted the cause of socialism!

Some argued that in any case it was through industrial action and not through Parliament that socialism could be achieved. It was a waste of time and money, said some.

Those supporting the motion endeavoured to make it clear that in defending parliamentary action they did not mean, in any sense, that socialism would be brought about by electoral activity alone. But Parliament was an important tribune of public opinion and it was necessary to use it as one means amongst others to influence the mass of the people. It was not true, they argued, that you could defeat capitalism by economic activity and industrial action alone. Political and economic struggle were necessary. To those who assumed that socialist members of Parliament were doomed to inevitable corruption the supporters of the resolution replied that Communist M.P.s must be subject to the Executive Committee of the Party, and carry out Party policy. They quoted Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin in the Reichstag as examples of socialists who had not been corrupted by Parliament, but on the contrary had fought in Parliament to support the struggle of the people. They cited too the successful experiences of the Russian Revolution.

When, finally, after heated debate, the motion was put to the vote by cards, the result showed 186 cards, representing 4,650 votes, for the motion and nineteen cards, representing 475 votes, against.

The Debate on Affiliation

The results of the debate on parliamentary action had been more or less a foregone conclusion. The controversy on which the result was by no means certain was on affiliation to the Labour Party. Once again the discussion took the form of a direct debate. Two opposing motions were put forward. One, moved by J. F. Hodgson of the B.S.P., a calm, reasoned speaker, that the Communist Party should be affiliated to the Labour Party, and the other, moved by William Paul of the S.L.P., practised propagandist and lecturer, that it should not be affiliated. Twenty-three speakers spoke in the discussion, nine for and fourteen against affiliation. What was the essence of the debate?

Those opposing maintained that the Labour Party was through and through opportunist. There was no hope for it. From their own experience, said some, they had seen its role of class conciliation. A constantly recurring argument was that the new Party must be kept untarnished, free from corruption. Relations with the Labour Party, they argued, would be bound to discredit it in the eyes of the most militant sections of the workers. As for Lenin’s advice, some said, he was a great revolutionary, for whom they had great respect, but he was not infallible. Above all it was the argument of “purity” of doctrine and conduct that was repeated again and again.

Those supporting the case for affiliation, ably led by Hodgson of the B.S.P., argued that support for affiliation did not mean in any sense support for the right-wing policy of men like MacDonald, Snowden and J. H. Thomas. But the Labour Party had been founded as an organisation bringing together all forces and trends in the Labour movement, Left, Right and Centre. Such it should remain, and, within it, the Left, militant and revolutionary section should put forward their views just as was done by the I.L.P., or by the right-wing Fabians. Indeed, said some, the extreme Right in the Labour Party were anxious to change its traditional character, to exclude those with militant and revolutionary conceptions just so that the most right-wing reformism should be free to dominate the mass of Labour Party members.

In any case, it was argued, it was quite incorrect to identify the great mass of Labour Party members with the right-wing leaders of the MacDonald type. Strong arguments were put by the supporters of affiliation against the “purism”, the “dogmatism”, of those who wanted to “march straight ahead” to the revolution without swerving, halting, making compromises.

When the final vote was taken, and it was clear from the debate that it would be a near thing, it showed a small majority of 100 to 85 for affiliation to the Labour Party.

The Convention, before concluding, had a tentative discussion on organisational questions, and adopted a document “Tentative Proposals providing for Transformation into the Communist Party”, mainly concerned with measures of a purely organisational character. There was not as yet any real discussion of how far a new type of revolutionary party needed a new type of organisation. The new Party was founded, but it still had the old type of organisation of the earlier socialist groups. It was agreed that as from the Convention a weekly organ of the Party should be published, The Communist. A provisional Executive Committee was established by adding to the existing joint provisional committee six delegates elected by the Convention. Amongst miscellaneous discussions a resolution moved by the delegate of the Socialist Prohibition Fellowship, calling on the Communist Party to throw its weight in favour of complete suppression of manufacture of alcoholic liquors for beverage purposes, was referred to the Executive for decision, where it remains to this day.

On the day the Convention opened, the Daily Herald, still in those days a militant paper, admirably summed up in these words the foundation of the Communist Party:

“The founding of such a Party we can count emphatically a gain to the movement in this country. It is not a new split. It is indeed a fusion. But it is more than that. It is the creation of an organisation for the expression in action of a definite and existent body of revolutionary thought. . . . They are preparing to face the problem which too many of us are inclined temperamentally to evade—the problem of the ‘how’ and the ‘now’ of the British revolution. In so far as their basis is already decided, they seem to have avoided very well the twin trap of a too rigid orthodoxy and a too vague latitudinarianism. They stand rigidly for revolution and against all compromise with capitalism. . .

“. . . in any revolutionary movement the alternative is not between dictatorship and no dictatorship. It is between the dictatorship of the workers and the dictatorship of the capitalists—or of their generals.

“To accept that is really to accept facts. And to refuse it seems to us to ignore facts which happen to be unpalatable. The strong point of the Communist Party is its steady realism.”

The first step had been taken.

Lenin and the Communist International

While the delegates to the Unity Convention were fighting out the tactical line of the new Party, a similar debate on a larger, international, scale was taking place at the sessions of the Second Congress of the Third (Communist) International. Similar differences of approach and tactics existed in varying degrees throughout the world revolutionary movement.

Ten British delegates attended, officially and/or unofficially, some or all of the Congress sessions between July 19th to August 7th, 1920. Six were officially registered as delegates to the Congress—Tom Quelch and William McLaine of the B.S.P., David Ramsay, Jack Tanner and J. T. Murphy from the Shop Stewards, and Dick Beech from the International Workers of the World. William Gallacher attended as a leader of the Scottish Shop Stewards; Sylvia Pankhurst arrived late and attended the later sessions.

Here again the great debate was repeated on parliamentary activity and relations with the Labour Party. Participation in parliamentary activity was strongly opposed by William Gallacher, by most of the other Shop Stewards’ representatives and by Sylvia Pankhurst. On the issue of the Labour Party the B.S.P. delegates, of course, argued the case for affiliation, though often glossing over the problems and belittling the reactionary character of the existing Labour leadership. The other British delegates opposed. Lenin participated himself, with all his eloquence and understanding, in the discussions. His book on Left Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder had just been published, and he took to the floor of the Congress and its Commissions his fight not only against reformism and opportunism but, at the same time, against sectarianism. He had written to Sylvia Pankhurst, already in August 1919, on the need for participation by revolutionaries in parliamentary activity, declaring that:

“If the workers’ party is really revolutionary, if it is really a workers’ party (that is, connected with the masses, with the majority of the working people, with the rank and file of the proletariat and not merely with its upper stratum), if it is really a party, i.e. a firmly, effectively knit organisation of the revolutionary vanguard, which knows how to carry on revolutionary work among the masses by all possible means, then such a party will surely be able to keep its own parliamentarians in hand to make of them real revolutionary propagandists, such as Karl Liebknecht was, and not opportunists, not corrupters of the proletariat with bourgeois methods, bourgeois customs, bourgeois ideas, bourgeois poverty of ideas.”

In Left Wing Communism (April-May 1920) Lenin came out for the support of a Labour government in Britain by British revolutionaries, but he did not as yet touch on the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. He came out for affiliation in his Draft Theses on the Main Tasks of the Second Congress of the Second International (July 4th, 1920) and in his Message (dated July 8th, 1920) to the London Unity Convention, and, above all, in his speeches at the Second Congress itself (July-August 1920).

In all Lenin’s writings and speeches on Britain in this period he laid great emphasis on the need for and the role of a Communist Party. The formation of the Party, he stressed, in his Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst of August 1919, is urgent. He was in favour of its formation without delay, even if the disagreement on tactical questions meant that, at first, two parties would be formed working side by side. At the Second Congress of the Communist International he repeatedly addressed himself to the Shop Stewards’ delegates, who tended to be suspicious of all political parties and to see the Shop Stewards’ or workers’ committees in general as sufficient for the leadership of the militant and revolutionary working class movement. He explained that what was wanted was a new type of revolutionary political party that would, on the one hand, give theoretical leadership, political understanding, training in the art and science of politics, the leading section of the working class; while, on the other, closely linked to the general Labour movement, it would help to lead in struggle the mass of the working class. Particularly he emphasised the need for the Communist Party to be intimately linked with the mass of the workers.

Further Negotiations

The Commission of the Second Congress of the Communist International that was devoted to consideration of the Labour Party and similar problems, ended, after Lenin had spoken, with a vote of 58 to 24 in favour of affiliation. The Congress discussion, and above all the patient and persuasive argumentation of Lenin, exercised a considerable influence on the British delegation, especially on William Gallacher.

In his Revolt on the Clyde Gallacher describes the effects of his dicussions with Lenin:

“Gradually, as the discussion went on, I began to see the weakness of my position. . . .

“The more I talked with Lenin and the other comrades, the more I came to see what the Party of the workers meant in the revolutionary struggle. It was on this, the conception of the Party, that the genius of Lenin had expressed itself. A Party of revolutionary workers, with its roots in the factories and in the streets, winning the Trade Unions and the Co-operatives with the correctness of its working class policy, a Party with no other interests but the interests of the working class and peasant and petty bourgeois allies of the working class, such a Party, using every avenue of expression, could make an exceptionally valuable parliamentary platform for arousing the great masses of workers to energetic struggle against the capitalist enemy.”

Immediately following the Second Congress of the Communist International, a new attempt was made in Britain to bring together into the Communist Party those Marxist groups that still remained outside. Between August 1920 and January 1921 a series of meetings and discussions took place which culminated in the Leeds Unity Convention at the end of January (which became known as the Second Congress of the C.P.G.B.).

Two factors contributed to the success of these negotiations. In the first place, the London Unity Convention had already united into a single organisation, the C.P.G.B., all the most important revolutionary groups outside Scotland. The new organisation had already gone into action, and exercised a strong attraction on those revolutionary workers and intellectuals that still remained outside. Secondly, the Communist International made a strong plea for the final merger of all Marxist forces in Britain into a single Communist Party.

Discussions took place, first, within the groups that had remained outside the C.P.G.B. William Gallacher, returning to Britain, made a strong appeal, for the merging of all Communist forces, to the Second Conference of the Communist Labour Party (C.L.P.) meeting at the beginning of October, and representing a number of the militant and revolutionary forces in the Scottish Shop Stewards’ movement. Finally, it was agreed that the C.L.P. should participate in unity discussions.

The W.S.F., which by this time had given itself the high-sounding title of Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) C.P. (B.S.T.I.) met in mid September 1920 and, after the report from Sylvia Pankhurst, finally decided to join the unity discussions. A further conference of the C.P. (B.S.T.I.) held at Cardiff on December 4th-5th, 1920, elected its delegates for the unity negotiations. In fact, while formally supporting the conception of a united Communist Party, a number of leading figures within the C.P. (B.S.T.I.) were working to organise what they called a “Left bloc” within the new Party, which would carry on with its old leftist and anti-parliamentarian policies and maintain an organisation within the new organisation.

The official S.L.P., despite continuous approaches from the C.P.G.B. and Unity Committee, remained strictly opposed to every form of unity negotiation and its organ, The Socialist, continued to fulminate against the merger.

In October-November, 1920, the C.P.G.B. made contact with the other organisations concerned, and a Unity Committee was set up to complete the unification of the Communist and revolutionary groups, which included representatives from the C.P.G.B., C.L.P., C.P. (B.S.T.I.) and maintained contact with the National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement and with the left-wing group of the I.L.P. Agreement was reached that on January 29th-30th, 1921, a Unity Convention should be held at Leeds to bring about the merger of all the revolutionary groups with the C.P.G.B., and that it would establish a united Communist Party. Voting was to be on the basis of one vote for every twenty-five represented. The new provisional Executive Committee was to be formed on the basis of three from the C.P.G.B., two each from C.L.P. and C.P. (B.S.T.I.), and ten elected by the convention on a geographical basis.

Compared with the London Unity Convention of six months previous, the Leeds meeting was relatively calm and unpolemical. The main political issues—strategical and tactical, long-term and short-term—had already been agreed in the process of the preliminary unity discussions.

The Convention was attended by 170 delegates representing branches of the C.P.G.B., C.L.P., C.P. (B.S.T.I.), and of various independent groups. The Report of the Unity Committee was put and unanimously accepted. The representative of the left-wing group of the I.L.P. greeted the Congress, but explained that he and his colleagues would remain within the I.L.P. until, at its forthcoming Easter conference, its attitude to Communist policy and the Communist International was defined. (In fact, after the Easter conference several hundred members of the left-wing Committee came over and joined the Communist Party).

W. Gallacher moved the formal motion for the merger. “In the past”, he said, “each section had seemed more anxious to impress . . . with its own revolutionary fervour than to get together with other sections . . . we had failed in the past because too many of us had been concerned with personalities rather than with principles”. The Resolution which he moved, establishing a single united Communist Party of Great Britain, was unanimously adopted. A preliminary discussion took place on future work and organisation, and it was agreed that, following the Convention, Divisional (area) aggregate meetings should be held in different parts of the country to set up Divisional (area) Councils linked with the Executive Committee, which would co-ordinate activity throughout the country. The Communist was ratified as the official organ of the Party, which kept the name of Communist Party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.). Provisional Rules and Constitution were adopted. The provisional Executive Committee was established as agreed, with representatives from the C.P.G.B., C.L.P., C.P. (B.S.T.I.), and ten comrades elected on a geographical basis—a total of twenty members with Arthur MacManus as Chairman, and Albert Inkpin, later, appointed Secretary.

The First Balance Sheet

The first step had been taken. From the different revolutionary groups, societies and trends a single Communist Party had been formed, a Marxist revolutionary Party with an agreed general approach and accepted tactics. Preparations had been long, complex, and, at times, extremely difficult. The working class owes very much to those comrades like J. F. Hodgson, Albert Inkpin, Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell who kept the negotiations from breaking down, and saw the need to subordinate their own personal associations and loyalties to the prime need of a united party.

How can we summarise the stage reached, the balance of achievement and weakness reached by the time of the conclusion of the Leeds Convention?

The new Party still had many and very deep weaknesses:

(a) Unity had been achieved, but this did not, by any means, signify that unity of outlook was as yet solidly established. Majority decisions had been taken, but conviction was not yet reached. Within the single Party, to an extent, different trends and approaches continued to exist and to conflict with one another.

(b) The C.P.G.B. accepted Marxism. It stood for a revolutionary path to socialism. It saw that in order successfully to achieve socialism the working class and its allies would have to win political power and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the Party was still, in many ways, only on the surface of the understanding of Marxism-Leninism. It had inherited much that was dogmatic, abstract, and not in reality Marxist in its theoretical approach. There was not yet a deep understanding of the relation of the mass struggles on immediate issues to the revolutionary struggle for political power; there was little understanding as yet of the nature of imperialism and its effect on the British Labour movement; there was little attempt, as yet, to apply the general approach of Marxism to the particular conditions of Britain.

(c) Although the new Party had accepted the line of mass activity, parliamentary activity, application for affiliation to the Labour Party, it was still very isolated from the mass of the workers, its influence confined to a few main industrial areas like London, South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland; and it still had few roots in industry and the factories.

(d) The new Party had inherited its organisational form from the earlier socialist groups. Its branches were still the old type of propagandist groups, loosely linked by a co-ordinating centre, itself based on representatives of different trends and different geographical areas. It was a Party of a new type with a new role and, as yet, an old type of organisation.

Positive Achievement

Against this the positive achievement and the gain to the British working class movement was immensely positive. The formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain represented an historical step of the greatest importance:

(a) The Marxist groups—for nearly seventy years divided, turned in on each other, each with its own personal and group loyalties—were now united into a single Party with a common approach and common tactics.

(b) This Party put before the British working class an alternative to the opportunism and reformism that had doomed them again and again to defeat, retreat and demoralisation. It put before them a scientific understanding of the struggle for socialism, Marxism-Leninism. Against the acceptance of a capitalist state as something neutral and above classes, it showed the need of the struggle of the working class for political power. Against the reformist doctrine of class collaboration it clearly put the need for class struggle. It made no promises of easy victory, but showed that the only road to the successful achievement of Socialism was the revolutionary road through the struggle of the working people, led by the working class, and in their turn led by a revolutionary Communist Party.

(c) The Party had begun, though only begun, to recognise the dangers of dogmatism and dead doctrinaire socialism, and to see the need for the revolutionary vanguard of the workers to emerge from sectarian isolation from the majority of the working class and their mass organisations. It had accepted tactics of parliamentary activity and links with the Labour Party, breaking with the worst sectarian traditions of the earlier socialist groups,

(d) The new Party was part of the Communist International, led by Lenin; it saw the need for international working class solidarity. Within this framework, it could both begin to make its own contribution more effectively to the international movement and benefit from the experience of the working class movement throughout the world.

Lenin had always understood and explained the peculiar difficulty of building a revolutionary party in a country that had for so long been the centre of world imperialism, and where, as a result, reformism and opportunism had penetrated so deeply as an influence in the working class movement. The British bourgeoisie was one of great experience and surpassing cunning, capable of wielding the bludgeon of brutality and, at the same time, flattery and cajolery to corrupt working class leaders.

The formation of the Communist Party meant raising the revolutionary banner in a country where reformism had deeply penetrated the working class movement, and where all the key positions of the Labour movement were in reformist hands.

Now for the first time a new type of Party existed that could show the way forward for the British working class. It is true that it was as yet very small, had many weaknesses, that a long and difficult journey lay ahead of it, but the first necessary and historically important step had now been taken.