J. T. Murphy

The Communist Party of Great Britain

Source: The Fortnightly, August 1943
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.

UNTIL June of this year the British Communist Party was a section of the Communist International. The dissolution of the latter on the initiative of Stalin, ended a connection which had been a dominating feature of its existence since its formation in June, 1920. The Communist Party had been formed as a direct result of the influence of the Russian Revolution upon a few small socialist groups—The Socialist Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Federation, the South Wales Socialist Society, some units of the Independent Labour Party, National Guildsmen and other small local socialist societies. Prior to the Russian Revolution they were noticeable, mainly for their differences. The S.L.P. was opposed to affiliation to the Labour Party and inclined to syndicalism. The B.S.P. was Parliamentarian and affiliated to the Labour Party. The Workers’ Socialist Federation was anti-parliamentarian and anti-Labour Party and so on. It was the influence of the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s call for the formation of the Third (Communist) International “free from opportunism” that brought them together.

The principles upon which they united read as follows:1

“Communism as against Capitalism, i.e. the maintenance of society on a social service rather than class exploitation.

The Soviet idea as against parliamentary democracy, i.e., a structure making provision for the participation in social administration only of those who render useful service to the community.

Learning from history that dominant classes never yield to the revolutionary enslaved classes without struggle, the Communists must be prepared to meet and crush all the efforts of capitalist reactionaries to regain their lost privileges pending a system of thoroughgoing communism. In other words, the Communist Party must stand for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

It was estimated that the Communist Party after its inaugural conference had 10,000 members. By 1922 its membership had fallen to 2,000. During the Miners’ Lock-out of 1926 it rose again to 10,000. A decline set in after the defeat of the miners and the membership hovered between 5,000 to 10,000 during the next ten years. At the outbreak of war in 1939 it had reached nearly 16,000. Its rapid increase to 41,000 in 1943 dates from the entrance of the Soviet Union into the war in June, 1941.

The declaration of its revolutionary principles in 1920 was, of course, a challenge to all other parties in Britain but an especial challenge to the British Labour Party. From that moment the Labour Party had a rival for the leadership of the working class. The differences between the two parties were and remain fundamental differences. In the early stages of the struggle these differences were stated much more clearly than to-day. The Labour Party was a federal party (a combination of labour parties, trade unions and socialist organizations) stating itself to be a people’s party with a socialist programme, which it would achieve through a succession of reforms through Parliament. The Communist Party proclaimed that Socialism could not be achieved through Parliament. It stood for the insurrectionary struggle and the proletarian seizure of power, a Soviet Britain and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. While supporting a struggle for the immediate improvement of the conditions of the workers it aimed to secure the socialization of the means of production by confiscation.

From a Communist point of view the Labour Party stood in the way of the British working class becoming revolutionary and the Communist Party hoped by applying for affiliation to the Labour Party to destroy it. Lenin said: “I am prepared to support Henderson by my vote in just the same way as a rope supports the man who has hanged himself,” and at the St. Pancras Conference in 1922 T. A. Jackson for the Executive Committee of the Party was reported as saying: “It might be urged that in affiliating with the Labour Party they would be virtually shaking hands with those leaders of the Second International who were in effect the murderers of Karl Liebknect and Rosa Luxemburg. This was true . . . I would take them by the hand!—as a preliminary to taking them by the throat!” Two years later R. P. Dutt in less colourful language said:

The rôle of the Communist Party must be made clear to the British workers to be not simply the rôle of a propagandist force within the Labour Party and the trade unions for the adoption of certain “views.” The rôle of the Communist Party is the rôle of the alternative leadership of the British working class, which the British workers must themselves build up and realize to replace the failure and the decomposition of the Labour Party. This is the fact which must be proclaimed on every side. Out of the ruins of the old electoral associations which were the prey of every petty bourgeois opportunist and adventurer, must arise the solid disciplined force of the mass Communist Party of the future, and of the workers fighting under its banner.

The application for affiliation to the Labour Party was rejected in 1922 by 3,086,000 to 261,000; in 1923 by 2,880,000 to 366,000; in 1924 by 3,805,000 to 19,3000. In 1925 the Labour Party decided by 2,810,000 to 310,000 that no Communist should be eligible for membership of the Labour Party. In 1943 renewed application was strongly rejected.

This struggle for affiliation has been conducted as a fight for “a united working class.” Although the Communist Party differed fundamentally from the Labour Party on all questions of principle, it was willing as a matter of expediency to accept the constitution and programme of the Labour Party in the interests of a united working class action on the principal issues of the day: “Against the Capitalist offensive,” “For Peace and Plenty,” “For Collective Security,” “Unity against Fascism,” “A People’s Convention,” “A People’s Peace,” “Down with the War Government,” “On to Victory” and so on.

In the course of the struggle for a united front the Communist Party fostered a “Left Wing” Movement within the Labour Party. After the 1925 decision to expel individual communists from the Labour Party more than a hundred Labour Parties refused to apply the decision and were affiliated. After a short period in which the Communist Party supported the disaffiliated Labour Parties it withdrew its support, and told its members to join the Communist Party, or go back to the Labour Party. This ended the “Left Wing Movement” within the Labour Party.

A similar development marked its relations with the Trade Unions. To develop the revolutionary struggle against the Trade Union leaders and win over Union members to communist leadership the Communist Party first supported the Shop Stewards’ Movement which had grown up during the last war. The Shop Stewards supported the Red International of Labour Unions, the purpose of which was to detach the trade unions from reformist leadership and bring them under the direction of the Communist International. The R.I.L.U. organized a bureau in Britain to win over the British unions. The bureau secured local affiliations of trade union branches, district committees and trades councils. These affiliations became the basis of what became known as the Minority Movement. The movement achieved considerable headway until the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and the Trades Union Executives determined to destroy it. They demanded that all their affiliated and associated organizations should dissociate themselves from the Minority Movement. In 1927 the General Council of the T.U.C. set a time limit to this demand. Immediately the Communist Party and the Minority Movement leaders launched a campaign asking all organizations affiliated to the Minority Movement to reject the demand of the General Council. All the large Trades Councils and many trade union branches stood firmly by the Minority Movement until at the last moment as the ultimatum of the General Council expired, the Communist Party and the Minority Movement leadership reversed their decision and told the affiliated organizations to accept the decision of the General Council. The Minority Movement faded out of existence.

The aim of a Soviet Britain did not preclude the Communist Party from participation in Parliamentary elections. In 1922, J. T. W. Newbold was elected for Motherwell, polling 8,262 votes. He was the first Communist M.P. There was no Labour Party candidate in his constituency on this occasion. In this general election W. Gallacher contested Dundee and polled 5,906 votes. Four communists stood as Labour candidates. One was successful—Saklatvala for N. Battersea. In the election of December, 1923, both Newbold and Saklatvala were defeated. Gallacher increased his vote to 10,380. Six communists stood as Labour candidates. In the 1929 general election there were 25 communist candidates. 20 lost their deposits. In the general election of 1931 the Communist Party with 26 candidates polled 74,824 votes. 21 candidates lost their deposits. In 1935 all candidates withdrew except two who polled 27,117 votes. One of them, W. Gallacher, was elected M.P. for West Fife.

The consistency of small returns for large efforts followed frequent variations in policy. At its formation the Communist Party believed with the Communist International that the Revolution begun in Russia in 1917 was still sweeping across the world. Even in April, 1923, the Communist Party issued a manifesto to its members saying:

We must bring the issue of the struggle for power directly before the masses, not as an ideal ultimate objective, but as the only real practical issue of to-day . . . . The inevitable necessity of the revolutionary struggle and the process of it, the formation of factory and workshop councils, the establishment of Workers’ Guards, must be made familiar to all as directly arising out of the present situation.

No compromise.

On with the struggle to more and yet more strength. Unite the whole working class.

Push forward to the fight for power.

It was not until after the failure of the uprising in Germany in 1923 that the Communist International accepted the situation, and in the December elections of 1923 the party dropped its propaganda for the confiscation of the land and put forward a programme for Labour which went no further than “State control of all land and factories to organize production so as to provide employment for all and produce what is needed—“A Workers’ Government and a Workers’ Programme.”

By 1929 the Communist Party had come to the conclusion that the Labour leaders were “Social Fascists” and it advanced the slogan, “A Revolutionary Workers’ Government.” It advised the workers to vote ‘labour’ only when every means of finding an alternative “Left” candidate had been exhausted. After the experience of the Second Labour Government it regarded the Labour Party as having ceased to be an enemy of capitalism; and it was now to be regarded as an enemy of the workers. The campaign for a Revolutionary Workers’ Government was renewed, but by 1935 the Communist Party had again decided that it could collaborate with the Labour Party against the National Government. After W. Gallacher had been elected as M.P. for West Fife another application for affiliation to the Labour Party was made. This was refused. So when the war broke out in 1939 the Communist Party declared:

As in 1914 these Labour Leaders have joined up with the capitalist enemy and have betrayed the cause of the workers and socialism . . . . End the political truce. End the industrial truce. End the collaboration of the Labour Party with the Government. Restore the independence of the Labour Party . . . .

When the Soviet Union was forced into the war in June, 1941, the attitude to the Labour Party changed again. It was no longer denounced for collaboration with the conservatives and Mr. Churchill. At its conference in May,1942, it put on record that

The Churchill Government is the representative of national unity for the fulfilment of the aims of the British-Soviet Pact, of the United Nations, and victory over Hitler. The weakening of the Churchill Government would mean the weakening of national unity, create doubt and alarm in allied countries, exultation among the fascist enemy, and lead to intrigues for alternative combinations which would open the way to the increased influence of the pro-fascist force.

By 1943 the Communist Party was stating that it sought only to put its point of view “just as other affiliated organizations do.” It supported the political truce, the Coalition and wanted to make the Labour Party strong.

These variations of attitude to governments, to Parliamentarianism, the Labour Party and its leaders have been accompanied by changes in estimate of the international situation and policy which have usually reflected changes in the policy of Soviet Russia. In 1920 the Chairman of the Communist International stated:

The position is ripe for the triumph of socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the order of the day throughout the civilized world . . . . There is no structure as solid as the structure of the Third International, the foundations of which were laid in Moscow in March, 1919. Under the banner of the Third International the working class will triumph throughout the world.

The war of intervention was then still on. The Soviet Government had been refused recognition by all the capitalist governments of the world and was fighting for its existence. The direct appeal to the workers of the world to make revolution and overthrow their capitalists was the means of assisting the Red Army in its fight against the enemies of the Soviets.

When the war of intervention in Russia ceased at the end of 1922 and government after government recognized the Soviet Power the Communist Party took up the call for complete recognition of the Soviet Government by the British Government. But its attitude towards the League of Nations remained hostile until the Soviet Government became a member in 1934. Then it supported the Soviet’s programme of international and simultaneous disarmament. It went further than the Soviet Government in that it opposed voting for the armed forces estimates on the grounds that such were for the support of capitalist war. It repudiated the Versailles Treaty, the Locarno Pact, the Kellogg Pact and the Dawes and Young Plans. Its main concern in foreign policy was the defence of the Soviet Union. Every development in international affairs became, to its leaders, a manœvre for the re-staging of the war of intervention against the Soviets. That there has always been a danger of such a war cannot be questioned but to them it was the over-riding purpose of everything that happened in the relations of nations.

Nevertheless after Hitler came to power in Germany and the socialists declared that it would be necessary to defend capitalist democracy against dictatorship a Communist Party spokesman2 declared:

The slogan of “democracy versus dictatorship” is a direct slogan for the preparation of war. This slogan suits exactly the war preparations of British and French Imperialism, not only in case of need against German imperialism or the attack on Versailles, but still more for the supreme aim of the war on the Soviet Union.

Next the Communist Party itself launched one of the most effective campaigns of its history for the “defence of democracy” in Spain against the Fascist dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. It denounced the “nonintervention policy” of the National Government and the Labour Party, demanded “arms for the Spanish Republican Government” and organized a section of the famous International Brigade. Hundreds of British communists laid down their lives in this war for “democracy versus dictatorship.” This policy also coincided with Soviet Russia’s aid to the Republican Government.

The policy of “democracy versus dictatorship” evolved into a general policy of “defence and maintenance of peace by the collective action of France, Britain and the Soviet Union,” a vigorous campaign for the defence of Czechoslovakia, and a denunciation of appeasement. The Congress of the Communist Party in 1938 called on the British Labour Party, so long proclaimed as having social fascist leaders and as being in a state of decomposition, to take the lead. “It is the duty of the British Labour Movement to lead the British people and take the initiative of bringing all these sections of the people together . . . .” At the same time it said nothing about the necessity of military preparations, although it continued to urge the National Government to make an alliance with the Soviet Union and France. It concentrated all attention on the danger represented by the Axis powers. As 1939 dawned it tried to keep pace with the writers of The Communist International who said that: “The Fascist obscurantists who rule Germany . . . . outvie the most fanatical geniuses for pogrom under Russian Czarism. It has worked brutishness up into a system which makes the terror of the Inquisition seem tame . . . .”

On the failure of the efforts of the Soviet Union to secure an alliance with Britain and France, the consequent signing of the Soviet-German Pact, and the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, the policy changed again. It was declared to be the waging of war on two fronts—against the Nazis abroad and the National Government at home. Then the war was denounced as an “Imperialist War” and “so far from being an anti-fascist war, is objectively the preliminary stage for the anti-Soviet War . . . . The Soviet-German Agreement of September, 1939, established the Soviet frontiers on an unassailable basis in relation to the principle of national self-determination while the call for peace to Western Europe placed squarely on the shoulders of British Imperialism the responsibility for continuing the war.”3

From September, 1939, to June, 1941, the policy varied from the above call for “peace” to that of repeating the Bolshevik policy of the war of 1914-18, the key to which was “the transformation of imperialist war into civil war” emphasizing that the enemy is the governing class of one’s own country. It gave a pacifist cover to this policy by organizing the “People’s Convention” with the slogan of “A People’s Government for a People’s Peace.” It would have nothing to do with such questions as “increasing Production” and considered that the way to defeat Hitler was for the working class to defeat the National Government, elect a People’s Government which would appeal with its peace programme over the head of Hitter to the German workers.

When in June, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union it changed its policy again. The war was no longer an imperialist war. Hitlerism once again became the greatest enemy of civilization and for the first time in its history the Communist Party was prepared to support a capitalist government.

(Mr. Murphy was formerly a member of the High Executive of the Communist International, from which he moved the expulsion of Trotsky.)



1 Manifesto of the Provisional Committee for the Communist Party, 1920.

2 R. P. Dutt in Labour Monthly, July, 1933.

3 Labour Monthly, November, 1939.