William Rust 1940

The Communist Party and Parliament

Source: International Press Correspondence, Volume 20, no 31, 3 August 1940. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

From the day of its foundation, twenty years ago, the Communist Party of Great Britain has struggled consistently to utilise every opportunity provided by the parliamentary system in Britain to voice the demands of the working people, to further the struggle of the people for these demands, and to voice its revolutionary programme.

In the years and months preceding the formation of the party, the years of the first imperialist war, and especially in 1917 and 1918, when the attitude of the Labour Party leadership had reduced parliament to little more than a committee giving a show of ‘democratic’ sanction to the policy of British capitalism and its government, it was only natural that some sections of the revolutionary workers, such as, for example, the Scottish Workers Council, should have reflected the general disillusionment in the Mother of Parliaments.

During the negotiations for the establishment of a united Communist Party, therefore, one of the main issues which had to be thrashed out was whether or not the Communist Party, when formed, should participate in parliamentary elections.

The National Convention at which the party was established decided, however, by a vote of 186 to 19 in favour of revolutionary parliamentarianism.

What is meant by ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism'?

Basically it means taking every opportunity provided by the existence of parliament and parliamentary elections to advance the daily struggle of the working people, to help to lead them in action against capitalism, to voice their demands, to expose as from a tribune the policy and manoeuvres of the capitalist class and its government, but never once falling into the Social- Democratic illusion that the final victory of the working class can be won in parliament, through the election of a working-class majority to parliament and nothing more.

This does not mean, however, that correct revolutionary work in parliament cannot be instrumental in winning partial victories for the working people and for sections of the working class. On the contrary, the presence of determined revolutionaries in Parliament can – as the work of William Gallacher, MP, [1] has shown – bring the demands of the people and the popular movement outside parliament to the immediate attention of the ruling class and the government. It can focus public attention upon these demands. It can give leadership to the movement, and can help to clarify and develop that movement, and can force the government to act one way or another.

This work is not, however, easy in Great Britain. The very electoral system itself, based upon the deposit system and the electoral machinery of the capitalist parties in each constituency, make it extremely difficult for a party, whose organisation has not been built up with the single idea of ‘capturing the constituency’, even to advance a candidate. These difficulties are increased by the attitude of the Labour Party leadership, which, regarding the revolutionary workers as the main enemy, does everything in its power to prevent them advancing their own candidate. It does this not only by using its extensive election and party machinery, but also by threatening to split the unity of the working class, to expel Labour and trade-union organisations which support a revolutionary candidate, by campaigns of slander and misrepresentation against the Communists. Nevertheless, the Communist Party has won important victories, as the election of William Gallacher and the big vote polled by Harry Pollitt in Rhondda show. [2]

Today, under conditions of imperialist war, this collaboration between the Labour bureaucracy and the capitalist class has become open and official through the electoral ‘truce’ and the entry of the Labour Party into the Churchill – Chamberlain government. This open electoral alliance of the Conservative and Liberal Parties with the Labour Party leadership against the Communist Party is, however, the surest proof that the Communist Party, in its constant effort to lead the movement of the working people, is absolutely correct in its policy of utilising every opportunity provided by the existence of parliament and parliamentary elections, and that this policy is in the interests of the working class.

How effective correct revolutionary work in parliament can be has been clearly demonstrated by the record of two Communists in parliament – Comrades Saklatvala [3] and William Gallacher.

Saklatvala was elected to parliament on two occasions – in 1922 and 1924 – when he stood as a Labour candidate with the support of the North Battersea Labour Party and the Battersea Trades and Labour Council. In parliament Comrade Saklatvala consistently advanced the views of the Communist Party, exposed the policy and manoeuvres of the ruling class, taking care all the time to report back regularly to his constituency. His weekly reporting-back meetings at Prince’s Head, Battersea, made this spot one of the most famous meeting places in London. Examples of his work in parliament were his speech in the debate when the House divided on a motion that capitalism is more efficient than socialism, a speech in which he voiced the view of the revolutionary working class of the Communist Party in opposition to the defenders of capitalism and their Social-Democratic echoes, and his consistent struggle on behalf of the Indian people against British imperialism.

The election of William Gallacher as Communist MP for West Fife in the General Election of 1935 heralded a new phase in the work of the Communist Party in parliament. Unlike Saklatvala, Gallacher was returned on a straight Communist ticket against both Conservative and Labour rivals.

In speeches and at question time, Gallacher has been among the most active of Members, while he has maintained a constant pressure on government departments by means of correspondence and interviews with Ministers in connection with particular cases. At the same time, continuing the tradition established by Saklatvala, Gallacher has paid the closest attention to his own constituency, spending each weekend with the working people of West Fife.

It is obviously quite impossible within the scope of this article to give a comprehensive survey of the work carried out by Comrade Gallacher. His campaign for increased ex-Service, Old Age and other pensions, his speech on the Budget scandal, his introduction, together with a group of Labour MPs with whom he has worked very closely, of the Avoidance of Corruption Bill, [4] his telling exposure of the Prevention of Violence Bill [5] must, however, be mentioned. In addition, Comrade Gallacher’s consistent defence of the interests of the miners, his successful campaign for pit-head baths show how only one Communist MP can, working correctly, win important concessions for the working people.

Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Comrade Gallacher’s work in parliament, however, has been his constant struggle for peace and against the war. His defence of the cause of the Spanish Republic, of the fight of the International Brigade, his ruthless exposure and condemnation of ‘non-intervention’, his persistent demand for Anglo-Soviet friendship, all paved the way for his denunciation of the Munich betrayal. [6] Then in one of the shortest but most effective speeches ever made, Gallacher’s was the only voice raised against the betrayal which was to lead to disaster. Comrade Gallacher said:

No one desires peace more than I and my party, but peace based on freedom and democracy and not on the dismemberment and destruction of a small state. It is the policy of the National Government [7] that has led us to this situation. Yes, and if we get peace, it is the determination of the people that has saved it. Whatever the outcome, the National Government will have to account for its policy. I am no party to what is going on here. There are many fascists on the other side of the House as in Germany. I object to the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia.

A few days later (4 October 1938), Gallacher returned to the attack:

If the Hon Gentlemen opposite [he said] are hugging the delusion that Germany, if allowed to become a dominant power in Europe, will attack the Soviet Union and destroy that great Socialist power, they had better wake up before it is too late. Germany will have no hesitation in breaking any word that was given and taking advantage of this country. The National Government are not isolating Soviet Russia. They are isolating Britain. I do not care what armaments you have, if Britain is alone her position is impossible. The policy for the people of this country is to have unity with the peace peoples of all other countries and to make appeal after appeal to the peoples of Germany and Italy on that basis.

And he added:

One of the deadliest blows that could be struck against Hitler and against the continued aggression of the Nazis would be to impeach his fascist friends in this country.

Comrade Gallacher concluded this speech with the following significant appeal:

We have just passed through a great crisis, but a crisis occurs day after day, in the homes of the working people of the country. Instead of relieving it, you have new drives for armaments and for universal service, for militarism, and for war.

What madness is this. Let us put an end to it. Let us understand that the friends of Hitler in this country have got to be cleared out of office, that the government that has destroyed the League and that has continually associated with and played up to the Fascist power and jeopardised the very existence of democracy, has got to go.

When I use the word ‘democracy’, I am not speaking of some magic cabalistic word; I am thinking of the rights of trade unions, of the rights of cooperatives, of free speech, of public meeting, of the right of the labour movement to lead toward the emancipation of the working class. I am thinking of these things. I know what is happening in Europe, and I want to fight with all my power, to preserve these liberties here and to carry them forward to better things. We can only get them on the basis of the unity of the peace forces.

Let us get that unity in this country and in Europe. Let us get rid of this government, which has destroyed this country, or will destroy it if it is allowed to carry on, and then, with a government representing the true peace and progressive interests of the people, united with the other peace forces in Europe, gradually winning over the German people against the Nazi tyranny, we can put an end to the waste of wealth on armaments, and all our resources can be turned to what should be the heart’s desire of us all, namely, the homes, the health, and the happiness of the people.

Here, exactly a year before the disaster of 1939, was the voice of the Communist Party in parliament warning the people of Britain and showing them the way forward.


All notes have been provided by the MIA.

1. William Gallacher (1881-1965) was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and President of the Clyde Workers Committee during the First World War, and was sentenced to six months’ jail for publishing an anti-war article in the CWC’s journal. He joined the CPGB in 1921, was an MP during 1935-50, and was President of the party during 1956-63.

2. In 1935, in the last general election before the Second World War, the CPGB stood two candidates: Willie Gallacher in West Fife (Scotland) and Harry Pollitt in East Rhondda (Wales). The former was elected, having obtained 13 462 votes; the latter obtained 13 665 votes, the victorious Labour candidate having obtained 22 088 votes. Harry Pollitt (1890-1960) was a boilermaker and a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He replaced Albert Inkpin as the CPGB’s General Secretary in 1929, and, excluding a short hiatus during 1939-41 on account of his opposition to Moscow’s anti-war orientation during the period of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, he remained in that post until 1956, when he became the party Chairman.

3. Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala (1874-1936) was born in India, and became a barrister in Britain. He was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and one of a group of ILP members who joined the CPGB upon its foundation. He was elected as the Labour MP for Battersea in the general election in October 1922, having been endorsed by the Labour Party despite his membership of the CPGB, but lost his seat in the next general election, in November 1923. Having failed to obtain official Labour Party endorsement, he stood successfully on a Communist ticket in the same constituency in the general election in October 1924, but failed to be elected in the following general elections in May 1929 and October 1931.

4. Gallacher’s speech on this bill on 25 July 1939 has been reproduced at They Work For You.

‘I beg to move: “That leave be given to bring in a Bill to facilitate the avoidance of corruption.” During recent months there have been introduced into this House Bills dealing with the instalment system and with share-pushing, and everyone will admit the importance of those Bills and the serious character of the evil with which they deal; yet at the same time we must recognise that those affected by those Bills were only the sprats of the financial world, and now, it seems to me, the time has come to give some consideration to the sharks, because the sharks have been busy in the troubled waters of politics, and as a consequence of the power they have in this House and in another place [the House of Lords – MIA] they may in conceivable circumstances become very dangerous and a source of very undesirable corruption. I know that a small group in the other place have, through a series of relationships, control most of the Government Departments in this House, and that 200 relatives sitting on the other side of the House can determine the policy of this House. The book Tory MP [by Simon Haxey and published by the Left Book Club/Gollancz, London, 1939 – MIA] is an extraordinary revelation of what can happen, and the possibilities that exist of corruption and of a cynical attitude towards democracy and democratic institutions that can easily destroy us in a time of crisis.

‘To understand the nature of this financial power is to understand the character of the policy that has been in operation in this country and which brought about the betrayal of Abyssinia. When we realise the part those associated with oil played in that disastrous affair we can see how it was possible for Mussolini to get his way. If we understand the part played by the big financial houses and their representatives here we can understand the reason for the betrayal of democracy in Spain and in Czechoslovakia; it gives us an insight into why we have had such a deplorable capitulation to Japan and why there is such procrastination in the Anglo-Soviet talks in the hope that in the meantime a way will be found of handing Danzig over to Herr Hitler.

‘I have heard Members of this House talk very often about the character of the membership of this House immediately after the War. I have heard them talk of the “new rich” who came in here bloated with profits. They have told me, and I have heard it said in the House, that it was a terrible spectacle. But I suggest that the “new rich” never were the danger and never have the potentialities for corruption that the “old nobility” have. The “old nobility” have kept themselves firmly entrenched in power and privilege, they keep their hold on the land and in the financial houses, and they have placed in this House a stone wall against any advance in the pensions of the aged people, even while their own relatives are getting all kinds of sinecures and pensions as a result of the power possessed by the 200 relatives who sit in this House and who continually vote subsidies for themselves. This continued activity under a cloak of obscurity can have very evil consequences. Therefore, I want to introduce a short Bill that will bring out into the light before the electorate, not only the general characters, but the financial and landed interests and connections of those who stand for Parliament or those who sit in this House.

‘Clause 1 deals with Parliamentary candidates and imposes upon them the responsibility of disclosing the sources of their income, the number of directorships in their own hands or in the hands of their relatives, the acreage of land in their possession or in possession of their families, or whether through another member of the family they are represented in another place. There will be a Sub-section imposing the penalty of imprisonment, to which a fine will be added if they do not give full particulars. The second Clause deals with Members of this House. Members of Parliament will be called upon to make a full statement of their holdings in land, industry and finance to the Clerks at the Table. All such Members will be ruled out of discussion and prohibited from voting on any question on which they have a definite personal or family financial interest. There will be a provision that will allow an appeal to Mr Speaker where the financial interest is negligible and is not likely to prejudice their vote. There will be a penalty also here for wrong information given under the Clause, and the penalty will be imprisonment to which a fine may be added. Clauses 3 and 4 will deal with range and name of Bill. I ask leave to bring in this Bill – a Bill that will be a real safeguard to democracy and to the cleaning up of this House.’

5. The Prevention of Violence Act 1939 (Temporary Provisions) was brought into law in response to a bombing campaign by the Irish Republican Army. It introduced special powers of expulsion, prohibition, arrest and detention, and, although originally intended to be an interim statute, it remained in force until 1953 and was only repealed in 1973.

6. An international meeting of representatives of Britain, France, Italy and Germany held in Munich in September 1938 agreed to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia largely populated by Germans.

7. Britain was governed by a series of National Governments from 1931 to 1945. The first emerged from the collapse of the Labour Government in August 1931 through a deep Cabinet division in respect of public expenditure cuts following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, with the former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at its head, leading to his expulsion from the Labour Party. A general election was held in October 1931, and although the Conservatives won a resounding victory, MacDonald remained Prime Minister. MacDonald resigned in June 1935, and the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin took over. The Conservatives won another victory in the general election of November 1935, Baldwin remained Prime Minister, and was replaced in May 1937 by Neville Chamberlain, who was himself replaced by Winston Churchill in May 1940.