Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


A Tradition to Rebuild

Workers Fight (ICU)
A Tradition to Rebuild
Internationalist Communist Forum, no. 20, 1995, pp. 32, 75p

THIS PAMPHLET provides a handy summary of the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain for those of us whose memories of it are now growing dim, as well as for those new to politics who are wondering why we haven’t got one.

Whilst noting that ‘the French CP was always regarded by workers as the main working class party’, but that its British counterpart ‘was always considered as marginal by most workers’ (p. 29), there is surprisingly little accounting for the fact. But it does have a simple explanation. The French Communist Party was founded out of the French Socialist Party by a majority of the delegates to the Congress of Tours in 1920, whereas the CPGB was founded from an amalgam of small dogmatic groupings (pp. 2–5). This analysis does admit that Lenin attempted to get them out of their sectarian ghetto by advocating affiliation to the Labour Party, but whilst remarking that ‘by and large the party’s membership followed the move’ (p. 7), there is no mention of the fact that its leaders deliberately carried out their instructions in such a way as to sabotage them. The result was a Communist Party half in and half out of the Labour Party for most of the 1920s, leaving its militants inside labouring under the suspicion that they were not really loyal to it, but were working on behalf of another organisation, whose credentials did not inspire a great deal of confidence.

In addition to this major methodological flaw, this account accepts a surprising amount of the mythology put out by the CPGB about its own prehistory and history. The majority of the British Socialist Party is said to have opposed the First World War (p. 4), whereas it took two years to come around to this position, and then only as a result of Menshevik rather than Bolshevik influence. The Rego strike is dealt with without any hint that the Communist Party set up Sam Elsbury by promising him support and then ratting on it (p. 16), and the CPGB is still given the credit for initiating the campaign for the use of the tube stations as air raid shelters, instead of the Workers International League (p. 23).

This account admits that the CPGB ‘never developed into a revolutionary party in the Bolshevik sense’ (p. 30), and no wonder. Pablo once described it as ‘the most sectarian party in the world’. Its roots really go all the way back to H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, which fought its first elections using Tory money to split the Liberal vote, and whose founder and ideology earned Marx’s profound contempt. Engels tried to split this organisation in favour of one with a programme for a broad Labour party with a Marxist core educating it from inside, and made a point of joining the Independent Labour Party instead of the SDF. Lenin repeated Engels’ position in 1908 and 1920, and Trotsky in 1925 and 1936. And it is precisely because revolutionaries have regarded the CPGB as ‘a tradition to rebuild’ that they have gone around in circles ever since.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011