The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter X: Lenin and the British Communist Party

The October Revolution endowed its custodians with immense prestige. In British left-wing circles, the majority of comrades hung on every word issuing from Moscow. Lenin, in particular, had an opportunity to exert great influence on the socialist movement. He was not, however, in a position to use his chances to the full. The exigencies of the revolution, the attempts by armies of intervention to overthrow the Soviet state, as well as the multifarious problems associated with the building of the new International, all resulted in great demands on Lenin’s time. He was not able to study the British political scene in depth, to acquire a thorough grasp of the subject on which to base his analysis. So his remarks should not be regarded as pronouncements of the Revolutionary Almighty, handed down from some red Mount Sinai, but subjected to critical scrutiny. When this is done, many of them are shown to be inaccurate or — perhaps more important — based upon inadequate information.

In a sense, Lenin was a victim of his own success. Throughout his life, he applied the Marxist method with consummate skill. He understood completely that the truth was concrete. His colossal literary output indicates that he studied Russian events in tremendous detail and sought to relate them to socialist theory and practice. This was an arduous task. Yet it was vital if the Bolsheviks were to be able to make those penetrating analyses that, by clearly showing what was to be done, guided Russian workers along the road to revolution. Other things had to be subordinated to this overriding objective. The comprehensive study of Russian affairs necessarily meant that Lenin had less time to devote to developments elsewhere, and his references to Britain are few and usually perfunctory. Even before the October Revolution made such inordinate demands upon him, Lenin never got the feel of the British working-class movement. It was as if he had adopted a self-denying ordinance not to become involved in what, at that time, he saw as a peripheral issue, but to husband all his resources for the job of smashing capitalism in Russia.

In 1902-03, Lenin lived in London, producing numbers 22 to 38 of the journal Iskra (The Spark) from the offices of the Social Democratic Federation in Clerkenwell Green. Although this was a period of great discussion inside the SDF, Lenin makes no mention of it in his writings. He appears to have been quite content to share a room with Harry Quelch and to remain on friendly personal terms with his SDF hosts. The fact that Quelch was Hyndman’s hatchet-man, responsible for the expulsion of James Connolly and the left wing of the SDF, seems to have escaped his notice. Likewise Lenin did not appear to know that Quelch, like the rest of the SDF leadership, had a weakness for unprincipled electoral alliances, a penchant he displayed during the Dewsbury by-election, or that Quelch thought that strikes were superfluous and largely irrelevant to the struggle for socialism. So, when Quelch died in September 1913, Lenin wrote a warm tribute to him, recalling their friendship, and saying: ‘Quelch was in the front ranks of those who fought steadfastly and with conviction against opportunism.’ [1]

An equally strange use of the term opportunism comes in Lenin’s references to the Daily Herald. In his report on the Labour Party conference of 1912, he talks about ‘the opportunist Daily Herald’, whereas in November 1914 he refers to it as ‘the organ of the opponents of opportunism’. [2] This inconsistency is made less explicable by the change of attitude of the Daily Herald during these two years: in 1912, it wholeheartedly supported, albeit in a confused way, the massive strikes that were taking place; by contrast, in 1914 the paper no longer advocated industrial action but supported industrial peace in the interests of the war effort. [3] Lenin’s statement on 1 November 1914 creates further problems. He declared:

With the British, the Hyndman group (the British Social Democrats — the British Socialist Party) has completely sunk into chauvinism, as have also most of the semi-liberal leaders of the trade unions. Resistance to chauvinism has come from MacDonald and Keir Hardie of the opportunist Independent Labour Party. This, of course, is an exception to the rule. [4]

While it is debatable whether Lenin was correct to identify ‘the Hyndman group’ with the entire membership of the British Socialist Party or to say that the BSP had ‘completely sunk into chauvinism’, there can be no doubt that his characterisation of MacDonald and Hardie’s attitude to the war was factually incorrect (see Chapter VI). Only a few months earlier, Lenin had made an evaluation of the left in Britain. He has said that the BSP alone had ‘been carrying on systematic propaganda and agitation in the Marxist spirit’. [5]

His inconsistencies and inaccuracies ranged from matters of theoretical principle to points of trivial detail. In her autobiography of her father, Nan Milton points out that Lenin usually referred to John Maclean as ‘John Maclean of England’ — a description that may well have irked a man so proud of his Scottish heritage. [6] Similarly, in the following quotation there is a hint that Lenin thought the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland was separate and distinct from the SLP in England instead of being part of the same organisation:

Of the three socialist parties in England, only one, the independent Socialist Labour Party, is openly becoming an ally of the Bolsheviks, while the Socialist Labour Party in Scotland definitely declares itself to be an adherent of the Bolsheviks. Bolshevism is beginning to spread in England also. [7]

This statement was made at a time when the Bolsheviks were trying to get a regrouping of revolutionary forces in Britain. It was during this period that Lenin’s influence in this country was at its greatest and also had its most disastrous effects on the development of revolutionary organisation in Britain.

As parliamentary illusions were deeply embedded in working-class consciousness, Lenin rightly saw that it was vital for the newly-formed Communist Party of Great Britain to differentiate itself clearly from reformism. At the same time, it had to wean the masses away from their beliefs in constitutionalism and the traditional parties and this, claimed Lenin, could only be done if the CPGB established a meaningful dialogue with the class. This theoretical position seems acceptable; where it fell down was in practical, tactical application. Lenin linked it with a faulty analysis of the Labour Party, situated in British conditions he did not really comprehend. Erroneously, Lenin believed that the Labour Party was a mass party, a party with millions of worker-activists; that the CPGB would be freely permitted to join it; and that belonging to the Labour Party would enhance the CPGB’s influence and growth. All these contentions are wrong. Let us examine more fully in turn.

Speaking about the Labour Party at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin declared:

The members of the Labour Party are all members of trade unions. The structure of this party is a very peculiar one and is unlike that in any other country. This organisation embraces from six to seven million workers belonging to all the trade unions. The members are not asked what political convictions they adhere to. [8]

Actually, Lenin’s figures were two to three million out. The Labour Party claimed a membership of 4,360,000 in 1920. [9] By far the major portion were trade unionists, paying the political levy. As nobody of significance on the left advocated contracting out of this levy, all were agreed that communists should participate in any political debates within the trade unions, discussing how their unions should cast their votes at Labour Party conferences. Communists could even be elected as delegates to the Labour Party conference, or be union-sponsored election candidates fighting on a Labour ticket. Until revisions of the Labour Party constitution were introduced, nothing stopped CPers from being individual members of the Labour Party, and at the 1923 Labour Party conference there were 30 communist delegates. In the December 1923 general election, the CPGB put forward nine candidates, seven of whom stood under the Labour Party banner. Indeed, the party even had two Members of Parliament, Shapurji Saklatvala and JT Walton Newbold, returned as Labour MPs.

So the issue of formal affiliation would not have made an appreciable difference to the position of the Communist Party in relation to the Labour Party, and it is difficult to understand why Lenin attached such great importance to it. All it would have meant would have been that a handful of delegates, bearing the communist label, would have been allowed to attend Labour’s annual conference and cast a derisory number of votes for their organisation.

Lenin’s position becomes more inexplicable when the record of communists operating within the Labour Party is examined. Their lack of success would tend to suggest that the Labour Party was not a particularly fruitful field for recruitment of new CPGB members. Nor were there any perceptible signs that, under communist pressure, the Labour Party was moving in the direction of being a fighting socialist organisation. In these circumstances, it is difficult to see why Lenin regarded it so vital to acquire affiliation. Perhaps he confused paper membership with active membership. Most local Labour Party branches were tiny cliques, preoccupied with elections, not centres of mass struggle involving large numbers of workers. To enter their dismal committee rooms and become involved in the routine of electoral intrigue would merely waste revolutionaries’ valuable time and energy, which could be better spent elsewhere.

Then, to turn to Lenin’s second contention, he appears to have had an exaggerated idea of the freedom of expression the Labour leaders permitted. Politicians like Henderson and MacDonald were not exactly overflowing with brotherly toleration. Yet Lenin told delegates to the Second Congress of the Communist International that the Labour Party ‘is a very peculiar party’. It ‘allows sufficient liberty to all political parties to affiliate to it’. No shadow of doubt existed in Lenin’s mind that a newly-formed CPGB would be allowed to bask in this liberty:

Comrades Gallacher and Sylvia Pankhurst cannot deny that. They cannot deny the fact that while remaining in the ranks of the Labour Party, the British Socialist Party enjoys sufficient liberty to write that such and such leaders of the Labour Party are traitors, champions of the interests of the bourgeoisie and their agents in the labour movement; this is absolutely true. When Communists enjoy such liberty, then, taking into account the experience in all countries, and not only in Russia (for we here are not a Russian but an international congress), it is their duty to affiliate to the Labour Party. [10]

Of course, it was possible for Willie Gallacher and Pankhurst to deny Lenin’s assertion. Indeed, the passage of a few months proved them correct. The Labour Party National Executive Committee turned down a CPGB application for affiliation. When this decision came before the Labour conference for ratification, Emmanuel — now Lord — Shinwell pointed out what it should surely have been the job of the communists to stress, namely, that fundamental issues of principles divided social democracy from communism, while Henderson warned that CPers could not be expected to adhere to the Labour Party constitution. The conference rejected the application by 4,115,000 to 224,000. [11]

In Lenin’s speeches there was no mention of the fact that in 1918 the Labour Party’s constitution had been drastically changed, that the hitherto federal structure had been replaced by a much more tightly-controlled set-up, eventually compelling the mildly leftish Independent Labour Party to realise that even it could not function properly and remain affiliated. For a genuine Communist Party, affiliation was never on. Lenin had, moreover, a highly romanticised conception of how the BSP had operated in the pre-1918 period: it never attempted to mount an organised and concerted campaign against the Labour establishment, and had it done so, it would almost certainly have been expelled. Even with a federal structure, such conduct would not be admissible.

On Lenin’s third contention, that affiliation to the Labour Party would enhance the CPGB’s influence and growth, it becomes more difficult to give a definite answer. As it did not happen, then it must remain a matter for speculation. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the Labour Party has always contained some members closely connected with the CPGB, who have put forward CPGB policies at every opportunity. These ‘fellow-travellers’ have never met with much success — indeed, over the years their influence has tended to wane — and it seems probable that the same fate would have befallen the CPGB had it ever affiliated.

What is less open to conjecture is the effect of raising the question of affiliation on the infant CPGB. ‘Comrade Gallacher is wrong when he says that by advocating affiliation to the Labour Party we will repel the best elements of the British workers’, claimed Lenin. ‘We must test this by experience.’ And so it was, with disastrous consequences. It alienated the overwhelming majority of potential members. The SLP, in the forefront of the organisations wanting regroupment, immediately withdrew from negotiations. The Workers Socialist Federation also stood aloof, as did most of the shop stewards, including the Scottish Workers Committee.

But Lenin appears to have remained oblivious to what was happening. On 8 July 1920, he wrote a letter to British communists that indicated he still believed the SLP were taking part in unity negotiations. On 18 July 1920, L'Humanité, official organ of the French Communist Party, built on this error with a statement, later quoted in the British press, to the effect that: ‘Lenin considers that Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers Socialist Federation are wrong in refusing to link up with the Socialist Labour Party.’ Since the SLP had said categorically that it did not want to belong to a Communist Party which was affiliated to the Labour Party, the quote from Lenin was tantamount to an incitement to form a revolutionary organisation outside the Communist Party — that is, if Lenin really knew what he was saying. A more likely explanation is that he was totally out of touch with what was happening in Britain. A sign of this is the way he consistently overestimates the strength of the BSP and other groups. Referring to the last BSP conference, in April 1920, he wrote: ‘The latest congress of the British Socialist Party, held in London three or four days ago, decided to assume the name of the Communist Party... 10,000 organised members were represented at this conference.’ [12] Apparently, Lenin was unaware that the sole commitment required for BSP membership was the payment of a shilling a year to the party’s national funds. Probably far fewer than 10,000 people did that. The figure of 10,000 was the number on which the BSP affiliated to the Labour Party, and it seems likely that the party leaders, conscious of the weakness of the BSP, deliberately inflated its numerical strength. And even of those who held membership cards, many were ‘sleepers’, not activists in the BSP or subsequently in the CPGB. Referring to the mysterious 10,000, Bob Stewart, the first Scottish organiser of the CPGB, remarked: ‘There were thousands I never saw, and I very much doubt if anyone else ever saw them.’ [13]

Besides exaggerating BSP support, Lenin was equally mistaken about the strength of Gallacher’s Communist Labour Party in Scotland. In the already-quoted speech, Lenin goes on to say that a further 10,000 would join the new organisation when the Communist Labour Party fused with it. In reality, Gallacher brought in only one or two hundred. [14] From all sources, the CPGB started off with a membership of around 3000, which dropped to 2000 by mid-1922. This is the estimate of James Klugmann, who wrote the official history of the CPGB and must have had access to confidential party membership records. Tom Bell, who, since he played a leading part in the formation of the CPGB, was well placed to make a judgement, puts the figure slightly lower — 2000 to 2500 were, according to him, represented at the founding conference. [15] So it would seem that total membership was only slightly over a tenth of what Lenin estimated. We can accept that Lenin was misinformed, but equally inescapable is the conclusion that a large proportion of militants shunned the affiliationist CPGB.

The unpopularity of the CPGB stemmed from several sources. From the outset, it did not look as if it was a natural growth, springing from the experiences of the British working class. Instead, it appeared to be under Russian domination, which raised issues at the behest of Moscow rather than having its ear to the grievances of workers in this country. Suspicions were further heightened because the old BSP, an organisation discredited in the eyes of many militants, formed its nucleus.

It is in this context that the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party must be viewed. Many of the BSP, with deeply engrained reformist illusions, wanted the CPGB to continue in the old ways of the BSP. They did not want to be in the Labour Party to fight an unremitting battle with the right-wing leadership, but to maintain their position as the left wing of social democracy. In April 1920, at the BSP’s final conference before it merged into the CPGB, delegates debated their attitude to parliamentary and local elections. A resolution was moved that ‘this conference considers the time ripe when all candidates should stand as socialists based on the class war’. This was defeated by 48 votes to 26. As JT Murphy pointed out:

The BSP takes pride in the election of members to the Municipal Councils; but their election is not a signal for revolutionary agitation therein. They accepted departmental office and become part of the administrative machinery of capitalism. [16]

The newly-formed CPGB continued this practice (and has done so to the present day). It was proud when its members were elected to local authorities. As Mayor of Bethnal Green, Joe Vaughan of the CPGB flaunted the mayoral regalia and behaved like any other worshipful first citizen. He made pious speeches at municipal functions, not militant speeches at strike meetings. Some other communist councillors behaved even worse than Joe: Edgar Lansbury and AA Watts, mindful of the need to keep down the rates, voted for a 10 per cent cut in outdoor Poor Relief. For good measure, they also voted for cuts in the wages of local authority workers. When Sylvia Pankhurst criticised their conduct, the Secretary of the Bow Communist Party wrote to rebuke her and remind her of party discipline. Strangely in a party of the workers, there was no suggestion of disciplining Lansbury and Watts. [17]

A similarly indulgent attitude was adopted to the solitary Communist MP. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil John L'Estrange Malone had been elected on a Lloyd George Liberal ticket at the 1918 general election. After visiting Russia a year later, he moved leftwards and became a founder of the CPGB. A small but significant incident occurred at a meeting of ex-servicemen in his constituency. The chairman asked all those assembled to salute the Union Jack. Everybody, with the exception of WH Bain, did so. Then a Red Flag was held up, and the chairman asked the meeting if the meeting would like to salute it. Nobody, except Bain, did so. Some ex-servicemen then set upon him, and the disturbance led to Bain, in the true tradition of British justice, being fined by local magistrates. As the incident happened in his constituency and he was an ex-serviceman himself, Colonel Malone was asked to comment. Whereupon he expressed surprise ‘that anyone should object to the Union Jack’. [18]

It may well be that the behaviour of the BSP and, later, CPGB representatives on local councils and in Parliament contributed to Pankhurst’s change of mind. She did not always oppose the contesting of parliamentary elections. In the 1918 general election she called upon people to vote Labour and went out of her way to applaud the SLP for using the electoral opportunity to propagate revolutionary ideas. [19] What she objected to was the primary orientation of the organisation becoming the battle for votes, instead of industrial work being given pride of place. In a letter to Lenin, she explained:

The labour movement in England is being ruined under my eyes by parliamentary and municipal politics. Both leaders and masses are only waiting for elections, and, while preparing for the election campaign, are quite forgetting the socialist work. Nay, they totally suppress all socialist propaganda in order not to frighten the electors. [20]

This subordination of all other considerations to electoral advancement was made all the more pitiful by the pathetic performance of the handful of candidates returned. Pankhurst thought their existence could only be justified if they attempted to build fortresses of local resistance to the capitalist state. Replying to a councillor who thought this impractical, she wrote:

But perhaps the unemployed will urge: do something illegal; do not wait for government sanction; defy the government... Set us to build houses to replace the slum property that ought to be pulled down; seize the pits that have been closed down and let us work them; seize the land lying idle; open boot and clothing shops. [21]

Pankhurst went on to contrast communist councillors quietly obeying the law with the Sinn Féin in Ireland setting up its own illegal administration in defiance of the British state. Pointing to the failure of communist councillors even to make socialist speeches, she asked:

Where, indeed, are to be found Communist Party representatives on local bodies using their position on the bodies in a revolutionary way? Where are those communists? Let us hear of them. Echo answering ‘where?’ has long given the only response to that urgent question. [22]

Pankhurst continued with a denunciation of existing CPGB representatives for their failure to implement the thesis of the Communist International on the conduct of members elected to public bodies.

She was never a theoretician with a firm grasp of Marxism; her significance came from a tremendous courage and dedication, a total commitment to the struggle of working people, particularly working women, in the East End of London. Therefore, while her criticism of the practices of CPers on local councils and in Parliament had considerable validity, she nevertheless drew false conclusions from sound criticisms. She went so far as to call for, as a matter of principle, the abstention of the CPGB from the electoral struggle. At that particular time, it might, posed as a tactic, have been a tenable position. It could be argued that the CPGB of the early 1920s, small in membership and influence, had many more pressing calls on its limited resources. In a similar way, organisations like International Socialism in the late 1960s, which probably had a membership roughly equal to that of the CPGB 40 years earlier, did not contest elections: they devoted their meagre resources to the industrial struggle, whereas the CPGB in that period, having a fetish about ‘the parliamentary road to socialism’, squandered energy and money to prove its diminishing support among the voters.

Because Pankhurst raised the issue of electoral abstention as one of principle rather than merely a tactical question, she exposed herself to unnecessary political attacks. Lenin concentrated his fire on her demand for abstention; he did not deal with the underlying reason for her making it. Lenin’s role can be seen as one of fighting the tendencies towards ultra-leftism in the British movement, while having far less to say about those towards reformism, which were much stronger and more dangerous.

In politics, it is important not only to say the right thing but to say it at the right time. Lenin’s call for affiliation to the Labour Party, coupled with his criticism of leftists like Gallacher and Pankhurst, must be in its setting: given that the BSPers predominated in the CPGB, it merely tended to reinforce the right wing within the organisation. True, that had not been Lenin’s intention, but, as he did not possess firm knowledge of the British political scene, this was the unintentional effect of his intervention.

Ideas must always be considered in their political context. The ideas of De Leon had a differing impact in America and in Britain: the same theories which remained politically sterile when espoused by German émigrés living in the United States had a seminal influence on the British labour movement when propagated by Clydeside engineers. Unlike those of De Leon, Lenin’s ideas had an exceedingly mixed influence in this country. Of course, there is no doubt of his greatness — genius — as a theoretician. In the Britain of 50 years ago, the study of his writings brought new vigour to the socialist movement. Yet, at the same time, there were two sides to the statement of accounts: debits as well as credits.

We have already seen that the incisiveness of Lenin’s critique was blunted, to some extent, because he did not possess either a detailed knowledge of British politics or a feel for the working-class movement. Adding to these problems was the fact that his writings were frequently badly translated. Murphy raised this point with him, and Lenin readily acknowledged the deficiency. [23] But it does not appear to have been rectified. What was even more serious was that, as Lenin was otherwise engaged, with little time to study British affairs, his mantle fell upon men of much lesser calibre. Claiming to speak for the Communist International, these emissaries from Moscow frequently gave garbled versions of what were Lenin’s views and, whenever possible, gave their own right-wing interpretations of what should be done.

This was a period of grave emergency, when the existence of Soviet power was threatened by enemies at home and abroad. Obviously, in these circumstances, the dedicated Russian communist was likely to feel that he was most needed at home. With the necessity of safeguarding the revolution paramount, it is hardly surprising that men of lesser consequence tended to be sent as representatives of the Comintern to such countries as Britain.

A Comintern agent with a big influence on the CPGB in its formative years was D Petrovsky, who worked in Britain under the alias of Bennett. According to Trotsky, he was ‘a Bundist-Menshevik of the American, that is, the worst, school’, who had returned to Russia from the United States in 1917. Only then did he become a Bolshevik and, for a while, was employed on military work. Trotsky described Petrovsky’s dominant characteristic as ‘organic opportunism’. [24] Presumably, he was sent to Britain because he was one of the few English-speaking operators who could be spared.

Of much more importance than Petrovsky was the Comintern’s first representative in Britain, Theodore Rothstein, who played a leading role in the creation of the CPGB. It was largely under his guidance that the unity negotiations took place. He possessed the funds, the much-vaunted ‘Russian Gold’, to distribute among the various left-wing organisations. While it may be that an historian like Walter Kendall attaches too much importance to the influence of money, there can be no doubt that financially hard-pressed socialist groups in Britain must have been sorely tempted to toe the line and get the cash.

How Rothstein used his position can best be understood through an examination of his political principles. Although born in Russia, he had lived in Britain for many years and had been active in the SDF and, later, the BSP. When the Connolly–Hyndman dispute led to the formation of the SLP, Rothstein sided with Hyndman and the right wing of the federation. It was he who dubbed Connolly and his followers ‘the Unholy Scotch Current’. In 1907, when the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its congress in London, Rothstein again sided with the right wing and against the Bolsheviks. He wrote in Justice:

A portion of the Social Democrats, the Lenin section, say that the proletariat has to go hand in hand with the revolutionary peasantry and fight the treacherous bourgeoisie. This sounds very plausible and very revolutionary since the proletariat, together with the peasantry, would probably be able to bring the revolution to a victorious issue, even without the assistance of the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, not everything which sounds plausible and revolutionary is in reality so, and in our opinion the other section of Russian Social Democracy, that under Plekhanov, is nearer the truth... Is there any sane man at the present who doubts that the present Revolution in Russia cannot lead to socialism, but must end in the substitution of a bourgeois regime for the present autocracy? [25]

Rothstein’s disagreements with Lenin continued. During the First World War, he never adopted the revolutionary stance of the Bolsheviks. In a letter written in early 1916, Lenin had occasion to write: ‘We are naturally in full agreement with Ornatsky in his polemic with T Rothstein, a correspondent of Kommunist, who takes a Kautskyite attitude.’ Lenin went on to say that Rothstein still supported the Second International and did not see the necessity for the creation of a new international. [26] In a pamphlet, Essays on War and Peace, published by the BSP in 1917, Rothstein reveals that he had not advanced any further towards a Leninist position: instead of calling for an end of the war through socialist revolution, he wished to see a negotiated peace.

It is instructive to read Rothstein on the situation in Russia during 1917. Writing in Plebs (August 1917), he described the Russian revolutionaries as being characterised by ‘jealousy, quarrelsomeness, and excessive predilection for theoretical niceties’. He backed the entry of the Mensheviks into the Provisional Government, describing it as ‘a great step which marked the official triumph of the revolutionary proletariat’. By contrast, he criticised the ‘violent opposition of the Leninites’. Clearly, Kendall is correct in his opinion that ‘Rothstein does not seem to have declared for Bolshevism until after the October Revolution’. [27] And it is legitimate to question how deep the conversion actually was.

In forming the CPGB, Rothstein naturally looked first to those who had been his comrades for many years in the BSP. Most of the financial subvention from Russia went to them, and it was around them that the new party was formed. This was at variance with the original intention of the Communist International. In its manifesto, published in April 1919, it invited 40 organisations throughout the world to join in forming the new organisation. Of these, five were British: the BSP, ‘particularly that tendency represented by Maclean’, the SLP, the IWW of England, the International Workers of Great Britain, and the shop stewards’ movement.

While it must remain a matter for speculation as to the exact extent to which Rothstein himself was responsible for the outcome, the strange fact is that none of the above organisations, with the exception of the BSP, actually came into the CPGB. And even in this instance, the group specifically mentioned, that around John Maclean, appears to have been debarred. In his ‘Open letter to Lenin’, Maclean alleged that Rothstein arranged his secret expulsion from the BSP. [28] When the last BSP conference was held, Maclean tried to attend as the delegate from Tradeston branch, but Ernest Cant and the conference arrangements committee would not accept his credentials. From then on, Maclean was effectively debarred from participating in the negotiations that led to the formation of the CPGB. This may well have been because of Rothstein’s influence behind the scenes. [29]

In the spring of 1920, Maclean had journeyed to London to meet Rothstein, then the Comintern’s official representative. A quarrel had broken out between the two men. Ostensibly, it was caused by Maclean’s refusal to accept the job Rothstein had allocated to him. (It is interesting to note that Rothstein had the power to appoint people in this way.) According to both the Gallacher and McShane reports of the meeting, Rothstein wanted Maclean to devote all his energies to the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign. [30] Though not averse to participating in this campaign, Maclean refused to accept a full-time post; he believed that to continue lecturing on Marxism and building a revolutionary organisation would be more valuable.

Underlying this disagreement about what may, at first glance, appear a comparatively trivial tactical point lurked conflicts of a personal and political character. Rothstein and Maclean even appear to have been in dispute about how the new Communist Party should be built. Rothstein, with more rightist conceptions, wished to open the floodgates as wide as possible. Into the party would come many politically confused and naive individuals. These, in the course of time, would either develop sounder ideas or, by a winnowing process, fall by the wayside. Maclean, on the other hand, in his ‘Open Letter to Lenin’, complained that:

... those who are coming together are a heterogeneous mixture of anarchists, sentimentalists, syndicalists, with a sprinkling of Marxists. Unity in such a camp is likely to be impossible; but should unity lead to any menace, then the ‘leaders’ will conduct surplus energy through ‘safe’ channels — safe for Lloyd George.

At the beginning of his ‘Open Letter’, Maclean forecast that the maturing crisis of British capitalism would force the ruling class to place greater reliance upon social democracy:

A sham Labour government with our beloved friends MacDonald and Snowden (and ethereal Ethel [Snowden], too) in it, will be formed, although the real work will be done by the ‘Old Gang’ under the guise of the Privy Council.

In Maclean’s eyes, reformism would never overthrow the existing system, but Rothstein took a much more optimistic view. He backed left reformists in the Labour Party and trade unions in the hope that he would eventually win them over. Criticism became muted or was dropped altogether. Instead friendly offers of financial assistance were made. While the precise figure remains uncertain, it appears that the Daily Herald was offered between £75,000 and £125,000. [31]

Such assistance would seem to be at variance with usual Bolshevik practice. Admittedly, Lenin himself paid little or no attention to left reformism in Britain. Nevertheless, from polemics with Kautsky in Germany and Martov in Russia, Lenin’s general position on left reformism cannot be in doubt. It is exceedingly improbable that he would have favoured giving financial support, thereby strengthening political tendencies which he regarded as obstacles to revolutionary change. Almost certainly, Lenin would have taken the same line as Trotsky adopted a few years later. In his book, Where is Britain Going? (1925), Trotsky launched into a furious attack on left reformists like Lansbury, Kirkwood and Wheatley.

But in the early 1920s it is doubtful whether Lenin even attempted to keep abreast of political events in Britain. In a letter to Tom Bell, written in August 1921, he says: ‘I have read nothing concerning the English movement last months because of my illness and overwork.’ [32] (The faulty English in this sentence may be indicative of Lenin’s imperfect command of the language.) But, having little or no time to read about Britain for himself, Lenin would be dependent on scraps of information gleaned from others, and the role of advisers on British affairs — men like Rothstein and Petrovsky — became crucial. Inevitably, they had to sift and select data and, in the process, transmit their own interpretation. Indeed, it may well be that the influence that Rothstein had indirectly on Britain, through providing the Communist International with ‘information’ on which it based its decisions, was far greater than his direct influence in the formation of the CPGB. The British comrades invariably carried out the orders made in Moscow.

It is significant that Maclean thought the question of advisers was of vital importance. In his ‘Open Letter to Lenin’, he clearly expressed the opinion that Lenin was not getting an accurate picture of what was happening in Britain. He suggested that the man with the greatest knowledge was Peter Petroff, who spent many years in the struggle alongside Maclean before he returned to Russia. There is no evidence that Maclean’s message had any effect.

There appears to have been a decided (and decisive) lack of rapport. Quite serious theoretical contributions, stating deeply-held criticisms of the line proposed by the Comintern, went unanswered. Indeed, they may not even have been read. And this attitude has tended to be self-perpetuating: while almost every student of British revolutionary movements will be acquainted with, for example, what Lenin wrote about the need to work within the Labour Party, the vast majority will not be aware that strong arguments were expressed against this tactic. They will have read the booklet ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder; they will not know the objections to some aspects of it advanced by socialists like Maclean, Pankhurst and Murphy.

Probably the most cogent and powerfully argued article putting the case against Lenin’s tactic of Labour Party affiliation came from Murphy. [33] He examined 10 reasons given for adopting it. To each, he provided a rebuttal. Some of the points he made are questionable, perhaps invalid. Yet others show Murphy still had a strong case — one which was never properly answered.

1: The first argument advanced by those favouring affiliation was that the Labour Party represented the organised working class; it was essential for the CPGB to be within the Labour Party to maintain contact with the working class.

Murphy replied:

The Labour Party is not the working class organised as a class, but the political reflection of the trade-union bureaucracy and the petty bourgeois. Contact with the working class is not, and never has been, dependent upon contact with the Labour Party.

2: The second argument was as Lenin said — and what has already been quoted in this chapter — namely, that the organisational structure of the Labour Party differed from that of other social democratic parties. Murphy’s answer to that was that the only difference was that the Labour Party contained a more federalist structure and federalism was an anathema to communist principles.

3: Then, it was suggested that affiliation to the Labour Party was analogous to the Bolsheviks being in the Soviets when they were dominated by the Mensheviks.

Murphy replied:

In no sense is there a parallel in the two situations. The Soviets are the instruments of revolution, the future governmental machinery of the proletariat. The Labour Party is a parliamentary party, an instrument of reaction, a body to be destroyed. The Soviets were created in the heat of revolutionary struggle. The Labour Party is a product of counter-revolutionary conciliation with capitalism.

4: The advocates of affiliation thought belonging to the Labour Party would provide the CPGB with a public platform.

But Murphy replied:

The workers are always accessible in the workshops, the streets, the unions, and the creation of an independent communist platform is better than going cap in hand to the Labour Party for a hearing.

5: Then, it was argued affiliation would provide the CPGB with a fine opportunity to influence the Labour Party through participating in its annual conferences and getting socialist resolutions passed.

Murphy answered:

This implies that the Communist Party is either intent on capturing the Labour Party or passing revolutionary resolutions for the reactionaries to carry out. If the first, the policy is fundamentally wrong because the Labour Party, in composition and form, is not a revolutionary organisation; its members are neither communists nor revolutionaries, and it is structurally incapable of mobilising the masses for revolutionary action. It is a product of capitalism, and is to be used only for the maintenance of capitalism. If the second, then the masses are betrayed and their revolutionary fervour used to strengthen the forces of reaction. This proposition also indicates that the BSP does not clearly understand the functions of a Communist Party in the struggle for power. It is evidently content to be a spur to another party for whose actions it refuses responsibility instead of being a strong revolutionary party leading the masses into action.

6: A further argument used by those favouring affiliation was that Trades and Labour Councils constituted the nuclei of Soviets.

But Murphy denied this:

The Trades Councils are not the nuclei of Soviets. Their ineptitude in industrial disputes provides ample proof of this. They possess no executive power over the unions and action comes either through delegates from the workshops, etc, or the local district committee of the unions, which improvise strike committees composed of stewards and district committees, leaving the Trades Councils in the background or playing a reactionary part. It is in such a manner that the Soviets will be formed and not through Trades Councils as suggested.

7: But affiliation may provide a chance for electing communist MPs on the Labour Party ticket.

This is sheer parliamentary vote-catching opportunism [replied Murphy], and a repudiation of independent political action. It is also confusing the masses. The Communist Party must go into elections not on vote-catching excursions, but for revolutionary agitation and to familiarise the masses with itself as the Party of Revolution.

8: Affiliation to the Labour Party, it was sometimes argued, may lead to the overthrown of Ramsay MacDonald.

Murphy’s answer was that, even if true, this was irrelevant. Given conditions inside the Labour Party, were MacDonald overthrown another MacDonald would arise and take his place. The task was to destroy the Labour Party, not to capture it.

9: Those supporting affiliation contended that it would involve accepting Labour Party policy.

Murphy retorted:

This is an argument of political tricksters. The masses do not follow the winding paths of politicians and are confused by such practices. The masses reason more simply, and think that those in the Labour Party are of the Labour Party and responsible for its deeds. The Communist Party can best make its antagonism to the policy of the Labour Party clear to the masses by being neither in it or of it.

10: Finally, in mitigation, some of those favouring affiliation suggested it might only be a temporary tactic.

To this, Murphy replied that sudden shifts of policy were liable to confuse and lessen the confidence of the masses in the CPGB.

Others advanced arguments like those of Murphy. Bell, for instance, argued that it was imperative for the newly-formed CPGB to have a clear, separate identity. Nothing would be gained by affiliation; the CPGB could appeal directly to the masses, many of whom were disenchanted with the Labour Party. [34] Like Maclean, William Paul appears to have thought the Russian leaders did not have a sufficiently thorough grasp of the British scene. He told the Communist Unity Convention:

There is not one in this audience to whom I yield in admiration for Lenin, but, as we said yesterday, Lenin is no pope or god. The point is that, so far as we are concerned on international tactics, we will take our international principles from Moscow, where they can be verified internationally; but on local circumstances, where we are on the spot, we are the people to decide. Not only so, but our comrade Lenin would not have us slavishly accept everything which he utters in Moscow. The very warp and woof of our propaganda is criticism and, as we believe in criticism, we are not above criticising Lenin.

Turning to the BSP delegates, who favoured affiliation, Paul went on to point out that ‘they had to admit so far as the Labour Party and its structure was concerned, Lenin was a little vague’. [35]

All these arguments proved of no avail: by a narrow margin, the Communist Unity Convention resolved to apply for affiliation. On 7 July 1920, the party’s Provisional Committee formally wrote to the Labour Party. The letter, couched in firm, uncompromising language, received a flat rejection from Labour’s National Executive Committee.

We have seen that this was a situation never envisaged by Lenin. He thought affiliation to the Labour Party would be there for the asking. Admittedly, Lenin did think problems might arise once the CPGB was inside:

If the British Communist Party starts out by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party, and if Messrs Henderson are obliged to expel this party, it will be a great victory for the communist and labour movement in England. [36]

This remark led nimble-minded left-wingers, like Arthur MacManus and Paul, to devise an ingenious stratagem. They saw a means of complying with Lenin’s advice, achieving his ‘great victory’ (if that were not a chimera), and doing so without having to endure the discomfiture of belonging to the Labour Party. If the object of the exercise was to get the Labour leaders to slam the door in the CPGB’s face, then this could be accomplished merely by knocking at the door; there was no need to enter the room. Any clear, forthright declaration of communist principles was sure to arouse the wrath of Ramsay MacDonald, Henderson & Co. So the CPGB included a statement of these principles in its first application for affiliation, thus courting rejection. When the inevitable reply came, MacManus said it was their funeral, not ours.

The attitude adopted in this initial approach subsequently came in for considerable criticism, though it would still have been possible for MacManus and his friends to have justified the style used. Many statements of the Communist International employed much more fiery language. In fact, Lenin himself had said he would support the Labour leaders as a rope supports a hanging man. Paraphrasing this remark, Tommy Jackson said that CPers should take the Labour leaders by the hand ‘as a preliminary to taking them by the throat’. [37]

The problem was that the Labour leaders heard all this and had no desire to occasion their own early demise; they did not desire to become closely acquainted with their would-be assassins. Far from sanctioning affiliation, they sought to impose further safeguards. Successive annual conferences introduced new restrictions: communists could not be delegates to Labour organisations, stand in the name of the Labour Party at elections, or even belong to the Labour Party as individual members. By 1925, the separation had become complete.

For the leaders of the CPGB, this was all very frustrating. As more and more restrictions were imposed, there was no signs of ‘the great victory’ Lenin forecast would come if the Labour leaders took action against the communists. Generally speaking, Labour’s rank and file seemed to endorse the Henderson attitude. The prospect of gaining affiliation receded further and further. What were they to do? If affiliation was the supreme goal, then other considerations should be subordinated to it. The CPGB should minimise its differences with the Labour Party and tone down any criticisms. As most of the CPGB’s membership came from the BSP, this was not a particularly difficult task. Most of them, anyway, were hazy about the distinction between reformism and revolutionary socialism.

Matters of principle were deliberately blurred. Reassuringly, Gallacher explained in 1924: ‘The Communist Party does not attack the Labour Party. The Communist Party strives all the time to make the Labour Party a useful organ of the workers in the struggle against capitalism.’ [38] At the 1922 general election, when Gallacher unsuccessfully stood at Dundee, he gratefully received the assistance of prominent left-reformist politicians and trade unionists. [39] Lieutenant-Colonel L'Estrange Malone MP took the process of accommodation a stage farther. ‘There are still a few differences between the Communist Party and the Labour Party’, he declared. ‘I am glad to realise, however, that these will soon be settled by affiliation.’ [40]

The ideological backslidings of the CPGB did not always gain approval from communists abroad. In 1924 Ruth Fischer, the German Communist Party leader, came to the CPGB congress as a fraternal delegate. She detected in its proceedings ‘the loyal attitude of the left wing within the Labour Party itself rather than the attitude of a Communist Party really fighting against the government’. She went on to say that the attempt to secure the election of communist MPs, with tacit or open Labour backing, was necessarily compromising. [41] Reporting on her visit to the Comintern, Ruth Fischer sardonically remarked ‘every English comrade has two party tickets in his pocket, the Labour Party ticket in his right pocket, the Communist Party in his left; they were members of the Labour Party on weekdays and communists in a mild way on Sundays for recreation’. [42] In his reply, Gregory Zinoviev, Chairman of the Communist International, admitted that the members of the British left were ‘no revolutionaries’ and were ‘at present no better than the Left German Social Democrats’.

Certainly, Zinoviev exaggerated the position. Nevertheless, his view contains more than an element of truth, and it is relevant to ask why the CPGB was so lacking in revolutionary ardour. The reasons are varied and complex. Undoubtedly, the formation of the CPGB at a time when the tide of working-class discontent was receding was partly responsible. Likewise the failure to get the majority of the members of left groups — the SLP, WSF and the shop stewards’ movement — into the CPGB had an effect, as did the exclusion of Maclean and Pankhurst. That the core of membership came from the BSP also helped to give the new party a right-wing bias. The removal of the handful of SLPers who did come in — for example, MacManus and Paul — from positions of influence helped to reinforce this trend. Even more important was the degeneration of the Communist International as Stalin’s influence asserted itself: since the CPGB was more dependent than most sections on Moscow for finance and in other ways, the British party was especially vulnerable.

But, when all these factors are added up, another one must be mentioned: the intervention of Lenin. The manner in which he posed the issue of Labour Party affiliation gave aid and comfort to the right wing of the CPGB as well as alienating many good revolutionaries from it.


1. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 19 (Moscow, 1961), p 370. Andrew Rothstein’s pamphlet Lenin in Britain (London, nd) gives a reasonable factual account of his stay in this country.

2. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 18 (Moscow, 1961), p 467; Volume 21 (Moscow, 1961), p 156.

3. Raymond Postgate, in his biography of George Lansbury, wrote: ‘The Herald, like nearly all the rest of Britain, assumed at first that nothing else could have been done but to declare war and fight it to the end.’ (The Life of George Lansbury (London, 1951), p 153)

4. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 21 (Moscow, 1961), p 36.

5. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 19 (Moscow, 1961), p 370.

6. Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 243.

7. Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), p 201.

8. Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), p 265.

9. D Butler and J Freeman, British Political Facts, 1900-1968 (London, 1969), p 108.

10. Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), p 269.

11. Labour Party Annual Report, 1921, pp 158-67.

12. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 31 (Moscow, 1961), p 259.

13. Bob Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (London, 1967), p 101.

14. Interviews with S Pankhurst, JT Murphy and Dick Beach made by SR Graubard, quoted in British Labour and the Russian Revolution, 1917-1924 (Oxford, 1956), p 137. Also, Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 195.

15. James Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Volume 1 (London, 1968), p 331; Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941).

16. The Socialist, 22 April 1920.

17. Workers Dreadnought, 2 and 30 July 1921

18. The Socialist, 14 April 1921.

19. Workers Dreadnought, 7 December 1918.

20. The Call, 22 April 1920.

21. Workers Dreadnought, 8 October 1921.

22. Workers Dreadnought, 24 September 1921.

23. VI Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1961), Volume 24, p 399.

24. Trotsky’s Archives T 3129, p 12, cited in EH Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926 (Harmondsworth, 1972), p 131.

25. Justice, 30 March 1907.

26. VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 22 (Moscow, 1961), p 180.

27. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 388.

28. The Socialist, 3 February 1920.

29. Vanguard, August 1920.

30. H McShane in the New Edinburgh Review (1972), p 9; William Gallacher, The Last Memoirs (London, 1966), p 141.

31. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), pp 254-56.

32. Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), p 271.

33. The Socialist, 6 May 1920.

34. The Communist, 26 November 1921.

35. Communist Unity Convention: Official Report (np, 1920), p 35.

36. Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), p 271.

37. The Communist, 24 December 1921.

38. Sixth Conference of the CPGB (London, 1924), p 11.

39. James Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Volume 1 (London, 1968), p 189.

40. Workers Dreadnought, 28 January 1922.

41. Die Internationale, Volume 7, nos 10-11, cited by EH Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926 (Harmondsworth, 1972), p 132. Also Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (Harvard, 1948), p 400.

42. Protokoll: Funfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale, Volume 2 (nd), p 913, cited by EH Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926 (Harmondsworth, 1972), p 134.