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Henry Collins

The Founding of the British Communist Party

(September 1960)

From Socialist Review, September 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 286–89.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On August 1, 1920, the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded at a congress held in the Cannon Street Hotel, London. Its formation marked a new stage in the development of revolutionary ideas among the British working class. This stage in the story had started six years earlier when, on the outbreak of the First World War in August, 1914, the Second International collapsed ignominiously. Internationally famous revolutionaries such as Vaillant in France, Kautsky in Germany, Victor Adler in Austria and Plekhanov from Russia supported or even joined their respective governments in the cause of national defence.

Just over a year later an international Socialist Conference assembled at Zimmerwald, in neutral Switzerland. In a manifesto to the European working class, the Conference announced its intention “to re-tie the torn threads of international relations and to call upon the working class to recover itself and to fight for peace.” There were no British representatives at Zimmerwald, but the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party both declared themselves in agreement with its aims. Zinoviev and Lenin, on behalf of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party signed the Conference manifesto but considered that it did not go far enough. It not only failed to condemn the treachery of the main leaders of international Socialism but it studiously refrained from calling on the workers to finish the War by revolutionary action. In a draft solution, rejected by the majority, the left wing delegates at Zimmerwald called for “the organisation of street demonstrations against the governments, propaganda of international solidarity in the trenches, the encouragement of economic strikes, the effort to transform them into political strikes under favourable conditions. Civil war, not civil peace – that is the slogan!” The draft was signed by Zinoviev and Lenin for the Russians, Radek for the Social Democrats of Poland and by representatives from Latvia, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Germany.

Revolutionary Response

By 1916, when the International Socialist Commission which had been elected at Zimmerwald, called a second Conference, at Kienthal, disillusion with the War was spreading among the workers. The Left was correspondingly stronger and the Kienthal resolutions more radical. The agreed resolutions at Zimmerwald had called for a just peace, leaving open the question how this could be obtained. Kienthal declared bluntly that there could be no real solution short of “the conquest of political power and the ownership of capital by the peoples themselves,” insisting, at the same time, that “the real durable peace will be the fruit of Socialism triumphant.”

The Third, or Communist International for which Zimmerwald and Kienthal had prepared the way, and for which Lenin had been calling since 1914 [See esp. the article Position and Tasks of the Socialist International, in Sotsial-Demokrat, Nov. 1, 1914, V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, XVIII, p. 89.], could only be set up after the War had been ended by proletarian revolution. In January 1919, an appeal went out from revolutionary Moscow addressed to 39 parties and groups which were invited to participate in establishing the new International. Two parties in Britain – the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party – together with “the revolutionary elements of the Shop Stewards’ movement” were included in the invitation. Though none of these bodies was able to send an official representative to Moscow in time for the foundation Congress in March (J. Fineberg was there without a formal mandate), there was an appreciable response to the appeal from the most advanced sections of the British Left.

Hyndman the Jingo

The years preceding the outbreak of the War in Britain had seen the rise of an exceptionally militant trade union movement. Miners, dockers, seamen, railway workers and, during the War itself, engineers had been swept by rising prices combined with the feebleness of the Parliamentary Labour Party into a strike wave without precedent in British industrial history. Under the impact of these pressures the Social Democratic Federation had been reformed, in 1908, as the Social Democratic Party and, in 1911, as the British Socialist Party. However, the old leadership, headed by H.M. Hyndman, retained its control over the Party machine and over its weekly organ, Justice. When War came, the BSP, like most Socialist parties in the belligerent countries, jettisoned its internationalism in the cause of “national defence.” There was a good deal of opposition to Hyndman’s jingoism, however, and in 1915 the Party had decided to send a delegate to Zimmerwald, though it was not possible to put the resolution into effect. At the Salford Conference, in 1916, the Hyndman leadership was overthrown, and withdrew from the Party. After that, the revolutionary internationalists were, in full command. The BSP gave an unqualified welcome to the October Revolution and Maxim Litvinov, the Bolshevik representative in Britain, brought fraternal greetings from the Soviet Government to the Easter Conference in 1918.

Industrial Unionism

The Socialist Labour Party was rather a different kettle of fish. Founded in 1903 under the inspiration of Daniel de Leon, it started life as a breakaway from the SDF Standing for strict industrial unionism, the SLP refused to allow members, on pain of expulsion, to occupy any official position in an existing union. Towards the leadership of the SDF, as of the Labour Party, the SLP adopted an attitude of intransigent hostility and complete non-cooperation. It never had more than a few hundred members, concentrated mainly in Glasgow, but they were highly disciplined and active. It made its attitude to the War clear from the outset, publishing pamphlets by Liebknecht, Radek and Clara Zetkin. It was probably the first British organisation to publish a work by Lenin – his famous Collapse of the Second International. Its first organiser was James Connolly, Irish Marxist and revolutionary nationalist, who died in the Easter Rising in 1916.

Lenin and the Labour Party

In April 1919, a month after the formation of the Third International, representatives of the BSP and SLP met with members of two smaller bodies – the Workers’ Socialist Federation and the South Wales Socialist Society – at the Eustace Miles Restaurant in Chandos Street, London, to discuss the formation of a Communist Party. At this and subsequent gatherings there were heated arguments about the relationship of the Communists to the Labour Party and about their attitude to Parliament. On one wing, the Workers’ Socialist Federation and the South Wales Socialist Society opposed all participation in parliamentary elections and any attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party. On the other wing, the BSP favoured both courses, while the SLP, supporting parliamentary action, opposed affiliating to the Labour Party. Lenin found time to participate in the discussion, writing from Moscow on July 8, 1920, on the eve of the second Congress of the Communist International, “I personally am in favour of participation in parliament, and adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent Communist activity.”

Chequered Career

At the Comintern’s second Congress Lenin argued persistently with both Willy Gallacher and Jack Tanner, who, as representatives of the Workers’ Committee Movement, opposed all parliamentary activity as a diversion from the class struggle and a source of bourgeois-democratic illusions. Lenin elaborated his position in his classic “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder, which appeared in May 1920. The Communist Party of Great Britain was established at the beginning of August, and Lenin’s advice proved the deciding factor in the controversy.

The Party, which began with 10,000 members, experienced a chequered career in the 1920’s. During that decade it made little progress in its struggle to win substantial industrial influence, perhaps its most remarkable success being among the unemployed.

The CP’s application for affiliation came up for final decision at the Labour Party’s Conference in 1924. It was rejected by 3,185,000 votes to 193,000, though the resolution barring Communists from individual membership of the Labour Party was carried by the much narrower vote of 1,804,000 to 1,540,000. Writing of the Communist Party prospects, in 1928, Max Beer, the leading historian of British Socialism, said: “Maybe that their day will arrive when a Labour Government, backed by a majority of its own, disappoints the hopes of the working class.” The disappointment arrived in 1951, but the day did not. The reason will long be a source of profitable investigation by British Marxists.

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Last updated: 22 June 2014