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Alastair Hatchett

Before the CP

(November 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Origins of British Bolshevism
Ray Challinor
Croom Helm £8.50

When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed out of the unity negotiations of 1920-21 an important section of the membership came from the Socialist Labour Party. These comrades had built a small revolutionary organisation with significant influence in the working class. In this new book, based on many years of dedicated research, Ray Challinor traces the development of the Socialist Labour Party from its formation in 1903 to the early years of the 1920’s.

In examining this period he is covering similar ground to Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921. Challinor, however, challenges Kendall’s sectarian interpretation that ‘British Bolshevism’ was a transplant from the continent, showing that revolutionary ideas and organisation developed out of the struggles of the indigenous working class.

The SLP was formed out of a split away from the Social-Democratic Federation in 1903. Those who split from the SDF were fed up with the reformist and nationalist politics of the SDF leadership. They particularly wanted a new approach to industrial struggles and found inspiration in the writing of James Connolly and the American industrial unionist Daniel de Leon.

From the beginning the SLP argued that the fragmentation of working class organisation – for example, the existence of 225 different unions in the engineering industry – must be ended: instead there should be one union of reach industry. They also argued for strong rank-and-file organisation to control the unions and make the leaders the servants rather than the masters of the membership.

When war broke out in 1914 the SLP stood firm against the war, unlike most of the left at the time. As the struggle against the Servile State grew in engineering the SLP played an influential part in the building of the Clyde Workers’ Committee and the spread of the shop-stewards’ movement. The SLP’s paper The Socialist was their outspoken organiser, its production being continually harassed as a consequence. Arthur MacManus was the editor of The Socialist when in 1915 he became the Chairman of the Clyde Workers’; Committee. When Connolly’s The Irish Worker was suppressed in Ireland in 1915, the SLP agreed to produce it secretly on their Party press in Glasgow. MacManus made numerous trips to Dublin carrying the papers in parcels marked ‘Glass’, until the authorities discovered him.

The SLP were extremely rigorous in the educational work, running of huge numbers of pamphlets on their own press and importing large numbers of Marxist classics from the press of Charles Kerr in Chicago.

The Party welcomed; the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as the model of their own view of smashing capitalism. The Socialist in March 1918 said:

‘For 6 years the SLP has been sneered at and jeered at, but now Russia, in the transition towards the Socialist Republic, shows the SLP is right.’

The State did take him seriously. On June 13th 1918 the police raided the SLP headquarters and confiscated 10,000 copies of Trotsky’s pamphlet War or Revolution. On 6th July 1918 the SLP press was raided. All paper and every drop of ink was seized. Two new linotype machines were dismantled. Production of The Socialist was made so difficult that by the end of 1918 the editor worked from a tent in a field at Heald Green, near Manchester.

The October revolution raised the question of building Communist Parties in every country. The ‘Russian Model’ was heatedly discussed at the time and Ray Challinor returns to the arguments with controversial vigour. His chapter Lenin and the British Communist Parties examines Lenin’s advice to British revolutionaries based upon the very poor information he was getting in Russia. Challinor takes issue with Lenin’s view that the British Communist Party had to be based upon the British Socialist Party rather than the SLP. He also suggests that Lenin’s polemic against the anti-parliamentarians was based on exaggerated information about the balance of forces and the nature of the Labour Party.

In the unity negotiations that led to the formation of the CPGB a great deal of sectarian polemic was generated. John MacLean was pushed into the cold, as was Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers Socialist Federation. In the arguments between the BSP and the SLP Challinor sides with the latter, concluding that the CPGB was ill-informed and ill-named. Many of the SLP members did join the CP while the SLP itself stayed out and collapsed by the end of 1922. Challinor’s argument that the reformism of many of those who joined the CPGB at its foundation made the organisation more susceptible to Stalinism in the later 1920s carries much weight. But given the level of class struggle in the post war years could an alternative formation have made a crucial difference? Ray Challinor’s controversial insights provide much food for thought.

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