Robert Stewart

The Communist International and the British Labour Movement

Source: The Communist International, 1924, No. 1 (New Series), pp. 188-190
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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When the Communist International was founded in 1919, there was no Communist Party yet formed in Great Britain. Even at the Second Congress in 1920, the Party was only in process of formation, in fact it came into being during the session of the Second Congress in August, 1920, and immediately declared its adherence to the Communist International. Nevertheless, the influence of the Communist International right from its formation in March, 1919, was felt in Britain, not only amongst the class conscious fighters scattered through the weak Socialist sects and parties, and the shop stewards movement, but throughout large strata of the workers in Britain. The ghastly failure of the Second International and the participation in the British War Cabinet of its leaders like Henderson and the vacillating social pacifism of MacDonald and Snowden, prepared the minds of thousands of workers for a break with the fatal yellow policy of these leaders and their International.

The manifestoes and slogans of the Communist International were warmly welcomed, although at times misunderstood. The peculiar structure of the British Labour Party, the treachery of its leaders and the corruption of considerable sections of the skilled workers into a placid acceptance of bourgeois rule at home and oppressive exploitation of the colonies made, and still makes a difficult milieu for Communists to operate in.

One result of these circumstances was the division of what revolutionary and Communist elements there were into a variety of parties and sects, such as the B.S.P., with a revolutionary phraseology, and a lack of direct organisational contact with the masses of workers in factories and shops, which led it to lay too great stress on electoral and parliamentary activity, and even that not of a real revolutionary character.

The S.L.P., not so large in membership went to the opposite extreme and shut, bolted and barred the door against all who were not according to their lights, pure, unadulterated Marxians. Their members were prohibited from accepting office, even in the trade unions, lest they should be contaminated. Nevertheless, objective conditions had made them strongest in the big industrial centres like the Clyde, Sheffield and Tyne-side, and they actually were a leading force in the strikes and disputes in these areas. They were not specifically anti-parliamentarian, but in elections were much more concerned about the purity of their doctrine than about the issues that were really capable of rallying the workers.

Then there were the definite anarchist and anti-parliamentary groups and the most promising and effective shop stewards’ movement, which did very good work in conducting strikes and mass movements during the war period, and until the trade depression, which overtook British capitalism, gave the bosses the opportunity to sack the lot. Within the Independent Labour Party also, there were considerable numbers of proletarians who worked side by side with S.L.P’ers and shop stewards in the war period. These also were considerably influenced by the Communist International. So much so that their leaders were compelled to face the issue of Second or Third International. In fact, these leaders were compelled to break with the Second International, but craftily seeking to gain time, they addressed a series of 12 questions to the E.C. of Comintern as to the conditions of entry, the programme and tactics of the Third. To these questions specific and explicit answers were given, and not the slightest loophole was left for these opportunist leaders of the centre to gain entry unless they were prepared to shed their opportunism, which, of course, they had no intention of doing. These questions and answers when published were of the greatest service in the education of the British workers to the concrete differences between the Second and Third Internationals. At the second congress of Comintern, Britain was represented by delegates from B.S.P. from shop stewards and from anti-parliamentary groups and the differences which had prevented a real Communist Party from being formed earlier were thrashed out.

The principal differences were on the question of affiliation to the Labour Party and the role of the trade unions, and there can, be no doubt that had it not been for the weight in influence of the Communist International, these questions would still be disrupting the revolutionaries in Britain.

As it was that influence succeeded in welding into one Communist Party, these variegated elements; it further succeeded in splitting off the adherents of the Third International from the reformist I.L.P. Now, with the advent of a Labour Government, both the tactics and the criticism of the Communist International are fully justified. In a period of unprecedented depression and apathy on the part of the working class, it is not to be wondered at that the enthusiastic estimates given by the delegates to Comintern have had to be seriously revised, but there is no doubt that the Communist Party of Great Britain is now on the way to becoming a real mass party capable of leading the workers of Britain in the struggles that lie ahead of them.

R. S.