MIA: Comintern Archive: CP Great Britain: CPGB History


Lewisham Borough Branch, 1926


The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was established in August 1920 and rapidly grew to a membership of 2,500. Prior to its formation, attempts were made to establish a Communist Party by elements considered by the majority of revolutionary socialists in Britain and by most leading Bolsheviks to be ultra-lefts. At the time of its founding, the major issues of controversy to be settled were over participation in Parliament and the trade unions.

One of the major components of the new party was the Bristish Socialist Party, the largest Marxist formation before the Russian Revolution that had been affiliated with the Labour Party. With the support of Comintern, the CPGB tried to affiliate with the Labour Party several times in its history and, although coming close to achieving this in 1945, was always unsuccessful.

The Party had limited but spirited representation in the British Parliament. John W. T. Newbold represented Motherwell from 1922-3. Membership of the Labour and Communist Parties was still compatible when Communist Shapurji Saklatvala was elected the Labour MP for Battersea North at the General Election in 1922. Of the seven Communists, or ‘Labour-Communists’ standing two had won seats and four took second place, failing to win by a range between 51 and 1,018 votes.

Saklatvala was re-elected as an outright Communist, at the December 1923 election. He represented the south London constituency for five years until defeated by a Labour candidate in 1929. William Gallacher held the seat of West Fife between 1935 and 1950, and Phil Piratin sat for Mile End, east London, from 1945 till 1950. Communist Party member Wogan Phillips sat as a member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament, from 1963. Some limited localities, mainly but not exclusively in parts of Scotland, South Wales, East Anglia and east London, the Party had many local authority councillors; in the post-Second World War period nearly 300 in total.

The Communist Party was the decisive force in the General Strike of 1926, having warned repeatedly of its imminence and the need to plan and prepare. Mine workers’ wages and conditions were threatened by the withdrawal of government subsidies that had been introduced during the First World War. A Communist-inspired motion had placed the 1925 TUC in the firing line, as the count down to the withdrawal of subsidies began. A special emergency conference of all union executive committee members resolved virtually unanimously to strike in solidarity. Communists were prominent amongst the thousands arrested during the strike and were the backbone of those forces supporting the miners who were left on their own to resist lock-out for nine months before being starved back to work. The Party’s membership rose dramatically to more than 10,000 members.

Key figures on the General Council of the TUC, the single and united centre of British trades unions, had never wanted a strike, despite the resolve of most activists and the enthusiasm of trades unionists called out on strike; millions more waited in reserve but were never called upon. Secret negotiations at the top level of the union movement saw their climb down, just as the strike was hardening and becoming ever more popular.

However the circumstances, the calling off of the General Strike allowed employers to set conditions on the return of strikers and to exploit the subsequent demoralisation that set in as workers realised their leaders had simply caved in on their behalf just as the strike was biting.

In the 1929 general election, which saw a Labour Government returned, the Party put up 25 candidates who averaged 5.3% of the poll in the areas where they stood. In the 1931 election, after the Labour cabinet spilt and a ‘National’ coalition government took over, the Party’s 26 candidates received 7.5% of the poll.

Membership of the party fell to 2,555 in November 1930 in the wake of deep recession, with over a third of Party members being unemployed. When membership shot up to 6,000 in 1931, the bulk of the recruits were unemployed, as the Party spearheaded the fight back against mass unemployment, which reached 20% of insured workers throughout most of 1932. Now becoming perceived by many as the only serious opposition to fascism, the Party’s fortunes rose with the approach of war and reached a peak of about 16,000 at the outbreak of the Second World War, rising to about 56,000 by the end of the War. As well as winning two MPs and over 100,000 votes in the 1945 General Election, its 21 candidates garnered an average vote of 14.6%. The Party also took over half a million votes in the following year’s local council elections, as the number of Communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.

The onset of the cold war and bans on Communists holding office in unions saw membership and support slumped. After the 1956 revelations on the nature of Stalin’s rule by Krushchev, and the massive internal controversy over what position to adopt over that year’s Hungarian Uprising, the Party was deeply damaged by the loss of a third of its membership overnight, including many senior trade union leaders. The Party also lost the widespread support of the intelligentsia that it has won in the 1930s. The subsequent Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, saw a deep fissure develop inside the Party that lay the basis for trouble ahead.

Nonetheless, the Party retained a membership of some 30,000 and a significant infrastructure, along with control of the daily newspaper, the Morning Star. Its reputation and influence in the trade unions was at its peak during the heady working class militancy of the period of the 1970-4 Conservative Party government. The Party and its activists freely led impressive and major struggles, so much so that it inspired the TUC general council to call a one day strike to demand the release of five imprisoned dockers, which was neatly side-stepped by the government which adopted dubious legal means of freeing the men.

The British Communist Party was not greatly affected by the Sino-Soviet split, which saw major splits in some other parties (the Maoists gained a small base in Britain generally amongst immigrants from the Indian sub-continent). While the British Party did not embrace “Euro-communist” revisionism with the same enthusiasm as west Europeans, such as the Italians and the Spanish, its adoption of ambiguous but similar policy changes led, in 1977, to a pro-Moscow break away led by Sid French, forming the “New Communist Party.”

A more significant split occurred along slightly different lines in the early 1980s, when the majority of the CPGB’s base in the trade union movement formed an alliance with pro-Soviet elements (disparagingly called “tankies” by their detractors) against the drift towards what they saw as non-Marxist positions being adopted by the core national leadership. This leadership bureaucracy of most of the fifty-odd full time workers and the majority of their members in the social movements (the “Euros”, or ‘revisionists’) formed a counter-alliance which went off in different directions.

The latter grouping was closely identified with Euro-Communist ideology and, following the miners’ strike of 1984-5 began to identify with the rightwards drift within the Labour Party that eventually would become ‘New’ Labour. The CPGB’s daily newspaper, The Morning Star, had been constituted as a co-operative owned shareholders as far back as 1948 but had remained within the Party’s control thereafter.

The Party’s Political Committee split evenly in 1982 over a Euro-communist/revisionist critique of the shop stewards’ movement. Increasingly, this split manifested itself throughout the Party and sides lined up; the trade union, classical Marxist and pro-Soviet trends on the one hand gathered around support for the Morning Star. Whilst the central leadership, revisionist and some Stalinistic-minded loyal members motivated by loyalty to the notion of a disciplined party gathered around the Executive Committee and supporters of the Party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today.

A period of intense factional struggle saw the Party’s membership drop astronomically over the period from 1984. A phase of mass expulsions of many hundreds of Morning Star supporters saw many of them ‘re-establish’ the Communist Party in 1988, taking the name Communist Party of Britain (CPB). By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 only 6,300 members remained in the Communist Party of Great Britain. This dissolved itself, closed Marxism Today and a couple of thousand CPGB members formed a “new politics network”, called Democratic Left. Whilst this formation took the bulk of the resources of the Party, it did not last many years at all and virtually nothing is now left of the British Euro-Communist project.

Disparate elements of those left in the CPGB at the time of dissolution, who saw themselves as wanting to continue the Party’s traditions, formed themselves into bodies such as ‘Communist Trades Unionists’ (some of the former trade union-linked Morning Star supporters) and ‘Communist Liaison’ (remnants of the former pro-Soviet factions), which to some extent overlapped. By 1994, the majority of adherents of these groups negotiated entry into the CPB during a “Communist Unity” process. The CPB continues to operate and claims itself to be the direct inheritor of the CPGB. The Morning Star continues to publish and remains closely associated with the CPB.