Harry Pollitt

Lessons of Plymouth
it’s challenge to our Party

Source: The Communist Review, October 1923, Vol. 4, No. 6.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IT is now universally agreed that the Plymouth Trades Congress represents publicly the present demoralised state of the Trade Union movement, and that the Congress marks the parting of the ways. This means for Communists serious considerations as to what is going to be our attitude towards all future Trades Congresses.

The first attempt to work in an organised manner inside the Congress was made at Southport last year. Our tiny Communist fraction then did not do badly at all. No really serious view was taken of the importance of our work, this chiefly because we were so few in number, and because the feeling was ever present in our minds that we could do so little amongst so many other delegates.

At the Plymouth Congress our numbers were slightly increased and there was a greater appreciation of the importance of our work. There was, moreover, a keener desire to participate actively in the work both of the Congress itself and inside the various trade union delegations. But we have to do much better neat year; we must make more careful preparations. All members of the party who, become delegates, immediately they are known to have been elected, must make the Congress proceedings, its Agenda, etc., their special task and concentrate upon it.

The “pure” revolutionist might shrug his shoulders, and say, “It’s all worthless, the Trades Congress doesn’t matter.” That sounds very plausible until it is examined and then we find, that while the truth may be unpleasant, while it may even be a little discouraging, nevertheless, the truth is, that the delegates who do attend the Congress, and those who do, get elected on the General Council of Congress, are the men and women who, whether we like it or not, are in control of the trade unions, the mass organisations of the workers, and have the directing of the movement. We cannot close our eyes to the facts however unpleasant, that such men have got the influence and following amongst the mass of the organised workers. What is more important, we must recognise that they only hold this sway because their power is never effectively challenged in an organised fashion, either inside the trade unions or inside the Trades Congress.

If the present form of Congress were abolished our party would be the first to cry out for a National Conference, and, if we got it, we would seek to mould it to our way of thinking, and try and capture its executive positions. We would seek to get our policies and our programmes adopted. But if we would try and do this in those circumstances, why not begin to do it when the Congress is already an accepted feature, whether good or bad, of our trade union movement? But this work can only be done when we stop the hair-splitting and theory-chasing tactics; when we stop asking what we shall do when we have captured power, and all the rest of the high-sounding phrases that many of our comrades are too fond of indulging in.

We are just beginning to feel our way; we are just getting a foothold inside the organised working class movement; we are just beginning to force the official leaders to see that we mean business and that we are here to stay. Let our party have no illusions, if we don’t realise the all important task of working inside the unions in an organised manner, the leaders of the unions do. Let us make the Plymouth Congress the last of its kind. Its decisions and resolutions form the basis of our immediate work.


We may be certain we shall never make an impression on the movement as a whole by just contenting ourselves with issuing Speakers Notes to our party members who are attending the Congress, or with one or two members making good speeches that even the Morning Post admits “are the best speeches of the Congress.” Important as this work is, our task is to go deeper. It is so to work inside the unions during the coming months that the character of our work will be clearly stamped on the Agenda of the Congress and reflected in the nature of the resolutions to be discussed. We must ensure that the General Council of the Congress in between the Annual Congresses is compelled by our activity inside the unions, so to work and frame its own line of action, that when they present their Annual Report to the Congress our party members are prepared with reasoned criticisms of its failures and shortcomings. Our job is to show the workers that we can do the business of leading and directing the working class movement better than the people who are now in control of the movement. We are not going to do that by calling for this convention or that convention, by demanding this resolution be adopted or that rejected.

I am convinced, as a result of carefully watching working class conferences, watching the leaders, and watching the majority of the delegates, that our party, small as it is, can within the next three years play a tremendous part inside the working class movement. But this can only be done by hard flogging detail work inside the unions, and that carried out by ourselves and not by the other fellow. Now, can we do it?

It is a statement of fact to say that 75 per cent. of the delegates don’t take any real interest in the proceedings at all. They never trouble to think out points and have no fixed ideas. If we don’t know this, believe me the men who are on the General Council do, and they take full advantage of this fact. The Congress is in the hands of the General Council, only because there is no organised body of delegates to challenge them. Let us take a leaf out of their book.

We must become the challenging body. Already the field is clear to us if we care to take it. Of course, if this is too commonplace for some comrades; if it is not prosecuting the class struggle; if it is not fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat, all well and good, but for goodness sake, then, let us stop reviling this other crowd, let us all retire into our tents, learn “State and Revolution” off by heart, and then recite it to ourselves until the end comes (and the sooner it comes under these circumstances the better). I believe, however, that the party is fast shedding the above attitude, and that it is anxious and desirous of playing a great part inside the movement.


To appreciate the best lines we must go upon, and in order to make the existing position clearer, it is as well to show how the Congress does its business at the present time.

The first business of the Congress is always the adopting of the Annual Report of the General Council, this a hotch-potch thing, chaotic in form, and generally touching on anything and everything, although it has been improved somewhat during the last two years. It is not issued to the delegates until they take their seats at the Congress. When you realise that the report is over 170 pages, it is easy to understand how little the delegates know about what is contained therein. As a result of our fraction raising this question, the Report in future will be issued to the delegates seven days before Congress assembles; this means we have ample time to prepare points for all our people.

The Agenda consists of about 34 pages of resolutions on every conceivable subject, many of which have been on the Agenda for donkey’s years. The speakers on each question get ten minutes to move a resolution and the seconders get five minutes. After the first two days of the Congress this is reduced to five and three minutes respectively.

The delegates representing the various trade unions are all supposed to hold special meetings before the assembly of the Congress in order to consider the Agenda, and decide how they are to vote on the resolutions, and for whom they are to vote into the various executive positions and foreign delegations in connection with the work of the Congress.


Our tasks therefore appear to me to be as follows: First, every member inside a trade union must pay particular attention to the date of nominations for delegates to the Congress to represent that particular union. The Executive Committee will then decide which member out of all those nominated has the best chance of success, and who is also the most capable comrade to carry out the work required at the Congress. Secondly, all nuclei working inside this union must see that their branches endorse suitable resolutions for the Congress Agenda. Each union is allowed three resolutions, which must be endorsed by the executive of each union, and placed on the preliminary Agenda in the name of the union, 12 weeks before Congress assembles. It will be the duty of the Central Committee of the party to draft such resolutions, but each member should begin now to draft resolutions and send them in to the Centre, so that the Industrial Committee can consider them and report to the Central Committee.

The resolutions which we must aim at getting on the Agenda must be simply worded and practical resolutions, which would afford opportunities for initiating debates that would focus the attention of the Congress on the immediate issues confronting the workers and the best way of facing them. Where possible resolutions should be got down in the name of two or three unions, on such subjects as:

Increased power for the General Council.
An immediate campaign for the six-hour day.
Affiliation of the Unemployed Organisation to the Trades Congress.
Foreign policy.
United resistance to wage reductions.
Direct rank and file representation on the General Council. Proposals such as these would tend to give the Congress an air of reality.

Thirdly, every delegate working inside his own trade delegation tries to win the support of his union for the particular resolutions that the party fraction are supporting, and, more important still, tries to get his delegation to vote for the people agreed upon by the party fraction for the various offices in connection with the Congress. This is most important. The question of whom to vote for on the General Council, etc., is left in too many cases to the various general secretaries to wangle between them. We must learn too, how to wangle, and beat them at their own game. The “die hards” and reactionaries on the General Council will never be shifted by calling them names; it is votes and how to use them that matters. But, bad as the personnel of the Council is, don’t let us forget that very soon objective conditions will make the Council play a more important part in the workers’ struggle. We must therefore have our people on the Council.

Fourthly, at the Congress itself, our delegates must show an example to the others. By close attention to the business of Congress, by refusal to take part in the side-shows arranged by Lord Mayors, etc., by gleaning information from other delegates, by telling other delegates that there is a little group in the Congress who are working together, and inviting them to participate in this work. By sending in individual reports to the Central Committee of your impressions of the Congress, where we made mistakes, what ought to be done neat time, and generally working like a team anxious to leave a definite stamp on the Congress, so that year by year our influence grows and more and more delegates want to work and vote with us. In this way we can build up—slowly it is true, but we can do it—a really effective challenging voice inside the Congress and inside the trade delegations.

This, it seems to me, is the only way we shall forge ahead. Tiresome, detailed, and petty as it all may seem, comrades, it is the only way. Influence and leadership can only be won when we ourselves demonstrate our own capacity in these directions. If Plymouth has any lessons at all, it is this crying need for organised opposition to the old ideas, the old traditions, and the old leadership.

Are we to take the chance offered to us now, or are we again going to set off on some unattainable quest because all this work before and during the Trades Congress seems so little beside our dreams of the social revolution? If we now take up this work, this opportunity, there are indeed great times ahead of our Communist Party.

Already we have pushed open the door; we have got one foot in. A little more work, our machine getting down to business in this manner, and the Trades Congress can be made a live working-class congress where new policies in accord with the present needs of the workers can be made and worked out in a practical manner. By such work a new prospect is thus opened to our party. Are we going to take it?