Lenin for unity
William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
Although the Russian-born Joseph Fineberg, a leading member of the British Socialist Party, had attended the founding congress of the Third International, there were no official representatives from Britain. However, 10 comrades managed to get through the capitalist blockade of Soviet Russia to Moscow for the Second Congress.
Six were officially registered as delegates and given a full vote: Tom Quelch and William MacLaine for the BSP; David Ramsay, Jack Tanner and JT Murphy for the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committees; Dick Beech for the International Workers of the World. Marjorie Newbold was later given a consultative vote for the National League of Working Youth, while William Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and JS Clarke (editor of the Scottish Worker) were given speaking rights.
In many ways, debates in Britain over Labour Party affiliation and parliamentary elections were mirrored on a larger, international, scale. Given the prospect of sharp differences at the July 31-August 1 1920 Unity Convention (later to be known as the First Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain), BSP delegates - who supported Labour affiliation and parliamentary activity - were pleased to report that they had a staunch ally in Lenin.
Further help came from Lenin in the form of a wireless message to the Provisional Committee of the CPGB, which was eagerly reprinted - complete with an ornate border - on the front page of the BSP’s The Call.
Lenin’s immense moral authority did not mean that he was treated as some sort of infallible guru, however. Despite his contribution, the Communist Unity Group maintained its hostility to the tactic of Labour Party affiliation. That said, the CUG’s ‘Headquarters notes’ in the last edition of The Call (see below) shows that, in spite of the ongoing disagreement over this important issue, it was doing all it could to ensure that the Unity Convention was successful.
It is clear from this material that the BSP itself had high hopes for the future. Nevertheless, as this was to be the last edition of The Call, its editors allowed themselves some space for a retrospective on the service their paper had provided to the revolutionary left in Britain (see ‘Last words’ below).
BSP delegates in Moscow
The Call No221, July 1 1920
On Thursday last we had a long and very interesting interview with Lenin. He wished to know all about the position of the socialist parties in England, and of the difficulties connected with unity. He has just written a new book, and has asked us to read it and then meet him again.1 The English edition will be ready in a few days.
Meanwhile he has not much time for the anti-parliamentarians, and thinks they are lacking in political sagacity. Like everyone else here, he finds the Labour Party hard to understand. He was very scornful about certain members of the Labour delegation, particularly those who asked for proof [of British government backing for counterrevolutionaries in the civil war].
We have read the report regarding unity: Pravda published it yesterday, and we had already seen it. Everyone here wishes you to get on with it, and I will make a special effort to be back in time for the August conference on Friday and Saturday.
We attended meetings of the executive committee of the Third International; representatives were present from practically every European country, and the business so far transacted has been to hear reports of the socialist movement in the various countries. We have not yet reported, but will do so at a later meeting.
Cachin and Frossard spoke on the French party, and numerous questions were directed to them by Radek, Bukharin and others.2 They were asked to explain the attitude of the party towards the Versailles peace, why they still had Albert Thomas in their midst, why they acted as they did towards the general strike recently, and towards the Ruhr trouble. Cachin gave evasive answers, and later Lenin, in a strong speech, told the French that they must cease to talk about dictatorship of the proletariat and get to know what it means. In answer to Serrati he exposed the Turatti section, which prevented the party from taking its proper line.
The Call No224, July 22 1920
Having received the letter of the Joint Provisional Committee of the Communist Party of Britain, dated June 20, I hasten to reply in accordance with their request that I am in complete sympathy with their plans for the immediate organisation of a Communist Party in England. I consider the policy of comrade Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers’ Socialist Federation in refusing to collaborate in the amalgamation of the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and others into one Communist Party to be wrong.
I personally am in favour of participation in parliament and of adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent communist activity. This policy I am going to defend at the Second Congress of the Third International on July 15 at Moscow.
I consider it most desirable that a Communist Party be speedily organised on the basis of the decisions of the Third International, and that party be brought into close touch with the Industrial Workers of the World and the Shop Stewards Committee in order to bring about their complete union.
The Call No225, July 29 1920
With the expiration of this edition of The Call, the Communist Party will be an accomplished fact. There remains but a few final words to be said to all our groups. First, it is imperative for every group to be represented at the conference. We get correspondence from a number of ‘faint hearts’, who agree upon all essentials, but are afraid of the direction the new party will take, especially on tactics. A common feeling of this ‘order of the timid’ is that the new party will only be a transformed BSP.
Obviously the best way to remove such a ‘snag’ is to turn up and cast all our weight against the traditional attitude of the BSP, particularly against its official attitude towards the Labour Party. Our view is that the numerical weight of the BSP is a bogey, as we believe the decisions will prove, while its official attitude, as we think, towards the Labour Party does not really express the mind of the majority of the BSP rank and file.
In any case, it is the moral obligation of all communist elements to bring its weight to bear on such matters and ensure their smashing defeat. That way lies success. We have not wavered in our opinion, which we have repeatedly and consistently declared, that the Communist Party should in no way be identified with the Labour Party. We shall continue to maintain such a course. It must never be forgotten, however, that the Labour Party itself has the last word on such a matter.
On the question of parliamentary action, we wish to state for the benefit of one or two branches who have written us regarding the resolution on the agenda form that the intention of such a resolution is to provoke discussion on the clear issue, for and against. All questions of definitions as to what is political action, etc, do not arise, since the Communist Party will be essentially political. The issue that had to be referred to the conference was the value or otherwise of taking parliamentary action.
The Call No225, July 29 1920
To our readers
With the holding of the Communist Unity Convention in London next Saturday, the BSP will cease its separate existence, and its branches and members will be merged in the new Communist Party. We anticipate, therefore, that this will be the last issue of The Call and we take this opportunity of expressing our thanks to our readers for the generous measure of support they have accorded us.
The Call was established in the earlier part of 1916 in order to rally the internationalist elements inside the BSP who were then waging a courageous struggle against the endeavours of its social patriotic leaders to chain the party to the chariot of British imperialism.3
The success of that struggle, the subsequent adoption of The Call as the official organ of the BSP and the gallant stand it made throughout the war on behalf of internationalism and the solidarity of the world’s workers - all this is history; whilst its whole-hearted support of the Russian Soviet Republic and the cause of the world revolution everywhere has earned it a position in the international communist movement, of which we have every right to be proud.
The Communist Unity Convention, in founding the Communist Party, will, we anticipate, establish at the same time its own weekly organ, for the expression and advocacy of the fundamental principles and policy for which it will stand.
In this last issue of The Call, we appeal to our readers, on behalf of the new organ, for the same comradely encouragement and support that they have hitherto accorded The Call.
1. ‘Leftwing’ communism, an infantile disorder: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/index.htm.
2. Marcel Cachin had been an ardent supporter of the 1914 war, even to the extent of travelling to Italy to cajole Mussolini’s faction of the Italian Socialist Party to support Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the French. In 1920, however, sensing the way the wind was blowing, he supported the affiliation of the Socialist Party to the Third International. Subsequently, he became and remained a loyal Stalinist to his death in 1958. Frossard, on the other hand, deserted back to the Socialist Party after a few short years and became a minister in Philippe Pétain’s pro-Nazi government in 1940.
3. The reference is to Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842-1921), who founded Britain’s first socialist organisation - the Social Democratic Federation - in 1881. William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and their allies broke with the SDF in December 1884 and formed the Socialist League - largely due to Hyndman’s overbearing, proprietorial attitude to the organisation, his jingoism and political opportunism. In 1914, he supported the British war effort, offering a ‘lesser evil’ justification for this betrayal. There was a rebellion by the internationalists in the British Socialist Party. (In 1911, the SDF, along with the left wing of the Independent Labour Party, the network of clubs associated with the Clarion newspaper and various local socialist societies, had merged into the new organisation, the BSP.) The internationalists in the BSP won a majority at the Easter 1916 conference, precipitating the split of Hyndman’s rump. Eventually, he formed of the unfortunately named National Socialist Party.