William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
The Communist Unity Convention (later known as the First Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain) convened over the weekend of July 31 and August 1 1920. The first day saw the revolutionaries gather in the plush Cannon Street Hotel, on the edge of the City of London. On the Sunday, they decamped to the distinctly more proletarian surroundings of the International Socialist Club, in London’s East End.
The number of delegates attending varies according to the different sources. James Klugmann suggests that there were “some 160 delegates … with 211 mandates”. The launch edition of the party’s weekly organ Communist put the figure at 158. In addition, five of the eight-strong Provisional Committee, who seem to have had speaking but not voting rights, should be added.1
Of these, 102 were delegated from branches of the British Socialist Party, 25 from Communist Unity Groups and 36 from a wide variety of smaller organisations.
These included branches of the South Wales Communist Council, two branches of the Independent Labour Party (Barking and Glasgow/Carngad),2 one branch of the Socialist Labour Party (Birmingham), three branches of the Herald League (supporters of the Daily Herald - then still a left-leaning newspaper), the Socialist Prohibition Fellowship (led by the redoubtable Bob Stewart3), the Guild Communist Group, various unaffiliated local socialist societies and communist groups, Birmingham shop stewards and the City of London Labour Party. They all accepted that attendance at the convention implied agreement with what the invitation to the convention called the “fundamental basis of communist unity: (a) the dictatorship of the working class; (b) the soviet system; (c) the Third International”; and agreed “to abide by” the convention’s “decisions on points of tactics, and to merge their organisations in the new Communist Party”.
As a not unimportant aside, it is worthwhile noting that, whatever lessons our comrades of the fledging CPGB had internalised from the experience of the Bolsheviks, a culture of rigorous party security was certainly not amongst them. It is barely credible - but true - that not only was every delegate listed by name and organisation in the official report, but members of the expanded provisional leadership had their full addresses given.
Despite such overhangs of the amateur culture of the past, the convention marked a qualitative move forward in the process of forging a vanguard party in Britain. Its opening coincided with the anniversary of the murder of Jean Jaurès and the delegates rose and stood in silence as a mark of respect and esteem for him and all others who had forfeited their lives for the cause.4
The meeting then moved on to its substantive business. Albert Inkpin opened the proceedings with the proposal that Arthur MacManus, chair of the Provisional Committee, should preside. This was unanimously agreed and we reproduce here the official report of his opening address.
He said it was a sad experience that it had taken three years of Russia in revolution, and two years of actual negotiating and deliberating, to bring into being a conference of this description. There were still people calling themselves communists who were not represented at the convention, and this fact indicated the nature of the obstacles and difficulties that had to be overcome.5
He hoped that no word at that conference - and he was sure this was the feeling of those assembled at it - would be regarded as in any way calculated to widen the breach at present existing between those who were represented and those who were not. He hoped also - and here again he thought the conference would concur - that in the near future pressure of circumstances might have the power to persuade people outside that it was their duty to come in.
He thought the convention itself justified the most optimistic outlook of those who thought there was a need of a Communist Party in this country. The agenda before them contained items that would call for serious deliberations and might possibly call for animated contention; but if the convention was taken in the spirit in which the invitations had been sent out, then, whatever else might also happen at it, after today there would at least exist in Great Britain one reliable, rigid, straight and determined Communist Party. Given a Communist Party, he thought its membership could very well be trusted, and certainly had every claim to be responsible for deciding what attitude the party should adopt on different occasions.
He wanted to make one or two general observations with regard to the effect of the birth of the Communist Party. The present convention was a more effective reply to the solicitations of Russia than anything else that had emanated from this country since the Russian Revolution up to the present time.
In the past we had been content to respond to Russia with magnanimous resolutions and expressions of sympathy, but, except for one or two very small attempts, we had never yet, as an organised movement, responded to those appeals in the way that a communist or revolutionary socialist should be responded to. It was a curious coincidence that the sitting of the convention synchronised with the arrival of the Russian commissars, who had now for the first time been openly invited by the British government. Kamenev and his comrades were expected that evening; it was humiliating to think that, having triumphed in their own country, the Russian delegation would have to submit to the arrogance and vainglory of the capitalist politicians here.6
Why should it be at this late date in revolutionary thought and action that, instead of the Russians being met with sympathetic kinship and comradeship, it should be left to Lloyd George, Churchill and the rest of the gang to be there with their hypocrisies and huckstering? There was something in that to regret.
We ought by now to have made it so uncomfortable for these people that, instead of standing on a pedestal and dictating to the rest of the world as to how it should conduct itself, they would have enough to do looking after us here to prevent them having any time to worry about other countries. If the Communist Party did not fit that bill, it would fail to respond to the spirit that had called it into being.
He would ask the delegates to devote themselves to getting through the agenda and doing what the joint committee had felt themselves incapable of doing - the committee could not arrive at a decision in connection with the tactical policy of the Communist Party.7 The discussion of fundamental principles had been the least difficult task that had been set the joint committee during the last two years: at a very early stage there had been general agreement that communism was accepted as the objective and that the soviet regime and dictatorship of the proletariat were indispensable precautions against counterrevolution.
The dictatorship of the proletariat was the principle on which we should have to meet most opposition, for we had to meet something that possibly did not exist to the same extent in any other country in the world. When there was a question of a thing being done, if the process of doing it was likely to soil the coat or skirt of those participating, the nonconformist conscience demanded that the thing be dropped, however desirable it might be in itself. He hoped the spirit of the convention would be in opposition to that. We believed that a social revolution was absolutely essential, and that it was our duty to get it, however much we might be soiled in the process.
Even if there arose a necessity for bloodshed, we could always remember that the lesson of history was that it was never the revolutionary who was responsible for the shedding of blood: it was invariably the counterrevolutionary. There was no subterfuge or intrigue that our capitalist class had not been willing to resort to rather than allow Russia to stand open to the world, justifying communism as a social constructive force, and the fact that we saw them doing this with Russia at such a remote distance was an indication of what they would do to us.
The chairman concluded by appealing to the delegates to subordinate themselves to the work they had in hand. If the results he anticipated were achieved, any self-effacement would justify itself. If they rose to the standard of responsibility he was setting before them, this would turn out to be the most profitable weekend that the revolutionary movement had ever had in this country.
. To compound the confusion, the official report stated that 152 delegates attended, but then lists 157. See J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1,London 1987, p38.↩︎
. Carngad was situated north of the River Clyde in an area now known as Royston/Roystonhill.↩︎
. Bob Stewart was imprisoned for militant opposition to World War I. He later served in the British army from 1917-19, although his real attitude to militarism was amply illustrated by the fact that he was court-martialled four times in these two years.↩︎
. Jaurès was assassinated on July 31 1914 by a French nationalist, Raoul Villain. The assassin was tried after World War I and acquitted. Gratifyingly, however, he was despatched in 1936 by Spanish Republicans.
. This is primarily a criticism of the Socialist Labour Party and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation - by now illegitimately renamed the ‘Communist Party - British Section of the Third International’.↩︎
. LB Kamenev was the first president of the Soviet Republic and a veteran Bolshevik. He was tried in the Moscow trials of 1936 and subsequently shot.↩︎
. This is also a reference to the controversy over affiliation to the Labour Party.