Inkpin speaks

William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago

The first Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain - held over the weekend of July 31-August 1 1920 - represented the fusion of Britain’s main revolutionary forces. However, even at this late stage important groups and currents still stood outside the process and refused to attend the unity convention. The report on the unity negotiations was given by comrade Albert Inkpin - previously secretary of the British Socialist Party and now holding the same post on the Joint Provisional Committee of the CPGB.1

As illustrated by the official account of the report - submitted on behalf of the JPC - negotiations with the intransigent opponents of unity were not just incomplete: they had dragged on interminably and were often unnecessarily tortuous. Yet the blunt fact was that the differences had nothing to do with matters of principle. All participants in the unity negotiations were as one on the basic political requirements that Comintern had stipulated for adherence to the International: for the revolutionary overthrow of the old order; for a system of soviets/workers’ councils, as opposed to parliament; and for the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat.

These were the core principles that the Third (Communist) International insisted on and to which all British participants in the frustrating discussions had professed loyalty.

Thus, it must have been with a profound sense of relief that comrade Inkpin took to his feet to announce to his assembled comrades - with the authority of a polemical intervention of Lenin himself - that the way was clear “to create such an atmosphere as is calculated to develop the revolutionary fervour that is latent within our movement, and sweep aside the distrust, suspicion and tardy indecision that have marked it hitherto”.

The moment had come.

William Sarsfield

  1. Inkpin led the CPGB for the next nine years. He subsequently became secretary of the Russia Today Society until his death in 1944.↩︎

Secretary’s report

The present negotiations for communist unity have been proceeding for some 14 months. After several attempts to discover a common platform between the various national socialist organisations, the movement to unity took a new direction - in an endeavour to unite in one body all the revolutionary leftwing groups that had communism for their objective and adhered to the Third International.

It was conveyed to these various groups and organisations by the central executive committee of the Third International at Moscow that it was the duty of all sincere communists to work for unity, and that, whilst differences and difficulties undoubtedly existed, the differences and difficulties must be overcome and not permitted to constitute an obstacle to unity in view of the need for consolidating the revolutionary communist forces all over the world. A meeting was accordingly arranged in London in June 1919, at which members of the BSP, the SLP1, the WSF2 and South Wales Socialist Society attended with the hope of ascertaining what the possibilities for unity actually were.

The discussion showed that there was little, if any, disagreement, so far as concerned fundamental principles and the general bases upon which the four organisations could unite. The main difficulty arose on the question of tactics, particularly in regard to the relations of the proposed new party to the Labour Party and the existing industrial and political organisations of the working class. The BSP representatives referred to the referendum of that organisation taken the previous year, and to the vote of its last annual conference, when the policy of working through the political labour movement was reaffirmed by overwhelming majorities. And they stated that they felt that the bulk of the BSP membership would make it conditional upon any steps in the direction of unity that the bases of amalgamation should include the affiliation of the new organisation to the Labour Party.

Against that the members of the SLP - and to a less extent the representatives of the WSF and the SWSS - urged that, however much they, as individuals, might be prepared to make that concession in order to achieve unity, it would be quite useless for them to approach their members with any proposal for unity that made affiliation to the Labour Party one of the bases of amalgamation. Subsequently, a further proposal was made as suggesting a middle course to which all might agree. That proposal was that the membership of the various bodies should be consulted as to their willingness to merge their respective organisations in one Communist Party, and that the question of the relations of the new party with the Labour Party should be settled by the membership of the new party when it was formed ...

This proposal was in due course submitted to and adopted by the executives of the BSP, the WSF and the South Wales Socialist Society. After some delay, it appeared that the executive of the SLP had not accepted the report of their members at the Unity Conference and, whilst they could hardly refuse to consult their membership on a proposal for unity that had assumed such concrete shape, nevertheless their referendum was to be taken in such a fashion as was calculated to render its decision null and void, so far as any definite step towards unity was concerned ....

Meanwhile, a struggle was proceeding inside the SLP itself between its conservative, doctrinaire executive and those elements that were genuinely desirous of a united Communist Party. These elements summoned a special conference of their own sympathisers within the SLP, which was held at Nottingham at Easter, and from that conference issued a manifesto in favour of unity, and explaining and defending the attitude of the SLP members at the original Unity Conference.

This served to rally those in the SLP who were in favour of a Communist Party, and to save themselves the executive of the SLP expelled the signatories from the party’s ranks. Those expelled from the SLP thereupon constituted themselves a Communist Unity Group and applied for and were admitted to separate representation at the unity negotiations.

From that moment the SLP ceased officially to figure in the negotiations, and its place was taken by the CUG. Incidentally, this group attached to itself every member of the SLP of standing and repute, and all the known active speakers and workers joined with them, so that they now stand as a group much stronger than the SLP ever stood both in morale and numbers.

This change allowed the deliberations to proceed a step further, but shortly a fresh obstacle had to be encountered. Although the discussions on the Unity Conferences showed that the tactical difficulties in the way of unity were still not altogether surmounted, they also demonstrated that, while each side was not prepared to accept fully the position of the other, nevertheless each - that is, so far as the BSP and the CUG were concerned - was determined to hold fast to the negotiations in the hope of some way out presenting itself. The attitude assumed by the WSF, however, became more and more lukewarm and, later, distinctly hostile, and their contributions to the discussions revealed them as being more desirous of creating additional obstacles and propounding fresh problems than of devising ways and means of overcoming difficulties. With them, anti-parliamentarianism - which, in the initial stages of the discussion, they stated they considered to be of altogether secondary importance to the need for unity - suddenly became a fetish, and was used continually to hamper the making of any real progress towards establishing the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, the discussions were continued, in spite of the WSF rather than by their aid, and eventually, a stage was reached when the long-waited solution appeared to present itself. It was decided that, in view of the failure of the delegates to agree upon the question of Labour Party affiliation, the whole matter of tactics should be submitted to a special convention of the rank and file, to be arranged by the Unity Conference. This proposal was unanimously agreed to by all the sections, and the conference resolved itself into a Joint Provisional Committee for carrying the agreement into effect.

It was felt, however, that for the rank-and-file conventions to be of any value at all, some understanding should be arrived at as to its relation to the projected Communist Party. Obviously, if such a convention were held, and no stipulation made in connection with the Communist Party, there was a great danger that the various sides to the negotiations might simply use the convention to find the volume and extent of their own support and influence, that those whose views on the various questions of tactics were not endorsed by the convention might break away and that the outcome would mean several communist parties instead of one.

Such an outcome, as will readily be appreciated, would have been anything but unity, and would certainly not have justified the 12 months’ deliberation on the matter. It was, therefore, resolved that the national convention should proclaim by resolution the formation of the Communist Party - which resolution, if accepted, would transform the remainder of the convention into a conference of the Communist Party, deciding its tactical policy and instructing its officials accordingly, the minority in each being expected to abide by that decision. The bodies participating in summoning the national convention were to be regarded as pledged to merge themselves in the new Communist Party, and representation to the convention was to be held to imply that those branches, groups and societies sending delegates would be bound by the decisions of the convention and would become branches of the Communist Party. To prevent any ambiguity on this point the invitation circular was to make it clear that this course was to be followed, and only those bodies prepared to agree to it were to be urged to send delegates (at this stage the South Wales Socialist Society had come defunct; its place on the JPC was subsequently taken by the South Wales Communist Council - a much stronger and more influential body).

To this the WSF delegates took exception: they presently broke away entirely from the Provisional Committee, and at a tiny and uninfluential gathering of their supporters, held on June 19 - ostensibly summoned to discuss their views on the convention proposals - decided to change their name from Workers’ Socialist Federation to the Communist Party. This may have been considered good tactics from their point of view, in that it may serve to give them temporarily a new lease of life. But that such disruptive action deserves the severest condemnation of all genuine communists is seen from the message received from comrade Lenin by the JPC and from the declarations presented by the general executive committee to the congress of the Third International just assembled at Moscow.

The JPC has, therefore, proceeded with its work along the lines agreed upon, and it is to give effect to that agreement that this convention has been called. It is the conviction of the JPC that a great deal of the difficulty that has had to be met and contended against will disappear of itself, once the real Communist Party stands as an established fact. The pursuit of its policy and the defence of its programme will create such an atmosphere as is calculated to develop the revolutionary fervour that is latent within our movement, and sweep aside the distrust, suspicion and tardy indecision that has marked it hitherto.

On the motion of Fred Shaw (BSP, East Bradford), seconded by F Barber (BSP, Southwark), the report was unanimously adopted.

  1. The Socialist Labour Party.↩︎

  2. The Workers’ Socialist Federation.↩︎