Call for affiliation

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

On the second day of the Communist Unity Convention (August 1 1920), delegates resolved to establish a Provisional Executive Committee - achieved by adding six members directly elected from the Convention to the existing Joint Provisional Committee.

Then, after sending “warmest greetings” to the 2nd Congress of the Communist International, delegates turned to relations between the newly launched Communist Party and Labour. The vote for standing for parliament to win a platform for revolutionary propaganda had been a foregone conclusion; relations with the Labour Party was a far more tricky issue. It divided the two main organisations that coalesced to form the CPGB - the British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group.

The problem was faced squarely and honestly by the delegates - no blurry, composite fudges for them. Indeed, Provisional Committee member JF Hodgson of Grimsby BSP told the assembled comrades that he regarded it as a positively “pleasant duty” to introduce “the real bone of contention” into the proceedings.

This no-nonsense approach was reflected in the arrangements for the discussion. It took the form of a direct debate between two starkly opposed motions: (a) “That the Communist Party shall be affiliated to the Labour Party” and (b) “that the Communist Party shall not be affiliated to the Labour Party”.

If the convention resolved to seek affiliation to the Labour Party, delegates would then discuss the details of how communists would operate in this challenging environment, what political initiatives they would launch. Proposition (a) was moved by comrade Hodgson and the following is an edited version of his speech.

William Sarsfield

Flexibility of tactics

Mr chairman and comrades, after the exhausting proceedings through which we have just passed, it is my very pleasant duty to introduce you to the real bone of contention, and I would like to say before I commence to speak on behalf of the BSP, which was and is not, that from the first in these unity proceedings and conferences - which have been almost as exhausting as our proceedings this morning - we have always maintained the point of view that the party itself, when formed, should be allowed to decide on this very important matter.

We have never budged from that position, and when at last it was decided - as the executives or parties’ delegates could not agree - to put the matter to the vote of a rank-and-file convention, it was on our proposal that was done. Our friends on the other side accepted the proposal readily.

Now I say that because I want to add that, as far as we are concerned, we are very keen on this matter, but that, whichever way the vote shall go, it is our intention, even though it be against us, it shall not be the means of reducing one jot the enthusiasm and energy which we intend to put into this new party. I call for that spirit from those who differ from us, and I want to remind you that, unless we have that spirit present among us in all our proceedings as a party in the future, we are born to impotence and are likely to enter into disaster quite soon.

I hope that we shall settle this matter of the Labour Party ... settle it one way or the other. It has been said that it is perfectly easy talking here about the Labour Party itself, because most of the delegates have come to this conference with a mandate. Well, it applies to most of us; but at any rate I take this view, that we have had these discussions ad nauseum, and I suggest that we should try to steer clear of the old cut and dried arguments, and to see if we can strike out on a new line. We shall be assisted in that effort by certain things that have transpired quite lately.

For instance, there is Lenin’s book on the Infant disorders of the left communists - an interesting work which sheds a flood of light upon the whole question. Also, we have had - and I want to refer to this matter first - we have had from the left communists a clear declaration that their policy with regard to the Labour Party is distinct from their policy towards the trade unions.1 It appears that we are not to join the Labour Party because it is led by trade union leaders who have a bourgeois outlook and whose mentality is that of the middle class. Therefore we are to have nothing to do with the Labour Party.

That is clear and distinct, and with regard to these same Labour leaders I would say more than that - I would say that these men are destined to play the part of your Scheidemanns and Noskes,2 and the time will come when we shall have to deal with them in a no uncertain way. Not by voting, I say that. But, comrades and friends, this same declaration proceeds to say that it shall be the duty of the branches to form communist groups in trade union branches, and to work inside the trade union movement in the same way. Now I confess that I cannot understand that. It seems to me to be a high example of confusion. Here you meet on the industrial field ... certain trade union leaders.

You are fully aware that, whether or not through sheer rascality, duplicity and corruption, they are misleading the working class. You meet them there with the intention of destroying their influence, and of winning the confidence and trust of the rank and file to that end. That is exactly the kind of tactic that I believe in. But may I remind you that you meet these same people in the Labour Party, and that you meet them on a much larger field than you do in the trade unions. We are a political party. We meet these same trade union leaders in the Labour Party on the wider and far more important political field. That is the view I take, comrades.

... Many of our comrades have done important work inside the trade unions by starting unofficial committees and reform movements. This was extremely important. They have done good work in that way, but those are the very comrades who refuse to say that you could act in exactly the same way inside the political movement of the workers, which is the Labour Party. If you are going to have your communist groups inside trade union branches, why not inside the branches of the Labour Party? If you are going to operate inside the trade union movement, why not inside the Labour Party at its annual conferences? And why not try to help in such a way that when we go to the annual conferences we shall not find ourselves, as we did at Scarborough, a little group of a dozen - and the rest reactionists, or moderates, or blind men, because the best elements in the trade union movement had not sought to get elected as delegates to the Labour Party conference?

I know there are objections to this policy. We are told, for example, that if you affiliate to the Labour Party, and work inside the Labour Party, you become identified with the policy of the Labour Party. I deny that. I believe the best way you can illustrate the fact that you are not with the general body of opinion inside the Labour Party is to get in there and illustrate it from inside.

I say that our comrades who work with the unofficial movement have done more in that way to illustrate the fact that they have a point of view which is entirely different from that of the official elements than they could possibly have done outside. You do not become identified with the policy of the Labour Party by becoming affiliated to it or working inside. On the contrary. But the most difficult argument to understand, to my mind, is the objection that, by the by, the Labour Party is going to take office, and that when it does you will be identified with all the ruin that is going to come upon the party, once it takes office and assumes responsibilities which it cannot possibly fulfil.

I do not know whether the delegates are aware of it, but this matter has been dealt with by Lenin in this latest work of his. I say this because I know that those who will oppose this resolution, from the point of view I am putting forward, have been accustomed in the past to refer to the example of the Bolsheviks, and always to quote Lenin as their apostle and bludgeon us in that way. We are entitled to use the same kind of bludgeon, and I would remind you that Lenin considers this kind of objection to Labour Party affiliation as one of the “infant disorders of the left communists”. We had a talk yesterday about parliamentary action. It is surprising to know that Lenin advises that we should take part in parliamentary action, that we should get our members into parliament, and that when they are in parliament they should support the Labour Party in downing Lloyd George and Churchill and should try to get the Labour Party into office.

You should give them such support as the rope gives to the executed person. I mean to say that, after all, we have to be realists in this matter, not to live in a realm of theory, but to get right down to the reality. Surely we understand that the British working class has not yet passed through the experience of having a Kerensky or a Scheidemann, and that the sooner it goes through that experience the better. We cannot assist it to go through that experience by a policy of aloofness from the working class movement. A realistic sizing up of the situation means that we must be in and out of the labour movement all the time. But, of course, if you want a reputation for real revolutionary fervour, you must use words like these: ‘Let us march straight forward, turning neither to the right nor to the left, but keeping our revolutionary principles clear and unsullied.’

That is the way you become a left communist, because you leave your comrades behind. I make my plea this morning, in connection with the new party, that it shall not indulge in such antics. After all, something important has happened in the world during the last few years, and that is the Russian Revolution, and the experience of a proletarian revolution which you get from that; and we know that the Bolsheviks would never have won through to the triumph they have achieved by the policy of aloofness, dogmatism and so forth, which is at rock bottom the inspiration of the antagonism to affiliation to the Labour Party. A week or two before the outbreak of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks were getting ready their list of candidates for the duma. A fortnight - or it might have been three weeks or a month - after, they abolished the duma. That is the way to be flexible. That is the way to adapt yourself to circumstances. That is the way to fight scientifically. That is the way to use strategy and tactics in order to win through.

Of course, I am talking like a Labour fakir! ‘The only way in which you can win is by a frontal attack, never mind what kind of support you have got; if the battalions are small don’t hesitate, go right in.’ I don’t believe in that kind of thing: I think that the longest way round is sometimes the nearest way home. I know we are working against an enemy who is very insidious in his methods. He does not use frontal attacks, but flanking movements of all kinds, to undermine our position. I want us to use the same kind of thing.

Now, comrades, we had from comrade Bell yesterday what, to my mind, was an extremely lucid exposition of the arguments for revolutionary parliamentary action. They were also very powerful and cogent arguments for affiliation to the Labour Party. Comrade Bell told us - and I thoroughly agree with it - that all spheres of life where working class opinion can be influenced are important. With that I steadfastly agree, but to say that, and with the next breath to advocate that we should keep outside the Labour Party, seems to me a contradiction.3

Inside the Labour Party we can influence working class opinion. Inside the Labour Party we can use a lever by which we can ultimately destroy the influence of the treacherous leaders of the trade union movement on the political field.

  1. The reference is to the Workers’ Socialist Federation of Sylvia Pankhurst.↩︎

  2. Social Democrat members of the German government responsible for ordering the shooting of workers during the November revolution.↩︎

  3. Tom Bell (formerly of the Socialist Labour Party) thought it imperative to “rally together all the elements in the country in favour of communism [and] to make it clear that we have no associations with and did not stand for the same policy as the Labour Party …”See J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: formation and early years London 1987, Vol 1 (1919-1924), p45.↩︎