Labour Party debate

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

The debate on affiliation to the Labour Party was the most controversial at the Communist Unity Convention (later known as the CPGB’s 1st Congress). Comrade JF Hodgson had spoken for proposition A: “That the Communist Party shall be affiliated to the Labour Party”.1

The chair, Arthur MacManus, then called on comrade William Paul - a leading member of the Communist Unity Group and member of the Provisional Executive Committee of the CPGB - to speak for Proposition B: “That the Communist Party shall not be affiliated to the Labour Party.”

Below is an edited version of his speech.

William Sarsfield

Against affiliation

Mr chairman and comrades, we hope that we shall be able to emulate the good spirit that Hodgson has put into the debate, and we will assure him that we do not intend to use Lenin as a bludgeon.2 We will meet our comrade with argument.

Taking the case of Lenin, it is quite true that Lenin has written a book entitled Infant disorders of leftwing communists, and I think if our comrade were to hear some of the arguments put forward by some of our moderate friends, he might be tempted to write another book on the disorders of the senile decay elements. Let that pass. There is not one in the audience to whom I yield in admiration for Lenin, but, as we said yesterday, Lenin is no pope or god.

The point is that, so far as we are concerned, on international tactics we will take our international position from Moscow, where they can be verified internationally; but on local circumstances, where we are on the spot, we are the people to decide. Not only so, but our comrade Lenin would not have us slavishly accept everything which he utters in Moscow. The very warp and woof of our propaganda is criticism and, as we believe in criticism, we are not above criticising Lenin.

Wherever we find our comrade Lenin speaking on points regarding the Labour Party, we should remember what our delegates from the British Socialist Party said a few weeks ago in The Call.3 They had to admit, so far as the Labour Party and its structure was concerned, Lenin was a little vague. No doubt that is why they are able to quote him this morning as they have done.

What comrades who are in favour of Labour Party affiliation have to prove is their argument, no matter who says it. What is the position?

Capitalism is collapsing in every one of its institutions. It is collapsing most conspicuously in the parliamentary institution, and yesterday we passed a resolution in favour of parliamentary action - but not in the spirit that our comrade Hodgson would have us imply. When we declared for parliamentary action yesterday, this conference put behind every argument in favour of participating in parliamentary action this fact - that we believe in parliamentary action for the express and decisive purpose of destructive and agitational work.

The Labour Party does not believe in that conception of parliamentary action; the Labour Party believes in parliamentary action as a constructive weapon in the working class movement and, in so far as the two functions are diametrically opposed, they cannot be mixed, and he who will mix them is going to place himself in the delightful position of the acrobat who tries to stand on horses running in different directions.

Not only are the two functions diametrically opposed in regard to parliamentary action, but it is not two functions only: it is two principles. It is the principle of the Second International, to which it is logically affiliated, which is the principle of the Labour Party; whereas we stand on the other side in favour of the Third International, who use the parliamentary weapon for destructive and agitational purposes.

Hodgson made a good point. He said that we have got to understand that we are dealing with an enemy who is keen; that this enemy has only two methods of trying to beat us down; that he tries to meet us with a brutal frontal attack, which he does not care to begin just at once, until he has exhausted another method. That other method is the method of compromise, the flank movement or camouflage. Where do we stand? We find that the British ruling class in this country, above all classes, has made its inroads, has opposed every movement of revolt in this country, not by a fair frontal attack, but by the insidious and slimy method of trying to get underneath it, and thereby to eradicate it.

We have to realise that the capitalist class, economically living by swindling, also hopes to live and maintain its class rule by politically swindling us. Jeremy Diddlers4 alike on the economic and political fields, the capitalist class internationally - in every country where there has been a crisis - the position has been that, confronted with the crisis, they did not first of all try to smash the revolutionary class, but tried to gather the moderate elements, to compromise with them and to throw the responsibility of diddling the working class upon these elements.

Therefore you find that in Russia - and Hodgson admitted that he hoped for it very quickly here - when the crisis took place it automatically produced Kerensky,5 and, when Kerensky could not solve the problem, Kornilov.6

The same thing applied in Germany. With the crisis, Scheidemann and Noske7 were called into being, and behind that came the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In France, during the period of crisis, there were brought into being the Albert Thomases, Briands, Millerands. We find the same thing in Italy. The middle class look to this party, which will mislead the working class. So, in America, your Spargos and Hillquits were called statesmen, while Eugene Debs was put into gaol.

Come to Britain. We find here that the crisis is going to produce exactly the same results. We can go back to 1914, and what was it that the capitalist class was afraid of in 1914, when they declared their war? It was the working class. It was this working class political expression; and it was this parliamentary Labour Party that let the working class treacherously down. Our friends say you can easily explain this.

You can if you are trained in the subtle method which our friends revel in, but the working class do not possess the subtle method. They judge us by the company we keep, and in the moment of crisis, when the indignant masses rise to sweep the Labour Party away, we may be swept away too. We shall be swept away too, because, when we tell the working class that we knew this all the time, but that we were playing a long game called tactics, the working class will not understand these methods of dissimulation.

The working class will say, ‘If you knew and did not tell us, you ought to be damned 30 times over.’ We find that in 1914, when the crisis took place, it was the Labour Party that let the working class down. Even when they wanted some slimy individual to come along and diddle the soldiers out of their pensions, the Labour Party produced Mr John Hodge.8 That is why to our friends of the anti-parliamentary group yesterday, when they told us the fight was ineffectual in Gorton, we said it was not ineffectual in so far as it helped to expose Hodge. If this vote for affiliation to the Labour Party is carried, we shall not be able to fight and expose Hodge. We shall be tied down.

The same thing is true in regard to food control. Food control has become the capitalist class method of blockading the working class during a strike. When the south Wales miners exposed Rhondda, to whom did the capitalist class look? Was it not to JR Clynes? Now we are at the point of success in this country, so far as building up a leftwing revolutionary movement is concerned, we shall find that the capitalist class will become ever more intent in trying to diddle us, ever more intent to try to win us into the Labour Party, in order to try and disarm us.

Our friend tells us we ought to be in the Labour Party, because that is where the working class is, but if our friend goes to anti-socialist demonstrations or conferences, these claim to represent the working class, and every argument he can put forward to show why we ought to be affiliated to the Labour Party can be applied to joining the Salvation Army. You will find then that we have got to build up our own organisation, that we have got to set out our code of tactics, and that we have got to develop these - not that we shall be so much left that the battalions will be left behind. What battalions will be left behind?

When the crisis comes, the battalions to be left behind will be the Labour Party and, the further we are away from the Labour Party, then the better for us. Comrade Hodgson in the argument he was putting forward was impelled to say, despite himself, the way the fight can be fought by us, when he inadvertently admitted that it was in the workshop; and, although we believe in parliamentary action, we have shown that its function is of a destructive character, and, if you like, we can point out when the crisis comes, and the Labour Party is exposed, and the vortex of revolution, instead of sweeping us into the Labour Party and drowning us - at that moment we can tell the working class we were opposed to these people, and that in every demand for higher wages we were in every one of these struggles.

Therefore the working class will be compelled to look to us, and will come our way, because they will see that right through all the struggles we were the people who stood with the weapon clean in the hand of the Communist Party, and refused to violate fundamental principles by joining the Labour Party and indirectly joining the Second International.

In this fight our friends may imagine, if this demand is carried, to attract certain elements to the Communist Party. But we tell you that the elements attracted by passing the Labour Party affiliation clause will repel the people we want ...

We have realised during the past that all the great vigour and enthusiasm of our movement has been throttled by compromise. Let us throttle that spirit now. Let us build up the Communist Party and carry on its own work, merging in all the struggles of the masses. In that way we can reach the working class - but not by hauling our colours down and joining hands with Thomas and co, who will ultimately betray us.

  1. Weekly Worker May 21.↩︎

  2. News of Lenin’s support for CPGB affiliation at the 2nd Congress of the Communist International had filtered through to delegates.↩︎

  3. Paper of the British Socialist Party - the organisation with most delegates to the Communist Unity Convention.↩︎

  4. A skilled swindler, ‘Jeremy Diddler’ is a fictional character in James Kenney’s 1803 farce, Raising the wind.↩︎

  5. After the February 1917 revolution, Alexander Kerensky (April 22 1881-June 11 1970) joined the newly-formed Russian Provisional Government - first as minister of justice and then as minister of war. His political background was that of the ‘moderate’ left Trudovik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. His crisis-wracked government was overthrown by the Bolshevik revolution.↩︎

  6. Kornilov was a tsarist general who staged an attempted coup against Kerensky’s provisional government and later commanded the counterrevolutionary White armies.↩︎

  7. Social democrats who supported German imperialism during World War I.↩︎

  8. John Hodge (October 29 1855-August 10 1937). From December 1916 to August 1917, Hodge was the first minister of labour - a position that entitled him to a seat in the coalition cabinet. Hodge branded all strikes during wartime as acts of treason. To underline his point, he used the ‘defence of the realm’ to drive striking boilermakers back to work. Hodge was MP for Manchester Gorton from January 1906 to November 1923.↩︎