‘A Labour Party with a communist mind’
William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
No doubt the lunch break that followed the presentations for and against the CPGB application to affiliate to the Labour Party - moved respectively by JH Hodgson and William Paul - saw some intense and passionate informal exchanges among the delegates to the 1920 Communist Unity Convention1 (later known as the CPGB’s 1st Congress).
When the meeting reconvened, it dealt first with some questions of procedure - specifically, the sensible proposal from the chair, Arthur MacManus, to throw this important matter open for a general discussion to definitely establish whether the Convention was in favour of affiliation of any sort.
Once that had been nailed down, amendments would be taken to settle the details. Comrade MacManus underlined that, as it was vital that “every delegate should feel that the subject had been thoroughly debated”, he would rule that there would be 23 speakers: nine for affiliation and 14 against. In other words, the minority were not silenced, but given extra time. Not something seen much on the left today.
The official report shows that those opposing affiliation - some of whom spoke from bitter personal experience - maintained that the Labour Party was thoroughly corrupt. The fledgling Communist Party must not be tainted via association - workers would never understand the “subtle” reasons advanced for affiliation. The final outcome was never much in doubt. Nevertheless, when it came to it, there was a slim 100-85 majority for affiliation. (By prior agreement, all delegates were bound by majority decisions.)
A Provisional Executive Committee was formed by adding six new comrades to the Joint Provisional Committee: Fred Shaw, Bob Stewart, Dr DB Montefiore, CL Malone, George Deer and William Mellor. The convention also adopted tentative proposals outlining the transformation into the Communist Party - a document prepared by the old joint Provisional Committee. This concretised the agreement of the meeting to draw up a draft constitution and rules, and the merger of all the participating organisations and groups into the Communist Party of Great Britain.
For and against affiliation
T Barber (Southwark British Socialist Party): He and other members of the Southwark BSP, as it was then, stood as Labour candidates at the last borough council elections. They got in and were by that time disgusted absolutely by the policy and actions of the Labour Party.
Tom Bell: The first essential to rally together all the elements in the country in favour of communism was to make it clear that we have no associations with and did not stand for the same policy as the Labour Party ... we wanted a Communist Party clear and distinct from any association with reformism or the Labour Party.
CL Gibbons (Ferndale Socialist Society) opposed affiliation to the Labour Party, saying ... he would give his own experience in his own locality. There the Labour Party was in power: it was not fighting for power, but had a big majority on the district council. It was discrediting itself every day; and if it was a communist district council it would discredit itself even more. What was happening? Every section of the working class at Rhondda, after working for the municipality, had been on strike against it during the last 12 months. That fact had done more to discredit the Labour Party in the eyes of the workers of Rhondda than anything we could do either inside or outside.
Even people who were not communists were saying there was nothing in the Labour control of municipalities. Were delegates to go back and say to such people, ‘Having reached this point by your own observation, now try and believe there is something in it’? It could not be done; they dare not. In his own lodge there were three district councillors, two members of the Board of Guardians and two justices of the peace. One had resigned, because he refused to carry out his mandate: another had refused to carry out his mandate, but had remained in office ... Communists in the Rhondda had been telling the people all along, ‘If you go in and get control of the municipal and parliamentary machinery, nothing will come of it, except that you will discredit your own case’, and he and other delegates from that district dare not go back and tell the people there to go into the Labour Party.
He asked the delegates to look at the question from that point of view: not what it would entail in a general sense, but what it would entail upon them tomorrow. They would go back and have to take part in the whole of the Labour Party action if we became affiliated to that party. The Labour Party might perform the miracle of accepting communist candidates, but it would not accept all communist candidates, and they would be pledged to support every candidate put forward by the Labour Party. If they did not, they would he kicked outside that party; if they did, they ought to be kicked outside the Communist Party.
FL Kerran (BSP, Central London) said he thought the last speaker had given really the best towards guiding us to the right conclusion: he had given an excellent description of what was going to be the future of the political Labour Party in this country. He had described to us what had happened in Rhondda. He had told us that the Labour Party there had actually got the majority and had failed in their local council, and that the Labour council had become thoroughly discredited.
What was going to be the result of that? When the workers found out that the Labour Party was no damned good to them, they would then overthrow the Labour Party. But it was our business first of all to help the Labour Party get into office, and then, when they had got into office, our first act was to kick them out. When all was said and done, we were really wasting our time in discussing this subject. We were discussing tactics, but what have we to do with tactics? In so far as we were concerned, we were a few individuals trying to form a general staff without an army.
Our work in the future was to go on educating enough people to agree with us. When we have enough of the men behind us, we would consider tactics. Comrade Paul said that the revolution was coming soon. He (Kerran) sincerely hoped it was not; if we were going to be the people to guide the revolution in the strength we were today, it was a very bad lookout for us.
George Deer of the British Socialist Party in Rawtenstall supported affiliation. In reply to those who suggested that the communists would be swept aside by the working class if it affiliated to the Labour Party, he wanted to stay inside - the BSP was an affiliate.
He wanted to suggest to the convention that the only possible chance we had of showing the workers that our viewpoint was different from that of the Labour Party was by remaining inside and fighting them on their own battleground. Mr Jas Sexton2 had made this comment at Scarborough a few weeks ago: “Here is the BSP with 10,000 alleged members, paying £50 a year affiliation fees. They monopolise the [Labour Party] conference, get five speakers on the first day, demand a bloody revolution and Jim Thomas’s head upon a charger, and then foist Malone upon us. What the hell do they want for 50 quid?” If there were any case for affiliation to the Labour Party, out of the mouth of Sexton we had that case.
We knew our case and could state it, and he (the speaker) emphatically denied that there was any possibility of our being mistaken as being either of them or with them. When the cry was raised in Russia of ‘All power to the soviets’, what happened? Lenin wanted to get power out of the existing organisations, and his fight was with the reactionists who were inside those organisations. Our fight was with the same kind of people here, and to leave the workers to be gulled with the claptrap of Clynes or the tomfoolery of Thomas was simply playing into their hands ...
If we wanted to give the reactionists joy we should leave them. After we had gone they would say, ‘Thank god we have got rid of that element. Now we can have quiet, peaceable and happy times.’ Another point was that if we left the Labour Party there was great danger of people who did not take our viewpoint posing as the left wing within the Labour Party. It had only been our attitude at Scarborough that had unmasked the MacDonalds, Hills and the rest who were posing as the left wing. It would interest those present to know that, while they accepted John Hill as vice-president of the Hands Off Russia Committee, and agreed with him over industrial action so far as Russia was concerned, in negotiations on the standing orders of the Labour Party conference no man had tried to sabotage us more than he. We had to remain with these people in order to fight them.
... The millions of votes cast for the Labour Party at the last general election were votes given mainly by people who were dissatisfied, but did not quite know what they wanted. These were the people we had to show the way to: if we could not win them we could not win anyone. We should retain our communist identity inside the Labour Party ... until such time as the Labour Party became a Labour Party with a communist mind - and this could be done, for what we said today our Labour leaders would have to say tomorrow - and inscribed on the Labour Party banner the sickle and the hammer of the communist movement.
W Mellor asked those delegates who had not come with mandates that could not be broken again to look at this question without any heat, to look at it from the point of view of expediency. We were not a collection of Machiavellis. We were a collection of people who disliked the Labour Party, and had very grave doubts as to whether modern trade unionism was the thing we were particularly keen upon. But we were inside the capitalist system, inside every manifestation of that system, and one of those manifestations was parliament. The Labour Party - meaning thereby not the parliamentary Labour Party, but the federation of trade unions, socialist societies, local Labour Parties and cooperative societies - was a manifestation of the desire of the working class to take advantage of the parliamentary system.
It was a collection of the various aspects of the labour movement on its industrial or consuming side, coming together to express in a political way certain desires and aspirations. The desires and aspirations of the present labour movement were something of which he had nothing to say; they were miles behind the things that we were aiming at, but they were the things for which the people of this country were asking.
We had to recognise that the revolution would not come, unless we could get assent - not to our principles, but to our tactics - from the organised workers; that to be successful in our efforts to change society we must be in strategic positions ... if we as a Communist Party, beginning our career, cut ourselves off from the political expression of the labour movement of this country, without having examined whether the time had arrived to do so, we should rue the step ... our job was to see that any strategic position that was going was ours and that we were on the spot to get hold of it ... We must use every instrument there is ... we could not afford at the very beginning and creation of a revolutionary party in this country to lose the chance of taking advantage of every machine that the labour movement had created.
See Weekly Worker May 21 and 28.↩︎
A leading dockers’ union official and Independent Labour Party member.↩︎