Get to your posts!

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

The new CPGB emerged from its unity convention over July 31-August 1 1920 “warlike from head to foot”.1 It immediately plunged into the crucial international battle to counter British imperialism’s determined crusade to destroy the Soviet Republic.

A London Hands Off Russia committee had been formed on the initiative of pro-communist shop stewards in January 1919. This was quickly joined by other committees around the country, resulting in a national Hands Off Russia committee in the autumn. This committee was the pinnacle of a mass, militant movement. Its leadership brought together official representatives of substantial unions like the boilermakers, railway workers, engineers and miners, as well as the TUC’s parliamentary committee, in the form of AA Purcell, a founder-member of the CPGB.

There were three vice-presidents - Tom Mann (general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers), George Peet (secretary of the National Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement) and Willie Gallacher of the Clyde Workers Committee. All were CPGB founding members.

The Hands Off Russia campaign had scored a brilliant success when, on May 10 1920, it won dock and rail workers to block the loading of munitions onto the Jolly George - a supply ship for the counterrevolutionary Polish government’s military offensive again the new workers’ state.

Two months later, Britain was again threatening war, this time demanding that the Red Army cease all hostilities against Poland. The CPGB was born into this crucible of counterrevolutionary war and mass revolutionary struggle. The very first CPGB circular to branch secretaries (‘Threatened war against Russia’ - below) was issued over the signatures of Arthur MacManus and Albert Inkpin and was swiftly followed on August 7 with a call for the formation of councils of action. This was endorsed two days later at the first meeting of the CPGB’s Provisional Executive Committee. Hundreds of Hands Off Russia meetings were convened up and down the country; many passed resolutions in line with the CPGB’s position.

In this febrile atmosphere, the Labour Party executive and the TUC’s parliamentary committee (which included two CPGB members) met and agreed to confront the government with the threat of a general strike. To underline that this was no empty gesture, it set up a National Council of Action.

On August 13, 1,044 delegates met at Central Hall, Westminster. They demanded the immediate cessation of all British support for Poland and any other “efforts against the Soviet government”; the “withdrawal” of the navy blockade; the recognition of the Soviet government and the “establishment of unrestricted trading and commercial relationships between Great Britain and Russia”. Unsurprisingly, CPGB chair Arthur MacManus saw in all this the potential for insurrectionary developments. (See his ‘Towards revolution: our policy’ below.)

Faced with mass working class pressure, prime minister Lloyd George was forced to backtrack. War was stopped. An urgently needed respite for Soviet Russia had been won.

William Sarsfield

Threatened war against Russia

CPGB circular, August 5 1920

There is no need to remind you of the importance of saving Soviet Russia from the attacks of the capitalist governments. For nearly three years you have worked loyally and well to that end. Your efforts, according to their own admission, have paralysed the militarists’ attempts to crush our Russian comrades, for they realise how deeply Hands Off Russia propaganda has sunk into the minds of the workers.

But this is a supreme moment for action. War - definite, open, bloody war - in support of the Polish nationalists, is threatened against Russia ... Comrades, the government must be told in plain terms that the workers will not have war against Soviet Russia. It is our duty deliberately to advise the workers not only to refuse all service for that purpose, but to oppose it actively.

The Communist Party, in the first days of its existence, must be worthy of its mission. Let us rise to the height of a great occasion.

Call meetings ... Get in touch with organised workers ... and urge them immediately to notify the government that they will not make nor handle munitions, nor volunteer for service, nor be pressed into services, but will actively oppose, by a general strike, the threatened campaign.

Speak boldly and act quickly. Neglect nothing. On the shoulders of every individual member of the Communist Party rests the fate of Russia at this critical moment. Let every member, therefore, be a missionary for the salvation of Russia, lest we be branded with infamy of crushing by our apathy the first socialist republic, and our hopes and ideals at the same time l

Towards revolution: our policy

The decision [to form] a Council of Action and the granting to this Council of “full powers” to organise a general strike ... constitute a situation which must be examined and judged on its merits of revolutionary possibility.

Apart from the actual decision to prevent war by a general strike if need be, the general course adopted to arrive at this decision, and the path pursued, contain significant consequences, which are at once vital and important.

To decide to strike against war, or the threat or war, dismisses once and for all any further question as to the validity of industrial or direct action for political purposes, and relegates the bones of that skeleton in Labour’s cupboard to the political crematorium.

Again, the granting of power to the Council of Action to summon a strike immediately, should such be necessary, is not only, as JH Thomas put it, “a challenge to all constitutional institutions”, but - however little he may have dreamed it - it is a challenge to the constitutionalism of Labour itself. The unwarrantable insistence of a constitutional ballot before any industrial action could be adopted, which has in the past been well-nigh the strongest weapon in the armoury of capitalism, is, let us sincerely hope, also a thing of the past.

We must see to it that the working class tactics against capitalism in future are determined solely by the exigencies of the moment, and the possibilities of success, and not by any stale and crusted formulas which may have served labour a hundred years ago. The other feature - the challenge to capitalist institutions - is the first real ringing declaration of war against the power of our exploiters and oppressors, which has gone up from labours’ ranks.

On this score The Times rightly attaches the greatest importance, and it is tragically amusing to read that: “Any overt attempt to overthrow the constitution would be met with a firmness on the part of the great bulk of the people of this country that would bring our magniloquent revolutionaries to their senses.” And then to read almost immediately following that: “Most British citizens know as little of the constitution as of the composition of the air they breathe.”

Due attention is paid to the possibilities thus opened up to such a body as the Communist Party, and certain of our executive recommendations are quoted to show that we are alive to such possibilities. Well, they will not be disappointed. We see in the threatened war with Russia not only another military holocaust, but a deeply conspired imperialist attempt to crush the working class Republic of Russia.

Official Labour can rest assured of our support in this crisis, because the Communist Party is to the Republic of Russia flesh of its flesh and bone of its bone. We are not to be intimidated into a lukewarm support or pacifist shelter by the insidious references to the conditions in Russia and the policy of those whom we seek to support. The dictatorship of the proletariat has no terrors for us, in that - not being blinded by capitalist morality and sentiment - we can appreciate realities when such confront us, and we do know that capitalism will not allow the working class of this country to attain its economic emancipation unless compelled to do so by the organised might of that working class. That is the dictatorship so much decried - particularly by those who today dictate for capitalism.

The Communist Party has sent out several communications to its members, advising them as to policy and a general line of action. Its executive is apprehensive of all that is at stake, and of what is involved in the formation of the Councils of Action. We have sought for representation ... on the Council, but so far our efforts have met with a refusal. We intend to insist upon such representation - not as a successfully absorbed body, but as an independent and free unit, with equal right to advise and urge both as to policy and action. Meantime, our members are again strongly advised to get on to the local councils, not only as representing the local branch, but as delegates from their shops, unions, committees, etc.

The Councils may be called upon to function not only in controlling a strike, but constructively in efforts to maintain the strike. Any local construction must bear the hallmark of communism, and only the communists can stamp such an imprint. Labour will, and must, obviously in the interests of its own policy, endeavour to effect a consummation to the present decisions by the establishment of a Labour government. This is in their minds and the Councils of Action but the means to this end.

We must follow the developments very closely, and all the time keep strengthening our organisation and machinery to ensure that we shall be fit and prepared to take the fullest advantage of any opportunities which may present themselves. Our work is not for a political revolution with a Labour government, but a social revolution with administration by soviets or workers’ councils. Your local Councils of Action have potentialities which should be nourished and developed, and in the meantime we hope that all members will endeavour to act in uniformity with the executive policy, and thus ensure the greatest margin of success from this impasse.

Get to your posts! Keep there! And be prepared to respond to such advice as the situation at headquarters may warrant the offering. Our watchword for the present should be: ‘Be active, alert and ready’.

Arthur MacManus

  1. Trotsky’s evaluation of Leninism in his On Lenin.↩︎