Not just British
Jack Conrad celebrates the internationalism that provides the foundations of our party
Without doubt the formation of the CPGB over the weekend of July 31-August 1 1920 was one of the most important achievements of the working class movement in Britain. True, the CPGB was never a mass organisation. At its numerical peak it counted perhaps 45,000 members within its ranks. Nothing, in that sense, compared to Chartism, the trade unions, the cooperative movement or the Labour Party. Even in terms of the Communist, Third, International, the CPGB was small fry. On mainland Europe the communist parties in Germany, Italy, France and Czechoslovakia neared, matched or overtook official social democracy.
However, the significance of the CPGB lies not in crude numbers, nor for that matter the later slavish attitude of its leadership towards the diplomatic needs and requirements of Stalin’s regime in the USSR, and then the complete collapse of its many and various opportunist factions into crass economism and outright reformism.
No, we can locate a five-fold significance of the CPGB:
- Firstly, its internationalism: the CPGB was the British section of Comintern, the International Communist Party.
- Secondly, politically and organisationally the CPGB aspired to learn from and emulate Russia’s Bolsheviks, hence the holding of soviets, the dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic centralism as core principles.
- Thirdly, despite its relatively small size, because of its discipline and global links and chains of command, the CPGB exerted a hugely disproportionate influence over the workers’ movement in Britain.
- Fourthly, the CPGB of 1920-21 was the result of a whole series of splits and fusions.
- Fifthly, as championed by the current Provisional Central Committee, the formation of the CPGB tells today’s generation of leftwing activists what they could immediately achieve if they broke with movementism, identity politics, tailing left careerists and/or the stifling politics of the confessional sects.
Splits and fusions
The prehistory of the CPGB dates from the formation of the Democratic Federation in June 1881. Led by Henry Mayers Hyndman, it became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. Hyndman was a rather peculiar fellow. Son of a wealthy businessman, Hyndman lived the good life and dabbled a little with journalism before reading the Communist manifesto on an ocean trip to the United States. This is what persuaded him to found and finance an explicitly socialist organisation.
Not that either Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels took him particularly seriously. Indeed, they were damning. Hyndman authored the highly successful England for all (1881) - a book which included two chapters on labour and capital which transparently borrowed from Marx’s theories. Marx was annoyed, to say the least: he went totally uncredited. But Marx admitted England for all made good propaganda. What really concerned the Marx-Engels team though was that Hyndman appeared intent on building a confessional sect. In 1891 Engels included the SDF amongst those Anglo-Saxon people,
who, more or less, have the correct theory as to the dogmatic side of it, become a mere sect because they cannot conceive that living theory of action, of working with the working class at every possible stage of its development, otherwise than a collection of dogmas to be learnt by heart and recited like a formula or a Catholic prayer.1
Despite that withering assessment, the SDF counted William Morris, George Lansbury, James Connolly, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx amongst its members (well, at least for a time).
Hyndman’s ideas were highly eclectic and his style of leadership autocratic. Hyndman put electoral work at the centre of his strategy for socialism. And in that spirit willingly did deals with the Tories against the Liberals and consistently opposed trade unions and strikes as a diversion from socialist education. It should also be noted that, not untypical of his time, Hyndman adhered to the socialism of fools. Though he opposed the Boer War, albeit in a rather desultory manner, he blamed “Jewish financial cliques and their hangers on” for the conflict.2 This was vigorously opposed by SDF members such as Theodore Rothstein and Zelda Kahan (unsurprisingly with the full backing of the SDF’s substantial Jewish membership in London’s East End).
All this led to repeated resignations and splits: most notably the Socialist League (1884), Socialist Labour Party (1903), Socialist Party of Great Britain (1904). Nonetheless, the SDF grew in fits and starts; it had some notable success in organising unemployed workers’ protests and sunk real organisational roots in London and the industrial towns and cities of northern England.
In 1911 the Socialist Unity conference brought together the SDF, the left wing of the Independent Labour Party, supporters of The Clarion journal and a dozen or two local socialist societies. Together they formed the British Socialist Party.3 Membership claims were highly exaggerated: rather than 9,000, it is more likely that the BSP had around a thousand. Despite that, the idea of socialism gained real traction. Amongst middle class radicals and working class militants, socialism became a sort of common sense.
However, still under the domination of Hyndman, the BSP took a social chauvinist position with the outbreak of World War I. Hyndman “applauded” the Germans, “Karl Liebknecht, Mehring, Ledebour, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Bernstein” because of their opposition to Prussianised Germany.4 However, that went hand-in-hand with backing victory for the British-French-Russian triple alliance. Thankfully, there existed a strong and growing left opposition, led by amongst others Zelda Kahan, Albert Inkpin and Alf Watts. Basically, they adhered to the social pacifistic position of the September 1915 Zimmerwald conference, as drafted by Leon Trotsky: eg, peace without annexations. Lenin’s intransigent demand for revolutionary defeatism and turning imperialist war into a civil war for socialism constituted the minority position.
Under the banner of opposing the ongoing imperialist war, the BSP’s left published a highly effective opposition paper, The Call. Given the theoretical foundations provided by the Marx-Engels team, the conference debates and resolutions of the Second International and under the acute conditions provided by war and the palpable possibilities of global socialist revolution, the best militants of the BSP willingly thought, rethought and thought again.
In Easter 1916 Hyndman and his ‘old guard’ were soundly defeated. He walked, forming the aptly named National Socialist Party. Under its new, internationalist, executive committee, BSP members played a leading role in the shop stewards movement, carried out tireless anti-war agitation and, naturally, celebrated first the February and then the October revolution in Russia.
The BSP initiated the Hands off Russia campaign and its conference delegates overwhelmingly supported affiliation to Comintern. Certainly, the BSP was the most consistent, most determined component of moves towards forming the CPGB. Over the years 1919-21 this involved often tortuous negotiations with the SLP, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation and a whole range of locally based organisations, such as the South Wales Socialist Society. All were, at least formally, committed to soviet power, the dictatorship of the proletariat and forming a Communist Party.
However, two issues in particular proved divisive: standing in parliamentary elections and affiliation to the Labour Party. The BSP had a long history of contesting elections, had successfully affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916 and, not least thanks to Lenin’s urgings, wanted a new CPGB to follow suit.
The Workers’ Socialist Federation began as the Women’s Suffrage Federation - a left split from the Women’s Social and Political Union run by Sylvia’s mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel. Whereas the WSPU was middle class, terroristic and increasingly seen to be against the male sex as such, Sylvia Pankhurst fought for universal suffrage: ie, for unenfranchised men as well as women. The WSF did sterling work in the Hands off Russia campaign, being in no small measure responsible for the Jolly George strike in May 1920 - the ship was to carry arms to Poland for its counterrevolutionary war against Soviet Russia. This led to a TUC threat of a general strike to stop British involvement.
However, for the WSF, parliamentary elections were a terrible trap to be avoided like the plague. Labour MPs who acted hand-in-glove with the Liberal Party provided ample proof of parliamentary corruption, seduction and incorporation. On the basis of guilt by association, Pankhurst denounced the BSP with a passion. She branded them rightwing communists. It should also be pointed out that Pankhurst almost owned the WSF. Its paper, the Workers’ Dreadnought was under her personal control.
The SLP did not oppose standing in elections, but was, in its origins, essentially syndicalist: inspiration was found in the ideas of Daniel De Leon. Affiliation to the Labour Party was therefore an anathema. The main focus for the SLP was the shop stewards movement and the organisation of educational classes.
Suffice to say - not least with a series of pointed interventions by Lenin, especially his ‘Leftwing’ communism - both the SLP and WSF were successfully split. The Communist Unity Group announced itself under the leadership of William Paul, Tom Bell and Arthur MacManus. The majority of the WSF - by 1920 grandly, and falsely, calling itself the ‘Communist Party (British section of the Third International)’ - broke with Pankhurst. Strangely, sadly, via anti-fascism, Pankhurst ended up as an acolyte of the feudal Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. She died in Addis Ababa in September 1960 aged 78.
The Unity Convention of July 31-August 1 1920 in essence brought together the BSP and the CUG. Standing in elections was debated, though it was never much of an issue of contention between the two groups. In reality, it was a proxy debate with the absent CP (BSTI) … and the syndicalists in the shop stewards movement. The vote was a crushing 186 to 19 in favour of contesting elections.
When it came to the question of Labour Party affiliation, the vote proved surprisingly narrow: 100 to 85. Nonetheless, delegates had agreed before the convention to abide by majority votes. The newly elected Central Committee duly wrote to the Labour Party requesting affiliation. Unsurprisingly Labour flatly rejected the CPGB (despite the BSP being an affiliated organisation). This was subsequently used, of course, by the CPGB to expose the actual class character of Labour Party’s leadership before the whole workers’ movement.
The process of communist unity was continued at the January 1921 Leeds convention. This brought in Willie Gallacher’s Communist Labour Party (formed in Scotland from leading activists in the shop stewards movement and a few small groupings), some SLP branches, the CP (BSTI) and the Left Wing Group of the ILP. While the LWG of the ILP decided not to join the CPGB for the moment, that changed just a few months later.
After the ILP’s March 1921 conference several hundred left to join the CPGB. They included Helen Crawfurd, Charles Barber and Shapurji Saklatvala. The LWG opposed the ILP’s affiliation to the so-called Two-and-a-half International and wanted it to look instead to Comintern. But the right, including the left-talking right, outmanoeuvred them. The LWG was accused of ignoring British national conditions and mindlessly wanting to ape the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks.
Ramsay MacDonald in particular attacked Soviet Russia over Georgia. The Menshevik regime in Tbilisi – first a vassal of German imperialism and then British imperialism - was overthrown in February-March 1921 by the Red Army. Resorting to a cheap piece of theatrics, MacDonald had arranged for a telegram to be handed to him towards the end of his speech: his old friend, Noe Ramishvili, president of the Georgian Mensheviks had been shot on the orders of the Bolsheviks (gasps in the conference hall). A bare-faced lie: Ramishvili was alive and well and living in Paris.
But the trick worked. The leadership’s refusal to accept the Communist International’s 21 terms and conditions was agreed by 521 to 97 votes. Inevitably, as predicted by the LWG, the ILP, as with other centrists, soon found its way back into the Second International - and unity with the now openly pro-capitalist right.
The years 1920-21 saw the unification of a whole range of different revolutionary groups, trends and societies into a single Communist Party. That unity produced far more than the mere sum of its parts. Not least because of the CPGB’s affiliation to Comintern, it was unity around a global strategy and a definite set of revolutionary tactics. The CPGB therefore put before the working class in Britain a clear alternative to the Labour Party’s social chauvinism and the ILP’s fake leftism. So the formation of the CPGB had nothing to do with unity for the sake of unity, or unity on a lowest-common-denominator basis.
Those in the forefront of the fight for unity did not begin ‘where’ the BSP, SLP, WSF ‘were at’: ie, social pacifism, syndicalism, sectarian dogmatism. They unashamedly sought to learn from the best: ie, the Bolsheviks. Naturally, the model provided by the Bolsheviks was to be adapted to British conditions, just as the Bolsheviks adapted the model provided by the Social Democratic Party of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky to Russian conditions.
But the model was there. Consequently the CPGB boldly committed itself to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The CPGB would use all available legal opportunities, but the party did not consider itself loyal to the existing constitution - it would conduct illegal work whenever necessary. The CPGB would debate different assessments and opinions, but unite as one in agreed actions; it would be a party of disciplined activists, not a party in which half the membership do not even pay dues and do not bother to attend meetings.
Clearly the process of unification was long and difficult. It involved many comrades having to break old friendships and old habits. Small groups often breed still smaller groups through essentially trivial splits. However, often through the same process, small groups create close personal bonds between comrades. This is perfectly understandable and in its own way quite admirable. However, in forging a single Communist Party, group loyalties had to be superseded and replaced by higher, party, loyalties.
True, this applied to the SLP, CP (BSTI) and the LWG more than the BSP. But there is another side to the story. Those who might well have been regarded as frightful opponents, bitter factional enemies or dismissed as little better than cranks had to be encouraged to join, welcomed as members with equal rights and duties. That must have been a difficult pill for some to swallow. But it was done.
James Klugmann, the antiquarian of ‘official communism’, writes that the CPGB was “not in any sense a foreign creation”.5 He said this in 1968 and the statement testifies to a far advanced nationalist and opportunist degeneration. Hence the British road to socialism and subsequent Britain’s road to socialism programmes.
In fact, the original CPGB was very much a foreign creation. Marxism is by definition internationalist, not nationalist, nor is it in any way insular or parochial. Hardly for nothing, the Communist manifesto ends with the battle cry, “Working men of all countries, unite!” Nowadays we would simply say “Workers of the world, unite!” Suffice to say, the original CPGB did its best to unite Marxist theory with Marxist practice.
Alongside classical British political economy, British Chartism ought, perhaps, to be counted as one of the main sources and component parts of Marxism. After all, the Chartists were the world’s first working class party and had an unmistakable impact on the young Friedrich Engels. The other two sources and component parts of Marxism are, though, most certainly “a foreign creation”: ie, French socialism and classical German philosophy. True, Marx and Engels spent most of their lives in Britain, but they retained very close links and relationships with the politics of their native land. They were not, however, mere Germans; they were, to use a phrase, citizens of the world, cosmopolitans.
No less to the point, the CPGB, in terms of its pre-history, was very much the product of the Second International and its Marxist majority, as shown by conference resolutions on universal male and female suffrage, war and peace, using parliament to make propaganda and building organisationally, the free movement of people, non-participation of socialists in capitalist governments, rejection of reformist gradualism, opposition to colonialism, etc.
The Bolsheviks were themselves an important element in the Second International. Lenin was elected to the International Socialist Bureau in 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1911. In 1912 the Bolshevik delegation voted for the pro-party Menshevik, Georgi Plekhanov. Of course, it was not only the towering example of the October Revolution that inspired socialists in Britain (and across the globe). Beginning in 1914, the Bolsheviks took the lead in calling for and organising the Third, Communist, International. Lenin in particular spent some considerable time and energy in reaching out to leftwingers in Britain and trying to persuade them to form a united Communist Party. During the course of Comintern’s 2nd Congress he personally singled out and spoke to Willie Gallacher and Sylvia Pankhurst. He was successful with Gallacher, unsuccessful with Pankhurst. There is also his ‘Leftwing’ communism (1920), which had a profound impact on the unification process of 1920-21. There were his articles, speeches and letters too.
It is doubtless true that the CPGB is the heir to a long tradition in Britain that can be traced back to the Corresponding Societies, set up by the revolutionary democrats of the 1790s, and the physical force wing of Chartism of the 1830s and 40s. But the “foreign” influence is far more important because the CPGB was, at least in its origins, internationalist, not nationalist.
As our Draft programme says,
The CPGB stands on the principles of proletarian internationalism. It is a proletarian-internationalist duty for communists to make revolution in their own country. However, the struggle for socialism in Britain is subordinated to the struggle for world revolution. Proletarian internationalism renders it compulsory for the interests of the workers’ struggle in one country to be subordinated to the interests of that struggle on a world scale.
Understanding the unity of the interests and aims of the world working class does not arise spontaneously within the national workers’ movement. The CPGB has to conscientiously imbue the working class struggle with the ideas of proletarian internationalism and uncompromisingly fight against nationalism. The CPGB sees it as its duty to fight against any trend which harms the unity of the world’s working class around communism. We are well aware of the connection between nationalism and opportunism and revisionism.
The CPGB believes that the world proletariat needs a world strategy and world organisation. Without a world communist party the working class is weakened and lacks coordination. The CPGB will do all in its power to rectify this situation.6
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York 2001, p186.↩︎
M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p159.↩︎
See M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, pp222-37.↩︎
H Hyndman The future of democracy London 1915, p20.↩︎
J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, p70.↩︎
CPGB Draft programme London 2011, p51.↩︎