Supporting the Labour Party
William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
How communists should evaluate and interact with the Labour Party was a controversial issue even before the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain.1
On August 1 1920, the 1st CPGB Congress voted narrowly to seek affiliation to Labour. However, our application was rejected by the Labour Party’s national executive six weeks later.
William Paul - a comrade who had spoken against affiliation at the inaugural congress - was given the important post of CPGB delegate to the Communist International. This gave him the opportunity to discuss with Lenin face to face the pivotal issue of how communists in Britain could best tackle the job of overcoming Labourism. We reproduce here comrade Paul’s account of their exchange, which was originally published in the CPGB’s weekly paper, The Communist.
Today’s left - including those who claim some relationship to ‘Marxism’, as they define it - often peddle a variety of myths and misunderstandings about Lenin’s advice to vote Labour and his urging the young CPGB to seek affiliation. This report of the discussion between comrade Paul and Lenin is historically specific in terms of tactics, but the core principle is made crystal-clear - the need to build a mass Communist Party, even if this entailed the onerous task of “contact with groups and organisations which are bitterly opposed to it”, as Lenin underlined.
Lenin on tactics
December 2 1920
Lenin proceeded to discuss the attitude of the Communist Party towards the Labour Party in view of the much talked of forthcoming general election. His views on the subject showed that he abhors the type of revolutionary who has a canalised or single-track mind.
Lenin looks upon every weapon as necessary in the conflict with capitalism. To him, as a good student of old Dietzgen, every weapon, every policy and every problem must be examined in terms of its relations to the needs of the moment and the means at our disposal.2 This explains why he does not go out of his way to extol one particular weapon. He clearly realises the value of revolutionary parliamentary action, but he also understands its limitations as a constructive power in the creation of a workers’ industrial republic. To Lenin the test of the real revolutionary communist is to know when to use a given weapon and when to discard it.
Talking on the Labour Party, Lenin said he was very glad to learn that it had refused to accept the affiliation application of the Communist Party. It was a good move to have applied for affiliation, because the refusal of the Labour Party to accept communists in its ranks showed the masses exactly where the Labour Party stood. Henderson had thus unwittingly paid a great tribute to the growing power of revolutionary communism in Britain by being afraid to have aggressive communists in his organisation;3 and the Labour Party, by its own action, in turning down the Communist Party, had plainly indicated that there was at last a fighting group in Britain which had attracted good mass fighters to its ranks.
Of course, continued Lenin, we must not forget that the Communist Party in its application for affiliation to the Labour Party very frankly put forward certain conditions which would have given it full freedom of action to conduct its own policy in its own way ...
In this respect the Communist Party’s attitude in applying to the Labour Party for admission to its ranks differed, most fundamentally, from such organisations as the Independent Labour Party and British Socialist Party, which formally accepted the Labour Party’s constitution and policy. The strong stand taken up by the Communist Party, in seeking affiliation with the Labour Party, was no doubt arrived at as a result of the BSP policy sharpened by the militant elements expelled from the Socialist Labour Party.
It was a good omen for the future that these two groups were able to come together. And it was a good thing that the ex-SLP men, who were so keen against affiliation with the Labour Party, realised the value of revolutionary discipline by refusing to split the new party because their own position had not been accepted. Likewise, when the Labour Party threw out the request for affiliation, it was the BSP element that was tested and it stood firm. To have passed through two such severe trials and to have maintained the solidarity of the organisation was a tribute to the seriousness of the comrades who had formed the Communist Party.
Lenin passed on to review the political situation in Britain. The next general election would be of paramount importance, and the communists ought to play a most important part in it. As Lenin favoured the policy of supporting the Labour Party, in order to assist it to capture political power - this subject was thrashed out in detail. Lenin advises the communists to help the Labour Party to get a majority at the next election in order to facilitate the general decadence of the parliamentary system. Already, he reasoned, there are thousands of people in Britain who feel that the parliamentary system of social representation cannot solve the problems which history has placed before it. These people had become discontented and disillusioned regarding the parliamentary system of social control as a result of the inability of that machine to cope with the vital tasks of modern society.
In other words, the passage of events was providing a series of concrete experiences which were educating the masses regarding the general breakdown of capitalism in the sphere of social representation. The toiling masses always learnt their political lessons by undergoing concrete experiences. The task of the revolutionary communist is not only to preach his Marxist theories: he must prove that his theories are correct by compelling his opponents to act in such a way that they provide the practical lessons which enable the communist to test his theories before the eyes of the masses. The test of Marxist and communist theory is experience.
How then can the communists of England prove to the workers that the parliamentary machine has broken down and can no longer serve them or the interests of their class? ... Since the armistice, Lloyd George, Churchill, Bonar Law and co have had an opportunity to demonstrate what they could do, and their reign of office has been one trail of disasters, so far as the workers are concerned. The Labour Party solemnly assures the masses that they could solve the problems confronting society if once they were in control of the governmental machine.
So far as Henderson, Thomas4 and the Labour Party are concerned, they only differ from Lloyd George in that they have never had an opportunity to control the government. Knowing as we do that Henderson, MacDonald and their followers cannot solve the immediate problems confronting the masses through the parliamentary machine, we ought to prove the correctness of our theory by giving the Labour Party a chance to prove that we are correct.
The return of the Labour Party to power will accelerate the inevitable collapse of the parliamentary system, and this will provide the concrete experiences which will ultimately drive the masses towards communism and the soviet solution to the modern problems. For these reasons the communists in Britain ought to support the Labour Party at the next election in order to help it to bring on, ever faster, the crisis which will ultimately overwhelm it.
At this point I interposed, and said that if the Communist Party officially assisted the Labour Party to capture political power in order to precipitate a crisis, it was just possible that the indignant masses, remembering that we had urged them to vote for the Labour Party, might sweep us away too, when the social crash took place. Lenin pondered over this for a moment, and said that the Communist Party, in assisting the Labour Party to capture the government, must make its own case very clear to the masses. He then advanced the following argument which he pressed forward very strongly, and which he wishes the Communist Party to discuss.
He said the Communist Party could easily help the Labour Party to power and at the same time keep its own weapon clean. At the forthcoming elections the Communist Party ought to contest as many seats as possible, but where it could not put up a candidate it ought to issue a manifesto in every constituency challenged by the Labour Party, urging the workers to vote for the Labour candidate. The manifesto should frankly state that the Communist Party is most emphatically opposed to the Labour Party, but asks it to be supported in order that Henderson, MacDonald and co may demonstrate to the masses their sheer helplessness.
We discussed this problem for some time and viewed it from many angles. I kept raising many points against Lenin’s position until at last he, no doubt scenting a good dialectical duel, challenged me to debate the whole matter in the columns of The Communist. I readily assented to this, and asked him when he would have his first contribution ready. He looked round sadly at the mountains of work - work involving the solution of international problems - piled up in front of him. I at once said I would write up his case for the press, as I have done above. To this suggestion he heartily agreed.
I know, said Lenin, that it may seem awful to young and inexperienced communists to have any relations with the Labour Party, whose policy of opportunism is more dangerous to the masses than that of consistent and openly avowed enemies like Winston Churchill. But if the Communist Party intends to secure and wield power it will be compelled to come into contact with groups and organisations which are bitterly opposed to it. And it will have to learn how to negotiate and deal with them. Here in Russia we have been forced by circumstances to discuss and make arrangements with elements which would hang us if they got the chance. Have we not even entered into alliances and compacts with governments whose very hands reeked with the blood of our murdered communist comrades?
Why have we entered into such contracts and adopted such a policy? It is because we are realists and not utopians. It is because, at present, international capitalism is more powerful than we are. Every move, each treaty and all our negotiations with capitalist states are but one side of the Russian soviet government’s policy to conserve its strength in order to consolidate its power. Learn to meet your enemies and be not afraid. It tests your strength, it creates experiences, it judges the character of your members. And you may find that your most embittered critics are not in the camp of the enemy, but are the shallow doctrinaires, to whom revolutionary socialism is a mere manual of phrases instead of a guide to action.
While we were talking, Lenin was continually interrupted by the arrival of cables, despatches and messages. He was frequently called to the phone. Despite these things he could return quite serenely to the point under discussion. I confess that I was slightly agitated when entering the Kremlin: bad news had arrived from the various fronts. Poland was acting strangely at the Riga conference; France had been indulging in one of her bullying outbursts; and Finland was on the point of signing peace. All these things, I imagined, would make it impossible for Lenin to settle down and have a quiet talk on the various details of the movement, upon which I was anxious to have his opinion. When I entered the room, he was courteous, cool and tranquil. He eagerly entered into a discussion of many points on communist tactics, which, to some people, might have seemed almost trivial.
After having had a talk with Lenin, it is easy to understand why his quiet and humorous style fails to impress middle class intellectuals. People like Bertrand Russell are in the habit of meeting pompous bourgeois thinkers whose ideas on social theories are so incoherent and vague that they can only express themselves with great difficulty. This ponderous and floundering method of struggling to deliver an idea is in certain quarters mistaken for mental ability. Lenin, on the other hand, sees problems so clearly and is able to explain himself with such clarity and simplicity that his conclusions seem to be the obvious deductions, at which anyone would inevitably arrive.
See ‘Unity convention’ Weekly Worker April 9 2020.↩︎
Peter Josef Dietzgen was a German socialist philosopher, Marxist and journalist. Marx held him in some esteem as a thinker and a friend. He praised Dietzgen’s theory of dialectical materialism in the second edition of the first volume of Das Kapital.↩︎
Arthur Henderson had been Labour leader until he lost his seat in 1918. However, having won a by-election the following year, he was appointed chief whip - the post he still held at the time this article was published.↩︎
JH Thomas was a former union leader and Labour MP, who was to be appointed secretary of state for the colonies in the first Labour government of 1924.↩︎