Place for all communists
William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
While the 1st Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain (July 31-August 2 1920) brought together the British Socialist Party, the Communist Unity Group (which originated in Socialist Labour Party), the South Wales Communist Council and others, the job of pulling together a single CPGB was not yet complete. However, two facts immeasurably strengthened the case for unity.
First, like it or not, the new CPGB had arrived. It now existed as an important factor in national politics and had drawn into its ranks the most important revolutionary organisations (outside Scotland). This was a qualitative breakthrough; a chance to move beyond the heroic amateurism of the groups and make a real impact.
Second, this breakthrough did not just have the enthusiastic support of the Communist International from afar. The CI - with its vast authority - had played an active, hands-on role in the mergers, pressing the remaining recalcitrant British comrades on the urgent need for principled unity. Immediately following the CI’s Second Congress, its executive committee issued a new call for the merger of communists in Britain.
Still, however, there were revolutionary groups which held back - despite their declarations of loyalty to the CI - occasionally because of the petty proprietorial attitude of leaders: people who feared the loss of their specific ‘brand’.
Comintern, however, would have none of this. It correctly denounced these aloof, sectarian poses and demanded the calling of a second unity congress which would settle once more the urgent task of unity and the forging of the strongest possible CPGB. Targeted specifically was Sylvia Pankhurst’s ill-named organisation, the ‘Communist Party - British Section of the Third International’, as well as the Communist Labour Party (based on the shop stewards movement in Scotland), the Socialist Labour Party and the left wing of the Independent Labour Party.
Pankhurst’s group eventually accepted the position of the Comintern EC and attended the unity convention, as did the Communist Labour Party. The CLP also included former members of the Socialist Labour Party rump, which had refused to join the previous year.
The National Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement, born out of the wartime industrial struggles, was also present, along with the Left Wing group, whose comrades still thought they could win the ILP over to communism.
The items below from the CPGB’s weekly paper, The Communist, illustrate the new party’s patient and constructive attitude towards unity - and the eventual fruits of their labours in the form of the Leeds conference at the end of January 1921.
So, in all, nearly two years of often fraught negotiations were needed to make the CPGB a reality - from the first tentative talks in 1918, through the qualitative breakthrough represented by the London Unity Convention of July 31-August 2 1920 (ie, the CPGB’s first congress), to the Leeds Convention in late January 1921 (the second congress).
In the end, there were talented comrades still left outside the party, despite the calls from the new CPGB and the Communist International itself. The subsequent political and organisational degeneration of these isolated individuals and tiny sects underlined the fact that they had not simply stood versus this or that policy (eg, the affiliation to Labour controversy), but the tide of history itself.
Our revolutionary left today could (and should) learn volumes from the brave, patient comrades of the 1920s. The place to start would be with the simple maxim that the place for all communists is in a Communist Party. With principled unity such as this, the fight for communism and human liberation would be qualitatively advanced.
Thoughts about unity
November 25 1920
Why does the EC of the Communist International insist on a new unity conference? Because in the first place it is devoting its energies at present to the realisation in every country of the world of the principle laid down at the 2nd Congress - that one powerful Communist Party, or rather one section of the Communist International, and one only, should exist in each country.
Its efforts are causing at present a radical cleansing of the Italian Socialist Party; they are driving the French Socialist Party towards a definite break with its ambiguous and opportunist past; they have split the great Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany from top to bottom, and have created, with one hammer blow, the largest Communist Party in the world.
It is obvious that where the party allegiance of hundreds of thousands is being thrown into the melting pot elsewhere, the comrades at the centre of the International are justifiably impatient at what appear to them to be the petty squabbles, petty bickerings, petty regards for prestige, which keep the British communists divided into several groups. Secondly, while they recognise that, all things taken into consideration, our Communist Party is the ‘orthodox’ organisation for Britain, they insist that no stone must be left unturned, even at the expense of our own self-love, to bring onto the right track other elements that are not so orthodox, but nonetheless are sincere revolutionaries and genuinely devoted to the cause of communism.
To quote Zinoviev, “We have to fight against both right and left, but not at all in the same way or with the same methods.” The first are our class enemies, with whom there can be no compromise; the second are ‘communists of tomorrow’, who only mistakenly call themselves ‘left’, because they do not understand that nothing can be more ‘left’ than communism. In Bukharin’s words, “If there are only 30 of them and you bring them in, it will be worthwhile.”
In this respect, of course, we at any rate are under no illusions as to the numbers in question. The problem, however, is one not of numbers, but of principles.
February 5 1921
One hundred and seventy delegates representing the branches of the Communist Party (BSTI), and various independent communist groups assembled at the Victory Hotel, Leeds, on Saturday and Sunday, with the object of merging the various organisations into a united Communist Party.
Jack Tanner (National Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement) was voted to the chair. Certain preliminary matters, such as the appointment of a standing orders committee, having been disposed of, the chairman briefly addressed the delegates, telling them they were assembled to carry out the first duty to the international communist movement and to the working class of Britain in particular. They were proposing to bring about a united Communist Party. The work of the conference was to construct a machine, and there should be no question in the mind of any delegate as to what the purpose of that machine was. It must be constructed to carry on an intensive and ruthless fight against capitalism and reaction wherever they manifested themselves.
This was probably the most important task that the revolutionary movement in this country had yet to face, and he trusted delegates would concentrate as never before their efforts on the task before them. The conference would be an index from which comrades in all parts of the world would be able to judge the earnestness, determination and understanding of the communist movement in this country.
JV Leckie (CLP) moved the adoption of the Unity Committee’s report, taking the occasion to speak of the position of the CLP. T Watkins (CP-BSTI) seconded the resolution. As representative of his party he would say they had been actuated throughout with the spirit of unity that was necessary to make the conference a success. A MacManus (CPGB) supported the resolution. He said that his party had to all intents and purposes wound up its affairs; its members would be party to any decisions arrived at by the present conference.
The resolution was then put and carried, and, on the suggestion of the chairman, certain other matters of a rather formal nature were included in it. GH Brown (fraternal delegate from the Left Wing of the ILP) then conveyed hearty greetings from the communists he represented to the conference. He said that a fortnight or three weeks ago the national committee of the Unity Convention Arrangements Committee had carried a resolution that the left wing should continue to work inside the [Independent] Labour Party until Easter, and that if then the communists lost on the floor of the conference at Southport, they should come for advice to the executive committee of the united Communist Party. If that advice should be to the effect that the left wing should leave the ILP and come into the Communist Party, he, along with a great many others, were determined to take that advice.
JT Murphy (fraternal delegate from the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committees) said that he wanted to do more than merely welcome the congress: he wanted this to be the introduction to the practical task which the Communist Party had before it in relation to the rest of the movement in this country. The NAC of the shop stewards’ movement had played an important part in the negotiations which had culminated in the present conference, yet the movement itself was not in the same category as a political party, but embraced workers who were not communists.
The fact that the NAC of the shop stewards had played the part it had done with regard to the development of the Communist Party arose out of the fact that the movement had come into being as a result of the revolutionary impulses which had been given to the industrial movement. Revolutionists had dominated the situation throughout, and now practically every member of the national committee of the shop stewards was a member of some Communist Party.
It was because the national committee was of the character it was that it was possible for it to play the part it had done in helping on the negotiations for the development of a united Communist Party. It would stress the necessity for its active members to join the Communist Party and reciprocally would expect all industrial workers who were members of the Communist Party to participate in the work of the shop stewards’ movement. Many people who did not understand communism were being impelled to move in that direction, and it was our duty, while clearly organising our own party, to see that we harmonised on every point we could all those tendencies in a revolutionary direction, which manifested themselves inside the workshop ...
When the congress reassembled in the afternoon, the first business before it was the resolution to merge the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Communist Labour Party, the Communist Party (BSTI) and the independent communist groups represented at the congress into a united Communist Party. William Gallagher (CLP) moved this resolution. He said there had been numerous delegates from Britain at the Moscow conference, but the British communists there had not made a creditable display. Each section had seemed more anxious to impress the congress with its own revolutionary fervour than to get together with the other sections and do something really valuable.
Thus the unfortunate position had been arrived at where the executive committee of the Communist International had been obliged to take matters out of the hands of the British delegation, and make arrangements for bringing the communists of this country together and getting a definite and well organised party started. We had failed in the past because so many of us had been too concerned with personalities rather than with principles; but from now onwards the one thing that must count was the world movement.
William Paul (CPGB) seconded the resolution, saying that at that conference we had forged a weapon which we were going to use in the near future in order to upset and eliminate the capitalist class. We thanked our comrades in Moscow for showing us that not only could communists fight successfully in the industrial battlefield, but for showing mental courage in the realms of international policy and social reconstruction. On the battlefield the Russian communists had shown a heroism outshining that of any army ever raised in the past.
A lengthy discussion was naturally anticipated by some, but the general feeling of the Congress was that further speech upon this resolution was unnecessary. It was agreed that the vote be taken at once; the whole assembly rose, sang the Internationale and cheered; and, the vote then being formally taken, the resolution was carried unanimously with renewed applause.
Then came the most dramatic moment of the conference. From the chair it was announced that comrade Friis, a fraternal delegate from the executive of the Third International and representing also the Norwegian comrades, had arrived in Leeds despite the fact that a passport had been refused him. Friis immediately mounted the platform and was greeted by a volley of cheers and the singing of the Internationale, then, after he had spoken in terse, effective sentences of admirable English, he left the hall, and, by the way he came, set out again to Norway.
He said: “I come here in a double capacity. First at the instruction of the executive of the Communist International. From it, I carry hearty greetings and congratulations. I come also as a delegate from the Norwegian party to offer fraternal salutations. The fact that I’m here is a proof of our determination to defy and our ability to overcome bourgeois laws and regulations. This movement of ours has friends at every frontier, comrades on every ship, helpers at every station. By your resolution you have become a living link with the revolutionary movement all over the world - with Moscow and Norway.”
As he left the hall at the end of his speech, Friis was again given an ovation, and again the Internationale was sung.