Up the CPGB Bolshies
William Sarsfield concludes his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
The CPGB entered its first parliamentary battle in the Caerphilly by-election of August 1921. We have featured the official election address of the party in a previous instalment of this series,1 but the sketch of the campaign in south Wales below conveys the rough and ready improvisation, the camaraderie, the huge expenditure of effort, the dedication and tremendous joy that clearly animated the Caerphilly “Bolshies”, as they dubbed themselves.
They were going into a three-cornered fight between communist, Labour and Coalition (the Tory-Liberal government) candidates, occasioned by the death of Alfred Onions, a rightwing Labour MP and official of the South Wales Miners Federation.
The campaign was lively, as comrade Jackson vividly describes below. The CPGB’s agent was refused election documents and a copy of the electoral register by the local council clerk. Bob Stewart, our candidate, was still in prison for his part in a miners’ demonstration and was only released part way through the campaign. A welcome boost came when the whole local Labour Party committee in the nearby village of Bedlinog resigned and pledged to work for the CPGB.
However, Labour held the seat with 13,699 votes, while the Coalition polled 8,958 and the CPGB got off the mark with a respectable 2,592. In the general election a year later, our party scored much bigger successes, with the election of two communist MPs who would take the class struggle to the heart of the bourgeois parliament.
In this, the final article in our series on the CPGB’s centenary, we republish the following account of the battle, penned by TA Jackson in the party’s weekly paper, The Communist.
Red raid on Caerphilly!
The Communist September 3 1921
To write the story of the Caerphilly by-election is not easy. The stage is too crowded, the issues too vast, and the upshot too complex to permit a description in a few cold or flaming words. Those who viewed it from a distance will see in it nothing but an arithmetical proportion of voters, and a majority for the official Labour candidate. Those who were in it and through it will remember it for long as the ‘Red Raid on Caerphilly’ - the raid which made the valleys of East Glamorgan ring with the shouts of ‘Up the rebels!’ and which taught the children in the streets to sing at their play ‘We’ll keep the red flag flying here!’
Having no machinery, we had to take to the streets. When there was a place to hold a meeting. we held one – and, when the ‘Boys of the Bolshie Breed’ hold a meeting in a proletarian quarter, the result is a foregone conclusion. Before the election campaign we had some 20 communist voters in the division. At the ‘showdown’ - after the Coalition had carted up in their 80 cars every reactionary whom the fear of the red flag had terrified into unwanted exertion and after the Labour Party had bullied, cajoled, whined and wheedled, finishing with the frenzied SOS, “Don’t let the Coalition in!” - we had roused and rallied 2,592 votes for communism and the slogan, ‘All power to the workers’.
With a month to work in and a straight fight against either of them, the Communist Party would have swept the deck clean of everything opposed to it.
When I say that we triumphed in the streets, I state what is obvious in the result. The Coalition had their press, the Labour Party, the chapels and Co-op halls, to make propaganda in. Except for the two Sundays over which the campaign extended - on each of which we held indoor meetings - the whole of our work was done in the open. A little canvassing was done - necessarily very little from the size of the area to be covered and the want of the requisite number of canvassers. Those we had worked like cart-horses with splendid effect; but they were swamped in the flood the Labour crowds were able to mobilise. The Coalition meanwhile conserved their strength in the bourgeois quarters.
So enthusiastic and apparently unanimous were the cheers that greeted our speakers that quite a number of proletarians conceived the notion that Bob Stewart was as good as elected. Their enthusiasm, carried into the pit, was contagious and our audiences swelled to enormous dimensions. And, however big might be the great gun on the Labour platform when our boys had to speak in competition with them, it was the rarest of rare things for our audience to be the smaller. As for the Coalition, they abandoned the streets altogether, so furious was the storm of proletarian contempt roused by their efforts.
While it was wrong to interpret this oratorical success as a portent of electoral triumph, it would be absurd to write it off as of no importance. In point of fact, it was the outstanding fact of the election. That ‘Bolshevik’ speakers would venture into the open at all was sensation enough. That they should, without waiting to be accused, boldly adopt the title as a badge of honour and go on to hold their own with anything and everything in the nature of argument, opposition and interruption was, to many, simply astounding. Crowds came, first of all out of sheer curiosity; they remained from interest and returned night after night with intensifying enthusiasm.
The official Labour speakers, and in a lesser degree those of the Coalition, were well known by repute. Those of the Communist Party were unknown men - except in a few cases, and those known only to a few of the Independent Labour Party. Before the election closed the Communist Party speakers had earned on all sides the repute of the finest team of speakers ever sent into an election. And those who knew all of them intimately agreed that each one of them excelled himself - and when a team that includes, to name only a few of the better known, William Paul, William Gallacher, Helen Crawford, Joe Vaughan, Bert Joy, Walter Newbold, Harry Webb, Arthur MacManus and the candidate, Bob Stewart himself - when these and others like them excel themselves, only those who know them at their best can imagine the sort of meetings to which Caerphilly was treated.
I record for what it is worth the opinion of a not unfriendly journalist, with whom I fraternised during a thirst spell: “Your members are too good; and they are doing their work too well. They are smashing up whatever chance the Coalition crowd had of working the patriotic stunt, and at the same time these are creating a real fear that the Coalition will slip on a split vote. You are frightening the Labour crowd into working as they had never worked before, and at the same time you are making voters whose class-consciousness is just far enough roused to make the name [Labour] attractive, but not enough to make them whole-hog communists.” The result certainly lends plausibility to that view.
Ramsay MacDonald in the spleen of his mean soul has asserted that we conspicuously avoided any attack on the Coalition. No lie could be grosser or meaner. Harry Webb challenged a Coalition speaker who interrupted him to debate and a meeting was arranged for Abertridwr.2 The hour arrived, but the Coalition speaker was missing. William Paul taunted a Coalition MP on his platform in Caerphilly and played with him before one of the largest crowds I have ever seen in the open. Gallacher’s massacre of a group of Coalition speakers, headed by Captain Gee VC, was a thing to dream about for a lifetime, and the happiest hour Bob Stewart has spent for a long time was the one during which a Coalition MP who had challenged him had to sit listening to his reply.3
It is a lie to say, as MacDonald says, that we avoided tackling the Coalition; but there is a reason for his utterance. The only communist speech he listened to was driven into him by Sandy Ritchie, the Lanarkshire miner, whom fate had pitched alongside of him at Taff’s Well. That speech was, as it had to be, about the Labour Party in general and Ramsay MacDonald in particular - it will be a long time before Mac forgets it; he will never forgive it.
Apart from open-air meetings and a little canvassing, we employed the weapon of literature. First of all was The Communist, on sale at the regular price. Then two issues of an election supplement to The Communist: the first sold at a penny, and the second distributed gratis. For these latter, chief credit is due to the indefatigable AE Cook. Then there was the election address consisting of an abbreviated version of the address to the workers of Caerphilly from The Communist of August 13.
The great practical problem was the folding of addresses and enveloping of this address in time for one to be posted to each elector, and this was made possible by a team of as fine a band of real workers as could possibly have been gathered together. There were not many of them, but they came from all the surrounding districts - from the Rhondda, from the Western Valley of Monmouthshire, from Cardiff, from Bristol, Sheffield and London and, under the command of comrades Brown (of Shipley), Dai Davies (of Bargoed), Hawkins and Shaw, they worked wonders. They were of all ages, all proletarians and (if truth must be told) mostly unemployed and therefore broke. They messed together in the committee rooms and a goodly number of them slept at night on the floor. To come home late, weary and hoarse from a round of meetings to find this proletarian bunch getting ready their ‘shake-downs’ for the night was like walking into a picture from John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world. They were a great bunch of the real fighting staff. Communism has reason to be proud of its rank and file.
Then there was the difficulty of transportation. To get from village to village in the Caerphilly division means climbing three mountains and crossing two bridges - except when you cross three bridges and climb two mountains. And they are real mountains - no “home-made mountains”, as Ernie Brown christened the coal-tips! Our speaking campaign would have been physically impossible but for the transport available in the form of two cars latterly supplemented by a motorcycle and sidecar. These were put at the disposal of the party by that most enthusiastic of Bolsheviks, Jim Shand of Salford.
At least half of the votes we gained were made possible by Jim Shand. You will perhaps have seen references in the press to “Bolshevik emissaries rushing through the lanes of the Caerphilly division in expensive cars” - and in a way they told the truth. They were perhaps not specially expensive cars to start, but by the time they had bumped and thumped over some of the vilest roads ever discovered with eight or 10 crowded into what the maker fondly thought was space for six - the whole team keeping themselves cheerful with the ‘Red Flag’, the ‘Internationale’ and shouts of “All power to the workers!” or “Up the Bolshies!” - they will be expensive to mend. The only thing on our side that equalled Bob Stewart on the platform was Jim Shand’s driving through the dark back into Caerphilly.
And now that it is all over and the result declared, what can we offer as our excuse for raiding in? We lost our deposits, we spent all the money there was, and all we had as individuals on top of it. What did we get in return?
We gained this. We went into an area in which the reaction and despair following upon the failure of the miners’ struggle had left the workers hopeless and broken. We found the best men in the district loaded with debts, their jobs refused them, their homes threatened by the landlord greedy for arrears of rent (in the middle of the campaign our sub-agent, Dai Davies, had a judgement given against him in the county court, so that his work had to be done under the strain of fear of a distraint upon his home!).
Into this psychology of gloom and despair we carried our revolutionary slogans, just when the miserable, pigeon-livered ‘Labour’ crew were beginning to chant their chorus of “Leave it to parliament - direct action is never any good”. We raided in. First we routed the gang of whiners and then we roused the enthusiasm of those who had lost heart and hope.
We put the light back into the eyes of men who were leaden with despair, and a spring into the walk of young men. We brought a resurrection of the fighting spirit. We shamed even the Labour crew into making a show of fighting and we left behind us not only a spirit and a will, but the beginnings of an organisation which will make the boss class remember with fury our Red Raid on Caerphilly.
When the poll closed at 8pm, we held our meetings in aid of the Russian famine victims. After these had closed, we waited in the streets or in the rooms for the figures - passing the time at a singsong, presided over by the inimitable Gallacher. And on the morrow we departed in Jim Shand’s car to catch the train at Newport.
And, as we went through streets and lanes over the hills and down the valleys, at every sixth door man, woman, or child or altogether cheered at the sight of the red flag flying and answered our slogan with shouts of “Up the Red!” and “Bravo Bob Stewart!”
If we can do what we did in Caerphilly with the odds there were against us, the triumph of the rebel workers is in sight.
‘All power for the workers!’ Weekly Worker September 10.↩︎
Abertridwr (the ‘mouth of the three waters’) is a village situated very close to Caerphilly.↩︎
Captain Robert Gee was awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘heroic’ role in World War I and soon after went into politics. His first parliamentary outing was as a National Democratic Party candidate in the 1918 general election . Ironically, the NDP’s origins lay in a chauvinist, pro-war split by the right wing of the British Socialist Party of Henry Hyndman. As readers who have followed this series will know, the BSP went on to play a pivotal role in the formation of the CPGB.↩︎