Beyond the sects

Negotiations seeking to bring together the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Workers? Socialist Federation into a united Communist Party had been going on since May 1919. For nearly two years they got nowhere. The SLP was totally against the BSP?s suggestion that the new Communist Party try and gain mass influence through the tactic of affiliation to the Labour Party.

In the name of ?revolutionary purity? the SLP leadership ensured that all compromises on this were rejected and made into a barrier preventing unification.   Sylvia Pankhurst?s WSF was not only against Labour Party affiliation, but all parliamentary activity too, even after Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership in Russia made clear their support for such tactics. But in April 1920 the picture began to change for the better. Together William Paul, Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell - who had been the SLP?s representatives in unity negotiations - that is, until they were repudiated by the party?s doctrinaire leadership - broke the logjam. Coinciding with the SLP?s official annual conference, on April 3-4, they called their own unofficial conference in Nottingham.

Their conference represented the most active members of the SLP, in particular those at the forefront of the mass movement. The pro-unity SLPers went on to call themselves the Communist Unity Group, and adopt a manifesto which committed them to working for the ?unity of all elements scattered throughout the various groups and parties as the first essential to the formation of a Communist Party in Britain?.

In light of this very important development unity negotiations at last began to bear fruit. The meetings of April 24 and May 9 agreed that the tactical questions of Labour affiliation and parliamentary activity should be decided after unity, rather than be a precondition for it. And on May 29 the representatives of the BSP and the CUG, along with a less enthusiastic and a far smaller WSF, felt ready to call a fusion convention.

This did not mean that things were now plain sailing. Sylvia Pankhurst and the WSF insisted on maintaining a petty bourgeois leftist stance. In her isolation she turned to a decomposing and increasingly erratic, desperate and irrelevant SLP.

On the basis of genuine communist principle and in contrast to the shenanigans of the SLP and WSF, the BSP and CUG - who between them represented the bulk of communist forces in Britain - were drawing closer together. From July 15 1920 The Call gave over, weekly, a full page for the CUG to use as it saw fit.

The CUG had since its formation ?felt the need of a paper that would enable us, without let or hindrance, not only to express our views on matters of general policy, but to publicly refute the lies and slanders against us from time to time?. However, because of the self-proclaimed ?transitory nature? of the group they preferred to husband resources in ?deference to the larger object of a united Communist Party?. In pursuit of this goal the CUG used its page to good effect.

Communist unity

Considerable progress towards the establishment of a united Communist Party was made at a further meeting of the Unity Conference in London last Saturday. Those present were: JF Hodgson, AA Watts and Fred Willis  (representing the BSP), Thos Bell, Arthur MacManus, and Wm Paul (representing the Communist Unity Group formed by members of the SLP), and Sylvia Pankhurst, Nora Smyth, and Melvina Walker (representing the WSF).

A national convention is to be held to establish the Communist Party to which all organisations, branches of organisations, groups, and local societies accepting the three cardinal principles of unity (dictatorship of the proletariat, the soviet system, and the Third International) are to be invited to send delegates. This convention will also decide the tactical question of the relations of the Communist Party to the Labour Party.

Meanwhile various sub-committees will deal with the general arrangements for the convention, prepare suggestions for the constitution, platform, and organisation of the Communist Party, and go into the details of the amalgamation of the existing organisations. All the bodies participating in summoning the convention are pledged to accept the decisions of the convention and to merge their organisations in the Communist Party, and representation at the convention will imply that organisations, branches, and groups represented will also accept its decisions and become parts of the Communist Party. The convention will be held in London, and the date provisionally fixed for Sunday August 1.

The delegates of the BSP and the Communist Unity Group were acting on mandates from their respective bodies. The participation of the WSF delegates was stated to be conditional upon a referendum of their membership now being taken.

The Call No217, June 3 1920

Unity, ourselves and others

Last week?s issue of The Socialist contains a letter sent by Miss Sylvia Pankhurst to the SLP, in which she discusses the advisability, or otherwise, of taking part in this convention [printed on June 3 along with an SLP reply]. It is a long letter (about 2,000 words), but it can be summed up very briefly. Miss Pankhurst considers the question of participation under the separate headings of advantages and disadvantages. The advantages, says Miss Pankhurst, are that the delegates may be induced to accept her own particular point of view, in which case all would be well. The disadvantages are that they may not, and then, of course, all would be very far from well. But, she concludes naively, in the latter unfortunate event those agreeing with her need not consider themselves bound by the decisions of the conference - and, so again, all would be well.

The reply of the national executive committee of the SLP to Miss Pankhurst?s letter is what was to be expected. It is rigid and doctrinaire, but quite honest.

These Calvinists of the socialist movement will have nothing to do with the proposed convention. They do not favour Miss Pankhurst?s brilliant tactic of running away from the unity proceedings in the event of not being able to stampede them, but they make one suggestion which, to put it mildly, is surprising. They invite the WSF to join with them in calling a conference of their own. And to invite thereto representatives of the South Wales Socialist Society, the Irish Communist Party, the British Section of the Third International, Socialist Labour Party, and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. I should like to have seen Miss Pankhurst?s face when she saw this suggestion.

The SPGB stands for what it calls revolutionary parliamentary action as opposed to industrial action. It has as much right to its opinions as any other body, and we do not quarrel with its members for holding them, but to ask it to take part in a conference which would presumably endorse the soviet system, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and industrial mass action is something which - like the peace of god - passes all understanding.

Apparently Miss Pankhurst thought so too. The reply of the SLP to her letter is dated May 27. On June 4, she issued an invitation to all organisations who accept non-parliamentarism as a basis of unity, to attend a meeting for the purpose of deciding whether or not to be present at the conference our own unity committee is engaged in calling. Neither the SLP nor the SPGB will be represented at Miss Pankhurst?s gathering, we presume, unless the voice of the charmer has been so alluring as to outweigh even the sterner call of principle.

For ourselves, we are willing to leave the less important matters of immediate tactics to the free play of opinion in the rank and file of a united Communist Party when formed. To rally the workers of this country to the banner so gloriously raised by our Russian comrades is all-important at this juncture - all else is sound and fury signifying less than nothing.

Fred Willis
The Call No218, June 10 1920

HQ notes

In the discussions that took place in the initial stages of our unity negotiations, Wales figured largely through the South Wales Socialist Society. We at no time lost sight of the fact - and indeed had it repeatedly brought home to us in correspondence from many of our Welsh comrades - that the SWSS by no means adequately represented communist opinion in Wales. We were scarcely prepared, however, for the news that it had ?gone west?. Yet such, we are assured, is actually the case.

From its ashes, and from some late SLP branches, there has arisen what we think will prove a more substantial organisation, in the shape of a South Wales Communist Council. This council counts eight definite groups, while the Neath Socialist Society has just affiliated, and others are expected to follow - all for the Communist Party. We can appreciate the disappointment of the WSF, which always counted on the SWSS to back her up. It was no small surprise to find her secretary writing the council, soliciting support for her latest adventure. Needless to say, there was ?nothing doing?. Let this be the reply to all such seductive attempts coming from 400 Old Ford Road [headquarters of the WSF].

The Call No223, July 15 1920

Towards the Communist Party

History teaches that every crisis capitalism has to go through is a test period. The strain at such a period, however, is not confined to the purely commercial credit of its national groups. It is as much a test upon the loyalty and convictions of the revolutionists towards their communist principles.

It is just at such periods when it is brought home to us that our Labour politicians of the Thomas and Henderson type are indeed the watchdogs of capitalist interests. The former, apprehensive of the dangerous situation capitalism is drifting into, is even now appealing to the government to reduce the cost of living and so help to stave off ?the turmoil and agitation that upsets everything and everybody?. But, since there is nothing in common between communism and capitalism, the latter?s difficulty must be the former?s opportunity.

Here, then, is where the test will be applied to the communists. Are we to go on pottering about as a great many fragmentary groups, our efforts rendered sterile and fatuous by our sectionalism? Or are we capable of rising to the occasion, and, concentrating all our resources, make a strong national effort worthy of the principles we profess?

July 31 will be your opportunity for making an effective reply. At the national convention will be laid the foundations of a Communist Party that will seriously challenge the powers of capitalism. The Communist Party will, by its industrial, political and social activity, foster the spirit of revolution. When Lloyd George told his German confr?res at Spa to deal with the communists as his French brothers did in 1871 - ie, shoot them like dogs - he not only made a deadly thrust at Labour Party democracy, but he threw down a challenge to the communists of Britain.

We shall not be worthy of the name if we do not pick that challenge up and prepare for the coming struggle.