Our history Those against unity

The announcement by the British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group that they were to form a united Communist Party at a Unity Convention on July 31 1920 provoked the active opposition of the disintegrating sectarian rump, made up of the Socialist Labour Party and Sylvia Pankhurst?s Workers? Socialist Federation, both of which had previously taken part in unity negotiations: the SLP, because the BSP refused to agree as a matter of principle that the future CPGB should not seek affiliation to the Labour Party; and the WSF for the same reason, plus the BSP?s refusal to accept that bourgeois parliaments must always be boycotted. The views of these anti-unity organisations were put in their most precise and articulate form in two open letters: the ?Open letter to SLP members? from its leader James Clunie and the ?Open letter to the delegates of the Unity Convention? from the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) - which was in fact neither a Communist Party nor the British section of the Third International, but what the WSF illegitimately called itself after June 19 1920 in a vain attempt to steal the thunder of the soon to be formed CPGB.

Open letter to the SLP


False impressions bring disastrous results when they are given free play, because herein the building up of the past is surrendered with all its strength and possibilities, thereby courting disaster, to the seeming consolidation forms that are evolving into actual existence. Such a position confronts you, comrades, at this present moment. I refer in particular to the question of unity. And might I say frankly at this point that the question of unity does not embrace what my or your feelings are in respect of comrades Clarke, Paul, etc [SLPers who had formed the pro-unity CUG]. Personally, they may be admirable fellows, but policy and comradeship are not a dual character ...

The vindication of the continued existence of the SLP, just as it has been up to now, will be its correct analysis and interpretation of the economic, social and political forces, which are bound to impress upon us the practicability of suiting our policy to harmonise with our outlook. At the moment the elements do not exist for unity. Hence only by compromise can we have a united (?) Communist Party. Such a party would continue to contain within itself the very conflicting factions that today, before its formation, compels the need for compromise in order to bring it into being.

A party such as the proposed new Communist Party is not a practical proposition, because the vital question to the SLP is the cardinal cause of disagreement. No number of conferences or national conventions can settle that question. Unity is not a question of window-dressing, talk and advertisement. It is principle as expressed in policy. Above all remember, comrades, that cheap phrases or popular names or subsidised delegations do not even possess the rudiments of principle and unity. A real strong man is he who can stand alone in the belief that his conduct is correct.

It is not a matter of personality, but belief. And do we not find in such a case that belief shows the character of the man when he adheres true to his reading of a situation because it is in the interests of revolution ... I say, down with all the self-imposed leaders! Give us men, good, sound, stanch and true, solid in organisation, united in purpose, clear in objective, then we may have unity - not before. Have we not learned that the really great Lenin, who, to his immortal credit, always thinks in terms of revolution, has on many occasions occupied the glorious position of Ibsen?s great man by standing alone in his reading of situations, in determining tactics and policy. With him the ideal is the ultimate, the practical and the present problem. Here we find expressed real strength, unity, solid revolutionary purpose.

Comrades of the SLP, yours is a problem of a similar character to those which have been solved many times by the ingenious and great president of the Russian republic. If we are content to follow men in preference to principles then we are weak and lack revolutionary character. If we are able to take action consistent with our beliefs, then we will insist on the will of the party without in any way violating the first essentials of comradeship. The political situation is of such a character in this country that a strong body like the SLP is absolutely essential to safeguard the revolutionary development of the working class movement.

Real revolutionary unity is the combination of the working class. Mass action is meaningless without that form of strength and consciousness. The only logical form of unity - namely, the combination of parties or individuals having a common line of action - seems to me inevitable, just as the proposed united (?) Communist Party cannot mean anything else but nominal fusion.

If the question of Labour Party affiliation is the vital question, then the very existence of the SLP is the proper answer. The SLP branch which is not decided on this matter does not appreciate where it stands. And I am sure that the loyal SLP does appreciably know its party purpose and function. ?Know thyself. All wisdom centres there? ... One more attempt at disintegration, no doubt, will soon be made, but our former wisdom will again show itself, and the SLP will continue to live even in greater strength until the real unity of the revolutionary period shows itselfl

James Clunie
The Socialist No22, Vol 14, June 3 1920

An open letter to the delegates of the Unity Convention

Dear comrade

Some of you may naturally ask why we are not represented at the Unity Conference. For this reason. It is useless to say that the differences between ourselves and those who have summoned the Unity Conference are purely tactical, and that, therefore, we ought to sink our differences and unite with them. Tactical differences, when sufficiently vital, become differences of principle, rendering united action impossible.

We refuse to run candidates for parliament because:

  1. That tactic entails grave dangers of the movement lapsing into reformism.
  2. Any attempt to use the parliamentary system encourages among the workers the delusion that leaders can fight their battles for them. Not leadership, but mass action is essential, now that the last struggle is approaching.
  3. What we want is not class talk, but class war.
  4. Under present conditions in this country, any participation in parliamentism confuses the issue of the class struggle, wastes the energies of the revolutionary workers, and delays full adhesion to the soviet system.
  5. Today parliament is nothing but an instrument of bourgeois domination, a warder off of revolution, a safety valve through which the revolutionary urge escapes in wind. Today parliament cannot be the arena of the revolutionary struggle.
  6. Parliamentism as a form of government has never secured, and can never secure, self-government by the masses.

We reject affiliation to the Labour Party because:

  1. In constitution and actual working the Labour Party is a committee of leaders who divert the revolutionary will of the workers into parliamentary and reformist channels.
  2. The trade union leaders of parliamentarians who control the Labour Party have, through their bourgeois associations, acquired a middle class mentality which inevitably makes them support the tactics of class collaboration in place of the tactics of class war.
  3. The Labour Party is based on parliamentary bourgeois democracy, whereas the Communist Party is out for working class dictatorship ...

Comrade, this party has been formed in the firm conviction that in Britain today there is a higher proportion of revolutionaries than existed in France of 1789. We do not believe that our immediate task is to make communists, but rather to organise on uncompromising lines those who already hold communist views.

This is not to say that the work of communist propaganda is not likewise of supreme importance. But, pending the revolutionary crisis, what is needed is not construction, but destruction. We must destroy bourgeois ideas and values, bourgeois morality, the bourgeois standards which create the mental and moral slavery of the proletariat. In so far as we have constructive work before the revolution, this can only be to establish independent proletarian standards and ideals.

Hence our uncompromising programme. We will have nothing to do either with bourgeois or with social democratic parties, organisations, and institutions.

We call upon all genuinely Bolshevik groups and individuals to rally to the standard we have raised, to share in the up-building of our party, to join with us in the spearhead of the revolutionl

Yours for revolutionary communism

The national organising council
The Workers? Dreadnought July 31 1920