Unity in a single party

To mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain, we begin here a series of reprints of key documents from the pre-history and early years of our party

Our Communist Party was founded over the weekend of July 31-August 1 1920. Viewed scientifically, there is no question that the establishment of this party of class war was the highest organisational/political achievement of the working class movement in this country. In its own way it matches in importance other such pinnacles of the class struggle as the London Corresponding Society, Chartism and the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, the cooperative movement and the Labour Party.

The comrades who gathered that summer were much more than a group of dedicated individual militants. They represented a key layer of workers in Britain, the advanced section itself, which was attempting to assimilate the lessons of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution and form an organisation designed to do more than operate within the parameters of capitalism. The Communist Party was made for revolution.

Over two generations, the CPGB brought together some of the best, most militant, most disciplined workers in the country. Its history therefore - the good as well as the bad - is the history of the politically advanced section of the proletariat and its struggle for socialism. Although relatively small in numbers, its organic social roots in the working class and its international contacts allowed it to supply a proletarian general staff in all crucial class battles from 1920 till well into the 1970s.

So, to dismiss the history of the CPGB is to dismiss the lessons of the National Minority Movement, the 1926 Gen­eral Strike, the National Unemployed Workers Movement - and the Liaison Com­mittee for the Defence of Trade Unions, which led the fight in the late 1960s and early 70s to defeat first Wilson’s, then Heath’s, anti-union legislation and successfully initiated mass political strikes to secure the release of the Pentonville Five.

Our organisation is not the only one claiming the heritage of the Communist Party of 1920 on its 90th anniversary. Besides the 57 varieties of Maoism and Trotskyism, there is, of course, that wretched Morning Star support group, the Communist Party of Britain - a Stalinist split from the ‘official’ CPGB in 1988. Its pitch for the franchise lauds the party’s history of “working class militancy in Britain” and “a steely commitment to internationalism”. The CPB’s own “steely commitment” to ‘internationalism’ can be judged by the fact that its Brian Denny motivated and mainly authored the social chauvinist programme for the No2EU electoral front, an amalgam of the CPB, Solidarity in Scotland, the Alliance for Green Socialism and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which effectively constituted itself as the left wing of the UK Independence Party.

The same goes for “working class militancy”. The CPB boasts of its fraternal relations with the red-brown Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Communist Party of China. It also regularly provides a platform for official representatives of the South African Communist Party - some of whose leading members play ministerial roles in the bourgeois government in Pretoria, have fronted the state’s privatisation of public services, have protected profit rates against workers’ demands for improved wages and conditions, have spoken out against strikes in the name of the ‘national interest’, have sent in the police to break up workers’ protests and have actually headed the South African state’s secret intelligence services.

Unlike today’s remnants of ‘official communism’, those who came together to form our party were revolutionaries. And revolutionaries who, even before they became fully aware of the politics of Bolshevism and the 1917 revolution, were conducting an open ideological struggle against precisely the sort of social chauvinism and opportunism that sects such as the CPB reek of today.

Obviously, outstanding militants such as CPGBers William Paul, Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt and Tom Bell did not begin their political life on day one of the new party. They had histories as members of - often warring - political sects. The most important of these - the British Socialist Party - was to provide the bulk of members for the newly formed CPGB in 1920. But the documents we reprint here and in future issues show that a vital part of the political preparation for this qualitative change entailed a ferocious ideological battle, which culminated in the coming together of comrades into a single party.

In February 1916, against the backdrop of the terrible slaughter of World War I, the BSP left launched The Call. This unofficial publication’s trenchant opposition to the inter-imperialist carnage stood in stark contrast to the party’s official publication, Justice, which was dominated by the social chauvinist, HM Hyndman.


The Call No1, editorial, February 24 1916

The dominant note of The Call will be that the socialists of all the countries at war, as well as those which still maintain a precarious neutrality, should urge upon the working class the wisdom and claims of peace. Believing that the present strug­gle serves no progressive purpose, we shall support and encourage every desire and effort to re-establish international relations between the working class of the countries now at war ...

The Call has been founded, and will be controlled by, members of the BSP, who as Social Democrats feel the necessity for acting in agreement with the traditions of the party. No other course is open, since Justice, though nominally the official organ of the party, has throughout the past 12 months advocated a policy of jing­oism and reaction, in international as well as national questions, which is entirely and utterly opposed to the decisions of the divisional conference held in February 1915 - a fact which has occasioned grave misunderstanding of the party’s position, at home and abroad.

We shall urge that the Easter conference adopt an unambiguous position on the war and state with precision the attitude of the party towards the ruling class in Great Britain. We hold that the exploiter and the exploited are as opposed in war as they are in peace. While the governments of Europe fear the awakening of the people, already increasing numbers of workers in every warring country are calling on their comrades abroad to co­operate in ending the carnage and laceration caused by this mad folly.


The Call No 5, editorial, April 20 1916

We feel we can say truthfully that the history of the BSP records nothing at all comparable with the enthusiasm awakened by the publication of The Call. Energy has taken the place of lethargy; inspiration and a desire to be up and doing have dissipated the pessimism that was sapping the vitality of the party. Many branches and a host of members, deceived as to the views of the majority by the attitude of Justice and contemplat­ing secession as the only course possible in their imagined isolation, found in The Call a common rallying point. Others who had already left have returned, full of new hope and determination.

The success of The Call is magnificent evidence that the definite and uncompromising advocacy of international social democracy still retains its power to inspire, and we await the decisions of the forthcoming annual conference at Manchester, full of hope and confidence in the success of the cause for which we stand.

Long live the revolution!

The Call No50, March22 1917:

Supporters of The Call did indeed win at the Manchester conference. Hyndman and his social-chauvinist followers were expelled - he went on to form the ominously but accurately named National Socialist Party. Henceforth The Call was to be the organ of the executive committee of the BSP and it was in this capacity that it greeted the February revolution in Russia

A political earthquake has shaken the foundations of the material and moral order of things created by the war ... the patriotic gentlemen in this and other countries, including Germany, have hastened to proclaim that the revolution in Russia has been promoted by an ardent desire of the Russian people to win the war and that - to quote one of the Petrograd correspondents of one of our dailies - “not a single cry against the war has been heard anywhere during the whole course of events” of the historical days.

This interpretation and these assurances are about as true as the statement with which The Times, that dear old subsidised friend of the autocracy, began on Friday its account: “After a brief revolution born of the united forces of the duma and the army”, etc. The real truth of the matter is that the revol­ution was begun and carried out with the utmost success by the masses of the people themselves against the previous exhortations of the duma, who had feared nothing so much as a revolution, that it was the masses who, ever since Thursday, had been fraternising with, and gaining over to their side, troops and that it was not until Monday that the liberals and the radicals of the duma appeared on the scene.

So much for the revolution “born of the united forces of the duma and the army”. As for the sentiments animating the people, it is significant that not a single cor­respondent has as yet ventured to report any fact of a positive character - a demonstration, a meeting, a manifesto - showing that these sentiments are warlike; that the utmost length to which they have as yet dared proceed in this direction is exemplified by the vague and purely negative phrase quoted above, and that neither the proclamation of the provisional government nor any other act of the new regime has as yet contained any reference to the war.

... those whose knowledge of Russian affairs is of an earlier date than March 16, who have had some acquaintance with the frame of mind of the Russian masses in town and country on the eve of the outbreak, know well that the war had lost all hold over the minds of the people at large, that the red flag which was planted, to the accompaniment of the revolutionary labour ‘Marseillaise’, on all public buildings in Petrograd and Moscow, was not at all the war banner of what people are pleased to call ‘patriotism’, and fully expect to learn that the cry, ‘Down with the autocracy!’, was everywhere coupled with the cry, ‘Down with the war!’

The very swiftness and completeness of the revolution shows how little was the hold of the autocracy and bureaucracy over the mind of the nation, and how pro­found is the historical guilt of those - the liberals and radicals - in Russia who betrayed the revolution 12 years ago and who since then have never ceased fight­ing strenuously against its ideas. It is one of the sweetest acts of revenge on the part of dame history that now these very gentleman have had to swallow the entire revolutionary programme down to the articles about a constituent assembly and the organisation of a national militia in the place of the police, which ever since 1905 had been to them anathema maranatha ...

The Russian liberals ... have been compelled to agree to the programme of the revolution, but there can be little doubt that they would dearly like to wriggle out of their pledges, to restore some sort of a monarchy with a strong, centralised and armed power, and would, if needs be, not hesitate to introduce a military dictatorship under some grand duke, like Nicolas Nikolayevich, against the revolutionary people.

The Russian Revolution announces with mighty clarion call the rebirth of the International - an International bleeding from a thousand wounds, almost expiring, but now redeemed by the daring and victorious proletariat of Russia. For can anyone imagine that its thundering echoes will not set the blood coursing quicker in the veins of the suffering proletariat in other countries, will not recall old, almost forgotten, but still slumbering and glorious memories in the minds of socialists all the world over, will not reveal to them, as by a flash of vivifying lightning, the way out of the tragic impasse into which they have allowed them­selves to be driven by the sinister forces of capitalist society, will not instil in their breasts a new cour­age, will not break the mesmeric spell in which they have been held by the tenors and by the false ideas of the last two years and half?

Mr Henderson and his ‘pals’ have hastened to telegraph to Petrograd their good wishes in the forthcoming good fight against the “despotism of Germany”.[1] They have sent their telegram to the wrong address, and their message is wholly unauthorised. The masses of the people think otherwise, and they, too, will feel ere long the powerful rustling of the wings of the angel of the revol­ution. We, who have fought our battles hitherto as a small minority, will now derive fresh courage from the example set by the Russian people. The first tremendous breach in the walls of the enemy has been made; the hour is close at hand when we, too, in this country, will plant the red flag on the grave of reaction and shout, ‘Long live the revolution! Long live the International!’


  1. Arthur Henderson (September 13 1863 - October 20 1935) served three short terms as leader of the Labour Party - 1908-10, 1914-17 and 1931-32. In 1916, under the Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, he became a member of the war cabinet as a minister without portfolio. As is the norm for imperialist warmongers, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934.