Splits and fusion
Forging a united Communist Party in 1920 involved principled splits as comrades put partyist revolutionary unity above sect loyalty
As the momentum towards principled communist unity gathered pace, tensions began to build in some of the participating groups. Specifically, the Socialist Labour Party, the Workers Socialist Federation and the (largely imaginary) South Wales Socialist Society started to lose coherence and all relevance. The genuinely working class political strands in the ranks of these sects were being drawn towards the project of a Bolshevik party in Britain. Correctly, loyalty to their existing organisations was subordinated to that higher duty.
With this in mind, it is important to define quite precisely the actual process that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This has importance for the work of today’s CPGB and our campaign for the coming together of communists in a single party. In 1920, unity was not some peaceable rapprochement between the groups. Aside from the British Socialist Party, the sects failed the challenge of communist unity. What actually unfolded was a process of splits, then fusion on a higher programmatic, organisational and political level.
Now, there may be some who believe this simple fact justifies the schismatic nature of the left today. Of course, these are comrades that routinely caricature our campaign for a Marxist party as a call for an ideological non-aggression pact on the left, evidence of a sort of squeamish reluctance to draw sharp and clear lines of political demarcation, even at the risk of divisions. Their own organisational practice is generally characterised by two interrelated distortions of the Marxist concept of party.
First, the idea that a criterion of membership must be agreement with the (often tediously detailed) programme. In contrast, Lenin insisted on acceptance of the programme as the basis for joint action and made clear that “a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the party programme.”
Second, precisely the sort of “examination” - or rather, heresy-hunt - that Lenin warns of above. Inevitably, this method lends itself to the sort of frivolous, hissy-fit splits that plague today’s left. (It was sad, but indicative, that word recently reached our ear of a hoary old sect luminary who “had it on good authority” that the CPGB was just about to split - because we had a difference in our ranks over the tactic of voting for Diane Abbott. How pathetic.)
Last week we noted how the SLP’s team in the unity negotiations - William Paul, Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell - were instrumental in breaking the logjam resulting from sectarian intransigence of the SLP and WSF leaderships’ stubborn sectarian obstinacy over the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. Their unofficial conference in Nottingham on April 3-4, timed to coincide with the SLP’s official 7th annual conference, drew together the active elements of the SLP - the leaders with mass influence. The pro-unity SLPers agreed to call themselves the Communist Unity Group and adopted a manifesto committing 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”. Clearly, this was a de facto split with the SLP leadership.
Yet this was a principled split against sectarianism and for partyism. In fact, it was the leaderships of the SLP and the WSF that had behaved like our modern-day left. They had taken a stand against the principle of unity with other communists - unless what the BSP rightly dubbed a “question of tactics”, that of “relations with the Labour Party and the existing industrial organisations”, was decided in their leftist favour. The BSP quite correctly prioritised the principle of “unity” and thus “made concession after concession” on this tactical matter, “finally giving up the question of Labour Party affiliation entirely, provided that non-affiliation was not imposed upon the Communist Party in advance, as a fixed basis to be adhered to at all times and under all circumstances.” Given the continued infantile intransigence of the SLP leadership, comrades Paul, MacManus and Bell were quite right to move independently to form the Communist Unity Group and impart some momentum to the fight to found the new party.
Successful negotiations between BSP and the CUG soon followed, resulting in a Joint Provisional Committee for the Communist Party being set up in June 1920. Its members were: Albert Inkpin (secretary), JF Hodgson, AA Watts and Fred Willis from the BSP; and Tom Bell, Arthur MacManus (chair) and William Paul from the CUG.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s WSF had meanwhile become decidedly hostile to fusion and from the beginning of June it stood aside from the process. On the positive side, the collapsed anti-unity South Wales Socialist Society was replaced by eight pro-unity communist groups in the form of the South Wales Communist Council.
In early July 1920, the Joint Provisional Committee issued A Call for a Communist Party and its official invitation to the Unity Convention, the 1st Congress of the CPGB.
The clarion call had been sounded.
The communist unity convention
The Joint Provisional Committee for the Communist Party announces that the national convention to form the Communist Party has now been definitely fixed to take place in London on Saturday, July 31. The date has been changed to a Saturday because it was impossible to obtain a suitable hall on the Sunday. The proceedings will start at 2pm and go on to 11pm if necessary in order to finish the agenda.
The following circular and invitation to the Convention is now being issued:
Dear Comrade. The negotiations for uniting the various revolutionary left wing organisations in Britain in one Communist Party have now taken definite shape. A great national convention to establish the Communist Party and settle all questions of immediate tactics will be held in the Cannon Street Hotel, London EC4 on Saturday, July 31, 1920, at 2pm.
An invitation to representation at this national convention is cordially extended to all organisations, branches of organisations, and independent socialist societies that accept the fundamental bases of communist unity: (a) the dictatorship of the working class, (b) the soviet system, (c) the Third International.
All bodies participating in summoning the national convention are pledged to abide by its decisions on points of tactics, and to merge their organisations in the new Communist Party. Representation at the convention will be held to imply that the branches, groups, and societies represented will also accept its decisions and become branches of the Communist Party.
Your branch, group, or society is cordially invited to send delegates to the convention to inaugurate the Communist Party and determine its tactics and policy. Representation will be at the rate of one delegate for every 25 members or part thereof, and voting at the convention will be on the same basis. The representation fee will be 2s 6d for every 25 members or part of 25 members represented.
Delegates’ application forms and agenda for the Convention are attached hereto. Copies of a manifesto, “A Call for a Communist Party,” are also enclosed.
A call for a Communist Party
To the communists and socialists of Great Britain.
Comrades, in face of the strongly entrenched capitalist bureaucracy in this country the most urgent and pressing need in our working class movement today is a united and consolidated front. Socialist revolution, formerly but an empty phrase, has become a real force, rending society at its very roots and challenging the power and authority of capitalism the world over.
In Russia, the working class has rallied nobly to its clarion call and socialism there is seen in action, no longer in the club room and coffee houses, but in actual struggle, braving torture and death itself in a glorious effort to preserve the results of the first definite and permanent breach in the wall of international imperialism.
True to its class instinct capitalism is marshalling its forces, and imperialist nations rush to succour each other in a desperate effort to drench in blood the defenders of proletarian revolution.
It is thus that the Russian Revolution becomes the touchstone of international socialism; a veritable beacon light indicating the paths to follow and the course to pursue.
We, in this country, have yet to realise the great fact of the Russian Revolution has turned the whole current of socialist thought into different channels, giving us new conceptions in place of the old. By such a standard we are revealed as lacking in outlook, policy and tactics. Faced with the vigour and solidarity of the imperialists internationally, and their organised determination to crush every vestige of working class freedom, and particularly to batter down the workers’ republic in Russia, who now can defend the time worn ideas still held by some socialists of a gradual evolution or peaceful transition from capitalism into socialism? Allied to such an illusion is the notion that social revolutions can be quite constitutional affairs and carried through by the most correct parliamentary procedure.
The experience and intensity of the class struggle in recent years has shattered such beliefs.
The parliamentary democracy - that idol of the social reformist - has been stripped of its veneer once and for all, and now stands revealed for what it in reality is, an “instrument of class oppression to be engineered and wielded in the interests of the bourgeoisie”. Against this sham parliamentary democracy of capitalism the workers’ republic places the method of direct representation and recall as embodied in the soviet idea; only those performing useful social service being enfranchised. Thus the Marxist slogan that the proletarian revolution must march in the light of its own legality has been amply justified and demonstrated by experience.
The new institutions and order of things just arisen have become a constant challenge and menace to the whole system of international capitalism and indicates the task of the revolution. That task is to provide scope and freedom for their development and to assist in their realisation. Towards such an objective and to hasten the world revolution occurring, a Communist Party is wanted. A party of action. One that will wage the class war up to the point of revolution, rejecting with disdain all compromise and truckle with capitalist reform, but ever seeking to organise and rally the working class to the standard of international communism.
Such a party should be clear in its mission and courageous in its determination. Its fundamental principles must be:
a) Communism as against capitalism, ie, the maintenance of society on a basis of social service rather than class exploitation.
b) The soviet idea as against the parliamentary democracy, ie, a structure making provision for the participation in social administration only of those who render useful service to the community.
c) Learning from history that dominant classes never yield to the revolutionary enslaved classes without struggle, the communists must be prepared to meet and crush all the efforts of capitalist reactionaries to regain their lost privileges pending a system of thoroughgoing communism. In other words the Communist Party must stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
While being aware of the several legitimate claims of the existing parties we think the need for a united political organisation based upon the foregoing principles and fusing all parties which accept the same cannot be gainsaid.
Unity of action must ever go hand in hand with unity of purpose. Against the predatory forces of capitalism we must hurl the united efforts of all who stand for a complete social change as the only way to end for all time the iniquity of class exploitation.
If you are in agreement with the principles of this manifesto, you are urged to prepare to attend a great rank and file convention, to be held in London on Sunday, August 1 1920 and help to lay the foundations of a real revolutionary Communist Party.
Lenin himself, in reply to a question from a member of the Labour delegation as to his views on the need for the formation of a united Communist Party in Britain replied: “Genuine partisans of the liberation of the workers from the yoke of capital cannot possibly oppose the foundation of a Communist Party that alone is able to educate the working masses.”
That reply indicates the fervent hopes of our Russian comrades.
Let us not disappoint them but rather be worthy of our responsibilities.
The Provisional Committee of the Communist Party, Thos Bell, JF Hodgson, Arthur MacManus, Wm Paul, AA Watts, Fred Willis, Albert Inkpin
- VI Lenin CW Vol10, Moscow 1977, pp83-87.
- The examples are legion - here are a small ‘cohort’. The Workers Power/Permanent Revolution split of 2006 (www.cpgb.org.uk/worker2/index.php?action=viewarticle&article_id=598); the 2010 Socialist Workers Party/Counterfire split (www.cpgb.org.uk/worker2/index.php?action=viewarticle&article_id=1004027); the 2010 split in the International Marxist Tendency (www.cpgb.org.uk/worker2/index.php?action=viewarticle&article_id=1002564); and the short-lived 2004 ‘Red Party’ split from our own organisation (www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1002413)
- The WSF was also opposed in principle to any communist parliamentary work (www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004113)
- From The Call No176, August 21 1919 (www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004086)
- From The Call No 214, May 13 1920 (www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004103)