The CPGB and parliament
A challenge to naive, left-communist anti-parliamentarianism
The resolution on parliamentary action had been included on the agenda of the Communist Party’s founding conference (July 31-August 1 1920) mainly to facilitate merger with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation, now illegitimately rebranded as ‘Communist Party (British Section of the Third International)’. In contrast to Pankhurst’s sect, both the British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group - the main organisations participating in the congress - were committed to standing parliamentary candidates as a form of revolutionary propaganda. The WSF, in contrast, maintained a stubborn opposition to revolutionary parliamentarianism as a matter of iron ‘principle’.
The report on the unity negotiations given by comrade Albert Inkpin at the congress underlined the efforts which had been made to positively involve all communist groups in Britain in the project of a communist party.
Some stood aloof, however.
Despite the fact that comrade Pankhurst and her group had, for the moment, dropped out of the fusion process represented by the Communist Unity Convention, this did not mean the matter was done and dusted in the ranks of the fledging CPGB itself.
There was still a considerable degree of political confusion among delegates on this question - mostly reflecting the relative political immaturity of these revolutionaries rather than some ingrained sectarian method.
How could it be otherwise? Bolshevism, Lenin emphasised in Leftwing communism, had gone through a very compressed, but extremely rich, political history. With sometimes breathtaking rapidity, it had seen military forms of struggle, parliamentary work, legality and illegality, underground and open mass action, and so on. In Bolshevism from 1903 to 1917, we see a complex diversity of forms of struggle unmatched anywhere on the globe.
At every stage, Lenin and his comrades sought to theorise their work, to rigorously draw the correct general lessons from whatever challenging stage they were passing through. In that sense, we can think of the Bolsheviks who organised, arms in hand, on the streets in 1905, the Bolsheviks who endured the subsequent 1908-12 period of reaction, the Bolsheviks who made the 1917 revolution, as a trend with an organic link to their embryonic form in the highly polemical press of 1903-05.
Marxists in Britain had neither the political experience at a comparable level of intensity and variety nor the writings of Lenin and other Bolsheviks on their work in the tsarist duma, etc, available to them.
Nonetheless, the resolution on parliament submitted by the Joint Provisional Committee of the CPGB by implication represented a challenge to naive, left-communist anti-parliamentarianism. It helped lay the basis for the party’s highly effective parliamentary interventions during the early 1920s. Whatever its limitations and crudities, it represented a significant and positive step towards the revolutionary parliamentarianism pursued so brilliantly by the Bolsheviks.
The resolution read as follows:
The Communist Party repudiates the reformist view that a social revolution can be achieved by the ordinary methods of parliamentary democracy, but regards parliamentary and electoral action generally as providing a valuable means of propaganda and agitation towards the revolution. The tactics to be employed by representatives of the party elected to parliament or local bodies must be laid down by the party itself, according to the national or local circumstances. In all cases such representatives must be considered as holding a mandate from the party, and not from the particular constituency for which they happen to sit.
The chair, comrade Arthur MacManus, said there were several amendments to this resolution, but they did not affect its general tenor and would be included in the discussion after the resolution was moved by comrade Tom Bell for the Joint Provisional Committee.
This is how the official account of the congress reported Bell’s speech:
So far as the Joint Provisional Committee were concerned, the Communist Unity Group and the BSP were in complete agreement upon the need for and the advisability of taking parliamentary action, but the present resolution had arisen in the course of negotiations with the WSF and had been held very important at the time. After the defection of the WSF the resolution might have been cleared off, since there was no point of difference between the remaining groups that made up the Unity Committee; but, as there was still a considerable amount of hesitancy in many groups on the question of parliamentary action, for and against, it had been thought better to allow the question to be ventilated at the conference, that being the safest and simplest way to make the position clear, so far as parliamentary action was concerned. It would be seen that the resolution from the very first repudiated the reformist idea that a sound revolution could be achieved by the ordinary methods of parliamentary democracy.
In this respect its point of view was common to communist parties internationally at the present time. He and those who agreed with him did not believe that it was possible to effect a peaceful transformation in the parliamentary bourgeois democracy, as understood today, and thereby to work out the emancipation of the working class; they believed that the parliamentary institution as it existed today, the constituency in itself, was entirely foreign in the purpose of the communist state of society they had in mind. Consequently, in preference to the parliamentary constituency, they rather looked to the more direct method of representation as expressed through the workers’ committees, whether in industrial or social life.
With regard to parliamentary and electoral action as providing a valuable means of propaganda and agitation towards the revolution, while they did not place any faith in the parliamentary institution in itself, and did not believe it was capable of fitting into the scheme of things that they as communists had in mind, nevertheless they thought it of considerable value to revolutionary propaganda not to shut the door on any avenue whatsoever that was going to liberate the minds of the masses from their superstitious faith in parliamentary democracy. He thought the best policy to adopt towards that particular objective was to demonstrate inside the House of Commons that, so far as the working class were concerned, there was nothing to be hoped for in that chamber.
By breaking the parliamentary precedents and conventionalities which played so large a part in shaping the minds of the workers, we could do a great deal to break down the reverence for parliamentary institutions that so many of our fellow workers had. This was a bone of contention, he knew; the contention arising because it was thought by some that by going into the House of Commons we were sacrificing some great principle.
The first argument brought against participating in parliamentary action was that before sitting in the House of Commons it was necessary to take the oath of allegiance. Speaking for the Provisional Committee, they had no dubiety on this point.
It was laid down in the resolution that the representatives of the Communist Party must be considered as holding a mandate from the party executive, and that they would be at all times under the control, management and supervision of the executive committee - that was what it amounted to.
If, in the course of our agitation, the executive thought it advisable that members should be in the House of Commons, the oath should not stand in the way; it was a question of deciding in relation to the expediency of the moment whether for our agitational purposes it was more valuable to refuse to take the oath or to take the oath in order to gain some other objective more valuable for our revolutionary agitation. And so on with reference to all the questions as to precedents and conventionalities inside the house.
He suggested that communist candidates only had allegiance to the principles of communism and the movement now organised in the Third International. Our ethic and morality had to be drawn from our fundamental principles of communism. In reference to action inside the House of Commons, our policy all the time was a critical, destructive one, exposing the fraudulent character of our modern parliamentary democracy - which was not a free institution at all, but was an institution controlled by high finance.
That being so, he suggested that it was the business of the Communist Party inside the House of Commons, in order to liberate the minds of the masses with regard to capitalist fetishes, critically to examine every situation that arose, and to criticise the points of view put forward by our opponents - whether bourgeois, semi-radical or anything else - and, generally speaking, help to focus the attention of the working class upon the vital interests so far as the communist agitation was concerned.
As to the clause, ‘In all cases such representatives must be considered as holding a mandate from the party, and not from the particular constituency for which they happen to sit’, those of us who had been identified with the political labour movement for any length of time knew the hackneyed phrase used by the politicians of all shades of opinion, that once they went inside the House of Commons they ceased to have any connection with their particular organisation and represented the interests of all sections of the community. This was a pretence, it was impossible - and this was the inherent weakness of the parliamentary constituency - for any representative to express the desires and wills of all the conflicting class elements that made up a constituency.
By this resolution we sought to make it emphatic that the candidate sent up by the Communist Party would contest his seat under the surveillance of the Communist Party executive, and would go to the House of Commons with a mandate from the party - that he would not draw his mandate from the constituency. This was the point of view sought to be brought out in the resolution - that we must have discipline to the communist executive from all members, whether outside or inside the House of Commons.
The resolution was seconded, and it was agreed, on the suggestion of the chair, that the discussion should take the form of a debate for and against parliamentary action, leaving till afterwards all questions of amending the resolution. As we will see in the next instalment of this series, six speakers opposed the resolution, while 13 spoke in favour.
- Weekly Worker September 21 2010.
- Weekly Worker December 9 2010. Albert Inkpin (1884-1944) had previously been the secretary of the British Socialist Party, the largest component party of the new CPGB. When he gave this report, he was the secretary of the Joint Provisional Committee of the CPGB. Inkpin was the party’s first general secretary and led the CPGB for nine years. In 1929, he became secretary of the Russia Today Society - a post he occupied until his death in 1944.
- The 1st Congress of the CPGB was known as the Communist Unity Convention.
- Arthur MacManus was a member of the Socialist Labour Party. He played an important role the Unity Committee created in 1919 to facilitate the merger of SLP, BSL and others. Later, MacManus was the CPGB’s first chairman, a position he held until 1922.