ILP left looks to CPGB

These two questions of parliamentarianism and dictatorship of the proletariat must be settled by you in no ambiguous manner, writes Tom Bell

The Independent Labour Party was the largest socialist party in Britain in 1920, with nearly 800 branches. It was a non-Marxist, left reformist party and had been instrumental in creating the Labour Party, to which it was affiliated. However, its rank and file were mostly militant workers opposed to capitalism, many inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

At its 1920 conference the ILP voted to withdraw from the discredited Second International and investigate affiliation to the Communist International. This was a blow for the ILP’s reformist leadership, though they were able to confuse the issue by posing the Vienna Union as an alternative. The Vienna Union, the so-called ‘Two and a half International’, set itself the impossible task of reconciling communist and reformist parties within one centre. The duplicity of ILP leader Ramsay MacDonald was revealed when in November 1920 he became secretary of the Second International.

Delegates from the Left Wing group within the ILP were present at the Leeds Unity Conference (2nd Congress of the CPGB). They outlined their campaign to win the ILP to revolutionary policies and affiliation to the Communist International.

These issues were to be debated at the Easter 1921 ILP conference. The Communist Party supported the Left Wing group, and published articles in The Communist backing its campaign, including this open letter from Tom Bell.

To the rank and file of the ILP

Comrades, the document submitted to you by your national administrative council, containing draft proposals for a new party policy, places a great responsibility on your shoulders. Need we say the importance of your decision is a matter of concern to others besides yourselves.

Not only the Communist Party of Great Britain, but the revolutionary workers throughout the world are looking to you with high hopes that the decision you are called upon to take will lift the ILP abreast of the best fighting units in the Communist International. A great opportunity is certainly within your grasp. You have to say whether or not the experience of the last six years of war has found any weak spots in your party policy or constitution; above all whether the heroic and courageous example of our comrades in Russia does not call for such a new outlook and policy in the ILP as shall clearly mark it off from the traditions of the past.

If you say yes, then you must fearlessly approach the task that awaits you. That task is none other than a clear declaration as to where you stand in the ferment at present agitating the socialist movement throughout the world. Nor must you be influenced in your decision by the fear of breaking with old associations, personal or otherwise. In face of the great opportunities that confront us today we can indeed truly say that our revolutionary movement is greater than the greatest figure amongst us.

It has ever been the proud boast of your old-time officials that schism or theoretic discussion in the socialist movement left the ILP untouched. They have pointed with pride to the attack of the old Marxist parties and the demands made by them upon the ILP for lip service - often nothing else - to the class struggle and the formulae of economic theory, and how the party went on its way doing the practical work of recruiting the masses to socialism. For years they flattered themselves that the attacks of the industrial unionist movement, first formulated in 1905, and the first breach in modern times in the sanctity of parliamentary institutions, was to no avail. They know better now. But the convulsions through which the international socialist parties are passing at present strike deeper than mere academic formulae. The revolutionary ferment of modern times presages the decomposition and break-up of the world capitalist system, and not all the rhetoric of the Snowdens or MacDonalds can obscure its outward manifestations in the titanic struggle now being waged between communism and capitalism.[1]

The communists everywhere have hailed with satisfaction the decision last year of your Scottish divisional council to adhere to the Third International. That decision indicated in no small way that a big section at least of the ILP were receptive to the ideas of the new communist movement, and when at your national conference (Glasgow) last Easter it was decided to leave the Second yellow International, which had so ignominiously failed the working class in its time of need, then the extent of the new ILP impulse was plainly to be seen. The ILP had broken with its traditional policy of compromise, and only the old-time leaders held it back from joining hands with the revolutionary communists. But your contribution to the struggle against the attempts of the socialist renegades to rear again their bastard International can no longer be withheld by your old-time leaders. You must take a decision now. You have to say definitely, once and for all, where you stand. Whether, though separated from the Second International, the party is still obsessed with all the paraphernalia of the parliamentary democracy - ie, ‘constitutional’ in its outlook, social reformist in its policy - or alternatively is prepared to take its place in the ranks of the Communist International.

The draft programme submitted by your NAC is not very helpful to you. It contains all the entanglements of bourgeois parliamentarianism, with a smattering of guild socialism thrown in - presumably as a sop to the idea of sovietism. Herein may be detected the hand of that dilettante intellectual and statistician, Mr Cole, who has suddenly become greatly interested in the work of the ILP.[2] The draft programme still talks of a “national representative assembly” and “systems of local government” in approved Fabian style. There is as yet no recognition of the primary task that confronts the industrial working masses of Great Britain: viz, the immediate struggle for the conquest of power. True, in the paragraph on ‘methods’, bouquets are thrown to direct action, but this direct action is merely, as the paragraph states, to be “extra-political”, to ensure and buttress the “national will”: ie, the government. The seizure of power by the working class consists in the suppression of the capitalist governmental machine and its substitution by a proletarian organisation. The concrete form of that organisation is the workers’ councils.

Your NAC also raises the question of a “transition period”. Here the idea of a transition period savours of the old Fabian twaddle about evolution, as opposed to revolution. It talks of accepting “intermediate systems” of municipalisation and nationalisation towards the final stage of socialism, provided these “give the workers in the industry an effective control and responsibility for its administration”. But when the workers have conquered power, the first essential, there can be no question or doubt about the control or responsibility in industry. The dictatorship of the proletariat will attend to that.

These two questions of parliamentarianism and dictatorship of the proletariat must be settled by you in no ambiguous manner, if you intend to take your place in the van of the workers’ struggle for economic emancipation. They form the crux of the conflict now being waged throughout the international socialist movement, a struggle which can only have one issue: viz, the separation into the bourgeois camp of the respectable professional political traitors to labour from the revolutionary vanguard of the working class now joining up in increasing numbers with the third Communist International.

Against parliamentary democracy, comrades, you must oppose the principle of direct representation by the working class through the workers’ councils. This dictatorship of the proletariat is and must be the means for the expropriation of capital and the elimination of private property in the means of production. There is no other alternative.

The ILP is at the parting of the ways. The issue is communism or capitalist reformism. On you, the rank and file, rests the final decision as to which it is to be.

Yours in the fight
Thomas Bell
The Communist December 2 1920


  1. Philip Snowden (1864-1937) campaigned against conscription during World War I, although he was not a pacifist. He became Labour’s first chancellor of the exchequer in 1924, a position he occupied during MacDonald’s National Government of 1931. Along with other scabs, he was expelled and in a radio broadcast of that year he dubbed Labour’s policies “Bolshevism run mad”.
  2. GDH Cole (1889-1959) was a Fabian political theorist who promoted guild socialist ideas as an alternative to Marxist political economy.