How socialists relate to the working class has always been a source of tension within the socialist tradition. Chris Bambery suggests that the early years of British Communism provide lessons that are still very relevant to debates today.
‘Build the party!’ ‘Build the movement!’ The history of socialist politics in Britain has in many ways been defined by a misunderstanding of the relationship between these two slogans. This is still true today. To many of the best activists in the anti-austerity movement the bulk of socialists seem solely fixated on the first slogan, concentrating on selling their paper and recruiting on the sidelines. Many activists do not see much in this sort of politics that they can identify with.
However, this politics is not the tradition of Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. They argued for a united front approach, which aims to unite those willing to take action on a particular issue whilst maintaining political disagreements on wider issues. This was intimately connected to an argument about the necessity of constructing interventionist revolutionary organisation. The two strands simply could not be separated.
Discussions over these issues took place in the international revolutionary movement. The Communist International (Comintern) from 1919 to 1922 made up all those who had opposed the First World War and believed in and defended the socialist revolution in Russia in 1917. However, the two leading Russian revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, quickly realised that it was not enough for socialists in Europe to simply reject reformism and believe in the need for revolutionary change like in Russia.
Lenin’s ‘Left-wing Communism’
Its title is not one which might encourage you to pick it up and read it but Lenin’s ‘Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’ is his biggest literary gift to revolutionaries operating in parliamentary democracies. Published in 1920 the original manuscript carried the subtitle, ‘A Popular Exposition of Marxist Strategy and Tactics.’
While some of the names and organisations cited have faded into obscurity, the issues at stake have not. The booklet was distributed to every delegate at the second Congress of the Communist International. Its purpose was to politically define the approach of revolutionaries.
Across Europe, North America and parts of the colonial world new Communist Parties were emerging but having broken with the old social democratic and labour parties, Lenin was now arguing they had to set their strategic sight at winning a majority within their working class. ‘Left Wing Communism,’ with a particular focus on the infant British Communist Party, was laying down a policy of being prepared to work with those who retained loyalty to reformism (embodied in the Labour party in Britain), the majority of the working class, while retaining a critical edge.
In a stimulating article on the origins of the Comintern’s united front policy the Canadian Marxist John Riddell places the idea within the context of a battle by Lenin and Trotsky with the Comintern. At first they were in a minority within the organisation, against those who believed revolutionaries should be engaged in a revolutionary offensive at all times, whatever the state of the class struggle, class confidence and class organisation. Within the German and Italian Communist Parties the leaderships ruled out compromises, alliances with non-communists, work within the existing trade unions and much else. Understandable revulsion against the crass parliamentarianism of the social democrats turned into rejection of contesting elections and taking seats in bourgeois parliaments.
Lenin and Trotsky had to work as a team in championing the united front strategy: they attacked the ultra lefts but a fight against the right wing was necessary as well, particularly within the French Communist Party. These rightists had come from the old Socialist Party whose conference voted to join the Comintern and who had brought their old ways of operating with them. In reality both the right wing and ‘ultra left’ policies bred passivity, particularly as the post-war revolutionary wave of 1919-20 ebbed away.[i]
The leadership of the British Communist Party was far from being ‘ultra lefts.’ Though they shared some positions associated with that politics their real weakness flowed from the fact that they were rooted in a dull propagandist tradition which has all too often marked the British radical Left.
The very first ‘Marxist’ organisation launched in this country in 1881, the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), held the mechanical perspective that socialism was inevitable. The task was to prepare the working class by preaching at it and contesting elections. It dismissed actual workers' struggles. When workers did take action they prepared a leaflet ready for strikers literally telling them their effort was a waste of time because strikes could attain nothing and socialism was the only answer.
Fredreich Engels argued:
‘… The SDF is purely a sect. It has ossified Marxism into a dogma… it renders itself incapable of ever becoming anything else but a sect.’[ii]
In the years before the First World War many working class movements broke from this propagandism to look to direct working class struggle within the workplace as the way forward. They were called syndicalists. For them the creation of industrial rather than craft unions would create the impetus for revolution. Many were in the SDF/BSP or other smaller groups but saw the party's role as essentially making propaganda for socialism.
Among them was the Paisley born engineering militant, Willie Gallacher. He became a central leader of the war time Clyde Workers Committee uniting militant shop stewards across Glasgow and its hinterland. But Gallacher’s syndicalism reduced itself to concentrating on the economic battles of defending wages and conditions, admittedly both under sharp attack. For six days of the week Gallacher was a trade unionist pure and simple while on Sunday’s he delivered abstract lectures on the virtues of socialism. There was nothing to connect the two.
In contrast John Maclean supported every strike but insisted that had to be accompanied by constant agitation against the war. When Maclean carried that into the Clyde Workers Committee, Gallacher was one of those who forced his removal.
In similar vein British socialists did little or nothing when their friend and comrade James Connolly was put before a firing squad for his leading role in the Easter 1916 Dublin Rising. Maclean was exceptional in putting support for Irish freedom to the very fore just as he did solidarity with the Russian Revolution. Little wonder Lenin singled him out for praise.
Repeatedly it has been Gallacher’s mix of economism and propagandism, washed down with an anti-intellectualism which downplays theory, which has come to the fore in British socialism rather than Maclean’s combination of support for working class struggles with anti-imperialism and internationalism.
The British Communist Party (CPGB) was formed in August 1920 through the fusion of the main far left wing organisation, the British Socialist Party with a number of smaller groups. Gallacher and the Sheffield shop steward’s leader, J.T. Murphy were among its early leaders. It was in its first two years little more than a continuation of the old BSP, as the labour historian Brian Pearce spells out: ‘from the beginning Lenin, Trotsky and the whole Comintern leadership of 1920-23 had to struggle against the rooted sectarianism of the British Marxists.’[iii]
Trotsky described the CPGB in November 1922 as remaining as ‘a successfully functional educational and propaganda society but not a party capable of directly leading the masses.’[iv]
The key issue was what attitude revolutionaries should take to Labour, then a very different organisation from today’s model. In 1920 the Labour Party’s membership was almost entirely made up of members of affiliated organisations, not just the trade unions but the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. On Clydeside the only branch organisation was courtesy of the ILP. The BSP had been one of the affiliated organisations. Its members, including John Maclean, stood as parliamentary candidates with Labour’s endorsement, despite their revolutionary manifesto and speeches.
It was also clear that with the effective demise of the Liberal Party as one of two ‘natural’ parties of government Labour under Ramsey MacDonald was heading into government. The likely experience of being in office during a time of economic difficulties, revolutionary storms and wars of national liberation against British colonialism would be a clash between the hopes and expectations of Labour supporters and members and the policies pursued by MacDonald and co.
This was the context within which Lenin argued that British Communists should seek affiliation to Labour and that further it should support Labour candidates.
The British delegation to the Comintern’s Second Congress were not just shocked by the arguments in ‘Left Wing Communism’ but they were also taken aback by the whole approach to the role of the party presented to them, as Michael Woodhouse points out:
‘To the British delegates the idea of a disciplined, centralised party, working in a planned, organised way in the trade unions and Labour Party was something completely new and outside their previous experience, as was the emphasis of the CI [Communist International] upon the need for a theoretically-trained membership educated to use Marxism not in the sterile, formal manner of the Second International but creatively, as a method to evaluate the political perspectives before the party, and for relating to this, the day to day work of the party in its various forms.’[v]
At the CPGB’s founding congress in August 1920 support for Lenin’s position of seeking affiliation to the Labour Party was only agreed by the narrowest of margins. The party leadership still opposed the move and worded the letter of affiliation in such a way as to force Labour to refuse. When the refusal inevitably followed their statement in response simply said ‘it’s their funeral.’[vi]
The party’s emphasis in its first year and a half was an extension of the old SDF/BSP methods. Alongside propaganda meetings, indoor in winter and outdoor in summer, and paper sales it did not carry out systematic work in the trade unions and concentrated on party led campaigning among the unemployed which all too often reduced it to carrying out stunts. There was no attempt to link the unemployed workers to unionised workers' employment or to work with the Independent Labour Party which was involved in similar campaigning. The party threw itself into going door to door in the East Woolwich parliamentary by-election in early 1921 urging people not to vote Labour. The outcome was a Labour defeat by a narrow margin to the Tories, leaving a legacy of bad blood between the Communists and Labour activists.
The party’s trade union work continued the old syndicalist approach but by 1921 the boot was on the foot of the employers and the Lloyd George coalition government (effectively a Tory one). In order to pay for the war, the debts Britain had incurred and the cost of various colonial wars, the British ruling class decided to rip up war time controls placed on the mine owners and to enforce wage cuts and worsened conditions. This was the decisive battle in a massive attack on public spending unparalleled until today’s austerity programme.
The miners were locked out in what was a political battle which required a political response, but the CPGB did not rise to the occasion. Above all in the key industry and in key industrial areas where it needed to be rooted it had no effective organisation. The Comintern arguments about what kind of party was required- the united front approach and the need for a revolutionary approach in the unions aimed at breaking down a separation between economic and political issues- began to find a strong response. Added to this was the fact that by the beginning of 1922 the party’s membership was down to 2000. The need to change became obvious.
All of this meant that the CPGB leadership was under fire from the Comintern in two, concerted directions – the need for a united front approach towards Labour and the unions and the need, associated with that approach, for what was termed ‘a party of the new type.’
The congresses, commissions and executive bodies in Moscow where these matters were discussed saw real debates where no-one, even Lenin, could simply declare and decide matters. They left a mark on those who took part.
At the CPGB’s fourth conference in March 1922 J.T. Murphy admitted that the Comintern’s stress on the united front had ‘come to the party practically as a shock.’[vii]
At this conference the British party agreed to form a commission drawn from outside the party’s executive committee to draw up a report on how to organize a ‘party of the new type’ in alignment with Comintern guidelines. The commission’s members were Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974), who would be the key intellectual force in the party for the next half century, Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), a boilermaker who would be party secretary from 1929 to 1956 with a brief interruption at the outbreak of World War Two, and Harry Inkpin, editor of the party’s monthly magazine and brother of the sitting party secretary. The subsequent report was the work almost entirely of the first two.
The final document presented in the summer of 1922 was emphatic about the CPGB currently constituted, arguing that ‘this instrument will never achieve the revolution.’[viii]
Party life centred on an indoor meeting in winter and an outdoor one in summer where the virtues of communism over capitalism were recounted to ‘a typical knot of Sunday morning listeners.’[ix]
It went on top describe a ‘moderately active and efficient branch’ thus:
‘The branch consists of about twenty members (this is the average for the country). Of these, half a dozen do the work and are probably accused by the remainder of being a “clique”. Another half a dozen occasionally put in an appearance and lend a hand. The remaining eight are seldom seen; and of them the secretary is “not sure whether they are still members, as he only has their names from the previous secretary’s list.’[x]
The commission’s proposals were clearly tied into the new united front approach and the new party could be said to be a party of the united front. Party members would be organised in working groups ‘of members living near each other, or working in the same place, or attending the same union branch, or taking a special interest in some special piece of party activity.’[xi]
The stress was on building factory groups. Once a month members in a particular district would meet together and would also elect a district committee. The party newspaper, The Communist, had to be transformed into ‘a mass organ of the current struggle’ with its aim ‘not only to agitate, but to organize and train.’ In order to lead ‘not simply in general terms, but in relation to daily happenings as they come, meetings, strikes, union votes’ and that required a network of worker correspondents in the industrial towns, factories and unions.[xii]
The commission was accepted at a party congress in October after regional meetings to discuss it across the country. Within three months a recruitment campaign increased the membership from three to four thousand.
In the November 1922 general election the party urged its supporters to vote Labour and two members, Walton Newbold in Motherwell and Shapurji Saklatvala in Battersea, South London were elected as MPs with the endorsement of the Labour Party locally.
In February 1923 ‘The Communist’ was transformed into ‘Worker’s Weekly,’ edited by Palme Dutt, who set its aim to be ‘a paper by the workers for the workers,’ seeking an audience beyond the CPGB’s ranks within the unions and the Labour Party. In just eight weeks its circulation blossomed from 19,000 to 51,000. Dutt claimed of 2500 reports and letters sent in by readers, half were published. The paper combined support for industrial struggles, the CPGB’s effort to gain affiliation to Labour and a united front approach with a strong anti-imperialist stance (Dutt was half Indian).[xiii]
In 1923 further discussions in Moscow led to the decision to build the National Minority Movement, grouping rank and file organisations in the unions into a nationwide movement. This was to be the model revolutionaries looked back to when they returned to the task in the early and mid 1970s.
Two years later a National Left Wing Movement was formed within the Labour Party uniting Communist Party supporters inside the party with other lefts.
The party had some 4000 members by 1923 and the election of a minority Labour government that year was a sign of returning class confidence. Strikes began to take place too and the build up began towards the decisive confrontation, that of the 1926 General Strike.
The drive to create factory branches with their own bulletins or papers paid dividends:
‘By March, 1925 fifty factory groups had been formed, almost all of them in the previous six months, and two months later the number had risen to sixty-eight embracing 10 percent of the total membership, which was then 5000. London had made the greatest advance with 20 percent of its membership in thirty two factory groups which issued twenty-two factory papers having a total circulation of 5000 copies a fortnight.’[xiv]
But the discussions in Moscow which helped give birth to the National Minority Movement represented the last beneficial Comintern intervention, as the body began its evolution into an appendix of Soviet foreign policy. The likes of Palme Dutt and Harry Pollitt would faithfully follow pledging undying loyalty to Stalin’s tyranny, but that should not obscure their brief, revolutionary career.
The British Communists entered 1926 with 6000 members, 1000 organised in factory branches and sales of ‘Workers Weekly’ which topped 60,000. It was a force, albeit small, but by now it was crippled by the line coming from Moscow which was uncritical support for the left trade union leaders, a line carried into the General Strike with disastrous results as the left union leaders did nothing to oppose the sell out of the strike. The Comintern president believed that an alliance with these leaders might provide a short cut to revolution, his then ally Stalin viewed them as assets to be deployed in the interests of Russian diplomacy rather than revolution.
The slogan raised by the CPGB of ‘all power to the General Council of the TUC’ meant it played no independent role as a national force despite the sterling work of its individual members.
The point of this article is not to dust off a chapter of obscure and ancient history but to argue that ‘build the party’ and ‘build the movement’ are not opposites. The model of a revolutionary party Lenin and Trotsky were arguing for in 1920-1922 were parties aimed at implementing the united front approach. The united front was their key strategy for revolutionaries operating in parliamentary democracies (they also applied it to working with national liberation struggles in the colonial world) and in relation to mass social democratic and labour parties.
The other point is that when the stress on united front work is lost ‘build the party’ quickly becomes a recipe for propagandism and passivity. This is particularly true on the British Left where propagandism has historically been in combination with dull economism. That’s also washed down with workerism (adaptation to the working class as it is, surviving under capitalism, rather than looking to its potential for self-liberation) which too often takes a sneering attitude to theory.
Learning the lessons and the dominant traditions of our own past is the only way to ensure we don’t replicate the same errors this time around.
[i] John Riddell, The Origins of the United Front Policy, International Socialism Journal 130, April 2011.
[ii] Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels, On Britain, Wishart, 1971, P574
[iii] Brian Pearce, Early Years of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park, 1975, P153
[iv] Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Writings on Britain Volume 1, New Park, 1974, P179
[v] Michael Woodhouse, Marxism and Stalinism in Britain, in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park, 1975, P51
[vi] Brian Pearce, Early Years of the CPGB, in in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park, 1975, P153
[vii] Brian Pearce, Early Years of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park, 1975, P154
[viii] L..J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966, P79
[ix] L..J. Macfarlane, L..J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966, P79
[x] Hugo Dewar, Commnist Politics in Britain: The CPGB From Its Origins to the Second World War, Pluto Press, 1976, P25-26
[xi] The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966, P80
[xii] L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966, P80
[xiii] John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism, Lawrence and Wishart, 1993, P52
[xiv] L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development Until 1929, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966, P133
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.