History: Britain’s communist party

In our society, where the fields of information and education are as much dominated by the monopoly-capitalist ruling class and its state as are culture and what passes for politics, tackling questions of working-class history – and, even more, the history of the British communist movement – is not generally encouraged. Quite the contrary.

What follows, then, will not be found on the BBC, on ITV or on channels 4, 5 or 197. Nor will any light be shed on any of this in the glossy, liberal Sunday supplements – and still less in The Sun or the Daily Mirror. Nor is there much factual information to be found on the internet.

We’re clearly taking a conscious step out of the bourgeois mainstream when we tackle aspects of communist history, but stepping out of the mainstream is what Marxist Leninists are all about.1

It’s not ‘mainstream’ to analyse our society from the class perspective of the exploited and oppressed. And it’s not ‘mainstream’ to argue for, and act towards, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist state run by the majority of our population, the working people, in our own interests rather than those of a parasitic minority.

Founding conference

So here we are in 2011, dealing with British communist history. But we want you to close your eyes for a moment (either literally or metaphorically) and imagine that you don’t have credit cards in your purse or wallet, that you don’t have a mobile phone, and that when you go home from work – possibly by tram rather than bus – and write your next letter, it will be by hand or on a manual typewriter rather than on a computer.

And there’ll be no telly to greet you and attempt to lull you into apathetic indifference to the global exploitation of man by man. No Big Brother and no EastEnders, not even the BBC news.

You might have a radio, though, because you’re now in 1920 – and you’re at a posh hotel near St Paul’s cathedral in London. It was there, on the last day of July, that Marxists of various shades and from various traditions came together, after many months of difficult negotiations, in a Unity Convention aimed at establishing the British communist party.

This was an important attempt at unity, but unity around what?

Unity around support for the new Soviet republic, which had resulted from the seizure of state power by the workers and peasants of Russia less than three years before – and which, in the words of American communist journalist John Reed had “shaken the world by ousting the capitalists and landowners, putting the working class in the driving seat and pointing the way forward for the exploited and oppressed of the whole world.2

The Great October Socialist Revolution was, and remains, the single most important event in the entire history of humanity since it first split into classes thousands of years ago.

And unity in seeking to establish a single British communist party, fully embracing Marxism Leninism and based on the political and organisational principle of democratic centralism. This was to be a ‘party of a new type’, which would be affiliated to the newly established Communist – or Third – International, set up just the previous year at a historic meeting in Moscow.

Remember, it’s still 31 July 1920, in the City of London. We want you to imagine that, in this hotel meeting room we’re sitting in, some of you are delegates from the British Socialist Party (BSP). Others came from the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – not Arthur Scargill and his shrinking coterie of fans, it has to be said. There was an Arthur involved in the leadership, a certain comrade MacManus, but the key figure in the organisation had been the revolutionary socialist, Irish patriot and martyr to British imperialism, James Connolly.3

And maybe the rest of our readers could imagine that you’re here to represent either Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF), the South Wales Socialist Society (SWSS) or the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee (SSWC).

Or perhaps you’re a left-winger within the Independent Labour Party (ILP), or a member of the Guild Socialists (GS).

This latter group, as the reference to ‘guilds’ implies, comprised artisans – small, independent craftsmen – who had thrown in their lot with the proletariat. There’s a precedent for this in William Morris, considered to be one of the fathers of British socialism but better known outside political circles for his furniture and his wallpaper designs.

You, our readers (still living in 1920), are about to become foundation members of the brand new Communist Party of Great Britain.

In so doing, you’re going to arm the working class of this country as never before in its historic battle for the end of wage slavery and the revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism and then communism.

Rejection of social democracy

Having established that, let’s return to 2011. Let’s cast a retrospective eye on where these various organisations came from and what they represented at the time of the Unity Convention.

Then we’re going to outline some of the key elements of the Communist Party’s work in the first two and a half decades of its existence.

First, though, a word about the Labour Party, which genuine communists are always banging on about – and with good reason.

On demonstrations, we sometimes hear slogans such as: ‘ConDem/Labour, both the same! They all play the bosses’ game!’ Alternatively, we are occasionally treated to the more concise ‘Labour, Tory – same old story!’

Both are true and, almost alone among political journals, Lalkar and Proletarian characterise the Labour party as every bit as pro-capitalist, pro-war and anti-worker as its Tory and Liberal Democrat bedfellows.

Four years before the foundation of the British communist party, back in 1916, there were seven Labour ministers in the Tory/Liberal coalition, who not only supported the great imperialist war of 1914-18 but actually helped prosecute it.

And, more recently, it doesn’t take much research to show that it wasn’t the Tories who took uniformed, working-class lads into Korea (1950) or into the northeast of Ireland (1969) to kill other workers in those countries. Nor was it the Tories who were responsible for the genocidal attack on Iraq in 2003. To deny that Labour is a capitalist, imperialist party – no different from the other two – is to turn your head away when history doesn’t personally suit you.

Back to the first two decades of the 20th century, though. Let’s resume our investigation into the origins and development of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The first world war

In 1914, on the eve of the first world war, which was to sweep millions of British workers into the armed forces to kill or be killed by their fellow workers of other lands, there was a profound contradiction within the British labour movement.

On the one hand there were great mass organisations – the trade unions and the TUC, the cooperative movement with all its manifold societies, the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party, together embracing millions, but without a socialist outlook, led by men who preached and practised reformism and class collaboration: mass organisations without socialism.

On the other hand, there were a number of socialist organisations, accepting scientific socialism, the ideas and approaches of Marxism, courageous but small, isolated, sometimes sectarian: socialism without the masses.

With the war, all the oft-voted and oft-applauded resolutions against war of the Second International were quickly forgotten. The official trade-union movement, as Beatrice and Sydney Webb put it, became “part of the social machinery of state”. (Quoted in ‘The foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain’ by James Klugmann, Marxism Today, January 1960)

Trade-union and Labour Party leaders recruited workers for the trenches to fight against workers recruited by German trade-union and social-democratic leaders who had also tried to transform their organisations into a “part of the social machinery of state”.

There were, of course, very many workers in Britain who resisted participation in the war. Many (in the ILP, for instance), lacking revolutionary clarity, and finding no organisation or leadership to guide them in the struggle, expressed their opposition in individual resistance, pacifism, conscientious objection – courageous but ineffective.

The BSP and the SLP were both divided at the beginning of the war, and it was not until the 1916 conference that the anti-war and internationalist section of the BSP defeated the pro-war leadership.

Meanwhile John Maclean, on the Clydeside, gave a stirring example of how to lead masses of workers into political resistance against imperialist war. As the war continued, and with all the suffering that war entails, new organisations arose from the militant rank and file, mainly led by Marxists and revolutionaries – organisations in the factories, shipyards and pits.

And, with the end of the war in 1918, workers inspired by the Great October Socialist Revolution joined together to oppose the armed intervention by 14 capitalist powers – among them Britain – against the young Soviet republic. The highlight of this ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign was the refusal by dockers to load the ship Jolly George with military supplies bound for the interventionist forces in Murmansk.

These two trends were among the forces that subsequently came together to form a Leninist ‘party of a new type’ in Britain.

Communist unity convention

Against the backdrop of a deep post-war depression, with first a million and then two million workers on the dole, the organisations outlined above – principal among them the BSP – began unity negotiations that can be characterised as falling into three main stages:

1. From the end of the war until March 1919, there were a number of discussions between the BSP, the ILP and the SLP, calling for “the cooperation of all active socialist forces with a view to formulating a common working basis”.

2. From March 1919 to May 1920, there were a series of discussions between BSP, the SLP, the WSF and the SWSS. All the comrades involved stood for “revolutionary struggle, the overthrow of capitalism, the winning of political power by the working class [and] the establishment of the dictatorship of the working class”.4

Tactical differences remained, however, on two fronts. Should the new Communist Party engage in parliamentary activity? And should it be affiliated to the Labour Party?

3. Discussions followed, on and off, throughout the period May 1919-May 1920, and the decision was finally taken to convene a Unity Convention. But the bulk of the SLP – except its ‘Communist Unity Group’ (CUG) – had already withdrawn from the negotiations, as had the WSF (which, under Sylvia Pankhurst, went on to work for an organisation of a strictly anti-parliamentarian character).

The actual Unity Convention, as we have said, opened in London on the last day of July in 1920, in the rather unusual atmosphere of the Cannon Street Hotel, more accustomed to City dignitaries than to representatives of the revolutionary proletariat. It subsequently adjourned to the more familiar surroundings of the International Socialist Club in the East End of London.

Some 160 delegates attended with 211 mandates, of which 96 represented BSP branches, 25 branches of the CUG and 36 miscellaneous groups including ILP branches, Shop Stewards’ organisations, Guild Communists and local socialist societies.

Fraternal messages were read, including one from Tom Mann (from the left of the ILP) and another from veteran German socialist Clara Zetkin (forever to be associated with the establishment of International Working Women’s Day).

Lenin on parliamentary elections and the Labour Party

But the greatest enthusiasm of the delegates was reserved for the personal message from V I Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks and chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of Soviet Russia.

Lenin said that he considered the WSF and Sylvia Pankhurst wrong not to have attended the convention. He went on to argue in favour of participation in Parliament and of “adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent communist activity”.

The two ‘communist’ parties which, in our own day, emerged from what had become a thoroughly revisionist CPGB – the New Communist Party (1977) and the Communist Party of Britain (1988) – still call on workers to vote Labour on the basis of Lenin’s intervention back in 1920.

For this reason alone, three things must be stressed:

1. Lenin’s advice was never more than tactical – an immediate, short-term response to an immediate, short-term problem.

2. Lenin’s insistence on full freedom of communist activity within the Labour Party was never met.

3. In his subsequent work, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Lenin went on to call for supporting Labour “as a rope supports a hanging man”, that is, in order to thoroughly expose its bourgeois nature. Hardly praise for social democracy!5

In the event, back in July and August 1920, delegates to the Unity Convention voted (by 186 to 19) to embrace parliamentary activity, and the decision to seek affiliation to the Labour Party was made by a vote of 100 to 85.

Most importantly, a historic step had been taken: Britain now had its own Communist Party, a party which was affiliated to the Communist International.

It should be pointed out that the WSF briefly joined the new party, but Pankhurst and her followers were expelled after she refused to hand editorial control of her newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, over to the central committee, as required under one of the Communist International’s 21 rules for affiliation.6

Initially, seeking to implement the Unity Convention’s affiliation decision, the CPGB attempted to work within the Labour Party, which at this time operated mainly as a federation of ‘socialist societies’, only having allowed individual membership since 1918.

However, despite the support of ILP leader James Maxton, the Labour Party decided against accepting the affiliation of the Communist Party.

Election of first communist MPs

While pursuing affiliation, the CPGB had promoted its own candidates at parliamentary and local authority elections. Now it encouraged its members to join the Labour Party individually and to seek Labour’s endorsement of its own – Communist but officially ‘Labour’ – candidates.

It was in this way, in the 1922 general election, that CPGB members Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North, London) and Walton Newbold (Motherwell, Scotland) both became members of parliament. Newbold, very significantly, had openly stood as a ‘Labour and Communist’ candidate.

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) having been established, and having taken very loudly to the public stage, the ruling monopoly-capitalist class was bound to sit up and take notice.

In 1924, the first Labour government – led by the class traitor James Ramsay MacDonald – was forced out of office by the affair of the forged Zinoviev letter. Intended to suggest that the CPGB was engaged in subversive activities among the armed forces and elsewhere, the forgery’s successful aim was to promote the electoral chances of the Tories.

It was actually the work of MI6 and White Russian counter-revolutionaries but, of course, the CPGB had been agitating among the ‘workers in uniform’ – and everywhere else that the proletariat, organised or unorganised, was to be found.

British General Strike

In 1926, on the eve of Britain’s first and only general strike, much of the CPGB’s leadership was arrested (a pre-emptive strike by the bourgeois state) and imprisoned for ‘seditious conspiracy’, their having – in the words of the Attorney General – “published the works of Mr Lenin”. Five were jailed for a year, and seven for six months.

During the general strike itself – led by miners, engineers, rail and other transport workers – and during the separate miners’ strike which followed, members of the CPGB were to the fore in defending the workers and their industrial action.

In response to the establishment of the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS), a government-funded strike-breaking militia to which the top two fascist leaders of the day were affiliated, the CPGB said that this was “the most definite step towards organised fascism yet made in this country … [A]n examination of its leading personnel and its proclaimed purpose can only stamp it as an organisation for the defence of property against the lives of the masses of labouring people.

The Communist Party,” continued the statement, “does not regard this development as unique. It simply indicates the inevitable lines in the development of capitalism already traversed in other countries, and confirms the communist analysis of the class war. It will develop the class war here and convince the workers of the correctness of our policy and our demand for the organisation of workers’ defence corps.7

Then, upon the betrayal of the strike by the Labour Party and the TUC, British communists had this to say: “The working class is bigger than any leader. If the old leaders turn traitor or coward, the workers are capable of taking charge themselves … There will be talk of loyalty and discipline.

The Communist Party declares that the greatest loyalty is loyalty to the working class; the finest discipline is one that helps the workers to beat the bosses, not the bosses to smash the workers.

Class against class

In 1929, the Communist International declared a ‘third period’, one of renewed revolutionary advance. The result of this new analysis in Britain was the shift to a policy of Class Against Class, as reflected in the CPGB’s electoral manifesto of the same name.

Henceforth, social-democratic and Labourite parties were to be seen as equally as much a threat to the proletarian movement as openly fascist parties. The Labour Party was denounced as ‘social-fascist’ – socialist in word; fascist by nature.

This ‘third period’ also meant that the CPGB sought to develop revolutionary trade unions, under the umbrella of the Red International of Trade Unions [Profintern], in opposition to the docile and reformist unions organised in the TUC.

In practice, a handful of red trade unions were formed, amongst them a miners’ union in Scotland and a tailoring union in East London.

To his discredit, Arthur Horner, the communist leader of the Welsh miners, broke with CPGB discipline and fought off attempts to set up a revolutionary trade union on his patch.

We can justifiably view the ‘class against class’ period as one of the heroic episodes of British communism. In particular, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) – which emerged around this time – is worthy of note. This was led by CPGB cadre Wal Hannington, who is also responsible for a very useful book on how, as chair, to run a political meeting.

Increasing unemployment had led to a substantial increase in Communist Party membership, particularly among jobless engineers. These new members helped boost the numbers taking part in a series of nationwide marches on the unemployment question (the most famous being a Jarrow to London trek). The NUWM survived the change in the international communist line worked out at the Seventh World Congress in 1935, only being dissolved in 1941.

Popular front

In 1935, at the aforementioned congress of the Third International, Georgi Dimitrov announced a new policy – that of the Popular Front against fascism.8 Shortly thereafter, Willie Gallacher was elected as the Communist MP for the coal-mining region of West Fife (in Scotland).

Then, beginning in 1936, the CPGB started recruiting internationalist volunteers in defence of the Spanish republic against Franco’s fascist coup. Without the leadership of the British communists, there would have been no contribution from this country to the world-renowned International Brigades.9

At about the same time, the party played a leading role in opposing – both politically and physically – the British Union of Fascists, led by former Labour cabinet minister Sir Oswald Moseley. This campaign reached its peak with the famous Battle of Cable Street, in London’s East End.10

Second world war

With the outbreak of the second world war in September 1939, British communists initially declared their support for what they saw as an anti-fascist battle against Nazi Germany. Less than a month later, the Communist International having characterised the war as ‘imperialist on both sides’, the CPGB was forced to change its position, with Harry Pollitt having to step down as General Secretary.11

Now, as an opponent of the war, the CPGB found its newspaper, the Daily Worker, banned (by Labour home secretary Herbert Morrisson, grandfather of the beloved Peter Mandelson) and its work in the factories closely monitored, given the wartime ban on strikes and other industrial action.

This situation was reversed when, early in 1942, the Daily Worker ban was lifted, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union the previous year having transformed the character of the war. Now we were talking about a war against fascism, about an imperialist attack on the spiritual homeland of the international, revolutionary proletariat.

The dissolution of the Communist International in 1943 seems like a good place to end this brief survey of the CPGB’s foundation and early work, but we leave you with the oft-neglected story of British communists’ leadership of the struggle – during the London blitz of 1940-41 – to gain access for working-class people to the London Underground by way of shelter.

Suburban Londoners, even before the outbreak of war, had been given Anderson shelters to install in their back gardens. No such luck, though, if you were a worker living in a Victorian terraced house in the East End – with no garden in sight.

It was the CPGB that successfully spearheaded the campaign to turn Tube stations into mass shelters for ordinary, working people.

In other words, the most iconic image of the second world war, that of Londoners sheltering on Tube platforms, is primarily down to the CPGB. How much more in tune with the immediate – as well as longer-term – interests of the proletariat can a communist party be?


1. This article is based on two parallel talks given by Steve Cook, at a London day school organised by the CPGB-ML in January 2011, and at a February meeting of the Stalin Society in Glasgow.

2. See Reed’s first-hand account of the October Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, with its introduction by V I Lenin (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1986).

3. See James Connolly: Selected Writings (ed P Berresford Ellis, Pelican, Harmondsworth 1973).

4. James Klugmann, Marxism Today, January 1960.

5. For a full treatment of this question, consult Harpal Brar’s excellent Social Democracy: the Enemy Within (1995).

6. Some of Sylvia Pankhurst’s writings remain worth reading. The best anthology available is A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader (ed Kathryn Dodd, Manchester University Press 1993).

7. Quoted in The 1926 British General Strike (CPGB-ML, 2009).

8. Dimitrov, who had turned the tables on Göring during the Reichstag Fire trial of 1933, was general secretary of the Communist International and went on to become the first prime minister of socialist Bulgaria.

9. A memorial to those who served in the International Brigades is to be found on London’s south bank, between County Hall and the London Eye. It’s definitely worth a visit. Meanwhile, readers are directed to Bill Alexander’s British Volunteers for Liberty (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1982).

10. See the pamphlet The Battle of Cable Street (Cable Street Group, London 1996).

11. A conference was held by the – already revisionist and moribund – CPGB on this subject in 1979. The verbatim transcripts are available in book form as 1939: The Communist Party and the War (eds John Attfield and Stephen Williams, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1984)