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Communists and the British Labour Party

An earlier version of this article was published in three installments in Labor Challenge, the newspaper of the League for Socialist Action, May 9, June 6 and June 20, 1977. The revised version below, with additional material reflecting further research, was prepared for International Socialist Review, the magazine of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, in June 1978.

Communists and the British Labour Party

by Ian Angus

Part One: British Communists Debate Labour, 1920

Sixteen years after its formation, the NDP remains a subject for keen debate within the Marxist left. Should socialists support the NDP in any way—or should they refuse to have anything to do with it? If it is correct for socialists to support the NDP, what forms and what limits should this support take?

In Quebec, where the NDP has no labour base, should socialists advocate the formation of a labour party?

These questions are not new ones for the international revolutionary movement. Labour parties of the NDP type—rooted in the trade unions, with a liberal program—have been formed or proposed in other countries, and socialists have had to decide how to approach them.

In this series of articles we will look at the policies adopted by the British Communist Party, with Lenin’s advice, toward the British Labour Party in the 1920s. A careful study of this experience is helpful in adopting a correct policy in Canada today.

World War I destroyed the Second International, the association of socialist parties that had seemed so promising before 1914. In almost every country the socialist leaders who had preached internationalism and universal brotherhood in times of peace beat the drums of patriotism and war. Workers parties with millions of supporters betrayed the principles they had claimed to support.

In every country a minority remained faithful to revolutionary Marxism despite the war, and began regrouping the international movement while the battles raged across Europe.

Third International

The effort to re-establish a revolutionary international was given a tremendous impetus by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Inspired by the revolution, thousands of working class leaders rallied to the internationalist cause. In March 1919, thirty-five representatives of the international revolutionary left met in Moscow to launch a new organization—the Third International. They issued a call to revolutionists of all countries to break from the bankrupt parties of the Second International, to form new Communist parties, and to join in building the new Communist International.

The capitalist blockade of Russia prevented any British delegates from attending the founding congress of the new International—but that did not mean that British revolutionists were unsympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. Quite the contrary! The Russian Revolution had struck a deep and responsive chord in the British working class. Attempts by the British government to intervene against the revolution had been met by mass protests, including strikes by dockworkers against loading munitions onto Russia-bound ships. This pro-Soviet mood was reflected in the growth of the revolutionary left.

By 1920 a substantial number of organizations had declared themselves for the Third International, including the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the South Wales Socialist Society and the Workers’ Socialist Federation. In May 1919 these tour organizations began negotiations toward the formation of a united British Communist Party.

British Labour Party

As negotiations got underway, however, it became clear that important differences in policy divided the groups. A subject of particular contention was the Labour Party.

Like the NDP, the Labour Party was organized labour’s chief political expression. It brought together the leaders of the trade unions and a number of mildly socialist and reformist groups, such as the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society.

Like the NDP, the Labour Party made periodic affirmations of adherence to socialist principle, but in practice remained firmly within the framework of capitalist politics.

Unlike the NDP, the Labour Party was a federated organization. Its constitution permitted socialist and labour groups to join as organizations, and to press for their own views to be adopted by the party as a whole. As a result, the debate among British Communists on what attitude to take toward the Labour Party took the form of a debate on whether or not to apply to affiliate to it.

The largest Communist group, the British Socialist Party, had been affiliated to the Labour Party for several years. The BSP leaders proposed that the new Communist Party continue this policy. As BSP leader J. F. Hodgson said:

"... you meet on the industrial field in the trade union certain trade union leaders, you are fully aware that, whether or not through sheer rascality, duplicity and corruption, they are misleading the working class. You meet them there with the intention of destroying their influence, and of winning the confidence of the rank and file to that end. That is exactly the kind of tactics I believe in. But may I remind you that you meet the same people in the Labour Party, and that you meet them on a much larger field than you do in the trade unions?" (quoted in Klugmann, History of the CPGB, Vol. 1, p. 46).

BSPer George Beer pointed out that millions of workers voted Labour: "these were the people we had to show the way to, if we could not win them, we could not win anyone" (quoted in W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921, p. 217),

This was the policy adopted by the BSP’s 1919 convention, which resolved to "give expression to Marxian Socialism, voice the class struggle, and attack the reactionary elements from within the Labour Party itself" (quoted in S. Graubard, British Labour and the Russian Revolution, p. 118).

The other Communist organizations could not swallow this policy. They wanted a total break from the traitors of the Second International, including the Labour Party. How could Communists join such a liberal, reformist party? Tom Bell, a leader of the SLP, insisted:

"The first essential to rally together all the elements in the country in favour of Communism was to make it clear that we have no associations with and did not stand for the same policy as the Labour Party. … we wanted a Communist Party clear and distinct from any associations with reformism or the Labour Party" (quoted in Klugmann, p. 45).

William Paul, also of the SLP, warned that the workers "judge us by the company we keep, and in the moment of crisis, when the indignant masses rise to sweep the Labour Party away, we may be swept away too" (quoted in Kendall, p. 217).

Sylvia Pankhurst, leader of the Workers’ Socialist Federation, took a similar view:

"…Comrade Inkpin, (the General Secretary of the British Socialist Party) refers to the Labour Party as ‘the main body of the working class movement ...’

"We do not take this view of the Labour Party. The Labour Party is very large numerically though its membership is to a great extent quiescent and apathetic, consisting of men and women who have joined the trade unions because their workmates are trade unionists, and to share the friendly benefits…

"The British Labour Party, like the social patriotic organizations of other countries, will in the natural development of society, inevitably come into power. It is for the Communists to build up the forces that will overthrow the social patriots, and in this country we must not delay or falter in that work.

"We must not dissipate our energy in adding to the strength of the Labour Party; its rise to power is inevitable. We must concentrate on making a communist movement that will vanquish it. The Labour Party will soon be forming a government; the revolutionary opposition must make ready to attack it.

"The Communist Party must not compromise ... The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate; its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution" (quoted in Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 429).

(Pankhurst, a member of the famous family of leaders of the women’s -suffrage movement, carried her views further than the SLP did: she was also opposed to any participation in parliamentary elections.)

Today, after more than fifty years experience, it is clear that Pankhurst’s policies would have been disastrous for the fledgling movement, isolating the Communists from the very people they sought to win. We can see that the SLP, which maintained its "purity" and isolation from the Labour Party, was quickly reduced to an inconsequential sect.

But these conclusions, so clear today, were not at all obvious in the 1920s. The revolutionary left could see thousands of workers flocking tb the banner of Bolshevism. To activists used to speaking to a few hundred supporters at a time, it seemed that the revolution was imminent. They were temporarily blind to the fact that while thousands were turning to Communism, millions remained as supporters of social-democratic parties such as the Labour Party. Ignoring that fact would be fatal to the new Communist movement.

Unity discussions shattered

The Labour Party question shattered the unity discussions. The majority of the Socialist Labour Party pulled out of the discussion entirely. One SLP leader declared: "There must be no compromise with the BSP. … Better a Communist Party without the BSP than a party with the BSP trailing with it a spirit of compromise to hamper the party or its revolutionary character" (Kendall, p. 210).

What they got instead were three communist parties. In June 1920 the Workers’ Socialist Federation and seven smaller groups formed the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) on an anti Labour Party, anti-parliamentary action platform.

The British Socialist Party and a split-off from the Socialist Labour Party, together with some smaller groups, united in August 1920 to form the Communist Party of Great Britain. Fully half of the founding convention was taken up with the debate on the Labour Party, and the affiliation position won by only a slim majority—100 votes to 85. One-quarter of the BSP delegates had voted with the ex-SLPers and others against having anything to do with the Labour Party.

The Scottish newspaper The Worker denounced the decision as an "unpardonable mistake." Its supporters, primarily organized in the syndicalist Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, proceeded to form the Communist Labour Party; at its October 1920 founding convention the CLP voted forty-one to nine against any form of parliamentary action, including affiliation to the Labour Party.

The Communist ranks were deeply divided, and it was clear that the majority of British Communists were for having nothing whatsoever to do with the Labour Party. Only the intervention of the leaders of the International, particularly Lenin, brought unity to British Communism and won the majority away from ultraleft sectarianism.

[Part One]  [Part Two]  [Part Three]  [Appendix]

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