Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1096/31119

From The Socialist newspaper, 22 July 2020

100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

How a revolutionary party was forged out of workers' struggles and the experience of the Russian revolution

The October 1917 Russian revolution (Lenin speaking, Trotsky on podium steps) served as the launch pad to build a new revolutionary socialist international

The October 1917 Russian revolution (Lenin speaking, Trotsky on podium steps) served as the launch pad to build a new revolutionary socialist international   (Click to enlarge)

Ross Saunders, Socialist Party national committee

World War One - the result of capitalist nations' rivalry - led to the slaughter, on an industrial scale, of the working classes internationally. This barbarism was answered by the Russian revolution of October 1917, where a Marxist revolutionary party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, resulted in the Russian working class overthrowing capitalism.

The Bolsheviks, who led the revolution, renamed themselves the Communist Party, and formed a new Communist (Third) International - an organisation for world revolution. At its founding congress in March 1919, it appealed to all those who supported its methods to organise Communist Parties in their own countries.

The end of the war brought no relief for workers: British capitalism was in decline as a world power relative to the USA, and it could not re-expand to dominate world markets. Instead, it suffered a serious economic depression.

Unemployment by June 1921 reached 2 million, but the reformist trade union leaders revealed they were incapable of defending workers' living standards, backing no-strike agreements with the bosses during the war and betraying the coal miners on 'Black Friday', 5 April 1921.

Workers on the shop floor and their union stewards were increasingly acting on their own initiative. All of the means by which the ruling class kept workers obedient to their demands were losing their grip, including the officialdom in the trade unions.

This went furthest on Clydeside in Scotland. In the industrialised area around Glasgow, the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), chaired by worker militant Willie Gallagher, was set up in 1915 to coordinate strike action involving tens of thousands of workers in many factories. It quickly broadened its purpose beyond the workplace, however, organising rent strikes, anti-war activity and other political campaigns.

In January 1919, during a general strike in Glasgow, the government sent 10,000 troops and six tanks to crush the workers' action, but they only got away with it because Clydeside had risen alone.

Had a party like the Bolshevik party existed on a national scale, it could have fought to generalise the stand taken by the Clydesiders to take on and defeat the British capitalist class as a whole.

CP founded

On 31 July 1920, in the Cannon Street Hotel in London, delegates gathered at the founding conference of the Communist Party hoping to remedy that absence.

Conference unanimously agreed to support rule by workers' councils - the "soviet system" - and to support the defence of the workers' revolution from attack by capitalist forces.

But there was not agreement on every question, and the early years of the Communist Party (CP), in contrast to the sterile, Stalinised CP of later years, had fierce debates as the young party grappled earnestly with the problems confronting the movement.

Delegates at the founding conference were split over whether communists should stand in elections and whether they should seek affiliation to the Labour Party.

The motion to stand candidates in elections was won convincingly, delegates arguing that while workers participated in elections, communists should stand in them and use the platform thereby gained to build support for socialist ideas.

But the motion to affiliate to Labour barely passed, winning 100 votes to 85. The Labour Party of a century ago was very unlike the Labour Party of today: at its foundation, Labour was a federal body with a working-class activist base and democratic structures that permitted discussion and debate.

Lenin and Trotsky urged the small forces of the Communist Party to join Labour at that time - despite the Labour leadership being wedded to capitalism - providing they could keep their organisation intact, and retain full freedom to criticise the Labour leadership and campaign on an independent basis.

Lenin's book, 'Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder', had just been translated and probably swung the vote at the conference in favour. Communists, he said, should "from within parliament help the workers to see in practice the results of the government of [Labour leaders] Henderson and Snowden... To act otherwise, means to hamper the progress of the revolution".

The British Socialist Party (BSP) formed the backbone of the Communist Party at its foundation, but it would be radically transformed in the years ahead.

It had campaigned against the war and had wholeheartedly supported the Bolshevik revolution. In 1918 its headquarters were twice raided by police and thousands of pamphlets by Lenin seized.

The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) had also taken part in unity discussions. In its ranks were many courageous and determined fighters, but its leadership was riddled with sectarian methods.

It banned its activists from taking office in trade unions in case they were corrupted by contact with the bureaucracy, and it was hostile to affiliation to the Labour Party and to working in united fronts in general.

When the SLP withdrew from discussions about forming a united Communist Party, leading figures, including Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell from the Clyde Workers' Committee, split from the SLP in order to join the new party.

They were joined at the conference by the South Wales Socialist Societies, branches of the Independent Labour Party, and representatives of union stewards' and workers' committees. The SLP leadership refused to correct their sectarian mistake, and quickly withered to nothing as the Communist Party attracted all the most determined elements in the socialist and workers' movement.

The process of gathering the forces of the Communist Party was not complete, however. In particular, the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF) was outside, having followed the SLP out the door. If anything, the political ideas of WSF leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst were even more ultra-left than the SLP. But Pankhurst, won over by Lenin during a visit to Russia, as well as Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt, and others, were convinced to join the Communist Party at its second Congress in January 1921.

The 1920 conference of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was persuaded by right-wing Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald not to affiliate to the CP, but almost a third of conference delegates disagreed, and by 1921 several hundred members left the ILP to join the Communist International.

Democratic centralism

The CP claimed 5,000 members at its foundation, but the real figure was probably much less, and it was more like a federation than a party run according to the 'democratic centralism' (full debate internally, full unity in action) that had made the Bolsheviks so effective.

According to Bob Stewart, the CP's first national organiser, the idea of a centralised party was "the hardest nut to crack". The Communist International's executive committee discussed with leading members of its British section the organisational challenges it faced. A plan to reorganise the party from top to bottom was drawn up and discussed thoroughly throughout the organisation.

The aim was to apply the lessons learned by the Bolsheviks in Russia to British conditions and prepare the party for a rapid transformation into a mass force with significant influence in the workers' movement.

There was fierce debate about the new methods, but the results could not be ignored. In 1924 membership increased by a third - from 3,000 to 4,000 members. A year later membership was up to 5,000.

In February 1923, the party's paper was renamed 'The Weekly Worker' and overhauled. In an eight-week campaign, circulation went from 19,000 to 51,000 copies. By the end of October 1924, sales had increased to 100,000.

It wasn't just better organisation that had won the Communist Party more influence: it was also the adoption of a broadly correct approach to existing mass organisations of the working class.

Labour's leaders had refused to permit the CP to affiliate. Nevertheless, the CP offered to build a united workers' front with the Labour Party, withdrawing at the 1923 election all its candidates who faced a Labour opponent.

Several of the candidates they did stand won the backing of local Labour parties and two Communists were elected to parliament. This assisted the CP to broadcast its criticism of the minority Labour government - elected in January 1924 and led by Ramsay MacDonald with Liberal support - for what Trotsky summed up as "cowardice before the big bourgeoisie".

Trotsky had called on MacDonald to lay down a bold socialist programme in parliament before the capitalists, to "take their lands, mines and railways, and nationalise their banks", and say to the capitalist politicians in parliament "accept it or I'll drive you out".

Instead, the Labour government did not halt the fall in workers' living standards and the Tories were returned at the next election nine months later.

The Communist Party, which had travelled along with workers as they went through the experience of Labour's failure, grew in membership and support.

The same approach won the CP advances in the trade unions. Rather than set up rival 'red' unions, CP members organised the militant left inside existing unions. The party thereby won support for the militant programme of demands it put forward in the battles confronting miners, engineers, dockers, railway workers and the unemployed.

By 1925, delegates at a conference of the National Minority Movement (NMM), which the party had set up the year before, represented 750,000 unionised workers.

Karl Radek of the Communist International said: "For the first time in history, the British Communists have been given an opportunity to transform themselves into a mass party."

It is a tragedy for the workers' movement in Britain and internationally that on the cusp of this breakthrough, and with a revolutionary situation impending in the 1926 general strike, all of this potential was squandered as a result of the political degeneration of the Communist International under a Stalinised leadership.

Nevertheless, the heroic early years of the Communist Party of Great Britain stand as lessons for all revolutionaries who aspire to building a force to abolish capitalism and build a socialist society.


Further reading on socialistparty.org.uk


Books available from leftbooks.co.uk

Donate to the Socialist Party

Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • Our 'fighting coronavirus workers' charter', outlines a programme to combat the virus and protect workers' living conditions.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our special coronavirus appeal.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 22 July 2020:


News

Fight for our livelihoods... fight for our lives!

Fight for the NHS

Huawei: what's behind Johnson's latest u-turn?

Mandatory masks in shops law: workers must not pay the price

Luton Council sunk by airport investment: fight for funding, not speculation!

Tories using pandemic to privatise NHS more

Them & Us


Unison

Hugely significant Tower Hamlets council workers' strike continues

Hugo Pierre for Unison general secretary


No going back

Housing crisis: what now and after the pandemic?


Workplace news

United Left general secretary hustings shows widest debate needed for left in Unite

Nationalise Tata Steel to save jobs

Online rally: Fight the London transport funding cuts!

Continue the fight to protect safety

Debenhams: Fighting closures and redundancies


Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

Time to relaunch TUSC


Campaigns

I joined the Socialist Party to fight back

Wales arts cuts: Save every job

Trade unionists and artists stand with Maxine Peake

Bristol trans rights protest

Getting the Socialist over the summer


Music

Saving the music industry from pandemic and austerity


International news

Iran: Renewed wave of protests and strikes

Israel: Nurses strike and win


Communist Party

100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain


Readers' opinion

Exciting Cuban spy thriller exposes US-sponsored terrorism

The Socialist inbox


 

Home   |   The Socialist 22 July 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook






Related links:

Britain:

triangleSpycops inquiry : why the capitalist state feared and continues to fear socialism

triangleWest London Socialist Party: Britain, Burnham & the Tories

triangleCorbyn suspended - Time to fight for a new mass workers' party

triangleTories' school meals outrage

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: 100th year anniversary of the founding of the CP in Britain

Workers:

trianglePublic sector workers must not pay for the Covid crisis - press release from the campaign 'Hugo Pierre for Unison General Secretary'

triangleYoung Socialists organising for our future

triangleSelling the Socialist

triangleWomen workers need strong trade unions to defend their jobs, pay and services

Labour:

triangleAfter Corbyn: TUSC and the fight for working-class political representation

triangleOvercrowded Little Ilford School strikes against more expansion

triangleCroydon Council declares bankruptcy - no cuts in Croydon or any other council

Socialist:

triangleSocialism 2020

triangleSocialism 2020

Revolution:

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The 1917 Russian revolution

Labour Party:

triangleUnison general secretary candidate and Socialist Party member Hugo Pierre speaking during an anti-racism demo in 2017. Click here for the latest article in the Socialist on the general secretary contest.

Trotsky:

triangleTrotsky's ideas live on in the CWI

General strike:

triangleNigeria protests shake regime

1926 general strike:

triangleThe Socialist Inbox

Communism:

triangleOpinion: China's Orwellian 'social credit system' is a product of capitalism, not 'communism'

Clyde:

triangleCaerphilly Socialist Party: Revolution on the Clyde 1919

Russian revolution:

triangle75 years since the publication of Animal Farm: From 'two legs bad' to 'two legs better'

Labour leadership:

triangleUnite votes to cut affiliation fee to Labour

NUT:

triangleMoney doesn't make up for cuts - education unions must organise for funding and against Tory attacks

South Wales:

triangleFree Siyanda Mngaza

Peter Taaffe:

triangleSocialist Party executive committee positions

Historic events

Historic events

19/8/20

Trotsky

80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky's assassination

22/7/20

Britain

100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

15/7/20

Bosnia

How capitalist restoration led to war and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans

1/7/20

Labour

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government

24/6/20

Civil rights

Lessons from the Black Panthers

17/6/20

Slave trade

Reform or revolt? How was the slave trade abolished?

10/6/20

US

Roosevelt's New Deal programme - reforms to save capitalism

27/5/20

Britain

1920s Britain: A "country nearer Bolshevism than at any time since"

27/5/20

Lucas Aerospace

The 'Lucas Plan'

13/5/20

War

A new world order - global reconstruction after World War Two

13/5/20

War

The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it "fanned the flames of revolt"

13/5/20

Europe

'Victory in Europe' 75th anniversary: A resurgent workers' movement and the fight for socialism

6/5/20

Obituary

Peter Hadden remembered

6/5/20

Tyneside

The Tyneside apprentices' strike during WW2

29/4/20

May Day

130 Years of May Day in Britain: Fight for workers' rights more relevant than ever

triangleMore Historic events articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


November 2020

October 2020

September 2020

August 2020

July 2020

June 2020

May 2020

April 2020

March 2020

February 2020

January 2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999