The Early Years of the Communist Party of Great Britain - 1922-1925

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1922 was a watershed in the struggle for a mass Marxist Party in Britain. Under the direction of the Leninist Comintern, the young militants of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) grappled with the task of transforming an essentially propagandist group into the foundations of a genuine mass Bolshevik organisation.

The Second and Third Congresses of the Communist International had earlier stressed the crucial role of the party in this epoch of capitalist decline. Although large parties had been established in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia in particular, remaining social democratic methods and organisational flabbiness had to be rooted out. A loose-knit structure of the Menshevik type was completely unsuited to the revolutionary tasks that faced the Comintern and its sections. A mass combat party organised on Bolshevik lines was the norm to be established in all countries.

As a guide to this work a Theses on Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties was presented to the Third Congress in July 1921. Although he described the Theses as "excellent" Lenin warned that "everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but also its failing." In particular he was totally opposed to seeing the Theses as a panacea for questions of party organisation, of "hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it. Nothing will be achieved in that way." The whole essence of Bolshevism is to be firm on principle but flexible on organisational forms. Nevertheless, the Theses were a valuable means of transforming the loose structures of the various sections of the Comintern.

In August 1921, Lenin, who showed particular interest in British developments, had written to Thomas Bell, the British Party's representative on the Executive Committee of the Comintern, urging the CPGB to "apply the resolution on organisation and work of the Party by the Third Congress--" The British Party needed a complete reorganisation. The old propagandist groups that had merged to form the CPGB were saturated with sectarian and syndicalist tendencies. Although the most self-sacrificing proletarian fighters rallied to the Communist banner from the shop stewards movement and industry-people like William Gallagher, Tom Bell, Harry Pollitt, Arthur Horner, J. T. Murphy, George Hardy - they needed to be theoretically steeled in the fundamental ideas and methods of Bolshevism. The conception of the centralised party was entirely new to the young leaders of the CP. "This conception was foreign to British politics and the hardest nut to crack--" relates Bob Stewart, the then National Organiser of the Communist Party.

Many had come from the Socialist Labour Party with its sectarian leanings and propagandist approach. These traits were carried over to the new party which increasingly resembled a loose federation of different groupings. The task of the party leadership was to assimilate the experiences of Bolshevism and apply them to the concrete conditions in Britain.

Bob Stewart recalled in his memoirs:

"Our solid industrial base comes largely from the members who had come to the party from the Clyde Workers' Movement and the militant workers from the mines and railways who also had an excellent record of militancy during the war. But they also brought a number of problems."

Thus, they were extremely sectarian and abusive to the Labour Party. Moreover, the Socialist Labour Party, one of the organisations which fused to form the CP, held the view that their members must not become union officials as they would inevitably become corrupt.

"We also had to try and overcome syndicalist traditions which still endured in industry--but there is no doubt that the work of our industrial members at the formative stage of the party laid a firm basis--"

However, the transformation from a loose federal structure to a centralised Bolshevik Party did not take place smoothly or overnight. A considerable internal struggle was conducted to overcome the methods and the circle mentality of the propagandist group.

The early CP branch structures were a mere continuation of the old pre-war set up. The constitution of the early Communist Party did not markedly differ from the federal character of the old socialist societies, in total contrast to the principles laid down at the Third Congress of the Communist International. The leadership of the CPGB was federally elected and geographically based and proved incapable of taking advantage of the enormously favourable opportunities that existed in the post war period.

With the arrest and imprisonment in May 1921 of Albert Inkpin and Bob Stewart, the National Secretary and National Organiser respectively, Gallagher was rushed to the party headquarters to deal with the developing party crisis. According to him,

"the party was in a very bad way The membership was rapidly fading away, the finances of the party were chaotic and the organisation had almost completely broken down."

A complete break from the old tradition was required. Under the guidance of the Comintern, which paid close attention to the CPGB, 1922 saw a decisive turn to new methods and structures as the British leadership attempted to absorb and apply the experiences of the International.

In early 1922 the Comintern established a Commission of Investigation into the British Party which made "exhaustive enquiries into the whole party's affairs", according to a Congress Report. In February, Arthur McManus attended a special meeting of the ECCI in Moscow to discuss the problems of the British section. As a result, at the St. Pancras Congress held in March 1922, the Comintern's Organisational Theses was endorsed and a Commission was established to carry through the reorganisation of the party from top to bottom. Harry Pollitt, Palme Dutt and Harry Inkpin, brother of Albert Inkpin, were selected to serve on the Commission.

After five months of work, the final report was issued in September in time for the Party Congress. It began by explaining that "organisation must not be regarded as a panacea. Organisation has no meaning at all apart from policy." It then went on to outline the chronic state of the party and its apparatus:

"The party has now been in existence for over two years. They have been two years of tremendous happenings, of great revolutionary significance, and of world-wide Communist impetus--Yet in these two years--the party has made no real progress either numerically or in terms of influence--Our efforts are spasmodic and chaotic in character; there has been no central direction that would combine effectively the activities of the party. We are still only scattered individuals, struggling up and down the country, without a responsible hold on the working class movement."

It pointed to the chronic deficiencies at every level of the party, from the Executive Committee to the branches. The report was "a virtual indictment" of the existing party apparatus. It recommended the establishment of a strong centralised Executive Committee which would divide its functions between an Organising Bureau and a Political Bureau. Various departments would be established at the headquarters, under the supervision of an EC member, responsible for different aspects of the work.

The District Committees would also be reorganised based upon the key industrial conurbations where 80% of the current membership was based: London, Lancashire, Clydeside, South Wales and Fyfeshire. "The importance of districts securing the services of a full time organiser, if they can afford it, is very great."

A vital area, however, for the development of the party was the local branch. It was the "cell" of the organisation, whose health or otherwise determined largely the health of the party itself. It was the unit that organised and educated the membership for the tasks ahead. If the party was to be transformed then the branches would have to be completely reorganised as fighting units in a proletarian army.

The report pulled no punches:

"Local organisation was weak and in most cases lacking life: branch membership was small and a large proportion of it inactive; work was sporadic, membership stationary."

It went on to outline the existing situation:

"The branch meeting is attended by about ten members and goes through the process known as branch business. This mainly consists of a reading of lengthy circulars and letters from the division and national headquarters (often quite inapplicable to the branch) and occasional reports of a perfunctory character from members on the local Labour Party or the Unemployed Committee. There is usually a management committee of the branch, but this does not prevent the whole process of circulars etc. being gone through before the branch--Occasionally there are attempts to "enliven" branch business by a lecture or a debate. In any case the work done is nil."

"There are sporadic attempts to arrange work at branch meetings. The Literature Secretary appeals for one or two helpers to sell literature at coming meetings in the locality. The Chairman appeals for more speakers at open-air meetings. The response is usually slight or lacking. There is no attempt to organise the work of the members as a whole, or to use the [Branch] Committee for this purpose--"

The report explained that the branch

"is marked by a sense of tedium--has no organic character as a unit--that is the secret of its continual apathy and its deadness--If we wish to sum up our immediate work ahead in a single slogan, that slogan would be: "Down with the old style branch!""

The result of these defects was a large turnover of new recruits and a stagnating old guard content with a small circle of friends. New branches had to be established of a completely different character that would become the foundation stones on which a mass party would be built. The branch would become a working group as opposed to a propaganda circle, where results would be measured concretely in terms of recruits, paper sales, finance raised, and influence in the labour movement: "Our task is not to create some "propagandist" society or revolutionary club, but to create an efficient machine of the class struggle." Integration and political training of new recruits was essential. That was the prime task of the branch. Everyone was to be given a role - however small - to allow them to participate in the life of the party.

"The old idea that if a comrade was not a good speaker, writer or literature seller, his only function was to pay dues, is abolished forever. Every member has some special qualifications which can be used in some sphere of the party's work."

It was the responsibility of the branch to allocate each comrade tasks "best suited to the work in hand".

The question of integration was seen correctly as a very complex task. The development of cadres, which would become the spinal column of the party, would take a long period and would involve a combination of theoretical training and actual experience in the movement itself.

Arising from this the report laid great stress upon the role of the branch secretary or organiser as well as the branch committee. As in all aspects of work the question of leadership is crucial. The secretary was to be the most able comrade in the branch with the necessary authority to pull the work together and give it direction.

"Each group has its leader, who is responsible for calling his group together, giving each member his work and seeing that instructions from the District Party Committee are carried out. The group leader is in close personal relations with the members of his group, talks over all matters with them and looks after their welfare in the party generally."

The Battersea Congress in October 1922 adopted the Commission's Report, together with new statutes and constitution, and established a special committee to reorganise the party. Membership was re-registered, new districts formed and the party headquarters was reorganised.

The whole purpose of this national reorganisation was in effect to "Bolshevise" the British section and prepare it politically and organisationally to become a mass party within a relatively short space of time. Objectively, the situation was ripe for such a development, but it required the patient co-operation of the Comintern leadership and for the British leadership to draw out all the theoretical, political and organisational lessons from the situation.

In so doing, the vital question of party building was placed to the forefront. The party's 2,000 odd members had to be trained and educated to the tasks at hand: central to this was personal recruiting. "The recruiting that counts most and really adds to the effectiveness of the party is personal recruiting," stated the Report.

"Personal recruiting, if systematically carried out by every individual member day after day, will bring more and far better results than any ambitious attempt to increase membership by big meetings, special campaigns, or the visitation of special missioners--To be effective, personal recruiting must be systematic. Each individual member must select two or three persons in his trade union branch or in the factory whom he would like to win over to the party. He should cultivate the acquaintance of the person selected, talk over ordinary practical questions with him, and show good sense and understanding, helping him with difficulties etc; he should invite him to his home, get his friend's wife to meet his wife; give him a ticket to some social gathering at the local rooms; lend him books to read, and get him to join one of the study groups for outsiders; presently ask him to help in some piece of local work, induce him to make a speech in some organisation or meeting, help him to prepare the speech, and go over it with him, and so at length introduce him as a candidate into his group or nucleus. In this way a potential recruit is gradually brought into the party's work, first doing things out of personal friendship, without further thought or intention, and gradually, as he becomes interested, carrying out the work out of political conviction. After the recruit has been won over to the party the member will still continue to take a special interest in him, and assist in his development in the party's work--"

It was not possible to implement the Dutt-Pollitt Report overnight. It would take time to overcome the obstacles of the past and fully implement Bolshevik methods of work and party organisation. A continuous struggle would be required to overcome entrenched traditions of spontaneity, empiricism and the mentality of pure propaganda. The dangers however of a pragmatic approach to organisation and the formal implementation of the Commission's Report were always present. That was precisely the warning that Lenin gave concerning a rigid, mechanical application of Bolshevik organisation.

A considerable part of 1923 was taken up with the reorganisation and the concrete application of the Report to the real situation existing in the British Party. In February 1923 the party's paper, Communist, was completely overhauled and renamed the Workers' Weekly with Palme Dutt put in as editor. Within the space of eight weeks the character of the paper had entirely changed and the circulation pushed up from 19,000 to 51,000.

This reflected a marked strengthening of the party's influence in the wider labour movement and corresponded with the growth of a left wing within the Labour Party and the Trade unions.

Despite this success Tom Bell warned of the lack of theoretical preparation amongst the membership for such drastic organisational change. Differences also arose over a certain passivity and formalism of the ex-Socialist Labour Party leaders within the party leadership who resented these changes. They became so heated that the whole Executive was urgently invited to the ECCI in Moscow in June 1923 to discuss the matter out. After certain consultations, changes were made in the composition of the party leadership with the promotion of the key reorganisers, Pollitt and Gallagher.

A pre-congress discussion was opened up in the party press in early 1924 to review the change that had taken place. Although progress had been made, there were still sharp criticisms about bureaucratic formalism and the rough-shod manner the reorganisation was carried through. J. T. Murphy, the party's Industrial Organiser, opened the first shots in January 1924 in the party's theoretical journal, Communist Review:

"If I were asked what are the principal defects of the party today I would answer unhesitatingly, formalism, organisational fetishism, and lack of political training..."

He continued,

"we have only to reflect on our local and district aggregate meetings and ask ourselves how much time is taken in problems of organisation in proportion to that devoted to politics, to become fully conscious of our needs. It has been all organisation, technical disabilities and individual grievances. Is it not time we pulled up a little and asked whether we are travelling along the right lines?"

Murphy drove home his criticisms:

"We have met complaints that we have no time for reading or for party training. It is as much as we can do to keep pace with the organisational demands. The EC seems like some remote body pumping out demands and appeals--We impose ceaseless work without giving opportunities for tapping the wellsprings of inspiration and enthusiasm which come from the deep and better understanding of Communism. We absorb the will to revolution in the overwhelming demands for mundane activities and smother the desire for a thorough understanding of our struggle and our aims. We can no longer afford this--"

And a further broadside:

"Where party training is proceeding, it is undertaken as a course to be got through as quickly as possible, an extra burden to carry, instead of a continuous living, vitalising factor in party activity. Is it any wonder that aggregate meetings are principally organisational washhouses?"

Murphy's views were supported by an article in the Workers' Weekly by its business manager Albert Hawkins, who argued that the membership were overwhelmed and attending too many internal meetings. Too little attention was being given to recruitment and integration.

These allegations went to the heart of some of the weaknesses of the reorganisation but also dealt with more broader questions of party building. Pollitt took up the challenge in the following issue of the Communist Review.

He argued correctly that the reorganisation arose from the experience of the Comintern and the character of the CPGB prior to the Battersea Congress, i.e. a loose amateurish organisation with little influence in the movement. The result of the reorganisation was a transformation of the party. It was true that organisation was no "magic cure" and cannot be divorced from policy. There was no intention of making the proposals "a fetish". Pollitt went on:

"There have been difficulties, there always will be, and we shall overcome them as we go along. During the last 16 months we have tried to get down to brass tacks--Many members have fallen out, because the demands made upon them were too exacting, but many more new members have come in, who are carrying out the work well. There are more members active than ever before."

Pollitt criticised Murphy for phrase-mongering and not dealing with the real problems at issue. He then went on to dismiss Murphy's points out of hand. "The greatest hindrance to the growth of our party is not the lack of political training, it is a number of practical difficulties that our members are meeting with--"

And with a display of "pragmatism" he went on:

"Ask any local organiser in South Wales or Scotland what their biggest problem is, they won't say it was the absence of 'the will to revolution', they would say it was the lack of a common meeting place. Ask them what other things they were up against, and we would find it wasn't 'the fetish of mechanical formalism' but lack of finance due to the poverty of the members."

Formalism

Nevertheless, he correctly emphasised that

"most important of all is the question of personal recruiting, one of the weakest sections of our work. If each member pledged himself or herself to win one new member to the Party every three months, it would make an immense difference to our fighting strength, and the financial sacrifices demanded by our members."

Whereas Murphy correctly stressed the primacy of politics, the development of the branch and district cadres could only arise from a combination of political training with the struggle to penetrate the labour movement. It was a concrete question:. The "discussion circle" branches of the past were being superseded by cells that trained and directed the membership in the daily struggles of the class. Theory is a guide to action. The point was that the effective "intervention" of the branch requires numerous "mundane" organisational tasks to be fulfilled. Murphy's weakness was his call for less organisation in general and an abstract approach to political training. Such arguments were a refuge for those who thrived in the discussion circle and who wanted to escape from the necessary "everyday" tasks of party organisation.

Pollitt, although erring towards "pragmatism", was attempting to transform the units of the party through the struggle to build their influence in the class itself. Those who opposed this idea tended to shield themselves behind the dissatisfaction at the manner in which the reorganisation was carried through.

In March the London Organiser, E. W. Cant, wrote a piece complaining of the low political level and the fact that hundreds of members were too busy selling Workers' Weekly with no time to read it themselves. Finally, the discussion in the Communist Review was terminated shortly before the Congress with a statement by T. A. Jackson, who criticised Pollitt's approach to the problems of organisation: "It is sheer perversity for Pollitt to deny that in a large number of the departments and areas of the party's work 'organisation' has been made an end in itself--"

He attacked Pollitt's one-sided, formal approach: "Let me put one plain question to Pollitt: 'Is an ignorant membership necessary to the work of the plan of organisation adopted at Battersea?'" Jackson then dealt pointedly with the negative features of the reorganisation on a small party:

"As it is the Aggregate Meeting once a month has an agenda so burdened with details and reports that little or no discussion is possible - except on the pettiest of petty details. The sense of boredom resulting is too awful for words. The 'old time branch', which the commission 'downed', reappears in its ghastliest guise at the Aggregate Meeting!"

The exaggeration of "organisation" stemmed from the over-enthusiasm to implement the recommendations of the Commission's Report. Although they gave rise inevitably to controversy among a more conservative layer shielding behind the allegations of "bureaucracy and formalism", the reorganisation would require skill and tact by the leadership in order to carry with it the vast majority of the membership. This was missing in certain quarters. The danger of creating a top-heavy structure imposed on a small hyperactive membership was always present.

"The first thing that needs to be done, therefore, is to revive the party life," Jackson argued. The only way this could be achieved was to turn outwards. He then agrees with Pollitt's view that "new members must be obtained and in large numbers," but adds, "even if it involves a temporary suspension of some of our activities." This however again raises the question of method, as it was precisely through the day to day activities of the party that recruitment should take place. Jackson then went to bend the stick in the opposite direction by advocating "an allocation of the energy thus released to pure propaganda." This would in reality mean a step backwards for the party at the very time that big opportunities were opening up for its rapid development.

In reality, what this dispute was dealing with was the problems of growth and the transition from a small propaganda group to a party.

The report of the Control Commission in May 1924 stated that "the very slow rate of increase in party membership gives us, and we think it should give the Congress, grave cause for concern." It was this weakness that was at the root of the complaints about "overburdening the members with tasks". "The fact is that the new recruits obtained since the Battersea Congress have been little more than sufficient to make up for lapsed members." Party membership stood around 3,900 at this time.

The controversy over the implementation of the reorganisation which raged within the party reflected the serious attempts to grapple with the problems of party building. Some saw the changes as a panacea, others pointed to the negative features as an attempt to unconsciously hold the party back. However, under the influence of the Communist International, the leadership of the CPGB became more conscious of the possibilities for building a mass party provided it could sink roots in the workers' organisations and give leadership, where possible, to their struggles. The framework of a large party was in their grasp provided they could make the membership fully conscious of their prime responsibility: party building. All roads led to this vital question. Within a relatively short period many of the negative excesses of reorganisation had been overcome and the party steered towards serious systematic recruitment.

In early 1924 the EC established a recruitment department and laid down preparations for an extensive recruitment drive. The Workers' Weekly became an important weapon in organising the public drive for new recruits. Regular features and items appeared giving direction to the campaign:

"Follow up those readers who have not yet joined the party--This week we're after lapsed members. We had to drop them when we did, but give them another chance!--Get your local secretary to compile a list, interview them and get them back into the party, wherever possible. - Organisation Bureau." (Workers' Weekly, 15 February 1924)

This article, signed "Recruiting Sergeant", was typical of the advice given to the areas.

On 22 February, another item appeared: "Recruiting: To members and supporters of the Labour Party. We are with you. We want you to stay in the Labour Party, but to join us as well--"

A further "push" came in March with an Open Letter to all party members by Pollitt, published in the Workers' Weekly: It challenged the view that the party would be built automatically, and placed the responsibility for growth on every individual member. "The workers will not fall over themselves to join the party." The idea must be rejected that we are an "exclusive group", a "magic circle". That must be done by "steady and personal recruiting". He continued:

"How many of us have friends who are sympathetic to the party, how many of us know scores of workers, who attend all our meetings, buy our paper, and yet how many of us ever make a real personal approach to these workers? It will not do to say: 'If the party is worth joining, they will come into it themselves,' or 'so and so would join, but he's just a bit afraid.' We must get them into the party, make them feel a part of the movement."

Pollitt went on to lay great stress on the importance of the branch. It was there that the new recruit comes into direct contact with the party where first impressions are the most potent.

"The atmosphere in many places is at first arctic. New members come in; and why, they are looked upon as interlopers! They sit at the back of the club room, no one speaks to them; everyone is too busy with their own circle of comrades, so that a worker has to be a hero to stick it."

This situation had to be changed immediately if the gains made by the recruiting campaign were not to be frittered away. He recommended that a particular comrade be appointed by the branch whose responsibility would be to ensure the new recruit felt at home.

"Introduce the new recruit to all the members and officers. Let a short speech be made, and so help at the very first meeting to create that real atmosphere of welcome and comradeship that is so vital if we are to develop a real movement. In our public work too, we are still too loathe to appeal for new recruits. We work like hell, in a strike or election, on the trades council, in the trade union branch, and we seem to forget to reap the harvest of our work. Just content to do the spade work. Whereas, if in every campaign we participated in, at the close of the campaign we would get them. But no, we are content to carry on and expect that the workers will come round begging to join us."

Pollitt continued:

"At the last election meeting in Dundee, 35 workers joined the party. At a recruiting meeting in Battersea 40 workers joined the party. But at another place, where the party had done magnificent work in the election, a meeting called of workers who had been active in the election to try and get them to join the party was turned into a social evening, because the chairman thought: 'It didn't matter about them being in the party.'"

He then hammered home the central points:

"In our speeches, we should never forget to appeal for new recruits--The conditions for creating a mass party are now in existence. There is no reason at all why we should not have trebled the membership six months hence. Let us go into our work, with the warmth and enthusiasm of the old pioneers and smash down this policy of exclusiveness and jaded atmospheres that seems to hold so many of us in its spell."

As a contribution to the pre-conference discussion in the pages of Workers' Weekly, Jack Leckie underlined the disparity of the tasks confronting the party and its actual size: "At least 30,000 well-trained members are required--" he wrote. A sympathiser wrote in saying that he had not joined the party because he believed himself not to be educated sufficiently. This provoked a reply from the editor:

"Comrade, if everybody waited till they were perfect before joining the party, there would not be a party. The best training is not to be got in books, it is only to be got by working in the party - and making mistakes. Come into the party, and you will meet plenty of others who are finding their way with you." (Workers' Weekly, 28 March 1924)

Andrew Rothstein urged members to use the paper as a recruiting agent. Paper sales, in and of themselves, divorced from recruitment "remain a barren and disappointing failure." Linked however to party building gives "the latter its real meaning and value for a revolutionary working class party."

Throughout 1924 the party issued regular "Recruiting Bulletins" as a guide to the progress being made and the new problems that arose from integration. Tom Bell, based in the Agitprop Department, called on the ranks to put their maximum effort into the drive: "We must have an open door for all who wish to join up with us. That does not mean the watering down of our Communist principles. The test will come in the process of work, meantime understanding will come from our party training - let, therefore, every propagandist put his shoulder to the wheel."

The Sixth Party Congress took place in Manchester in May 1924. The EC Report on the party reorganisation noted that the Comintern Thesis on Organisation and the Commission's Report could only be effectively applied to a party of 40-50,000 strong. Under British conditions it has given rise to "complaints of bureaucracy and over-centralisation." It nevertheless pointed out clearly that "more than 18 month's experience has fully justified the transformation of the party."

It returned once again to the importance of the branch as the cell of the organisation. "It is in the work in the locals that all difficulties find their final expression, where the party actually grows or decays." It called for a balance between the political and business meetings of the branch and the need for the local readerships to be more flexible in interpreting the instructions from the centre.

"But a further reason lies in the wrong conception of leadership held by many of the leading committees. They have felt under an obligation formally to put into operation every instruction sent from headquarters, without regard to the capacity of the local to give effect to the lead. The consequence has been the multiplicating of tasks absorbing the energies of the locals--the local committees must exercise discrimination in their capacity to apply the party 'lead'. Ever conscious of the necessity of breaking new ground, they should do so according to the degree of development and efficient conduct of work within the capabilities of their members."

The Central Committee gave a balance sheet of the previous 12 months. Although the influence of the party had increased substantially, the membership had not grown to any real degree. There had been a problem of integration resulting in a turn-over of membership.

"This CC considers that this is a serious matter. There is room for a very considerable increase in the size of the party commensurate with the hard work put in by members and the influence achieved by the party--It is probable that nine tenths of our shortcomings are due to our small numerical membership. Every new task attempted means placing further burdens on the already well-laden backs of present members."

The Report put forward a target to the Congress to concentrate the minds of the party on recruitment.

"This urge for recruiting is not a 'short' campaign, but a task that is permanently necessary. Something concrete should be before the members - for the next six months we shall be doing very well if we can double our membership, and this should not be impossible."

The Congress agreed "the Party must become a mass party--Recruiting therefore, is all important for the great revolutionary task we have begun."

Later in the year the arrest of Campbell, editor of Workers' Weekly, generated great interest in the party amongst advanced workers. To take the maximum advantage of the situation a recruitment week was organised by the EC for September with the aim of doubling the party's membership. An Open Letter from the EC attacked the old, narrow and "pedantic" attitude to recruiting. The best fighters against capitalism should be drawn in and given their theoretical training within the ranks of the organisation. An appeal was made for every member to recruit at least one other into the party's ranks. The best answer to the attack on the CPGB was to double the membership. In August a full page feature appeared outlining the plans. It was widely carried in the party press over the next two months. On 29 August the front page headlines read: "Workers! The Communist Party needs you. You need the CP" with an accompanying article entitled "Why you should join the Communist Party".

In Manchester the campaign was well organised and a merit award introduced for the best recruiters: "In this regard each local would place in some prominent position a list of party members of the local, and as a new recruit was secured a star would be placed against the name of the comrade who was responsible for bringing him into the party," stated a Manchester Report. A "Recruiting Van" decorated with appeals to workers to join the CP toured the city: "Join the CP - All Power to the Workers!" The recruitment campaign was the most successful in the party's history with over 1,000 new recruits being made.

On 26 September a further drive was launched to obtain 100,000 sales of the Workers' Weekly - this cherished figure was attained by the 17 October issue.

Throughout this period there was considerable flux in the membership. Bill Joss from Scotland, after a three month tour of the districts, noted a falling away of the "old timers" who proved incapable of adapting to the new methods of work and the tasks of building a mass party. A number of intellectuals unable to adjust or recognising the seriousness of the tasks - like Phillip Price, R. W. Postgate, Walton Newbold MP, and Ellen Wilkinson - either resigned or lapsed from membership. The new influx of members were often younger militants without the same knowledge of political literature, but who were part-and-parcel of the living labour movement and its struggles. The integration of these new layers was essential if the party was to develop a mass basis in industry.

1924 was the year the party turned to systematic organised recruitment as the central task for the development of the mass party. It still remained the aim to translate the growing influence of the CPGB into concrete membership. Despite all the difficulties and problems, a real step in that direction had been made. Karl Radek, echoing Trotsky, stated in 1924 that "for the first time in history, the British Communists have been given the opportunity of transforming themselves into a mass party--"

At the beginning of the year the EC issued a resolution which ended with the statement: "Let our slogan for 1925 be: A Mass Communist Party."

The party had made a serious turn towards industrial work with the formation of the National Minority Movement in August 1924 representing 200,000 workers. Party members Tom Mann and Harry Pollitt were elected President and General Secretary respectively. With one or two exceptions the Executive of the NMM were all members of the party. By August 1925 the Second Annual Conference had registered substantial growth with 683 delegates representing 750,000 workers. Its influence was spreading throughout the trade union movement and even the TUC began to become increasingly influenced by the initiatives of the Minority Movement. Coupled with this was the drive to establish factory branches of the Communist Party. Albert Inkpin explained

"the party locals ought to base their activities on the industrial concerns that come within their localities. The transformation of these concerns into Communist fortresses should be their fundamental task--The establishment of a factory group in a large factory, mine or mill is as much a victory for communism as is the winning of a local or even parliamentary election."

A Thesis on the Mass Party outlined the industrial perspective:

"The chief road towards becoming a real mass party for us lies through the factory, the workshop, the mill, the mine and so on--the eyes of all Communists should be directed to the factory, and to the factory gate--"

These years saw a growing victimisation of industrial militants. The attempt to establish effective factory branches was therefore a risky venture. The Communists had to find ways of overcoming these dangers at all costs in order to penetrate the factories effectively.

"Bolshevisation"

In January 1925 the Workers' Weekly recognised the ever present danger of the sack but explained that

"Communists - the followers of the lion-hearted Lenin who lived surrounded by dangers all his life to advance the cause of working class emancipation - must be prepared to run risks. Nothing done, nothing do. And just as our trade union forefathers, over a century ago, discovered ways and means of organising their trade unions in spite of the terrors and persecutions of the then ruling class, so must we today discover ways and means of forming effective groups of the Communist Party."

By March, the membership reached the important 5,000 mark with the main concentration of the party's forces in London, Glasgow and South Wales.

The change from a federal group of 2,000 to a tight centralised organisation of 5,000 posed a drastic change in method. The leadership was now dealing with problems of scale. A relatively small organisation can be guided by the direct intervention of the leading bodies. A large organisation has to be lead by a leadership acting indirectly through its regional, district and local leaders. This necessitates the training of the leading layers of the organisation at every level, not only politically but in how to develop and work as a team. Each party unit and individual has to complement each other. This is the art of building an effective political apparatus.

The chronic economic position facing British capitalism was preparing the way for a further offensive by the capitalist class to drastically lower the conditions of the workers. The intense competition emanating from Germany, particularly with its drive to boost coal exports coupled with Britain's restoration of the gold standard, was driving the ruling class headed by the Baldwin government to take on the British workers. The first in the firing line would inevitably be its decisive section, the miners.

Trotsky, in his brilliant book Where is Britain Going? published in English in 1925, pointed to the inevitable revolutionary explosions that were being prepared in Britain. In the preface to the American Edition he states: "The conclusion which I reach in my study is that Britain is approaching, at full speed, an era of great revolutionary upheavals." The task of the CPGB was to seriously prepare itself for these opportunities and become a mass party in the relatively near future. Trotsky posed the question bluntly before the CPGB leadership:

"This general prospect requires us to ask above all the question: will a Communist Party be built in Britain in time with the strength and the links with the masses to be able to draw out at the right moment all the necessary practical conclusions from the sharpening crisis? It is in this question that Great Britain's fate is today contained."

The Seventh National Congress, which took place at the end of May, attempted to grapple with that prime task. In opening the Congress Albert Inkpin stated that despite the party's size, it is

"the most extraordinary and most efficient organisation of its kind that there has ever been in this country. Our members are practically all proletarians. The percentage of intellectuals is almost infinitesimal."

Arthur McManus reported that there were 100 factory cells embracing 10% of the membership. The party also published 40-50 factory papers, some with a circulation of between 800-900. By the end of July factory cells had risen to 120 with 60 papers, with the greatest improvements in London, Scotland and South Wales.

The central questions that were taken up at the Congress were the Thesis on The Mass Party and "Bolshevisation". Arising from these key issues were recruitment, political training of the membership, and the further reorganisation of the party as far as possible on the basis of factory branches. "The chief road towards becoming a real mass party for us lies through the factory, the workshop, the mill, the mine--" stated the Thesis.

Although the 25% increased membership was seen as "very successful", the report on recruitment was still quite critical:

"The party membership is lamentably small. And this small membership is a very fluid membership. That is to say, a constant stream of workers are coming into the party, and a constant stream going out--How to get workers to join the party, and how to retain them once they have joined, is the crux of the whole question of recruiting."

Quite a number of delegates raised this question on integration. M. Ferguson from Manchester related the alarming situation whereby of 150 recruits made in the recent period only two had remained. "The big problem is how to retain the members in the party," he said. Frank Smith from London stated the organisation was "suffering from some form of political indigestion."

The Report attempted to grapple with this problem and pointed towards increased training of members and a more healthy branch life:

"The problem of retaining the members of the party is as difficult and acute as ever. Undoubtably, the heaviness of the party tasks and sacrifices, makes the solution of this problem more harder than it would otherwise be--The party must develop a new tone in the locals, and make them warm and more attractive to the new recruits."

It concluded, "Undoubtably, the extension and deepening of party training will do much to enable the locals to retain their members and to keep them active and enthusiastic in the work of the party."

Despite the tone of the Congress and the partial victory in July 1925 ("Red Friday") of the miners, recruitment to the party was still relatively slow. In September, however, a very successful "Red Week" was held which drew in 750 new recruits. Turn-over, however, remained a difficult problem that still had to be mastered. Although solidly proletarian, the political level of the leadership of the CPGB left a lot to be desired. Right from its early beginnings there had been a continuous struggle on behalf of the Comintern to raise its theoretical level. In February 1925 the ECCI reported that

"the aversion to theory revealed itself everywhere in the columns of the Communist Review--whenever any theoretical questions were touched upon, their presentation and analysis were of a purely descriptive nature."

An attempt to help overcome this inadequacy was made soon after the Sixth Congress with the publication of a Training Manual and a series of Training Charts. In June it was estimated that 90 training groups were functioning with about 800 party members attending, with half of these in London and Glasgow Districts. By December South Wales had become the most active District in this field of work.

Early in 1925, the ECCI decided to assist in this political training with the establishment of a "Lenin School" in Moscow, to which, among others, five worker-students from Britain were selected to attend for a period of 18 months with a view to full-time work for the party on their return. A similar central school was proposed in Britain to accommodate 20 students, for a 6 month course.

Nevertheless the branch still remained the key to the day to day integration and education of the broad membership. John Tearney, the Tyneside District Organiser, warned of overburdening new recruits:

"Good material in the shape of new members enter the party full of enthusiasm, work is immediately piled upon them, their enthusiasm is killed before they ever get down to the fundamentals of our policy, and they go out on to the scrap heap."

The only way this could be avoided was to develop a full conscious, sensitive, branch leadership whose fundamental responsibility was the development of the branch and the integration of the membership in its work. A small axe can fell a large tree provided it is sharp. The ultimate responsibility of the party's leadership was to ensure a healthy development of the cell structure of the organisation.

1925 witnessed increasing class polarisation and industrial militancy. "Red Friday" was but a short breathing space to allow the bourgeois to complete its preparations for a mighty showdown with the working class. A colossal opportunity was opening up for the young British Communist Party. Urgent preparations to place the party on a war footing for the coming period was essential. However, under the opportunist influences of the Comintern, now in the hands of Stalin and Bukharin, and the establishment of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, the leadership of the CPGB were to soft-peddle on the revolutionary implications of the impending clash. Nevertheless rich lessons can be found for the present-day Marxists in the early years of the CPGB and its initial struggle to transform itself into a mass Bolshevik Party on British soil.

History & Theory » Historical Analysis » British Labour Movement