The founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the British Communist Party. As a result we are publishing the following article on the early years of the Communist Party

The Communist Party (CPGB) was formed in Britain in July 1920. It represented a step of enormous significance in bringing together the best proletarian fighters, inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, in a single, unified Marxist organisation.

The vast majority of its original 4,000 membership was derived from the fusion of small propaganda groups and societies: the British Socialist Party, sections of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Unity Group and the Workers Socialist Federation. These militant workers, steeled in the war years and inspired by revolution, were determined to establish a Bolshevik Party in Britain that would lead to a victorious conquest of power by the working class.

However, their hatred for the betrayals of reformism led many in an ultra-left direction, not fully appreciating or understanding the tactics of Bolshevism. For many, the issues facing them were black and white. This was to surface over the party leadership's view of the Labour Party.

In 1920, the 'Labour Party' question was discussed in the Communist International. Lenin and Trotsky argued for the British CP to affiliate to the Labour Party and to fight for their ideas within its ranks. After a heated debate, this position was agreed by a narrow majority. In complying with this decision, the leaders of the British CP however, who still resisted the position, framed a request for affiliation to the Labour Party in a very provocative fashion - inviting rejection. When rejection came, the CP issued a statement "it's their funeral".

Despite this "infantilism", the ranks of the Party were, for the greater part, the most self-sacrificing and courageous of people. They were the raw material of Bolshevism, who, under the guidance of Lenin and Trotsky, could play a decisive role in the British revolution.

The Comintern intervened patiently to correct this ultra-leftism, urging the young Party to face to the traditional organisations of the working class. Over time they established a growing influence within the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Nevertheless, many members brought along with them the empirical approach and method of the old propagandist societies that had merged to form the CPGB. Far from being a "combat party", the CP began as a loose, flabby body with a federal structure, large branches and a debating society character.

"Organisational Structure"

At the Third Congress of the Communist International (July 1921), a resolution was adopted which attempted to lay down the basic line of Bolshevik organisation. This thesis on "Organisational Structure" (58 paragraphs long) tried to bring uniformity to the different sections of the International. It opened with the words: "There is no absolute form of organisation which is correct for all CPs or all time," and drew the lesson:

"our basic organisational task is to create an organisation and educate the CP under the guidance of its experienced bodies to be the effective leadership of the revolutionary proletarian movement."

It drew the lessons from the Russian experience, that a loose-knit, amateurish organisation of the Menshevik variety would be of no use in leading a revolution. Only a Bolshevik party, based on democratic centralism - the fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy - could achieve this task.

Lenin later said of the resolution that it was "excellent" but "too Russian". It was necessary to "digest" the experience, politically and organisationally of Russian Bolshevism, but not in a mechanical fashion.

"The foreign comrades must learn to understand what we have written about the organisational structure of the CPs... this must be their first task. That resolution must be carried out. It cannot be carried out overnight." Under the advice of the Communist International, the British CP in 1922 undertook a reorganisation of its methods and structures to transform itself into a "party of a new type".

In early 1922, the Party Executive appointed a commission of three - Palme Dutt, Pollitt and Inkpin - to examine the party structure at all levels and recommend alterations that would bring it into line with the Third Congress. Its final report was issued in September and contained the blunt assessment:

"On every side the workers have been disgusted and disillusioned with the treachery of the old official leaders and have turned eagerly for new guidance. Yet in these two years, with all these opportunities and with the tireless activities and energy of individual workers, the party has made no real progress either numerically or in terms of influence."

The report catalogued the deficiencies at all levels, but especially in the local branches. These were seen as the vital "cells" of the combat organisation that had to be completely restructured and put on a well organised footing.

The report went on to critically describe the completely routinist approach to the work of the branch:

"The process is generally marked by a sense of tedium, which keeps away half the members, and gives the remainder a feeling of duty done in having attended the branch."

This stale branch life completely failed to raise the political level of the membership or effectively organise the work that was needed. Such an "atmosphere" was completely counter-productive. The report concluded: "This instrument will never achieve a revolution." The branches were therefore reorganised into effective "working groups" whose tasks were fixed to produce results, and only to produce results. Recruitment was seen as the top priority with education and the integration of new recruits as a necessary counterpart.

"Every activity is tested by its results. Results mean the demonstrable increase of the Party's influence in the working class, whether by increase of membership, increase of readers of the paper, winning of sympathisers and contacts"

Party building

Every member was to be given a role, however small which would directly contribute to the work of the party. "This is the vital secret of the Theses - that there is no rank and file member in the CP; every member has his specially allocated work and responsibility. Every member has some special qualification which can be used in some sphere of the Party's work."

The question of party building was given top priority in this period. At the formation of the CP in 1920 a rough estimate of the party's membership was around 4,000, but a large layer remained "paper members". By the 1922 Commission a more accurate census was carried out which placed membership at 2,000. It was nevertheless a solid, proletarian, core. The need to now rapidly increase the membership became the burning task. "The principle task," stated the report, "of every individual Party member is the task of personal recruiting." However, it stressed that Party building did not consist of searching for ready-made Bolsheviks, but raw class conscious workers looking for revolutionary ideas who could be trained within the party in the ideas of Marxism and developed into cadres. "Recruiting for the party is a constant accompaniment of all Party work, and not a separate desperate attempt to discover full blown Communists outside the party." It was recognised as an inevitable result of the membership's day to day work in the unions, Labour Party, amongst the youth, and in the factories.

The recommendations of the Commission - endorsed by the Battersea Congress in October 1922 - took some time to implement in practice. Nevertheless, many organisational defects were corrected and the party placed on a footing more suited to its revolutionary needs. A special organising committee was appointed to carry through the re-organisation of the party and overcome the "discussion circle" mentality in certain areas. Over the following 12 months dramatic changes took place in the localities, districts and at the centre itself. Party membership was registered, new Districts constituted, and new Departments organised. The EC reported to the Sixth Congress (1924) that: "More than eighteen month's experience has fully justified the transformation of the party."

By the end of 1923 membership stood around 3,000. A recruitment drive was carried out between September 1923 and February 1924 where 400 new members were made. At this time a recruitment Department was established at Party headquarters, and by May membership had risen to 3,900. From now on internal party work was to require "great patience, tact and energy."

It was in June 1924, that Trotsky wrote: "For Britain the epoch of the formation of the CP is only now really opening." A year later he was to write a brilliant book entitled 'Where is Britain Going?' as a guide to the Party.

In January 1925 the EC adopted the statement "Towards A Mass Party" and by the Seventh Congress (May 1925) membership had risen to 5,000. For the first time, real organised planned recruitment was taking place. In September 1925, a special recruitment week was launched - a "Red Week" - where 750 new members were made. This concept was drawn from the experience of the Russian revolution where the workers gave up their spare time to work for the young Soviet State on "Red Saturdays" or "Red Sundays". It was later taken up by the Communist International to characterise special events or efforts.

Bolshevise the ranks

At this time much discussion took place on the "mass party" and the need to Bolshevise the ranks, i.e. to raise the collective consciousness of the membership on the theoretical and organisational tasks needed in carrying through the revolution.

Turn-over, however, still remained a problem for the party, as insufficient attention was paid to the training of the new recruits. "The membership of the CP are disciplined soldiers, but they are also conscious soldiers." Or at least that was the aim. Measures were therefore taken to correct the problems. At the end of 1924, five party members were to go to the "Lenin School" in Moscow for extensive theoretical training for 18 months. Soon after the CP set up its own training school to take 20 members for a full-time 6 months course. In Manchester, 100 were undergoing training in 9 training groups. A "Manual of Party Training" was published together with training charts and 2,500 were sold over a short period. By the end of 1925, 800 party members were enrolled in 82 classes, 25 of them in South Wales.

It was at this time that Trotsky outlined to the British CP the vital role even a small Marxist organisation could play when fused with the mass movement. Referring to the Australian Party he explained: "The Communist Party in Australia has a membership of less than a thousand. But it is able to direct 400,000 workers in the Commonwealth." The CP was to play a similar function using the National Minority Movement as a lever in the British trade unions.

The explosive growth of the Party however came with the General Strike and the miners lockout of 1926. With the exception of a small bureau retained at Party headquarters, all the staff at the party centre were sent into the coalfields. Twenty-nine speakers were mobilised and 220,000 copies of four leaflets were issued in a concentrated fortnight's campaign. Mass meetings were held in the coalfields and on 14 July the EC reported 3,000 new members since the strike started.

Albert Inkpin, the General Secretary, reported in August: "In the whole Durham coalfield recruits [were] rolling in at a rate which creates an acute problem for the party."

But these were the type of problems that the CP wanted - products of success. In Tyneside, membership stood at 1,900 with a long waiting-list whilst new branches were formed! By mid-September the national membership reached 10,730 with only 245 branches. "The problem of assimilating, instructing and thoroughly organising these new members is being given serious attention" commented the EC report to the Eighth Congress (October 1926).

The editor of the Communist Review explained:

"The great influx of new members into the ranks of the Party as a result of the General Strike and the mining lock-out is creating many serious organisational problems."

An article by E. H. Brown in the Review explained:

"We have within our ranks, however, a number of comrades who show very little enthusiasm at the recruiting figures... [They make] oft-repeated phrases: 'Our hardest job is not to make new members, but to keep those we have already.'"

He went on to explain that

"The greatest possible mistake we could make at the present time is to treat these recruits as potential deserters... we [must] place the maximum trust in them right from the date of joining."

He then dealt critically with the approach and method adopted in recruitment. As opposed to the argument of the so-called "poor calibre" of new members he stated: "We must realise also that not all backsliding from party membership is due to the individual." That is the easy explanation. What we must recognise are the "many faults inside the party, which militate against the growth of membership. In some instances complete indifference is displayed by the local party to the important task of carrying through the enrolment in a businesslike manner. Here is an example of a criminal character and one which should not be tolerated inside the party. In a letter a new member states:

"Six of us, all new members attended at ............ when the local organiser was supposed to meet us and give us instructions as to the groups we were to be attached to. It was our first meeting after we had been accepted. No-one turned up to receive us and after waiting nearly an hour, one by one we drifted out."

"Instead of this kind of treatment the new comrades should have been honoured with attention driven to the other point of extremity.

"The introduction of new members to the party is of the utmost importance - first impressions are always the most potent. Contrast the above instance with the one employed by some locals which have given special place on the agenda of a well-organised aggregate meeting to the reception of new members. The chairman rises and introduces the new comrades and pays them the compliment of having had the necessary intelligence and determination to overcome all the prejudices which are manufactured against the party; outlines to them what the party expects from them and gives them a hearty welcome to our ranks. Then before the meeting concludes the local organiser or secretary takes special care to see that all questions in regard to group work, dues, etc... are explained. Such a procedure without deteriorating into a 'formal' practice, is necessary in all locals."

Ninth Congress

However, at the Ninth Congress in October 1927, the membership had declined to 7,400 which was attributed to the loss of members in the mining areas. However, the attitude and approach of the local leadership proved crucial in the consolidation difficulties that the party faced. The role of the "subjective factor" was key even between different coalfields. Whereas in the Tyneside area membership fell from 1,900 to less than 750, in the South Wales district there occurred a substantial increase from 1,500 to 2,300 members. Of course there was a harsh price to pay at this time for being a Communist: victimisation, police intimidation, eviction, unemployment and poverty. Nevertheless these applied equally as much in South Wales as on Tyneside. "The main reason for the striking contrast between South Wales and Tyneside" notes the historian MacFarlane, "was probably the inspiring local leadership given by the Party in South Wales, not merely in the General Strike, but in the whole period after 1920-21"

The reorganisation of the Party had great beneficial effects. The "party of a new type" was taking form with roots extending throughout the labour movement. In the trade unions, the CP-inspired National Minority Movement had attracted the support of organisations comprising 1,250,000 workers. Despite expulsions, a large fraction of 1,500 remained within the Labour Party at the head of the National Left-Wing Movement. The scene was set for a huge growth in influence and membership. However, with the development of Stalinist reaction within the Soviet Union, the young British organisation was soon to submit to the new bureaucratic "orthodoxy". Part and parcel of the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia led inevitably to the Stalinisation of the Communist International itself. From young revolutionary parties, the Communist Parties were transformed - through purges and political gangsterism - into pliant tools of the Moscow bureaucracy. The degeneration of the CPGB and its slavish following of every zig-zag of the Kremlin sounded the death-knell of that organisation, which finally dissolved after the collapse of Stalinism.

The task of Marxists today is to learn the lessons of the past, reject the distortions of Stalinism, and assimilate the best traditions of the early pioneering years of the CP in Britain and internationally.