Britain was ripe for radical change in 1920. Around the world millions rightly blamed their leaders’ lies for the slaughter of the First World War. For the first time all adult men and many women had the vote.
Passive resentment had turned to active militancy. In 1919 Britain saw mutinies among troops demanding to be demobbed, and an unprecedented strike wave.
Bosses’ attacks on pay and conditions met stiff resistance. This was the background to the launch of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
British soldiers were ambushed in Ireland, warehouses were fired in Liverpool, the Houses of Parliament were closed to the public, and barricades were put up in Downing Street.”
Communist Parties are now associated with the worst in top down, dogmatic organisations, which has turned generations of the left against political parties.
But then both their aims and structure were very different. They were able to learn and generalise from their new members and new experiences round the world.
Many new radicals were repulsed by the Labour representatives in parliament, who had for the most part supported the war and the empire.
Scottish militant Tom Bell wrote that the most charitable thing to say about Labour’s attempts to support workers in parliament “is that it is slow, so slow it breaks men’s hearts”.
The CPGB was a revolutionary organisation committed to democratic rule by workers’ councils, not the sham of parliament. It was for a new type of party that focused on struggle from below.
Unfortunately there was still a lot of truth in Frederick Engels’ complaint from the 1890s that Britain’s small revolutionary groups thought, “Marxist theory is to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development as articles of faith.”
Indeed, many of their members avoided everyday bread and butter issues as irrelevant to the wider struggle for revolution.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 pointed to a new politics that saw that to fight the bosses it was also necessary to take up broader issues—to challenge racism and empire, to increase rights for women.
Members of the small revolutionary groups came to see both the need to work with wider campaigns and with Labour, whose membership might be passive, but included many of the most active militants.
The Marxist British Socialist Party (BSP) affiliated in 1916, not because it abandoned support for revolutionary change, but because Labour “is a semi-conscious recognition of the conflict of interests between the proletariat and the master class”.
At the time it was still possible to affiliate to Labour as an independent organisation. This potentially allowed a communist party more flexibility than in most other countries, which would not allow membership of any other political party.
Negotiations to found the CPGB began in earnest in 1919, but as they advanced, the tide of revolution was receding.
Less than a year after the party’s launch in the summer of 1920, the wave of militancy was decisively ended on Black Friday, 15 April 1921, when trade union leaders reneged on a promise to strike in support of miners faced with a lockout.
That meant that the movement was in retreat and militants had to learn to work with people who didn’t see revolution as possible or even desirable.
This was why the Russian leader Lenin wrote Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.
He respected the revolutionary anger that made militants reject parliament, saying, “This temper is highly gratifying and valuable… in its absence, it would be hopeless to expect the victory of the proletarian revolution in Great Britain, or in any other country for that matter.”
But he also said that they were wrong.
The pamphlet’s title is not a put down of childish organisations, but presents their ultra-leftism as a childhood disease because of the inexperience of the parties.
Its focus was on much larger parties in Italy and Germany, but Lenin talks about two of Britain’s best and most prominent left wingers Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher.
Representation in parliament had been a major issue. Pankhurst’s radical suffragette movement renamed itself the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in early 1917.
Its aim was to “secure human suffrage, namely, a vote, for every woman and man of full age, and to win social and economic freedom for the people”.
But by the 1918 general election, the first where all men and many women could vote, she wrote, “We hope nothing from this election, save that it may serve to spur the workers on to abolish Parliament.”
Lenin disagreed, saying that before becoming revolutionary Britain’s workers must experience a Labour government, “an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism”.
To this end the CPGB “should participate in parliamentary action”. It should work in Labour as long it kept “complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity”.
It was this contradictory situation that encouraged the Comintern’s “united front” policy, calling for Communists to put forward demands that would unite revolutionary and non-revolutionary workers in action.
The demands would take the movement closer to revolution, but they would also be the best way to win an immediate reform.
It was intended as a way of fighting for hegemony of ideas in the radical movement.
The CPGB was founded on 31 July 1920 at a Unity Convention with 160 delegates at the Cannon Street Hotel in London.
The most heated discussions were on whether to engage in elections and whether to try to affiliate to Labour. Despite opposition from young activists, the conference agreed to do both.
Labour was to repeatedly reject the affiliation attempt.
Several leading radicals missed the conference as they were travelling to Russia to the Second Congress of the Comintern.
Within a month the party was involved in the setting up of more than 350 Councils of Action around Britain.
The call had originally gone out from Labour leaders—hoping to head off radical change. It showed the potential for activists from different backgrounds to work together.
The paper warned against “attempts by the trade union and Labour leaders to frustrate the wishes of the rank and file”.
Unfortunately, by this point the movement was already in retreat.
The establishment feared the new party from the start. After Black Friday in 1921, more than 70 Communists were arrested for selling papers or holding street meetings and many were imprisoned.
General secretary Albert Inkpin was imprisoned for sedition for publishing Comintern documents.
Though they were the best known British supporters of the revolution, neither Maclean nor Pankhurst accepted Lenin’s arguments—though Gallacher came round and became a leading member.
They wrongly thought that the united front weakened the party’s revolutionary potential.
Still, for a brief time most of the best militants came together in an organisation that looked to educate and organise the best militants in all fields.
But the radical, flexible edge was blunted by Stalinist politics from the late 1920s and never returned.
Already by the General Strike of 1926 the independence the Comintern had called for was compromised. The CPGB now called for “All Power to the General Council” of the TUC, the very bureaucrats who were holding militancy back.
But the foundation of the CPGB should remind us that there is a long revolutionary tradition in Britain that fights for an alternative to Labour’s failures.