18 September 2020

Formation of the CPGB (1920)

A series of articles produced by regular Weekly Worker contributor William Sarsfield on the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, the events preceding and the immediate challenges it faced in a highly turbulent period that would go on to reshape the entire working class movement in Britain. This is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in the the formation of the CPGB, Each edition includes republished articles from the organisations and leaders as the events unfolded and gives the reader a unique ‘as-it-happened’ viewpoint of these seminal events.

(1) October shakes the British left

Includes 3 articles from The Call (paper of the British Socialist party, who would go on to become a major component of the future CPGB) in November 1917 in response to the unfolding Russian revolution. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1286, 13/02/20.

(2) Fight for unity

Features a 1919 article from The Call as well as The Socialist of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) from March 1920, the newly formed Comintern proved to be the catalyst needed to turn enthusiasm for the Russian revolution into practice as the process of uniting under one Communist Party banner began. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1287, 23/02/20.

(3) The supreme issue

An intervention from Amsterdam puts unity in jeopardy as “the supreme issue of a Communist Party” turned into a wider debate over to affiliation and membership of the Labour Party; in a May 1920 article of The Call, the BSP leadership attack the leftist policy that was a threat to the unity project. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1288, 29/02/20.

(4) Beyond the sects

The battle for a unity convention raged on into Summer 1920 as pro-unity forces within the SLP formed the Communist Unity Group (CUG), we reprint 3 articles of The Call which continued to fight against Sylvia Pankhurst’s leftist WSF and for a united Party with tactical flexibility. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1290, 12/03/20.

(5) Those against unity

Both the SLP and the former WSF – now the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – reacted to the news of the proposed BSP/CUG unity convention with open letters in The Socialist and The Workers’ Dreadnought respectfully. Whilst the SLP was attempting to prevent total disintegration, the CP (BSTI) remained adamant that rejection of parliament and the Labour Party were a matter of principle. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1291, 20/03/20.

(6) Lenin for unity

These are the last articles we will be republishing from The Call – the BSP and its paper were shortly merged into the newly formed CPGB – but they are of immense importance.  Of the four articles; a report of the BSP delegates from the 2nd Congress of Comintern, a message from Lenin to the BSP in support of a united Communist Party as well as “participation in parliament and of adhesion to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent communist activity”, a piece written by the CUG and a fond farewell from The Call. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1292, 26/03/20.

(7) Unity: a hostile report

We begin our coverage of the crucial Communist Unity Convention with a sceptical and somewhat cynical August 12 1920 article of The Socialist (SLP). Despite the loss of many comrades to the CPGB, the report claimed that “The field for revolutionary unity is now much clearer” – history would prove the SLP wrong. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1293, 02/04/20.

(8) Unity convention

The next nine contributions to this series re-publish the speeches, contributions and debates of the Communist Unity Convention itself, we begin with the Chairman’s address. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1294, 09/04/20.

(9) Inkpin speaks

Albert Inkpin – previously secretary of the British Socialist Party and now holding the same post on the Joint Provisional Committee of the CPGB – delivers the report on the unity negotiations to the Unity Convention/First Congress of the CPGB. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1295, 17/04/20.

(10) Party and parliament

Debate kicked-off at the First Congress with a resolution on Party and Parliament which was delivered by Tom Bell on behalf of the Joint Provisional Committee (JPC). We republish his speech as well as the resolution. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1296, 23/04/20.

(11) Fundamental principles 

We continue with the resolution on Party and Parliament – moved by Tom Bell – with the debate and discussion. Chair Arthur MacManus called  19 speakers during the debate, we reproduce a summation of these speeches – as reported in the official account of the congress. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1297, 30/04/20.

(12) Answerable to the Party

The second resolution of the First Congress that we republish is that of Parliament and accountability, outlining that parliament severed as a means of propaganda rather than a route to socialism itself as well as the key distinction that elected communists “must be considered as holding a mandate from the party, and not from the particular constituency for which they happen to sit”. We publish a summary of the debate as well as the amended resolution. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1299, 15/05/20.

(13) Call for affiliation

The next Phase of the First Congress of the CPGB was devoted to another extremely divisive issue which divided the former members of the BSP And CUG – that of Labour Party affiliation. It took the form of a direct debate between two starkly opposed motions: (a) “That the Communist Party shall be affiliated to the Labour Party” and (b) “that the Communist Party shall not be affiliated to the Labour Party”. We reproduce an edited version of the speech by the mover (JF Hodgson) of motion (a). Originally published in Weekly Worker 1300, 21/05/20.

(14) Labour Party debate

Motion (b) – against affiliation to the Labour Party – was moved by William Paul. We reproduce an edited version of the speech. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1301, 28/05/20.

(15) ‘A Labour Party with a communist mind’

Once both motion (a) and (b) had been moved the debate was moved to the delegates of the First Congress, 23 delegates spoke for and against affiliation to the Labour Party and then a vote was taken. The result was a slim 100-85 majority for affiliation. We reproduce an edited version the official account. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1302, 04/06/20.

(16) Welcome the CPGB

We republish a series of material from the first edition of The Communist (paper of the newly formed CPGB) in which leading members gave their impressions of the recently concluded Congress. We also republish an article by Arthur MacManus (chair of the First Congress) entitled ‘The tasks awaiting the Communist Party‘. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1303, 11/06/20.

(17) Tragedy of Sylvia Pankhurst

Featuring 2 articles of the CP-BSTI paper Workers’ Dreadnought from October 1920 and January 1921, we follow Sylvia Pankhurst’s fall from childish leftism to anti-unity sectarian. Ultimately, the tide of history was not in her favour and the disintegration of the CP-BSTI project came swiftly as well as her departure from revolutionary politics. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1304, 18/06/20.

(18) Get to your posts

We republish the first internal circular of the new CPGB, whose initial battle was for the survival of the young Soviet Republic and preventing the imperial powers such as Britain from crushing it in its infancy. Calling on comrades to “Get to your posts! Keep there!”, organising Councils of Action and a general strike to call a halt to intervention and war. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1306, 02/07/20.

(19) CPGB and the miners

Features 2 articles from The Communist regarding the emerging crisis in the coal industry. Threatening all out-strike action the miners demanded a pay increase and sizeable reductions in the price of domestic coal, the CPGB urged the miners to look to the example of Russia and use the councils of action and unions to pose the question of workers control. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1307, 09/07/20.

(20) ‘A damned nuisance’

We republish an extremely interesting article from The Communist on the women’s question (or lack of) within the young CPGB. Thanks to an intervention from Comintern they set up a women department and a women’s page in their paper however the barbed humour in the first two paragraphs of the article makes clear that male chauvinist backwardness also played its own, disruptive role. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1308, 16/07/20.

(21) Mobilising the unemployed

1920 saw the opening of another front for the young CPGB, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and soaring post-war unemployment. On this issue we republish 2 more articles from The Communist, including news of the formation of a soviet in Coventry! Originally published in Weekly Worker 1309, 23/07/20.

(22) Remained a live issue

Despite the formation of a united Communist Party the question of the Labour Party and affiliation remained a live issue. Returning to The Communist we find the Provisional Executive Committee reminding readers of the purely tactical (rather than principle) nature of the approach to Labour as well as reporting their correspondence with the Labour Party over affiliation. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1310, 30/07/20.

(23) Reasons to be bitter

From a November 1920 article in The Communist it is clear that Executive Committee of the CPGB took the question of Irish liberation as a question of upmost importance. Embracing the principle ‘one land that oppresses another can themselves never be free’, they rightly called out the British working class movement for their failure to support the Irish war of liberation. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1312, 13/08/20.

(24) ‘All power for the workers’

August 1921 saw the first electoral challenge for the CPGB with the Caerphilly by-election, In an address to the workers of Caerphilly they were clear that the reformists will always cave in to the interests of capital and the state and now they should vote communist to “demonstrate your confidence in your class, your defiance to the boss, and your determination to achieve all power for the workers“. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1314, 10/09/20.

(25) Supporting the Labour Party

A December 1920 article of The Communist printed an interview of none other than V.I. Lenin and the CPGB Comintern delegate William Paul on the question of tactical support for the Labour Party. We proudly republish it here. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1315, 17/09/20.

(26) Place for all communists

Despite the success of the Communist Unity Congress in forming a Communist Party there were still many comrades isolated or in small groups outside of the CPGB, on the instruction of the Comintern there was to be a second unity congress. We republish 2 articles from The Communist arguing the case for continued unity and that “the place for all communists is in a Communist Party”. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1316, 24/09/20.

(27) Up the CPGB Bolshies

In this, the final article in our series on the CPGB’s centenary, we republish the following account of the battle of the Caerphilly by-election, penned by TA Jackson in the party’s weekly paper, The Communist. Originally published in Weekly Worker 1317, 01/10/20.