26 September 2020

Answerable to the party

After an overwhelming vote of 186 to 19 in support of parliamentary action, the delegates to the 1st Congress of the CPGB/Communist Unity Convention (July 31-August 1 1920), reconvened to consider amendments.

The first two were trivial and were lost. The third – despite being confused in places – was of more interest. It provoked a debate on the crucial question of centralism versus localism in the new party.

The fact that there were advocates of a looser form of organisation illustrates that many in the newly formed CPGB had not yet internalised the organisational culture of a Communist Party: the combination of the highest degree of centralism, along with the possibilities – given the correct circumstances – for considerable local autonomy and scope for initiative. In this genuinely democratic political model, the party leadership (between congresses, of course) represents the whole; a local branch or regional organisation constitutes a part.

It is clear that the discussion of this important issue by our 1920 comrades was primarily motivated on both sides by the shared aim to dig deep roots in local working class communities; to become a truly mass, principled party.

The nature of the disagreement took a more distinct outline in the exchange between William Mellor (his second intervention) and Tom Bell, as reported in the official account of the congress (extracts below). Comrade Mellor asked if the same levels of tight disciplinary scrutiny would be applied to local representatives as the “national” – presumably communist – MPs.

The pithy summary of Tom Bell’s seems a little incomplete, in that it concentrates on the local and does not mention the need – if anything – for a greater level of active scrutiny and control of communists elected to bodies like the UK parliament or national positions in trade unions, for example.

However, the final amendment (moved by comrade J Fitton) left no room for ambiguity: “In the event of any representative violating the decisions of the party, as embodied in the mandate which he or she has accepted or been instructed upon, he or she shall be called upon to resign his or her membership of parliament or municipality and also of the party.”

This unequivocal motion was carried by 84 votes to 54.

William Sarsfield

Parliament and accountability

J Hamilton (Liverpool Communist Group) said he considered altering the words, “representatives of the party elected to parliament”, to “members of the party contesting or elected to parliament” if it would help prevent careerism; and the introduction of the word “contesting” was important, because it made it explicit that the rule applied both before and after election. They had another amendment: to delete the words, “according to national or local circumstances”, because they considered this phrase would give an opportunity to evade the candidates being tied down by the resolution, so far as tactics were concerned.

W Mellor opposed the amendment, and drew attention to what he considered a danger in the resolution as it stood. What was meant, he asked, by the phrase, “laid down by the party”? Did this refer to the party in delegate conference or to the executive? It seemed to him that the clause as drafted would lead to centralisation of the worst possible type, endangering local initiative and setting up a bureaucracy, which future conferences would be always criticising. The convention did not accept the idea that local circumstances did not count, or alternatively, that the people at head office understood all local circumstances. From the head office manifestos, leaflets, speakers, etc could go out for ever; but unless there was a response inside the localities all such efforts would be in vain.

Neither the amendment nor the resolution as it stood safeguarded local life, local initiative, local control, and he asked the delegates to consider seriously whether the last two sentences of the resolution expressed what the convention wanted. He thought the amendment should be rejected because of the deletion of the words, “according to local or national circumstances”; but there was a more vital question before them than that. They were faced with the whole question of the relationship of the local groups of the Communist Party to the executive, and the resolution was giving the executive an awful amount of authority. He did not think it wise for the Communist Party at its birth to begin by bureaucratising its administration.

A MacManus, the chair, said that they were only deciding the tactical policy of the Communist Party for a few months. When the convention was finished, the first obvious duty of the executive would be to issue a call for resolutions that would be embodied in a draft constitution. That skeleton would be sent out to every member of the party in order to ascertain every point of view as to what the constitution of the party should be and a later draft would be prepared for further examination and criticism.

AA Watts said he did not think the party could lay down to the local branches throughout the country all items of policy for their local conduct. The resolution meant that the comrade elected to a particular body would represent the party, as against the electors, and that if he went from the policy of the party he should no longer be regarded as one of its members. Mellor had read into the resolution an entirely different meaning. A national party could not lay down all the things that were to guide the party throughout the country. The party locally must decide on local affairs, and nationally on national affairs, but its members would sit on public bodies as representing the party, not their constituents.

J Grierson (BSP Openshaw) supported the amendment. They could not have one thing in Essex and another in Northumberland, but must have a Communist Party with rigid discipline. In the British Socialist Party we had seen some branches supporting Labour candidates, while others opposed them, and on one occasion Henry Hyndman had come down to Openshaw and supported the Labour candidate in preference to a BSP candidate run by the local branch. Such things would happen again if we were not careful.

H Webb said local autonomy would lead to confusion. In the north they would have half a dozen towns in close proximity to each other, but all pursuing different policies.

Mrs Kennedy (BSP Erith) said that if local autonomy was not allowed more damage might be done to the Communist Party than otherwise.

Miss E Wilkinson (Manchester Guild Communist Group) said if we were going in for a revolutionary party we must have a general staff and be willing to obey it. After the revolution we could have local decentralisation. The present discussion was important, because if the convention was laying down the lines on which the Communist Party was to be formed, and if it was put into the heads of the people who were to draft the constitution that they were to go on the same old lines, we could not have a revolutionary party, much less a revolution. A revolution meant discipline and obedience.

JE Thomas (Aberdare Communist Unity Group) said, on this point of rigid discipline, he would like to know how far the conference could tie the hands of a member of a trade union who was also a member of this party if he was run as a candidate.

FW Llewellyn (BSP Plymouth) said he supported the amendment. He had been asked only last week to run as a Labour candidate for one of the wards in Plymouth and had replied that he would only stand as a communist candidate. Members of a trade union who were also members of the Communist Party must stand by their communist principles. There was too much local autonomy now. Elections were fought on local questions, but we wanted to have them fought on the principles of the party, and our candidates must run on a common platform.

CL Gibbons (Ferndale Socialist Society) said that number one resolution had been carried unanimously and the convention had thereby agreed to the soviet or workers’ council system. A part of that system was the right of local recall – not party recall. It was going too far in paternal government for the party to undertake to keep the representatives in order. If the man was not elected in a communist constituency there was no point in the party controlling him, because he would not get in unless he compromised.

T Bell said there was no contradiction in advocating the workers’ councils idea and determining the tactics that would be adopted, once our representative was returned to the House of Commons. The soviet idea was our alternative to parliamentary institutions when we had achieved our revolution. We participated in local and parliamentary elections for agitational purposes. Different localities varied from each other; in parliamentary constituencies situations were continually arising that called for particular tactics to be adopted, always with a view to fomenting our revolutionary agitation.

In the past members of parliament had become divorced from the party that had sent them there. We wanted to ensure that our representatives on local and national bodies should keep in close contact with the Communist Party executive, and that the executive should have regard to the general situation, whether industrial or political, and should collaborate with those representatives upon the tactics that were to be adopted in order to achieve the best values as far as revolutionary agitation was concerned.

It seemed to him that the movers of the amendment had no case whatever. The Joint Committee would not quarrel about the words “members” and “representatives”. Where the resolution spoke of the “party” it meant the national executive, as appointed by the party in conference; provision would be made in the constitution to see that that executive was elected in a properly constituted and democratic manner.

W Mellor asked if there would be the same measure of control over local as over national representatives.

T Bell replied that all the localities did not have the same degree of civic and social development as each other. There were variations of development in municipalities and so forth, and these would very largely determine the policy and tactics that would be most efficient for our propaganda purposes. That was what the Joint Committee had in mind when they used the phrase, “according to local circumstances” …

W Saltmarsh (Cardiff Communist Unity Group) said it seemed to him wrong that the majority of the members took parliamentary and political action seriously. If they were to abide by what they had already decided, they were going to treat it as a joke. He recognised that the greatest part of the value of the work would be the educational side of the constituency. If by chance a candidate was returned and took his seat, he would be sitting on rotten eggs and nothing would come of it.

J Fitton then moved to add to the resolution the words: “In the event of any representative violating the decisions of the party, as embodied in the mandate which he or she has accepted or been instructed upon, he or she shall be called upon to resign his or her membership of parliament or municipality and also of the party.” He said those who talked about party discipline ought to support the amendment.

Resolution, as amended

The Communist Party repudiates the reformist view that a social revolution can be achieved by the ordinary methods of parliamentary democracy, but regards parliamentary and electoral action generally as providing a means of propaganda and agitation towards the revolution. The tactics to be employed by representatives of the party elected to parliament or local bodies must be laid down by the party itself, according to the national or local circumstances. In all cases such representatives must be considered as holding a mandate from the party, and not from the particular constituency for which they happen to sit. In the event of any representative violating the decisions of the party, as embodied in the mandate which he or she has accepted or been instructed upon, he or she shall be called upon to resign his or her membership of parliament or municipality and also of the party.

Return to the ‘Formation of the CPGB (1920)’ series