24 September 2020

Beyond the sects

Negotiations to merge the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Workers’ Socialist Federation into a united Communist Party dragged on from May 1919. The SLP was stubbornly opposed to the BSP’s suggestion that a newly formed Communist Party should seek mass influence through the tactic of affiliation to the Labour Party. In the name of ‘revolutionary purity’, the SLP leadership blocked all compromises and made the question of Labour affiliation the barrier that stymied unification. In addition, Sylvia Pankhurst’s WSF was not only implacably against Labour affiliation, but also upheld the ‘principle’ of boycotting all parliamentary activity – even after Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership in Russia had made crystal-clear their support for making use of bourgeois parliaments.

However, in April 1920 things began to look up for advocates of communist unity.

The trio, William Paul, Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell, had been the SLP’s reps in the stalled unity negotiations – that is, until they were repudiated by the organisation’s doctrinaire leadership.1 Now they made a dramatic move to break the logjam. Coinciding with the SLP’s official annual conference on April 3-4, Paul, McManus and Bell called their own unofficial gathering in Nottingham.

This event had the support and participation of the most active members of the SLP, and particularly those playing leading roles in mass movements. The pro-unity SLPers renamed themselves the Communist Unity Group, and adopted a manifesto that committed them to work for the “unity of all elements scattered throughout the various groups and parties as the first essential to the formation of a Communist Party in Britain”.

This bold move broke the deadlock, and negotiations at last began to bear fruit. The meetings of April 24 and May 9 agreed that the tactical questions of Labour affiliation and parliamentary activity should be decided after unity had been achieved, rather than be a precondition for it.

On May 29 the representatives of the BSP and the CUG – with the distinctly unenthusiastic and numerically far smaller WSF initially tagging along – felt ready to issue a call for a fusion convention.

This did not mean that everything was now plain sailing. The bold unity initiative produced a sharp political/organisational bifurcation with a hardening of sectarianism on one side, as Sylvia Pankhurst and her WSF confirmed their trajectory towards an impotent, leftist stance. Isolated – and, presumably, desperate – she turned to a decomposing and increasingly irrelevant SLP and hopeless initiatives like the ‘Emergency Conference’, convened as a direct alternative to the drive to the unity project that was to produce the CPGB.2

In vivid contrast to the decomposition of their ultra-left opponents – and on the basis of a genuine communist principle – the BSP and CUG, who between them represented the bulk of communist forces in Britain, were drawing closer together. From July 15 1920 The Call gave over, weekly, a full page for the CUG to use as it saw fit.

The CUG had since its formation “felt the need of a paper that would enable us, without let or hindrance, not only to express our views on matters of general policy, but to publicly refute the lies and slanders against us from time to time”. However, because of the self-proclaimed “transitory nature” of the group, they preferred to husband resources in “deference to the larger object of a united Communist Party”. With this prize within touching distance, the CUG used the ‘gift’ from the BSP to good effect.

William Sarsfield

Communist unity

The Call June 3 1920

Considerable progress towards the establishment of a united Communist Party was made at a further meeting of the Unity Conference in London last Saturday. Those present were: JF Hodgson, AA Watts and Fred Willis (representing the BSP), Thos Bell, Arthur MacManus and Wm Paul (representing the Communist Unity Group formed by members of the SLP), and Sylvia Pankhurst, Nora Smyth and Melvina Walker (representing the WSF).

A national convention is to be held to establish the Communist Party, to which all organisations, branches of organisations, groups and local societies accepting the three cardinal principles of unity (dictatorship of the proletariat, the soviet system, and the Third International) are to be invited to send delegates. This convention will also decide the tactical question of the relations of the Communist Party to the Labour Party.

Meanwhile various sub-committees will deal with the general arrangements for the convention, prepare suggestions for the constitution, platform and organisation of the Communist Party, and go into the details of the amalgamation of the existing organisations. All the bodies participating in summoning the convention are pledged to accept the decisions of the convention and to merge their organisations in the Communist Party, and representation at the convention will imply that organisations, branches and groups represented will also accept its decisions and become parts of the Communist Party. The convention will be held in London, and the date is provisionally fixed for Sunday August 1.

The delegates of the BSP and the Communist Unity Group were acting on mandates from their respective bodies. The participation of the WSF delegates was stated to be conditional upon a referendum of their membership now being taken.

Unity, ourselves and others

The Call June 10 1920

Last week’s issue of The Socialist contains a letter sent by Miss Sylvia Pankhurst to the SLP, in which she discusses the advisability, or otherwise, of taking part in this convention [printed on June 3 along with an SLP reply]. It is a long letter (about 2,000 words), but it can be summed up very briefly.

Miss Pankhurst considers the question of participation under the separate headings of advantages and disadvantages. The advantages, says Miss Pankhurst, are that the delegates may be induced to accept her own particular point of view, in which case all would be well. The disadvantages are that they may not, and then, of course, all would be very far from well. But, she concludes naively, in the latter unfortunate event those agreeing with her need not consider themselves bound by the decisions of the conference – and, so again, all would be well.

The reply of the national executive committee of the SLP to Miss Pankhurst’s letter is what was to be expected. It is rigid and doctrinaire, but quite honest.

These Calvinists of the socialist movement will have nothing to do with the proposed convention. They do not favour Miss Pankhurst’s brilliant tactic of running away from the unity proceedings in the event of not being able to stampede them, but they make one suggestion, which, to put it mildly, is surprising. They invite the WSF to join with them in calling a conference of their own. And to invite thereto representatives of the South Wales Socialist Society, the Irish Communist Party, the British section of the Third International, Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. I should like to have seen Miss Pankhurst’s face when she saw this suggestion.

The SPGB stands for what it calls revolutionary parliamentary action, as opposed to industrial action. It has as much right to its opinions as any other body, and we do not quarrel with its members for holding them, but to ask it to take part in a conference which would presumably endorse the soviet system, the dictatorship of the proletariat and industrial mass action is something which – like the peace of god – passes all understanding.

Apparently, Miss Pankhurst thought so too. The reply of the SLP to her letter is dated May 27. On June 4, she issued an invitation to all organisations who accept non-parliamentarism as a basis of unity to attend a meeting for the purpose of deciding whether or not to be present at the conference our own unity committee is engaged in calling. Neither the SLP nor the SPGB will be represented at Miss Pankhurst’s gathering, we presume, unless the voice of the charmer has been so alluring as to outweigh even the sterner call of principle.

For ourselves, we are willing to leave the less important matters of immediate tactics to the free play of opinion in the rank and file of a united Communist Party when formed. To rally the workers of this country to the banner so gloriously raised by our Russian comrades is all-important at this juncture – all else is sound and fury, signifying less than nothing.

Fred Willis

HQ notes

The Call July 15 1920

In the discussions that took place in the initial stages of our unity negotiations, Wales figured largely through the South Wales Socialist Society. We at no time lost sight of the fact – and indeed had it repeatedly brought home to us in correspondence from many of our Welsh comrades – that the SWSS by no means adequately represented communist opinion in Wales. We were scarcely prepared, however, for the news that it had ‘gone west’. Yet such, we are assured, is actually the case.

From its ashes, and from some late SLP branches, there has arisen what we think will prove a more substantial organisation, in the shape of a South Wales Communist Council. This council counts eight definite groups, while the Neath Socialist Society has just affiliated, and others are expected to follow – all for the Communist Party. We can appreciate the disappointment of the WSF, which always counted on the SWSS to back her up. It was no small surprise to find her secretary writing the council, soliciting support for her latest adventure. Needless to say, there was ‘nothing doing’. Let this be the reply to all such seductive attempts coming from 400 Old Ford Road [headquarters of the WSF].3

Towards the Communist Party

The Call July 15 1920

History teaches that every crisis capitalism has to go through is a test period. The strain at such a period, however, is not confined to the purely commercial credit of its national groups. It is as much a test upon the loyalty and convictions of the revolutionists towards their communist principles.

It is just at such periods when it is brought home to us that our Labour politicians of the Thomas and Henderson type are indeed the watchdogs of capitalist interests. The former, apprehensive of the dangerous situation capitalism is drifting into, is even now appealing to the government to reduce the cost of living and so help to stave off “the turmoil and agitation that upsets everything and everybody”. But, since there is nothing in common between communism and capitalism, the latter’s difficulty must be the former’s opportunity.

Here, then, is where the test will be applied to the communists. Are we to go on pottering about, as a great many fragmentary groups – our efforts rendered sterile and fatuous by our sectionalism? Or are we capable of rising to the occasion and, concentrating all our resources, make a strong national effort worthy of the principles we profess?

July 31 will be your opportunity for making an effective reply. At the national convention will be laid the foundations of a Communist Party that will seriously challenge the powers of capitalism. The Communist Party will, by its industrial, political and social activity, foster the spirit of revolution. When Lloyd George told his German confrères at Spa to deal with the communists as his French brothers did in 1871 – ie, shoot them like dogs – he not only made a deadly thrust at Labour Party democracy, but he threw down a challenge to the communists of Britain.

We shall not be worthy of the name if we do not pick that challenge up and prepare for the coming struggle.


  1. The SLP leadership had come to mistrust their team responsible for unity negotiations: Tom Bell, Arthur MacManus and William Paul, collectively named the Unity Committee. Even though these three comrades opposed affiliation to the Labour Party as individuals, they put the formation of a CPGB above such tactical differences. Because of this, the dogmatist majority on the SLP leadership voted by a narrow majority to break off negotiations and to dissolve its own UC.↩︎
  2. However, the “direct alternative” primarily consisted of inviting left-communist organisations and sects to this ‘Emergency Conference’, based primarily on their sterile opposition to affiliation to Labour. A poorly attended conference was convened in June 1920, whose only ‘achievements’ seemed to be to boycott any future unity meetings and to lobby the crisis-wracked SLP for a merger. Thus, it consigned itself to the dustbin of history.↩︎
  3. The “her” repeatedly referred to is Sylvia Pankhurst.↩︎

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