18 September 2020

Fight for unity

We have seen from the first instalment of this series the importance of international developments for the progress towards unity of revolutionary organisations in Britain. The October Revolution proved inspirational. Thus it was with the formation of the Third (Communist) International (March 1919). The first serious attempts were made to combine the divided revolutionary groups into a single, united, Communist Party.

The first unity meeting between the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party,1 the Workers’ Socialist Federation2 and the South Wales Socialist Society was held in London on May 13 1919. As the report in the BSP’s The Call made clear, it proved to be a difficult meeting. The BSP was solidly committed to founding a Communist Party. In early 1920 it organised two national branch ballots: the first, on affiliation to the Communist International, was carried by 98 branches to four; the other, on revolutionary unification in a Communist Party, was also carried by an overwhelming majority.

Things were far messier in the other organisations, however. The SLP leadership deliberately confused the issue of communist unity by making it contingent on an agreement that an approach to the Labour Party for affiliation was ruled out. The SLP membership had voted by a large majority for a merger; predictably they also voted overwhelmingly against any affiliation to the Labour Party. The dogmatic wing of the SLP leadership was mulishly determined on unity with the BSP only on its own terms. Indeed, it had even come to mistrust its own unity negotiating team, composed of Tom Bell, Arthur MacManus and William Paul. These comrades, although opposed to Labour affiliation themselves, correctly put the launch of a united CPGB above (admittedly important) tactical differences.

Consequently, the SLP leadership voted to break off the negotiations and to dissolve its ‘unreliable’ Unity Committee.

Given its left-communist template, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation also produced a contradictory result in its referendum: for unity in theory, but against it if this concretely meant a commitment to parliamentary action and Labour Party affiliation.3

Consequently, the two meetings of the Unity Committee in January both ended in failure. The second report we are reproducing – originally carried in the SLP’s paper, The Socialist – makes clear that the return of the SLP to the negotiations in March only compounded the impasse.

Readers will be struck, I think, by the tenacious way these outstanding comrades approached the struggle to form a CPGB, and for principled communist unity and a qualitative leap in terms of their ability to engage with workers and form the class into a class for itself. No doubt, some silly sectarian obstacles had to be dealt with: there might have been a few ‘turf’ squabbles revisited and unresolved political grievances flagged up, whether relevant to the agenda on the table or not.

Either way, the process of unity had begun.

William Sarsfield

Socialist Unity

The Call August 21 1919

So far as fundamental principles and the general basis upon which it was suggested the four organisations could unite in a new party are concerned, the discussion showed that there was little disagreement. The main difficulty arose, as anticipated, on the question of tactics, particularly in regard to relations with the Labour Party and the existing industrial organisations.

There was, on the part of the WSF, a tendency displayed against any participation whatever in parliamentary action, although the representatives of that body said that their views regarding parliamentary action would not be allowed to stand in the way of the formation of a united party. The chief division of opinion arose respecting the relations of the proposed new party to the Labour Party.

On behalf of the BSP reference was made to the referendum of the BSP membership taken last year, when a proposal to withdraw from the Labour Party was defeated by a majority of four to one, and to the vote of the Easter conference of the party, when the policy of Labour Party affiliation was reaffirmed by an overwhelming majority. The BSP members stated that they felt that the bulk of the BSP membership would make it conditional upon any steps in the direction of unity that the basis of amalgamation should include the affiliation of the new organisation to the Labour Party.

Against this the comrades from the other bodies argued that, however much they, as individuals, might be prepared to make the concessions in order to achieve unity, it would be quite useless for them to approach their members with any proposal for unity that made affiliation to the Labour Party one of the bases of amalgamation.

Subsequently a further proposal was made as suggesting a middle course, to which all might agree. That proposal was that the membership of the several parties should be consulted as to their willingness to merge their respective bodies in a new party, and that the question of affiliation to the Labour Party should be settled by a referendum of the members of the new party three months after its formation. The representatives of the SLP, in support of this proposal, said that, whilst they considered it futile to approach their members with a proposal that included immediate affiliation to the Labour Party, their members would, in the event of unity being achieved, and a referendum of the new party of affiliation to the Labour Party, abide loyally by that decision, however much they might disagree with it. Eventually it was agreed that those present should submit the proposal to their respective executives in the following form:

That the membership of the various organisations be consulted as to their willingness to merge the existing organisations into a united party, having for its object the establishment of communism by means of the dictatorship of the working class through soviets; and that the question of the affiliation of the new party to the Labour Party be decided by a referendum of the members three months after the new party is formed.

This proposal was in due course remitted to the BSP executive, when the action taken by the BSP members at the meeting was endorsed and the proposal adopted.

Unity conference

The Socialist March 25 1920

Report of the unity conference held in Miles Restaurant, Charing Cross, London, on March 13 1920

F Peet, acting secretary for the BSP, was appointed chairman, explained the reasons for the adjournment of the conference of January 24, 1920, and read the following statement from the BSP executive:

The matter of the unity negotiations was again under the consideration of the BSP executive at their meeting held in London on February 14, when our delegates reported on the proceedings of the previous conference. The executive committee of the BSP adhere to the views their delegates have expressed as to the relations of the Communist Party to the Labour Party and the industrial organisations of the working class. Nevertheless, they feel that this question, important though it is, is secondary to the need for uniting in one Communist Party all those organisations in this country that adhere to the Third International and accept the soviet system and the dictatorship of the working class.

For this reason they are prepared to make a further concession in order to carry the negotiations with the other bodies to a successful issue, and have instructed me to express their willingness to withdraw that clause in the original unity recommendations referring to a referendum three months after the formation of the Communist Party on the question of its relations with the Labour Party …

Hodgson (BSP) asked the SLP for their opinion of this proposal, but Mitchell (SLP) replied that, as the SLP were not present at the two previous conferences (January 9 and 24), they preferred to hear the opinions of the other societies represented. S Pankhurst (WSF) stated that the proposal seemed unsatisfactory … as soon as the new party was formed the contest regarding affiliation to the Labour Party would begin, and a split would probably result … The WSF considered that it should be laid down from the start that there should be no affiliation to the Labour Party.

She then proceeded to read the resolution dealing with this point passed by the meeting of the Third International held at Amsterdam [this was the Western European Committee, headed by Dutch left communists, which was closed on the orders of the International’s executive committee] and stated that the WSF held the same views. N Edwards (SWSS) expressed himself in a somewhat similar manner. At this juncture Hodgson (BSP) made the statement that he entirely repudiated the Amsterdam meeting [which he had attended – ed], as only a few organisations were represented there. F Willis (BSP) claimed that, were the BSP to definitely withdraw from the Labour Party, the work of years would be lost, as on many local Labour Parties there was a decided rebel element, and on others, again, they found that the revolutionaries had already captured and gained complete control of these local Labour Parties …

Mitchell (SLP) stated, in reply, that the mandate of the SLP members was most emphatic in its opposition to affiliation to the Labour Party and could never agree to sink the identity of the revolutionary movement in any compromise with social-patriots such as the Labour Party. On this point the SLP could concede nothing, as a new party formed on such loose lines as indicated by the BSP would undoubtedlyresult in an immediate split … All bodies affiliated, whether locally or nationally, to the Labour Party were responsible for the crimes the Labour Party had perpetuated against the workers, and the SLP realised that the Labour Party was as great an enemy to the working class, if not greater, than the capitalists themselves. Until such time as the question of the Labour Party was settled there could be no unity …

Hodgson put the following question to the SLP: “If the BSP were to waive the question of Labour Party affiliation, would this satisfy the SLP, and were there any other obstacles to unity?”

Mitchell (SLP), in reply, stated:

They (the BSP) must be able to show that there was a distinct swing against affiliation to the Labour Party, and that there was an overwhelming majority against affiliation to the Labour Party. Two or more executives agreeing to shut their eyes to existing differences did not by any manner of reasoning prove that the differences did not exist or make the antagonism any the less real.

After some discussion on the question of what would be the attitude of the new party on parliamentarianism and the industrial organisations, without any decision having been arrived at on these questions, it was moved by F Peet (BSP) that the delegates report back to their several organisations. This being seconded by the SWSS, the conference adjourned.

Thomas Mitchell

national secretary


  1. The Socialist Labour Party was established in 1903 as a splinter from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), influenced by Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party of America, of which De Leon was the leading member.↩︎
  2. The Workers’ Socialist Federation evolved into a revolutionary organisation under the influence of the dynamic, but politically volatile, Sylvia Pankhurst.↩︎
  3. The South Wales Socialist Society was so organisationally weak by this stage that it could not hold any sort of ballot; from early 1920 it had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.↩︎

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