26 September 2020

Fundamental principles

Previous instalments in this series have illustrated just how divisive the question of parliamentary participation had been to the initial participants in the negotiations that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As the outlines of some of the congress contributions illustrate, there were still comrades who had not shifted from their narrowly economistic, anti-parliamentary stance.

True, the question was now one of the least controversial at the founding congress (not least because of the decamping of Sylvia Pankhurst and her farcically misnamed ‘Communist Party – British Section of the Third International’).

The resolution on parliamentary action at the 1st Congress of the CPGB (the Communist Unity Convention), which took place over the weekend of July 31-August 1 1920, was moved by comrade Tom Bell for the Joint Provisional Central Committee. The resolution was seconded, and then it was agreed that there should be a debate for and against parliamentary action. Amendments would be left until after the debate had been concluded.

The essence of the argument was not whether parliamentary legislation could usher in genuine socialism. Almost all agreed that parliament had to be superseded by workers’ councils of some sort. However, the majority recognised that elections and parliament itself could facilitate that aim: the minority judged that this political template would inevitably lead to corruption and reinforce parliamentary illusions in the masses.

The chair, comrade Arthur MacManus, called a total of 19 speakers during the debate: 13 for engagement with parliamentary work, six against. When it came to the votes, the resolution passed by 186 (representing 4,650 votes) to 19 (475). A summation of all the speeches – as reported in the official account of the congress – is reproduced below.

William Sarsfield

‘You’re a liar!’

C Abbott (Southwark Herald League): It seemed to him that most of those in the unofficial section of the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party wanted this question of parliamentary action pushed and, when they had done, they would go on with the old game of coming in with the Labour Party. A man sent to parliament would not be recalled, but would sit there as long as he liked. In the factory, where you talked to the workmen, was the point where organisation should take place.

Harold Macmillan (Glasgow Garngad Independent Labour Party): The class war must be conducted in every country very much as any other kind of war – we must take into consideration the geographical situation of the country, its economic position and the temperament of the people. Taking all these points into consideration, he had come to the conclusion that it would be a great mistake to cut ourselves adrift from bodies who undertook to run the masses by electoral methods.

TJ Watkins (Trethomas Communist Unity Group): If he had not been an anti-parliamentarian before coming to the convention, the mover of the resolution would have made him one. We should not be such fools as to face guns armless, and we knew that, so long as we used a weapon as obsolete as parliament, we were not going to bring satisfaction to the working class.

JR Stead (St Helens Socialist Society): Said he had always understood that it was the economic power outside parliament that controlled the inevitable development of working class conditions.

Robert Williams (BSP national branch): Supported the general principle of the resolution. To be a revolutionary did not imply either that one was a utopian or an impossibilist. We must have some regard in contemplating revolutionary possibilities to revolutionary occurrences elsewhere. The convention had already agreed to affiliation with the Third International, and affiliation with that revolutionary organisation would impose duties and obligations upon us, as well as entitle us to claim rights and privileges …

Would anyone tell him our movement would not be considerably stronger if we had a man like Karl Liebknecht in the House of Commons? It would be a considerable accession of strength if we had only one man in the House of Commons today who, every time a cabinet minister got up to make a statement, would repeat, ‘You’re a liar!’ That in itself would be sufficient to intensify our propaganda. If half a dozen men were championing the cause of the proletariat in the House of Commons, we could make it possible to use the pages of Hansard as revolutionary propaganda.

W Hill (Oldham Communist Unity Group): We should be prepared to take every instrument of capitalism and use it to smash the capitalist system, and parliament could be used to good effect if we got the right man … We did not want men who would go there to ameliorate the conditions of the workers, but men whose object was to smash the machine.

J Hamilton (Liverpool Communist Unity Group): Political activity and agitation could be carried on in other directions than by putting up candidates for parliament … Undoubtedly it was the industrial machine that would have to function if revolution took place, and not the parliamentary machine, which would be on one side.

H Webb (Ashton-under-Lyne Communist Unity Group): If we are eventually to have some form of parliamentary activity along obstructionist lines, we should see to it that the men who had to move along these lines were real revolutionary fighters; and a vote against parliamentary action now would enable us to get this.

W Mellor (Guild Communists): Said he took it that no delegate at the conference regarded this question as a matter of principle; it was one of expediency and tactics. However much we might fear the contamination of the capitalist machine, we had to work inside that machine if we were going to smash it. We must look at the matter not from the high peak of Marxian dogma, but from the low ground of Marxian analysis. Marx showed that we had to use the instruments that were at our disposal at the moment. These included, on the one hand, industrial organisation and, on the other hand, the power that came to the workers in local and national assemblies.

Mrs DB Montifiorre (Glasgow College BSP): Reminded the convention that one of the messages read that morning was from Clara Zetkin. There was no doubt about Clara Zetkin being a revolutionary … Yet on the first chance of getting to the Reichstag Clara Zetkin had presented herself and had been elected … Important as the industrial method was, at the same time we must go into parliament and work there.

EW Cant (BSP Paisley): It had been asked, how were we to justify ourselves participating in parliament and at the same time arguing that parliament was no use as a means of emancipation? But the man in the street was not so critical as the average member of a Socialist Party and was not so hidebound theoretically as all that …

Circumstances had so worked it that a crisis would be forced upon us, and whether we should take full advantage of that crisis would not depend upon the measure of perfection of our organisation, but it would depend on the amount of propaganda we had done. That propaganda could be done at the workshop gate, inside the factory, inside the public house, at general elections and at all times; and he was prepared to advocate the use of the parliamentary weapon, so as to get at the workers’ minds.

Bob Stewart (Socialist Prohibition Group): There would be elections, whether we participated in them or not, and the chances were that we should spend more time telling the other fellow that it was not worthwhile than it would take to do the job and be sure that it was not worthwhile. We should not keep out of parliamentary elections, however much we wanted to do so: people congregated to hear what the candidates had to say at election times and the opportunity for propaganda ought not to be missed.

Beyond this, it was our business to go where laws were made so as to annul all the laws that sanctioned theft and to substitute a law by which theft would be sanctioned no longer … A great many people talked about guns who would run away when they saw one. He was more interested in folks having brains in their heads.

L Manoin (BSP Sheffield): Supported the resolution.

E Marsh (BSP Central Hackney): It was necessary to use every weapon at our command to fight the master class. Anyone who supported industrial action but not parliamentary action, or vice versa, was like a man going into a boxing match with one arm behind him.

FL Kerran (BSP Central London): Delegates were in too much of a hurry. They talked as if they had the whole of the masses of the people at their disposal; but, as a matter of fact, they only represented a very small fraction of the workers of this country. We could not make bricks without straw, and we could not bring about a revolution without having a certain number of the masses to support us.

G Roberts (BSP Stalybridge): It was the duty of a member of the Communist Party not only to attack the capitalist system, but to defend the working class politically, as well as industrially; he was aware that we could never hope to bring in the revolution by the parliamentary machine, but he recognised also that the strength of the socialist movement did not depend on the numerical state of the vote, but rather on the tenacity with which we defended the working class all the time. He believed in defending the working class, not because he wanted to standardise their slavery, but because in defending them he was attacking capitalism and because they were the class that would bring about the revolution.

A Siffleet (BSP Tooting): In favouring parliamentary action because we simply could not afford to omit its use, he did not imply that he attached undue importance to it. He was of the opinion that there was no time for us to convert the electorate to any extent and get our men on the floor of the House of Commons in any number. He believed the revolution was too near for that.

Answering comrade Stewart’s reference to guns, we did not want guns if we could avoid them; but force would not be withheld so far as the master class were concerned. The workers must consider the question of armed force if necessary, to meet what would be brought against them. It was not enough to say, ‘Wait until the time’, because we should find the other man armed and ourselves with nothing but ideals. We must avail ourselves of the parliamentary weapon, but not overrate it. Its only utility was for the education of the masses to bring about the social revolution.

Tom Bell replied to the discussion. He said there had been nothing substantial advocated against participation in parliamentary elections; the main point was that such participation was not vital. Not vital to what? Not vital, he presumed, to the communist movement. But all spheres of life where the working class mind was to be influenced were vital to the communist movement.

We had got beyond the frame of mind that looked to conditions at some future date to determine what we were going to do. The Communist Party in the near future was going to be, above all, an active, decisive and consciously working organism in the labour movement. We were not going to leave things to chance or time, but would seek to direct them in the direction we thought they ought to go, so far as our communist purposes were concerned.

He appealed to all present, whatever decision might be made in this matter, to subordinate these minor and secondary aspects of the movement to the fundamental principles of an active Communist Party.

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