18 September 2020

October shakes the British left

The formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 was a huge achievement for the working class movement in this country. While its numbers were relatively modest, it represented far more than the merger of pre-existing organisations like the British Socialist Party, Communist Unity Group and other, smaller, left organisations. The CPGB would quickly become a party of revolutionary action with genuinely organic roots in the working class. Its bold and dynamic political intervention galvanised the workers’ movement and its incipient threat to the established order reshaped the politics of a rattled ruling class.

For the often bitterly opposed groups that existed prior to its formation, it represented a quantitative and – most importantly – a qualitative development. These organisations, with many outstanding working class partisans in their ranks, left behind the parochial and sterile templates that had previously restricted the impact of their work amongst the class. With the example of revolutionary Russia and the Bolsheviks, they were able to transcend political limitations and illusions to come together on a higher, genuinely principled level. International developments – specifically, the tumultuous revolutionary waves that swept back and forth across Russia – proved key.

Over the coming months, we will be reprinting documents from the discussions that preceded the party’s foundation over the weekend of July 31-August 1, the discussions and arguments at this founding conference and after, as well as snapshots of the new party’s inspiring mass work. But this is not some archival hobby for us: there are wonderfully rich lessons here for the present revolutionary left.

For good or ill, these lessons are pivotal for a much-needed programmatic, political and organisational renaissance of today’s left – including comrades in the Labour Party, as well as the Marxist groups. When the historical penny finally drops for these comrades, the speed of development could be breathtaking – just as they were for the young CPGB, when the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution began to be assimilated into its approach from 1920.

We start with three reports of the tumultuous 1917 events in Russia, as covered by the BSP’s paper, The Call.

Despite the sometimes imprecise nature of the information it was receiving about developments in Russia – and a degree of centrist sketchiness – The Call’s reports of the unfolding revolution are inspiring. Clearly, the comrades of the BSP, the SLP and the smaller organisations that would form the component parts of the new CPGB recognised an unprecedented surge of self-activity, creativity and extreme democracy that not only brought forth the world’s first workers’ state, but also marked the beginning of the world anti-capitalist revolution. This is a process which, despite our many setbacks, continues today.

Most on the left today ritualistically pay lip service to 1917. In practice, however – and in stark contrast to the outstanding militants who formed the CPGB in the belly of the imperialist beast itself – they divorce theory from practice to produce travesties of the programme of Bolshevism and sterile, bureaucratic sects – not Marxist parties, such as the CPGB of 1920.

William Sarsfield

The second Russian Revolution

The Call No.84, November 15 1917

The expected has happened: Kerensky and the Provisional Council have been overthrown, and the soviet has taken control in Petrograd. Would that the soviet had never surrendered its power at the beginning of the revolution, Russia would have been in a far stronger position than she is now.

As it is, this second revolution may still have been brought about in time. The reactionaries are hoping for civil war. How affairs will shape in the event of an armed conflict, we cannot at the time of writing predict. We know that maximalist opinion has rapidly spread throughout Russia. The workmen, peasants and soldiers have remained faithful to the revolution. Even if the reactionaries are able to muster a force to oppose the new government, there are, nevertheless, strong hopes that the revolution will be saved.

It is not difficult to trace the events that led up to, and made necessary, the deposing of Kerensky and the Provisional Government. From the first moment that he began to compromise with the middle class parties he has steadily drifted towards the right. He became an easy tool in the hands of the reactionaries. He sanctioned a disastrous offensive. He sought the suppression of the army committees that protected the army from its reactionary generals.

It is established now that he was closely implicated in the Korniloff rising. Its object at first was to suppress the soviet and establish a triple dictatorship, including himself. That he was not the leader of the Korniloff rising instead of its apparent suppressor was simply the result of a misunderstanding. Since then his opposition to the soviet took another form. The recent coalition government and Provisional Council was designed to remove all powers from the soviet. This it would have done but for the action of the maximalists. It was becoming noticeable, too, that the government was reverting to the imperialist policy of tsardom.

Kerensky, from leader of the revolution, became leader of the counterrevolution.

Russia in travail

The Call No.85, November 22 1917

The conflicting reports and rumours that emanated from Russia during the last week made it impossible to arrive at any conclusion as to what is happening there. No doubt the character of the news reflected the turmoil and distractions that existed as a result of the clash of rival forces. A clearer view of what transpired could be obtained towards the end of the week, and the dispatch of the Daily News correspondent in Petrograd gives rise to the hope that a satisfactory solution will be arrived at. It is clear, at any rate, that the forces of Kerensky, after a temporary success, have been defeated.

This in itself does not ensure an immediate return to tranquillity. The more hopeful news is the action of the Railway Workers’ Union. It has issued a circular-telegram stating that civil war was imposed by a body of men who were unable to maintain authority; hence the union decided only to support a socialist government of all shades, including the Bolsheviks. The Railway Union has, of course, the power to command respect for its wishes, and if it so desired it could paralyse the movements of both sides. It did, in fact, declare a strike for Sunday last.

On the same evening a conference took place between the union and the socialist parties. A programme was drawn up, including the formation of a socialist government, an early peace and the transfer of land to agrarian communities. No agreement could be reached on the inclusion of the Bolsheviks in the proposed government. The defeat of Kerensky has strengthened the position of the Bolsheviks, who insisted on participation in the government. It was proposed to organise a Council of the People, consisting of representatives of the soviets, the peasants, all the socialist parties, the Petrograd and Moscow city councils, and railway and postal trade unions, for purposes of forming the new government …

The proposals of the Railway Union provides the most hopeful means of dealing with the situation. Control in the hands of a socialist government would serve the best interests of Russia and the Russian people. If this be accomplished, the Bolshevik revolution will have been justified.

Russia’s second revolution

The Call No.86, editorial, November 29 1917

In the midst of a war which represents the highest triumph of international capitalist imperialism, and in a country which, to all appearances, is further from socialism than any other in the world, socialists – genuine, and not make-believe socialists – have seized the reins of power.

That alone would have sufficed to strike dismay into the hearts of the ruling classes throughout the ‘civilised’ world. But in the present circumstances their dismay is doubly profound, for the Leninist ‘usurpers’ have come to carry out the watchword of the Russian Revolution in earnest. They have come to realise a peace without annexations and indemnities, with the right of nationalities to determine their own fate. To proclaim the land public property and to hand it over to the tillers without any compensation to its former owners, to seize the illicit ‘earnings’ of the wage-profiteers. To establish an all-round eight-hours day, and to publish all the secret diplomatic correspondence and treaties, which have hitherto been regarded by the capitalist world as sacrosanct and inviolable – and all that immediately, without further delay, reservation or compromise. What wonder that the Allies refuse to recognise the authority of the ‘usurpers’ and that the enemy stand perplexed?

The situation is unique – as is the war itself, which has brought it about. For the first time we have the dictatorship of the proletariat established under our eyes – and that in a country whose immense extent and population, as well as potential strength, make it a factor in international life of first-class importance.

How long will it last? What fruit will it bear? It is early to tell as yet. What we know is that the Bolshevik success has been carried out with the sympathy and support of the town workers and the common soldiers in the army. It was an act of despair on the part of these masses at seeing the piecemeal surrender of the revolution and its behests to the imperialist bourgeoisie by the opportunist leaders. On the Bolsheviks’ own part, it was prompted by a courageous loyalty to the principles of international socialism, as laid down, for the time of war, by the Stuttgart and Basel congresses, and the success of their actions was and is due to the support and sympathy of the masses.

On the one hand, the utter exhaustion of the nation at large deprives the bourgeoisie of the strength and courage to translate its hatred of the Bolsheviks and their fear of their rule into action. This latter circumstance is a factor which may prove lasting and may help to make the Bolshevik rule more permanent than seems at present reasonable. If they find the means and the energy to put through the main items of their programme, they will have achieved a tremendous revolution. Their position is difficult beyond words. Morally isolated in the world and silently boycotted at home, their only support is, or ought to be, the international working class. Will it support them? Will it realise that it is their own cause which is being fought out over there by men who have staked their lives on it?

Peace, and bread, the suppression of the war-profiteer and the greedy landlord: this is what Lenin and his friends are trying to obtain for their own countrymen and for the distressed world at large. Are we going to help them?


  1. The British Socialist Party was formed in 1911. Its left wing minority fought a bitter and protracted factional battle against its right, which collapsed into social chauvinism in 1914. The left finally won in 1916 and the party’s right decamped, with its leading figure, Henry Hyndman, going on to eventually form the ominously named National Socialist Party. The BSP would provide a majority of the cadre for the newly formed CPGB.
  2. The Communist Unity Group originated in the Socialist Labour Party – one of the participants in the unity negotiations that led to the CPGB’s formation. To facilitate this, it formed a Unity Committee in January 1919, which included comrades who became leading members of the CPGB: eg, Tom Bell, Arthur McManus, JT Murphy and William Paul.
  3. With the merger and the launch of the CPGB, the BSP’s newspaper, The Call, was replaced by a new weekly publication called The Communist.

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