24 September 2020

Party and parliament

The British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group – the main organisations participating in the 1st Congress of the CPGB over July 31-August 1 19201 – were committed to standing parliamentary candidates to drive revolutionary politics into the heart of the enemy camp.2 The resolution on parliamentary action had been included on the agenda mainly to facilitate merger with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation, now illegitimately self-defined as the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). The CP (BSTI) was against revolutionary parliamentarism as a matter of principle.3

Pankhurst’s organisation had, for the moment, dropped out of the fusion process – but this did not mean that full clarity had been achieved in the nascent CPGB: a considerable degree of confusion existed among the delegates, ranging from Pankhurst-style ultra-leftism to right-leaning opportunism. Primarily, this reflected the political immaturity of revolutionaries in Britain and the fact that written material by Lenin and other Bolsheviks in Russia on their work in the tsarist duma was still largely unavailable.4

By implication, the motion on parliament submitted by the Joint Provisional Committee represented a repudiation of the sterile abstentionism of Pankhurst and her co-thinkers. It helped clarify the position of communists in Britain and laid the basis for highly effective parliamentary interventions during the early 1920s. As such it represented a significant and positive step towards the successful revolutionary parliamentarism pursued so energetically by the Bolsheviks.

The resolution was seconded, and it was agreed, on the suggestion of the chair, that the discussion should take the form of a debate for and against parliamentary action, leaving till later any possible amendments. Thirteen spoke in favour of the motion, six against. The resolution was moved by comrade Tom Bell for the Joint Provisional Committee and this is how the official account of the congress reported his speech.

William Sarsfield

Tom Bell’s speech

So far as the Joint Provisional Committee were concerned, the Communist Unity Group and the BSP were in complete agreement upon the need for and the advisability of taking parliamentary action, but the present resolution had arisen in the course of negotiations with the WSF and had been held very important at the time.

After the defection of the WSF the resolution might have been cleared off, since there was no point of difference between the remaining groups that made up the Unity Committee; but, as there was still a considerable amount of hesitancy in many groups on the question of parliamentary action, for and against, it had been thought better to allow the question to be ventilated at the conference, that being the safest and simplest way to make the position clear, so far as parliamentary action was concerned. It would be seen that the resolution from the very first repudiated the reformist idea that a sound revolution could be achieved by the ordinary methods of parliamentary democracy.

In this respect its point of view was common to communist parties internationally at the present time. He and those who agreed with him did not believe that it was possible to effect a peaceful transformation in the parliamentary bourgeois democracy, as understood today, and thereby to work out the emancipation of the working class; they believed that the parliamentary institution as it existed today, the constituency in itself, was entirely foreign to the purpose of the communist state of society they had in mind. Consequently, in preference to the parliamentary constituency, they rather looked to the more direct method of representation as expressed through the workers’ committees, whether in industrial or social life.

With regard to parliamentary and electoral action as providing a valuable means of propaganda and agitation towards the revolution, while they did not place any faith in the parliamentary institution in itself, and did not believe it was capable of fitting into the scheme of things that they as communists had in mind, nevertheless they thought it of considerable value to revolutionary propaganda not to shut the door on any avenue whatsoever that was going to liberate the minds of the masses from their superstitious faith in parliamentary democracy. He thought the best policy to adopt towards that particular objective was to demonstrate inside the House of Commons that, so far as the working class were concerned, there was nothing to be hoped for in that chamber.

By breaking the parliamentary precedents and conventionalities which played so large a part in shaping the minds of the workers, we could do a great deal to break down the reverence for parliamentary institutions that so many of our fellow workers had. This was a bone of contention, he knew; the contention arising because it was thought by some that, by going into the House of Commons, we were sacrificing some great principle.

The first argument brought against participating in parliamentary action was that before sitting in the House of Commons it was necessary to take the oath of allegiance. Speaking for the Provisional Committee, they had no dubiety on this point. It was laid down in the resolution that the representatives of the Communist Party must be considered as holding a mandate from the party executive, and that they would be at all times under the control, management and supervision of the executive committee – that was what it amounted to.

If, in the course of our agitation, the executive thought it advisable that members should be in the House of Commons, the oath should not stand in the way; it was a question of deciding in relation to the expediency of the moment, whether for our agitational purposes it was more valuable to refuse to take the oath, or to take the oath in order to gain some other objective more valuable for our revolutionary agitation. And so on with reference to all the questions as to precedents and conventionalities inside the house.

He suggested that communist candidates only had allegiance to the principles of communism and the movement now organised in the Third International. Our ethic and morality had to be drawn from our fundamental principles of communism. In reference to action inside the House of Commons, our policy all the time was a critical, destructive one, exposing the fraudulent character of our modern parliamentary democracy – which was not a free institution at all, but was an institution controlled by high finance.

That being so, he suggested that it was the business of the Communist Party inside the House of Commons, in order to liberate the minds of the masses with regard to capitalist fetishes, critically to examine every situation that arose, and to criticise the points of view put forward by our opponents, whether bourgeois, semi-radical or anything else, and generally speaking help to focus the attention of the working class upon the vital interests so far as the communist agitation was concerned.

As to the clause, “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”, those of us who had been identified with the political labour movement for any length of time knew the hackneyed phrase used by the politicians of all shades of opinion, that, once they went inside the House of Commons, they ceased to have any connection with their particular organisation and represented the interests of all sections of the community. This was a pretence: it was impossible – and this was the inherent weakness of the parliamentary constituency – for any representative to express the desires and wills of all the conflicting class elements that made up a constituency.

By this resolution we sought to make it emphatic that the candidate sent up by the Communist Party would contest his seat under the surveillance of the Communist Party executive, and would go to the House of Commons with a mandate from the party – that he would not draw his mandate from the constituency. This was the point of view sought to be brought out in the resolution – that we must have discipline to the communist executive from all members, whether outside or inside the House of Commons.

Resolution on parliamentary work

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 valuable 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 he 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.


  1. The meeting was convened under the banner of the Communist Unity Convention and only later became known as the 1st Congress of the CPGB.↩︎
  2. There is a useful discussion of this in Jack Conrad’s In the enemy camp (November Publications, 1993).↩︎
  3. Weekly Worker March 20.↩︎
  4. AY Badayev’s Bolsheviks in the tsarist duma is a useful book on this principled electoral work that Lenin placed so much emphasis on. (Although, ironically, the Socialist Workers Party – who reprinted Badayev’s book in 1987 – appears not to have read the thing, judging from its warmed over Labourism in the Socialist Alliance initiative of yesteryear and the organisation’s current manifestation as semi-Bakuninist demo-fetishists. See, for example, Weekly Worker August 13 2015.)↩︎

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