29 September 2020

Remained a live issue

Labour Party affiliation had been hotly debated at the Communist Unity Convention, the founding congress of the CPGB, held on July 31-August 1 1920. After a robust and democratic exchange of views, it won a slim majority (100 votes to 85) to become party policy. One month after the party’s formal application was submitted, the Labour Party’s terse reply came back. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was negative: the CPGB would not be allowed to affiliate. That, it should be noted, despite the fact that the British Socialist Party, the biggest component that went into forming the CPGB, had been a Labour Party affiliate since 1916.

The rejection was published in the CPGB weekly, The Communist, and in the accompanying article the editors underlined their view that affiliation was only a tactic. It was not a key principle and would not stymie the work of communists. The article advanced the idea of the Communist Party standing its own candidates against Labour in elections, for example.

That said, the Labour Party’s rebuff was not to be the end of the matter. The CPGB demanded that the Labour leadership come clean. It needed to openly explain to its mass working class base why. What were the political reasons for excluding the CPGB – a new organisation which, although relatively small, contained in its ranks many outstanding and well known militants?

Thus, the reply of the party’s leadership – the Provisional Executive Committee – posed a series of questions to the Labour leaders. In the interests of transparency in the movement, these were published in The Communist to allow the question of CPGB affiliation to be discussed in the wider movement. This was not to be some gently diplomatic exchange of polite viewpoints, however. Whatever else the Labour leaders knew about the CPGB, they were very aware that the new political entity was no debating society.

It had not arrived on the political scene to neatly lay out its ideological stall, then passively wait for working class punters to happen along. It represented an active challenge to the politics of the existing workers’ movement: to some trends, an existential one. It would seize every opportunity to educate and mobilise masses of working class people to join the fight for socialist revolution and the overthrow of all existing exploitative social relations. It was fashioned to play its part in turning the world upside-down.

Palpably, this did not chime with the Labour Party’s leadership and their template of incremental reform, class collaboration and achieving a benign ‘socialist’ British empire. The politics of the early CPGB were as much an anathema to Arthur Henderson – Labour Party secretary – as they are to the current leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition.

Further correspondence and renewed applications ensured that CPGB affiliation remained a live issue for the working class movement.

William Sarsfield

Ourselves and the Labour Party

The Communist September 16 1920

One of the first items that had to be considered by the executive committee of the Communist Party … was the resolution in favour of affiliation to the Labour Party. This was done in the communication embodying the whole of the objections, methods and policy of the party as decided upon at the Convention … [Later] it became known that the decision of the [Labour Party] executive was against our application and that a reasoned statement would be forwarded to us … we print it here:

September 11 1920

Mr Albert Inkpin, secretary, Joint Provisional Committee of the Communist Party, 21a Maiden Lane, Strand, WC2.

Dear Sir

Your letter of August 10, in which you inform me that at a national convention held in London on Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and August 1 last, the Communist Party was established, was placed before the national executive of the Labour Party at their meeting at Portsmouth on Wednesday last, the 8th inst.

My executive fully considered the resolutions adopted by the convention defining the objects, method and policy of the Communist Party, as set out in your letter. They also considered your application for the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party.

After full consideration of the resolutions and your request, it was resolved that the application be declined, and I was instructed to inform you that the basis of affiliation to the Labour Party is the acceptance of its constitution, principles and programme, with which the objects of the Communist Party do not appear to be in accord.

Arthur Henderson


The reply, it will be seen, is a definite refusal to our request for affiliation on the ground that our objects do not appear to be in accord with those of the Labour Party.

To be quite frank, we never supposed they were. Our worst enemy will not accuse us of ever pretending they were. But we thought the Labour Party was a body so wide in its scope, so eclectic in its outlook that it could embrace in its ranks every section of the conscious working class movement, and even give them freedom to express their particular point of view from its platform. Such a procedure would, of course, be illogical in any party which was tied down theoretically to a rigid line of policy; but we conceived the Labour Party as something different from this: as something that was striving to express politically the half-formed aspirations and ideas of the surging mass of organised workers in this country.

In such a party we conceived we held a place. Perhaps we were mistaken. We prefer to think the executive of the Labour Party is mistaken. But certain it is, that, affiliation or no affiliation, the Communist Party will not depart by a hair’s breadth from its pursuit of those objects which it has set out to attain, whether they meet with the approval of the Labour Party or not.

The Communist Party is a political party striving to use parliament – while parliament exists – as one among other means for helping forward the social revolution whose consummation is the sole object of its existence. Inside the Labour Party our power to fight elections whenever or wherever we thought fit would unquestionably be hampered. Those of us who advocated affiliation were prepared to forego this freedom in return for the greater opportunity we obtained of a hearing for our views among sections of the workers who really count in this country. Outside the Labour Party we lose the opportunity, but gain the freedom. We can fight where we like, and whom we like. We can oppose Labour candidates as freely as we oppose ordinary capitalist candidates and, since the Labour Party executive admits that our objects are not in accord with their own, they cannot have the slightest cause for complaint. So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.

It is not clear yet whether the embargo will be held to apply locally as well as nationally. In accordance with the resolution in favour of affiliation carried at the convention, our branches, where affiliated, have been advised to hold on until action is taken compelling them to withdraw. Whether such action will be taken we do not know, but we expect our branches to act in accordance with instructions which will be issued, from time to time, by the Provisional Executive.

In any case, whatever happens, this matter must be considered in its proper perspective as a comparatively minor matter of tactics and judged accordingly. It is the communist principle that counts, and from that we will not swerve. This decision will serve but to consolidate our ranks. We appreciated the loyalty of the comrades who accepted the finding of the convention in favour of affiliation to the Labour Party, although disagreeing from it, and did not waver. In the day of non-affiliation the others will be no less loyal.

The great taboo

The Communist September 30 1920

The Provisional Executive of the Communist Party has instructed the secretary to send the following reply to Mr Arthur Henderson’s communication refusing our application:

September 23 1920

Dear Sir,

Your letter … stating that the Labour Party executive had declined the affiliation of the Communist Party was considered at the last meeting of our Provisional Executive. In reply, we were directed to request that the reasons for this decision be more explicitly stated, in order that the relations of the two bodies may be more clearly defined and understood.

The affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party is declined on the ground that its objects “do not appear to be in accord” with the constitution, principles and programme of the Labour Party – a decision which, as you have no doubt noted, had been warmly applauded in the columns of the capitalist press. But the working men and women of this country, to whom both the Labour Party and the Communist Party appeal, will look for a more reasoned explanation of this decision than is given in your letter of September 11.

The object of the Communist Party, as set forth in the resolutions of our national convention already sent you, is “the establishment of a system of complete communism wherein the means of production shall be communally owned and controlled”. Does the Labour Party executive rule that the acceptance of communism is contrary to the constitution, principles and programme of the Labour Party?

Or is it the methods of the Communist Party to which exception is taken? Those methods are the adoption of “the soviet (or workers’ council) system as a means whereby the working class shall achieve power and take control of the forces of production”, and the establishment of “the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary means for combating the counterrevolution during the transition period between capitalism and communism”. Does the Labour Party executive decisively and categorically reject the soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat?

Does it propose to exclude from its ranks all those elements at present in the Labour Party who hold these means to be necessary in order to achieve the political, social and economic emancipation of the workers, and does it impose acceptance of parliamentary constitutionalism as an article of faith on its affiliated societies?

The Communist Party, in deciding to make application for affiliation to the Labour Party, did not suppose that the whole of its principles, methods and policy would find acceptance on the part of those who at present constitute the executive of the Labour Party. But it understood the Labour Party to be so catholic in its composition and constitution that it could admit to its ranks all sections of the working class movement that accept the broad principle of independent working class political action, at the same time granting them freedom to propagate their own particular views as to the policy the Labour Party should pursue and the tactics it should adopt. And, having regard to the past history of the Labour Party, particularly during the war and since the peace, that belief was justified.

Since when has the practice of the Labour Party changed in this respect? Is the affiliation of the Communist Party declined because it claims the same measure of freedom as has been granted to responsible leaders of the Labour Party during the last six years? And do the members of the Independent Labour Party – who constitute a large section, if not an actual majority, of the Labour Party executive – deny the Communist Party the liberty of action inside the Labour Party that was claimed and exercised by them and their organisation during the period of the war?

These are questions that arise out of your letter of the 11th inst. They are questions we are entitled to submit, and feel justified in asking for a reply to.

Yours fraternally

Arthur MacManus, chairman
Albert Inkpin, secretary

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