24 September 2020

The supreme issue

As we have seen, the main bugbear that held up progress towards the bulk of the far left of the British political scene uniting in a Communist Party was the pivotal issue of the Labour Party. Should any newly launched CPGB offer electoral support or apply for affiliation to Labour or not?

In particular, the bulk of the membership of the Socialist Labour Party – the second most important potential component of the new party after the British Socialist Party – were implacably opposed in these early stages of the negotiations to any dealings with Labour other than consistent hostility.

The rationale for this stance was outlined in the report of a militant intervention by their general secretary Tom Mitchell, the Socialist Labour Party delegate to the Unity Conference (March 13 1920).1 He informed the gathering that the SLP – as indicated by internal consultations in the organisation – had given him a “most emphatic” mandate for “opposition to affiliation to the Labour Party”: his organisation could “concede nothing” on this point of supposed ‘principle’.

He added that Labour affiliation – and, by implication, individual membership – was sufficient, in itself, to render “All bodies … responsible for the crimes the Labour Party had perpetrated 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 …”

Or, to summarise, he gave the assembled comrades an object lesson in the sterile ‘politics of purity’.

The Amsterdam sub-bureau of the Communist International, headed by SJ Rutgers, lent its authority to this stubborn intransigence. Its communication, addressed to “the communists of Great Britain”, denounced any communist activity in the Labour Party. Naturally, this was eagerly reproduced in the Socialist Labour Party’s publication, The Socialist, on May 6 1920 – and two days later in the Workers’ Dreadnought, the paper of the Workers’ Socialist Federation, led by the talented, but politically erratic, Sylvia Pankhurst.

As befitted the gravity of the issue, the BSP’s reply was printed only after being “given careful consideration” by its executive committee. As Labour Party affiliation was “purely tactical”, the BSP was prepared to refer the issue to the membership of a united Communist Party to decide. For it, communist unity was the pressing issue and hence the intervention of the Amsterdam sub-bureau was “entirely gratuitous and mischievous” – a view that that was powerfully reinforced by the coinciding announcement from the executive committee of the Communist International in Moscow. It “unanimously decided to annul the mandate of the Amsterdam sub-bureau”, because of its leftism.

This authoritative endorsement of its tactics helped the BSP to parry the intervention from Amsterdam and powerfully reinforced its call for an emphasis on “the supreme issue” – a united Communist Party in Britain. Further ammunition was to arrive in June, when Lenin’s ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder was published.

In this, he famously argued that an important attribute of any communist was a strong stomach. As he reminded his readers, “the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!” And in that spirit he advised communists in Britain to overcome their leftist scruples against engaging with the Labour Party: “It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary,”2 Lenin freely admitted. And “when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes.3 All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support”4

William Sarsfield

BSP replies to Amsterdam

The Call May 13 1920

Dear comrade SJ Rutgers

You state (point 1):

In accordance with the resolution passed at the February conference in Amsterdam we are of the opinion that communists should not be affiliated either directly or indirectly to political organisations that accept the principles of the Second International. For England such an organisation is no doubt the Labour Party.

This statement entirely fails to express the situation, as it exists in this country. If the Labour Party were a political party in the ordinary sense of the word, composed solely or even largely of individual membership, the question of affiliation to the Labour Party could not possibly arise. But it is not.5 The Labour Party is a federation of trade unions and socialist bodies; its individual membership is infinitesimal in comparison with its total affiliated membership; it is the expression, in the political field, of the activities of the working class through their trade unions.

By reason of this fact all shades of working class political opinion are counted in its membership. Above all is included that vast nebulous mass of thought – indefinite, inconsistent, inchoate – which is the real psychological expression of the working class in Britain in its present stage of development … We are as actively opposed to the present reactionary leaders as you are yourselves. Moreover, we do not conceive the Labour Party to be the sole field of our activities: it is one avenue only, through which to obtain access to the organised working class.

You see in this policy two grave dangers. One, that the leaders of the Labour Party, if successful, will betray the workers in the same way that Ebert6 and Noske betrayed them in Germany. The other, that the coming to power of a Labour government will lead to a catastrophe, which will render it impossible to unite the workers under the banner of communism; whereas you appear to think that, if we isolate ourselves now, to detach ourselves from the workers in their struggle and to content ourselves merely with warning them in advance will help to unite them.

We are under no illusions with respect to the present reactionary leaders of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, it is by no means certain that events here will necessarily take the same course as in Germany, any more than events in Germany have followed the same course as in Russia. In any case, you may be sure that our Noskes would find no more strong and bitter opponents than in the rank and file of that very Labour Party from which you would exclude us. Shall we abdicate our leadership in advance in favour of others who would be more in touch with realities than ourselves, but would not be communists? …

Our staying outside the Labour Party would not prevent the arrival of the Noskes, but it would effectively undermine one source of communist influence, which could be used against them at a critical moment.

The second danger you mention takes for granted the coming to power of the Labour Party at an early date. Certainly the signs point in that direction, but here again we warn you that it is quite unsafe to build a British analogy on a German precedent. And, even if the expected happens and a Labour government takes office, there will be no catastrophe, as you suppose. No failure of the Labour Party, however complete, will involve us, for we have defined our position too clearly. The … resolution, carried unanimously at our Easter conference … prove[s] this …

Moreover, you presuppose a swing to the right by the workers as a result of the failure of a Labour government. We, on the contrary, believe a swing to the left far more likely, and we feel we should be false to all our principles if we allowed such a movement to proceed without being both in it and of it.

You seek to turn what is purely a question of tactics into a question of principle. In point 4 you say:

Since we agree with those communists in England that object to participation in the Labour Party, we are of opinion they should not give up their attitude on a plea of unity. Much as we would like to see a united Communist Party in England, it may be better to postpone this ideal than to compromise on important issues.

In reply to communication asking for his views on the movement towards communist unity in this country, comrade Lenin declared: “The Communist Party is the supreme issue; all other questions are secondary to that.” Not so the executive committee of the Amsterdam sub-bureau. You would prefer the indefinite postponement of communist unity rather than the acceptance of a particular attitude on a minor point of tactics. From that view we most emphatically dissent. For the BSP the question of the Communist Party is the supreme issue, now as heretofore.

In its desire to achieve unity the BSP has made concession after concession, finally giving up the question of Labour Party affiliation entirely, provided that non-affiliation was not imposed upon the Communist Party in advance, as a fixed basis to be adhered to at all times and under all circumstances. In doing so we were not abandoning any of our beliefs, for we felt convinced that the necessities of a revolutionary movement would compel the Communist Party eventually to share the views we hold. We felt, too, that the appeal of the Third International for communist unity was not lightly to be disregarded, and were prepared to surrender much that we thought important in order to attain that end.

The obstacle to communist unity in Britain is not the view held by the BSP regarding affiliation to the Labour Party; it is the determination of other sections to deprive the members of the Communist Party of any share in fashioning its tactics by deliberately and definitely tying the hands of the party before it is formed. To such a course the BSP cannot, under any circumstances, agree.

You do not view the situation in this country in its right perspective. You visualise a Britain that does not exist. You imagine workers’ committees springing up everywhere, with thousands of members – all communists and led by communists – only awaiting the word to take the organisation of the workers out of the nerveless hands of the trade union bureaucracy. You see the political initiative, in similar fashion, being taken away from the Labour Party. Regretfully, we inform you that you have been misinformed and misled. The British working class will move – have no fear of that. But it will move through its own institutions, and impelled by the accumulated experience of its own historic past.

We propose to be with it in all its struggles, even to share with it the consequences of its mistakes. For, being revolutionists, we are also realists. Your theories might lead to an ineffective ‘left wing of the left wing’, but nothing more. Let those who will follow that path. For ourselves we shall continue to be with the masses of the workers wherever they are – even in the Labour Party, helping them in their struggles, pointing out their mistakes, opposing the influence of their opportunist leaders and seeking always to inspire them with our communist ideals.

Having thus stated the position of the BSP, we wish, in conclusion, to protest against the intervention of the Amsterdam sub-bureau in a matter that lies altogether outside the mandate conferred upon it by the Third International. The function of the sub-bureau is to assist the communist parties in western Europe by the systematic distribution of literature and information, not to lay down rules and regulations regarding policy or to give instructions as to the particular tactics the communist parties shall apply.

The February conference at Amsterdam was altogether unrepresentative and, as the official report of the proceedings published in the Bulletin (No2) distinctly states, “The theses and resolutions voted can only have a provisory character.” Nevertheless, those same theses and resolutions (adopted in some cases by the aid of the votes of the representatives of a German section that has since been excluded from the Third International) are advanced as presenting “the attitude of the bureau towards affiliation of communist groups and parties to the British Labour Party”.

The good service the bureau might have rendered the organisations of the Third International in this country, had it confined itself within the limits of its mandate, are being nullified by its gratuitous intervention in a matter of party tactics, over which it has no jurisdiction and regarding which its knowledge of local conditions is necessarily incomplete. Against such unwarranted interference we desire most emphatically to protest.

Yours fraternally.

Executive committee of the BSP: JAS Crossley, JF Hodgson, H Hinshelwood, C Martin, G Roberts, Fred Shaw, AA Watts, Albert Inkpin (secretary), Fred Willis (BSP delegate to Amsterdam conference)


  1. The Socialist March 25 1920.↩︎
  2. Labour Party leaders.↩︎
  3. Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939) – a leader of the German Social Democratic Party who voted for war credits in 1914. In 1918, Scheidemann unilaterally proclaimed the republic from a balcony in the Reichstag building in order to upstage the proclamation of a “workers’ republic” by the communists led by Karl Liebknecht, which indeed followed a couple hours later. Gustav Noske (1868-1946) was defence minister in 1919-20. He unleashed the infamous Freikorps (paramilitary organisations of ex-soldiers), who were responsible for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.↩︎
  4. VI Lenin CW Moscow 1977, p81.↩︎
  5. Before 1918 Labour had no individual membership.↩︎
  6. Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) was leader of the Germany Social Democratic Party after the death of August Bebel. He led the parliamentary fraction of the party to vote almost unanimously in favour of war credits in August 1914. In October 1918, when he and other national chauvinist SPD leaders were included in a new government formed by Prince Maximilian of Baden to stop Germany following the example of Russia, Ebert confessed that he “hated revolution like sin”.↩︎

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