24 September 2020

Those against unity

Inevitably, the announcement by the British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group that they were to form a Communist Party at a Unity Convention on July 31 1920 provoked immediate opposition. The Socialist Labour Party and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation were implacably against the new organisation, despite both having taken part in the initial negotiations. The SLP’s problem was that the BSP – the largest organisation involved – refused to agree as a matter of principle that the future CPGB would not seek affiliation to the Labour Party. The WSF concurred. Affiliation would be a breach of proletarianism. In addition it took issue with the BSP’s refusal to accept that bourgeois parliaments must be boycotted as a matter of principle.

Thus, the two organisations represented a disintegrating sectarian rump, holding themselves aloof as history was being made.

The views of these anti-unity groups were put in their most precise and articulate form in two open letters: the ‘Open letter to SLP members’ from the organisation’s leader, James Clunie, and an ‘Open letter to the delegates of the Unity Convention’ from the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). The latter was neither a Communist Party nor the British section of the Third International. It was what the WSF illegitimately dubbed itself after June 19 1920 – transparently a ruse to steal the thunder of the soon to be formed CPGB.

Clearly the 1920 process of forging principled communist unity amongst Britain’s fractious revolutionary left organisations was attended by all sorts problems. The whole endeavour must have been hair-tearingly frustrating at times. However, the serious participants pressed ahead.

Reading this material in today’s political world, it is impossible not to be struck both by the sheer tenacious stamina of our political ancestors, but also their clear-sighted vision of the end goal. It was this calm, rigorously serious approach that kept the train on track.

A ‘compare and contrast’ might be useful here.

There is a yawning chasm between the culture of today’s left and our comrades of 1920 – including people of the calibre of Sylvia Pankhurst of the CP (BSTI) or the anti-Labour affiliation comrades of the SLP. This was shown to us in chaotic form in the recent Labour Left Alliance inaugural gathering in Sheffield.1

Readers are aware that we have had some controversy in our ranks over how communists should relate to formations like the LLA and to engagement with Labourism in general.2 However, I think it is safe to say that there is a consensus on what we might dub the ‘Sheffield model’, as exemplified by the clumsily aggregated Frankenstein monster of an agenda. This was utterly useless – save perhaps to shine a brilliant light on the 1920 example.

Back then they concentrated on the big, controversial issues that divided them; they did not obscure these through contradictory composites or ill-considered votes. They attempted to draw sharp lines of division, so that the political differences could be presented clearly and the essential content of the debate could be sharply outlined. They gave time and space to their debates, as befitting the importance of the subject matter.

The ‘Sheffield model’, on the other hand, insulted the intelligence of the delegates with the pseudo-democracy of three-minute contributions.

In 1920 the pro-unity majority fought to ensure that secondary questions – even very important ones – were left to another day and that the core issue was starkly posed: for Labour Party affiliation, for participating in bourgeois elections, or not. The LLA conference – the organisation’s launch event, remember – was clogged with secondary matters and trivia.

The proto-CPGB comrades of a century ago focussed on the main prize – the formation of the Communist Party that was so urgently needed. The birth of the party would change the parameters of the debate, as the ability of Marxists to intervene, to shape events and thus move the whole question of Labour affiliation into a new light would be massively expanded.

The truth of this will be amply illustrated from the material we will feature, as this series continues.

William Sarsfield

Open letter to SLP members

The Socialist No22, Vol 14, June 3 1920


False impressions bring disastrous results when they are given free play, because herein the building up of the past is surrendered, with all its strength and possibilities, thereby courting disaster, to the seeming consolidation forms that are evolving into actual existence. Such a position confronts you, comrades, at this present moment. I refer in particular to the question of unity. And might I say frankly at this point that the question of unity does not embrace what my or your feelings are in respect of comrades Clarke, Paul, etc [SLPers who had formed the pro-unity CUG]. Personally, they may be admirable fellows, but policy and comradeship are not a dual character …

The vindication of the continued existence of the SLP, just as it has been up to now, will be its correct analysis and interpretation of the economic, social and political forces, which are bound to impress upon us the practicability of suiting our policy to harmonise with our outlook. At the moment, the elements do not exist for unity. Hence only by compromise can we have a united (?) Communist Party. Such a party would continue to contain within itself the very conflicting factions that today, before its formation, compels the need for compromise in order to bring it into being.

A party such as the proposed new Communist Party is not a practical proposition, because the vital question to the SLP is the cardinal cause of disagreement. No number of conferences or national conventions can settle that question. Unity is not a question of window-dressing, talk and advertisement. It is principle, as expressed in policy. Above all remember, comrades, that cheap phrases or popular names or subsidised delegations do not even possess the rudiments of principle and unity. A real strong man is he who can stand alone in the belief that his conduct is correct.

It is not a matter of personality, but belief. And do we not find in such a case that belief shows the character of the man, when he adheres true to his reading of a situation, because it is in the interests of revolution … I say, down with all the self-imposed leaders! Give us men – good, sound, stanch and true, solid in organisation, united in purpose, clear in objective; then we may have unity – not before. Have we not learned that the really great Lenin, who, to his immortal credit, always thinks in terms of revolution, has on many occasions occupied the glorious position of Ibsen’s great man by standing alone in his reading of situations, in determining tactics and policy? With him the ideal is the ultimate, the practical and the present problem. Here we find expressed real strength, unity, solid revolutionary purpose.

Comrades of the SLP, yours is a problem of a similar character to those which have been solved many times by the ingenious and great president of the Russian republic. If we are content to follow men in preference to principles, then we are weak and lack revolutionary character. If we are able to take action consistent with our beliefs, then we will insist on the will of the party without in any way violating the first essentials of comradeship. The political situation is of such a character in this country that a strong body like the SLP is absolutely essential to safeguard the revolutionary development of the working class movement.

Real revolutionary unity is the combination of the working class. Mass action is meaningless without that form of strength and consciousness. The only logical form of unity – namely, the combination of parties or individuals having a common line of action – seems to me inevitable, just as the proposed united (?) Communist Party cannot mean anything else but nominal fusion.

If the question of Labour Party affiliation is the vital question, then the very existence of the SLP is the proper answer. The SLP branch which is not decided on this matter does not appreciate where it stands. And I am sure that the loyal SLP does appreciably know its party purpose and function. Know thyself. All wisdom centres there …

One more attempt at disintegration, no doubt, will soon be made, but our former wisdom will again show itself, and the SLP will continue to live even in greater strength until the real unity of the revolutionary period shows itself.

James Clunie

An open letter to the delegates of the Unity Convention

The Workers’ Dreadnought
July 31 1920

Dear comrade

Some of you may naturally ask why we are not represented at the Unity Conference. For this reason. It is useless to say that the differences between ourselves and those who have summoned the Unity Conference are purely tactical, and that, therefore, we ought to sink our differences and unite with them. Tactical differences, when sufficiently vital, become differences of principle, rendering united action impossible.

We refuse to run candidates for parliament because:

That tactic entails grave dangers of the movement lapsing into reformism.

Any attempt to use the parliamentary system encourages among the workers the delusion that leaders can fight their battles for them. Not leadership, but mass action is essential, now that the last struggle is approaching.

What we want is not class talk, but class war.

Under present conditions in this country, any participation in parliamentism confuses the issue of the class struggle, wastes the energies of the revolutionary workers and delays full adhesion to the soviet system.

Today parliament is nothing but an instrument of bourgeois domination, a warder off of revolution, a safety valve, through which the revolutionary urge escapes in wind. Today parliament cannot be the arena of the revolutionary struggle.

Parliamentism as a form of government has never secured, and can never secure, self-government by the masses.

We reject affiliation to the Labour Party because:

In constitution and actual working the Labour Party is a committee of leaders who divert the revolutionary will of the workers into parliamentary and reformist channels.

The trade union leaders of parliamentarians who control the Labour Party have, through their bourgeois associations, acquired a middle class mentality which inevitably makes them support the tactics of class collaboration in place of the tactics of class war.

The Labour Party is based on parliamentary bourgeois democracy, whereas the Communist Party is out for working class dictatorship …

Comrade, this party has been formed in the firm conviction that in Britain today there is a higher proportion of revolutionaries than existed in France of 1789. We do not believe that our immediate task is to make communists, but rather to organise on uncompromising lines those who already hold communist views.

This is not to say that the work of communist propaganda is not likewise of supreme importance. But, pending the revolutionary crisis, what is needed is not construction, but destruction. We must destroy bourgeois ideas and values, bourgeois morality, the bourgeois standards which create the mental and moral slavery of the proletariat. In so far as we have constructive work before the revolution, this can only be to establish independent proletarian standards and ideals.

Hence our uncompromising programme. We will have nothing to do either with bourgeois or with social democratic parties, organisations and institutions.

We call upon all genuinely Bolshevik groups and individuals to rally to the standard we have raised, to share in the up-building of our party, to join with us in the spearhead of the revolution.

Yours for revolutionary communism.

The national organising council


  1. ‘A vision of royal socialism’ Weekly Worker February 29 2020.↩︎
  2. ‘Put principle first’ Weekly Worker March 12 2020.

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