24 September 2020

Unity: a hostile report

The next tranche of material we will feature in this series consists of documents, debates and resolutions of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s first Congress, labelled the Communist Unity Convention at the time. The event brought together the British Socialist Party and the Communist Unity Group (as well as representatives of Guild Communists, the Socialist Prohibition Fellowship, three branches of the Herald League and one branch of the Socialist Labour Party outside the CUG). However, the work of uniting the working class vanguard was not complete. Some pro-communist organisations remained outside – and hostile to – the CPGB: not least the Socialist Labour Party, as this peevishly sceptical report of the CPGB’s birth amply illustrates.

The final paragraph of this unsuccessful attempt at a devastating journalistic hatchet job is a little sad. The SLP reporter concludes that the loss of erstwhile SLPers – now under the flag of the Communist Unity Group – is a positive for his organisation. The departure of these outstanding comrades made the air “clearer”. These rotten elements would now snuggle down in the “camp of reaction – the Labour Party” and this was a huge “gain” for the anti-unity SLP.

We know the actual fate of the SLP, so this sort of delusional sect morale-boosting reads as rather sad. However – 100 years later – we have seen plenty of similar examples provided by our contemporary, sect-ridden revolutionary left.

William Sarsfield

The passing of the Communist Unity Group

The Socialist No30, August 12 1920

It was not at the Spa, where many capitalist international intrigues have taken place, but in the Pillar Hall, Canon Street Hotel, London, where, on Saturday July 31, assembled a number of delegates from branches of the British Socialist Party, independent groups of socialists, and some ex-SLPers now known as the Communist Unity Group. Their purpose was to found a ‘real’ Communist Party.

Well, its birth was a very successful affair. Congratulations poured in from many communist friends and parties. It was quite a lesson in geography to listen to comrade Arthur McManus, the chairman, reading the many letters of welcome to the coming new party of communists. There was quite an array of individual good wishes too, from Lenin down to Tom Mann.

The Daily Herald of Saturday also gave the Communist Party its blessing in the shape of a long leading article. Its soul was embodied in the following words: “The question of the relation of the new party to the Labour Party will be settled at today’s conference. We believe, as we earnestly hope, that the vote is likely to be cast in favour of affiliation.” I need hardly inform readers of The Socialist that the prayer of the Daily Herald was answered at Sunday’s meeting of the conference. The capitalist class and its press answered on Monday. Amen!

The British Socialist Party has simply changed its name, and business will be carried on as usual. It could not sever the umbilical cord that attaches it to the Labour Party. Not even the eloquence of the ‘great three’ – Paul, Bell and McManus – could persuade the delegates from Labour Party affiliation. No doubt the ‘Communist Unity Group’ imagined they were carrying out a master stroke of policy in attempting to found a Communist Party.

But the half-baked revolutionary leaders and social reformers in the BSP are just as keen, just as Machiavellian in their tactics when it comes to party manoeuvres as the Communist Unity Group. The BSP delegates were weak in argument; the CUG were powerful. The BSP had numbers; the Communist Unity Group had orators and argument. Numbers carried the day. This was seen by all the SLP members when the referendum was taken, except the Communist Unity Group, who were by then within the party.

Arthur MacManus, chairman of the Provisional Committee, was chosen to act in the same capacity for the conference. A credentials committee was appointed, and then came the chairman’s address. This part of the business, said Arthur, could very well be dispensed with, but the conference needs some points of guidance. These points of guidance served the purpose of introducing the preliminary work of the Communist Unity Group to the BSP delegates: “It has taken three years of the Russian Revolution and two years of discussion to bring about this conference.” There were other communist groups and parties not represented here, but circumstances, he believed, would eventually bring them in. “No word of his, no word of ours shall widen the breach between us.”

However seriously Arthur MacManus may have wished this, that opportunity has now passed. The work of our erstwhile comrades who tried to build an independent Communist Party has failed, and resulted in themselves being swallowed up inside the Labour Party. Their adventure reminds me of the doggerel about the tiger, which runs something like this:

There was a young lady of Riga,

Who went for a ride on a tiger.

He came back from the ride,

With the lady inside,

And a smile on the face of the tiger.

It was moved by a delegate that the press should be excluded, but this found very little support. The conference then settled down to its main business. The first resolution in the agenda dealt with general policy, and is as follows:

The communists in conference assembled declare for the soviet (or workers’ council) system as a means whereby the working class shall achieve power and take control of the forces of production; declare for the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary means for combating the counterrevolution during the transition period between capitalism and communism; and stand for the adoption of these means as steps towards the establishment of a system of complete communism, wherein the means of production shall be communally owned and controlled. This conference therefore establishes itself the Communist Party on the foregoing basis.

This resolution was moved by AA Purcell, who had quite recently been to Russia, and informed the conference that the Russian communists were anxious to know when a strong Communist Party was going to be formed in England. The standing orders committee dealt with all amendments and agreed to accept the following amendment to this resolution: “… and further declares its adhesion to the Third International.”

The resolution and amendment were both accepted.


The third resolution on the agenda was taken second, and deals with the question as to whether the new Communist Party shall use parliamentary action or not.

This resolution was moved by Tom Bell of the Communist Unity Group – viz:

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 means of propaganda and agitation towards the revolution. The tactics to be employed by the representatives to parliament or local bodies must be laid down by the party itself according to 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.

Bell argued the impossibility of accomplishing the social revolution through parliamentary democracy. But by going to parliament they could demonstrate inside the House of Commons that there is nothing to be gained for the workers from that capitalist chamber. The value of the oath of allegiance was of no importance to them. As communists their allegiance would be to the principles of communism, and would act accordingly. Their policy inside the House would be a destructive, not a constructive one. In all cases they would take their mandate from the party and not from the constituency.

A delegate from Cardiff thought the whole of Bell’s argument was against rather than in favour of parliamentary action. He said: “If I argue that an institution is bad, rotten and no good, it is like arguing that this chair [which he seized] is made of bad material and is falling to pieces, and then inviting someone to come and sit on it.”

Watkins, a Welsh delegate, said: “You cannot get the workers to vote on abstract principle. You must attack the capitalist where he pays wages – at the point of production.” Bob Williams supported the resolution, and gave us a little eulogy on Lenin. He thought, if we only had one Karl Liebknecht in parliament, it would add considerable strength to the movement. Later on, he had an amendment that communist candidates should take their mandate from the constituency as well as the party.

Bell replied to the discussion, and brought to a close the first session of the new Communist Party. The voting in favour of parliamentary action was 186; against:19; majority: 167.

The second session dealt with amendments to the resolution on “parliamentary action”, but no very radical alterations were made. One delegate suggested the deletion of “parliamentary action” and suggested the substitution of “revolutionary political action”, but was turned down. So we now see that this new Communist Party stands for undiluted “parliamentary action” and all it implies.

During the discussion of the amendments many of the delegates who rose to speak were endeavouring to enlighten the conference on the psychology of the working class, when into the hall dropped an old colonel, with a monocle glued in one eye, and a nice fat cigar in his mouth – a typical bourgeois! He listened for a few moments while some delegates were explaining what was meant by the working class. That the working class is not the man in the street, for he is a myth; nor is the working class the Labour Party, or any Socialist Party, and the communists are a very small minority of the working class.

Then we were told the working class comprised that great mass of workers in the mines, workshops, fields and factories, whom we have yet to convert to communism. At this point the old bourgeois colonel got very fidgety, dropped his monocle, and shouted, “Thank god for that!”

The mention of the word “revolution” had frightened him, but now he felt somewhat jubilant and safe for another generation; so he left the room. It was now about 10 o’clock, and the delegates were making their way homeward, with instructions to assemble on the morrow (Sunday) to take part in the final session of the conference of the new Communist Party at the International Socialist Club, where, like Lipton’s yacht, they got knocked out in the last round.1

At the club we duly assembled about 10.30am. The first business was the election of six new committee men to join the Provisional Committee until December, when a new executive will be elected.

The last resolution was placed under two headings: (a) ‘That the Communist Party shall be affiliated to the Labour Party.’ This was moved by JF Hodgson, BSP. (b) ‘That the Communist Party shall not be affiliated to the Labour Party.’ This was moved by William Paul, Communist Unity Group.

After about four hours’ discussion of the pros and cons of both (a) and (b), the chairman thought the delegates had about exhausted all the arguments for and against, and instructed the delegates that they now had to vote for either (a) or (b). For affiliation: 100; against: 85; majority in favour of affiliation: 15. This concluded the business, with the exception of receiving and dispatching a few telegrams to the Third International; to Kameneff, the Russian diplomatic representative; and to the British delegates at the Third International – comrades Beech, Clarke, Gallacher, McLean, Murphy, Quelch, Ramsay and Tanner.

The Communist Unity Group, according to their own admission, had now been about two years working for communist unity. The result is that they have now been swallowed up by the BSP with a nice new title. The BSP is henceforth to be known as the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Communist Unity Group have failed to found a Communist Party that can stand on its own legs without holding on to the apron-strings of the Labour Party. The BSP when it returns under the wing of its mother – the Labour Party – somewhat strengthened by changing its name, will be taking back with it members of the Communist Unity Group, one-time comrades in the SLP.

Let us wish them joy and peace in their new spiritual home. They deserve some reward after their two years of arduous toil.

Our loss is our gain. The Labour Party – reaction – can now take unto its bosom all revisionist elements. The field for revolutionary unity is now much clearer. The air is clearer. Confusion and confusionists are now definitely pledged to the camp of reaction – the Labour Party.


  1. In addition to compiling a fortune via his grocery store chain and his brand of eponymous teas, Sir Thomas Lipton was the most persistent challenger in the America’s Cup, the award to the winner of the race between two yachts. Lipton tried to win the cup five times between 1899 and 1930. His forlorn efforts won him a bespoke cup for “the best of all losers”.↩︎

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