The formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain was a huge achievement for the entire working class movement in this country. In qualitative terms, it represented far more than the merger of the British Socialist Party, the Communist Unity Group and other, smaller, left groups.
The July 31-August 1 1920 Unity Convention (later characterised as the 1st Congress of the CPGB) established an organisation that was far more than the sum of its parts. Despite its small size the CPGB would go on to have a profound impact on the workers’ movement in Britain.
The first edition of The Communist (August 5) – described as an “organ of the Third (Communist) International”, published by the CPGB and “incorporating” the BSP’s journal, The Call – carried a series of short vignettes by leading comrades. Participants gave their impressions of the recently concluded Congress – its historical significance, the many “delicate” moments that had to be navigated, etc.
Also featured in the launch edition (and republished here) was a short article by comrade Arthur MacManus, leader of Clyde workers and chair of the 1st Congress: ‘The tasks awaiting the Communist Party’.
Arthur McManus: The Convention more than surpassed the best of my expectations. The feeling created was that, after all, everything involved in its preparation had been well worthwhile. The atmosphere was intense, with the earnestness and determination of the delegates. To preside over such a convention was a pleasure indeed, because, however delicate the moments may have been – and these, I can assure, were many – the sincerity of all was demonstrated by the willing and ready assistance rendered to the chair. The value of the work done is inestimable at the moment, but of one thing I feel sure: It will bring more hope and gladness to the soul of our struggling comrades in Russia and elsewhere than anything else which has been done in this country …
Bob Stewart1: The essence and value of the conference was its evident eagerness and sincerity. Its old men were young, its young men did not lack wisdom and that comprehensive understanding which seeks and finds and acts upon its findings. To chair a conference where all can talk and nearly all wish to, where tension is strong, and issues are straight is a test to try even a nimble-willed laddie like McManus, but he survived the ordeal, and will chair where issues will be still further narrowed to immediate questions of life and death import. The leftest of the left and the rightest of the right showed an evident anxiety to start fair, and to keep the Communist Party of Great Britain free from puerilities and that ineptitude for action which has hitherto been not an uncommon feature in the debating stage of our growth.
In resolute action and emulation of the high-spirited and far-seeing but practical social revolutionists of Russia, minor differences will be relegated to their proper place, and the Communist Party of Great Britain – belated in arrival though it be – will play its part in the overthrow of capitalism and the rising of the first real common civilisation built by workers for workers.
AA Watts2: It will be of no use for the capitalist press to call this convention a collection of hot-headed, irresponsible youths; there were a very considerable number of middle-aged men and women delegates, and when it is remembered that these men and women have arrived at the need for a Communist Party, that they represent a definite membership – and also a large, indefinite body of opinion outside their actual membership – the outlook for a powerful revolutionary party in this country is exceedingly hopeful. Its power will depend upon the numbers, its energy, its determination. It is possible for every communist organisation to be affiliated; it should be made possible for every individual communist to become a member. It is up to every organisation and every communist to rally to the party and to make it the power it should be.
Lt Colonel CJ Malone3: The number of delegates who were able to be present was good, remembering that, owing to the difficulties of travel, expenses, etc, the numbers present were only a percentage of the communist groups in Great Britain, apart altogether from the bodies of communist opinion not yet organised.
Some delegates appeared even now a little muddled as to parliamentary action. Of course, it is purely for propaganda and, I still hold, not the most effective means of employing available energy. As to affiliation [to the Labour Party] with the Thomas Henderson crowd, a little more effort and the motion would have been defeated.
But the formation of the party stands out as a definite milestone of the weekend. The resolutions are subsidiary.
Work, work everywhere, and organisation are now required; not discussions or resolutions. Let the delegates go back and those who were not present devote all efforts they can spare in the workshop, factory, town and hamlet to make the party not merely a strong force, but in the not far distant future the governing force in this country.
JT Walton Newbold4: The heartiest possible welcome to the Communist Party of Great Britain! To my mind it behoves every out-and-out communist in this country to lend every energy towards building up “this party in one rock-bound programme of the Communist International”. We who embrace without hesitation or reserve the soviet system, the dictatorship of the proletariat, with all that it entails, who reject parliamentary ‘democracy’ and all the apparatus and ideology of the capitalist state, must, responding with enthusiasm and determination to the ringing call “to the communists of the Independent Labour Party”, … do all in our power to swing our party into, and merge it into, the Communist Party. My loyalty, at any rate, is now – as it has been for two and a half years – first and foremost to the position of the Third International.
I call on my comrades to fight for the affiliation of our party with the Communist International; not by obtaining the unwilling consent of your leaders to join it, but by means of determined propaganda within our own party to rid ourselves or the opportunist leaders of the right …
Who is not with us is against us, and we are with the Communist International every time!
The tasks awaiting the Communist Party
The education of the masses to communism, the shattering of their faith in the institutions of capitalism, the encouragement of a belief in their own powers of social construction, of self-reliance, the general work of agitation and organisation, and the stimulation of an aggressive revolutionary fervour amongst the working class: these are but a few of the matters to which we must bend our efforts at once.
The general situation with regard to capitalism has lost none of its vicious, soul-destroying and slavish qualities, while we have been engaged in constituting our organisation; if anything, it has become much more intense. The cost of living still goes soaring up, and the endeavours of the engineers, miners, textile workers, etc to secure even a compensating increase in wages are ruthlessly turned down with contempt. More production is called for, further working class exploitation is insisted upon, if the relative position between wages and prices would be maintained …
Such is still the capitalism … which continually promises to amend itself, when approached by our reluctant trade union and Labour Party delegations. Capitalism – and particularly that section which emerged victorious out of the recent commercial struggle – is saturated with the power of achievement …
The birth of the Communist Party is not a moment too soon. The shams, hypocrisies and lying subtleties must be torn aside, and the beast revealed in all its perfidy and soullessness.
The challenge of our Churchills must be taken up, and the spirit of the working class struggle for emancipation nursed, tended and directed to smash capitalism in its entirety. Nationally, locally and in our individual capacity we must set about this task – expedite the organisation of your branch and facilitate the work of stabilising the machinery of the Communist Party; transfer the zeal and enthusiasm of the Convention into the local work, and set about the work of local education, agitation and organisation; take fullest advantage of every opportunity to acquaint the workers to communism; explain it to them inside of the workshops and outside; assist and encourage the formation of shop stewards’ committees inside every workshop, plant or factory; develop the interest of the worker in that committee; explain the possibilities which are latent in such organisation, and by insistent discussion endeavour to wean away his faith from the false moral values of capitalism …
A word here on the convention, will not be out of place … The voting on the Labour Party was such as indicated a strong, evenly divided opinion on the question of affiliation and, while, according to the result, the minority are honourably expected to acquiesce in the decision, there is also an obligation placed upon the majority to fully appreciate the strength and character of the minority.
The matter has now, for the time being, got beyond the stage of argument, and time and actual experience alone will indicate the validity of other points of view. Let us, then, cease devoting our full energy to discussing the various points involved, to the neglect of our other work, and let both sides realise that the party itself is our immediate responsibility …
The only points of difference were tactical points, and not a single voice was raised against the party’s principles. Let us carry these to the masses then, and endeavour to secure their acceptance. Every communist employed in a factory or workshop should secure election as shop steward or delegate, and there try by argument and example to demonstrate the full value of a communist outlook by the advice and guidance given to the workers. Don’t stand aloof because you may from time to time be asked to negotiate for something which to you may appear as trifling and non-essential; state your opinion on the matter first, and, in the event of its not being accepted, pursue it to its ultimate, assured that sooner or later the workers will come to learn the full value of your advice and guidance. Remember always that it is the working class alone who can effect the emancipation of the workers, and that you must be with them when they may be wrong today, if you hope to be with them to guide them rightly tomorrow …
The Communist Party is not its executive, but every single member of that party, and the extent to which it will succeed will just be the extent to which we each individually respond to our obligations and responsibilities. The revolutionary movement has received a considerable impetus by this weekend’s deliberations, and the decks are cleared for action. The Third International is our one international hope, and in this country it must become the rallying standard for the revolutionary movement.
- The former leader of the Socialist Prohibition Fellowship and a popular figure in Scotland. He spent years in jail as a punishment for his resistance to World War I.↩︎
- Former treasurer of the British Socialist Party.↩︎
- Lt Colonel CJ Malone was a sitting MP, originally elected in 1918 as a Coalition Liberal. In 1919 he visited Soviet Russia and joined the BSP on his return. Official CPGB historian James Klugmann sees Malone as a prominent figure in the party’s first year, during which he was “very active not only in parliament, but addressing mass meetings and rallies all over the country. Whatever his theoretical weaknesses, he was a man of passion, moved by the revolutionary tremors that were shaking the world, full of wrath and indignation against the powers that be …” J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, pp181-82.↩︎
- Comrade Newbold was a sitting Labour MP, a member of the left wing of the Independent Labour Party.↩︎