1920: when Britain came close to revolution

102 years ago, British workers struck in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. Conditions were ripe for revolution, though the opportunity was missed. Rob Sewell explains the revolutionary potential displayed by the working class in Britain, the errors of their leadership, and the lessons of these experiences for the class struggle today, at a time when war, crisis and chaos are similarly rampant. This article first appeared in issue 30 of In Defence of Marxism, the theoretical magazine of the International Marxist Tendency. Click here to subscribe and get the latest issue.


The period following the First World War in Britain was one of heightened class struggle. Revolution was haunting the ruling class in Britain and elsewhere. The young Soviet Republic, headed by Lenin and Trotsky, was fighting off armies of foreign intervention and a bitter civil war. A new chapter was opening everywhere in the struggle between the classes.

1919 was a year of great industrial strife, opening with an engineering strike on the “Red Clydeside” and in Belfast. The strikers in Glasgow hoisted the Red Flag, amid tension and excitement. An unprovoked police charge against strikers led to the “Battle of George Square”. Such were the fears that the government sent tanks to George Square. Arrests of the leaders followed and the strike ended a week later. Willie Gallacher, the chairman of the Clyde Committee, later wrote that “instead of organising a strike, we should have been organising a revolution.” He continued, our “failure to realise the need of continuous and consistent leadership embracing all phases of activity represented a fatal weakness that was to lead to our complete eclipse.” Their experience of revolutionary syndicalism, nevertheless, increasingly pushed these workers in a revolutionary direction, and the politics embodied by the newly-established Communist International. The anti-war agitator, the great John Maclean, on his release from prison, was one of the first in Britain to rally to the cause of the Russian Revolution.

Trade union membership in Britain leaped from 5,283,000 in 1919 to 6,505,000 in 1920. A ‘Triple Alliance’ was formed of rail workers, miners and transport workers, the key sections of the working class, which had colossal potential power. Unemployment nevertheless remained high, hardly ever falling below the million mark.

When the miners went on strike (the datum-line strike), Lloyd George was forced to backtrack and arrive at a temporary agreement. In many ways it was a test of strength, which revealed the weakness of the government. Although the government was forced to hold back, it did nevertheless introduce a new oppressive measure, namely, the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. This gave legal powers to the government to break any large strike which would interfere with “the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of locomotion”. This gave the government the authority to impose a “state of emergency”, backed by fines and imprisonment. However, these powers were for now held in reserve.

The balance of class forces was still very favourable towards the workers. It was the government, faced by this growing militancy, that was on the backfoot. The fact that there was a second police strike in 1919 was an indication of its difficulties. However, the leadership of the trade unions failed to take advantage of this situation. They had power within their grasp, but chose instead to retreat. This was clearly revealed in a conversation between Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader, and Aneurin Bevan in 1919:

“Lloyd George sent for the Labour leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, ‘truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman.’ At this, Bob’s eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. ‘He was quite frank with us from the outset,’ Bob went on. ‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps… In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so,” went on Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state, which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,” asked the Prime Minister quietly, “have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” ‘From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were’.”

This little episode encapsulated the weakness at the top of the movement.

When put to the test, these leaders drew back, terrified of the consequences. As a result, they proved incapable of carrying the movement through to a logical conclusion. Lloyd George, an astute representative of the ruling class, certainly had a measure of these leaders, including their weaknesses. He openly admitted that the government could not have survived without their compliance. Lenin once said that “capitalism could not last six weeks without the support of the Labour and trade union leaders.” This was a clear confirmation of this fact.

The political ferment at this time reflected itself in the growth in the circulation of the left-wing press, whose readership peaked in these years, with the Communist reaching 60,000, and the Labour Leader probably exceeding it. The Daily Herald’s circulation rose to between 200,000 and 300,000, which spread left-wing ideas and news of labour disputes. Its affiliated membership had gone up to 4,359,000. Not only did trade union membership rise, so did support for the Labour Party. In 1920, the number of divisional and local party organisations topped the 2,000 mark. Its programme also shifted left, promising (in words) to end capitalism. “On the contrary,” stated Labour and the New Social Order, “we shall do our utmost to see it is buried with the millions whom it has done to death.”

Imperialism

On the international front, the British government was continuing its aggression against Soviet Russia with troops stationed in Murmansk and Archangel. Part of the Allied attack was an invasion of Russia by the Poles, which had driven beyond Kiev. By 1919, Polish forces had taken control of much of Western Ukraine, emerging victorious from the Polish-Ukrainian War.

A “Hands off Russia” campaign had been established in Britain, involving leading trade unionists and Labour MPs. On 18 January 1919, a 350-strong “Hands Off Russia” delegate conference took place in the Memorial Hall, London, sponsored by the London Workers’ Committee, the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the IWW. Arthur McManus and Sylvia Pankhurst, who had actively campaigned for the Bolshevik cause, were among the revolutionary activists also taking part. The meeting passed the following resolution:

“This rank and file conference of delegates from British and Irish Labour and socialist organisations hereby resolves to carry on an active agitation upon every field of activity to solidify the Labour movement in Great Britain for the purpose of declaring at a further conference, to be convened for that purpose, a general strike, unless before the date of that conference the unconditional cessation of allied intervention in Russia—either directly, by force or arms or indirectly by an economic blockade, by supplying arms or money to the internal opponents of the Bolsheviks, or by any other sinister means endeavouring to crush the Bolshevik administration—shall have been officially announced, and will continue the strike and agitation until the desired announcement shall have been made, until we are satisfied as to the truth of the announcement, and until the allied attack on the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany are stopped, the blockade of Germany raised and the Allied troops withdrawn.”

HandsOffRussia Image Marx Memorial LibraryIn response to the continued aggression of the British government against Soviet Russia, a “Hands off Russia” campaign was launched in Britain, involving leading trade unionists and Labour MPs / Image: Marx Memorial Library

The Labour Party conference in June 1919 went as far as to threaten direct action to prevent British military involvement. None other than Herbert Morrison, the right winger, told the conference: “They have got to realise that the present war against Russia on the part of this country, France and the other imperialist powers, was not war against Bolshevism or against Lenin, but against the international organisation of socialism. It was a war against the organisation of the trade union movement itself, and as such should be resisted with the full political and industrial power of the whole trade union movement.” The right-wing Labour Party and trade union leaders were astute enough at this time to employ militant, and even revolutionary, demagogy to maintain their grip.

By 1,893,000 votes to 935,000, a motion was decisively carried demanding an immediate end to the British government’s intervention, prescribing Labour and TUC co-operation, “with the view to effective action being taken to enforce these demands by the unreserved use of their political and industrial power.”

In April 1920, the Poles launched a further offensive against Russia, leading to the occupation of Kiev.

Revolutionary Solidarity

Meanwhile, Lenin had issued his Appeal to the Toiling Masses, which was being widely circulated in Britain. For months the “Hands Off Russia” campaign had carried out extensive agitation on the London docks, which finally bore fruit on 10 May 1920, when London dock workers refused to load the ship called the Jolly George with British armaments bound for Poland to be used against the Red Army. The coal-heavers also refused to fuel the ship, which scuppered the government’s efforts. This act of international class solidarity electrified the whole British Labour movement. A week later, the Dockers’ Union decided to prevent the loading of all munitions for use against Russia. “We have a right,” said Ernest Bevin, the dockers’ national leader, “to refuse to have our labour prostituted to carry on wars of this character.” Workers everywhere triumphantly received the news.

Totally misreading the situation on the ground, the British government threatened war with Russia. However, the newly-formed Red Army by Trotsky and under the command of Tukhachevsky, firstly blocked the Polish advance, then went on the counter attack deep into Poland, which threatened to take Warsaw. The Allies, involving Lloyd George, rushed to Poland’s defence and Lord Curzon sent an ultimatum to Russia. With the French they arranged to send aid to the Poles. War was clearly being planned.

Harry Pollitt and Freighter Jolly George Image public domainO10 May 1920 London dockworkers refused to load the ship called the Jolly George with British armaments bound for Poland to be used against the Red Army / Image: public domain

Mass demonstrations called by the Labour Party took place across the country against the interventionist threats of the British government. These actions, in turn, built up pressure on the Labour and trade union leaders, and the Executive Committee of the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC were forced into taking action. They met in the House of Commons on the 9 August 1920 and issued a statement to all secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties: “the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war,” and notified the Executives of all affiliated organisations “to hold themselves ready to proceed immediately to London for a national conference,” advised them “to instruct their members to ‘down tools’ on instructions from that national conference,” and constituted a representative ‘Council of Action’ with full powers to implement these decisions.

“The workers of this country have nothing to gain by the contemplated attack on Russia”, stated a circular issued by the TUC leaders on 10 August.

“If war is declared we should soon be involved in unlimited sacrifice of blood and treasure, and should be used as tools of capitalist oppression. The national leaders have acted promptly; all sections are united in denouncing the present policy of the government. On this question there is no division or hesitation. A national body has been elected responsible for effective resistance if war is declared. The Council of Action, appointed by a Special conference at the House of Commons on Monday, is already at work. Plans have been prepared for mobilising the full resources of our movement. United industrial action, even to the extent of a general strike, may be necessary. We must, however, act in strict accordance with a well-thought-out policy and plan. The Council of Action will sit in constant session to watch developments and issue advice to the affiliated organisations. In the meantime, the action taken nationally must be followed immediately by similar action in Various districts, and we make the following suggestions:

“1 - Secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties should immediately Convene a special conference for the purpose of electing a local Council of Action.

“2 - The local Councils should form sub-committees to deal with the following questions: (1) Supply and transport;(2) Strike arrangements;(3) Publicity and information.

“3 - The name and address of secretaries appointed to act as secretaries of local Councils, should be forwarded to the joint secretaries of the National Council immediately after the conference.

“The local organisations are urged to act speedily in connection with this important crisis in the history of our movement. Ordinary methods of procedure should be suspended and special efforts made to get the local conferences working in a few days…”

The national conference took place at the Central Hall, Westminster on Friday 13 August. On behalf of the national Council of Action, it put out a directive: “Form Your Councils of Action!” This call to all trade union branches, trades councils and local Labour Parties was taken up enthusiastically. Within days, 350 Councils of Action sprang up in every town and city throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. It was clear that a strike would be solid. Interestingly, the young Communist Party was also instrumental in getting these councils organised. It called upon its members to extend Communist representation in the councils and to win key positions on the strike committees to “withstand any attempts by trade union and Labour leaders to frustrate the desires of the rank and file, by capitulating at the crucial moment.” (Communist No.2, 12 August 1920)

Lenin remarked favourably on the setting up of the Councils of Action as “the transition to the workers’ dictatorship… The whole of the English bourgeois press,” he said, “wrote that the Councils of Action were Soviets. And it was right. They are not called Soviets but in actual fact they are.”

appeal to the toiling masses Image public domainLenin’s Appeal to the Toiling Masses was being widely circulated in Britain at the time / Image: public domain

A delegation from the Central Council of Action was sent to see Lloyd George, who immediately agreed to see them. Ernest Bevin, the leader of the delegation, warned Lloyd George. “We cannot tolerate,” he said, “the use of armed force to put down a revolution in another country or to stifle revolutionary change.” He continued that “if war with Russia is carried on directly in support of Poland there will be a match set to an explosive material, the result of which none of us can foresee today… We are ready and determined to resist the triumph of reaction and war.” This threat was enough to force Lloyd George to retreat, who immediately scoffed at the very idea of war with Russia. In a conversation with the tsarist general Golovin, Winston Churchill, War Minister in the Lloyd George government, who had urged intervention against Russia in the Cabinet, confessed that it was exceedingly difficult to get the military support which he had requested for General Kolchak because of the “opposition of the British working class to any armed intervention.” Britain therefore did not participate in any military action and was even forced to pull its forces out of Russia altogether.

In the meantime, the Soviet government had waged a successful counter-offensive against Polish aggression, which had taken the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw. But they were overstretched and were forced to retreat. In the end, the Soviets sued for peace and the war ended with a cease-fire on 18 October 1920.

This show of international solidarity by the British working class crippled the war aims of the Lloyd George government and helped to throw a lifeline to the besieged Soviet state. The intervention of 21 foreign armies to topple the Bolsheviks had failed, but at terrible cost to the Russian people.

For now, the forces of counter-revolution were in retreat and the Soviet state was provided with a “breathing space”.

The Communist International

In Britain, the labour movement was still feeling the effects of the Russian Revolution. At the Leeds Convention in 1917, Ramsay MacDonald was calling for soviets! Litvinov, the representative of the new Soviet Republic, received an ovation at the Nottingham conference of the Labour Party in January 1918. This was quickly followed by the Party’s move to adopt Clause 4, the party’s commitment to the abolition of capitalism and socialism. The reaction from the war and revolution surged through every part of the Labour Party. The collapse of the Second International and the launch of the Communist International the following year created a ferment in the workers’ movement, and sharpened the struggle between supporters and opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The largest socialist organisation in Britain and the core of the Labour Party was the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Even part of the Labour leadership were members, such as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden. Politically, the ILP was rather amorphous and it took an ambivalent approach to the Russian Revolution. There were divisions within the party between the left and right wings. The ILP could be described as a left reformist organisation, to use Marxist terms, verbally quite left wing, but lacking the theoretical basis and clarity of Marxism. It regarded socialism as stemming more from the heart than the head. This middle-of-the-road approach, coupled with pacifism, simply sowed confusion and political compromise.

Communist International Image public domainThe collapse of the Second International and the launch of the Communist International the following year created a ferment in the workers’ movement / Image: public domain

The struggle within the ILP was sharpened with the launch of the new Third (Communist) International in March 1919. This coincided with an attempt to salvage the Second (Socialist) International at Berne in February 1919, but this was composed of little more than a bunch of right-wing leaders. The pre-revolutionary situation in Britain began to feed into the radicalised ranks of the ILP. In 1920, at its January conference, the important Scottish Division went on record in favour of affiliation to the Third International by 158 votes to 58.

This put the ILP leadership, the National Administrative Council (NAC), in some difficulties, who were more right wing and far more cautious. The Party held its national conference in Easter, where this question about affiliation would be discussed. While the leadership was forced to take into consideration the radicalised membership, it pulled a manoeuvre and simply recommended withdrawal from the Second International, which was then overwhelmingly carried. The NAC side-stepped a vote on the Third International by proposing a “unity” conference organised by parties outside of both Internationals. This was sweetened with a proposal to hold exploratory talks with the Communist International. This recommendation was agreed with 472 votes in favour against 206 wanting direct affiliation to the Third International. That served to side-line the issue and eventually bury it.

The ILP leaders sent a delegation to Moscow, composed of the party chairman, R.C. Wallhead, and Clifford Allen, an NAC member, who later became a Lord. They were part of a wider Labour and trade union delegation to Russia, dominated by rightwingers. The ILP representatives raised twelve questions with the Executive Committee of the Communist International. The reply to the ILP was drafted by Lenin.

The ILP leaders, attempting to face both directions, went ahead with their “unity” conference in early 1921, out of which emerged a body that came to be known as the Two-and-a Half International. Of course, this did not last long and soon reunited with the Second International in 1923, as soon as the revolutionary tide ebbed. The ILP’s ambivalent approach was summed up by Ramsay MacDonald, a leading member of the party, who made the main speech at the 1920 Labour Party Conference against a resolution to leave the Second International, which was then lost by 1,010,000 votes to 516,000. The ILP leadership, of course, had nothing to say about this political sabotage, which simply reflected its own approach.

Bolshevism in Britain?

Nevertheless, by this time, pressure was building up for the foundation of a new Communist Party in Britain. Past efforts to establish a genuine Marxist Party in this country had failed, distorted and wrecked by sectarianism. The Social Democratic Federation was a self-proclaimed Marxist organisation, but this had reduced Marxism to a dogma. It was also deeply infected by sectarianism. It had therefore experienced a series of splits over the years. None of these groups, lacking a Marxist method and theory, were able to rise to the kind of party needed.

However, under the impact of events, certain individuals, especially among the shop stewards movement, began to emerge in solidarity with the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Communist International. Gradually, a differentiation was taking place within the movement, as revolutionary groupings began to emerge and coalesce. A referendum within the British Socialist Party, which was currently affiliated to the Labour Party, came out in favour of affiliation to the Third International by 98 branches to 4. A layer of the left wing of the ILP were also in favour, together with others, like the Socialist Labour Party and the Workers’ Socialist Federation led by Sylvia Pankhurst.

clause 4 Image L4C4Lenin argued to the British delegation that It was important to answer the arguments of the “Lefts” in their opposition to participation in Parliament, as well as their general sectarianism towards the Labour Party / Image: L4C4

However, while they all agreed on the idea of founding a Communist Party, they sharply disagreed over tactics, especially towards Parliament and the Labour Party. Lenin answered many of these questions in his Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. He believed these differences, which were products of a low political level, could be resolved through discussion and that any attempt to delay the founding of a British Communist Party was a mistake. Those aroused by the Russian Revolution had political and organisational baggage from the past, including a dose of sectarianism. Lenin and Trotsky worked to correct these defects within these new layers coming to Communism. As Lenin explained:

“It is essential for the Communist Party that it should be intimately and continuously associated with the mass of workers, that it should be able to carry on constant agitation among the workers, to take part in every strike, to answer all the questions that agitate the minds of the masses. This is above all necessary in a country like England, where so far (as, indeed, in all imperialist countries) the Socialist movement and the Labour movement in general have been exclusively guided by cliques drawn from the aristocracy of labour, persons most of whom are utterly and hopelessly corrupted by reformism, whose minds are enslaved by imperialistic and bourgeois prejudices.”

Of course, there was a massive assault against Bolshevism by the bourgeoisie and its agents in the Labour movement. Their constant refrain was that Bolshevism was totally foreign to the traditions of British workers, and that the Communist International wanted to “impose” a Russian solution to national problems. But this was not the case. As Lenin explained: “the problem here, as elsewhere, consists in the ability to apply the general and fundamental principles of Communism to the specific relations between the classes and parties, to the specific conditions in the objective development towards Communism—conditions which are peculiar to every separate country, and which one must be able to study, understand and point out.”

As the Communist International explained in its reply to the ILP, Marxism “did not proceed from the imagination” of Marx and Engels, who “defined the aims of the Labour movement by the study of capitalism and the experience of the first great revolutionary movement of the working class, the Chartist movement of the British workers.”

Finally, over the weekend of 31 July-1st August 1920, the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed, built on the fusion of a number of revolutionary groups. This marked the beginning of a new type of revolutionary party, different from the sterile propaganda groups of the past. It attracted the cream of the British working class, probably a few thousand to begin with. Of course, there was much to do to unite the party organisationally, politically and theoretically. The old sectarian ideas had to be burned out.

Lenin had made a start at this in the Second Congress of the Communist International that was held in the summer of 1920, and was attended by representatives of the groups, including from Britain, looking to form a Communist Party. He started out by reiterating the arguments put forward in Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. It was important to answer the arguments of the “Lefts” in their opposition to participation in Parliament, as well as their general sectarianism towards the Labour Party. It also opened the eyes to a new approach to revolutionary politics.

“I was an outstanding example of the ‘Left’ sectarian and as such had been referred to by Lenin in his book Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” explained Willie Gallacher, where he described his meeting with Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International.

“But here I was in the company of Lenin himself and other leading international figures, arguing and fighting on the correctness or otherwise of these views. I was hard to convince. I had such disgust at the leaders of the Labour Party and their shameless servility that I wanted to keep clear of contamination.

“Gradually, as the discussions went on, I began to see the weakness of my position. More and more the clear simple arguments and explanations of Lenin impressed themselves in my mind…

“The more I talked with Lenin and the other comrades, the more I came to see what the party of workers meant in the revolutionary struggle. It was in this, the conception of the party, that the genius of Lenin had expressed itself. A Party of revolutionary workers, with its roots in the factories and in the streets, winning the Trade Unions and the Co-operatives with the correctness of its working-class policy, a party with no other interests but the interests of the working class and the peasant and petty-bourgeois allies of the working class, such a Party, using every avenue of expression, could make an exceptionally valuable parliamentary platform for arousing the great masses of workers to energetic struggle against the capitalist enemy.

“Before I left Moscow I had an interview with Lenin during which he asked me three questions.

“1 - ‘Do you admit you were wrong on the question of Parliament and affiliations to the Labour Party?’

“2 - ‘Will you join the Communist Party of Great Britain when you return?’ (A telegram had arrived a couple of days before, informing us of the formation of the Party.)

“3 - ‘Will you do your best to persuade your Scottish comrades to join it?’

“To each other these questions I answered ‘yes’. Having given this pledge freely I returned to Glasgow.” (Revolt on the Clyde)

J. T. Murphy, also a delegate to the Second Congress, described how the experience changed his old political conceptions, which also reflected the prejudices of the British revolutionary groups at the time:

“I had left England as a young provincial skilled workman with a clear-cut theory of how society could be reorganised under ‘control of the workers’… I was quite sure that capitalism was breaking down everywhere and, in the process, helping the workers to see their way to Socialism through industrial organisation and the General Strike… My experience in Russia… had shown me the real meaning of the struggle for political power. Instead of thinking that a Socialist Party was merely a propaganda organisation for the dissemination of Socialist views, I now saw that a real Socialist Party would consist of revolutionary Socialists who regarded the Party as a means whereby they would lead the working class in the fight for political power.”

The formation of the Communist Party was not intended to provide a home for revolutionary misfits and egotists. It was to hammer out and agree on policies that were then to be taken into the Labour movement on an organised basis. The task was to “patiently explain” and win the majority to a Communist programme.

Sectarianism

Of course, the founding of a Communist Party did not rid the party of sectarianism overnight. The depth of the problem was indicated by the debate over whether or not the party should request affiliation to the Labour Party. There were big differences within the party and the question of Labour Party affiliation was referred to the Congress of the Communist International for discussion, which, after a discussion, came out clearly in favour. However, the leadership of the British Communists were sharply divided and, although they accepted the decision of the International, they worded their request for affiliation in such a manner as to invite rejection! After the refusal, the Party newspaper, The Communist, of 16 September 1920, wrote saying: “So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.” The leaders of the Communist International had to intervene to compel the British leadership to change its approach. A week later, the same paper wrote: “it is the duty of the communists to work where the masses are. That may mean going into reactionary organisations, but that is better and easier than creating brand new organisations in the hope that the masses will leave the old ones and come to the new.”

This “infantile” approach was a stumbling block, which simply played into the hands of the right wing. When the question of the affiliation of the Communist Party came up at the Labour Conference in Brighton in 1921, it was supported by A.J. Cook and Herbert Smith of the miners’ union, but the right wing mobilised to block it. When it was again raised at the 1922 Labour Conference, this time Frank Hodges, the general secretary of the Miners’ Federation, opposed the motion, denouncing the Communists as “the intellectual slaves of Moscow… taking orders from the Asiatic mind, taking the judgment of middle-class Russians—the residue of the old regime… the same type of intellectual whom they despised in this country.” He was followed by Ramsay MacDonald, who declared that the Communists were approaching the Labour Party only in order to stab it in the back. In fact, it was MacDonald who would go on to stab the party in the back in 1931.

MacDonald was, as Lenin explained, a supreme master of “that smooth, melodious, banal and socialist-seeming phraseology which serves in all developed capitalist countries to camouflage the policy of the bourgeoisie inside the Labour movement.”

There was a further fusion with some other groupings, most notably the left of the ILP in January 1921, but the character of the Communist Party was still more an amalgamation of propagandist sects. It took the efforts of Lenin and Trotsky and the Comintern leadership to rid the British party of this ingrained sectarianism. In August 1921, the CPGB stood Bob Stewart against a Labour candidate in the by-election in Caerphilly. The sectarianism still prevailed in his election address, which declared: “We oppose the Labour Party for the simple reason that it is not a Labour Party at all.” Although the South Wales Miners’ Federation had just affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions, Stewart still found himself at the bottom of the poll.

Eventually, these tendencies were overcome and the Party engaged in fruitful work in the mass organisations. The paper’s name was changed to the Workers’ Weekly, which covered many day-to-day struggles.

One of its biggest failures, however, was the theoretical education of its members. Many had a rudimentary understanding of Marxism, but little more than this. One of the biggest problems of the British labour movement was its aversion to theory, which Engels had written about. Even E. Cant, the London organiser, warned about this, when he observed that “the comrade who said he was too busy selling the Workers’ Weekly to read it himself is not a myth.”

When there was a nation-wide review of the party in 1922, the same picture of a low theoretical level and formalism persisted. There was no attempt to educate the party. “If I were asked what are the principal defects of the party today,” wrote Murphy, “I would answer unhesitatingly, formalism, organisational fetishism, and lack of political training…” From the contributions in the Workers’ Weekly and the Communist Review, there were serious concerns at the abysmal level of theoretical development in the party, while there was a push for mass work. But these criticisms were largely brushed aside.

But there can be no doubt about the generally low theoretical level of the party leadership in the 1920s. They had a mechanical approach in the way they applied the decisions of the Communist International. They were continually criticised for this failing and the weakness of its theoretical organ, the Communist Review. The Executive of the Communist International found, for example, that:

“... the aversion to theory revealed itself everywhere in the columns of the Communist Review… Whenever any theoretical questions were touched upon, their presentation and analysis were of a purely descriptive nature… As a consequence the officials and advanced workers could gather nothing of the theory of Leninism as the uniform method of Marxism during the present epoch.”

Again, J. T. Murphy confirmed that the party leadership were very much steeped in empirical trade union attitudes and still regarded Marxism in a formal way, as in the pre-1920 period. “...We were ardent trade unionists, most of us experienced in leading unofficial movements. That was our strength… [but] the theoretical equipment of the leadership as a whole was not of a high standard. I remember there [were] only Tommy Jackson and myself who were at all familiar with the philosophical aspects of Marxism.”

This was a continual problem and reflected itself in the low theoretical level of the party, which came with a heavy price. While the ideological struggles in the Russian party in 1923 to 1926 stirred a response in many important European Communist Parties, notably the French, Polish and German, in Britain there was virtually no interest. This anti-theoretical approach of the British party saw the dispute as purely an internal Russian affair. It is no accident that the British party was one of the first to capitulate to Stalinism, with hardly any opposition, which prompted Stalin to hail the CPGB as a “model party” in 1926.

There are clearly many lessons to be learned from this vital chapter in the experience of the British working class. With the present deepening crisis of capitalism and class struggles that are opening up in Britain, it is essential for British Marxists to master these lessons, as to prepare themselves for the challenges that lie ahead.