by Chris Ford
This year marks the 90th Anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Part of Great Britain, which existed until its disbandment in 1991. Without a doubt the foundation of the CPGB in 1920 was an event of great importance in the history of the workers’ movement in the UK.
Its creation was directly linked to the revolutionary upsurge which followed the First World War, this brought about a recomposition of the communist movement which crystallised in the Third, Communist International centred in Soviet Russia. This period and the unity process which took place is not only of historical interest but holds many lessons for our own generation in our efforts to bring about a new recomposition of the communist movement.
The formation of the CPGB remains a matter of great controversy and a number of histories have been published. One important study which has been sadly out of print for over thirty years is The Origins of British Bolshevism by Raymond Challinor. Then affiliated to the old International Socialists, Challinor’s account is centred on the Socialist Labour Party. Founded in Scotland in 1903 by James Connolly they were denounced as the ‘impossibilists’. The SLP proved to be one of the most pioneering of the Marxist organisations in the country at that time. Lenin said it October 1918 that ‘of the three socialist parties in England, only one, the independent Socialist Labour Party, is openly becoming an ally of the Bolsheviks.’ In contrast to the British Socialist Party (with the honourable exception of the wing led by John Maclean) – the largest contingent to make up the CPGB – the SLP took an uncompromising revolutionary internationalist stand against the imperialist war, (with the honourable exception of the John MacLean wing of the BSP). The SLP leader William Paul’s speech at the Communist Unity Convention on August 1st 1920 against Labour Party affiliation gives a flavour of the culture of critical Marxism the SLP had nurtured:
‘There is not one in this audience to whom I yield in admiration for Lenin but, as we said yesterday, Lenin is no pope or god….on local circumstances, where we are on the spot, we are the people to decide’.
Within a decade such comments would be considered heresy in the CPGB! To mark the anniversary of the CPGB’s foundation, republished here is Raymond Challinor’s chapter on the controversial period of the foundation of Party.
THE FORMATION OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY
Two concepts of unity crystallised in the period before the London Unity convention. The first emphasising continuity, desired merely a re-shuffling of existing furniture, a re-groupment of organisations still retaining social democratic principles and outlook. But the second tendency regarded this as inadequate: it sought a unity on a clear revolutionary basis. The October Revolution (the argument ran) had not merely established the first workers’ state, bringing a new force into international affairs, but had also provided a fund of new theory and practice which could be of great utility to the workers of every nationality. The lessons of the Russian Revolution demanded that a radical change of approach be made.
These concepts came into collision in March 1919. The BSP [British Socialist Party] provided the arena for combat, organising two conferences to explore the possibility for greater unity. The BSP envisaged making progress by adopting the same path as before. Three years previously, it had formed the United Socialist Council with the ILP[Independent Labour Party], which had sought to be an all-embracing body, including everyone who had the least socialist pretensions. In the same way, the BSP strove in 1919 to collect all strands of left-wing opinion under one roof. It hoped, ingenuously, that this would provide an opportunity for differences to be resolved, but, instead of conflicts vanishing, they became even more apparent. An unbridgeable gulf existed between the reformism of the ILP and the revolutionary standpoint of the SLP [Socialist Labour Party]. The second meeting, as Tom Bell described, ended with the two main protagonists having a heated exchange:
This conference turned into a dialectical skirmish between Mac-Manus and Philip Snowden on industrial unionism versus trade unionism; Soviets versus parliamentary democracy; and the role of violence in the social revolution. I never saw a man look so dejected as Snowden when Mac was finished with him. As a last word Snowden said: ‘Well, you are asking us to give up all we have stood for these thirty years. The past thirty years’ work of the ILP is good enough for me.’ And we broke up.1
That Snowden aroused the ire of the SLP was understandable. Only two months before, the German Social Democratic leaders had connived in the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, whom the SLP regarded as their comrades. The ILP leaders, like Snowden, were suspect because they held similar political principles to the German Social Democratic leaders. The Socialist declared: ‘Ramsay MacDonald, like Noske in Germany, would butcher workers quite mercilessly.’2 For this reason, the SLP envisaged not a unity with MacDonald but against MacDonald. It aimed at convincing any militants within the ILP that their duty was to work towards a split, bringing the left out of the Party.
In its manifesto to the conference in May 1919, the SLP’s declared intention was to stimulate rank-and-file discontent in the bigger, reformist organisation and direct this against the old guard who were in control:
We must set up a revolutionary organisation, for both the changing historical situation and the era of revolutionary action on the part of the proletariat demand it. But such a transition is possible only over the heads of the old leaders, who strangled revolutionary energy — over the head of the old party and along the path of its destruction.3
The SLP had basically the same attitude to the BSP as it had to the ILP. Its disagreements were manifest on two issues of immediate relevance. The first was its line on the Labour Party. The BSP was affiliated to the Labour Party, loyally working within it and striving to push the Labour Party in a leftward direction. In the SLP’s view, this was a sign of the BSP’s essentially reformist outlook. It also led to another error: because the BSP was concerned to gain the trade union block vote at Labour conferences, it was reluctant to criticise union leaders who uttered left phrases but failed to match their words with deeds. Not wishing to antagonise the Bob Smillies and Ernest Bevins, the BSP was never officially in favour of building rank-and-file organisations within industry to challenge the union bureaucracy. To the SLP, this was a vital, an integral, part of the struggle.
The BSP’s assessment of union leaders, its refusal to realise that in any serious crisis they would strive to dampen down discontent, led the BSP to have a totally false picture of how socialism could be achieved. If one of the BSP’s faces was reformist, the other was syndicalist. In a leftish mood, as at its final conference in 1920, the BSP called upon all trade unions to strike together to overthrow capitalism.
J.T. Murphy sought to explain the error of this line of argument:
It implies that the overthrowal of capitalism can be attained by the general strike alone, a further proposition repudiated in history. No finer example of a general strike can be cited than the recent strike in Berlin. But it did not achieve the social revolution. More than a strike was required — real communist leadership, the seizure of arms, an open united military struggle for power. The repeated limitation of mass action to direct action (a syndicalist limitation) by the BSP is either an indication of lack of insight into the needs of revolution or moral cowardice expressing itself in a fear of an open declaration that revolution cannot be carried through without a resort to arms.4
In the same article Murphy outlined the fundamental differences he saw between the two parties:
It should be observed that the Russian Revolution has affected the SLP and BSP differently. The Communist programme of the Third International partly accepts and partly supplements the principles and programme the SLP has fought for since its inception. Its uncompromising waging of the class war, its advocacy of industrial unionism, and its insistence on the impossibility of using the parliamentary state to accomplish the revolution, and the realisation of the need for an intermediate Soviet state with the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is a development of first principles. The BSP, on the other hand, in adherence formally to the Communist International, has had to reverse its former policy. Trailing with all the traditions of the SDF, its opposition to industrial unionism, its reformist par-liamentarianism, it has had to pass through a process, and it has still to pass through a further process of internal change.
In Murphy’s opinion, the BSP simply gave formal adherence to the Third International: it remained, in essence, true to its reformist spirit. He saw the path to unity through the fusion with the South Wales Socialist Society and Workers’ Socialist Federation, not with the BSP:
There must be no compromise with the BSP. Better a Communist Party without the BSP than a party including the BSP, trailing with it the spirit of compromise to hamper the party in its revolutionary practice. The majority of the SLP accepted the Murphy line. They saw unity not as a short battle but a protracted war, slowly won as more and more militants came to realise the efficacy of the revolutionary standpoint. They would come, it was envisaged, not only from other left groups but also from the large number of good socialists who remained outside all political parties. It was a characteristic of this period that a sizeable proportion of class-conscious workers belonged to no party. Jack Tanner, a shop stewards’ delegate to the Communist International, tried to explain this by saying that disenchantment with the BSP had led workers to shun political parties generally.5 Perhaps this is too severe on the BSP: the antics of the Labour Party and the ILP also helped to swell the ranks of the disgruntled and unattached. The SLP believed it could attract many of these people, thereby mobilising fresh forces in the struggle. But this could only be accomplished so long as the SLP was not tainted by the ‘old corruption’ of the Labour Party.
In pursuance of its objective, the SLP made small, yet significant, strides. The 17th annual conference, held in Carlisle at Easter 1920, heard that the party had 48 branches, an increase of six on the previous year. The figure did not include the South Wales Socialist Society which, on 28 March 1920, decided to dissolve into the SLP. The influx of new blood from South Wales, an area in which the SLP had hitherto had a scanty membership, added to the party’s industrial credibility — many of the new recruits had played a prominent part in industrial battles since the Cambrian Combine strike. The entire membership of the Aberdare ILP joined the SLP following this development.
A similar process was going on in Scotland. As we have seen in the last chapter, John Maclean drew closer to the SLP. He frequently spoke from its platforms, and early in 1921, The Socialist announced: ‘Comrade Maclean is now a fighting member of the fighting SLP.’6 Along with his closest collaborator, James D. MacDougall, he joined the party’s executive. Obviously, to have enrolled the man who epitomised, perhaps more strongly than any other man, the spirit of revolution gave the SLP a great boost.
But there was a crucial influence militating against the SLP in the form of agents who purported to act on behalf of Moscow. In mid-1919, the Communist International decided to exert all its authority to gain a unification of left groups in Britain. The formation of a single British Communist Party was seen as the supreme task; everything else was subordinated to this aim. The fact that many of the group were confused theoretically, had definite tendencies to reformism, or did not relate themselves to the industrial struggle was of little consequence.
Disregarding the inner laws of motion of British left politics, the evolutionary process that was slowly leading to revolutionary re-groupment, the Comintern leaders were prepared to wrench bits off existing organisations and forcibly bring them together, irrespective of the effect.
The Comintern’s main agent was Theodore Rothstein. There can be no doubt that he played a vitally important role: he had at his disposal ‘Moscow Gold’. His ability to bestow largesse upon pliant individuals and organisations gave him immense influence in British left-wing circles, where money was scarce. However, as already stated, some historians probably exaggerate the importance of the economic factor. Of much greater significance was that, for many British socialists, Rothstein was the living embodiment of the first successful workers’ revolution. This gave him tremendous moral authority. Whenever he spoke or wrote, as he did frequently, his words were seen as the genuine expression of Russian Bolshevism.
The problem was that Rothstein’s connection with Bolshevism could be described, at best, as tenuous. He thought of building the new party around the BSP. He had been one of its executive members, at times a not particularly left-wing one, and he almost automatically looked to his former colleagues to form the nucleus of the Communist Party. All the financial resources at his disposal were channelled, as J.T. Walton Newbold observed in his autobiography, into the BSP.7 Even police agents, operating inside working-class organisations, knew this. The Directorate of Intelligence (HQ) survey of revolutionary movements, produced in January 1921 for the Cabinet, observed that the Russian representatives were dealing exclusively with the BSP and shop stewards; other groups, such as the SLP, were left out in the cold.** There was even a degree of selectivity here — only those shop steward groups clearly backing the BSP line received support.
This represented a complete change of policy. At one time, Moscow had rated others much more highly than the BSP. In March 1919, when the Communist International was formed, its international executive committee looked primarily to the WSF and SLP for support in Britain. Sylvia Pankhurst had been exceptionally prominent, not only liaising with the Comintern in Britain but travelling over Western Europe to establish links on its behalf. She went to Italy to attend a conference of the Italian Socialist Party, where the seeds of the future Italian Communist Party were sown, and then on foot, illegally, crossed the frontier into Switzerland and, subsequently, Germany. In Frankfurt, she was the British representative at an international communist conference. Sylvia Pankhurst was probably the foremost British contact of the International. As one historian stated:
During the first five months of the Communist International’s existence, her interpretations of the British scene were accepted as authentic by the ECCI and by Lenin. Her articles appeared in the first five numbers of the Communist International in its various language editions.9
Lenin’s great respect for her was shown by the remarks he made after her arrest:
Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst represents the interests of hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people that are oppressed by the British and other capitalists. That is why she is subjected to a White terror, (and) has been deprived of her liberty.10
Although Lenin was exaggerating, there can be little doubt that, through her years of struggle, Sylvia Pankhurst had built up a reputation in the British working class much more impressive than the reputations of many of those who were later to control the British Communist Party.
Lenin made similar flattering references to the SLP. He declared that ‘of the three socialist parties in England, only one, the independent Socialist Labour Party, is openly becoming an ally of the Bolsheviks.’11 This was said at a meeting of the Moscow Soviet on 22 October 1918, and, a few months later, Pravda carried an article on Britain which described the SLP as the British Bolshevik Party.12
But a completely different approach became discernible later in 1919. This can be attributed to two things: first, the BSP agreed to apply for affiliation to the Communist International in October 1919; and, second, Theodore Rothstein was on hand to maximise the influence of his long-standing friends. Quickly, it became obvious that unification would be based upon the BSP, with other groups playing a subordinate role and merging with it.
This placed revolutionaries in a predicament. Should they accept this plan, hoping after unification to push the newly-created organisation in a leftward direction? Or should they ignore the Russians and continue with their own moves towards re-groupment? The question threw the SLP into turmoil. Bell, Paul and MacManus led the faction in favour of unity at all costs; Clunie, Mitchell and Murphy headed the group who believed that principles should not be lightly dropped.
It should be remembered that the SLP initially entered the unity negotiations with the intention of prising the more revolutionary members from the BSP and ILP. Now, ironically, it was within the SLP itself that the split occurred. At the centre of the argument was the BSP’s reformist attitude and its unwillingness to budge on the issue of Labour Party affiliation. In discussion, Tom Bell, who was one of the SLP’s specially appointed Unity Committee, made a concession. He suggested that the issue of affiliation should be shelved until a year after the formation of the Communist Party, and then a referendum of the members taken on it. This proposal angered many members of the SLP. Bell, supposedly speaking on their behalf, had exceeded his brief. Within a unified organisation, containing all the membership of the BSP, the SLP would be swamped. It would lose its identity. Just as important, it would lose control of the SLP press and publishing business, which sold more Marxist literature than any other concern in Britain. But Bell’s proposal was not accepted by the unity conference, which resolved that organisations participating in the conference should simply hold a referendum on whether their memberships wanted to belong to a unified Communist Party. The resolution said that the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party should be decided by referendum three months after the new party had come into existence.
The unity conference’s motion provided the Clunie faction with a useful stratagem. Having majority of one on the SLP executive, they resolved to put both questions to the membership ballot: whether the SLP was prepared to join a unified Communist Party, and whether this party should be affiliated to the Labour Party. As generally anticipated, the ballot revealed a majority in favour of fusion but against affiliation, which the executive interpreted as giving it a free hand in any future negotiations. Bell resigned from the editorship of The Socialist as a protest against this decision, and on 22 January 1920 Dr Tom Estermann took his place.
It appeared that ultimate victory would go to Bell and his comrades, who over many years had developed into hard cadres, skilled debaters and tacticians, as well as being the main spokesmen for the SLP. But they do not seem to have taken the factional struggle seriously, being more concerned about bringing the broader unity to fruition. So they formed their own organisation, the Communist Unity Group, and while remaining members of the SLP, turned their backs on its internal politics. This move may well have been a tactical blunder: their opponents only had a small majority, many of the membership were undecided and, with sustained debate, Bell and his comrades won.
An event which swung many SLPers against Tom Bell and his friends was the Paisley bye-election. The local branch of the party planned to contest it, adopting William Paul as the SLP candidate. But at the last moment, on 28 January 1920, when it was impossible to find a replacement, Paul sent a telegram saying he was not prepared to stand. It was generally assumed that the reason for his unwillingness was that he did not want to stand against a Labour candidate and thereby antagonise members of the BSP. Many SLPers saw it as a betrayal, the placing of considerations of unity with the BSP before the need to expose reformism. The Labour Party’s candidate at Paisley was J.M. Biggar, a notorious right-winger. What worsened the situation was that, although William Paul and his associates were still prepared to use the facilities of the SLP, speaking from SLP platforms, they did not encourage people to join the party. At Leigh Socialist Qub and at Horwich in Lancashire, Paul even went so far as to dissuade workers from joining the SLP, saying that they should wait to join the soon-to-be-formed Communist Party. Of course, when this became known, it only served to antagonise the SLP membership further.
Even so, the Communist Unity Group would probably have taken a few more members out of the SLP had it bothered to attend the party’s annual conference at Carlisle during Easter 1920. Instead, it held a rival conference at Nottingham. Besides giving the damaging impression that they were shying away from debate, Bell and his friends revealed their own weakness when they published a list of those attending the Nottingham gathering. Of the 22 people there, only 14 were actually members of the SLP.13 The failure of their enterprise can be judged in another way. The ostensible reason for the Nottingham conference had been to rally support among disaffected SLPers for the forthcoming Communist Unity Convention in London, where the Communist Party of Great Britain was officially to be formed. Yet in the Communist Unity Group’s delegation to the London Convention only one delegate, Tom Bell himself, represented a group in Scotland. When it is remembered that most of the very hard work by Bell, MacManus and Paul had been done in Scotland, the extent to which they had detached themselves from their former supporters becomes apparent.
The London Convention met while the Second Congress of the Third International was in session. It may seem an oversight, or bad organisation, that the organisers of the London conference allowed the two events to clash. Much of the Second Congress’s time was spent discussing Britain. Had the Communist Unity Convention been held a few weeks later, delegates would have been able to benefit from hearing about the deliberations of the Second Congress. There was, moreover, a strong British contingent in Moscow. They included John S. Clarke, Helen Crawfurd, William Gallacher, W. MacLaine, J.T. Murphy, Margery Newbold, Sylvia Pankhurst, Tom Quelch, Dave Ramsay and Jack Tanner. Admittedly, some of these may not have wanted to attend the Communist Unity Convention, but the Convention was surely that much poorer because of the non-attendance of the rest. One would have thought that, at the inaugural conference of the CPGB, every effort would have been taken to secure the presence there of those who had gained prominence in the working-class movement.
Another mystery associated with the Convention was the publication of Lenin’s pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. Lenin finished this on 27 April 1920, and three months elapsed before it appeared in English. Then, only extracts were printed in the BSP’s journal, The Call, on 29 July 1920. This was just at the crucial moment: the Communist Unity Convention was a mere two days away and the main issue to be discussed would be affiliation to the Labour Party. Lenin came firmly down on the side of the BSP’s position, while the individuals whom he attacked — in particular Gallacher and Pankhurst — would be unable to reply as they were in Moscow. Indeed, with three exceptions, all the delegates in Moscow opposed affiliation to the Labour Party, and many of them disagreed with using the BSP as the nucleus of the new party. Certainly, things went very well for the right wing. They narrowly won the vote on the Labour Party by 100 votes to 85. Had it not been for convenient absences, and the equally convenient publication of extracts from Lenin, the vote might well have gone the other way.
It may have been accident rather than design that produced these absence conditions for the right wing. But it does seem strange that in the period before the October Revolution, when obstacles to communication were very much greater, Lenin’s articles could appear in The Socialist without a three-month delay.
Another mystery of the Communist Unity Convention was the absence of John Maclean. As we saw in this last chapter, his quarrel with Theodore Rothstein in the spring of 1920 appears to have been a personal turning-point. From then on, he considered himself banished by what is referred to as, ‘the London gang’. In May 1920, he resumed publication of his monthly journal, Vanguard. Not being persona grata, it was no use him going to the Unity Convention: he had already had the door slammed in his face at the final conference of the BSP; there was no reason for making it happen again.
Of course, we only have John Maclean’s own word that he was debarred from helping in the formation of the Communist Party. He claimed he was denied access to the final BSP conference by ‘the trickery of the Cockney, Cant’ – Ernest Cant, chairman of the conference arrangements committee – who, according to Maclean, was acting at the behest of Theodore Rothstein.14 If this claim was untrue, then one would have expected a public denial. The leaders of the newly-formed Communist Party could have said that there had been a slight misunderstanding and Maclean would be welcome in the fold. Yet no such statement was made.15
Interestingly, in the period immediately before the Communist Unity Convention, Ernest Cant, the former London district secretary of the BSP, was despatched to Scotland to arouse support. His efforts do not seem to have been crowned with much success. Only ten out of the 155 delegates attending came from Scotland.16 Included in the ten was Cant himself who, somehow or other, came as the delegate for Paisley BSP. It seems highly peculiar that Cant, with such limited associations with Clydeside, could obtain conference credentials while the same appear to have been denied to Clydeside’s most famous revolutionary. One might have thought that with Scottish representation at the Unity Convention so weak, the services of so influential a socialist as John Maclean would have been eagerly sought. But no letters appealing to him to assist by joining the Communist Party are contained in Maclean’s papers, deposited in the National Library of Scotland. Nor did anyone dispute the claim made in his ‘Open Letter to Lenin': ‘I myself was automatically excluded from the London show.’ Clearly, CP leaders were not over-keen to have him.
The differences went much deeper than allegations of trickery. As shown in the previous chapter, Maclean and Rothstein had fundamental political disagreements. Intertwined with these, as so often happens, was personal hostility. According to Gallacher, who was there when the fateful quarrel occurred, Maclean accused Rothstein of being a police agent.17 But Harry McShane, admittedly only on the basis of second-hand information — Maclean’s version of the quarrel — had claimed that no such accusation was made; he said Maclean simply had an intense dislike for Rothstein.18
This arose largely because Rothstein had enjoyed a comfortable job during the war, while many British socialists were enduring hardship, imprisonment and even death. In fact, Rothstein had served on the staff of the War Office. His work entailed being confidential adviser to Lord Balfour on Russian affairs.19 To reach that exalted position, it would appear reasonable to conclude, Rothstein would have been subjected to rigorous security checks, and the authorities would be aware of his political activities. Definitely, when he began operating as the Comintern’s main agent in Britain, the Special Branch kept close tabs on him. There are copious references to his activities in the Home Office papers. They became acquainted with his financial disbursements down to the exact penny.20 Sylvia Pankhurst considered him ‘much too talkative for a conspirator’. She cited an instance where he talked quite freely to a man, Jacob Nosovitsky, who she had already warned him was a police spy. Presumably, the authorities allowed Rothstein to function for so long because he provided them unintentionally with much useful information. Clearly, John Maclean was wrong if he accused Rothstein of being a police spy, although all socialists would have been well-advised to treat him with extreme caution.
Since January 1918, Maclean had been the Scottish Consul for the Soviet government, but, after his quarrel with Rothstein, he ceased to use the title. Did this mean that he had been deprived of the post? Having been given it by Litvinov, was it taken away by Litvinov’s successor as the chief Soviet representative in Britain? The answer to this question remains a matter for conjecture. What is certain, however, and of much greater significance, was that, after his quarrel with Rothstein, Maclean returned to Scotland determined to continue revolutionary activity, but to do so outside the Communist Party’s ranks.
With Maclean in full spate, and the SLP’s strength not seriously dented, the prospects for the newly-formed CPGB in Scotland, the most militant part of Britain, did not look particularly bright. The Worker, organ of the Scottish Workers’ Committee, gave a singularly unenthusiastic report of the proceedings of the Communist Unity Convention in London. It regarded the decision on Labour Party affiliation as an ‘unpardonable mistake’, adding that ‘communists in Scotland are nine-tenths anti-Labour Party.’ The paper went on to declare there was ‘not the slightest prospect of the Communist Party in its present form making any headway north of the Border.’21
As if to underline the point, one of the handful of Scottish delegates to the Unity Convention wrote in the next issue of The Worker that he had changed his mind. Alex Geddes, of the Greenock Workers’ Committee, now no longer favoured the CPGB; he thought a Scottish Communist Party should be built. His initiative met with a response from those who disagreed with the decision of the London Convention on Labour Party affiliation as well as those with nationalistic leanings. These included John Maclean and the Scottish Workers’ Committee. A preliminary conference, held in Glasgow on 18 September 1920, was attended by representatives of 21 groups. It was agreed officially to form a new party, to be known as the Communist Labour Party, at a special conference on 2 October 1920.22
These developments had been watched with friendly interest by the SLP. A close similarity of views existed: John Maclean wrote to Tom Mitchell, SLP general secretary, urging co-operation, and the SLP appointed delegates to the inaugural meeting.23 They wanted to suggest that exploratory talks take place with the aim of effecting a merger. In the meantime, however, a complicating factor had arisen: on 27 September 1920, Gallacher, returning from the Second Congress in Russia, arrived in Glasgow. His influence was to have a decisive impact on the unity negotiations in Scotland.
To understand Gallacher’s role, which was quite different to that depicted in his various autobiographies, one has first to examine his political development. A person with sound class instincts, a first-class militant, he never had theoretical depth or profundity. Therefore, his political course was very erratic. During the First World War, which he did not oppose, he belonged to the BSP. However, by 1928 he had become an anarcho-syndicalist. But this did not stop him, as a gesture of personal friendship and solidarity, deputising for John Maclean as parliamentary candidate in the 1918 general election. Maclean was in prison almost up until polling day; it was Gallacher, not believing in parliament, who urged workers to vote for him.24 The two men were, in that period, close companions. When Maclean came out of prison, they went for a short holiday together. Soon after that, in February 1919, came the forty-hour strike. When the police began batoning demonstrators in George Square, he showed his tremendous courage by rushing up to the chief constable, who was standing on the steps of the City Chamber, and punching him in the face before policemen knocked him into insensibility. At the ensuing trial, he stoutly defended his action, accusing the police of a brutal assault on peaceful demonstrators.25 To Red Clydesiders, this made Gallacher a hero. It enhanced his influence considerably, and was the main reason why he could play such an important role in the unity negotiations.
But for a fiery rebel like Gallacher, the thought of accomplishing unity around the BSP was an anathema. Early in 1920, he denounced this idea in Solidarity, organ of the London Workers’ Committee. After accompanying Maclean to his stormy meeting with Comintern adviser Rothstein, he seems to have been even more firmly convinced of its futility. Having shaken off the last traces of anarchism, he moved towards the SLP in the spring of 1920. Writing in The Socialist on ‘Communism and Fusion’, he denounced the idea of the inclusion of the BSP in any unity scheme: ‘Their inclusion in a Communist Party would sooner or later spell disaster … If real unity is to be obtained, there must be unity of theory and action.’26 In the period immediately before going to the congress of the Communist International in Russia, he was regularly writing and speaking for the SLP. For example, on 24 June 1920, the Vale of Leven SLP reported it had had ‘a very successful week with Comrade Gallacher as speaker.’27
The Second Congress had a profound influence on Gallacher’s political development. In his discussions in Moscow, he still denounced the plans for unity around the BSP. But Lenin disagreed with him: ‘When in speaking of the British Socialist Party Comrade Gallacher said that it is “hopelessly reformist”, he is undoubtedly exaggerating.’28 Eventually, in private conversation, Lenin convinced him. Gallacher later admitted that he accepted Lenin’s criticism ‘as a child takes the rebuke of a father.’29 He promised Lenin that, on his return to Britain, he would do everything within his power to get all communists to join the CPGB.
This was tantamount to a complete volte face. And, to make matters worse, on his arrival in Glasgow Gallacher found that plans to build a rival to the CPGP, the Communist Labour Party, were well advanced. In the circumstances, he had no alternative but to go along with his comrades. He attended what was to be the inaugural conference of the Communist Labour Party on 2 October 1920. His aim was to steer the new organisation into harmless channels. Opposition came from Maclean’s chief lieutenant, J.D. MacDougall, the SLP representatives, and from many of the other delegates. But Gallacher had three important advantages: first, his leadership of the Clyde Workers’ Committee gave him an influence on key positions; second, his heroism on a number of occasions helped to create a fund of goodwill for him among activists; and, third, and most important, he had the added distinction of being just back from Moscow, carrying the instructions of the Communist International.
As a result of Gallacher’s intervention, the inaugural conference adopted an equivocating position. On the one hand, it formally asserted its independence, proclaiming itself the Communist Labour Party. On the other, it agreed to enter into unity negotiations with the CPGB. Given the committee elected, this amounted to a victory for Gallacher. It saw its function as being that of a staging-post for people en route to Communist Party membership.
The change of direction led both the SLP and John Maclean to make a reappraisal. They did not agree that, under the pretext of building a Scottish organisation, individuals should be inveigled into the CPGB. Maclean denounced the Communist Labour Party as ‘a shameful bewilderment of the best fighting elements in Scotland.’30 He regarded it as a sign of the deviousness that his namesake, John Maclean of Bridgeton, had been appointed secretary. It conveyed the impression that he gave his support whereas, in fact, the Communist Labour Party sought to undermine his influence and that of the SLP in Scotland.
A few months earlier, Maclean had formed the Tramp Trust Unlimited. This was a small group, all of whom were unemployed, who trekked around Scotland spreading the socialist message.31 Wherever they went, their activities were supported by SLP branches. In the aftermath of the 2 October conference, with J.R. Campbell, Gallacher and others exhibiting hostility towards them, the SLP and Maclean drew closer together. The Socialist proclaimed: ‘In Comrade Maclean we find the revolutionist, the tactician, the educationalist, the organiser and administrator — in every way the one man worthy of the fearless trust of the revolutionary masses.’32
After receiving such wholehearted praise, John Maclean decided to make his own attempt to form a new organisation. He aimed his appeal at all revolutionaries who accepted the ‘Twenty-one Points’ of the Third International and wanted a specifically Scottish party. The inaugural meeting was to be in the SLP’s Glasgow headquarters on 25 December 1920.
Maclean’s move represented a definite threat to Gallacher’s strategy. There was the danger that Maclean would attract disgruntled members of the Communist Labour Party, not prepared to join a London-based organisation. Moreover, were his scheme to get the support of the Socialist Labour Party, the largest left-wing body in Scotland, it was liable to make the CPGB’s efforts North of the Border puny by comparison. So Gallacher and some of his colleagues decided to gatecrash the conference. They constantly heckled the speakers. At one stage, Gallacher left his seat and strode towards the platform while Maclean came forward to confront him, and it seemed likely that the two men would come to blows. The danger of a fight was temporarily averted, and order was restored. But Gallacher and his clique resumed their interruptions, and proceedings came to an end, amid a cacophony of abuse, when Gallacher became involved in a violent scene with James
MacDougall, the chairman.33
This disruption was not responsible for the failure of Maclean’s plan — that was due to the SLP’s unwillingness to participate in it. Maclean had hoped that the nucleus of his new party would be the SLP, but an SLP spokesman made it plain that they would not be prepared to cooperate in such a definitely nationalistic venture. Confronted with this declaration, Maclean changed his tactics. In his last contribution to the conference, he urged all non-committed revolutionaries to join the SLP. In the columns of The Socialist, Maclean explained his position in an article headed ‘Rally to the SLP':
Subtle attempts having been made to destroy the SLP, now the sole clean Marxian organisation in Britain, I have thought it opportune to fuse with the SLP rather than form a new party for Communism inside Scotland, especially as Glasgow is the centre of the SLP and the Clyde is the area where most of the best work has been done …
The SLP has at least to its great credit the printing of the finest Marxian literature in the world. To allow the SLP to be crushed would be a crime to Marxism, upon which alone a successful revolution can be based. It is the duty of all determined Marxists to rally to the SLP.34
These attempts to destroy the SLP became none too subtle. Socialist Labour Party speakers began to encounter opposition, led by J.R. Campbell and Gallacher, at their meetings. James Clunie, editor of The Socialist, had his Fife class on Marxism broken up, and Maclean’s class at Shotts was destroyed. Most of the venom, in fact, was reserved for him. J.R. Campbell tried to take control of a meeting of the unemployed being addressed by Maclean in Glasgow on 27 December
1920. ‘He was voted down,’ wrote Maclean later, ‘and would have been struck down but for my intervention.’35 Undeterred, Campbell also tried to gatecrash a meeting of the Miners’ Unofficial Movement, where Maclean was the invited guest.
The reason why Gallacher and his comrades resorted to such tactics can be understood when considered in context. As the London Communist Unity Convention had been so dismal a failure, it had been decided to hold a second convention, this time at Leeds, on 29 January 1921. Gallacher wanted to mobilise maximum support for this gathering, and to smash all rival centres of attraction. His efforts’ most immediate effect was not to rally great support, but to cause socialists to remain outside both contending camps. The Communist Labour Party claimed a membership of 4,000.36 Almost certainly, this was a gross exaggeration. Even so, many of its members voted against fusion with their feet: at the most, 200 of them entered the CPGB.37
The same dismal picture was repeated elsewhere. The Workers’ Socialist Federation, not prepared to accept the BSP-dominated unity, rather presumptuously resolved to call itself the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in June 1920. A small organisation, it appeared to be making reasonable progress, but then in the autumn a diktat came from Moscow: the executive of the Third International instructed it to unite with the organisation created as a result of the London Unity Convention. Sylvia Pankhurst, just back from Moscow, suggested the CP (BSTI) should comply. She had never been as strongly in favour of parliamentary abstentionism as some of his followers.38 So, presuming that there would be internal democracy and having faith in her own ideas, she advised her comrades to join the CPGB and struggle inside it to win the majority to their viewpoint. A CP (BSTI) conference, held in Cardiff, considered her plea. Sylvia Pankhurst herself could not attend as she was serving a six-month sentence for sedition. The whole situation was further complicated by the ineptitude of the Comintern. It expected the CP (BSTI) to accept the Theses, Statutes, Resolutions and Conditions of the Third International without the majority of delegates having an opportunity to read them. As the secretary, E.T. Whitehead, remarked, ‘this made things undoubtedly very difficult.’39 But the majority of the CP (BSTI) agreed to this demand for blind loyalty. Yet the manner in which unity was achieved only served to alienate some of the members. Four CP (BSTI) Manchester branches refused to go along with the merger and resigned in disgust.40
Very much greater casualties were sustained in the operation to pull the left wing from the Independent Labour Party. Had the object been to gain the greatest possible number of members, then the split should have come in 1920, when revolutionary influence in the ILP was at its peak. Before the 1920 conference, the Lancashire, Cheshire, North-East, Yorkshire and Welsh divisions had all come out in favour of dis-affiliating from the Second International and joining the Third. At the conference, Ramsay MacDonald had to use all his oratorical skill to prevent this happening. Nevertheless, a resolution was carried by 529 votes to 144, taking the ILP out of the Second International, although another resolution calling for immediate affiliation to the Third was defeated by 472 votes to 206. Essentially, MacDonald and the right wing played for time. They managed to persuade conference to enter into negotiations with the Swiss Socialist Party to discuss the possible formation of an intermediate body between the two Internationals. Their tactic paid off. The decline in revolutionary fervour throughout the working class was reflected inside the ILP. The tight control over the party apparatus, and especially the party press, by MacDonald insured that the members were continuously confronted by the official viewpoint. At the same time, their opponents, by their own actions, demonstrated that they were not wanting to improve the ILP but to wreck it. When the average party member realised the left’s loyalty lay elsewhere, he became thoroughly disenchanted with it. The left split from the ILP in March 1921. Once more, the grandiose vision of thousands of workers clamouring for admission to the Communist Party did not materialise. Klugmann says ‘several hundred joined’ whereas Tom Bell says it ‘only added one or two hundred.’41
It is interesting to note how the Communist Party fared through the various fusions. Klugmann, the CP’s official historian, claims that at the London Unity Convention (August 1920) there were between 4,000 and 5,000 members represented on paper. By the time of the Leeds Unity Convention (January 1921), when the Communist Labour Party and the CP (BSTI) joined, the total number had shrunk to 3,000. However, at the 1922 Congress, after the ILP Left united with it, the Communist Party membership had dwindled to 2,000. A cynic may be forgiven for wondering whether the CPGB could have survived another merger.
But behind paucity of recruitment lies an important question: why did so many fish get away? We have already seen that Lenin had much more optimistic forecasts of CPGB strength. It is one of the few opinions he shared with the Special Branch: in a report to the Cabinet, dated 13 January 1921, the Special Branch estimated the number of active communists at 20,000, but thought that five times that number favoured communism.42 How was it, then, that so small a proportion joined the Communist Party?
The reasons, I think, are numerous and complex. First and foremost among them is that the party failed to relate itself to the prevailing level of working-class consciousness. In part, this was associated with another handicap: the Communist Party was not seen as a genuine, indigenous group but as a Russian agency, prepared to twist and turn as its masters decreed. What worsened the CP’s plight was that its masters were so ill-informed. John S. Clarke, the editor of The Worker, considered himself to be a Bolshevik, but still felt obliged to report to the Clydeside workers about the illusions he found prevalent among the leaders of theComintern
Sylvia Pankhurst was believed to be lying in a dungeon undergoing the tortures of Rosa Luxemburg. John Maclean was thought to be the particular personality around which rallied the Communist movement of Great Britain (they discovered he wasn’t just before we arrived). The Guild Socialists had virtually captured the trade unions, and the unofficial Workers’ Committee were endeavouring to smash the unions and had rejected political ideas, like the IWW.43
As well as failing to understand the experiences of the British proletariat, the Russians may also have failed to translate their own experiences into terms that made sense and were helpful to British workers. Lenin himself appears to have perceived this latter point. Speaking at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, he said:
I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we ourselves have blocked our own road to further success. As I have said already, the resolution is excellently drafted; I subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not understood how to present our Russian experience to foreigners. All that has been said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this we shall make no progress.44
Whether Lenin was correct or not, the British Communist Party failed to make progress.
1. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days, p. 180.
2. The Socialist, 15 April 1920.
3. Ibid, 15 May 1919.
4. Ibid, 6 May 1920.
5. Report to the Second Congress of the Third International, pp. 65-6.
6. The Socialist, 24 February 1921.
7. J.T. Walton Newbold, Unpublished Autobiography, no pagination (Rylands
8. CAB 24/118/CP2429, A Survey of Revolutionary Movements in Great
Britain in the Year 1920, by the Directorate of Intelligence (HQ), p. 11.
Also J.T. Walton Newbold, op. cit.
9. J.W. Hulse, The Forming of the Communist International (Stanford, 1964)
10. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31,p. 143.
11. Lenin on Britain, p. 201.
12. Pravda article quoted in Home Office papers CAB 77 GT7254, 14 May
13. L.J. MacFarlane, The British Communist Party (1966) pp. 51-2. Bell, Paul
and MacManus were the only prominent SLPers at Nottingham. Quite
incorrectly, James Hinton, in his preface to J.T. Murphy’s The Workers’
Committees (1972 ed.), says on p. 5 that Murphy belonged to the Unity
14. The Socialist, 3 February 1921; Vanguard, August 1920.
15. Several historians have criticised John Maclean for not belonging to the
CPGB – see, for example, Terry Brotherstone, Fourth International,
summer 1974. This begs the question of whether he could actually belong
to the Communist Party.
16. Communist Unity Convention Official Report, pp. 71-2. The Report gives
the number of delegates as 152, but this was faulty arithmetic.
17. W. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, p. 141; Nan Milton, John Maclean, pp. 227-8.
18. Interview with Harry McShane, 8 August 1972.
19. Pankhurst Papers, Amsterdam. AlsoTVew Edinburgh Review, No. 19,1972
‘Remembering John Maclean’, by Harry McShane.
20. Examples of the authorities’ knowledge of Rothstein’s activities can be
seen from the frequent references in the reports from secret agents of the
Home Office to be found in Cabinet Papers. For example, 544 of 2
February 1920; 791 of 4 March 1920; 1039 of 8 April 1920; 1355 of 27
May 1920; 1743 of 5 August 1920; 1772 of 12 August 1920; 1804 of 26
August 1920 – to cite a few.
21. The Worker, 14 August 1920; The Communist, 16 September 1920.
22. The Worker, 25 September 1920.
23. Letter from J. Maclean to T. Mitchell, secretary of the SLP.
24. Tom Bell, John Maclean, p. 79.
25. W. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, pp. 118-25.
26. The Socialist, 22 April 1920.
27. Ibid, 24 June 1920. To have spent an entire week campaigning for the SLP
indicates some commitment on both sides.
28. Lenin on Britain, p. 268.
29. J. Clunie, The Third International, p. 23. Also, W. Gallacher, Revolt on the
Clyde, pp. 251-3.
30. Vanguard, December 1920.
31. Nan Milton, op. cit., pp. 234-277.
32. The Socialist, 14 October 1920.
33. Daily Record, 27 December 1920, carried the sensational headline, ‘Angry
Scenes: Maclean and Gallacher Duel’.
34. The Socialist, 13 January 1921.
35. Ibid. As Hugh MacDiarmid correctly points out in The Company I’ve Kept
(1966) p. 125, the Communist Party have continued to use Maclean’s
name although it was hostile to him.
36. The Worker, 4 December 1920.
37. Tom Bell, op. cit., p. 195.
38. Workers’Dreadnought, 7 and 14 December 1918.
39. Ibid, 27 November 1920.
40. Workers’ Dreadnought, 27 November 1920.
41. Tom Bell, op. cit., p. 195; J. Klugmann, op. cit., pp. 197-8.
42. CAB 24/118/CP2452.
43. The Worker, 2 October 1920.
44. V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 10, p. 322.