Freedom of discussion - Sylvia Pankhurst

Article on the necessity of free, open discussion within the CPGB, and the need for Workers' Dreadnought to remain independent of the party Executive.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on June 25, 2009

Movements, like human beings, grow and develop from stage to stage and pass through many crazes and illnesses. The Communist Party of Great Britain is at present passing through a sort of political measles called discipline which makes it fear the free expression and circulation of opinion within the Party.

Since its formation the Communist Party of Great Britain has fretted itself at the existence of the Workers' Dreadnought, an independent Communist voice, free to express its mind unhampered by Party discipline.

At the inaugural Party Conference, as I am informed by the Executive, it was even debated whether members of the Party might be permitted to read the Dreadnought since it is not controlled by the Executive of the Party. The position of the Scottish Worker, Solidarity, the Plebs, the Socialist, and the Spur were also discussed. (...) The letter issued by the Executive to branches of the Party recommended the Plebs, Solidarity, and the Worker for circulation by the Party, but stated that the question of circulating the Dreadnought must be left in abeyance. Many branches took this to mean that the Dreadnought must not be circulated, and some of the Party's organisers carried on a campaign against the Dreadnought in this sense, making it a question of loyalty to the Party not to take it. (...)

Soon after my release from half a year's imprisonment I met a subcommittee of the Communist Party Executive, which consisted of Comrades W. Paul, F. Peat, F. Willis and T. Clark. This subcommittee put it to me that 'as a disciplined member of the Party' I should hand the Workers' Dreadnought over to the Executive, to stop it, or continue it, and, should it continue the paper, to put it to any use or policy it chose, and to place it under the editorship of any person whom it might select; I was not to be consulted, or even informed, till the decision should be made. Thus, with a spice of brutality, the disciplinarians set forth their terms to one who had for eight years maintained a pioneer paper with constant struggle and in face of much persecution.

I replied that I could not agree to such a proposition, but would consider carefully, and in a comradely spirit, any proposal that the Party might make to me regarding the paper. I said that I believed in the usefulness of an independent Communist paper which would stimulate discussion in the movement on theory and practice; but just released from prison, the united Party having been formed whilst I was inside, I was anxious to look around me, and hear all points of views. I invited the sub- committee to lay before me any suggestions they had to make. The members of the sub-committee, however, failed to respond in the same spirit; they merely repeated their former demand for an absolute and blindfold renunciation of the paper. (...)

The comrades intended to enforce discipline in its most stultifying aspect. Comrade McManus, as Chairman, informed me that they would not permit any member of the Party to write or publish a book or a pamphlet without the sanction of the Executive. Those who may differ from the Executive on any point of principle, policy or tactics, or even those whose method of dealing with agreed theory is not approved or appreciated by the Executive, are therefore to be gagged.

I told the comrades that if we were before the barricades, if we were in the throes of the revolution, or even somewhere near it, I could approve a rigidity of discipline which is wholly Out of place here and now.

I told them that whereas we are face to face with an opportunist and reformist Labour Party, and since in the midst of capitalism, there is the ever-present tendency and temptation towards compromise with the existing order, it is essential for a Communist Party to be definite in excluding Right tendencies. A Communist Party can only preserve its communist character by using its discipline to prevent Right opportunism and laxity from entering the Party; it must insist that acceptance of Communist principles and avoidance of reformism be made a condition of membership; that is obvious. On the other hand, the Communist Party cannot afford to stifle discussion in the Party; above all, it must not stifle the discussion of Left Wing ideas; otherwise it will cramp and stultify itself, and will destroy its own possibility of advancement.

I stated that in my opinion every member of the Party should be allowed to write and publish his or her views, and that only in cases where these views prove to be not Communist should the question of a member's fitness to belong to the Party be brought into question.

I told the Executive, and it is my strongly held opinion, that in the weak, young, little-evolved Communist movement of this country discussion is a paramount need, and to stifle it is disastrous. Therefore when I was asked whether I would obey the discipline of the Executive I was obliged to say that it was impossible for me to give a general answer to such a question, if discipline could be strained to prevent the expression of opinion, and that I could only decide whether I should obey when a concrete case should arise.

As before, my reply to the demand to surrender the Workers' Dreadnought was, that I was willing to discuss any proposal made by the Executive, but I was still of opinion that the Dreadnought could best serve Communism as an independent organ, giving expression to Left Wing ideas, which include opposition to Parliamentarism and Labour Party affiliation, but which have many other aspects, now clearly showing themselves to be the minority view in the Third International, and which represent the most advanced and thoroughgoing Communism. t said I believed one of the most useful offices I could perform for the movement was to edit the Dreadnought. I was confirmed in this view by recent happenings in the International. The decision to exclude from the Third International the industrialist, anti-Trade Union, anti- Parliamentary and highly revolutionary Communist Labour Party of Germany, which played so important a part in the Ruhr Valley rising, is leading to a division in the Third International, and the publication of a new international organ which it is important to study. The growth of the Workers Opposition in Soviet Russia, which was dealt with in an article by Alexandra Kollontai, published in last week's Dreadnought; the growing cleavage between Right and Left in the Russian Communist Party; the tendency to slip to the Right, which is regrettably manifesting itself in Soviet Russia, (...) all show the importance of independent discussion. The drift to the Right in Soviet Russia, which has permitted the reintroduction of many features of capitalism, such as school fees, rent, and charges for light, fuel, trains, trams, and so on, is due, doubtless, to the pressure of encircling capitalism and the backwardness of the Western democracies. Nevertheless, there are strong differences of opinion amongst Russian Communists and throughout the Communist International as to how far such retrogression can be tolerated. Such questions are not discussed in the Communist; it is a Party organ under the control of the Right Wing of the British Communist Party, and of the Executive in Moscow, which is at present dominated by the Right Wing policy. It presents merely the official view.

The Workers' Dreadnought is the only paper in this country which is alive to the controversies going on in the International Communist movement; it is the only paper through which the rank and file of the movement can even guess that there are such controversies. Such controversies are a sign of healthy development, through them the movement grows onward towards higher aims and broader horizons; by studying them, by taking part in them, the membership will develop in knowledge and political capacity.

I stated my case. The executive replied that it would not tolerate the existence of any Communist organ independent of itself. I informed the Executive, as is the case, that the great financial difficulties under which the Dreadnought is labouring have made us decide reluctantly and with great regret that this issue must be the last. (...)

Comrade McManus rounded off the discussion; the Party had no alternative but to expel me, he contended.

But this farcical parody of discipline is a passing error; it will disappear as the Party is faced with more serious issues, and as its power to take effective action on things that matter develops. If my expulsion assist the Party in passing more speedily through this phase of childishness it will have served a useful purpose. (...)

Let there be no mistake; I am not expelled for any tendency to compromise with capitalism; I am expelled for desiring freedom of propaganda for the Left Wing Communists, who oppose all compromise and seek to hasten faster and more directly onward to Communism.

The great problem of the Communist Revolution is to secure economic equality, the abolition of the wages system, and the ending of class distinctions. Russia has achieved the Revolution, but not the Communist life which should be its sequel. The porter, silent and ill-clad, still awaits the tip; still there are some who go shabby on foot with broken boots, whilst others, smartly dressed, are whizzing by in motor cars. Still there are wages of many grades, still there are graduated food rations. The 'responsible worker must have an adequate supply of food, or his work will suffer', therefore if there is a shortage of food the 'responsible workers' must have a higher ration than the rest of the people; that is the argument. But how is the argument to be strained so as to explain why the wife and family of the 'responsible worker' should have higher food rations than other people, should have higher rations than their neighbours, even in those cases when the 'responsible worker' is not living at home with them? These are the old injustices, the old criminal errors of capitalism persisting under the reign of the Soviets.

How grievous (if it be true, as we greatly hope not) is the news that school fees have been introduced into Soviet Russia! What could be the reason of such a retrograde step? Is it because there are not yet enough school places for all the children, and the fees are a means of ensuring that the children of the higher paid people shall have the preference? Is it the old vicious system of penalising the child whose parents are poor?

We look to Communism as the state of society in which, whilst work shall be a duty incumbent on all, the means of life, study and pleasure shall be freed, without stint, to everyone, to use at will. If a shortage compel rationing in any direction, it should be equal. The principle of paying according to skill, speed, or the length of training required for the work, is wholly bad. If it be true that necessity compels differentiation, then it is the most regrettable of necessities.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, at which some foolish persons desire to play (within their Parties before the Revolution), is a stern necessity of the transition period when capitalism is being overthrown and is striving to re-establish itself again. Such dictatorship is antagonistic to the Communist idea: it will pass away when genuine Communism is reached.

To those who are not familiar with the details of the position, it is necessary, in conclusion, to make clear that the Workers' Dreadnought was founded by me, and from the early days of its existence remained under my personal control, in the first instance in order that any risks of prosecution attaching to it might fall on me alone.

When the WSF, of which the Workers' Dreadnought was the organ, was merged in the Communist Party, it was made clear that I should remain responsible for the Dreadnought, and the Party at its Cardiff Conference passed a resolution affirming that that was the case. When the present united Communist Party of Great Britain was formed I definitely stated that the Workers' Dreadnought would remain outside, and give an independent support to the Communist Party. There is no question either of my having subverted a party organ, or of desiring to maintain a Party organ uncontrolled by the Party.

The position is that the Dreadnought is an independent organ; and that the Executive of the Communist Party of Great Britain has decided that it will not permit me, as one of its members, to publish an independent paper.

I do not regret my expulsion; that it has occurred shows the feeble and unsatisfactory condition of the Party: its placing of small things before great: its muddled thinking.

I desire freedom to work for Communism with the best that is in me. The Party could not chain me: I, who have been amongst the first, as the record of the papers published, both in this country and abroad, will prove, to support the present Communist Revolution and to work for the Third International, shall continue my efforts as before.

Published in Workers' Dreadnaught, 17 September 1921. Taken from the Antagonism website.



14 years 12 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on June 25, 2009

added author/group tag of workers dreadnought