Towards a Communist party - Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst discusses the problems of regroupment facing British left groups, and the proposals to affiliate to the Communist International.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on June 25, 2009

In The Call of February 12th Albert Inkpin, secretary to the BSP, gives an account of private unity negotiations to form a Communist Party of the four organisations which at present declare affiliation to the Third or Communist International, inaugurated at Moscow.

Before dealing with the general principles involved, which are of very much greater importance than the mere details of the negotiations I will add a little to Inkpin's account and make also some corrections in it.

The beginning of the negotiations dates a good deal further back than Inkpin puts it; in fact, from the summer of 1918, when members of the WSF Workers' Socialist Federation, led by Pankhurst, hearing that almost the whole of the BSP Executive would be affected by the raising of the conscription age, approached the BSP in a spirit of comradeship, with a tentative offer of fusion which was very cordially received. The WSF, however, drew back from the negotiations, because in the course of them, E. C. Fairchild stated that he did not think the organisation should decide between Parliament and bourgeois democracy and the Soviets and the proletarian dictatorship, as the goal towards which our propaganda should be aiming. Inkpin and Alexander who took part in the negotiations, did not dissent from Fairchild's statement, and as it was proposed that Fairchild should be co-editor of the proposed joint organ of the new party, it was evident that a revolutionary Socialist body, like the WSF, could not possibly agree to fusion.

At Whitsuntide, 1919, the WSF annual conference instructed its Executive to open negotiations with the BSP, SLP, and South Wales Socialist Society, for the formation of a united Communist Party. The BSP had by this time declared for the Soviets, though it was still waiting to ballot its members on the subject of affiliation to the Third International. Messages had in the meantime come direct from the Third International urging the formation of a Communist Party in Britain and, as Inkpin says, a unity conference was called shortly afterwards.

The proposed unity compromise
As Inkpin further says, a proposal for unity emerged on the basis of the following planks:-

(1) Affiliation to the Third International.

(2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

(3) The Soviets instead of Parliament.

(4) A Referendum of the new party to be taken three months after its formation to decide whether it should affiliate to the Labour Party.

The WSF contends that it was also decided to take a referendum on the question of Parliamentary action three months after the formation of the new party, a question of great importance in this country, as the letter from W. Gallacher, which follows this article, will plainly indicate to those not already aware of it. As I was at the time acting in a secretarial capacity to the unity conference, I took notes of the conference and wrote to each of the societies embodying these notes. The five points, enumerated above, were set forth in my letter. Nevertheless the BSP and SLP, though they did not dissent from my version of the proceedings at the time, seem to have overlooked the Parliamentary point and did not add it to the ballot of their members, which they took later on.

Rank and file refuses Labour Party affiliation
The BSP ballot paper, as Inkpin points out, grouped the three main planks with the question of a referendum on the Labour Party affiliation, as the condition of forming a united party, and asked its membership to vote 'yes or no.' The result was a majority for unity on that basis.

The SLP asked its membership, as Inkpin says, for two votes; (1) on the question of unity on the basis of the three main planks; (2) on whether a referendum should be taken of the new party on affiliation to the Labour Party. (...)

The WSF ballot asked the views of its members on each of the five questions separately, and also inquired whether the members would agree for the sake of unity to the suggested referendum on the Labour Party and Parliamentary action. The result was an overwhelming majority for the three main points, and against Parliamentary action and affiliation to the Labour Party. On the question whether the referendum should be agreed to in order to secure unity of the four parties, the voting was equal.

Inkpin goes on to explain that whilst the unity negotiations were proceeding between the four organisations, the BSP privately make special endeavours to enter into relations with the SLP, but these failed.

Inkpin next refers to a further conference on unity, called by it in January. As a matter of fact there were two January Conferences; one on January 8th, one on January 24th. The SLP did not attend the conference of January 8th, and at the time the result of their ballot was not known; the conference was informed that the SLP had not replied to the invitation.

BSP proposal
As Inkpin says, he proposed on behalf of the BSP:

that the three bodies accepting the unity proposals should proceed on the lines of the original recommendation, leaving it to the logic of events to bring in the SLP. We suggested the immediate establishment of a Standing Joint Committee of the three bodies, to go into the details of amalgamation -- finance, papers, offices, and staffs -- prepare a draft platform and constitution for the new party, and summon a great national congress to be held at Easter, of all organisations and branches of organisations, local groups, and societies, that were ready to join in, at which the Communist Party should be definitely launched. This Standing Joint Committee should also be empowered, on behalf of the three bodies, to issue manifestos and pronouncements on all matters of national and international importance, act as the British secretariat of the Third International, and conduct a great campaign in the country leading up to the Easter Congress.

As I pointed out at the time, this proposal would have placed the Standing Joint Committee above the Executive of the existing parties in the matter of national and international policy, giving it the right to issue manifestos in their name before the parties had arrived at a common agreement on policy, and before the had decided whether to fuse or not! (...)

I stated that in my opinion unity without the SLP would not be the unity of all the Communist parties which we had set out to effect, and that a further effort to obtain the presence of the SLP should be made. Moreover, I expressed as my view and that of the WSF, that the BSP forms the right wing of the Communist parties, and that unless the three other parties came in together, there would be a danger that the right wing policy would predominate.

The resolution to adjourn was carried. At the conference of January 24th, when I was not present, a letter was read from the SLP stating that as a majority of its members had voted against unity, it could take no part in negotiations.

The South Wales Socialist Society then moved that the conference should adjourn until after the forthcoming meeting of the Third International and should then meet to receive the report of the delegates to that conference. Though in neither case had the WSF anticipated that the South Wales Socialist Society's proposals would take the form they did, the WSF again found the SWSS proposal wise, and our delegates seconded it. The proposal was carried.

Third International declines against affiliation to Labour Party
A very interesting unity conference will now take place, because the Third International meeting, which has just been held, has stated that the affiliation of no Communist party will be accepted which has not completely severed its connection with the social patriotic organisations, amongst which, it declares, is the British Labour Party. Therefore it would seem that if that international meeting can be held to speak for the Third International, the Communists of Britain must either be out of the Labour Party or out of the Third International. This is a matter of great importance to those who are considering the formation of a new Communist party.

The Labour Party affiliation, the principles involved
But let us now proceed to a fuller examination of this question. Inkpin does not seriously argue it. He seems to regard it as a merit not to hold strong views on this, or perhaps on any question that might hinder unity with the BSP, though the BSP policy is of course in a fluid condition and is in process of emergence, under the pressure of circumstances, from the old ideals of the Second International. Inkpin says:

'Personally, I do, because all past experience has shown the stultification that follows isolation from the main body of the working-class movement. But, as I say, I would take my chance. To me the need for the Communist Party is the supreme question -- all others are secondary to this.'

'But would affiliation apply for all time?'

'Of course not. No tactics can be determined now to apply for all time. We are in a revolutionary period, and circumstances might speedily arise to compel the Communist Party to leave the Labour Party. Or it might be expelled. In either case it would be, I think, in circumstances that would witness at the same time the secession of large numbers from the Labour Party, which the Communist Party would absorb.'

It will be observed that comrade Inkpin refers to the Labour Party as 'the main body of the working-class movement.' Another comrade of the BSP, at the Third International, just held, put the BSP position more strongly. He said: 'We regard the Labour Party as the organised working-class.'

We do not take this view of the Labour Party. The Labour Party is very large numerically, though its membership is to a great extent quiescent and apathetic, consisting of men and women who have joined the trade unions because their work-mates are trade unionists and to share the friendly benefits.

But we recognise that the great size of the Labour Party is also due to the fact that it is the creation of a school of thought beyond which the majority of the British working class has not yet emerged, though great changes are at work in the mind of the people which will presently alter this state of affairs.

Social patriotic working class parties of bourgeois outlook, like the British Labour Party, exist, or have existed, in every country; the Noske-Scheidemann Social Democratic Party in Germany, the French Socialist Party, and the Socialist Party of America are typical examples. (...)

The social patriotic parties of reform, like the British Labour Party, are everywhere aiding the capitalists to maintain the capitalist system; to prevent it from breaking down under the shock which the Great War has caused it, and the growing influence of the Russian Revolution. The bourgeois social patriotic parties, whether they call themselves Labour or Socialist, are everywhere working against the Communist revolution, and they are more dangerous to it than the aggressive capitalists because the reforms they seek to introduce may keep the capitalist regime going for some time to come. When the social patriotic reformists come into power, they fight to stave off the workers' revolution with as strong a determination as that displayed by the capitalists, and more effectively, because they understand the methods and tactics and something of the idealism of the working class.

The British Labour Party, like the social patriotic organisations of other countries, will, in the natural development of society, inevitably come into power. It is for the Communists to build up the forces that will overthrow the social patriots, and in this country we must not delay or falter in that work. We must not dissipate our energy in adding to the strength of the Labour Party; its rise to power Is inevitable. We must concentrate on making a Communist movement that will vanquish it. The Labour Party will soon be forming a Government; the revolutionary opposition must make ready to attack it.

The BSP sees the division of parties into Communist and social patriotic factions which is taking place throughout Europe, but it still wishes to cling to the Labour Party. Why? Does it hope to capture the Labour Party and secure in it a majority to support the Third International? Such a majority has been secured in the Italian Socialist Party, which seems, on a superficial view, to be one Socialist party in Europe which need not split. But the Italian Party will also split. The Third Internationalists captured a great majority of the Bologna Conference, but the majority of the Parliamentary Party is opposed to the majority of the Socialist Party itself, and will undoubtedly secede, taking with it a certain faction.

The Labour Party fortified against progress
But the British Labour Party is a much more difficult body to capture than the Italian Party. It is said that the Labour Party is not, strictly speaking, a political party at all, because it is mainly composed of affiliated trade unions; but that fact makes it much more difficult to effect changes in the British Labour Party than in the French, German, Italian, or any other Socialist Party. In such parties both the election of the Executive and officials, and the resolutions governing the policy of the party, are voted upon at the party conferences by delegates from the branches acting under branch instructions. Party Executives and officials are seldom changed; apathetic members, unaware of the changing situation, vote to keep people and things as they are and reactionary officials, retained for old services, nullify any forward move adopted by conferences. Nevertheless new ideas may gradually surge upward, and come to the top at some time or other. But in the British Labour Party there are special brakes to prevent even the slow changes possible in the Continental Socialist parties. Officials appointed for life or for long terms of years, immovable fixtures, bar the way to progress. In many unions a proportion of the delegates to annual conferences is appointed by the national executive. The branches neither appoint delegates to Labour Party congresses, nor vote on resolutions. Divisional conferences and national Executives, national and local officials, prevent the opinion of the rank and file from making itself felt. In all Europe there is no social patriotic organisation so carefully guarded for social patriotism as the British Labour Party.

The British Labour Party is moreover less Socialist than any of the other adherents to the Second International. It was the last to join the Second International because only lately had it advanced even thus far. Its dominant figures were loath to take any step even so small a step as joining the Second International, which might appear to divide them from the capitalist Liberal and Tory parties. The man whose policy represents the centre and majority policy of the Labour Party is Arthur Henderson, the friend of Kerensky. (...)

The Communist Party must not compromise
But that is not the mission of the new Communist Party, which must enunciate the Communist programme that is yet to stand when the Soviets are erected and the proletariat dictatorship is in force. The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of Reformism inviolate; its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct toad to the Communist Revolution.

Labour candidates
Those who believe that a Communist Party can remain in the Labour Patty and take part in Parliamentary contests, should realise the position of the unfortunate Communists who elect to become candidates under such auspices. They must first present themselves for selection by the local Labour Parties; after which they may be vetoed by the Party Executive. Since the Labour Party is still thoroughly reformist, but few local Labour Patties are prepared to adopt candidates with any Communist leanings, if any Communists succeed in getting adopted as candidates they must run as 'Labour' candidates only; no other title is allowed; they will be held responsible for the Labour Party's reformist programme; they will be expected to have speaking for them reformist speakers; their election addresses will be subject to the approval of the local Labour Party. Should any Communists suffer all this and secure election to Parliament, having duly taken the oath of allegiance to the Crown, they will become members of the Parliamentary Labour Party and subject to its discipline, which is strict.

The Parliamentary Labour Party decides on most questions; what line the Party shall take, who shall voice its views, and how its members shall vote. The Speaker of the House of Commons is notified by the various Party representatives which of the Party members are to speak in the debates. The Speaker arranges with the Party representatives the order in which the speakers shall be called upon. Until all the persons thus arranged for have been called on the Speaker will allow no other Member to catch his eye. Only if the debate has virtually broken down will the unchosen Communist get an opportunity to speak! And if he does, the other Members of Parliament can silence him by leaving the Chamber, for the debate can only continue whilst 40 Members remain.

Inkpin says that he advocates affiliation to the Labour Party, because he experienced the stultification that resulted when the BSP stood outside the Labour Party. But is Inkpin quite sure that this was the real cause of the stultification? Was it not, perhaps, that the BSP policy and programme were not far enough removed from those of the Labour Party, to create any strong current of feeling in the opposite direction? We ask this, reflecting that many of the men who then led the BSP, and most notably, H. M. Hyndman, are today Social Patriots of a most extreme order, their Reformists being too weak, and their bourgeois Imperialism too strong, even for the Labour Party!

But again, comrade Inkpin, does it not occur to you that the times are changing? Do you not see that the Revolutionary Communism that today is stirring the blood of the workers' advance-guard in every country, and has won through to power in Russia, seemed, in the days when the BSP stood outside the Labour Party, too impossibly remote to gain adherents, except amongst the dauntless daring few, the very dauntless, very daring few?

The War and the Russian Revolution have helped to bring Communism nearer. The increasing consciousness of the Workers, which was developing even before those world- shaking events, is preparing the way for the Communist Party which will one day assume control. But even today, the convinced Communists, those who will work actively to build the Communist Party, and to bring the Communist Revolution, are, in Britain, very few in number.

A sound Party more important than a big one
Do not worry about a big Communist Party yet; it is far better to build a sound one. Do not argue, comrade Inkpin, that the BSP membership is larger than that of some other parties. Do not let us pretend to be big, comrade Inkpin; we are all very small in size; and if some are smaller still, it really does not matter. The great point is, just now, that we should be advancing the propaganda of Communism. When the workers are ready to accept Communism, we shall see a big Communist Party. Until that time comes, the Communist Parties that are really Communist Parties, will certainly be small.

In the meantime, we must persevere with Communist propaganda, and never hesitate lest we should make it too extreme. Let it be clear-cut and absolutely Communist; the more extreme our doctrine is, the more surely it will prepare the workers for Communism.

Comrade Inkpin is right in thinking that we should do propaganda in the Labour Party; yes, and in the Trade Unions Congress, and in the other affiliated bodies. Of course we do, and of course we must, but we can do it without affiliating to the Labour Party. In every industrial organisation, there are some Communists. We must see to it that their number grows, and that they all link up with the Communist Party, and push its programme and policy, they must fight for the acceptance of the programme and tactics of Communism in the Labour Party, in the trade union congress, in the trade union branches, in the workshops -- everywhere. To influence the workers who are today in the Labour Party, it is not necessary for the Communist Party to ally itself with the Labour Party; that they are susceptible to outside influence has been proved time and again -- by Lloyd George, as well as by the workers' advanceguard -- but the future is with us.

How we can influence those who are in the Labour Party
Comrade Inkpin speaks of the Labour Party as 'the main body of the working class movement.' It no longer represents the revolutionary workers. More and more they are congregating outside its ranks! Gallacher's letter shows us the position in Scotland, and the same tendency is at work in England and Wales.

In Italy, which is several stages ahead of us in revolutionary progress (as our Correspondent, in his article, 'Soviets in Italy' shows), the Socialist majority has already recognised that the revolutionary movement must be based on the workshop, and they are preparing the Soviet organisation on that basis; there are differences of detail within the Italian Party, but it is generally recognised that the working class must be reached by a direct appeal within the workshops. An enormous work lies before us there. Until we have done the propaganda necessary amongst the rank and file workers, we shall neither influence, nor expel the officials at the head of the Labour Party and the trade unions.

I shall return to the subject of the new Communist Party next week.

Published in Workers' Dreadnought, 21 February 1920. Taken from the Antagonism website.