The Bolsheviks, who led the revolution, renamed themselves the Communist Party and formed a new Communist (Third) International – an organisation for world revolution. At its founding congress in March 1919, it appealed to all those who supported its methods to organise Communist Parties in their own countries.
The end of the war brought no relief for workers: British capitalism was in decline as a world power relative to the USA, and it could not re-expand to dominate world markets. Instead, it suffered a serious economic depression.
Unemployment by June 1921 reached 2 million, but the reformist trade union leaders revealed they were incapable of defending workers’ living standards, backing no-strike agreements with the bosses during the war and betraying the coal miners on ‘Black Friday’, 5 April 1921.
Workers on the shop floor and their union stewards were increasingly acting on their own initiative. All of the means by which the ruling class kept workers obedient to their demands were losing their grip, including the officialdom in the trade unions.
This went furthest on Clydeside in Scotland. In the industrialised area around Glasgow, the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), chaired by worker militant Willie Gallagher, was set up in 1915 to coordinate strike action involving tens of thousands of workers in many factories. It quickly broadened its purpose beyond the workplace, however, organising rent strikes, anti-war activity and other political campaigns.
In January 1919, during a general strike in Glasgow, the government sent 10,000 troops and six tanks to crush the workers’ action, but they only got away with it because Clydeside had risen alone.
Had a party like the Bolshevik party existed on a national scale, it could have fought to generalise the stand taken by the Clydesiders to take on and defeat the British capitalist class as a whole.
On 31 July 1920, in the Cannon Street Hotel in London, delegates gathered at the founding conference of the Communist Party hoping to remedy that absence.
Conference unanimously agreed to support rule by workers’ councils – the “soviet system” – and to support the defence of the workers’ revolution from attack by capitalist forces.
But there was not agreement on every question, and the early years of the Communist Party (CP), in contrast to the sterile, Stalinised CP of later years, had fierce debates as the young party grappled earnestly with the problems confronting the movement.
Delegates at the founding conference were split over whether communists should stand in elections and whether they should seek affiliation to the Labour Party.
The motion to stand candidates in elections was won convincingly, delegates arguing that while workers participated in elections, communists should stand in them and use the platform thereby gained to build support for socialist ideas.
But the motion to affiliate to Labour barely passed, winning 100 votes to 85. The Labour Party of a century ago was very unlike the Labour Party of today: at its foundation, Labour was a federal body with a working-class activist base and democratic structures that permitted discussion and debate.
Lenin and Trotsky urged the small forces of the Communist Party to join Labour at that time – despite the Labour leadership being wedded to capitalism – providing they could keep their organisation intact, and retain full freedom to criticise the Labour leadership and campaign on an independent basis.
Lenin’s book, ‘Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’, had just been translated and probably swung the vote at the conference in favour. Communists, he said, should “from within parliament help the workers to see in practice the results of the government of [Labour leaders] Henderson and Snowden… To act otherwise, means to hamper the progress of the revolution”.
The British Socialist Party (BSP) formed the backbone of the Communist Party at its foundation, but it would be radically transformed in the years ahead.
It had campaigned against the war and had wholeheartedly supported the Bolshevik revolution. In 1918 its headquarters were twice raided by police and thousands of pamphlets by Lenin seized.
The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) had also taken part in unity discussions. In its ranks were many courageous and determined fighters, but its leadership was riddled with sectarian methods.
It banned its activists from taking office in trade unions in case they were corrupted by contact with the bureaucracy, and it was hostile to affiliation to the Labour Party and to working in united fronts, in general.
When the SLP withdrew from discussions about forming a united Communist Party, leading figures, including Arthur MacManus and Tom Bell from the Clyde Workers’ Committee, split from the SLP in order to join the new party.
They were joined at the conference by the South Wales Socialist Societies, branches of the Independent Labour Party, and representatives of union stewards’ and workers’ committees. The SLP leadership refused to correct their sectarian mistake and quickly withered to nothing as the Communist Party attracted all the most determined elements in the socialist and workers’ movement.
The process of gathering the forces of the Communist Party was not complete, however. In particular, the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) was outside, having followed the SLP out the door. If anything, the political ideas of WSF leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst were even more ultra-left than the SLP. But Pankhurst won over by Lenin during a visit to Russia, as well as Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt, and others were convinced to join the Communist Party at its second Congress in January 1921.
The 1920 conference of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was persuaded by right-wing Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald not to affiliate to the Communist International, but almost a third of conference delegates disagreed, and by 1921 several hundred members left the ILP to join the CP.
The CP claimed 5,000 members at its foundation, but the real figure was probably much less, and it was more like a federation than a party run according to the ‘democratic centralism’ (full debate internally, full unity in action) that had made the Bolsheviks so effective.
According to Bob Stewart, the CP’s first national organiser, the idea of a centralised party was “the hardest nut to crack”. The Communist International’s executive committee discussed with leading members of its British section the organisational challenges it faced. A plan to reorganise the party from top to bottom was drawn up and discussed thoroughly throughout the organisation.
The aim was to apply the lessons learned by the Bolsheviks in Russia to British conditions and prepare the party for a rapid transformation into a mass force with significant influence in the workers’ movement.
There was fierce debate about the new methods, but the results could not be ignored. In 1924 membership increased by a third – from 3,000 to 4,000 members. A year later membership was up to 5,000.
In February 1923, the party’s paper was renamed ‘The Weekly Worker’ and overhauled. In an eight-week campaign, circulation went from 19,000 to 51,000 copies. By the end of October 1924, sales had increased to 100,000.
It wasn’t just better organisation that had won the Communist Party more influence: it was also the adoption of a broadly correct approach to existing mass organisations of the working class.
Labour’s leaders had refused to permit the CP to affiliate. Nevertheless, the CP offered to build a united workers’ front with the Labour Party, withdrawing at the 1923 election all its candidates who faced a Labour opponent.
Several of the candidates they did stand won the backing of local Labour parties and two Communists were elected to parliament. This assisted the CP to broadcast its criticism of the minority Labour government – elected in January 1924 and led by Ramsay MacDonald with Liberal support – for what Trotsky summed up as “cowardice before the big bourgeoisie”.
Trotsky had called on MacDonald to lay down a bold socialist programme in parliament before the capitalists, to “take their lands, mines and railways, and nationalise their banks”, and say to the capitalist politicians in parliament “accept it or I’ll drive you out”.
Instead, the Labour government did not halt the fall in workers’ living standards and the Tories were returned at the next election nine months later.
The Communist Party, which had travelled along with workers as they went through the experience of Labour’s failure, grew in membership and support.
The same approach won the CP advances in the trade unions. Rather than set up rival ‘red’ unions, CP members organised the militant left inside existing unions. The party thereby won support for the militant programme of demands it put forward in the battles confronting miners, engineers, dockers, railway workers and the unemployed.
By 1925, delegates at a conference of the National Minority Movement (NMM), which the party had set up the year before, represented 750,000 unionised workers.
Karl Radek of the Communist International said: “For the first time in history, the British Communists have been given an opportunity to transform themselves into a mass party.”
It is a tragedy for the workers’ movement in Britain and internationally that on the cusp of this breakthrough, and with a revolutionary situation impending in the 1926 general strike, all of this potential was squandered as a result of the political degeneration of the Communist International under a Stalinist leadership.
Nevertheless, the heroic early years of the Communist Party of Great Britain stand as lessons for all revolutionaries who aspire to build a force to abolish capitalism and build a socialist society.