Review of 'The British Communist Left'

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There has been a continuous revolutionary trend within the working class in Britain from the Chartist movement in the early 19th century through the First World War, the revolutionary wave that followed and, to a lesser extent, the Second World War and after. A new book, The British Communist Left, published by the ICC, makes a major contribution to the history of the revolutionary movement in Britain in the 20th century. As it says in the introduction “there is a deep tradition within the British proletariat of principled opposition to parliamentarism and reformism, and an understanding of the need for a workers’ revolution against the bourgeois democratic state” (p.2). It is the latest in a series of books published by the ICC on the history of the communist left – the others being on the Italian, Dutch and German, and Russian communist lefts. Although written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, rather than the ICC itself, we fundamentally agree with its broad arguments and conclusions.

The common struggle

The greatest strength of the book is its recognition that the struggle of the proletariat in Britain is part of the international struggle of the whole proletariat. Time and again it shows that over and above the particular details of the national context the working class and its revolutionary minorities face the same challenges and respond in the same way.

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw betrayal and confusion throughout the workers’ movement but also principled, class-based opposition. In Britain, the Labour Party and unions rallied to the flag of the exploiters but a minority not only declared their opposition to the war but also intervened to defend the interests of the working class and to rouse it against the bourgeoisie. Following Lenin, the British Communist Left identifies three trends in the workers movement: “…the Labour Party and the trade union leaders, together with the Fabians and Hyndmanite leadership of the BSP [British Socialist Party], easily fell into the social chauvinist category. Of the centre or ‘swamp’, the Independent Labour Party was a classic example…Into the swamp also fell the majority of the opposition in the BSP” (p.13). The Socialist Labour Party and the SPGB are also placed in the centre although individual militants of the former participated actively in anti-war activity. The internationalist tendency was best expressed by the Vanguard group, a regroupment of the left within the BSP, centred in Scotland and animated by John Maclean. In September 1914 Vanguard declared “Our first business is to hate the British capitalist system that, with ‘business as usual’, means the continued robbery of the workers…It is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism” (p.9).

The Russian revolution drew a response from workers around the world, but the British Communist Left shows that the British working class didn’t just support the revolution but was animated by the same need to oppose the barbarism of capitalism as its comrades in Russia. In 1915 and 1916 workers in all parts of the country went on strike in defiance of the law, the state and their own unions, culminating in strikes in England in March 1917 involving 200,000 workers. Revolutionaries in the SLP and the Vanguard group saw themselves as part of the revolutionary movement whose future was prefigured by the struggles in Russia and Germany: “This is the class war on an international basis, a class war that must and will be fought out to the logical conclusion – the extinction of capitalism everywhere. The question for us in Britain is how we must act in playing our part in this world conflict” (p19).

The left in Britain was also marked by its support for October 1917 and defence of the Bolsheviks. The Workers Socialist Federation that had evolved, under the leadership of Sylvia Pankhurst, from an organisation focused on gaining the vote for women to be part of the revolutionary left, declared in the Workers Dreadnought that “Their opponents strive to make it appear that Lenin and his party are a handful of people which has imposed its domination upon the unwilling Russian people; but it is the workers’ and soldiers’ council which has now deposed Kerensky and the provisional government, and itself becoming the government has chosen Lenin to be its prime minister” (p.22).

The creation of the Communist Party in Britain was an essential step in developing the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. By going beyond its formation as a coming together of particular groups and focussing on the programmatic questions that underlay it, the British Communist Left is able to show that the Communist Party, far from being an imposition of the Bolsheviks, arose from the situation in Britain itself. It considers a number of questions that animated debate in the workers movement in Britain and that contributed to the formation of the Communist Party. The question of affiliation to the Labour Party was one such question, where the experience of the imperialist war and the role played by Labour made it clear to the revolutionary left that Labour had betrayed the working class. Militants of the BSP denounced the Labour leaders as “recruiting sergeants and labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” while Maclean denounced the whole party as “bound up at present with capitalism and fighting socialism”. This experience was to make opposition to affiliation to Labour one of the foundations of the communist left in Britain, even in the face of pressure from the Third International and Lenin himself.

Faced with the isolation of the revolution and the degeneration of the Third International the left communists in Britain took up the struggle alongside their comrades internationally: “…linked by a web of political, organisational and personal connections to the Russian Bolsheviks, the German Spartacists, the Dutch Tribunists and the Italian Abstentionists… The British left participated alongside the Russian, German, Dutch and Italian lefts in the same political struggles…” (p.38). The Workers Dreadnought very rapidly became the focal point for left communists within the Communist Party in their struggle to defend the Third International. It published extracts from Lenin’s Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder but also the manifesto of the German KAPD and Gorter’s reply to Lenin. It called for open debate and warned against the imposition of formal discipline to stifle such debate.

Opportunism and sectarianism

The conclusion to the British Communist Left recognises that “The communist left’s struggle for an intransigent class party in Britain in the early 1920s ended in failure” and asks “why did it fail?…what lessons can we draw for today?” (p.93). It recognises that the key factor was international: the defeat of the global revolutionary struggle and the change in the historical situation: “…the question of whether revolution was on the agenda in Britain was determined primarily by the international balance of class forces rather than any national specificities, and this balance of forces was dynamic rather than static” (p.93). However, this recognition poses the question of the capacity of the revolutionary movement in Britain to contribute to the dynamic rather than just respond to it, leading to the important and absolutely correct conclusion that “The real lesson…is not that the formation of a communist party in Britain was premature but that it was too late”. Revolutionaries have to have the capacity to respond without hesitation to the historical moment when it arrives; such capacity has to be fought for in the hard and patient struggles in the years and decades before. It is here that the real weakness of the revolutionary movement in Britain lies. From the latter part of the 19th century, when the revolutionary movement re-emerged after the defeat of Chartism and the decades of work building the unions, it had to fight against the twin dangers of opportunism and sectarianism.

The British Communist Left is clear about the danger of opportunism: “The struggle of the left for a class party was above all a struggle against the ever present influence of bourgeois ideology within the working class; a struggle principally against opportunism, which expressed the enormous weight of the past on the class…This opportunism expressed itself not only in open political positions but also in attitudes towards organisation: fear of centralised control; support for ‘local autonomy’, for ‘freedom of opinion’ in the name of ‘unity’…” (p.98). However, it has less to say about the opposite side of the coin: sectarianism.

The Social Democratic Federation, founded in the 1880s was marked by both its sectarianism and its opportunism. The opposition that developed within it gave rise to two organisations in the first years of the 20th century: the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Known as ‘impossibilists’ they were animated by opposition to the opportunism of the SDF. However, while opposing the SDF’s opportunism they kept its sectarianism. The SLP left the SDF prematurely, undermining the efforts of the left to combat the right-wing leadership and isolating other revolutionaries, including those who were to form the SPGB. Both organisations showed a dangerous lack of understanding of the importance of struggling to defend the organisations created by the working class, not only denouncing other parts of the workers’ movement in Britain but also the Second International itself.

The same weaknesses became evident during the struggle to form the Communist Party. The British Communist Left shows the strength of this effort, such as the break by parts of the SLP from its previous sectarianism in order to fight for a party of the revolutionary left. However, the difficulties encountered in this struggle, in particular over the participation of the BSP, prompted the WSF to form a party ahead of the pace of negotiations. The creation of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) “was a voluntarist attempt to create a class party which avoided the difficult but necessary confrontation of positions” (p.52). The fact was that the revolutionary movement in Britain lacked the tradition and the experience of organisational struggle to be able to maintain the effort needed. It is telling that in the struggles in the BSP it was the émigrés who had participated in organisational struggles elsewhere who were the most determined in their struggle against the right. Similarly, it was her experience at the second congress of the CI that led Pankhurst to reverse her position on the CP (BSTI) and to support the formation of a united Communist Party.

The intelligence of the British ruling class

Another important factor in the failure of the revolutionary movement in Britain to form a class party was the strategy of the ruling class. At the time of the Russian revolution the British ruling class had had well over a century of experience of combating the working class. Like its counterparts elsewhere, it had tried violent repression, such as at the Peterloo massacre in 1819, and had learnt that this only strengthened the determination and revolutionary temper of the working class. A strategy of concessions and manoeuvres, such as granting limited reforms and winning over leading figures was far more effective. The aftermath of the war and the revolutionary wave saw the ruling class take this to a new height through the use of the Labour Party, which had adopted a more radical programme after the war, to absorb the anger in the working class. This was joined with the selective use of force at key moments. In 1919 a demonstration by 30,000 workers in Glasgow was attacked by the police in order to provoke the working class into premature action. In 1918 the arrest of John Maclean, who was sentenced to five years for sedition, “robbed the revolutionary movement in Britain of its most able and determined leader at a moment when the threat of revolution at home seemed most imminent” (p.24) In September 1919 Sylvia Pankhurst’s arrest “removed from the scene the most prominent left-wing communist and advocate of further communist unity” (p.64).

The experience of the British Communist Left shows that in order to create a strong revolutionary organisation revolutionaries need to build on the revolutionary reflexes of the working class in a conscious, planned and long-term manner. Despite its size and its isolation from the mass of the working class it is the struggles of revolutionaries today that will determine the capacity of the working class to form the world communist party of tomorrow. Understanding the history of our predecessors is a vital part of this work.

North, 26/09/05.

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: