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Book Review: 'The British Communist Party - Its Origins and Development Until 1929'

The tragic comedians

'The British Communist Party: Its Origins and Development Until 1929', by Dr. L. J. Macfarlane (Macgibbon & Kee, 63s.)

In his book Dr. L. J. Macfarlane painstakingly traces the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in all its muddled and conflicting reformism, syndicalism, and anti-parliamentarianism in 1920, through its chequered career of alternately supporting and opposing the Labour Party, sometimes both supporting it and opposing it at the same time, with its playing at armed revolt, splitting the trade unions, marching the unemployed up and down, fancying itself leading the 1926 General Strike on to revolution—down to 1929 when “the Party was in a bad state, its membership was falling away and those who remained were engaged in bitter dissension and dispute.”

The CPGB started as a mixture of antagonistic elements; the resolution to seek affiliation to the Labour Party was carried by only 100 votes to 85, and the minority believed that they would have won if some of their supporters had not kept away from the founding congress. It has remained divided ever since, united only in one thing, the pathetic belief that victory for Socialism had been achieved in Russia.

Sometimes one faction gained the leadership and sometimes another. So its opposition to Labour Party candidates at Parliamentary elections in 1921 was followed in 1922 by a call to the workers to vote Labour. This was continued in 1924 but in 1929, when they coined the phrase “the third capitalist party” the Communists were telling the workers to vote for Labour Party candidates in some constituencies but elsewhere to abstain from voting.

The author, who describes himself as “sympathetic to the aims of the Communist Party,” admits that “there was little enough to show for nearly 10 years of devoted work by thousands of ordinary party members,” and he can claim for the Communist Party nothing more than that “for all its faults” it had “helped to keep alive a spirit of resistance to the meek acceptance of hardship and poverty as economic facts of life.” He should have remembered also the thousands of workers who, having been caught up by the emotional prospect of an impossible “revolution round the corner,” ended in apathy and cynicism after experience of Communist Party political trickery and deception.

The chief value of this book is that it brings together in chronological order a mass of detailed information, with references to sources, which will be useful to anyone wanting to follow up particular developments, but beyond that there is little to commend it. The major fault is the author's uncritical acceptance of grandiloquent claims made by the Communist Party and others without any attempt to examine them against the evidence. A case in point is the myth about the Jolly George and the campaign to stop the British Government intervening against Russia in the Polish-Russian war.

Dr. Macfarlane reports anti-war demonstrations, the formation of a Council of Action, the calling of a 24-hour strike in which “it was claimed that thousands of South Wales miners answered the call” and that the dockers of East London “refused to load the Jolly George with munitions.”

He concludes: “It now appeared that all these efforts had been effective—direct action to save the revolution had been taken at last”.

In fact it all had no perceptible effect on the actions and policy of the British Government, and this was admitted by the Communists in their journal. The Communist (7 October 1920):

“Frankly, the National Council of Action has failed, and its failure is all the more disappointing when one remembers the unanimity and enthusiasm of the great Central Hall conference held at the beginning of August last. It was formed to prevent the supplies and munitions being sent in support of the attack on Soviet Russia, which it is quite obviously not doing. Somehow and from somewhere in this country, those supplies are being sent—a Moscow report alleges that England has sent seven steamers of munitions, three tanks and twelve small steamers with provisions in aid of Poland and that these have been unloaded at Danzig.”

Dr. Macfarlane is uncritical in his approach because he obviously has no clear idea of what is the nature of the problem of replacing the capitalist social system by Socialism. To him “we are all Socialists”: Marxist and anti-Marxist, Labour Party, ILP, the defunct National Guilds movement, the Unemployed Workers Committee Movement of the Nineteen twenties; etc., etc. The fact that these bodies were fighting each other most of the time and that most of their aims were no more revolutionary than those of the present Labour Party passes him by.

He is able to report without comment that “as a revolutionary socialist party the British Socialist Party welcomed the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia” and that the Leeds Convention in 1917, with “rousing speeches from Phillip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald” was “amazingly successful”—what exactly did it succeed in achieving?

He tells us that Tom Quelch went away from the Convention convinced that “the hour of the Social Revolution is close up on us”—why no criticism of that piece of silliness, or of Lenin's statement in March 1919 that “The victory of the proletarian revolution all over the world is assured”?

What was going on in those years was that the Communist Party of Great Britain, lacking any real understanding either of the strength of British and American capitalism and the capitalist outlook of the majority of workers, was dreaming of a non-existent Socialist victory in Russia, while Lenin and others in Russia were dreaming of a non-existent revolutionary working class in Britain, America, France, Germany and elsewhere about to come to the aid of the Bolsheviks.

Dr. Macfarlane has some surprising omissions. He does not tell us about the curious attitude and internal conflicts of the Communist Party, torn between its nominal acceptance of Marx's “Religion is the opium of the People” and the desire to get the votes of the workers who had a religious outlook. He briefly mentions Francis Meynell who was editor of the Communist, but not that he was a Catholic!

Another omission is that he is able to describe the breakaway of the Socialist Labour Party from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903 but he does not mention the breakaway of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. Perhaps this is not surprising. Had he thought fit to state the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain he would have had to justify his extraordinary statement: “Was it surprising that Marxists and socialists everywhere should turn to the leaders of the revolution for inspiration and guidance?”

He tells us on the same page that “to socialists everywhere the Russian Revolution of October 1917, came as a revelation”.

The reader of the book will look in vain to find out what it was that was revealed except confirmation of what Socialists knew already, the impossibility of Socialism without Socialists, and of imposing Socialism from above.

Edgar Hardcastle