Left-wing communism in Britain 1917-
21...An infantile disorder? - Bob Jones
A survey of the anti-parliamentarist communist movement in Britain during and after WWI,
and the effects of Comintern/Bolshevik directives on the efforts at organisational unity. A
Lenin's famous manual of reformism, "Left Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder(1920),
which directed Communists to work within parliament and existing labour unions, was partly
a response to British anti-parliamentarism.
This short work was written in 1984 as an article for the journal 'Black Star'. 'Black Star'
expired before the article appeared and it eventually appeared in print in 1989 in the Grand
Rapids based 'Discussion Bulletin' and later in a slightly revised form in 'The Raven' (No. 11,
1990). [This version was published by Pirate Press, Sheffield, UK, 1991.]
Left- Wing Communism in Britain 1917-21 ...An Infantile Disorder?
(Bob Jones, 1984)
The pamphlet attempts to show how an evolving British communist movement was taken
over by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB ) and turned into something quite alien.
At the moment [i.e. 1984] when the Communist Parties, and the authoritarian communism
they represent are collapsing everywhere it is perhaps appropriate that this work should
reappear. While commentators are glibly enthusing over the end of "communism" and
"socialism" it is important to remember that there was an earlier and very different
communist tradition in Britain. Understanding the process by which it was marginalised and
in a large part obliterated may help us to understand what went wrong. It might also help to
undermine the assumption that 'libertarian' and 'communist' or 'socialist' are mutually
R. W. Jones
I will try and examine this process in the context of the growing British anti-parliamentarist
movement in the years immediately preceding the formation of the Anti-Parliamentary
Communist Federation (APCF) in 1921. In particular I will look at the attempts to unite the
various anti-parliamentary groups into one Communist Party. These attempts were, I will
argue, a natural development of the revolutionary movement in Britain. They were cut short
by the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), an unnatural development
for Britain which was based on the conditions set by the Communist International in Russia.
The subsequent formation of the APCF was, as a result, a pale reflection of what it could
At the outset we should try to clarify what is meant by 'anti -parliamentarism'. It is important
to realise that for British comrades in 1921 anti-parliamentarism was not merely a negative
delineation of tactics - a rejection of the policy of socialists standing for and sitting in
parliament - though this was obviously a key element of the movement. Anti-parliamentarism
has, at this time, to be viewed in the context of a burgeoning communist movement. Indeed,
until the formation of the CPGB which took upon itself the definition of all things
'communist', it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the anti-parliamentary
and communist movements were synonymous. To be a communist prior to 1920, even 1921,
was to be anti-parliamentarian. Only after 1921 was the prefix 'anti-parliamentary' needed.
This was true of both Marxists and anarchists. Each shared a common set of ideas, including
the centrality of class struggle for social analysis and action; the conception of workers'
committees and councils seizing the means of production and distribution; the ensuing
creation of a soviet republic which initially would act as a'dictatorship of the proletariat'; and
as a necessary corollary of these, the importance of direct action and anti-parliamentary
agitation. While there was not unanimity on all of these points, there was a broad measure of
One revealing example of this convergence of views was the interpretation, made by most
sections of the revolutionary movement, in Britain, of the Russian revolution in sovietist and
councillist terms rather than in terms of the determining role of a centralised and disciplined
political party. This interpretation remained almost universal until 1920, when doubts about
the exact nature and direction of the Russian revolution first began to surface in Britain. It is
also significant that these doubts emerged not over the political practice of the Bolsheviks in
Russia - which were rationalised away into existing theoretical formulas (though this was not
true of the anarchists centred on the London Freedom Group) - but over the advice Lenin was
giving to German and Italian communists to participate in parliamentary elections.
Completely absent was any notion of the centralised, disciplined party as the controlling
agent of the revolution. This, however, was a key element in the Comintern's '21 Conditions
for Admission to the Communist International', which all communist parties had to accept
before affiliation. Thus Point 12 declares that the party must be built "upon the principle of
democratic centralisation", and speaks of control by "iron discipline" and of a party central
body with "the most far-reaching faculties".
The acceptance of the '21 conditions' by the CPGB represented, therefore, a marked break
with past British experience. What was the significance of this? For some historians, such as
James Hinton in The First Shop Stewards Movement (1973), the unity negotiations resulting
in the formation of the CPGB represented a "theoretical clarification". Hinton charts a
development of revolutionary theory from Syndicalism and industrial unionism via the
experience of the shop stewards and workers' committee movement to the ultimate flowering
of "the soviet idea of revolution" in the CPGB. There is much that is wrong with this not
uncommon interpretation. For our present purposes we must be content to note the simple
points that the CPGB did not embody any "theoretical clarification" and had very little to do
with the "soviet idea of revolution". The whole point of the unity negotiations was to set up
Lenin's "party of a new type" - that is, a centralised party loyally following the orders of the
Comintern. Any theoretical or other discoveries made by the British participants were
subsumed within this task. The end result was that the existing revolutionary movement and
any theoretical advances it had made were largely destroyed.
Let me examine this a little more closely. The first point to make about the 1920 unity
negotiations is that they did not involve discussions about the theoretical significance of
soviet power or the meaning of dictatorship of the proletariat. There was already a fair
measure of agreement on these issues. The main, almost exclusive, topic of discussion was
parliamentarianism, in the form of parliamentary action and of affiliation to the Labour Party.
As I shall show later, almost the whole of the revolutionary movement in was anti-
parliamentarian and uniting around an anti-parliamentary platform. For the moment,
however, let me assume this point and examine how the incipient 'party of a new type'
handled the question. In so doing we shall see how the path was laid for the destruction of the
revolutionary movement in Britain.
What was the attitude of communists to the Labour Party? For anyone thinking in terms of
communism (outside of certain sections of the British Socialist Party and the Independent
Labour Party) it was simply inconceivable to regard the Labour Party as having anything at
all to contribute to the developing movement. Then, as now, the Labour Party, as far as any
move towards socialism was concerned (never mind about any move towards communism!),
was seen as a bad joke. As D. Manion noted at the Communist Unity Convention of 31st of
July - 1 st August 1920 "At the present time in Sheffield no matter how good a Socialist a
man might be he was mobbed if at any Socialist or trade union meeting he said he was in
favour of such (Labour Party) affiliation."
And Mrs. Bamber, from Liverpool, added:
"Me industrial workers were sick to death of the position of the Labour Party at the present
time, and she hoped that we, the Communist Party, showing the way not to reform but to the
emancipation of the workers, would keep outside the Party that had done so much to delay
the progress of the working class during the last few years."
If this was so obvious to many, why was Labour Party affiliation ever considered as a serious
policy? Gee factor was that the BSP, the largest socialist body involved in the unity
negotiations, was already affiliated to the Labour Party and continued to argue for affiliation.
But a growing number of BSPers, including comrades Manion and Bamber, were starting to
reject the policy. There were clearly other factors at work. The most important of these was
the Comintern directive instructing the CP to affiliate, backed up by Lenin's rationalisation of
the position in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. While the directive was crucial,
perhaps more important was the kind of argument used to support it - a strange kind of
argument, new to the British movement, and indicative of the kind of reasoning that was to
undermine the communist movement in Britain.
It could be argued that up to this time the main aim of British socialists and communists had
been a simple one of trying to make socialists and increase the class consciousness of the
working class. Questions about the mechanics of seizing power were not widely discussed,
most being content to rely on the ability of the working class to create its own organs of self-
government in any revolutionary situation. Further, the Labour Party was to play no part in
this process simply because it was not socialist and its actions had positively hampered the
development towards socialism.
But such common-sense and seemingly obvious points were to come under attack from a new
breed of 'realists' and 'hard-headed strategists' who were to play an important part in the unity
negotiations. The common-sense view of the Labour Party now came to be seen as 'naive' and
'emotional'; one needed a longer-term tactical view.
The ultimate source of such a view was the Comintem and V.I. Lenin. Left-Wing Communism
appeared just before the unity negotiations of July/August 1920 and ably summarised the
lectures and advice Lenin had been giving British communists in the preceding months. In
this work Lenin argued that "...revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the
majority of the working class, and this change is brought about by the political experience of
the masses, and never by propaganda alone." Fair enough; but Lenin went on to insist that in
consequence "...British communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they
should ... from within Parliament help the masses of the workers to see the results of a
Henderson and Snowden government in practice..." In this way it was hoped that the masses
would very soon become disappointed with the Labour Party and begin to support the
Unfortunately this sort of argument leads directly into the nightmarish world of the
mechanistic and manipulative party politician. In Lenin's words:
"The strictest loyalty to the idea of Communism must be combined with the ability to make
all the necessary practical compromises, to manoeuvre, to make agreements, zigzags, retreats
and so on, so as to accelerate the coming to power and subsequent loss of political power of
the Hendersons ... to accelerate their inevitable bankruptcy in practice, which will enlighten
the masses in the spirit of our ideas, in the direction of Communism..."
Or in Lenin's oft-quoted phrase: Communists support the Labour Party "in the same way as
the rope supports a hanged man".
A good example of these intellectual contortions at work in Britain comes from R. Page
Arnot's intervention at the Communist Unity Convention on the Labour Party affiliation
issue. He readily agreed that "we were all sick of the Labour Party", but that didn't
necessarily mean that leaving the Labour Party was "the best tactic for the revolution". Amot,
as befitted the new revolutionary tacticians, was thinking ten steps ahead, in terms of
Communists within the Labour Party "splitting off and taking "a very large number of the
organised working class with us". The essence o the new outlook was to took at matters "as a
tactician in a military sense": that is to "think things out coldly and clearly and get rid of
emotion". Those who did not have these requisite military skills and siniply pointed out that
the Labour Party was hopelessly reactionary and would tar the Communist Party with the
same brush were said to be using "emotional arguments".
In this manner communist policy ceased to be a matter of debate and discussion by the rank
and file based on the observable experience of the working class and its institutions. Instead
policy was now determined by long-term tactical perspectives from above - an ever-changing
series of intellectual permutations and combinations known as the party line. This, when
coupled with a centralised party demanding absolute loyalty, ensured the speedy elimination
of any ideas and practice developed from the class struggle by the pre-existing communist
movement in Britain. If its members didn't conform to the tactical line they were simply
disregarded as 'naive' or 'emotional'. Edgar T Whitehead noted the process at work at an
early period of its operation in 1920: "I do like,this word 'naive'. It clinches the argument. All
logic falls flat before it. Anti-parliamentarians are so 'naive', in the face of the
mephistophelian astucity (sic) of these revolutionary parliamentarians."
There could be no direct answer to such charges of 'naivete' because the party had developed
its own particular logic, impervious to any questioning from outside.
Anti-parliamentary communists became increasingly puzzled by the aptitude of the 'Maiden
Lane Communists' (the CPGB, with its offices in Maiden Lane, London) to the parliamentary
question. Edgar T Whitehead voiced a question which was baffling many: "Why do the
Maiden Lane Communists want participation in Parliament so much that they would rather
split the movement than forgo it?" Given that the propaganda value of electoral activity was
not a serious difference with the anti-parliamentary groups, and given the repudiation of
Parliament by the organised Workshop Movement, what possible reason could there be for
wanting to pursue participation in Parliament at all costs? Whitehead concluded "...it is
almost inconceivable that Maiden Lane should have been so blind and mad as to cease to take
into account these realities, and instead, sheep-like, to blunderingly follow a tactic dictated
from Moscow... "
But this is almost certainly what did happen. The increasing invective and abuse from
Maiden Lane was part of what Lenin called the "liquidation of 'left' doctrinairism" - a
necessary stage the classconscious vanguard (the Communist Party) had to pass through to
establish its supremacy. We have no space to document this process further, though we
should note it can be seen ir, its most dramatic and pathetic form in the amazing intellectual
somersaults of people like W illiam Gallacher and J. T. Murphy, who were very effectively
'liquidated'. The unity negotiations were in fact a crucial phase in the liquidation of 'left'
doctrinairism in Britain. Rather than attempting to unite the existing revolutionary groups in
Britain (the negotiations created more division than unity) the main aim was to create Lenin's
"party of a new type", a party strictly conforming to the Comintem's conditions and with little
regard for the British situation. This, and its consequences, were clearly foreseen by the anti-
parliamentarians at the very foundation of the CPGB. Thus Whitehead notes:
"Maiden Lane must understand ... it is Britain we are dealing with, and British Industrialists
and Proletarians, British historical conditions, and British realities. Until Maiden Lane faces
these facts, gains some backbone and grey matter of its own, and ceases to be merely a
gramophone for the Moscow Records, we can do no other than build our own party,
propagate our Soviet and Communist principles in accord with realities."
Unfortunately Maiden Lane was incapable of facing these facts and continued to play
Moscow Records. The tragedy of this is that in the process a real possibility of unity was lost
and, indeed, destroyed.
What was this possibility? Put simply, it was the chance to bring about a unity of a number of
anarchist and Marxist groups who had in common their support for the Russian revolution
and who were developing towards a common communist philosophy. If carried forward,
there was a possibility of uniting once again the differing contributions of Marx and Bakunin
in a communist movement of great potential significance.
At the outset it must be realised that long before the Russian revolution there was a
communist movement in Britain and that after 1917 it was arapidly developing and largely
non-sectarian movement. A good example of its nature on the eve of the Russian revolution is
given by Jim Griffiths in describing the activities of the Communist Club at Ammanford
(South Wales). Griffit}ts reports on a series of meetings held at the club in the early days of
"The aim of these meetings has not been to propagate any particular brand of Socialism or
Communism. They have aimed rather at providing a common platform - a workers' Forum -
where all who are interested in social problems can meet, freely and frankly exchange
opinions on vital social questions, the members of the club being convinced that the
providing of opportunities for such meetings is the greatest service they can render to the
working class movement at the present tim,~. :f the movement is to survive the hard times
ahead, it must cease wasting its energies in fruitless wrangles over this, that or the other
policy. It must retum to first principles ... We must aim at securing an intelligent class-
conscious rank and file." (The Spur, April 1917)
In this non-sectarian atmosphere socialists were beginning to forget their "fruitless wrangles"
and move towards a common conception. Thus within the anarchist movement there was a
growing section of what Guy Aldred called "Marxian anarchists" who were distinguished
from other anarchists (especially "Kropotkin anarchists") by their acceptance of the Marxian
analysis of the state and their recognition of the importance of class struggle. These
anarchists were becoming increasingly impatient
with those who, in the words of Freda Cohen, a member of the Glasgow Anarchist Group,
were merely content with "fine phrases or poetical visioning". What was needed, she
continued, was "knowledge ... for the class struggle, by giving a scientific basis in place of a
sentimental belief (The Spur, January/ February 1918). Thus Cohen concluded, "knowledge
of economics, history and sociology are of primary importance." and due recognition should
be given to the fact that "industrial unionism, IWGBism (referring to the Industrial Workers
of Great Britain), the Shop Steward movement, etc, are questions that concern the daily life
of the worker (and)... are coming more and more to the fore. We must discuss them
thoroughly and define our attitude towards them."
These were also the concerns of many members of the Socialist Labour Party and left-wing
members of the British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party. Workers in these
socialist groups were beginning to share a common literature and to exchange views and
debate the key issues raised by the political and industrial struggles of the moment. James
Morton, for example, of the London Industrial Workers' Committee, took part in a debate
with the SLP in 1917 on direct action and ordered six dozen copies of the anarchist pamphlet
Direct Action Versus Legislation for distribution at this and other meetings.
Rank and file members of socialist bodies were starting to question the established political
shibboleths of their particular group. SLPers, for instance, started to query the DeLeonist
attitude to parliamentary action; some like Joseph Linden, leaving the SLP to join the
anarchists. Within the anarchists too there was dissent. Robert Selkirk, an anarchist from
Cowdenbeath, questioned Aldred's rejection of the workshop struggle: "It is as well to speed
the day when 'the Socialist organisations will cease to be the glorified debating clubs and
become fighting units'. And this can be done in the despised 'workshop struggle"' (quoted by
Aldred in The Spur, June 1919). A number of anti-parliamentarians and anarchists (like R.M.
Fox and E.T. Whitehead) accepted the importance of the 'workshop struggle' at this time and
thus came close to the position of dissident SLPers and socialist militants in the Shop
Stewards and Workers' Committee Movement.
The important point to note here, is that these questions were a matter for debate and
discussion within a developing anti-parliamentary movement. Thus on the 'workshop
struggle', for example, Aldred was able to make a speedy and effective reply to "such
palliative fights for petty ends", as he viewed them, in his debate with T.L. Smith of the
Workers International Industrial Union (WIIU) (The Spur, August 1919). There were other
fierce arguments between collectivists and communists, between those for and against action
in the workshop, and between others on the precise nature of the antiparliamentary attitude to
the ballot box. Such arguments were, however, as Aldred noted in 1918, "becoming less
real", with a "growing tendency of socialists to accept a common theory and to meet on a
common democratic footing" (The Spur, March-April 1919). Moreover, this iendency was a
"natural growth, capable, truly, of extensive and intensive cultivation; but still a vita:
development from within a movement..." But in 1918 Aldred was well aware of "a
hypocritical parade of unity" by those whose "desire is not for unity, but for capture". Such a
"mechanical inspiration from without", as Aldred described it, would destroy the natural
growth within the movement towards unity, and this is precisely what happened at the
Communist Unity Convention in 1920.
But what happened in the intervening years? A number of important initiatives were made in
this period (1918-20) to articulate the approaching unity in organisational terms. I will briefly
examine two of these initiatives: the formation of the Communist League and that of the
Labour Abstentionist Party - both established in 1919.
The more important of the two, the Communist League, was an attempt to unite dissident
branches of the SLP with London anarchists centred on The Spur and Freedom papers. From
it we get the first paper in Britain to be called The Communist but - and more significantly - a
real attempt to unite Marxists and anarchists in one organisation. The first step towards the
new group came from the London District Council of the SLP who in February 1919 issued a
proposal to convene a conference for rank and file members of the British socialist movement
to discover a basis for communist unity. The proposal was accompanied by a lengthy
manifesto which included a draft constitution for a new Communist League. Key elements in
the constitution were (a) a call for local workers' committees and councils to aim at seizing
the means of production and creating a proletarian dictatorship; (b) the ultimate aim of a
Republic of federated communes; and (c) a declaration that the parliamentary vote is obsolete
and that direct industrial action should be adopted as an alternative.
The unity conference took place on 16 March, 1919, and the Communist League was
established on an explicitly anti-parliamentary programme. George Rose well expressed the
spirit behind the new movement in the first issue of The Communist:
"... we know that there must develop the great working class anti-Statist movement, showing
the way to Communist society. The Communist League is the standard bearer of the
movement; and all the hosts of Communists in the various other Socialist organisations will
in good time see that Parliamentary action will lead them, not to Communist but to
bureaucratic Statism correctly named by Hilaire Belloc the "Servile State"... Therefore, we
identify ourselves with the Third International, with the Communism of Marx, and with that
personification of the spirit of revolt, Bakunin, of whom the Third International is but the
natural and logical outcome."
The essence of the new movement was thus an attempted fusion of Bakunism and Marxism
in an anti-parliamentary movement working for the creation of revolutionary workers'
councils and factory committees.
Over the next few months the League developed and expanded. An attempt was also made to
unite with the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF), but the WSF had its own plans. While
most branches of the League were to be found in Scotland and London, William Mainwaring
announced the formation of a Treherbert branch in South Wales in May 1919. Mainwaring
did however reject the League's constitution on a couple of details, including the interesting
point that it was nonsense to speak of the parliamentary vote as "obsolete": "To say it is
obsolete will lead many to suppose that it once was useful. To this we do not agree." (The
Communist, June/July 1919.)
Reports in Freedom cast light on developments in London and the influence of the League on
anarchists there. A generally favourable report on the initial unity conference, while noting
that the League was not an anarchist organisation, recognised that the 'repudiation of
Parliament is a long step in our direction' (April 1919). But subsequent issues carried an
acrimonious exchange between William Hopkins of the Stockport Workers' Anarchist Group
and David Bloom of the Stepney branch of the Communist League, concerning seemingly
irreconcilable differences over a communist dictatorship and economic determinism, among
other matters (June, July, October 1919).
The prominence given to this ill-tempered debate should not obscure the progress being made
towards unity in London. Among a section of London anarchists there was a desire for action
to prepare the way for an expected revolution and an impatience with the primarily literary
propaganda of the Freedom Group, as exemplified in 1919 by the appearance of a new
Anarchist Propaganda Group. To these anarchists the best chance of the desired kind of
action seemed to lie in cooperation with the Communist League. Thus at a Conference of
London Anarchists in April 1919 it was argued by some comrades that 'the time had arrived
for action' (May 1919).
"The anti-parliamentary attitude of many Socialists and Communists was greatly due to our
propaganda in the past, and good results would undoubtedly follow if we worked with them.
Steps, therefore, are to be taken towards holding a Conference with the Communist League to
consider a joint plan of campaign."
The resulting conference, held in June 1919, was not without points of dispute, including the
vexed question of the nature of any proletarian dictatorship. But significantly, the discussion
was 'very friendly in tone, the desire on both sides being to find points of agreement rather
than points of controversy' (July 1919). Finally it was hoped that the points at issue could be
resolved at a future National Conference to which anarchist groups would be invited.
Possibly in response to anarchist criticisms, a novel feature of the Communist League was its
attempt to create a decentralised ruling body called 'the Local Delegates Committee'. This
embodied the principle of an elected delegate committee (each branch electing delegates
proportional to membership) with mandated delegates subject to both immediate reporting
back and instant recall if they failed to follow their mandates. The aim here was to sweep out
"boss domination and cliqueism" (The Communist, August 1919) - "it must be a movement
of the rank and file, expressing itself to the rank and file." A real test of this new ruling body
in practice was to be the first national conference of the movement. It is not clear, however,
whether the conference ever took place, for the Communist League disappears without a trace
towards the end of 1919 or early 1920.
This, though, was not the end of attempts to find a basis for unity between anarchists and
Marxists. Aldred in particular continued to pursue closer relations with SLP, BSP and ILP
comrades. In his important article Bricks and Mortar (The Spur, October 1919), Aldred again
spoke of the revolutionary movement "drawing closer and closer together on a platform of
practical revolutionary effort". There was now common agreement that the Soviet Republic
could not be established by parliamentary action but there was still considerable division over
the question of the precise usefulness of parliamentary action.
To overcome this division, and particularly addressing SLPers, Aldred proposed the 'Sinn
Fein' tactic (ie. communist anti-parliamentary candidates using the ballot box for agitational
purposes, with a pledge not to take the oath and not to sit in Parliament if elected). While
preferring the straight anti-parliamentary position of boycotting the ballot box, Aldred put
forward the 'Sinn Fein' alternative as "a tactical compromise ... for effecting a wider unity".
The tactic was put to the test in the Paisley by-election of 1919/20, when Aldred offered to
support the SLP candidate if he stood as a communist-anti-parliamentarian. Aldred's offer no
doubt had some effect on the local SLP branch for, when William Paul declined to stand as
their candidate, they decided to forget all compromise and conducted a'boycott the ballot box'
campaign particularly aimed at the Labour Party candidate Biggar. Their leaflet concluded:
"Every vote withheld is a vote for socialism ... Abstain from voting. Work for the social
revolution." (Quoted by D.M. Chewter. The History of the Socialist Labour Party of Great
Britain. B Litt thesis, Oxford 1965)
Such action was perhaps indicative of a growing unease in the ranks of the SLP with the
parliamentary policy of the party. Though we know quite a bit about the activities of SLP
dissidents like Paul and Tom Bell, who were to form the Communist Unity Group of the SLP,
we know very little about the developing anti-parliamentarism in the party as exemplified by
the Paisley action. There is evidence that other SLP branches were accepting the anti-
parliamentary position. For example, we know that Aldred was running a mission in 1919/20
under the auspices of the Shettleston S LP, which, in the words of its secretary, J. Bowman,
was to "thump home that anti-parliamentary truth..." (The Spur, March 1920) Realising that
"this is not the SLP position" Bowman insisted however that "there must be no parliamentary
sidestepping". This attitude to parliament also surfaced at the Carlisle conference of the S LP
in April 1920, the conference spending an unusual amount of time discussing the case for and
against parliamentary action.
Similar developments were also taking place in branches of the BSP (for example, in
Scotland at the Tradeston and Anderston branches) and, almost certainly, in ILP branches.
The rank and file of these parties were getting impatient with the traditional party arguments
for parliamentary inaction and were beginning to co-operate with individuals across party
lines in practical propaganda. Individuals and branches were moving towards communist
unity on their own initiative, independently of party leaders. Thus, for example, in May 1920
a Communist Group was formed in Paisley of ex-BSP members, while in June 1920 J.E.
Scott announced the formation of the Acton Communist Party by discontented members of
the Acton and Chiswick branch of the Herald League. The parliamentary constraints of the
old parties and organisations were now hampering revolutionary propaganda, as Scott notes:
"We have stood always for the Revolution and the extreme propaganda but could not carry on
whilst affiliated to the National Labour Party through no fault of our own" (The Spur, July
It was also at this time (May 1920) that the Labour Abstentionist Party made its brief
appearance, being largely the creation of Edgar T. Whitehead of the WSF. The Party's
programme was largely a summary of the anti-parliamentary 'Sinn Fein' position as evolved
by Aldred in the 1918-19 period, but spiced with Whitehead's distinctive conception of
independent proletarian ideology. Although it is not clear how much support the Party could
command, it did at least have the unqualified support of Tom Mann, who wrote a foreword to
Whitehead's pamphlet, The Labour Abstentionist Party (1920), commending "the fine tactics
of the Irish Sinn Feiners" and desired "to see the same tactics resorted to in Britain". The
formation of the Party is thus another indication of the growing antiparliamentarism in the
Within a few months of these developments, however, hopes of a rapprochement between
Marxists and anarchists were dealt a fatal blow with the Communist Unity Conventions. We
have seen how the ensuing CP, based on the ludicrous programme of participation in
parliamentary elections and affiliation to the Labour Party, was completely out of step with
the evolution of the revolutionary movement in Britain at this time. But why didn't this
evolution continue independently of the CPGB? This is a very difficult question to answer.
One historian, Walter Kendall in The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921 (1969),
has argued that the secret hand of Moscow gold was at work, which, in creating a situation of
financial dependency for the small revolutionary groups, slowly but surely ensured that they
were all sucked into the CPGB. There may be some truth in this, but the process was a little
It is clear that after the formation of the CPGB in August 1920 the new party was subject to a
Comintern directive to unite with other selected revolutionary groups on the basis of the 21
conditions. As a result any further negotiations towards unity on an anti-parliamentary
programme were a nonstarter. But why didn't these other groups create their own initiative
independent of Moscow? Unfortunately they could not ignore Moscow and the CPGB
especially as most (including the SLP, WSF and the Shop Stewards and Worker's Committee
Movement) were on the Comintern's hit-list. What is surprising, though, is that in the
subsequent negotiations most of the revolutionary groups gave up their allegiance to their
anti-parliamentary principles without so much of a fight.
There is a fair amount of Comintern trickery in these negotiations via their British stooges.
Most notable here, perhaps, is William Gallacher in his notorious attempts to discredit the
leading Scottish Marxist John Maclean in the eyes of the SLP executive committee and his
machinations in relation to the Communist Labour Party (which under Gallacher's guidance
became a conduit to funnel Scottish communists into the CPGB). But despite Gallacher &
Co, it must also be noted that members of the SLP, CLP, WSF and other groups were willing
accomplices in this trickery and the intellectual somersaults it involved. There was, as
happens repeatedly in the history of British socialism in the twentieth century, a complete
abdication of critical judgement when basic principles and beliefs are put to the test by
supposed friends and allies.
Thus the British communists were a push-over when faced with the simplistic and ludicrous
arguments that the Russian revolution depended on a united revolutionary movement in
Britain and that, towards this end, Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks knew best with respect
to tactics as they had already created a successful revolution. If there were any doubts you
could rationalise these away by fondly imagining you could work for a change in policy from
inside the CPGB and/or Comintern. The Scottish communists accepted this latter nonsense
from Gallacher and many others were to find themselves on the same slippery slope. In most
cases intelligent people simply rejected their own revolutionary traditions and experience fot;
the sake of a collective delusion - loyalty to the party.
A good example of the processes at work is found in the political trajectory of Edgar
Whitehead in the latter half of 1920. Whitehead was closely involved in attempts at unity
among the antiparliamentarian groups after the Communist Unity Convention of August
1920, including a proposed conference in September 1920 to bring together revolutionaries
associated with The Spur, The Worker and Solidarity papers. The "anti-Labour Party and anti-
parliamentary in tactic" nature of such revolutionaries was stressed. Later Whitehead wrote a
series of uncompromising anti-parliamentary articles in The Spur. In October 1920 he could
write as follows: "None more than ourselves desire complete unity for action throughout the
whole of the parties inside the Moscow International, but it has got to be a unity on an
effective tactic. With the salt of the proletariat instinctively opposed to Parliamentarianism it
is impossible to march along a parliamentarian road."
And Whitehead repeated the argument with increasing eloquence in November in his
discussion of "Maiden Lane sophistries". The sophistry to which he devoted particular
attention was the current nonsense of "revolutionary parliamentarianism". For Whitehead,
"Parliamentarianism means talk" and"'revolutionary parliamentarianism' (means)
revolutionary talk"! - or from another perspective: "It is on the industrial field where
communists must be busy, there and everywhere where there are workers. There are no
workers in Parliament. Get out of it!" But the following month all had suddenly changed. In
December 1920 at the Cardiff conference of the CP (British section of the 3rd International),
Whitehead and others voted overwhelmingly in favour of acceptance of the Comintern's 21
conditions, including Point 11 in favour of parliamentary action. This amazing turnaround
was justified, Whitehead explained, by the relative insignificance of British theoretical
concerns in the face of demands for "loyalty to the world revolution". From then on
Whitehead was to become a vigorous champion of the new CPGB and the Comintern.
Many other comrades were to follow a similar path; Henry Sara and Robert Selkirk are two
that spring to mind. This kind of transformation was not limited to Britain - a similar process
occurred in the U.S., for example, with Robert Minor being a particularly famous and
influential instance. The same kind of arguments were used; thus Minor, for example,
stressed loyalty to the revolution and suggested that anarchists could act as the left-wing of
the Communist Party!
Most recruits were subsequently to leave the CPGB within a few years, thoroughly
disillusioned (though some, like Selkirk, remained in it). Sara, for example, was one of the
founders of the British Trotskyist movement; but perhaps more common was the experience
of Whitehead, who joined the Labour Party and became a vigorous anti-Communist
propagandist. This was the fate of many good comrades, and it is too easy, as Klugmann, the
CPGB's historian shows us in his official History of the Communist Party of Great Britain
(Volume 1, 1968), to dismiss them as opportunists and revolutionary dilettantes of no
importance to the movement. But if anti-parliamentarianism and real communism is ever
again to be of importance, it is a trajectory that must be probed and understood beyond such
One contribution to such an understanding might, some would argue, be the lack of any
critical information about Lenin and the Russian revolution in the British socialist press. This
may have been true of an earlier period, but when decisions were being made to join the
CPGB critical articles about Lenin and Bolshevik policies were already beginning to appear
in British socialist literature. In The Spur, for example, a series of articles by Austrian
anarchist Rudolf Grossman (Pierre Ramus) appeared from September 1919 onwards
lambasting Lenin and the Bolshevik government. At first these articles were greeted with
hostile disbelief by Aldred and others, but as Aldred in particular gained more information he
came to similar conclusions. Aldred, however, was an exception in conducting such
uninhibited intellectual enquiry. For most people, it seemed that nothing could get through
the mind-block of the 'unity at all costs' school.
It was not long before the attitudes of this school became frozen into an immovable dogma.
After the formation of the CPGB you criticised Lenin and Communist leaders at yourperil.
Thus because of his criticisms of Lenin and Gallacher, Aldred suddenly found in August
1920 that his lecture engagements with the Greenock Worker's Committee and the Paisley
BSP were cancelled and halls booked for meetings were no longer available (The Spur,
August 1920). In this manner the openness of the movement; with free discussion and debate,
crumbled away after mid- 1920'in the pursuit of unity with the CPGB.
Such developments also affected the SLP, which we should briefly mention. Individual
SLPers were joining the CPGB, especially in Scotland via the CLP (John S. Clark being one
notable example). The SLP, because of this loss and the effects of unemployment, was
declining in numbers at a rapid rate. To stem this decline the remaining members closed
ranks and reverted to an undiluted DeLeonist position, leaving little scope for any
development in an anti-parliamentary direction.
As a result of such retreats and the consolidation of the CPGB, what was left of the evolving
revolutionary and anti-parliamentary movement came to be centred around The Spur and Guy
Aldred. Aldred and his associates were now almost alone in being both enthusiastic
supporters of the Bolshevik revolution and yet not falling for the spurious unity line of the
CPGB. All that could be accomplished now was to bring together the few remaining
communist and anarchist groups that still adhered to an antiparliamentary programme.
It was hoped to create a communist federation out of these remaining groups. The principle of
federation - a federation of communist groups developed voluntarily from below rather than
an imposed centralisation from above - was always an important and consistent part of the
antiparliamentary movement's proposals for unity. Aldred summarises the position in The
"I have no objections to an efficient and centralised party so long as the authority rests in the
hands of the rank and file and all officials can be sacked at a moments notice. But I want the
centralism to be wished for and evolved by the local groups and not imposed on them from a
centre ...The Communist Party, the real party, must be evolved through a federation of local
groups, a slow merging of them into one party, from the bottom upwards, as distinct from this
imposition from the top downwards" (August 1920).
The idea of federation was coupled with a demand for self-determination - the British
revolutionaries should determine their own policy in relation to British conditions,
irrespective of what Lenin and the Bolsheviks might say. Lenin was faced with different
circumstances, Aldred argued, and he might be forced to compromise to save the Russian
Revolution, but in Britain there was no such excuse for compromise:
"Lenin's task compels him to compromise with all the elect of bourgeois society whereas ours
demands no compromise. And so we take different paths and are only on the most distant
Or more directly we should stop "chasing the shadows of the great man (Lenin) ...It is not he
who is running the British Revolution but 'ourselves alone'. The policy of looking to him to
mind our business is hindering and not helping the revolution." But increasingly such advice
from Aldred and a few others was ignored as the move to join the CPGB gathered pace.
In practical terms, however, little progress was being made towards the federation that Aldred
and the anti-parliamentary communists wished to see. Early in 1920 the Glasgow Anarchist
Group issued a manifesto and put forward a proposal for unity along federalist lines (The
Spur, January/ February 1920). The Group hoped to form a communist federation for
Lanarkshire akin to the already existing Fife Socialist League. A similar federation of
communist groups was planned for Wales towards the end of 1920. But apparently such plans
remained at the proposal stage.
The Leeds Unity Convention of January 1921 - with the final fusion of the CPGB, CLP and
Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), on the basis of the Comintern's
21 conditions - dashed any remaining hopes of a wider unity of anti-parliamentary groups. At
this time, Aldred appealed to the example of the KAPD (the Communist Workers' Party of
Germany) as a party that had stood up the to Comintem on the question of parliamentarism.
The KAPD had forced the Comintern to recognise it as a sympathising party with
consultative status. If anti-parliamentary groups could unite in Britain into a National
Federation or Party they could then enter into a close alliance with the KAPD and other
continental Communist Parties to form an International Anti-Parliamentary Federation. In
this way Moscow would be forced to recognise the reality of anti-parliamentary organisation
and be compelled to grant anti-parliamentary groups some form of representation on the
Executive Committee of the Communist International.
But no-one was listening any longer. Shortly after, the KAPD was to get its 'marching orders'
from Moscow: join the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) inside three months or else!
Clearly the anti-parliamentary groups had no future inside the Comintern and all hopes of this
were now dropped. (It should perhaps be noted that Rose Witcop travelled to Moscow later in
1921 and with APCF credentials to negotiate for 'associate membership' of the Comintern;
ultimately nothing came of this, and it appears to have been her own initiative to gain
financial support for the movement).
Finally, at the 1921 Easter Conference of the Scottish anti-parliamentary groups, a Scottish
Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation was formed. This was the beginning of the Anti-
Parliamentary Communist Federation which was to keep alive the hopes of libertarian
communism for the next thirty years.