Communist Party of Great Britain

From Academic Kids

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was a political party in the United Kingdom, which existed from 1920 to 1991.



The party was founded in 1920 after the Third International decided that greater attempts should be made to establish communist parties across the world. The CPGB was formed by the merger of several smaller Marxist parties, including the British Socialist Party, the Workers' Socialist Federation and the Communist Unity Group of the Socialist Labour Party. A few months later the CPGB was founded a second time in order that Sylvia Pankhurst's group the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International could come on board. It rode on the brief wave of political radicalism in Britain, which followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Amongst the Communist Party's most notable founders were Harry Pollitt and Arthur MacManus.

During the negotiations leading to the founding of the party a number of issues were hotly contested. Among them being the question of parliamentarism and affiliation to the Labour Party. Parliamentarism being the objection to contesting elections from sections of the left who joined the party and the latter question being the opposition, again from the left, of affiliating to the Labour Party. Both questions were referred to the Communist International and Lenin made his position on these questions clear in his essay Left Wing Communism An Infantile Disorder. In the end the party agreed to contest elections and to affiliate to the Labour Party.

Initially the CPGB tried to channel its activities through the Labour Party which at this time operated as a federation of left-wing bodies only allowing individual membership from 1918 onwards. However, despite the support of notable figures (such as the Independent Labour Party leader, James Maxton) the Labour Party decided against the affiliation of the Communist Party.

The 1920s and 30s

Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s the CPGB decided to follow the Leninist doctrine that a communist party should consist of revolutionary cadres and not be open to all comers. The CPGB as the British section of the Communist International was committed to carrying out the decisions of the higher body to which it was subordinate.

This proved to be a mixed blessing in the General Strike of 1926 immediately prior to which much of the central leadership of the CPGB was imprisoned. Another major problem for the party was its policy of abnegating its own role and calling upon the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to play a revolutionary role. This policy, it was argued by Leon Trotsky, was due to the alliance between the TUC and the Russian state in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee.

None the less during the strike itself and during the long drawn out agony of the following Miners Strike the members of the CPGB were to the fore in defending the strike and in attempting to develop solidarity with the miners. The result was that membership of the party in mining areas mushroomed through 1926 and 1927. Much of these gains would be lost during the Third Period but roots had been developed in certain areas that would continue until the party's demise decades later.

The CPGB did succeed in forging a layer of militants deeply committed to the party and its aims. Although this support was concentrated in particular trades specifically in heavy engineering, textiles and mining. And in addition tended to be concentrated regionally too in the coalfields, certain industrial cities such as Glasgow and in Jewish East London. Indeed, Maerdy in the Rhondda Valley along with Chopwell was one of a number of communities known as Little Moscow for their Communist tendencies.

But this layer of support built during the party's first years was imperilled during the Third Period from 1929 to 1932. The Third Period being the so called period of renewed revolutionary advance as it was dubbed by the leadership of the Comintern. The result of this period of advance was that the Social Democratic and Labourite parties were to be seen as equally as much a threat as openly fascist parties and were therefore described as being social-fascist. Any kind of alliance with social-fascists was obviously to be prohibited.

The Third Period also meant that the CPGB sought to develop red or revolutionary trade unions in rivalry to the established Trades Union Congress affiliated unions. They met with an almost total lack of success although a tiny handful of red unions were formed amongst them a miners union in Scotland and tailoring union in east london. Arthur Horner the Communist leader of the Welsh miners fought off attempts to found a similar union on his patch.

But even if the Third Period was by all conventional standards a total political failure it was the 'heroic' period of British communnism and one of its campaigns did have impact beyond its ranks. This was the National Unemployed Workers Movement led by Wal Hannington. Rsing levels of unemployment had led to a substantial number of CP members, especially those drawn from engineering, lacking work. This cadre of which Hannington and Harry MacShane in Scotland were emblematic, found a purpose in building the NUWM which led a number of marches on the unemployment issue during the 1930s. Although brn in the Third Period amidst the depths of the Great depression the NUWM was a major campaigning bosdy througout the Popular front period too only being dissolved in 1941.

After the victory of Hitler in Germany the Third Period was dropped by all Communist Parties as they switched to the policy of the Popular Front. This policy argued that as fascism was the main danger to the workers' movement, it needed to ally itself with all anti-fascist forces including right-wing democratic parties like the Conservatives. In Britain this policy expressed itself in the efforts of the CPGB to forge an alliance with the Labour Party, to which it had been hostile during the Third Period.

In the 1935 general election William Gallacher was elected as the communist party's first MP elected as a member of the party and not under the banner of the Labour Party as with its earlier MPs. Gallagher sat for West Fife in Scotland a coal mining region in which it had considerable support.

The 1940s and 50s

With the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 the CPGB, in line with other Communist Parties, supported the opposition to the war and denounced it as an imperialist war in which the working class had no side to take. This was opposed within the CPGB by no less a figure than Harry Pollitt who felt so strongly on the issue that he resigned from the Central Committee of the party although he remained a member. Through 1939 to 1941 then the CPGB was very active in supporting strikes and in denouncing the government for its pursuit of the war.

However when in 1941 Russia was invaded by the Nazis the CPGB reversed its stance immediately and came out in support of the war. In fact its support for the war was so vociferous that they launched a campaign for a Second Front in order to support Russia. In industry they also turned against strike action and supported the Joint Production Committees which aimed to increase productivity. Their patriotism became so marked that they actually supported the Conservative Party candidate in a bye-election in Cardiff in 1943 against Fenner Brockway of the Independent Labour Party.

The CPGB reached its peak in 1943 and in the 1945 general election, the communist party received 103,000 votes, and two Communists were elected as members of parliament one of whom was the aforementioned Gallacher, the other one was Phil Piratin who won Mile End in London's East End. Harry Pollitt failed by only 972 votes to take the Rhondda East constituency. Both Communist MPs however, lost their seats at the 1950 general election.

The party's membership peaked during 1943 reaching around 60,000. Despite boasting some leading intellectuals, especially historians, the British Communist party was still tiny compared to its continental European counterparts. The French Communist Party for instance had 800,000 members, and the Italian Communist Party had 1.7 million members.

In 1953 the party adopted a programmne called The British Road to Socialism which explicitly advocated the possibility of a peaceful reformist transition to socialism. The importance of this document is that it implicitly renounces the revolutionary purpose for which the party was founded in the first instance. The BRS would remain the programme of the CPGB until its dissolution in 1991 albeit in amended form and even today is the programme of the Communist Party of Britain which claims political continuity with the CPGB.

From the war years to 1956 the CPGB was at its apogee of influence in the labour movement with many union officials who were members. Not only did it have immense influence in the National Union of Mineworkers but it was extremely influential in the Electrians Trade Union and in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers the key blue collar union. In addition much of the Labour Party left was strongly influenced by the party. Dissidents were few, perhaps the most notable being Eric Heffer the future Labour MP who left the party in the late 1940s, and were easily dealt with. That is until the upheavals of 1956 and the workers' revolution in Hungary.

The death of Stalin and the uprising in East Germany were of little influence on the CPGB in themselves but they were harbingers of what was to come. Of more importance was Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was first published in English in The Observer newspaper, and then the events of 1956 in Poland and Hungary. Labour unrest in Poland and then in Hungary were to totally disrupt not only the CPGB but many other CP's as well. However in Britain the CPGB was to experience its greatest ever loss of membership as a result of the intervention of the Warsaw Pact armies and their crushing of the Central Workers Council in Budapest. All of which was at first reported in the pages of the Daily Worker by its correspondent in Budapest Peter Fryer. Fryer's reports were first censored as he reported on how the Hungarian workers had developed their own instruments of rule in the shape of the Central Workers' Council and Workers' Militias only to have them smashed by the Soviet armed forces.

Returning to Britain Fryer was expelled from the CPGB and was recruited to the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League and became editor of its newly launched Newsletter. Hundreds of other members of the CPGB were to follow his lead and joined the Trotskyist movement at this juncture. However the majority of people whop tore up their CPGB party cards at this time either dropped out of politics or became Labour Party members. Despite the mythology that came to dominate left discourse in later years the majority of those members leaving at this time were not petty bourgeois intellectuals but were just as likely to be blue collar manual workers, that is they came from the core of the party's ranks. It was at this time that despite their democratically won leadership of the ETU that the CP faction in that union chose to rig a union election which they would most likely have won in any case. The result was a further diminution of their influence in the workers movement.


After the calamitous events of 1956 the party increasingly functioned as a pressure group on the Labour Party seeking to use its well organised base in the trade union movement to push Labour leftwards. The Gollan leadership, wedded to the left social democratic ideas of the "British Road to Socialism", was incapable of presenting a clear revolutionary alternative to the working class. The "Daily Worker" was renamed the "Morning Star" as part of the process of open embrace of left social democratic ideas. At the same time the party became increasingly polarised between those who sought to maintain close relations with the Soviet Union and those who sught to convert the party into a force independent of Moscow.

With the international split between Moscow and Beijing in 1961 similar divisions were found in many Communist Parties. But in the relatively small British CP pro-Beijing sympathies were thin on the ground and only a tiny minority of CPGB members became Maoists. Perhaps the best known being McCreery whop formed the snappily named Committee to Defeat revisionism for Communist Unity. This tiny grouplet leaving the CPGB by 1963 to become the root of a number of tiny sects. McCreery himslef died in 1965.

Divisions in the CPGB concerning the autonomy of the party from Moscow reached a crisis when in 1968 Warsaw pact forces intervened in Czechoslovakia which the CPGB, with memories of 1956 in mind, responded to with criticism. From this time onwards the elements in the CPGB most traditionally minded were known as 'Tankies' by their enemies due to their support of the Warsaw Pact forces while their opponents in the party leaned more and more towards the position of eurocommunism who led the important Communist parties in Italy and later in Spain.

The last strong electoral performance of the CPGB was in the February 1974 General Election in Clydebank where candidate Jimmy Reid won almost 6,000 votes, but even this was really a personal vote for Reid who was a prominent local trade union leader. This vote being motivated by Reid's prominent role in the Upper Clyde Ship Builders work-in a few years earlier which was seen as having saved local jobs. Nationally the party's vote continued its decline as the CPGB pursued the British Road To Lost Deposits as the joke of the time went.

The growing crisis in the party also affected the credibility of its leadership as formerly senior and influential members left its ranks. In 1976 three of its top engineering cadres resigned. Jimmy Reid, Cyril Morton and John Tocher had all been members of the Political Committee, playing a crucial role in determining the direction of the party. Like another engineer, Bernard Panter, who left a few months before them, they jumped a sinking ship.

By 1977 debate around the new draft of "Britain's Road to Socialism" brought the party to breaking point and many of the anti-Eurocommunists decided that they needed to form their own anti-revisionist Communist party. Some speculated that they thought at this time that they would receive the backing of Moscow but this appears not to have materialised. The New Communist Party of Britain under the leadership of Sid French was formed. French being the Secretary of the then important Surrey District CP which had a strong base in engineering. Another grouping, led by Fergus Nicholson remained in the party launching the paper Straight Left which served as a mouthpiece for their views as well as an organising tool in their work within the Labour Party. He had earlier established a faction known as "Clause Four" within Labour's student movement. Nicholson wrote as Harry Steel a combination of the names of Stalin and Harry Pollitt. The group around Straight Left exerted considerable infuence in the trade union movement, CND, the Anti Apartheid Movement and amongst some Labour MPs.

On the opposing wing of the party Martin Jacques became the editor of the party's stale theoretical journal Marxism Today and rapidly made it a leading mouthpiece for Eurocommunist opinions in the party. Although circulation of the new glossy covered magazine rose appreciably it was still a drain on the finances of the small party.

In 1985 a factional struggle erupted in the CPGB. Members loyal to the Party's programme, Britain's Road to Socialism, established a network of Morning Star readers' groups and similar bodies. In 1988 these elements established their own party, based on Britain's Road to Socialism, which they named the Communist Party of Britain. In 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up, the eurocommunist-dominated leadership of the CPGB decided to disband, and renamed itself Democratic Left, a left-leaning political think tank rather than a political party. Supporters of The Leninist who had rejoined the CPGB in the early 1980s, declared their intention to reforge the Party, and held an emergency conference at which they claimed the name of the party. They are now known as the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) and number about 20. Today's Communist Party of Britain is seen as the successor to the CPGB, particularly as it is the only party legally entitled to refer to itself (within England, Wales and Scotland) as simply "the Communist Party".

See also: Rajani Palme Dutt

External links

  • Obituary: George Matthews (,,1454585,00.html) by Mike Power. The Guardian. Friday April 8, 2005. Retrieved April 17, 2005.

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