The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was a British communist party which was the largest communist party in Great Britain, although it never became a mass party like those in France and Italy. It existed from 1920 to 1991.
Founded in 1920 by the merger of several smaller Marxist parties, the party gained the support of many socialist organisations and worker's committees during the period after World War I and the Russian October Revolution. Many miners joined the party through 1926 and 1927 after the General Strike of 1926. In 1945 two Communist Party MPs won seats in the general election. From 1945 to 1956 the party was at the height of its influence. It experienced its greatest loss of membership after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the party's Eurocommunist leadership decided to disband the party, establishing the Democratic Left think tank. The anti-Eurocommunist faction had launched the Communist Party of Britain in 1988.
Communist Party of Great Britain
|Founded||31 July 1920|
|Dissolved||23 November 1991|
|Colours||Red and Yellow|
The Communist Party of Great Britain 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 Communist Unity Group of the Socialist Labour Party and the South Wales Socialist Society. The party also gained the support of the Guild Communists faction of the National Guilds League, assorted shop stewards' and workers' committees, socialist clubs and individuals and many former members of the Hands Off Russia campaign. Several branches and many individual members of the Independent Labour Party also affiliated. As a member of the British Socialist Party, the Member of Parliament Cecil L'Estrange Malone joined the CPGB.
In January 1921, the CPGB was refounded after the majorities of Sylvia Pankhurst's group the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), and the Scottish Communist Labour Party agreed to unity. The party benefited from a period of increased political radicalism in Britain just after the First World War and the Russian Revolution of October 1917, and was also represented in Britain by the Red Clydeside movement.
During the negotiations leading to the initiation of the party a number of issues were hotly contested. Among the most contentious were the questions of "parliamentarism" and the attitude of the Communist Party to the Labour Party. "Parliamentarism" referred to a strategy of contesting elections and working through existing parliaments. It was a strategy associated with the parties of the Second International and it was partly for this reason that it was opposed by those who wanted to break with Social Democracy. Critics contended that parliamentarism had caused the old parties to become devoted to reformism because it had encouraged them to place more importance on winning votes than on working for socialism, that it encouraged opportunists and place-seekers into the ranks of the movement and that it constituted an acceptance of the legitimacy of the existing governing institutions of capitalism. Similarly, affiliation to the Labour Party was opposed on the grounds that communists should not work with 'reformist' Social Democratic parties. These Left Communist positions enjoyed considerable support, being supported by Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher among others. However, the Russian Communist Party took the opposing view. In 1920, Vladimir Lenin argued in his essay "Left Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder that the CPs should work with reformist trade unions and social democratic parties because these were the existing organisations of the working class. Lenin argued that if such organisations gained power, they would demonstrate that they were not really on the side of the working class, thus workers would become disillusioned and come over to supporting the Communist Party. Lenin's opinion prevailed eventually.
Initially, therefore, the CPGB attempted to work within the Labour Party, which at this time operated mainly as a federation of left-wing bodies, only having allowed individual membership since 1918. However, despite the support of James Maxton, the Independent Labour Party leader, the Labour Party decided against the affiliation of the Communist Party. Even while pursuing affiliation and seeking to influence Labour Party members, however, the CPGB promoted candidates of its own at parliamentary elections.
Following the refusal of their affiliation, the CPGB encouraged its members to join the Labour Party individually and to seek Labour Party endorsement or help for any candidatures. Several Communists thus became Labour Party candidates, and in the 1922 general election, Shapurji Saklatvala and Walton Newbold were both elected.
The affair of the forged Zinoviev Letter occurred in late October 1924. Intended to suggest that the Communist Party in Britain was engaged in subversive activities among the armed forces and elsewhere, the forgery's aim being to promote the electoral chances of the Conservative Party in the general election of 29 October. It was probably the work of SIS (MI6) or White Russian counter revolutionaries.
Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s the CPGB decided to maintain the doctrine that a communist party should consist of revolutionary cadres and not be open to all applicants. The CPGB as the British section of the Communist International was committed to implementing 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. Twelve were charged with "seditious conspiracy". Five were jailed for a year and the others for six months. 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.
Nonetheless 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 increased greatly through 1926 and 1927. Much of these gains would be lost during the Third Period but influence was developed in certain areas that would continue until the party's demise decades later.
The CPGB did succeed in creating a layer of militants very committed to the party and its policies, 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 in Tyne and Wear were two of a number of communities known as Little Moscow for their Communist tendencies.
But this support built during the party's first years was imperiled 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 (now Stalinised) leadership of the Comintern. The result of this "class against class" policy was that the Social Democratic and Labourite parties were to be seen as equally as much a threat as the 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 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 communism and one of its campaigns did have impact beyond its ranks. This was the National Unemployed Workers' Movement led by Wal Hannington. Increasing unemployment had caused a substantial increase in the 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 resulted in a number of marches on the unemployment issue during the 1930s. Although born in the Third Period during the Great depression, the NUWM was a major campaigning body throughout the Popular Front period too, only being dissolved in 1941.
After the victory of Adolf 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. In Britain this policy expressed itself in the efforts of the CPGB to forge an alliance with the Labour Party and even with forces to the right of Labour.
In the 1935 general election Willie Gallacher was elected as the Communist Party's first MP in six years, and their first MP elected against Labour opposition. Gallacher sat for West Fife in Scotland, a coal mining region in which it had considerable support. During the 1930s the CPGB opposed the Conservative government's policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. On the streets the party members played a leading role in the struggle against the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley whose Blackshirts tried to emulate the Nazis in anti-Semitic actions in London and other major British cities.
With the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the CPGB initially continued to support the struggle on two fronts (against Chamberlain at home and Nazi fascism abroad). Following the Molotov–Ribbentrop nonaggression pact on August 23 between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Comintern immediately changed its position. The British party immediately fell in line, campaigning for peace, and describing the war as the product of imperialism on both sides, and in which the working class had no side to take. This was opposed within the CPGB by Harry Pollitt and J. R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, and both were relieved of their duties in October 1939. Pollitt was replaced by Palme Dutt. From 1939 until 1941 the CPGB was very active in supporting strikes and in denouncing the government for its pursuit of the war.
However, when in 1941 the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, the CPGB reversed its stance immediately and came out in support of the war on the grounds that it had now become a war between fascism and the Soviet Union. Pollitt was restored to his old position as Party Secretary. In fact, the Communists' support for the war was so vociferous that they launched a campaign for a Second Front in order to support the USSR and speed the defeat of the Axis. In industry they now opposed strike action and supported the Joint Production Committees, which aimed to increase productivity, and supported the National Government that was led by Winston Churchill (Conservative) and Clement Attlee (Labour). At the same time, given the influence of Rajani Palme Dutt in the Party, the issue of Indian independence and the independence of colonies was emphasised.
In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party received 103,000 votes, and two Communists were elected as members of parliament, Willie Gallacher was returned and Phil Piratin was newly elected, as the MP for 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 was keen to demonstrate its loyalty to Britain's industrial competitiveness as stepping point towards socialism. At the 19th Congress, Harry Pollitt asked rhetorically, "why do we need to increase production?" Answering "to pay for what we are compelled to import. To retain our independence as a nation."
The party's membership peaked during 1943, reaching around 60,000. Despite boasting some leading intellectuals, especially among the Communist Party Historians Group, the 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. The Party tried, unsuccessfully, to affiliate to the Labour Party in 1935, 1943 and 1946.
In 1951 the party issued a programme, The British Road to Socialism (officially adopted at the 22nd Congress in April 1952), which explicitly advocated the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism – but only after it had been personally approved by Stalin himself, according to some historians. The BRS would remain the programme of the CPGB until its dissolution in 1991 albeit in amended form and today is the programme of the breakaway Communist Party of Britain.
From the war years to 1956 the CPGB was at the height of its 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 Electrical 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.
The death of Stalin in 1953, and the uprising in East Germany the same year had little direct influence on the CPGB, but they were harbingers of what was to come. Of more importance was Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin. According to George Matthews, Khrushchev made a deal with the CPGB to provide a secret annual donation to the party of more than £100,000 in used notes. Labour unrest in Poland in 1956 disrupted not only the CPGB, but many other Communist Parties as well. The CPGB was to experience its greatest ever loss of membership as a result of the Warsaw Pact's crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.: "[T]he events of 1956 ... saw the loss of between one-quarter and one-third of Party members, including many leading intellectuals." This event was initially covered in the CPGB-sponsored Daily Worker, by correspondent Peter Fryer, but as events unfolded the stories were spiked. On his return to Britain Fryer resigned from the Daily Worker and was expelled from the party.
After the calamitous events of 1956, the party increasingly functioned as a pressure group, seeking to use its well-organised base in the trade union movement to push the Labour Party leftwards. Trade unionists in the party in 1968 included John Tocher, George Wake, Dick Etheridge and Cyril Morton (AEU); Mick McGahey, Arthur True and Sammy Moore (NUM); Lou Lewis (UCATT) and Max Morris (NUT). Ken Gill became the party's first elected officer in 1968 and ex-Communist Hugh Scanlon was elected president of the AEU with Broad Left support the previous year – defeating Reg Birch, the Maoist ex-party candidate. The Broad Left went on to help elect Ray Buckton (Aslef), Ken Cameron (FBU), Alan Sapper (ACTT) and Jack Jones (TGWU) in 1969. Gerry Pocock, Assistant Industrial Organiser described the industrial department as "a party within a party", and Marxism Today editor James Klugmann would routinely defer to Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson on matters of policy.
The party's orientation, though, was to the left union officers, not the rank and file. Historian Geoff Andrews' explains 'it was the role of the shop stewards in organising the Broad Lefts and influencing trade union leaders that was the key rather than organising the rank and file in defiance of leaderships' and so the party withdrew from rank-and-file organisations like the Building Workers' Charter, and attacked "Trotskyist" tactics at the Pilkington Glass dispute in 1970.
Still the party's efforts to establish an electoral base repeatedly failed. They retained a handful of seats in local councils scattered around Britain, but the CPGB's only representative in Parliament was in the House of Lords, gained when Wogan Philipps, the son of a ship-owner and a long-standing member of the CPGB, inherited the title of Lord Milford when his father died in 1963.
The Daily Worker was renamed the Morning Star in 1966. At the same time the party became increasingly polarised between those who sought to maintain close relations with the Soviet Union and those who sought to convert the party into a force independent of Moscow.
The international split between Moscow and Beijing in 1961 led to divisions within many Communist Parties but there was little pro-Beijing sympathy in the relatively small British Party. Perhaps the best known of the tiny minority of CPGB members who opposed the Moscow line was Michael McCreery, who formed the Committee to Defeat Revisionism, for Communist Unity. This tiny group left the CPGB by 1963. McCreery himself died in 1965 in New Zealand. Later a more significant group formed around Reg Birch, an engineering union official, established the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Initially, this group supported the position of the Communist Party of China.
Divisions in the CPGB concerning the autonomy of the party from Moscow reached a crisis in 1968, when Warsaw pact forces intervened in Czechoslovakia. The CPGB, with memories of 1956 in mind, responded with some very mild criticism of Moscow, refusing to call it an invasion, preferring "intervention". Three days after the invasion, John Gollan said "we completely understand the concern of the Soviet Union about the security of the socialist camp ... we speak as true friends of the Soviet Union".
Even this response provoked a small localised split by the so-called Appeal Group which was in many respects a precursor of the 1977 split which formed the New Communist Party. From this time onwards, the most traditionally-minded elements in the CPGB were referred to as 'Tankies' by their internal opponents, due to their support of the Warsaw Pact forces. Others within the party leaned increasingly towards the position of eurocommunism, which was the leading tendency within the important Communist parties of Italy and, later, Spain.
"The mid-1970s saw Gramscians" otherwise known as Euro-Communists "take leading positions within the party". Sue Slipman, Executive Committee 1975, and Marxism Today editorial board; Jon Bloomfield, former Student organiser became West Midlands District Sec.; Dave Cook became National Organiser in 1975; Pete Carter prominent in UCATT; Beatrix Campbell and Judith Hunt active in National Women's Advisory; Jacques, on the EC since 1967 and replacing James Klugmann on Marxism Today in 1977; Sarah Benton was a "heresy" favouring editor of Comment; critics from the past, like Eric Hobsbawm and Monty Johnstone, got more influence.
The last strong electoral performance of the CPGB was in the February 1974 General Election in Dunbartonshire Central, where candidate Jimmy Reid won almost 6,000 votes. However, this strong result was primarily a personal vote for Reid, who was a prominent local trade union leader and gained much support because of his prominent role in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, which had taken place a few years earlier and was seen as having saved local jobs. Nationally the party's vote continued its decline: according to a contemporary joke, the CPGB at this time pursued the British Road to Lost Deposits.
The Euro-Communists in the party apparatus were starting to challenge the authority of the trade union organisers. At the 1975 Congress, Dave Purdy proposed that "the labour movement should declare its willingness to accept voluntary pay restraint as a contribution to the success of the programme and a way of easing the transition to a socialist economy" – a challenge to the Industrial Department's policy of "free collective bargaining".
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.
According to the Party's official historian this period was marked by a growing division between the practitioners of cultural politics – heavily inspired by the writings of Antonio Gramsci and party's powerful industrial department which advocated a policy of militant labourism.
The cultural politics wing had dominated the party's youth wing in the 1960s and was also powerful in the student section. As such many of its members were academics or professional intellectuals (or in the view of their opponents, out of touch and middle class). They were influenced by the environmental and especially the feminist movement.
The other wing were powerful in senior levels of the trade union movement (though few actually reached the very top in the unions) and despite the party's decline in numbers were able to drive the TUC's policy of opposing the Industrial Relations Act. In the view of their opponents on the cultural or eurocommunist wing, they were out of touch with the real changes in working people's lives and attitudes.
As the seventies progressed and as industrial militancy declined in the face of high unemployment, the tensions in the party rose even as its membership continued to decline.
By 1977 debate around the new draft of the British Road to Socialism brought the party to breaking point. Many of the anti-Eurocommunists decided that they needed to form their own anti-revisionist Communist party. Some speculated at the time that they would receive the backing of Moscow, but such support appears not to have materialised. The New Communist Party of Britain was formed under the leadership of Sid French, who was the secretary of the important Surrey District CP, which had a strong base in engineering.
Another grouping, led by Fergus Nicholson, remained in the party and launched the paper Straight Left. This served as an outlet for their views as well as an organising tool in their work within the Labour Party. Nicholson had earlier taken part in establishing a faction known as "Clause Four" within Labour's student movement. Nicholson wrote as "Harry Steel", a combination of the names of Stalin ("man of steel" in Russian) and Harry Pollitt. The group around Straight Left exerted considerable influence in the trade union movement, CND, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and amongst some Labour MPs.
Under the influence of Eric Hobsbawm on the opposing wing of the party Martin Jacques became the editor of the party's theoretical journal Marxism Today and rapidly made it a significant publication for Eurocommunist opinions in the party, and eventually for revisionist tendencies in the wider liberal-left, in particular for the soft left around Neil Kinnock in the Labour Party. Although circulation of the magazine rose it was still a drain on the finances of the small party.
As early as 1983, Martin Jacques "thought the CP was unreformable ... but stayed in because he needed its subsidy to continue publishing Marxism Today." Jacques' conviction that the party was finished "came as a nasty shock to some of his comrades" like Nina Temple, who "as unhappy as Jacques himself, stayed on only out of loyalty to Jacques."
In 1984 a long-simmering dispute between the majority of the leadership and an anti-Eurocommunist faction (associated with party industrial and trade union activists) flared up when the London District Congress was closed down for insisting on giving full rights to comrades who had been suspended by the Executive Committee. After the General Secretary closed the Congress a number of members remained in the room (in County Hall in South London) and held what was, in effect, the founding meeting of a breakaway party, although the formal split did not come until four years later. Members of the minority faction set about founding a network of Morning Star readers' groups and similar bodies, calling themselves the Communist Campaign Group. In 1988 these elements formally split from the CPGB to organise a new party known as the Communist Party of Britain. This was considered by many in the anti-eurocommunist faction, including national executive members like Barry Williams, to be the death of the 'Party'.
In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Eurocommunist-dominated leadership of the CPGB, led by Nina Temple, decided to disband the party, and establish Democratic Left, a left-leaning political think tank rather than a political party. Democratic Left itself dissolved in 1999, to be replaced by the New Politics Network, which in turn merged with Charter 88 in 2007. This merger formed Unlock Democracy, which was involved in the campaign for a yes vote in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum.
Some Scottish members formed the Communist Party of Scotland, others Democratic Left Scotland and Democratic Left Wales Chwith Ddemocrataidd, which still continues. 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 they publish the Weekly Worker. But the Communist Party of Britain is the designated 'Communist Party' in the UK by the Electoral Commission. In 2008 members of the Party of the European Left, which contains several former 'official' Communist Parties in Europe, established a non-electoral British section.
|Election year||# of total votes||% of overall vote||# of seats won|
|1974 (Feb.) ||32,743||0.1%||0|
|1974 (Oct.) ||17,426||0.1%||0|
|Took Office||Left Office||Prime Minister|
|31 July 1920||July 1928[notes 1]||Lloyd George |
|J. R. Campbell
|February 1929[notes 2]||May 1929|
|July 1929[notes 3]||October 1939||MacDonald |
|Rajani Palme Dutt
|October 1939||June 1941|
|June 1941||13 May 1956|
|13 May 1956||11 March 1975|
|11 March 1975||13/14 January 1990|
|13/14 January 1990||23 November 1991|
|1920||Foundation Congress||London||31 July – 1 August|
|1921||2nd Congress||Leeds||29–30 January|
|1921||3rd Congress||Manchester||23–24 April|
|1922||4th Congress||St Pancras Town Hall, London||18–19 March|
|1922||5th Congress||Battersea Town Hall, London||7–8 October|
|1924||6th Congress||Caxton Hall, Salford||16–18 May|
|1925||7th Congress||St Mungo Hall, Glasgow||30 May – 1 June|
|1926||8th Congress||Battersea Town Hall, London||16–17 October|
|1927||9th Congress||Caxton Hall, Salford||8–10 October|
|1929||10th Congress||London||19–22 January|
|1929||11th Congress||Leeds||30 November-3 December|
|1932||12th Congress||London||12–15 November|
|1935||13th Congress||Manchester||2–5 February|
|1937||14th Congress||London||29–31 May|
|1938||15th Congress||Birmingham||16–19 September|
|1943||16th Congress||London||3–4 October|
|1944||17th Congress||London||28–29 October|
|1945||18th Congress||London||24–26 November|
|1947||19th Congress||London||22–24 February|
|1948||20th Congress||London||21–23 February|
|1949||21st Congress||Liverpool||26–28 November|
|1952||22nd Congress||London||11–14 April|
|1954||23rd Congress||London||16–19 April|
|1956||24th Congress||Battersea Town Hall, London||30 March–2 April|
|1957||25th Congress||Hammersmith Town Hall, London||19–22 April|
|1959||26th Congress||St Pancras Town Hall, London||27–30 March|
|1961||27th Congress||St Pancras Town Hall, London||31 March–3 April|
|1963||28th Congress||London||12–15 April|
|1965||29th Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||27–30 November|
|1967||30th Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||25–28 November|
|1969||31st Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||15–18 November|
|1971||32nd Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||13–16 November|
|1973||33rd Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||10–12 November|
|1975||34th Congress||Camden Town Hall, London||15–18 November|
|1977||35th Congress||12–15 November|
|1979||36th Congress||St Pancras Assembly Room, London||10–13 November|
|1981||37th Congress||14–17 November|
|1983||38th Congress||12–15 November|
|1985||39th Congress||18–20 May|
|1987||40th Congress||14–17 November|
|1989||41st Congress||25–28 November|
|1990||42nd Congress||8–9 December|
|1991||43rd Congress||Congress House, London||22–24 November|
Tankie was a pejorative term referring to those members of the Communist Party of Great Britain that followed the Kremlin line, agreeing with the crushing of revolts in Hungary and later Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks; or more broadly, those who followed a traditional pro-Soviet position.
The term originated as a phrase for British hardline members of the Communist Party. Journalist Peter Paterson asked Amalgamated Engineering Union official Reg Birch about his election to the CPGB Executive after the Hungarian invasion:
The support of the invasion of Hungary was disastrous for the party's credibility. The CPGB opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, though a hardline faction supported it. The Party's newspaper, Morning Star, was banned in the Warsaw Pact countries during that time as the paper opposed the invasion.