On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF).
It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Early members included Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot. McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB.
Willie Paul argued strongly against the strategy suggested by Lenin that the CPGB should develop a close-relationship with the Labour Party. "We of the Communist Unity Group feel our defeat on the question of Labour Party affiliation very keenly. But we intend to loyally abide by the decision of the rank and file convention... The comrades who voted in favour of the Labour Party were undoubtedly influenced by the arguments put forth on this question by Lenin, Radek, and many other Russian Communists. We believe that these heroic comrades, in urging Labour Party affiliation, have erred on a question of tactics. But we frankly admit that the very fact that Lenin, Radek, Bukharin, and the others advise such a policy is a very good reason why a number of delegates thought we were perhaps in the wrong."
Guy Aldred was another who opposed this strategy. "Lenin's task compels him to compromise with all the elect of bourgeois society, whereas our task demands no compromise. And so we take different paths, and are only on the most distant speaking terms". He wrote later: "I have no objection 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 moment's notice. But I want the centralism to be wished for and evolved by the local groups, a slow merging of them into one party, from the bottom upwards, as distinct from this imposition from the top downwards." Aldred went on to form the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF).
Albert Inkpin observed: "To me, as a silent participant, the National Convention amply justified those who, in the long and sometimes critical course of the unity discussions, held fast to negotiations in the belief that a way over the obstacles to unity would eventually present itself. Not the least striking feature of a remarkable gathering was the splendid manner in which the minority on the thorny subject of Labour Parity affiliation accepted the vote and showed their determination not to allow this minor question of tactics to be transformed into a fundamental question of principle. The Executive Committee, in considering the decision of the Convention, cannot fail to interpret the generous and tolerant spirit the majority undoubtedly feel towards the minority. The Communist Party is now a fact. Let us devote our energies and enthusiasm towards proving the Party, in numbers, vigour, and determination, worthy of the great and inspiring cause for which if stands. All power to the Communist Party of Great Britain."
Arthur McManus, who had been elected chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was impressed with the conference: "The Convention more than surpassed the best of my expectations. The feeling created was that, after all, everything involved in its preparation had been well worth while. ... The decisions were all well taken, and while I may have felt a pang of disappointment at being on the losing side on the Labour Party issue, I must say the battle was fought with healthy vigour and clean frankness, which augers well for the Communist Party."
William Gallacher was another revolutionary who was opposed to affiliation with the Labour Party. However, he changed his mind after meeting Lenin in Moscow. He later recalled: "It was on... the conception of the Party that the genius of Lenin had expressed itself... Before I left Moscow, I had an interview with Lenin during which he asked me three questions. Do you admit you were wrong on the question of Parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party? Will you join the CP when you return? Will you do your best to persuade your Scottish comrades to join it? To each of these questions I answered yes."
John R. Clynes, the leader of the Labour Party at the time, was also strongly opposed to working with the Communist Party of Great Britain: "In countries where no democratic weapon exists a class struggle for the enthronement of force by one class over other classes may be condoned, but in this country where the wage-earners possess 90 per cent of the voting power of the country agitation to use not the power which is possessed but some risky class dictatorship is a futile and dangerous doctrine."
Albert Inkpin was elected as National Secretary of the CPGB. Later that year he was prosecuted by the British authorities along with Bob Stewart, the National Organiser, for having printed and circulated Communist Party literature and was sentenced to six months in prison.
It is claimed that the CPGB had 2,500 members. Its attempts to affiliate with the Labour Party in 1921 ended in failure. A further attempt in 1922 was also unsuccessful.
Rajani Palme Dutt, Harry Pollitt and Albert Inkpin were charged with the task of implementing the organisational theses of the Comintern. As Jim Higgins has pointed out: "In the streamlined “bolshevised” party that came out of the re-organisation, all three signatories reaped the reward of their work. Inkpin was elected chairman of the Central Control Commission Dutt and Pollitt were elected to the party executive. Thus started the long and close association between Dutt and Pollitt. Palme Dutt, the cool intellectual with a facility for theoretical exposition, with friends in the Kremlin and Pollitt the talented mass agitator and organiser."
Shapurji Saklatvala became the party's candidate in North Battersea. His chances of victory increased significantly when his election agent, John Archer, persuaded the local Labour Party not to oppose Saklatvala. With the support of the Battersea Trades Council, Saklatvala won the seat in the 1922 General Election. In the 1923 General Election Saklatvala lost the seat to the Liberal Party candidate by 186 votes. However, he gained his revenge by beating the same candidate by 540 votes in the 1924 General Election.
On 4th August 1925, Tom Bell, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Harry Pollitt, Albert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, William Gallacher and John Campbell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.
Tom Bell explained: "The indictment against the twelve read as follows: That between 1 January, 1924, and 21 October, 1925, the prisoners had: 1. Conspired to publish a seditious libel. 2. Conspired to incite to commit breaches of the Incitement to Mutiny Act, 1797. 3. Conspired to endeavour to seduce persons serving in His Majesty's forces to whom might come certain published books and pamphlets, to wit, the Workers' Weekly, and certain other publications mentioned in the indictment, and to incite them to mutiny."
The Communist Party of Great Britain decided that William Gallacher, John R. Campbell and Harry Pollitt should defend themselves. Tom Bell added: "their speeches were prepared, and approved by the Political Bureau (of the CPGB). To challenge the legality of the proceedings Sir Henry Slesser was engaged to defend the others. During the trial Judge Swift declared that it was "no crime to be a Communist or hold communist opinions, but it was a crime to belong to this Communist Party."
John Campbell later wrote: "The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of “seditious” communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge’s offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months." It was believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending General Strike.
With Harry Pollitt in prison Bob Stewart was elected as acting General Secretary. He recalled: "This was a new role for me, and also in new conditions. Before, I was always one of those in jail looking out at the fight. Now I was outside and with a heavy responsibility. Thousands of branches of the Labour Party, the trade unions, hundreds of trades councils, poured in protests to the Home Office against the arrests and demanding the twelve be released."
At the time of the General Strike in 1926 the Communist Party had 10,730 members. In 1929 Harry Pollitt was elected as General Secretary of the CPGB. In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party refused to support Communist Party candidates. John Archer now became election agent to Stephen Sanders in North Battersea who easily defeated Shapurji Saklatvala.
Harry Pollitt was a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin in his attempts to purge the followers of Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. In the Daily Worker on 12th March, 1936 Pollitt argued that the proposed trial of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin represented "a new triumph in the history of progress". Later that year all sixteen men were found guilty and executed.
William Gallacher went to Moscow to express his concerns about the Great Purge. He went to see Georgi Dimitrov who told him: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." Gallacher took this advice and remained a staunch Stalinist. He told his family that "not speaking the language and being shepherded about everywhere, it was hard to know what was really going on."
Rajani Palme Dutt used his journal, the Labour Monthly, to defend the Great Purge. As Duncan Hallas pointed out: "He repeated every vile slander against Trotsky and his followers and against the old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin through the 1930s, praising the obscene parodies of trials that condemned them as Soviet justice".
On 8th August 1936, a group of doctors, medical students and nurses met in London to consider ways of sending medical help to Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Medical Association and addressed by Isabel Brown. As a result it was decided to form a Spanish Medical Aid Committee.
According to Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who was chosen to head British Medical Unit sent to Spain, the Communist Party of Great Britain played an important role in the establishment of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In his autobiography, Very Little Luggage, he describes being taken by Isobel Brown to be briefed by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the CPGB. However, Sinclair-Loutit insisted: "I was going to Spain with a medical unit supported by all shades of decent opinion in Britain. I felt that I had a very heavy responsibility towards its members and towards those who were sending us. We were a small unit and I was not going to do anything behind the backs of its members... I went on to say that a party fraction was being established in the Unit and since I was sure that its members had the work as much to heart as the rest of us it was hard to see why it had seemed necessary to create it." He then went on to complain about the addition of CPGP member, Hugh O'Donnell, to the unit.
The leadership of CPGB was also involved in the creation of the International Brigades. All the commanders of the British Battalion were party members. This included Wilfred Macartney, Tom Wintringham, George Aitken, Fred Copeman, Harry Fry, Bill Alexander and Sam Wild. The party also kept political control of the volunteers by appointing party members as political commissars. This included Wally Tapsell, Harry Dobson and Dave Springhill.
The rise of fascism in Germany and Italy increased support for the Communist Party and after the signing of the Munich Agreement, membership reached 15,570. Members included Mary Valentine Ackland, Bill Alexander, Felicia Browne, Christopher Caudwell, James Friell, Claude Cockburn, Fred Copeman, John Cornford, Patience Darton, Len Crome, Ralph Fox, Nan Green, Charlotte Haldane, John Haldane, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawn, Lou Kenton, David Marshall, Harry Dobson, Jessica Mitford, A. L. Morton, Esmond Romilly, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel, Alfred Sherman, Thora Silverthorne, E. P. Thompson, and Tom Wintringham.
Maxwell Knight was the head of B5b, a unit at MI5 that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. One of Knight's spies, Olga Grey joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, the CPGB national organizer. According to Francis Beckett, the author of The Enemy Within (1995): "Olga Gray worked for the CP for six years, from 1931 to 1937, first as a volunteer and then full time at King Street. She was surprised to find herself growing to like these Bolsheviks of whom she had heard such hair-raising things. When she began to help Percy Glading with a scheme to convey plans of a British gun to the Soviet Union, she found herself liking the man. Although Olga wanted to give up her job with MI5 Knight managed to persuade her to stay on until Glading was in the net."
Olga Gray accumulated proof that Glading had been recruiting sources inside the Woolwich Arsenal, and when the spy ring was arrested in January 1938, three of its members pleaded guilty to stealing secret blueprints and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Glading was sent to prison for six years. Harry Pollitt did not suspect Olga Gray, as he believed the traitor was Jack Murphy, one of the founders of the CPGB who had left the party over ideological issues.
Pollitt remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. He published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."
Stalin was furious with Pollitt's pamphlet as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."
William Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."
John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."
Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."
However, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, John R. Campbell and William Gallacher voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.
The CPGB put out a "War on Two Fronts" policy statement. It called for a real war against fascism and a political war against the government. It also demanded nationalisation of the arms industry and greater democracy in the armed forces.
Tom Wintringham, who had been expelled by the CPGB because he was living with Kitty Bowler, a non-party member who had been friendly with supporters of Leon Trotsky, argued that the new party line was "disastrous, wrong, non-Marxist, contrary to the interests of the working-class and of the revolution."
Fred Copeman was one of those who resigned from the Communist Party during this dispute: "It has yearly become harder to make excuses to my conscience each time an action of the Soviet Government or the Communist Party has cut across my interpretation of personal freedom. The decision of the Russian Government to withhold arms to the Spanish Republic, in order that the Spanish Communist Party could gain a political point, needed some understanding. The trials of old Bolsheviks were even harder to swallow. The Soviet attack on Finland I found hard to accept, but was unable to prove completely wrong. Their alliance with the Nazis in 1939, aligned with the complete reversal of policy by our own Communist Party, forced me to begin to look elsewhere for an ideology and philosophy so fundamentally true that it would be possible for me to find real happiness in giving my all in the struggle for its acceptance by mankind."
On 22nd June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That night Winston Churchill said: "We shall give whatever help we can to Russia." The CPGB immediately announced full support for the war and brought back Harry Pollitt as general secretary. Membership increased dramatically from 15,570 in 1938 to 56,000 in 1942.
In 1943 Dave Springhill was arrested and charged with obtaining secret information from an Air Ministry employee and an army officer and passing it to the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to seven years penal servitude. As Christopher Andrew points out in his book, The Defence of the Realm (2009): "The CPGB leadership reacted with shocked surprise to Springhall's conviction, expelling him from the Party and publicly distancing itself from any involvement in espionage... In order to emphasize its British identity, at the Sixteenth Party Congress in July 1943 the Party decided to call itself the British Communist Party"
William Gallacher was elected to represent East Fife in the 1945 General Election. Another member of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, was elected to represent Stepney. Piratin later recalled: "Gallacher was the straightest man in the world, we were like father and son." He was asked how the relationship worked: "It's quite simple: there are two of us and Gallacher is the elder, and therefore I automatically moved and he seconded that he should be the leader. He then appointed me as Chief Whip. Comrade Gallacher decides the policy and I make sure he carries it out."
In the House of Commons Gallacher and Piratin associated with a group of left-wing members that included John Platts-Mills, Konni Zilliacus, Lester Hutchinson, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, D. N. Pritt, Leslie Solley and William Warbey.
William Rust attempted to turn the Daily Worker into a popular mass paper. According to Francis Beckett: "He was a fine editor: a cynical boss who thumped the table in his furious rages, he nonetheless inspired journalists' best work. A tall and by now heavily built man, Rust was one of the Party's most able people, and one of the least likeable." Sales reached 120,000 in 1948.
Douglas Hyde, the news editor, later recalled: "We would sit in a room, just half a dozen of us, and talk about the political issues of the day." However, it was Rajani Palme Dutt who decided on the newspaper's policy. "When we had all had our say, Dutt would drape his arm over the arm of his chair - he had the longest arms I have ever seen - bang his pipe out on the sole of his shoe, and sum up. Often the summing up was entirely different from the conclusions we were all reaching, but no one ever argued."
In 1949, Peter Fryer covered the Hungarian Stalinist regime's show trial of Hungarian party leader, László Rajk fot the Daily Worker. As Terry Brotherstone has pointed out: "In good faith, he reported Rajk's 'confession' - made with the promise of being spared, but resulting in his execution - as proletarian justice. So, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about Stalinism at the 1956 Soviet Party congress were followed in Hungary by Rajk's cynical 'rehabilitation', Fryer's engagement with the CPGB's crisis was personal. The 'doubts and difficulties' shared by many members, for him meant confronting the part he felt he had played in Rajk's murder."
The CPGB opposition to the Cold War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made William Gallacher and Phil Piratin unpopular figures in post-war England and both were defeated when they stood in the 1950 General Election.
Sam Russell became diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Worker. In 1952 he covered show-trial of Czechoslovakian Communist Party general secretary Rudolf Slansky and 13 other party leaders. At the time he considered the evidence as genuine but according to Roger Bagley it was an experience which left a deep scar." In 1955 Russell was sent to Moscow. During this period he became friendly with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. According to Colin Chambers, "Russell found his attempts to report the experience of everyday life an irritant both to the Soviet authorities and his editor in London. The Soviet Communist party even asked for Russell to be withdrawn, but the British Communist party refused."
During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Sam Russell received a copy of this speech and asked permission to publish it in the Daily Worker. He argued that it would be better for the story to be published by a communist newspaper than in the capitalist press. This idea was rejected with the words: "Just because you are a friend does not mean you can look in our cupboard." As Colin Chambers points out: "Reuters duly broke the story, Russell missed a scoop, and his own version of the speech was cut to shreds by the Daily Worker."
Harry Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive". James Friell (Gabriel), the political cartoonist on the Daily Worker, argued that the newspaper should play its part in condemning Stalinism. He argued the newspaper should take the same approach as the Daily Worker in the United States. The editor, John Gates also encouraged debate on this issue by devoting one page of the newspaper to their readers' views: "The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature... Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years."
Gabriel drew a cartoon that showed two worried people reading the Nikita Khrushchev speech. Behind them loomed two symbolic figures labelled "humanity" and "justice". He added the caption: "Whatever road we take we must never leave them behind." As a fellow worker at the newspaper, Alison Macleod, pointed out in her book, The Death of Uncle Joe (1997): "This brought some furious letters from our readers. One of them called the cartoon the most disgusting example of the non-Marxist, anti-working class outbursts..." Macleod went on to point out that a large number of party members shared Friell's sentiments.
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.
Peter Fryer was in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising. Fryer, who was critical of the actions of the Soviet Union, found his reports in the Daily Worker were censored. Fryer responded by having the material published in the New Statesman. As a result he was suspended from the party for "publishing in the capitalist press attacks on the Communist Party." The loyal Sam Russell was now sent to the country to report on the uprising.
James Friell condemned John R. Campbell, the editor of the newspaper for supporting the invasion. He told Campbell: "How could the Daily Worker keep talking about a counter-revolution when they have to call in Soviet troops? Can you defend the right of a government to exist with the help of Soviet troops? Gomulka said that a government which has lost the confidence of the people has no right to govern." When Campbell refused to publish a cartoon by Friell on the Hungarian Uprising he left the newspaper and the CPGB.
Over 7,000 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned over what happened in Hungary. This included Peter Fryer, who was in Budapest at the time of the invasion. He later recalled: "The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such."
Harry Pollitt responded to the crisis by resigning as General Secretary of the CPGB. However, Rajani Palme Dutt continued to remain loyal to the Soviet Union and in 1968 disagreed with the the CPGB opposition to the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia.
Following the collapse of the communist government in the Soviet Union, the 6,300 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991 renamed themselves the Democratic Left. Some members left to form the Communist Party of Britain.