For the last 46 years the Communist Party has played a part in left-wing politics in Britain out of all proportion to its membership and electoral support. Other left-wing Socialist groups, organizations, campaigns and journals have come and gone. But the continued existence of the Communist Party, despite very considerable fluctuations in fortunes and policies and notwithstanding periodic calls on it from Labour circles to disband, has at no time been seriously in question. Though one or two more or less unsatisfactory short histories and profiles have appeared, it is only now that we have a fully documented study of a prolonged period of the party’s history. Dr. L. J. Macfarlane’s The British Communist Party: Its Origin and Development until 1929footnote1 now painstakingly relates the events of the crucial early years of the Party’s life. His chronicle provides an extremely useful record of its internal debates and public pronouncements in this period, an understanding of which is essential for a proper assessment of its subsequent development and role.

Himself a member of the party from 1942–48 he declares his intention in his introduction to approach the subject ‘from the point of view of an informed British socialist of the 1920’s, accepting the broad principles of Marxism, sympathetic to the aims of the Communist Party but aware of its shortcomings’. In happy contrast to Henry Pelling’s hastily assembled study of the party’s history—where its members are viewed as a band of British citizens sacrificing themselves in the service of a foreign dictatorshipfootnote2—Macfarlane sees them ‘as part of the British working-class movement, pursuing a policy which in many ways commended itself to left-wing Socialists in the nineteen twenties’.

Sticking very closely to the documentary record, however, he never really succeeds in bringing alive the events (often stirring) and the personalities (many of them very colourful) in the story. Whilst his book was obviously not intended to be on the same plane as the various memoirs of participants, in conjunction with which it should be read, he names in his preface a number of leaders and rank-and-file members of the Party in the 1920’s with whom he had long discussions and consultations. His questions to them must have been of a fairly dry, factual nature. My own recollections of talking to some of these people are principally of racy descriptions of incidents and people, full of verve, conveying something of the spirit of the times and the atmosphere in the Party and the Comintern amidst the great controversies. Discussions with Labour Party members of the time as to how they reacted to the Communist Party in these different periods, whether and at what times they thought of joining the Party, and what were the considerations that prevented them, could have provided material for a sociological consideration of why—though Communists were sometimes the acknowledged and respected leaders of hundreds of thousands of workers as in the National Minority Movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement—the membership of the party in these years never went above the peak of 10,700. (This was the total reached immediately after the General Strike; the average party membership was about 5,000 over the whole decade—nearly seven times smaller than it is today). In the absence of such an approach, designed to show what made the members of the party ‘tick’ and accounting for the ebb and flow of their fortunes among the British workers at grass roots level, Macfarlane’s history, for all its merits and concern for factual detail, remains one-dimensional and incapable of doing full justice to its subject.

The major weakness of Macfarlane’s book is certainly its failure to place the history of the Communist Party in the context of the history of the British working class as a whole in the 1920’s, to relate it to the history and development of the other organizations of the Labour movement, above all the Labour Party, and to the political, economic and social evolution of Britain at the time. Some sketch of this background is vital to an understanding of the party’s policies and fortunes. Without it the impression is, albeit unwittingly, often created of the party functioning and taking its decisions (or having them taken for it in Moscow) almost independently of the events in the midst of which (and so often in response to which) British Communists discussed and campaigned. (The account of the party’s role in the General Strike is largely a happy exception to this). Thus, in particular, the wave of militant struggle developing in 1918–19 on the eve of the party’s formation, the capitalist counter-attack of 1920–21 and the outbreak of the world economic crisis in 1929 are scarcely noticed by Macfarlane, and certainly in no way shown as determining Communist thinking and the lines of the party’s main public campaigns.

It is strange that in the ‘hectic six years’ that his publishers tell us he spent as a member of the Communist Party, Macfarlane should have been so little influenced by a Marxist approach to history, the fruitfulness of which is particularly evident in the field of labour history where such a large proportion of the serious work in Britain in recent years has been by Marxists or those very considerably influenced by Marxism. Macfarlane’s book is methodologically analogous with contemporary academic ‘Sovietology’—a study of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the summit in isolation from Soviet society—but without its political bias. This, more than individual errors of fact correctly indicated by some other reviewers but in general of a secondary character, represents the real limitation of the book in rendering a truthful account of its subject.

Like the Communist Parties of other countries, the cpgb was born under the impetus of the October Revolution in Russia and the revolutionary events that shook Europe at the end of the First World War. But unlike most of the others it was not the result of a split in the major socialist party of the country. This was due essentially to the nature of the British Labour Party which developed along very different lines from the continental Social Democratic parties. From its inception the Labour Party was a federation of working-class and Socialist organizations and societies. Thus, with the trade union affiliations that have always formed its mass base ensuring that its membership has always comprised a far larger proportion of the working class (and a fortiori of the population as a whole) than the Socialist and Social Democratic parties of other countries, its ideological commitment to Socialism, even after the adoption of its first Socialist programme in 1918, has remained in practice minimal. Whereas after the Russian Revolution splits in the Social Democratic parties of such countries as Germany, France and Italy, from which the new Communist Parties emerged (sometimes with the support of the majority of the old party), followed heated debates dividing their leaders and members on which was the correct Marxist policy for the working class, the leaders of the Labour Party remained solidly anti-Marxist parliamentary politicians, whilst the great bulk of the rank and file did not transcend what Lenin called a ‘trade union’ as opposed to a socialist consciousness. (The deep-seated reformism and constitutionalism of the bulk of the British working class—not incompatible with at times exceptionally strong industrial militancy and class feeling—reflect attitudes generated by Britain’s former long-held privileged economic position in the world and the absence of any revolutionary upheaval in this country for three centuries which have been major factors restricting the growth of the Communist Party in Britain.

It was therefore not from the political mainstream of the British Labour movement but essentially from a fusion of the small Marxist and semi-Marxist organizations, by far the largest of which was the British Socialist Party,footnote3 that the Communist Party was born. The story of its formation in 1920 and of its early years is largely the story of its struggle to transcend the dogmatism and sectarianism of these early bodies and to weld their former members into a united revolutionary party that would not only be a propaganda society but also a mass campaigning organization integrated with the rest of the Labour movement. Nevertheless since its formation, like its predecessors, it has remained a small minority party in that movement totally overshadowed in size by the Labour Party, although its members have played a very important part in the trade union movement and other working class organizations, providing them with some of their most popular and effective leaders. In this it has taken over and extended a tradition from the Social Democratic Federation (that preceded the British Socialist Party) which despite its sectarianism and political isolation was to furnish some outstanding mass leaders of working class struggle. One has only to think of the role of Tom Mann and John Burns in the Great Dock Strike of 1889 and the rise of the New Unions. Eric Hobsbawm has rightly indicated the importance of the Social Democratic Federation and Hyndman personally (despite his many and varied weaknesses) in helping to secure the assimilation of Marxism by a native working class vanguard who were to provide the Communist Party in Britain with ‘a first rate group of native proletarian leaders much earlier than many much larger parties of its kind (e.g. Horner, Pollitt, Campbell, Gallacher)’.footnote4