When founded in 1920, Britain’s Communist Party brought together militant socialists and trade unionists who understood the need for a revolutionary change in society. They were inspired by the world’s first workers’ state, Soviet Russia, led by V.I. Lenin.
But they were also repelled by the mass slaughter of the First World War. Britain needed a party that would fight capitalism and imperialism, unlike the labour leaders who preferred collaboration and surrender. Its ranks and leadership were drawn from those who had fought in the trenches, militant working class suffragettes and shop steward leaders from industry on the Home Front.
Despite its small size and the imprisonment of its national leadership, it played an outstanding role in the 1926 General Strike. Throughout the 1930s, it led the unemployed workers movement and the fight against fascism, with hundreds of members losing their lives as volunteers in the International Brigades, which fought in defence of democracy and independence for republican Spain. The Communist Party is widely credited with leading the forces that blocked Oswald Mosley’s fascists and bringing pressure on the government over its capitulation to Mussolini when he invaded Ethiopia and when Chamberlain sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Treaty.
During the Second World War, it campaigned tirelessly for the opening of a ‘second front’ to confront Hitler in the west, with the party achieving its biggest membership, based in mines, factories and farms, driving the war on the home front, with thousands of members enrolled in all branches of the armed forces. It led the fight for women’s equality in the war factories, for servicemen’s pay and widows pensions as well as for deep shelter safety in the ARP. Communists are widely recognised for their role in keeping the docks running during the blitz of London’s East End in 1940 and war engineering in Coventry when that city was relentlessly bombed.
Communists were elected to Parliament in the first election after the war with 100s of local councillors elected. The labour government owed much to the campaigning capacity of the Communist Party locally and its healthy relationship with local activist labour parties. The Daily Worker, the Communist Party daily paper (which the government had outlawed in 1940 but which continued to print and circulate underground), converted to a cooperative, with new premises and presses and thousands of trade union, coop and women groups acting as shareholders. The Daily Worker became the Morning Star in 1968 and its cooperative character continues today.
In 1951 the first edition of the Party’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, was published. This stated that Britain must achieve socialism by its own path, using mass struggle to transform Parliament into a democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of the people.
The importance of democracy was further underlined by revelations, at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, about the crimes and injustices committed during the Stalin era. The Communist Party recognised that, in popularising the achievements of socialism and in combating the threat of Hitler and anti-Soviet hysteria, it had in some cases been forced to defend the indefensible.
In the post-war period, the Communist Party took the lead in opposing the Cold War and nuclear weapons, actively opposing war against Korea and Vietnam and playing a leading role in the creation of CND. Almost alone in the labour movement, it called for parliaments for the peoples of Wales and Scotland. Based in the working class movement, it led the fight against anti-trade union laws. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions united Communist and non-Communist militants in mass one-day stoppages in 1968, 1970 and 1971. The last of these moved the TUC to call a one-day General Strike, thereby defeating the legislation.
Alongside other left-wingers, Communists also gave the lead in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in and the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes. Powerful Communist and broad left organisations were built in many workplaces and unions. The movement looked to the Communist Party for its sense of purpose and strategy and an ability to mobilise numbers of workers to act to defend their jobs and industry. Its highly respected support for the unemployed during the 1930s in the form of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, logically made it the ideal choice for organising the various ‘People’s March for Jobs’ organised under the banner of the TUC in the 1980s.
Whilst campaigning publicly, a number of its younger members, were quietly working inside South Africa as part of the armed action to overthrow apartheid. Communists in Britain led the solidarity and anti apartheid movements. Some members were doing similar work on behalf of the Chilean people.
These very successes of the Communist Party made it a particular target of the capitalist class. Having failed by ‘red scare’ techniques, including large scale bans and sacking of members in civil and public service, the ruling class were unable to isolate the Party from its roots. Even today, with all the anti communist media hysteria, there remains a recognition in many working class communities of the role the Communist Party played in defending the peoples rights and interests. Alongside the Communist Party is the Young Communist League, growing again after many years, an activist and campaigning political youth organisation committed to socialism.
But the pressure of the Cold War took its toll and some members and leaders, influenced by the ideas of ‘Eurocommunism’ succumbed to reformist ideas and the party was temporarily wound up. Despite this, many members rallied to re establish the party in 1991 and since then it has re rooted itself in most major cities and many communities. Wherever you see a fight for pay by workers, for housing by local communities, for peace amongst anti war activists and against racism and the dark acts of imperialism, you will invariably find a Communist Party member or branch, active and pushing for social change.
The Communist Party is a contributor to the International Movement of Communist and Workers Parties which brings together the Communist Parties of Russia and China, Britain, South Africa Ireland and Brazil and over 100 other countries around the world. The Communist Party has recently achieved new recognition as the only party to consistently oppose membership of the EU with its restrictive treaties and increasingly belligerent policies, its austerity, unelected structures of governance and support for fascist forces in the East, particularly in the Ukraine. The party played a role in attempts to give the Exit EU campaign and referendum campaign a pro people and anti austerity LEXIT character - a Left exit. It continues to press for this more than ever given the large vote to come out, with meetings held in many parts of Britain to explain what is happening and to mobilise action and opinion in favour of a full break, but on the basis of electing a Left government to enact the kind of progressive programme that EU membership would have outlawed.
The party is a partisan organisation, made up of working class people and dedicated to the interests of that class as the motivators of socialism. It is a disciplined party and membership is for activists not just talkers. It educates members in Marxism so that they think for themselves and contribute to the rich democratic inner party life and culture. It is branch based, in local communities and then these branches are networked into districts and nations for England, Scotland and Wales. There will be a branch near you.
If you want to find out more, view the video history ‘warts and all’ produced by the Communist Party. Read our programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism, which is the most realistic and straight forward, bare bones expression of how we can achieve radical and revolutionary change in Britain. And if you want to make a contribution that has a real impact on politics in this country, or make a contribution to solidarity against war and imperialism, then get involved in your local branch and apply to join. We will get in touch.