The CPBML is shortly to publish an account of its history. Here, we present a preview of the ideas that motivated its founding…
In 1968 Reg Birch and comrades from the Engineers’ Union, and from other unions, founded the Party. But to understand how this came about, we have to look far further back, into the history of the British working class.
The British working class created our unique trade unions: in Britain the birth of the trade unions was the birth of dignity for our class. Ever since engineering workers founded the Associated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1851, they led in organisation and in the struggle for wages and conditions. They were the vanguard of the working class for over a century.
In the ASE, ideas and policy flowed from the Districts to the Regions to the 52-strong National Committee. This was democratic centralism in practice. When Lenin was in Britain, in 1902-3, he learnt from our trade unions, especially from the ASE, how to build the Bolshevik Party.
Marx worked with the TUC General Council, comprised of the leaders of the ASE and others, which helped to create the First International. This meant that this International was based on the trade unions. As we said in our Congress ’79 statement, “We should remember that the First International was the most proletarian in composition and character, a forum for workers of different countries to learn from and aid each other. It is worthy of study by all workers.”
Marx wrote Capital and Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England out of their experience of the struggles and trials of the British working class. So Marxists across the world know the history of British workers and their trade unions.
|Reg Birch, who founded the Party with engineering worker comrades.|
In July 1920, the ASE and nine other unions merged to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). From the 1930s, the AEU led the whole class, always being the first union to put in its wage claim, and always being the best organised, acting as the spur and inspiration to the rest of the trade union movement. London engineers, with our founding Chairman Reg Birch playing a leading part, led the way by winning shorter hours and paid holidays, raising the right to work, challenging and sometimes defeating the employer’s right to sack.
Birch’s 1966 address for election to the post of Executive Councilman for Division No. 7 said, “the high standard of integrity of our members, their militancy and courage has ensured that we the AEU have led the working class in Britain.” He continued, “the prosperity and stable economy of this country depends on engineers. British engineers are second to none. If we are not to fall behind, not to become a third rate ‘tourist’ country, we as a union must ensure that this skill, this labour, is used efficiently, economically and rewardingly. Only thus as a nation will we survive. The new industrial revolution to bring real prosperity to the working class can only be won by you brothers and sisters.”
The ideas developed from Birch’s industrial experience were refined in discussion with party comrades from the AEU and others. They applied their collective intelligence and experience to the job of applying Marxism to Britain. The Party programme, The British Working Class and its Party, adopted by our second Congress in April 1971, brought together all these ideas.
What kind of a party was it to be? We knew the dangers of dividing organisations into thinkers and doers. All party labour was and is voluntary, so there can be no division between paid full-timers and the “ordinary” members. We rejected Engels’s and Lenin’s idealist notion of a “labour aristocracy”, which was always an attack on skilled workers and a way of dividing the class.
As we wrote in Burning Questions for Our Party, “Any attempt to separate a political arena or phase of development from an economic arena or phase is to invite a division of the Party into two wings – the ‘intellectuals’ and the ‘workers’, as has happened in other parties with disastrous results. The results would be equally disastrous whether the alleged ‘intellectuals’ dominated the professed ‘workers’ or vice versa. A split, inherited from historic development of a class, which the process of proletarianisation has virtually eliminated from the working class as a whole, would have been artificially created within that section of the class that claims to be the most advanced – the Party. …
“Those who take this incorrect stand maintain that there is a Middle Class in Britain – not just a handful of shopkeepers but a class strong enough to be a significant political force. They are seen as a sector which has been detached from the working class – ‘privileged’, ‘bribed’, either with the crumbs of imperialism or with some other beneficent dispensation from capitalism. They include students, teachers, ‘intellectuals’ in general, ‘better paid workers’, trade union officials, ‘white collar’ and ‘professional’ workers in general, all women, workers who have been promoted, foremen, ‘bosses men’, etc. The list being subjective in origin can be extended indefinitely.”
For us, the safety of our working class is the supreme law. Workers need state power to save themselves from destruction by capitalism. Workers in power must do what is necessary to retain power; otherwise the capitalists will overthrow them, as they have done in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.