A new investigation of the leaders of British Communism in the 1920s

Dr Alan Campbell introduces two recent papers reporting on the use of prosopography as a tool for studying the early leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Prosopography – the investigation of the common background characteristics of a closely defined population of historical actors by means of a collective examination of their careers and lives – has proved a useful addition to the toolbox of scholars researching diverse areas of historiography. Similar work utilizing quantitative and qualitative methods might well develop our knowledge and understanding of a wide variety of working-class activists, labour movement leaders at all levels, and the personnel of proletarian parties. Despite recent stress on the centrality of agency and leadership, this approach has remained rare in labour studies.

In that context, colleagues may be interested in two recently published papers which extend our research into 74 revolutionary socialists who constituted the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) between 1920 and 1928. These two articles outline Bolshevik conceptions of leadership before analysing the 39 Communists elected to the party executive from 1923 to 1928. They are scrutinised in relation to origins, class, age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, previous affiliation and destinations. Statistical analysis is combined with biographical sketches. Additionally, attention is paid to their partners, who are often overlooked in the historiography. A distinction is drawn between a ‘core’ of 19 leaders who, in terms of tenure, dominated the EC after 1923, and more peripheral elements. Comparisons are made between the leaderships before and after 1923. The papers concluded by assessing their credentials as Marxist leaders on the Comintern model in the years before Stalinism took hold.

1. John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The leadership of British Communism, 1923–1928: pages from a prosopographical project’, Labor History online

2. John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The “core” leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1923–1928: their past, present and future’, Labor History online

Colleagues may also be interested in:

John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The early British Communist leaders: a prosopographical exploration’, Labor History, 61, 5–6 (2020), pp. 423–465

John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The Socialist Labour Party and the leadership of early British Communism’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, 48, 4 (2020), pp. 609–659

Dr Alan Campbell is Honorary Senior Fellow, Department of History, University of Liverpool, and former Chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History

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