Issue 169 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
The rise of fascism, economic and social crisis all raise the possibility of building a political alternative both to the far right and to Labour. Chris Bambery looks at how the Communist Party grew in the 1930s and the lessons for us today
|Police attack unemployed workers' demo in 1931|
As we look out across a world gripped by recession, ravaged by a series of bloody wars and scarred by the rise of fascism and xenophobic nationalism, the 1990s seem to echo the 1930s. The economic instability sweeping the world is creating a polarisation in society unseen since then.
This takes place in a situation where the left is gripped by a deep pessimism. Far too many socialists see themselves as a permanently beleaguered minority which cannot connect with the concerns of working class people. The Socialist Workers Party provides a welcome contrast. With 8500 members we find ourselves a vital force in any industrial dispute or in the fight against racism.
In this we are beginning to enter new territory. No longer are we operating as just another group on the extreme margins of the working class. There is an urgency here. The Nazis' election victory on the Isle of Dogs shows the bitterness which exists at the base of society can be misdirected unless the left turns it full square against the Tories. Here the one example we can draw on is the work of the Communist Party in the 1930s.
In discussing the Communist Party we are faced with a paradox. Here was a party which was totally under the control of Stalin's regime in Moscow. Yet this was a party too which contained within it the very best working class militants. It was overwhelmingly working class, and manual working class at that. In 1930 party members were jailed for leafletting troops urging them not to go to India to suppress the independence movement. Two years later 400 party members were jailed for their leading role in agitating against unemployment.
The CP had from its birth in 1921 been small but it had real roots, particularly in mining communities in the Rhondda and West Fife, and in militant 'Little Moscows' like the Vale of Leven in Scotland. It contained some of the best known working class leaders like Tom Mann, JT Murphy, Willie Gallacher, Tom Bell and Tommy Jackson. Its members had played a crucial role in the General Strike. Afterwards they were both victimised by the employers and witchunted by the leaderships of the Labour Party and the TUC. By 1929 its membership was down to a third of its 1926 figure, with just 3200 members, a third of whom were unemployed.
The 'Third Period' policy of focusing fire on Labour and denouncing them as being on a par with the fascists had a certain logic for Communist militants who had suffered in the wake of the General Strike. The isolation forced on them by unemployment was reinforced by their sectarian refusal to work with Labour supporters and for a time a refusal to work in the trade unions. This led to a further fall in membership.
Yet even while burdened with this crazy position the party's activists were able to distinguish themselves. The National Unemployed Workers' Movement was led by Wal Hannington and Harry McShane who operated with an eye to creating mass support. Between 1929 and 1936 they organised five hunger marches, opposed from their inception by the Labour Party and the TUC who told their members to boycott the NUWM. Despite this by 1930 the organisation had 30,000 dues paying members--Hannington insisted on a minimum financial contribution to ensure a stable membership. By 1932 the NUWM had 50,000 members in 386 branches.
Individual benefits were decided by means test assessors drawn from local councillors. The NUWM targeted them with protests. One such protest sparked huge riots in Birkenhead after police raided homes of NUWM 'agitators'. That year saw 17 contingents made up of two thousand unemployed marching on London where they clashed with police. Newsreel of the hand to hand fighting in central London helped build a wider confidence among the unemployed to fight.
When in January 1935 the National Government (grouping together the Tories and Ramsay MacDonald's renegades from Labour) imposed centralised means tests on claimants--to stop local councils giving the maximum available--the NUWM organised huge protests with a total of 300,000 taking to the streets of South Wales and 40,000 in Sheffield. The government quickly caved in.
By 1936 half a million people welcomed hunger marchers to Hyde Park. Despite the Labour Party's lack of support for the march, its leader, Clement Attlee, was pressurised into addressing the rally.
In industry a number of party members ignored the party's support for break away unions and were able to lay the basis for effective rank and file organisations within the trade unions.
In 1931 a Members' Rights Movement was formed to oppose the right wing leadership of the engineering union. It was backed by 120 union branches and four AEU district committees while its paper, Monkey Wrench, sold 5000 copies.
At the beginning of 1932 the CP had just 12 bus workers on London Transport. When the company announced wage cuts, union officials were ready to accept them. Rank and file committees were formed in opposition grouping representatives from 32 garages and issued a bulletin, Busman's Punch. The transport union's bus committee was forced to call a strike ballot which produced a four to one vote for action. The company backed off. By the end of 1932 the party's membership on the buses had risen to 40 and by 1935 stood at 98. Busman's Punch (edited by a CP fulltimer) sold 10,000 copies a month.
Another achievement was the publication from 1930 onwards of the Daily Worker. In its first year, despite a distributors' boycott, it sold 11,000 copies a day. In every area members had to pick up the latest edition each morning from the rail station (or in London from the paper's offices) and distribute it themselves. By 1932 the paper sold 20,000 copies on a weekday and 46,000 of the special weekend edition.
All of this would lay the basis for a transformation of the party's fortunes from 1933 onwards. Hitler's victory in January 1933 created a militant response across Europe as workers determined that the lack of resistance in Germany should not be repeated. In Britain the emergence of Mosley's British Union of Fascists gave that added edge.
From 1934 onwards there was also a limited recovery in the economy centred particularly on the 'new industries' like car and aircraft production.
During 1933 and 1934 Communists led a series of fights in previously unorganised aerospace and car plants at Firestone Tyres in Brentford, Ford Dagenham and Pressed Steel Cowley. At the latter the workforce, made up of recently recruited women from the surrounding area and South Wales, walked out demanding union recognition. They went straight to the local CP for advice. A Communist veteran of the Firestone strike, Abe Lazarus, became chair of the strike committee. The strike was a resounding victory.
In 1935 a national strike across the Hawker aircraft firm was led by the CP dominated stewards' combine. It secured recognition of strong stewards' organisation. Following it an Aircraft Shop Stewards' National Council was formed which printed the New Propeller. This was edited by the CP's London organiser and was strongly anti-fascist.
In 1937 young Communists were to the fore in two waves of apprentices' strikes in engineering against low pay--one beginning in Clydeside, the other in Manchester. Both were spread by mass picketing and by sending out delegations of strikers. Elsewhere Communists had led the unofficial 'stay down' strikes in South Wales in 1935 which won after miners occupied the pits despite the union officials demanding a return to work. A Communist led strike at Harworth pit in Nottinghamshire led to the breaking of the scab union formed in that coalfield during the 1926 miners strike.
Hitler's victory in 1933 led to a shift in the line from Moscow. Stalin began to see Germany as Russia's main threat. Anti fascist unity was now the order of the day--unity with firstly the previously hated Labour Parties and then an extension of that to any duchess, Tory MP or clergyman who could be found.
The British Union of Fascists had been founded in 1932 by an ex-Labour minister, Sir Oswald Mosley. The BUF claimed 40,000 members within two years, organised on military lines with members donning blackshirts.
On 7 June 1934 Mosley planned a monster rally at London's Olympia. The London District of the CP invited the London Trades Council, Labour Party and Independent Labour Party to cooperate in calling a counter-demonstration. Both of the first two refused to discuss it. On the day 7000 marched on Olympia only to be repeatedly attacked by the police. Inside the hall Mosley addressed an audience of 12,000 (mostly curious onlookers). Two thousand blackshirts repeatedly pounced on Communist hecklers and beat them mercilessly in the glare of spotlights. There was widespread outrage.
Mosley followed this up with a rally in Hyde Park in September. A counter-demonstration was organised by a united front of the CP, dissident Labour MPs and trade union leaders. The Labour Party and the TUC both instructed their members not to attend the protest. On the day 2500 blackshirts gathered surrounded by 6000 police while around them gathered anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 anti-fascists. It was a massive blow for Mosley.
All of this led up to the huge confrontations at Cable Street in 1936 and in Bermondsey in the following year. At both, crowds of over 100,000 defied Labour Party and TUC instructions not to attend. On both occasions Communists ensured that the blackshirts would not march into working class areas.
The blackshirts had been routed but the Communist Party decided that as well as mass mobilisations to confront them the CP needed a different approach to undermine the working class support Mosley had attracted in London's East End. The Communists organised rent strikes and blocked evictions, winning over Mosley supporters in the process. The Tenants Defence League organised major rent strikes in Bethnal Green and Stepney.
By 1937 membership of the Communist Party had climbed to 12,250 and would reach 17,750 on the eve of war.
How were the Communists organised in order to carry out such effective work? Every member was part of either a factory group or a street group. Their work was coordinated by a local branch. The cutting edge of their work was the regular workplace and door to door street sales in working class areas. In addition the party produced regular penny pamphlets. Between 1937 and 1938, 300,000 copies of 17 different pamphlets were sold, with 40,000 sold in Lancashire.
Communist historian Noreen Branson reports:
'Branch meetings of all members living or working in an area began to be held regularly with reports on work being done in various spheres, exchange of experience and, usually a speaker to open a discussion on some topical issue. The meetings were now 'open' ones to which non-party sympathisers got drawn into whatever campaign was in progress; reception for a Hunger March, Aid For Spain, a peace meeting, a tenant/landlord confrontation, an anti-Mosley demonstration, a demand for a better bus service, a local strike, and so on'.
These branches of around 15 to 20 members concentrated on specific working class areas. That size permitted them to maintain regular sales and the follow up involved. They allowed the Communist Party to penetrate working class areas and workplaces even where they had no presence initially. In addition there were regular district wide rallies which brought members and supporters in a town or borough together.
The CP's experience demonstrates how the successful fight against fascism can breed wider confidence in the class. Socialists can learn how regular sales of the Daily Worker could establish a presence in workplaces or in working class areas, how that could be followed up with pamphlet sales which would in turn provide the launchpad for the sort of work described earlier. The Isle of Dogs and the tremendous turn out in Welling gives that a vital urgency.