Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
When people talk about militant workers and strong trade unions their minds probably turn to car plants or engineering plants. Most people would regard these as always having been unionised.
Yet the foundations of this organisation were laid in the 1930s, when car plants were unionised, a national miners' union was rebuilt, Britain's new aircraft plants organised and strong rank and file led union organisation was built in places like London buses.
At the centre of this were the Communists. The Communist Party grew to a peak of 50,000 members in the 1940s, publishing a daily paper, with two MPs and over 100 local councillors. As late as the 1960s it boasted 30,000 members.
The party was overwhelmingly working class. At its head were a very talented group of worker intellectuals--the party's general secretary, the former boilermaker Harry Pollitt, Johnny Campbell, the former engineering shop steward and leader of the unemployed movement, Wall Hannington, and the veteran trade union militant, Willie Gallacher. Behind them stood the party's leading intellectual, the Anglo-Indian Palme Dutt.
Yet anyone familiar with these names knows there was another side to these men. They could and did justify every crime and turn committed by Stalin and the Soviet Union. When dealing with the history of the Communist Party, it is difficult to balance the two sides of its character. It contained within its ranks the very best working class activists. Yet it was a thoroughly Stalinist party.
Nina Fishman's The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-45 contains a wealth of information not readily available anywhere else.
Yet it is important to state and refute Fishman's central thesis. This is to deny that the British Communist Party was operating under the diktats of Stalin, that it had broken from the legacy of its origins under the leadership of Pollitt and Campbell. She claims that it had moved to occupy a place in the labour movement little different from that of Ernest Bevin, the leader of the transport union and a future Labour cabinet minister.
One name only appears twice in the book's 350 pages--Stalin's. And this is dealing with the years when Pollitt et al could not have delivered a speech or written an article without mentioning the Russian dictator's name in every second line.
But the meat of this book is fascinating. In the early 1930s the Communist Party began to emerge from its self imposed isolation. Acting in accordance with Stalin's analysis the Labour Party and the left wing Independent Labour Party were branded 'social fascists' and no better than Hitler while party members were told to form breakaway, Communist led unions. The result was that the party's membership fell to less than 2,000 at the opening of the 1930s.
In order to rebuild its influence in the working class the Communist Party looked to building broader rank and file movements within the existing unions. The London busmen's rank and file body won control of union organisation on London buses. By the end of 1932 the Communist membership on London buses had risen from 12 to 40.
As the economy underwent a mini upturn in 1934 there was a revival of trade union activity. In Oxford the Hunger March Solidarity Committee, formed to greet unemployed marchers from South Wales, turned its attention to the new Pressed Steel branch in Cowley. Union officials believed the plant, whose workforce was recruited from among local women and unemployed miners from South Wales, was unorganisable. In July 1934 a dispute on the night shift over piece rate flared up, with the aid of the Communists and the Solidarity Committee, into a full scale walkout. The Oxford Communists sent for Abe Lazarus, who had led an unsuccessful strike at Firestone's in west London. Lazarus formed a rank and file strike committee and recruited the workforce into the Transport Union.
After six weeks the company gave in and conceded union recognition and shop steward organisation. After the strike the TGWU 5/60 branch which covered the factory secured virtual 100 percent union membership. One Communist active in the plant recalled, 'Branch meetings were unique. They were held every Sunday morning in a big hall--but you couldn't get in unless you came early. Always full. Right through the 30s. It was fantastic discussion.'
Fishman charts how the CP's union militants were pulled more and more into operating as union officials in accordance with the party's wishes. They increasingly thought that the threat of industrial action could secure a compromise and under pressure from Bevin they acted to halt unofficial walkouts in the garages.
Bevin understood pressure was building from the grass roots for a showdown with London buses but was determined to control any dispute. The showdown came with an official bus strike in the capital in May 1937. But Bevin had already won acceptance from the rank and file leadership of the bus fleet that the strike's demands would not involve tram workers. With the trams and London Underground working the strike was crippled from the beginning.
The resulting defeat saw a section of the rank and file movement go for forming a breakaway union from the TGWU. The Communists helped stop this, so Bevin could not purge them competely. The Communists maintained some of their positions, though leading members were barred from union office for a time. The price paid was the folding up of the rank and file movement.
In Pressed Steel, Cowley, the TGWU 5/60 branch chair was sacked. Militant stewards immediately led a walkout. One recalls:
Management then sacked all the leading stewards. Yet the Communist line was to follow the TGWU regional officer in taking the issue through the management appeals procedure--there was no attempt to build on the rank and file resistance. Ernest Bevin was in turn determined to get rid of the branch leadership. None of the stewards were reinstated. Throughout, the Daily Worker remained silent over the sackings. Fishman writes:
Fishman's book is fine history. That cannot be said of The Enemy Within, by Francis Beckett. It is rare that I read a book which I put down feeling I've learnt absolutely nothing. This is an exception. It also contains a number of factual howlers such as describing the First World War shop stewards leader and founder of the CP--J T Murphy--as a Scot. In fact he was from Sheffield.
Reading this book you would not know that the Communist Party had organised the National Unemployed Workers' Movement which led a series of great hunger marches and countless local protests against unemployment. You would read nothing of the Communist Party's mobilisations to stop Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, nor would you know that the subsequent strength of the Communists in the union machine was based on their leadership of a series of crucial strikes in the 1930s.
In contrast Disciplina Camaradas is a delight to read. It Is a simply produced booklet based on Christopher Hall's interviews with four volunteers who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Three were Communists and the other, Staff Cottman, a member of the Independent Labour Party who fought alongside the writer George Orwell in the far left POUM's militia. The different accounts gave a real taste of why ordinary workers rallied to the defence of the Spanish Republic.
Finally, John Gorman is probably best known for his pictorial histories of British working class life. Now he's published the first part of his biography, Knocking Down Ginger.
This is a history of his childhood years growing up in wartime in Stratford, east London. It's all too easy to become folksy and sentimental about working class life but this is something he doesn't do. Here you get a picture of someone from a Labour and trade union family being radicalised by the realities which surrounded him in Britain immediately after the war. Gorman joined the Communist Party in 1949 while doing his National Service in the RAF. His party activity centred on selling the Daily Worker door to door round his own street and neighbouring ones and selling it outside the night shift at Stratford rail works. He did sales on the Dagenham estate where many Ford workers lived.
In 1952, while selling the Daily Worker door to door, some CP members discovered people living in homes which had been condemned before the war. There and then they held a street meeting. One woman shouted, 'It doesn't matter any more. The council have told us that we will all be rehoused by Xmas.' The CP speaker shouted back that they'd return in the New Year and so they did. Another street meeting led to the creation of a Tenants' Defence League. This organised an invasion of the town hall by mothers and their kids, a protest from the council's public gallery and a deputation to the local paper. In rivalry to the Ideal Home Exhibition, tenants threw open their homes to inspection by local trade union delegations who came by the coachload.
Like many others, Gorman left the Communist Party in 1956 because of revelations made public by the new Russian leader, Khrushchev, about Stalin's terror and then the Russians' suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Yet the book ends on a positive note with a reaffirmation of Gorman's socialism.
The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-45
Nina Fishman Skolar Press £35
The Enemy Within
Francis Beckett John Murray £19.99
Christopher Hall Gosling Press
Knocking Down Ginger
John Gorman Caliban £16.50