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A life of service to the people and the struggle

LES DOHERTY and PHIL KATZ pay tribute to a much-loved and respected leader of the Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, who died 60 years ago today

ON JUNE 27 the Greater Manchester CPB branch pays tribute to former CPGB chair and general secretary Harry Pollitt who died on this day 60 years ago, at the age of 69. 

Pollitt was born in Droylsden in conditions similar to those described by Friedrich Engels in an eyewitness account 46 years earlier, published as Conditions of the Working Class in England. 

A “blue plaque” (in red) was fixed to the local library in 1995 in recognition of Pollitt’s tireless work for the cause of workers everywhere by then Tameside Mayor Pat Haslam. 

It gives some clues to why this giant of the movement still holds a place in history and continues to be an inspiration to communists everywhere.

The former boilermaker learned the harsh realities of life on the streets of Droylsden, Openshaw and Gorton. 

By the age of 16 he was involved in the Openshaw Socialist Society. By 21 he had developed a clear understanding in the difference between socialism and social reform and his Marxist analysis never faltered. On reading Marx’s Capital he “felt I owned the world.”

During the first world war, Pollitt worked in the shipyards but refused to load munitions and his enthusiasm for the Bolshevik Revolution took him to the head of the Hands off Russia movement, then campaigning against British intervention and organising successful strikes at various docks throughout Britain. 

Inspired by the success of the revolution, Pollitt became a founding member of the CPGB, attending its first congress at the Cannon Street Hotel on July 31 and August 1 1920. 

In 1924, he was in Moscow and called upon to take a shift watching over Lenin’s body as thousands of citizens braved biting temperatures to pay their respects to the fallen leader. 

To keep warm, Pollitt borrowed a coat from Georgi Dimitrov, as he did not then own one. It can now be viewed in the Marx Memorial Library.

Pollitt was a prolific organiser in the National Minority Movement, sharing an office in Holborn with the equally legendary Tom Mann, with whom he established a deep friendship.  

Pollitt was also a campaigner and a serious threat to the British Establishment. 

In the year-long skirmishes leading up to the General Strike, Pollitt, along with 11 other leaders of the Communist Party, was prosecuted for sedition. 

Found guilty, he was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. But the party had already taken precautionary measures and a new layer of leaders stepped in. 

It was one of a number of incarcerations and trials he endured as party activist.

Pollitt became general secretary of the party in 1929 and in many ways he represented a new generation of communist leader. 

He fitted the bill exactly, a metalworker and a seasoned activist known and trusted by many at all levels of Britain’s labour movement.  

Pollitt was a spellbinding orator, having learned his skills as a veteran of hundreds of dock-gate meetings, talking about Marxism to workers, in ways they could readily identify with. 

He was known for his ability to forge unity inside the party and beyond, a skill that became increasingly important as the party sought to establish a peace front against Neville Chamberlain and the threat of war. 

Increasingly he made contacts abroad and was at ease working with counterparts such as Ernst Thaelmann from Germany and Maurice Thorez from France. 

In the mid-1930s he worked again with Georgi Dimitrov, hero of the Reichstag trial, as a member of the presidium of the Communist International. 

Pollitt was an outspoken anti-fascist and sharp critic of the Labour Party and the ILP, and was scathing of the role of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in the formation of a “national” government. 

Between 1929 and 1939 he oversaw a rise in membership from 3,000 to 18,000 and was at the centre of the creation of a bewildering range of initiatives and events including the formation of the Left Book Club, the British Battalion in the International Brigades, anti-fascist battles such as Cable Street and Bermondsey and the Unity Campaign. 

His most crucial role was in anchoring the Communist Party to the very foundations of working-class life as, in the mid-30s, the party supplied the ideas and organisers that built many of today’s great unions and the modern labour movement. 

His daily life would have reduced most to shreds. In a forthcoming volume, Red Lives — 100 Years for Socialism, a compendium of biographies of rank-and-file party members, one recalls receipt of a postcard to their home, “Meet uncle in Covent Garden.” 

At the end of a long day, with mist swirling round, the comrade would rendezvous with Pollitt and be given large wads of German marks, for distribution to a network of seafaring party members, who would then smuggle the currency into Nazi Germany, for the resistance. They only got caught once! 

The next evening Pollitt would speak at a factory-gate meeting to dozens or to thousands at one of his favourite venues.  

In 1940 his popular autobiography, Serving my Time, was released and quickly went into a second and third pressing.

At the start of the war, Pollitt sought to continue a popular front and anti-fascist policy of opposing Chamberlain and fascism. 

This brought him into conflict with party policy of opposition to the war in its early phases as one of rival imperialist camps. 

He was removed as general secretary. Ironically, opponents, especially in Labour, jeered at the communists for removing their general secretary. 

But Pollitt saw things differently. Just days after his removal, he went to the Rhondda Valley, one of his favourite parts of Britain, to argue for the new party position, in front of 800 Trealaw coalminers. 

It was, he said, “a splendid thing for working men to know that the Communist Party was strong enough to depose leaders who disagreed with its policy.”

Pollitt followed party discipline. During this period, communists were being interned and arrested, their propaganda confiscated and offices raided. 

The Daily Worker was soon to face a ban. The Communist Party took the decision to scale down its central leadership and administrative machinery, with leading comrades relocated to large workplaces where they could be protected by organised workers. 

Ironically the Admiralty had to intervene in Pollitt’s relocation, forcing employers to take him on in a shipyard in Poplar on the Thames, where once he had led agitation against the loading of armaments due to be used in an attack on the young Soviet state. 

He also turned down an offer to write for a Labour-owned newspaper at £20 per thousand words, to “dish the dirt” on his party.

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union — on June 22 1941 — brought Pollitt back to the post of general secretary and gave him in many ways, his hardest and best years. 

By now the Communist Party was growing rapidly and in some unions and localities it began to challenge support among workers for Labour. 

Pollitt seized upon a campaign to open a second front in occupied Europe, opposed by Labour and Winston Churchill, and could see the desperate need to take pressure off the USSR, by forcing the fascists to fight a war on two fronts. 

He spoke at meetings everywhere and on D-Day wrote a letter to every party member in the armed forces “until my bloody hand nearly dropped off.” Being Pollitt, he kept going.  

He could see that in the war the home front had to be mobilised in much the same way as the war front, and set about a gruelling tour which didn’t really stop for three years, criss-crossing the country, winning the argument for a second front — holding three monster rallies in Trafalgar Square in a six-month period in 1943. 

Pollitt especially felt a duty to press the case for ending fascism because so many of his personal acquaintances from the European revolutionary movement were either in prison, fighting in the resistance or had been murdered. 

This tireless campaigning work took its toll and his health began to suffer. He wrote Looking Ahead to present his vision for a future of socialism. 

His work on the international stage made him one of the most famous communists outside the Soviet Union and he stood in the 1945 and 1950 general elections. 

He gained sizeable votes, but was not elected. After 1950 he began to spend time on international speaking tours, taking him to India and Australia as the guest of communist movements. 

Pollitt was adamant that as a country and an empire, the workers’ movement in Britain had to prioritise the struggle against imperialism, ending colonialism and helping countries to achieve independence.

Pollitt reluctantly resigned as general secretary in March 1956 but his loyalty was honoured with the role of party chair. 

He continued his overseas work but on June 27 1960, he died on board a liner heading to New Zealand.

A stamp recognising Pollitt’s role in preventing the Jolly George from sailing to arm counter-revolutionary forces in Poland was issued in the Soviet Union and a year later a ship was named after him in recognition for his international work. 

Says today’s Communist Party general secretary Robert Griffiths: “For three decades the name of Harry Pollitt was synonymous with British communism. The British intelligence services probably kept more files on him than on anyone else — testimony to his status as a champion of the working class and the people, not just at home but around the world, in the struggle for socialism and peace against fascism and imperialism.”

Today the Manchester CP branch takes inspiration from this local lad. In recent months the Communist Party in Manchester has grown significantly and has bold plans for extending its presence in the labour movement locally, with innovative plans to extend party democracy and membership involvement. 

The commemorations today are part of an ambitious plan to build a sustainable and celebratory event in Droylsden every year.

Les Doherty is secretary of the Manchester Communist Party and Phil Katz is Communist Party centenary project officer.

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