Harry Pollitt


Born in Droylsden, Lancashire in 1890 Pollitt was a political activist from an early age. He served an apprenticeship in boilermaking and was a lifelong member of the Boilermaker’s Union.

Pollitt was 27 years old at the time of the historic October Revolution and later remembered thinking – “The workers have done it at last. It wouldn’t have mattered where the revolution had taken place, Timbuctoo or Costa Rica. The thing that mattered was that lads like me had whacked the bosses and the landlords, had taken their factories, their lands and their banks.” [1] Pollitt threw himself into the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign, becoming its National Organiser, and berated fellow British workers who were ‘assisting’ imperialism in its attempts to strangle the young Soviet state. In the ‘Worker’s Dreadnought’ of May 10 1919 he wrote – “Here in the London Docks, British trade unionists are working every possible hour on barges that are being fitted out to carry bombs, ammunition boxes and aeroplane parts that are going to Russia to defeat and kill Russian trade unionists. Aye! and by some ironic circumstance, as if possessed by the bloody imp of capitalist greed, these same staunch trade unionists are working at a speed (and under atmospheric conditions) that they never endured when it was thought so urgent to have ships to beat the Germans. How the Gods of War and Greed must now be smiling in fiendish delight!

“And all this effort, all this loss of comradeship, all this prostitution of idealism and manhood, to assist the capitalists of this country to defeat the proletariat!”….He went on…..”I would appeal to all of you who still have a heart that beats in sympathy with our comrades abroad, to get busy in your branches and get the members to refuse to touch any ship that is to carry munitions to Russia. Only by such action can the British Labour movement wipe out the stain that now tarnishes our ideals. If this action means personal sacrifice, what of it? On the Continent men and women are dying every hour to defend working class Russia. Shall we fail them in their hour of need, or rather, shall we not exhibit a little of that international solidarity that we love to cheer about, but have now such a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate?” [2]

Pollitt’s call to action was of course heeded and that policy of “refusal to touch any ship that is to carry munitions to Russia” was carried out in exemplary style with the refusal to load the ‘Jolly George’ which has now gone into socialist folk history as an example of internationalism at its best. Pollitt played a leading practical role in that action which won such support among workers and terrified the bourgeoisie so much that the fear of further such actions and greater support for the Soviet state among British workers led the British imperialists to cease their open, armed intervention in the Soviet Union.

The young Pollitt was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 and fought valiantly in an attempt to get the party affiliated to the Labour Party. In this he and his party were following the advice of Lenin. This period has been misunderstood (knowingly or otherwise) for years. Lenin’s advice on affiliation is seen by some as a repudiation of his earlier calls for a ‘decisive’ break with opportunism such as in his ‘Imperialism and the split in socialism’ when he wrote –

“…’bourgeois labour parties’, as a political phenomenon, have already been formed in all the foremost capitalist countries, and unless a determined and ruthless struggle is waged all along the line against these parties – or groups, tendencies, etc., it is all the same – there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement…” “The only Marxist line in the world labour movement is to explain to the masses the inevitability and necessity of breaking with opportunism, to educate them for revolution by waging a merciless struggle against opportunism, to utilise the experiences of the war for the purpose of exposing all the vileness of national-liberal labour politics, and not of concealing it.” [3]

Of course, those who choose to misunderstand Lenin on this question also choose to ignore the qualification to his advice on affiliation to the Labour Party, namely, that the CPGB must retain the right to criticise the Labour leadership and retain its own party structure and organs for the purpose of doing this. In a speech on the Labour Party at the Second Congress of the Third International Lenin said – “…While remaining in the ranks of the Labour Party the British Socialist Party enjoys sufficient liberty to write that such and such leaders of the Labour Party are traitors, champions of the interests of the bourgeoisie and their agents in the labour movement; this is absolutely true. When Communists enjoy such a liberty, then, taking into account the experience of revolution in all countries, and not only in Russia (for we here are not at a Russian, but at an international congress), it is their duty to affiliate to the Labour Party. Comrade Gallacher ironically said that we were under the influence of the British Socialist Party. That is not true; we became convinced of this by the experience of all revolutions in all countries. We think that we must tell this to the masses. The British Communist Party must preserve for itself sufficient liberty to expose and criticise before the workers the traitors who are more powerful in England than in any other country.” [4]

As we know the affiliation request was rejected and followed by the expulsions and exclusion of individual Communist Party members. Pollitt was also in the forefront of the battle against this.

Another point constantly brought forward by those who choose to ‘misunderstand’ Lenin is his advice to the CPGB to support the Labour Party in a General Election. This advice, it is claimed, is for all time and gives them the excuse to carry on this support ad infinitum. But Lenin only advised electoral support for the establishment of the first Labour Government to show the workers the opportunism and treachery of that government. Lenin’s advice was to elect them in order to show them up for what they were or, in his words, “support the Labour Party like a rope supports the hanged man.” Of course, once you have done this once there is no need to keep repeating the lesson, the majority of the working class has learnt it and it only needs now for these ‘eminent theoreticians’ of the CPB and NCP to catch them up. Lenin had no illusions about the British Labour Party and said – ” …The Labour Party is not a political worker’s party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that, who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie and with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns, they systematically deceive the workers.” [5] Of course, the present Labour Party does not even consist mainly of workers and is thoroughly rotten from top to bottom.

Harry Pollitt was during this period at the forefront in criticising the Labour Party for its cringing support for imperialism, for example in an article on ‘Three years of Mondism’ he writes – “There can be no shadow of doubt that in the last two years, as a direct result of the policy of the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party leaders, there has been an absolute worsening of the conditions of the working class.”

And further in the same article ” The role of the Labour government is to apply rationalisation in a more intense form than open capitalist governments would be able to do. The resistance of the workers will increase as rationalisation is intensified, and this resistance must, if possible, be broken by the Labour Government.

“At the same time the Labour Government also increases the preparations for war, as the means of “solving” the difficulties confronting British capitalism.

“The whole situation is rendered more desperate for British capitalism in particular, by the growing successes of socialist production in the U.S.S.R.

“There is no solution of Britain’s unemployed problem merely by getting a few trade orders from the Soviet Government, but there is a tremendous challenge to British capitalism by the success of the Five-Year Plan, which is not lost upon the British and colonial workers, who see one-sixth of the world’s surface under the direction of a revolutionary Workers’ Government where the conditions of the workers and peasants improve year by year, and the British Empire, held by the armed violence of a Labour Government, where conditions get worse year by year for the workers and peasants, through the policy operated by this capitalist Labour Government.” [6]

One has to wonder what both Lenin and Pollitt would say if they could see the NCP and the CPB still fawning over the “bourgeois Labour Party”?

Pollitt was among twelve leading communists arrested on trumped up charges in 1925, leaving huge gaps in the ranks of organised proletarian resistance during the 1926 general strike. A strike which the TUC and Labour Party were pushed into calling and which they killed as soon as possible by treachery and open class collaboration which lead Pollitt to condemn them in the following terms – “We know that there are thousands of sincere and active workers who do not and cannot believe that the official Labour movement is a partner to the capitalist conspiracy against the miners. These workers must make a careful study of what was done at Margate. We are confident that if they do this, they will see quite clearly that the only difference between the official Labour policy and that of the mine owners and the Tory Government is that while the latter openly fights the miners by every available means, the official Labour movement fights the miners in an underhand way.” He went on further; “The suffering that is now taking place is not the result of the General Strike, but of the betrayal of the workers by the General Council.

“That the surrender did not bring complete disaster was because the miners remained out. They knew that the position in terms of bread and margarine was no different on May 12 from that on May 1. The leaders responsible for the surrender are now anxious to prove that the heroic fight of the miners is doomed to failure. To make this a certainty, they not only opposed the embargo and the levy, but they are deliberately endeavouring to sabotage the miners’ struggle.

“The miners are putting up a wonderful fight. No one can deny this and the Labour bureaucrats in this supreme hour of necessity do their best to secure the defeat of the miners in order to justify their attitude of ‘I told you so’ and their betrayal of May 12.” [7]

This article was a withering attack on the traitors of the TUC and the Labour Party alike and continued in the following terms – “We know that there are many workers who will say ‘Oh! You are unfair; you carry your criticism too far; at least the resolution did express sympathy with the miners, and the Conference did organise a collection that realised over £500, whereas the mine owners and the government are still fighting the miners’

“Let us examine this point of view. First of all, it is not true that it is only the Labour Party or the Trades Union Congress that expresses sympathy or gives money to the miners. The ruling class know very well that the miners are fighting the battle of the whole working class of this country and they know that it is necessary to confuse and demoralise the miners. This policy has been skilfully carried out for the capitalists by the Bishops, the Prince of Wales (didn’t he give £10?) and by Lloyd George – all of whom, while they are helping the mineowners to win, are anxious not to lose the good feeling of the workers, who in too many cases are fooled by this apparently sympathetic and disinterested pose of the ruling class. Yet behind the scenes they fight like hell against any suggestion of the mineowners giving way to the miners.

“The Margate Conference has done exactly the same thing. It has passed a resolution expressing sympathy with the miners, but absolutely refused to take even the tiniest step that could bring it into opposition with the mineowners. It was, in effect, therefore, an open invitation to the bosses to go on with the fight. The Margate resolution of sympathy, like the Bishops’ terms, was only camouflage to hide the real character of the fight against the miners. That is, in reality, the meaning of the Labour Party Conference resolution.” [8]

Pollitt was also instrumental in setting up the ‘Minority Movement’, a movement of socialist-minded trade unionists who took there name from the fact that they were in a minority within their unions, and was its General Secretary from 1924 – 1929. This organisation was affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions and had a truly international stance right from its inception. The MM gave a practical lead to workers in struggle while linking those struggles to the political situation and showing up the trade unions leaderships for the opportunist traitors they were. It is ironic, or perhaps not, that the Minority Movement had called and fought for both a greater role for the General Council of the TUC and more involvement in the TUC Conference for Trades Councils and when both were achieved the General Council ruled that only Trades Councils that were not affiliated to the MM could participate. Many individual trade unions and trades councils now barred MM members from holding office just as they had done with CPGB members. This is proof that the Minority Movement was indeed a huge thorn in the side of the opportunist leaders.

In 1934 a National Hunger March and Conference was organised, and Pollitt, out on bail after being arrested (and therefore prevented from public speaking) was on the platform and gave a blistering speech calling for – work at trade union rates, clearing the slums and building decent working class housing, the building of new schools, hospitals and clinics, lighting and sanitation for working class districts, piped water supply to all worker’s homes, bridge and road repairs, canal repairs and building programmes, bringing the land into use. He urged that the organisation utilise such slogans as –

“We will starve in silence no longer!

“We will not be driven into conscription camps!

“We will fight all measures which increase unemployment!

“Work must be found of definite social value!

“For the abolition of the Means Test!

“The complete withdrawal of the Slave Bill!” [9]

He also called upon the working class to defy its opportunist leaders, get off its knees and – “Fight this time for your class! The press and the Government have been whining and whipping up opposition to the hunger march and Congress. They have said that it is a shame to send half-starved men on a march. They did not say that in 1914, when for four and a half years they marched millions of workers to their death; when even the memoirs of the imperialist Churchill blatantly and brutally tell us that hundreds of thousands of our class were deliberately butchered in France to make a holiday for the well-paid generals and imperialists, who were not even united in regard to their own methods of war strategy.

“Yes, it was all right for millions to march to their death in order to make Britain safe for MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain to live in, to make Britain safe for the Means Test, to make Britain a place where learned doctors and statesmen argue as to whether 5s. 1 ½ d. or 5s. 10d. a week is enough to keep a man on, where a parliament, under the leadership of MacDonald, fights against the children’s allowance being increased from 2s. to 3s. a week.

“It was all right to march men to be mutilated in France, in order to make Britain a place where 2,000 gallons of milk is fed to pigs, whilst working class babies all over the country die from lack of this milk; where working class mothers are driven to distraction because they cannot get the milk that is necessary for the sustenance of their families.

“But it suddenly became ‘cruel’ for workers to march in defence of their own homes and living conditions.

“The whole working class by the support it gives the hunger marchers and the coming Congress is giving its answer to this hypocrisy of the National Government and their ghouls of the capitalist press.” [10]

In 1929 Harry Pollitt became General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain and characteristically led from the front in all its campaigns. From 1929 to 1934 the CPGB proudly, and correctly, challenged the Labour Party in elections and won large acclaim and support from the British working class. This policy changed in 1935 as the Communist International called upon affiliated parties to try to organise a ‘broad’ resistance to fascism in what was to become known as the ‘united front’ policy. In his report to the Seventh Congress of the Third (Communist) International Dimitrov gave the following description of fascism – “Fascism is the power of finance capital itself. It is the organisation of terrorist vengeance against the working class and the revolutionary section of the peasantry and intelligentsia. In foreign policy, fascism is jingoism in its most brutal form, fomenting bestial hatred of other nations.” [11] And further –

“Fascism is a most ferocious attack by capital on the mass of the working people;

“Fascism is unbridled chauvinism and predatory war;

“Fascism is rabid reaction and counter-revolution;

“Fascism is the most vicious enemy of the working class and of all working people!” [12]

This policy was decided upon because it was obvious that the main target of German and Italian fascism, or at least the target that all other imperialist powers would push it towards, was the Soviet Union, the first workers’ state, both a shining example to the world proletariat and a thing of terror to the world’s imperialists. The CPGB, under Pollitt’s stewardship, along with other parties affiliated to the Communist International tried extremely hard to secure this ‘united front’ but not at the expense of principles.

In his report to the Thirteenth Congress of the CPGB Pollitt said – “We should place Communist candidates in every possible place, if the mass basis and influence exists, because Communist policy is not only the policy that can lead the workers to final victory, it is the only policy which strengthens the immediate position of the working class. The more Communists returned to local councils and Parliament, the more Communist votes obtained, the stronger becomes every phase of the workers’ struggle. When the Communists fight Liberal, Tory, National and Labour candidates alike, it is because of this fact, and in no way does it lead to the weakening of the workers’ forces. On the contrary, it leads to a deeper understanding of the whole situation, to more clarity on the tasks that lie ahead, to increased drive in the factories and unions for united activity, to the spreading of revolutionary political propaganda, to the unmasking of reformist and capitalist politics alike, and to the popularisation of the revolutionary solution of the problems facing the whole working class. In such places every effort must be made to get the closest possible unity with the local Labour Parties and other working class organisations, and win them for the support of our candidates.

“Where we do not run Communist candidates, we now propose to make every conceivable effort to win the support of local Labour Parties and candidates for a united front on immediate demands, around which the greatest amount of mass activity can be carried out now, leading to the continued extension of the united front, to the drawing in of ever-wider sections of workers, and in the elections, on a class basis (that is to say united front basis), securing the decisive defeat of open representatives of capitalism and the return of candidates based on united front support and action.

“At the same time there must go alongside this the Party’s own independent campaign in the form of meetings, demonstrations, leaflets, mass sale of the Daily Worker and Party pamphlets, explaining not only the Party’s united front proposals but the whole programme and policy of the Communist Party.” [13]

This policy was to change again after 23 August 1939 when the Soviet Union and Germany signed a non-aggression pact. There have been a lot of criticisms of this pact but it must be understood that the Soviet Union had as late as 16 April 1939 suggested a mutual defence pact with Britain, which was rejected. This, of course, followed the 1938 Munich agreement between Germany, France and Britain which gave the green light to the fascists to march into Czechoslovakia (obviously in the hope that they would keep going and wage war on the Bolshevik upstarts). The united front policy had failed to stop British and French bourgeois appeasement (and often open support) of fascism. When the war eventually broke out communists, quite rightly, described it as an imperialist war and gave no support to their national governments. It was at this point that Harry Pollitt was guilty of a mistake. He argued for support for the war against fascist Germany and was, for this period, replaced as General Secretary of the CPGB by Rajani Palme Dutt. Of course, we all make mistakes, that is not uncommon and a mistake that is recognised as a mistake and corrected is a worthwhile lesson. It is only when someone refuses to accept that they have made a mistake that they slip into opportunism. Harry Pollitt accepted that he had been mistaken and later said – “My hatred of fascism had developed by 5 years intensive anti-fascist propaganda, which led me to a position where I could not see in time the true role of British imperialism, and saw only German fascism as the main enemy of the British working class. The influence of the fascist attack on Republican Spain also affected my outlook, because of the strong personal feelings which had been aroused by what I had witnessed in Spain and the responsibility I felt I had in regard to the sacrifice made by the British Battalion of the International Brigade…” [14]

There can be no doubt that the Spanish Civil War had had a huge affect on Pollitt who had not only organised men for the front and made five visits to the British Battalion but also carried on a relentless campaign against the policy of non-intervention (appeasement) carried out by the British Government with the support of the TUC and Labour Party.

After Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union the Communist Party swung 100% behind the war effort and Pollitt was once again playing a leading role. Again this action has its critics (those who choose to misunderstand in order to confuse and mislead others) but both this and the former policy of not supporting the war until the Soviet Union was attacked must be seen in the light of dialectics (i.e. the changed conditions demand changed tactics) and the duty of all communists to put aside all else to defend the Soviet Union as the only correct internationalist line at that time. The Soviet Union, and its leadership by Joseph Stalin in particular, has been criticised for both these policy changes and the non-aggression pact with Germany, but in this Lenin’s advice to the Soviet Union on dealing with imperialism and its wars was carried out in exemplary fashion. Lenin had stated in 1920 – “As long as we have not conquered the whole world, as long as, from the economic and military standpoint, we are weaker than the capitalist world, we must adhere to the rule that we must know how to take advantage of the antagonisms and contradictions existing among the imperialists. Had we not adhered to this rule, every one of us would have long ago been hanging from an Aspen tree, to the satisfaction of the capitalists”……. “Can strong capitalists be left by the side of weak capitalists and be expected not to seize what they can? What would they be good for in that case? But in such a state of affairs, can we, as communists, remain indifferent and merely say: ‘we shall carry on propaganda for communism in these countries’. That is true, but that is not all. The practical task of communist policy is to take advantage of this hostility and to incite one against the other.”…… “Of course, to support one country against another would be a crime against communism. But we communists must use one country against another. Are we not committing a crime against communism? No, because we are doing so as a socialist state, which is carrying on communist propaganda and is obliged to take advantage of every hour granted it by circumstances in order to gain strength”… “If we are obliged to tolerate such scoundrels as the capitalist thieves, each of whom is preparing to plunge a knife into us, it is our direct duty to make them turn their knives against each other.” [15]

Harry Pollitt was a strong leader who led from the front, a gifted and fiery orator and writer, a tireless organiser, a communist! But Pollitt will always be best remembered for his work in the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign and when we look at what he and that campaign achieved then, and compare that with the ‘leadership’ being given now by the ‘Stop the War Coalition’, it can be seen all too obviously where pandering to Social-Democracy, Trotskyism and Revisionism has brought the working class.

Its time for Marxist-Leninists to start giving correct leadership, and break once and for all with opportunism in all its guises.

NOTES

[1] Quoted in ‘All for the Cause’ by George Matthews.

[2] Harry Pollitt, Selected articles and speeches, Vol.1. page 9-10.

[3] Lenin, ‘Imperialism and the split in Socialism, 1916. Quoted in ‘Lenin and Britain’, Little Lenin Library Vol.24.

[4] Lenin, ‘The Communist Party and the Labour Party. Collected Works. Vol. XXV.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harry Pollitt, ‘Three years of Mondism’, Selected articles and speeches, Vol.1. pages 77 and 85.

[7] Harry Pollitt, ‘What Margate means’, Selected articles and speeches, Vol.1. page 25.

[8] Ibid, page 26.

[9] Harry Pollitt, ‘Into action’ Selected articles and speeches, Vol.1 p. 98.

[10] Ibid. p.106.

[11] Georgi Dimitrov, Report to the 7th Congress of the Comintern. 1935. p. 43.

[12] Ibid, p. 46.

[13] Harry Pollitt, Selected articles and speeches, Vol.1. p.127-128.

[14] Harry Pollitt quoted in “The boilermaker and the communists” by David Wilson. P.3.

[15] Lenin, Speech delivered November 26 1920. Selected Works. Vol.8. p. 279-288.