Born in 1890, Harry Pollitt came from a line of Lancashire working class radicals; his great grandfather had been a Chartist. Pollitt commenced work as a `half-timer’ at the age of 12 with his mother, a textile worker. After 3 years he was apprenticed as boilermaker at Great Central Railway works in Manchester. At the age of 18, he joined the ILP; two years later it became Openshaw Socialist Society. At the age of 21, he became a shop steward. (Right: a Soviet commemorative stamp from 1960.)
Involved in the anti-war movement in 1914-18, he led a shipbuilding workers’ strike in Southampton in 1917 against the government’s dilution scheme. In 1918, he founded the Thames Valley shop Stewards committee, which by the following year had 17,000 fully paid up members. In 1919, he was elected to the position of London secretary of the boilermakers and had thus emerged as a shop stewards’ leader of national standing.
Pollitt was at the fore of the successful struggle to prevent the British government supplying armaments to the enemies of Soviet Russia. He resigned his full-time union position to take up a post with the Hands off Russia campaign. In 1921, he was appointed an organiser for the Red International of Labour Unions and attended the first congress of RILU. Pollitt attended Lenin’s funeral. In 1923, he was appointed the national organiser of the Communist Party.
Now playing a leading role in the Communist Party in the 1920s, he was also still a major figure within the wider labour movement. He was a President of the conference of the Federation of Trades Councils and a delegate from the Boilermakers’ Society to the TUC and the Labour Party conferences.
In the late 1920s, Pollitt and RajiDutt worked closely together to remodel the Communist Party away from the pre-war heritage of ramshackle socialist debating societies towards a centralised, strategic force. Pollitt’s particular take on leadership represented a move away from a propagandist style of work towards organisation at the point of struggle, linking immediate struggles to longer-term objectives. Unquestionably, his great grasp was the importance of the revolutionary movement having mass links.
Pollitt was married to Marjorie, pictured left, herself a national Communist leader in her younger days.
He was, famously, the long-term leader of British Communists, being General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1929 to 1956, with the exception of a brief interlude from 1939. Then, he and Dutt differed sharply over the characterisation of the Second World War as being either an imperialist war or an anti-fascist one. Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 changed the character unambiguously and Pollitt returned to the leadership. From this point onwards, Pollitt was especially linked with the development of the specifically British strategic programme of the Communist Party, `The British Road to Socialism’.
He died in 1960. A plaque dedicated to the memory of Pollitt was unveiled by the Mayor of Tameside on the 22nd March 1995 outside Droylsden Library.
Sources: include John Mahon’s biography of Pollitt and Sunday Worker 25th October 1925
Left: A medallion presented to Harry Pollitt by the Boilermakers’ Union Sir John Simpson lodge, No. 4420 on the 14th September 1934. There appears to be engraved a hallmark and the letters C.U, with the words “justice truth philanthropy”
Right: Harry Pollitt is pictured (right) speaking to the International Brigades in Spain.
HARRY POLLITT - 1890-1960
Obituary from the
June 28th 1960
Harry Pollitt was one of the most popular as well as one of the greatest leaders the British working class has ever produced. He was born on November 22nd, 1890, in the textile village of Droylsden in Lancashire. His mother was a weaver and his father a blacksmith's striker, both life-long trade unionists.
It was from them that he obtained much of his early ideas on Socialism. In his autobiography, Serving My Time, published in 1940, he described how "it was starting work as a half-timer (at the age of twelve) with Mother that really opened my eyes to the kind of world we live in. "Every time she put her shawl round me before going to the mill on wet or very cold mornings I swore that when I grew up I would pay the bosses out for the hardships she suffered."
His mother introduced him to the Independent Labour Party at Openshaw, which he joined in 1909. Dick Coppock belonged to the same branch and often recalled the enthusiasm and eloquence of the new member.
After serving his time as a boilermaker's apprentice at Gorton Tank railway locomotive building plant, he became a first-class member of the Boilermakers' Society in 1912, retaining this membership of which he was proud-all his life. He was elected London district secretary of the Boilermakers' Society in 1919.
His revolutionary Socialist outlook made him an active and outspoken opponent of the First World War, which he regarded as a struggle between rival imperialist groups in which the workers on both sides would suffer and gain nothing.
He devoted his great energies to strengthening working-class organisation and securing improvements in pay and conditions. As a result he was victimised and found it impossible to obtain work in big factories or shipyards.
While he was working at a small workshop in Swinton, Lancashire, the news of the Russian Revolution on November 7th, 1917, arrived. He immediately grasped the epoch-making nature of this event and has written that his uppermost thought was: "The workers have done it at last."
Pollitt in 1917
"It wouldn't have mattered," he wrote, in Looking Ahead, "where this 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.... That was enough for me. These were the lads and lasses I must support through thick and thin."
When the young and weak SocialistRepublic was attacked by the armies of foreign capitalist and imperialist Powers - including the British - Harry Pollitt threw himself into a tremendous campaign to bring this intervention to an end.
This was the famous "Hands off Russia" movement which, at its London conference in 1919, in the presence of delegates from all parts of the country, decided to work for a general strike should the Government persist in its armed intervention against Socialism in Russia.
The campaign mounted to a high pitch of intensity, and when it was discovered in May 1920 that the Government intended to ship arms on board the Jolly George for Poland to use against Russia, the London dockers refused to load the vessel.
This was the culminating point which compelled the Government to retreat and stop its attacks.
In 1912 he took part as a member of the Openshaw Socialist Society in the formation of the British Socialist Party, by amalgamation of the Social Democratic Party and various other small Socialist groups.
He was, however, always speaking and campaigning in favour of militant Socialism instead of the reformism which he saw was holding back the working-class cause.
Thus his first leaflet, produced for the Openshaw Socialist Society in 1911, entitled Socialism or Social Reform, argued: "The word Socialism implies a complete revolution in the internal workings of the system which we call capitalism .. . social reform, however, proposes nothing of the kind, because a reform only acts on external effects brought about by internal causes. . .” These experiences made him more and more conscious of the need for an independent working-class political party that would give united Socialist leadership, instead of the divided mixture of contradictory leads loaded with reformism that was prevalent.
Accordingly he took part in 1920 in the foundation of the British Communist Party, of which he was elected general secretary in August 1929. He held the position for twenty-seven years. In 1956 illness compelled him to retire from the position, accepting the post of chairman instead. His illness later became more serious and he sustained a stroke in March 1958 at the age of sixty-seven.
His recovery was satisfactory enough to enable him to continue to do a great deal of political campaigning and he was given medical clearance for his visit to Australia.
His greatest contribution to the British working class was his success in applying his understanding of the way in which the Communist Party should function as an integral part of the Labour movement.
Under his leadership, the Communist Party learned how to give Socialist leadership while avoiding the danger of the narrow sectarianism which made the earlier Socialist groups so impotent.
In March 1925 be was kidnapped by a fascist gang to prevent him speaking at a meeting in Liverpool, and in 1925, four days after his marriage, he was arrested with eleven other leading members of the Communist Party. The charge was one of publishing seditious libel and inciting to commit breaches of the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797. In fact, the aim was to put this leading group of working-class Socialists out of the way because of the growing industrial storm which the ruling class realised was developing toward a general strike. Pollitt and others were sentenced to twelve months enough to keep them locked up during the period of the General Strike which took place in 1926.
Left: speaking in Tragalgar Square
He played a leading part in making it possible to launch the Daily Worker, which he regarded as essential in the struggle for peace and socialism because it would serve the interests of the working class. He never failed to campaign for the paper's Fighting Fund, describing those who gave to it as the "veritable salt of the earth, for without them there would be no daily newspaper of the working class".
During the 1930s (see pic right) he led great campaigns against unemployment and fascism. He played an outstanding part in the organisation of the British section of the International Brigade and other forms of aid for the Republican Government of Spain, which was under attack from Hitler and Mussolini as well as the Franco fascists. He was arrested in 1934 for speeches against the treatment of the unemployed, but later released.
He was tireless in warning the country of the consequences of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, showing that this would only strengthen fascism and the danger of war.
He helped to develop the movement for peace and collective security against fascism, which brought together people from different organisations and walks of life, and gave evidence urging disarmament at the Arms Commission in 1935.
The key to peace, he held, was an alliance between Britain, the Soviet Union and France to check fascism. He always maintained that the cornerstone of any peace policy for Britain was an alliance with the Soviet Union. During the Second World War he campaigned to secure the greatest effort for victory over the fascist powers, urging the opening of the Second Front and measures that would produce a just and lasting peace.
He was tireless in striving to develop greater united action by all sections of the Labour movement to abolish nuclear weapons and to end American domination of this country. Over and over again in speeches all over the country, he returned to the idea that "If Britain and the Soviet Union were to sign a peace treaty no nation would dare to go to war. Britain should work with the Russians for peace, instead of with the Americans for war."
Throughout his life he understood the need for the British working-class movement to fight to help all peoples win their independence from the Empire. He himself set a superb example, never neglecting an opportunity to help in this struggle.
He visited the Soviet Union first in 1921 and on each of his many later visits took great pleasure in observing the great progress being made.
He had also been to each of the Socialist countries in Europe and to China and always made a big point of explaining what he had seen to British audiences on his return.
Left: an election leaflet from 1940
Harry Pollitt was a human, loveable man, with a great sense of humour and a seemingly endless store of stories having not only some important political point but also their highly amusing side.
He made a massive contribution to Marxist thought and understanding in this and other countries by his insistence on the need for the Communist Party here to produce a long-term programme which would answer the question of what the Communists in Britain would do to get real powers for the people and solve once and for all the problems of lasting prosperity and peace.
He explained the questions that such a programme must answer. He inspired the production of the British Road to Socialism which set out in terms of British traditions, experience and institutions the path of advance to a new society to be achieved by the working-class in alliance with all progressive forces. He was tireless in his work and propaganda for this programme, explaining its proposals, emphasising its importance, and declaring his confidence in the capacity and power of the working class to break the stranglehold of British monopoly capitalism.
His supreme confidence in the British working class and its ability to achieve socialism in Britain was summed up in these words in Serving My Time: "There is no other class but the working class for me. They give one strength, hope and inspiration. Their history is the only history worth knowing and fighting to develop in the conditions of our time. There is no sacrifice too great to be allowed to serve the working class. . . . I know that one day they will conquer power in Britain.”
"The Communist Party will lead this struggle to its successful issue. Then, with the power in the hands of the workers, they will solve the problems of our social system that the rich can never solve. This is the dream and the aim which all the pioneers of our Labour movement have struggled to make real. This is the 'gleam' which they have tirelessly followed, which has inspired them to go to the street corners and market places to speak to a mere handful, has given them eloquence and burning fire to talk to their mates in the workshops and homes, and the certainty which has enabled them to endure crushing poverty and victimisation and made persecution easier to bear, which has steeled them to break down barrier after barrier and build up working class organisation and power."
Sources: Daily Worker, June 28th, 1960; www.communist-party.org.uk; `Serving My Time’ Harry Pollitt; `Harry Pollitt’ by John Mahon; `Harry Pollitt’ by Kevin Morgan
The Times 28th June 1960; a rare 1935 pamphlet printed in France for international seafarers; World News, the British Party's internal paper
Below: the Soviet ship named after Harry Politt and the funeral service order brochure