Zinkin Peter




Peter Zinkin

Born on 17th July 1904 in Fulham, his father was a skilled watchmaker, who later set up on his own in a small market stall. After leaving school, Zinkin learned the furriers’ trade but found himself subject to regular bouts of being laid off work. He began to read a great deal and found himself studying Marx’s `Capital’! Zinkin was also a regular camper and, in the course of pitching his tent gravitated to a left wing ILP group – some of whom would later join the Communist Party – that camped at the same spot as he did at weekends. Thus stimulated, he began to search out street corner meetings to listen to and bought periodicals and Marxist pamphlets, including Dutt’s Labour Monthly, the Worker’s Weekly.  At the end of 1923, after this lengthy process of reflection and at the age of 19, he determined to apply to join the Communist Party, which he was to remain a member of all his life.

In his naivety, he walked into the Camden Road office of the SW St Pancras Labour Party and asked to be directed to the Communist Party office. Despite the fact that there was such an office within no distance at all, he was lured into the ILP. At that time, it was possible to be a member of both parties simultaneously and heard Andrew Rothstein as a guest speaker at this ILP branch. Zinkin found himself secretary of the ILP branch in only a few months. A few weeks after his 21st birthday, he stood as a Labour candidate in the 1925 borough council elections, the youngest such candidate in the whole country. YCL members in St Pancras weighed in to support him especially vigorously and he doubled the previous Labour vote, although not enough to win.

He was a delegate to the April 1926 ILP conference, which barely considered the impending crisis that would lead to the general strike and a long lock out of the miners. In contrast, the Communist Party was warning of a countdown to disaster unless preparations were made on the side of the working class and the Party’s national leadership was already imprisoned. Zinkin was now Assistant Constituency Secretary and became heavily involved in the local Council of Action. The contrast between the inertness of the ILP and the impressive commitment of the Communists forced his hand. On May 9th, in the midst of the general strike, he applied to join the Communist Party.

Moved by the thousands of miners and hundreds of Communists arrested and in many cases sent to prison for long periods on the flimsiest of evidence, Zinkin also joined and became active within the British Section of International Class War Prisoners’ Aid (ICWPA, known to the initiated as `Icky-wopper’!  Around 1928, he was seeking to unionise the fur trade, in which he still worked, with the assistance of Harry Pollitt, who was then secretary of the Minority Movement. With the initial assistance of Ernie Pountney (see entry for Pountney), he managed to get about 30 into NUDAW. But this union’s ejection of Pountney for supporting the Rego workers’ dispute and their subsequent establishing of a `red’ union saw the furrier first decamp to this and Zinkin join the EC of the United Clothing Workers union; then, when a re-entry to the Tailor and Garment Workers’ occurred this union declined to represent furriers and thus was ended their unionisation attempt.

By 1929 Zinkin was now also `organiser’ (as the branch secretary was then called) for the St Pancras Communist Party, the second largest in the country at the time, and this and his other work found himself so well-known for these efforts that he was first unemployed and then unemployable in the fur trade. He found temporary work on the docks but was increasingly involved with the National Unemployed Workers Union.   

In September of 1931, he was sent to Moscow to work in the Comintern for a little less than a year, largely on researching political situation issues. On his return, as well as resuming his political work in St Pancras, he became the Industrial Organiser of the London District of the Party ICWPA was now renamed International Labour Defence – British Section and Zinkin became the ILD’s General Secretary. He was prominent in the work to defend Dimitrov following the Reichstag fire in 1933.

Zinkin then became the person behind the Trade Union Information Bureau, a lower-key successor to the Minority Movement. From 1934, was editor of “Postal Forward”, the journal of the Communist-led rank and file postal workers movement, which operated in almost illicit circumstances, given that it was then a dismissible offence to be a member of the Communist Party and be employed by the GPO. He pioneered the unionisation of women telephonists in the course of this work. On being approached by a young nurse, Nancy Blackburn, he assisted in the organisation of some 800 nurses. Nancy was to later marry Peter Zinkin and Thora Silverthorne (see entry) took over the work. 

His work in TUIB was now to lead to Zinkin’s most lasting and significant trade union work. From 1935, Zinkin played a major role in the revitalisation of the shop stewards’ movement in engineering in general and aircraft manufacture in particular. Arising from the building of solidarity in the industry out of a major dispute in the Hawker factory at Gloucester, a network of shop stewards’ committees became established and the Communist Party put down roots in most of the workplaces covered. He was the first full-time official of the Aircraft Shop Stewards National Council, which later expanded into the Engineering and Allied Trades National Council, and the founding editor of its journal, `New Propellor’, which reached the astonishing peak circulation of 94,000.

In 1937, he was wrongly named by the Economic League in 1937 as being the culprit behind a non-existent red plot to foster trouble at the Boulton and Paul aircraft factory in Wolverhampton. The report named him in the terms that Zinkin used for his memoirs: “A Man to Be Watched Carefully”!

In 1943, Zinkin was appointed Scottish Industrial Organiser for the Communist Party. He was appointed Political Correspondent for the Daily Worker in 1945, taking over from Claude Cockburn, who had written as Frank Pitcairn. So respected did Zinkin become in and around Parliament in this role over the next two decades that, in 1968, he was elected Chair of the Parliamentary Lobby Journalists Association, a very responsible position, especially for the first Communist to hold the role! He was also, additionally, the London correspondent for the Slovak Communist Party’s paper, and the Czechoslovakian trade union daily.

He retired in 1974 and was made a Life Member of the NUJ and became a consultant for the Sofia Press Agency. He was to suffer a fatal heart attack, after arguing with Zionists outside a GLC reception for the Jewish Mayor of Moscow. Zinkin died on July 11th 1983, aged 79, still a member of the Communist Party, and sadly with his memoirs only completed up to the run-up to the Second World War. His widow, Nancy Zinkin, oversaw the publication of what he had written. As the Morning Star’s review of the book, by Mike Ambrose who succeeded him as the Star’s Political Editor, was headlined, Zinkin had been `A Communist too busy for his memoirs’!

Sources: Peter Zinkin “A Man to Be Watched Carefully” People’s Publications (1985); Morning Star 19th December 1985


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