Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

They Were a Match for the Sweaters

(July 1959)

From The Newsletter, 11 July 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

A booklet is being prepared by Bryant and May Ltd, the match firm, to commemorate in 1961 a hundred years of their works on the same site at Bow.

I wonder how they will deal with the great strike there in 1888, which assured Bryant and May a place in the history of trade unionism and of independent working-class politics?

The group of socialists around the journal Labour Elector organized a campaign exposing sweating and unhealthy conditions in unorganized London industries.

Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows helped to bring out on strike 700 girls working in literally poisonous conditions in the Bryant and May factory-girls with no tradition of trade unionism and no funds behind them.

Thanks to the girls’ solidarity and spirit, and the support given them by other sections as a result of the publicity promoted by the socialists, the firm was forced to surrender to their demands.

The jostle and the avalanche

Engels said that the victory of an apparently helpless group proved to be the ‘light jostle needed for the entire avalanche to move’.

It was followed by a wave of organization among the unskilled workers of the East End, who had hitherto been outside the charmed circle of trade unionism.

In 1889 the Gasworkers’ and General Labourers’ Union was formed, ancestor to the immense and powerful National Union of General and Municipal Workers we know today.

Bryant and May were pillars of the Liberal Party, then still supported by the bulk of the politically-minded workers, and the exposure of their workers’ conditions and the unsuccessful battle fought against them helped forward the campaign the socialists were waging for an independent party of the working class to be set up in opposition to both the capitalist parties.

The Bryant and May strike contributed to the process which led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and then of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.

It is an outstanding example of the interdependence of industrial and political action, something which Labour’s present leaders want forgotten.

How to lay a myth

Distributing Socialist Labour League leaflets at Communist Party (or communist-front) demonstrations nowadays brings one up against a remarkably variegated spectacle of uneven development.

At Marble Arch the other Sunday, when the British Peace Committee’s supporters were gathering for their ‘March for Life’, I encountered, at one end of the spectrum, a bemedalled ex-serviceman-for-peace who came back for another copy of our leaflet ‘for the branch’ and, at the other, a dour Scotsman who hustled his friend away from me, saying: ‘That’s a fascist organization.’

Now, for many of them ‘fascist’ is just a word, like ‘revisionist’, which means ‘nasty, wicked, sinful’, and nothing more precise than that.

But for others the use of it in relation to Trotskyists is based on a particular card-castle of lies which was built up between the years 1936 and 1938, by means of the notorious Moscow trials.

How can one shake the confidence of such people in the myth they have accepted for over twenty years? They are often the armour-plated type for whom Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech is still a ‘State Department forgery’.

Well, here is a simple little exercise which I suggest be recommended by anyone who has contact with them. Let them go along to the office of any Stalinist-controlled organization – say, the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR – where there is a set of the Large Soviet Encyclopedia, second edition, and ask for volume 51.

This was a supplementary volume, published last year, and an editorial note at the beginning explains that it includes, among other things, biographies which ‘for various reasons’ were not given in the main volumes. (Mr D.N. Pritt, QC, is among these afterthoughts!)

On page 299 there is a biography of Marshal Tukhachevsky, who was executed in 1937. The article, which is illustrated with a photograph of the marshal, recites his services to the Soviet Union and lists his principal works; it says nothing of the charges of treason brought against him, or of the circumstances of his death.

I suggest that the Communist Party member who still thinks Trotskyists are fascists ask for this article to be translated to him; that he then ask himself whether the publication of such an article; in the Soviet Union is compatible with continued belief there in Tukhachevsky’s guilt; that he then ponder the implications for the trials of the ‘case of the generals’ being discredited.

After all, the existence of the Tukhachevsky ‘group of conspirators’ was ‘revealed in the course of investigating evidence secured during the previous trial’ (of Radek, Pyatakov etc.) as no less an authority than Andrew Rothstein reminds us on page 241 of his well-known Pelican History of the USSR (1950).

The trials were all interlinked. When Khrushchev admitted that the charges Stalin brought against Tito were lies, in his famous Belgrade Airport speech in 1955, he thereby knocked the props from under the case against Rajk.

Let the implications of the ‘rehabilitation’ of Tukhachevsky be considered by every honest member of the Communist Party.

Last updated on 12.10.2011