Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

How to Fight Rent Increases

(October 1959)

From The Newsletter, 17 October 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

This column recalled, in the issue of April 5, 1958, how the Rent Restriction Act was won in 1915 by industrial action. Current developments make it appropriate to bring this topic forward again.

In the early months of the first world war landlords everywhere took advantage of the situation to force up rents. Then, as again now, there was no serious legal safeguard against their doing what they pleased and could get away with. In Glasgow, however, they found themselves up against a strong rank – and – file organization based on the shop stewards in the engineering factories – the Clyde Workers’ Committee. And that committee was guided politically by John Maclean, the schoolteacher who was perhaps the greatest propagandist for Marxism this country has yet seen.

When 18 engineering workers were summoned for failing to pay increased rents, in November 1915, the reaction was instantaneous. Several shipyards struck work, including Harland and Wolff’s, and the workers, with their wives, marched on the court. About 10,000 people assembled to support the defendants, and were addressed by Maclean – who had just been dismissed from his job.

In court the sheriff was obliged to listen to ‘evidence’ like this: ‘We have left our work and are determined not to go back unless you give a decision in favour of the tenants,’ and: ‘You hear the voice of the people out in the street. That is the workers of the upper reaches of the Clyde. These men will only resume work in the event of your deciding against the factor [landlord]; if you do not, it means that the workers on the lower reaches will stop work tomorrow and join them. And a representative from Dalmuir read the following resolution: ‘That we, the organized workers of Beardmore’s Naval Construction Works, Dalmuir ... are determined to do all in our power, even to the extent of downing tools, to prevent the landlords using the present extraordinary demand for houses to raise rents.’

All the cases were dropped and the government hurriedly passed the Rent Restriction Act.

An account of this instructive episode, in its context, will be found in Tom Bell’s John Maclean (1944).

A revolutionary novel

A correspondent gives me the good news that Corgi Books have brought out a paperback edition at 2s. 6d. of Ignazio Silone’s famous novel Fontamara.

This gripping story of a South Italian village under fascism, with its picture, shot through with bitter, satirical humour, of the life of the peasants and their struggles with all sorts of exploiters and oppressors, made a sensation when it first appeared in English in 1934. Penguin brought it out as a paper-back so long ago as 1938.

Trotsky read Fontamara in 1933, while travelling from his first place of exile, in Turkey, to his second in France, and at once wrote a brief but enthusiastic review for the New York Militant, datelined from his ship.

Fontamara itself,’ he wrote, is ‘merely a poverty-stricken village in one of the most forsaken corners of Southern Italy. In the course of some 200 pages of the book this name becomes the symbol of agricultural Italy, of all its villages and their poverty, their despair and their rebellions.’

Silone himself has since moved far from the political position he held when he wrote Fontamara. But the novel and its message remain. Renegades cannot undo the good work they did before they were renegades.

That applies equally to Andre Malraux, whose novel about the workers’ rising in Shanghai in 1927, La Condition humaine, still helps many to understand the criminal folly of Stalinist policy in colonial countries. It came out in English in 1934 as Storm over Shanghai and was reissued in 1948 as Man’s Estate.

Irish Labour’s record

Colleague Brian Behan is gathering material for a study of the working-class movement in Ireland since the Treaty. He would be grateful to have any publications relating to this subject which readers can give or lend him sent to this address-books, pamphlets, issues of journals, circulars and so on.

Much of the basic material is hard to come by in this country. For instance, at the British Museum Newspaper Library at Colindale only three copies (nos. 15, 16 and 17) of The Workers’ Republic, the Irish Communist weekly of 1921–1922, survived wartime bombing.

Last updated on 13.10.2011