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International Socialism, Winter 1995


Julie Waterson

The party at its peak


From International Socialism 2:69, Winter 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Nina Fishman
The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933–45
Scolar Press 1994, £45

When Tom Harris, the union branch secretary, was sacked from the Pressed Steel works in Oxford in 1938, this was the response:

The workers marched right through the factory from one end to the other. I nearly got killed. There were literally thousands of workers behind us, all marching ... and all these workers were pushing to get through to other departments ... They had a meeting in the Press Shop and there were workers everywhere – stenographers, typists, God knows what, all over the machines taking the stuff down that the workers who were the leaders, who were on the top of the presses, were saying. And they turned machines over, they turned car bodies over. Just erupted. [1]

The factory had almost 100 percent union organisation and its achievements were praised by its union leader, TGWU chief Ernest Bevin.

The 5/60 Branch of the TGWU was organised and built by the Communist Party. After a strike in 1934, and in line with the CP’s policy of mass unionisation, Communists went about disciplining the management into accepting the power of the unions. Norman Brown, who worked at the plant from 1934 and joined the CP in 1936, continues his story:

5/60 Branch meetings were unique. They were held every Sunday morning in a big hall – but you couldn’t get in unless you came early. Always full. Right through the thirties. It was fantastic discussions ... We had the biggest (Party factory) group in the country ... At the time of the Popular Front – you could literally command thousands of workers to take part in demonstrations by just putting leaflets out. There was a ‘Soviet Britain’ pamphlet. We used to sell them hundreds at a time in the factory. During the Spanish Civil War you could tell the lads to bring in a cartload of stuff and they’d bring it in. [2]

In many ways the politics and practice of the CP in the 1930s is summarised here. The tale is not only one of triumph, strength and victory, but also of collaboration, tragedy and defeat – Tom Harris never got his job back. The CP did not sanction or promote the unofficial action which would have won, and which TGWU leader Bevin was desperate to avoid. Management seized the time and sacked all the core activists. Fishman’s book is a much needed antidote to the prevailing notions of the inevitability of hunger, poverty, fascism and war in the 1930s. She paints quite a different picture to that commonly portrayed in the media. In her book we are offered verbal accounts from those many trade unionists and activists who fought against exploitation and who, with the politics of the CP, generalised this to the struggle against fascism at home and abroad. Her detailed study of the building of unions amongst bus workers, aviation workers and, to a lesser extent, mine workers is inspiring.

Life itself

The aim of Fishman’s book is to prove that ‘life itself’ determined the practice of Communists in the trade unions and not the dictates of a far off and politically distant leadership in Moscow (or London). In her words ‘revolutionary pragmatism’ dominated – no matter the political dictates of the day. [3] This was certainly the case for anyone who wanted to challenge a decaying capitalist system, which bred greedy bosses, fascism and the threat of war. What dominated in everyday life was the immediate issues, whether that be the struggle against the bosses or the fight against fascism. The personal sacrifice and political ability of individual Communists can only be admired. Any study of the CP in the 1930s can only enrich our understanding of how to fight today. Importantly it also demonstrates how not to fight.

There may have been tensions between different factions inside the CP and there certainly were many arguments over the direction and nature of comrades’ intervention. But it is naive to assume that the overall political direction of the Comintern and the CP did not radically affect the practice of individual members. Many working class comrades paid the price for the wild swings from ultra-leftism to right wing accommodation.

For instance, when the Comintern quickly ditched its policy of ‘class against class’ after Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin’s policy of the inevitability of revolutionary upsurge, pursued since 1928, was replaced by the equally destructive Popular Front, which subsumed working class power to that of alliances with ‘progressive’ sections of the ruling class. This was translated onto the shopfloor and eventually into an accommodation with the trade union bureaucracy, the tragedy of which was witnessed in the 1970s but the roots of which can be traced to the 1930s.

Back to the unions

The early 1930s were marked by a political crisis as Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald capitulated to big business, collapsing the Labour government. TUC chief Walter Citrine responded in a similar manner – after selling out the 1926 General Strike he fell into the arms of the employers with the Mond-Turner talks in 1928 and finally accepted a knighthood in 1935 (the same year the TUC General Council issued the ‘Black Circulars’, attempting to make affiliated unions and trades councils deny the rights of Communist delegations [4]).

By 1933-1934 Britain’s economy was on a slow recovery from its catastrophic slump in 1931. New industries sprang up and existing industries took on new workers. But there were whole areas where no union organisation existed. In 1932 the majority of unskilled workers were not unionised. In April 1934 the Daily Worker reported a stoppage in the Handley Page machine shop:

Within five minutes the management came into the shop saying, ‘Tell those blighters they shall have their two weeks bonus.’ It is as well in noting this victory that two years ago there were only one or two trade unionists at this firm. Now it is 80 percent organised, which speaks well for the militants employed there. [5]

The combination of a political and economic crisis plus the opportunities to build amongst and recruit workers was exciting. As Fishman notes:

Party activists who agitated inside factories and pits found workers who listened to their message. They were also willing to ‘have a go’ in gaining redress for long-standing grievances or to fight employers’ attempts to introduce new working practices which involved speed-up and more intensive exploitation. [6]

CP leaders were now able to act in turning the party to consistent trade union work (although the mood had turned in industry by 1931). [7] Harry Pollitt (CP general secretary and ex-boilermaker) and his political ally Johnny Campbell [8] firmly believed that the key to revolution was by building trade unions, stewards’ organisation and by rooting the party firmly in the working class. Both leaders had been privately hostile to the building of Red Unions [9] during the ‘class against class’ policy of the Comintern from 1928–33 (and indeed the later breakaway union on the buses in 1938). Now Pollitt wrote in the first issue of Party Organiser in March 1932:

There has been a strong tendency to believe that the new (Third Period) line ... meant that there was no further need to work inside the trade unions ... This sectarianism is not a new thing in the revolutionary movement ... It is much easier to cry ‘Traitor’ or shout ‘Let’s form a Red Union’ than it is to fight persistently and grimly inside the trade union branches in order to win the masses inside them for the policy of class struggle and unity. [10]

Rank and file militancy

The very existence of rank and file movements recognises the tensions between members and the bureaucracy – and no one understood this more clearly than the union leaders themselves. Trade union ‘loyalty’ was always used to discipline members and to control them. Here’s an example from the AEU executive minutes of 2 February 1937: ‘… he could not be married to both the Communist Party and the AEU. We were not polygamists, and the AEU is a jealous mistress’. [11]

Although the bureaucracy stamped on any rank and file militancy, they depended on Communists to build the unions. Bert Papworth, the rank and file bus workers’ leader, was awarded the TGWU silver medal for recruiting 170 members to the union. [12] Papworth became the first CP member of the TUC general council. TGWU chief Bevin relied heavily on Communists, although he detested them. [13] Moreover, he used the discipline of ‘union loyalty’ to get rank and file leaders to police their members, often ending strikes. The tensions between the rank and file and the bureaucracy, were being mirrored within the rank and file movement itself.

London busmen led the way with an amazing victory over Bevin in 1931–1932. They had forced Bevin to retreat on a deal with the bus owners. With their new found confidence they established a rank and file movement on a permanent basis in 1932 – the London Busmen’s Rank and File Movement. Busman’s Punch was its monthly paper, selling 10,000 at its height. The leaders of this movement – most notably Bert Papworth – were rooted and respected trade unionists who were elected onto union committees. This was much to the annoyance of Bevin, who wanted to isolate them. Instead he disciplined them.

In 1935 an unofficial strike broke out at Nunhead garage. It spread and 5,000 bus workers were out on strike. The Daily Worker reported:

At every bus stop stood young men. They gave out pamphlets entitled Bus Strike. They shouted: ‘Facts About the Bus Strike!’ These were the Communists. At each place I went I saw these workers mobilising at the bus stops giving out leaflets. It was the same all over London ... The Communist Party mobilised quickly; they played their part well as the vanguard of the army of the working class: they drew in many Londoners into that army that night. [14]

This strike took place as the 1935 TGWU Biennial Delegate Conference was meeting on the Isle of Man. Papworth was brought back to prevent a fleet wide strike. Another strike broke out a month later and Bevin again used the rank and file leaders to contain it and then end it. Papworth was accused of naked betrayal. His defence was his inability to break ‘union loyalism’ due to his union position. [15] He resigned from the Rank and File Committee.

When bus workers were preparing for the 1937 Coronation Day strike one leading rank and file member wrote in the Busman’s Punch of looking forward to never attending another union branch meeting ‘with a view to preventing strikes. If there is one thing that I have detested doing. it was appealing to men not to take strike action, especially when I have known they were right.’ [16] The strike failed and the rank and file split, with some forming a Red Union. The majority stayed with the TGWU, but the rank and file movement formally disbanded in 1938.

The ability of the trade union leaders to discipline the left leaders created deep divisions inside the CP and rank and file movements. Nowhere is this truer than amongst the South Wales miners. Arthur Horner, a CP member and a mining official, was constantly protected by the CP leadership and, on one occasion when he stopped a strike, by the Comintern. [17]


Fishman’s book is bursting with stories of working class resistance, although she is reluctant to analyse the nature of the politics which shaped many of these revolts. Nonetheless it is invaluable for the struggles we face today. The veins of resistance run through the book. The 1930s were the years when socialist politics (however distorted) gained mass support and when individual Communists were able to shape the world around them. It was a dramatic decade, which encompassed famine, unemployment, the fight for unions and against fascism, and finally the Second World War.

The CP transformed itself from the 2,576 members in 1931 to 59,319 in 1942. At first there was resistance to recruiting ‘raw’ trade unionists into the party. General Secretary Pollitt said ruefully in 1935 (when membership stood at 6,500), ‘We still believe it is better to have “a small party of the elect” of those “we can rely on in a crisis” than to have a mass party of the workers.’ [18]

The decade began with the Daily Worker hitting the streets and ended with it being banned by the wartime coalition government. In between there were the heroic actions of tens of thousands of individual Communists who battled it out with the bosses, their landlords and against unemployment and fascism. In doing so they built around them wider layers of people who had respect and delivered solidarity for those who fought back.

Without these individuals the working class would be in a much weaker position today. We have much to learn from their enthusiasm and sacrifice. If we combine that with an understanding of how Stalinism distorted and destroyed the revolutionary alternative to reformism, we will have a powerful analysis to guide revolutionaries today.


1. N. Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933–45 (Scolar Press 1994), p. 217.

2. Ibid., p. 216.

3. Ibid.. p. 333.

4. Essays in M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, The History of Communism in Britain (New Park Publications 1975), p. 131. The vote was narrow when the Black Circulars came up for approval at the Trade Union Congress in September 1935: 1,869,000 to 1,272,000.

5. N. Fishman, op. cit., p. 135.

6. Ibid., p. 7.

7. M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, op. cit., see pp. 125–128. Movements actively organising against the bureaucracy already existed among South Wales miners, builders in 32 London union branches, boilermakers, and furniture workers. An unofficial movement in the British Iron and Steel and Kindred Trades Federation held a conference with 61 branches attending. As late as October 1932 the CP had to urge its supporters to ‘link up with and actively work amongst’ the AEU Members’ Rights Movement which had the support of 120 branches and four area councils and published its own monthly paper, Monkey Wrench, with a circulation of 5,000.

8. W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause – British Communism 1920–91 (Pluto Press 1992). Pollitt was brought in as general secretary in 1929 on the Comintern’s orders, against the ‘right danger’. He was then removed in 1939 for his pro-war stance and reinstated after Hitler invaded Stalingrad. For an explanation of the Comintern’s influence on the day to day working of the CP, see pp. 44–45 and p. 67.

9. Ibid., p. 35. It is worth noting that, of all the attempts (and there were many) to build Red Unions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, only one survived, the United Mineworkers of Scotland, a result of a ‘Reform Union’ formed in 1923. It was based mainly in Fife, although it had members throughout the Scottish coalfield.

10. N. Fishman, op. cit., p. 49.

11. Ibid., p. 335.

12. M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, op. cit., p. 131.

13. Ibid., p. 4.

14. Ibid., p. 112.

15. Ibid., p. 114.

16. Ibid., p. 121.

17. Ibid., see ch. 7.

18. Ibid., p. 2.

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