Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Joe Thomas (1912-1990)

Joe Thomas had a long and varied career in left-wing politics. His father was a cobbler and leather worker. (I still use a briefcase he made in 1945.) Joe started work as a clerk in the headquarters of ASLEF.

He became a member and organiser of the National Union of Clerks and Administrative Workers, and in 1941 he was on its General Council. In the ’thirties he joined the Young Communist League. Later on, as a member of the Communist Party, he was close to Tom Mann, J.R. Campbell, John Gollan, etc. In 1938 he was a paid organiser for the youth section of the London Trades and Labour Council. For a period at the beginning of the war he was a shop steward at Napiers’ engineering factory. With the entry of Russia into the war, and the support of the government by the party, he left the party and in November 1943 joined the Commonwealth Party.


The Commonwealth Party was a woolly-minded, moral, utopian, middle class party. One of its distinguishing features was its refusal to abide by the electoral pact of all the other parties, by which, during the war, they did not contest parliamentary by-elections. Joe became a paid London organiser. But his methods acquired after a lifetime in the Communist Party did not suit Commonwealth, and he was ousted from that position.

He left Commonwealth in October 1944 with a group called the Communist Workers Group, which fused with the well-nigh defunct Leninist League of Glasgow, the rump of which was led by Dennis Levin. (Joe had first met Levin in the late ’thirties when Levin was a member of the Workers International League, and working as a clerk at the headquarters of the Automobile Association. Joe organised the clerks into the union. There was a strike for union recognition. Levin and several others were sacked.) The result of this fusion called itself the Revolutionary Workers Association of Great Britain, affiliated to the International Contact Commission (Oehlerites). According to a member of the group at that time, “the ICC sent a representative from Chicago, who by bureaucratic methods and a lack of understanding of the British workers’ movement, split the group”. All this took place in 11 months.

In May 1946 Joe Thomas and his colleagues broke with the ICC and formed a new group, the Socialist Workers League.

About this time the group made contact with the London Port Workers’ Rank and File Committee. The group also helped to produce their paper, the Port Workers Clarion. Several members of the committee – Harry Constable, Bert Aylward, Bert Saunders and others – joined the group. Harry Constable was one of the seven dockers charged and acquitted at the Old Bailey for organising strikes. (Ernst Schneider, author of The Wilhelmshaven Revolt, although not a docker, lived and worked in East London and was a close friend of Harry.)

The dockers’ rank and file movement had produced a Dockers’ Charter calling for:

  1. 25 shillings a day basic pay.
  2. A 40-hour, five-day week.
  3. Adequate pensions from a levy on tonnage.
  4. Adequate and proper welfare.

When the union officials agreed to accept less than this, dockers on Merseyside and London came out on strike. Seven dockers were charged under Order 1305 for conspiring to spread a strike. This order came into force during the war, but was never used. After a trial lasting several days at the Old Bailey, conducted by the Labour government’s Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, the jury failed to agree and the case was thrown out. After this defeat the government withdrew the order.

At this point I am sure Joe would not have minded if I break into his obituary and elaborate on the situation as it was in 1945-51, which is not a very well known period.

After the war British capitalism was faced with the problem of rebuilding its economy. The Labour government put up large posters on hoardings throughout the country, proclaiming “Work or Want” (considering that the workers had been working and wanting for generations, this was a gross impertinence). But the government did not confine itself to poster exhortations. Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, carried out what I believe was the only successful policy of wage restraint ever carried out before or since, and that at a time of increasing production – a unique achievement! [1]

This wage restraint was backed by the use of the armed forces against strikes. [2] Prime Minister Attlee, broadcasting over the radio, proclaimed: “... it became necessary to use service personnel, first to save perishable goods, and secondly to ensure that the people should not be deprived of food ... particularly of meat ... needed for the ration”. (The food rations were then less than during the war. The meat ration was one shilling’s worth a week!)

The important point of all this, which none of us knew at the time, was that while the Labour government was demanding and enforcing wage restraint with the aid of troops, Major Attlee, the Prime Minister of that same government, was spending hundreds of millions of pounds on the production of Britain’s own atom bomb. All this was done without the consent and behind the backs of the electorate, Parliament, and the members of the Cabinet, an example of Prime Ministerial government which even Mrs Thatcher has not yet equalled. [3]

Wage restraint was not only used to build the bomb, it also helped to prop up one of the most inefficient and lazy capitalist groups in the world. During the war manufacturing companies had been guaranteed profits on the basis of cost-plus, that is, whatever it cost to produce bombs, tanks, ships, guns, uniforms, etc. The capitalists were guaranteed a percentage over and above that cost. Corrupted with these easy profits, little effort was made after the war to supply the world market, and this at a time when, with the devastation in Europe and Asia, there was no competition. So the textile, machine tool, shipbuilding and motor industries stagnated and disappeared. The main energies of the British capitalists went into ‘long weekends’, ‘extended lunch hours’, and getting themselves onto the honours list. Lords, Sirs and Right Hons were on the boards of all the leading companies.


But to return to Joe Thomas, and the Socialist Workers League in 1946: I have before me a copy of its constitution and standing orders, 12 closely-typed pages. Every provision is made for any contingency which might affect a large organisation: the structure of the basic divisional and regional organisations, and the procedure for the calling of congresses and special congresses. All this was for handful of members. A year after in the League’s Internal Review of August 1947 there is a complaint of the lack of support from the members. It says: “The SWL has virtually ceased to function as an organised group. It is farcical to call on the workers to help build up an organised Marxian workers party when we are incapable of organising our own small group.” However, the group managed to survive until 1951.

Joe then joined the ILP, where he again met Dennis Levin. After an unsuccessful attempt to fish in that cenrist swamp, they both left, and in 1954 for formed the Workers League, whose publication was The Workers News Bulletin.

On 23 March 1961 Joe Thomas and Bill Blatchford were expelled from the group on “the ground of bureaucratic suppression of discussion”. (Among the four who voted for their expulsion was Max Adler, whose memoir, A Socialist Remembers, I reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 2 no.3.) Only someone who had spent as many years in the Communist Party as Joe could have managed to be expelled for bureaucratism from a group of so few members. Discussing it with him a quarter of a century later, I could see it still hurt. The group carried on for another four or five years, publishing its paper under the editorship of Levin.

In 1987 the indefatigable Joe was a leading force in the founding of The Movement for Workers Councils, a group based mainly on the principles and works of Anton Pannekoek. In the programme of discussion themes for the Discussion Forum run by the group it said, “the broad development of the discussion as a whole takes such a course as will deepen the understanding of all participants, including the tutor him/herself”. This was a more humble note than what appears in many of Joe’s other draft programmes. It was something.

One of Joe’s ex-comrades, from the print and publishing world, told me: “Joe’s saving grace, as far as I and a lot of other people are concerned, is the vast amount of unselfseeking and very hard work he put in for the trade union movement at all levels. He was exceedingly good at it, and left his mark in getting a lot of people’s wages and work conditions upgraded and setting a pattern for employer negotiations that still continues. Like others, I certainly learnt a lot from him.”

At the party celebrating Joe’s seventy-eighth birthday, there was a Labour councillor, who as a youth had argued long and loud with him, an old Anarchist friend, several Class War activists, and members of his own group. He received with a wry smile my ‘birthday present’, a copy of the Draft Manifesto for a New Workers Party of April 1957. Another time, a different dream. He said: “You sod!”

Ernest Rogers



1. The number of working days lost through industrial disputes from VE Day to the end of September 1949 was approximately 10.25 million, as compared with nearly 170 million in the corresponding period after the 1914-18 war (Minister of Labour Mr Isaacs, in a written answer on 20 October, in the House of Commons, Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, 1950, p.10332). The average increase in weekly wage rates in 1949 was smaller than in any year since 1939. There was a rise of 2 per cent in wages and a rise of 4 per cent in prices (Ibid., p.10595).

2. “Between 1945 and 1983 Labour governments called in the military 21 times and Tory governments 15 times.” (Peter Hain, Political Strikes, p.154).

3. See R.H. Crossman’s letter in the New Statesman, 31 May 1963, in which he reveals the methods Attlee used to conceal the production of the Bomb and how the decision to produce it was first disclosed, after the Labour government fell from office, by Sir Winston Churchill.

Editor’s note

This Joe Thomas should not be confused with the Trotskyist Joe Thomas, who predeceased him, who during this period had been a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003