In this document Ernie Rogers, a veteran revolutionary and long standing member of the Revolutionary History Editorial Board takes issue with some of the views expressed by Harry Ratner in his memoirs Reluctant Revolutionary, published by Socialist Platform.
We have updated this file to include the texts of the war time leaflets which Ernie and his comrades produced and distributed, and which brought down upon them the hostility of the authorities.
At the beginning of the war I was working in the flight shed of Boulton & Paul at Wolverhampton. After that I worked at the Standard shadow factory in Coventry where I became the convenor. Afterwards I was the shop steward in the Aero department of the Humber factory where I was during the Blitz on 15.11.40. I was in Glasgow from March to May 1941 when the air-raids took place there. I was a fire-watcher in the East End of London when the Buzz bombs and V2 rockets were coming down.
I did not find a “simple patriotism“ prevailing among the civilian population but rather a feeling of being trapped between their own government and the German government, though most of the anger and frustration was directed towards heir own government. The majority were sceptical of all propaganda.
The morning after the Blitz on Coventry Denis Levin and I went round checking on the fate of union members and shop-stewards in our factories. We heard no “simple patriotism” but only anger at the war and the government. The government was so concerned about the effect of the raids that both the Royal family and Churchill were sent there to improve morale. So was Ernie Bevin, the Minister of Labour in the War Cabinet, who spent two days addressing large meetings of shop stewards who were given time off with pay to attend. There is no mention of these meetings in either of the biographies of Bevin.
A popular broadcaster of the war was William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw). According to the BBC’s own figures, at least half the country was listening occasionally and a third regularly to his propaganda from Germany. Details of his programmes were listed in the Times. His gibes at the “drunken Churchill“ were neither forgotten nor forgiven by the British government. Although technically not a British citizen he was hanged for treason. At the end of 1939 a German fighter-bomber made a hedge hopping attack on the Boulton and Paul factory where I was working though his bombs missed. That night ‘Haw Haw’ reported the raid and how the pilot had been decorated for bravery. His broadcast was reported in the British Press otherwise the raid would not have been revealed. Next day in the Boulton Paul canteen about a thousand workers heard on the BBC radio news how Boulton Paul, now engaged on the large scale production of Defiant fighter planes had escaped destruction. The factory exploded in laughter as there were only three or four prototypes in the flight shed. This is the only time that I experienced the effect of the Joyce broadcasts. He did become a counter attraction to the BBC official broadcasts.
At the Aero Department of the Humber works where I was a shop-steward, we were engaged in stripping down, inspecting and reassembling engines from crashed fighter planes. I was one of about twenty inspectors checking the parts. One day at the end of the shift I noticed that everyone was staying at their benches and, as we had cleared up all outstanding work that day there was nothing else to do. I asked them why they were staying on. “The foreman told us to work overtime”. “Do you want to?”, “No”, “Then go home (it was during the air-raids) I’ll deal with the foreman.” So they all departed. The management was upset at this intrusion of workers’ control. Although there would have been no work output from the men, on the basis of cost plus 30%, every penny the bosses spent brought in 30% profits. So they introduced night shifts on alternative fortnights but I refused to do them on health grounds as I had stomach ulcers and produced a doctor’s certificate. Conditions were bad as the department was swimming in oil from the dismantled engines and at night it was worse because all the windows and doors were closed as a result of the blackout. I was told to work night shifts or be sacked. There was at the time a Dilution Committee (the government was trying to avoid the sort of trouble that had occurred on Clydeside in 1916) which had the job of controlling and regulating the influx of unskilled labour and which was composed of Trade Union and Employer representatives. The Committee was told by the Union side that if I were sacked the Committee would not permit any more dilutees in Coventry. My dismissal was withdrawn.
I do remember an outbreak of “patriotism” in the Humber factory when I worked there although I am not sure if it fits in with Harry Ratner’s concept of “simple patriotism”. One lunch time the Convenor, Hamilton Payne, an old Clydesider and good right-wing member of the AEU District Committee invited me down to the “Track” (the conveyor belt for vehicle assembly) where there was some trouble. There were six or seven workers standing about and Hamy said “What’s the trouble?” Their spokesman replied “Our shop-steward has registered as a Conscientious Objector and we don’t think that is right when he is working on war-work.” Hamy was heavy and slow in his manner so he looked at the chap and said “How long have you been working here?”, “Nine months” was the answer. “What did you do before?”, “I was a butcher.” “So you are registering your objection to being in the army by working here”. He interrogated a couple more on the same lines. By this time our new-found patriots were wilting.
Hamy went on and told them about the District Secretary in the previous war who had registered as a CO and how all the members of the AEU in Coventry had supported him. The shop-steward they wanted removed had served his time in the factory. He was elected by the members and until they decided otherwise he would remain shop-steward. Hamy waved his hand and said “Get back to work”. We heard no more from the short time patriots.
I am quite well aware that the Russian patriots, in the form of the CP, infected the factories and the Trade Unions but that did not increase the general “patriot mood” as enthusiasm for Stalin diminished that for Churchill.
Charlie Menzies, a member of the Leninist League in Glasgow, where his style was much more confrontational than was possible in Coventry. At the beginning of the war he moved a resolution in the Glasgow District AEU Committee that “This District Committee does not support the war”. This was during the Hitler-Stalin Pact and so the Stalinists voted for it. It lost by one vote. Later on in the war he earned the wrath of the Stalinists by opposing Production Committees.
He retained the support of the Barr & Stroud shop Committee. I met him one afternoon towards the end of the war. He told me he was off to an inebriates home to “dry off”. The factory committee had insisted and were paying. Just before telling me this my wife had suggested that we had a drink meaning tea or coffee and he had just looked at her sadly and said “Hen, they are no open yet”.
I walked in the ruins after the raid on Clydebank when 13,000 tons of bombs were dropped leaving only 7 out of 12,000 tenements dwellings undamaged. I heard no patriotic talk. (Those tenement buildings were never rebuilt. A few years ago there was a radio programme in which the survivors complained that they had been to Germany where whole cities had been rebuilt but not Clydebank. Not patriotic enough?)
I did not find a “simple patriotism” prevailing among the civilian population but rather a feeling of being trapped between their own government and the German government, though most of the anger and frustration was directed towards their own government. The vast majority were sceptical of all propaganda.
The following quote appeared in one of our leaflets which provoked the use of 18B against us. “In the latter half of 1940, after the illegalisation of all strikes the total number of strikes doubles and in the engineering trade it was quadrupled”. The author himself (Harry Ratner) provides statistics about strikes in 1944. (See Chapter 12 foot of p.133). He also points out the large number of strikes and the overwhelming vote against Churchill in 1945. (See Living Through the Blitz by Tom Harrison, 1990 for reports from civilians at the time, and also Myth and Reality by Clive Ponting, 1990 for secret Cabinet decisions and report.)
Reference to Harry Finch in Chapter 4, pp.25. Just previous to this Harry F. was a member of the Leninist League and working with Denis Levin and myself in factories in Coventry. We duplicated a few dozen leaflets on “Shelters” and Harry took these to London and distributed them in some Northern Line stations. This was towards the end of November 1940. I do not know how many of the ‘Shelterers’ read them but the authorities certainly did. We were raided on the night of the 16th December 1940 by Special Branch with a warrant under 18B (The Defence of the Realm Act). We were informed that we were suspected of producing and distributing leaflets contrary to 18B regulations. Our typewriter, duplicator, papers and documents were removed. We had also issued several leaflets on industrial issues to local factories.
Leaflet No 1
THE CASE OF LEVIN & ROGERS
On the night of December 16th there was a raid on our flat by the police. The warrant to search was produced under the Defence Regulations. We were, it seems, suspected of producing and distributing leaflets contrary to these regulations. Technical equipment, all our books, periodicals stretching several years back, including the A.E.U. Journal, were taken away. We were informed that an explanation of certain items might have to be asked during the week and that at the end of the week a report presented to the authorities in London. Detective Inspector Pendelton of the Coventry C.I.D., in charge of the search, was from statements made by him already well acquainted with our positions and activities as shop-stewards.
The above facts, particularly the latter, were considered by us on the night and early morning of the 16th and 17th December. We came to the conclusion that to remain would mean we would follow John Mason, Mexboro’ shop-steward, into the internment camp and thus be silenced for the duration of the war. The only way in which we could retain a free voice to express those sentiments of working-class independence, which we had always done at out shop-committee meetings, shop-steward meetings and aggregates of the A.E.U., was to flee and go into hiding. This we have done. We enclose two leaflets with which we were associated. One, a protest against the victimisation of the convenor of the Standard Motor Factory and the other an article on air-raid protection. In both leaflets the lesson that only independent working-class activity could secure any gains from the bosses was emphasized. On the day preceding the raid there was a meeting of delegates from thirty London Tube Committees who met to form a Central Shelter Committee. Sharp protest were and are being made throughout the country against the rise in the cost of living and the fact that the employers refuse to increase wages. It was because of these facts that the authorities struck against us and are no doubt preparing to strike against others. It would seem that those who fight for the democratic rights of the workers are the first to suffer in the so-called fight for democracy. Freedom of expression it would also seem means that we are free only to express support of the bosses.
We cannot accept this travesty of democracy and therefore must call upon our fellow-workers to support us in our struggle for return of our democratic rights so that we are able to return to our duties as shop-stewards without fear of arrest.
WORKERS VOICE No.2
BEVIN & CO. PAVE THE WAY TO FASCISM
“Blood, sweat and tears”: That as Churchill bluntly put it is all the bosses of this or any other country have to offer us. But, knowing that we might not be so ready to accept our fate as determined by them, they have secured the assistance of their agents within our ranks. Bevin, Citrine, Attlee, Morrison follow in the footsteps of MacDonald, Thomas, Snowden.
Along with this attempt to smash our organisations by corruption there is an intensified drive against the militant rank and file leadership. The Shop-Steward movement is in a state of semi-illegality. Communists are being cleared out of the factories. Non political Shop-Stewards carrying on an active struggle against the bosses are on one pretext or another being driven out. Thus the first luxury to be discarded in this imperialist war is sham capitalist democracy. But it is not the war which causes the end of capitalist democracy, it is the world decline of capitalism of which war is but a part.
In Italy in 1922, Germany 1933, Austria 1934, Spain 1939, France 1940, the triumph of fascism was preceded by an attack on the communists, the socialists, the trade unions and all working class standards of life. This attack which is now taking place throughout this country on the most advanced elements, the Shop-Stewards, the only elected representatives over whom the workers have any control, is the prelude to the introduction of fascism here. If our bosses are unable to achieve this on their own, they, like the French capitalists, will invite the armed forces of German fascism to do it for them.
The working class must become aware of these facts. We may give up the class struggle but the bosses won’t. The lesson must be drawn from the last war. In 1914 the trade unions agreed not to strike for the duration of the war. 1915, strikes were declared illegal. 1916, strikes against the victimisation of Shop-Stewards swept the country. Only thus was it possible to maintain any organisation, any standard of life.
Against the extension of the power of the managements!
Workers control of production through the Shop Committees!
Our enemy is the boss – French, German or British!
Against class-collaboration! Independent working class action!
Against imperialist war! CLASS WAR!
FOR THE WORKERS REVOLUTION!
FOR WORKERS GOVERNMENT THROUGHOUT THE WORLD!
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
Issued by the group “FOR THE NEW COMMUNIST INTERNATIONAL”
Leaflet No 3
Workers Voice No.2
Victory for Militant Class Struggle
Standard Workers Show The Way
The successful conclusion of the strike at Standard Motor Factory with the re-instatement of the convenor after three weeks suspension is a triumphant and notable victory for the workers of Coventry and the workers movement throughout the country.
With splendid solidarity 250 workers, only 10% of the factory, came out on strike and remained out for a fortnight in support of their convenor, who was victimised because of his trade union activities.
The set back to the management, notorious throughout the district for its anti-union policy contains invaluable lessons for the whole of the working class movement. Under the guise of ‘National Unity’ for the fight against fascism for democracy, under the guise of the fight for peace, for freedom, for a ‘New World’, that is under cover of all the old lies of 1914-18, the bosses of the country are carrying out a drive against the working class. The first blows are being struck at workshop organisations because the bosses understand that the shop steward movement, the shop committees are the basis of the trade unions and all working class standards. By this means the bosses of Germany weakened the working classes ability to fight to defend itself so that at the appropriate moment they could bring Hitler and the fascist gangs to destroy all workers organisations and standards of life, thus to cheapen the cost of production in general, and arms in particular, thus to speed the drive for world markets and world domination.
The question facing the whole working class movement is how to defend ourselves, how to fight back? The workers at the Standard have given the answer. They have proved:–
CLASS STRUGGLE – NOT CLASS COLLABORATION!
SOLIDARITY AND MILITANCY MEAN SUCCESS!
Leninist League of Great Britain
Workers Voice No.1
Has security gone? Is it possible now to imagine what a night of peace is like? Is this the beginning of newer and greater miseries? Will famine be added to bombs? Will disease spread among the homeless and among those who still have a home to return to in the morning?
London has shown the way. The masses of London have achieved a great victory over the ruling classes. Workers of London and elsewhere must learn the lessons of that victory. The private interests decided that deep bomb-proof shelters were unnecessary and the London Passenger Transport Board ruled that the underground was not to be used for deep shelter. But decrees and police persecution cannot withstand mass pressure. The underground offered genuine protection from bombs and the workers of London sweeping all obstacles aside took over this protection. Officialdom, alarmed, gave way so that it can still act as the agent of the profit-making cement rings and big business.
But the lessons of the underground must be learnt. Only in ourselves can we, the masses, have full confidence. No local dictators, no “Peoples’ Government” can be entrusted with the task of caring for our needs. That is our job. From among ourselves we can elect representatives to comprise our committees for the competent running of the shelters, of food rationing, of transport, of accommodation, of the building of deep bomb-proof shelters. Those representatives, subject to instant recall if they fail to carry out our wishes, are the truest expression of real democracy. They alone represent the workers.
Those committees, once elected, are responsible not only for the efficient running of the shelters in which they are, but also for the maintenance and furtherance of their authority. They must meet the demands of the masses. The authority of the workers must become supreme. To this end delegates must come from all shelters to form a Central Committee. Co-operation must be developed with Factory Committees and Tenants Leagues. Thus a leadership will be formed which, because it is under the control of the masses, must make its major task the voicing and satisfying of the needs of the masses.
NO PEOPLE’S GOVERNMENT! NO LOCAL DICTATORS!
ONLY THE WORKERS CAN ENSURE PROTECTION FOR THE WORKERS!
FORWARD TO WORKERS LOCAL AND CENTRAL COMMITTEES!
FOR THE FIGHT FOR DEEP BOMB-PROOF SHELTERS!
SUPREME AUTHORITY FOR THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE!
WORKERS OF LONDON, WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
Leninist League of Great Britain
(ii) The Communist Party
The only case in which a member of the CPGB was detained under DR 18B was initiated by MI5 with the agreement of the Ministry of Labour. The man concerned was John Mason, a Party member since 1934 who was employed by the English Steel Corporation. Information from secret sources showed that he was actively obstructing measures to increase production, and he was detained on 15 July 1940 under DR 18B on the grounds that he had been concerned in ‘acts prejudicial’. In September the Advisory Committee recommended his continued detention. The Executive Council of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. protested, but meetings at the Home Office served to convince them that detention was justified. Protests continued, however, from Communists and Communist-controlled organisations. Following a meeting between Mr Will Gallacher, MP and Maxwell, the former gave assurances that if Mason was released he would not engage in further activities impeding the war effort, and that his release would not be exploited by the CPGB. On 8 May 1941 his case was again referred by the Home Office to the Advisory Committee, which accepted his assurances about his future conduct and advised that his continued detention was not necessary. The detention order was accordingly revoked on 7 June 1941.
Updated by ETOL: 28 November 2009