Harry Wicks, the Meerut Trial and India
Harry Wicks (1905-1989) was one of the first Trotskyists in the labour movement in Britain. His extraordinary life included attendance at the Lenin School in Moscow, and guarding Trotsky on the occasion of his last public speech (The Copenhagen speech), collaboration with C.L.R. James, and organising the British Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky. Socialist Platform published Harry’s autobiography, and a commemorative pamphlet (1).
When Harry Wicks wrote his autobiography he insisted that this material, which he made available in an interview with Logie Barrow, should not be published. The reason for this was probably that it was about secret work and that Harry, who was always so open and honest, felt that secret work was somehow underhand – a word he used about it. Finally it is always possible that Harry was more involved with Comintern agents at that time than he wished to admit. It seems that Ignace Reiss (2) was in London in the late twenties and that his close associate, Theodore Maly, was later Percy Glading’s (3) controller in the Woolwich Arsenal spy case. We are grateful to David Turner for a great deal of useful information abour Glading, which has allowed us to correct some errors in our notes to earlier versions of this document. See our later working notes on Glading.
A few short years later, when the darkest secrets of the Kremlin are daily being revealed and the USSR itself has disappeared, these scruples and worries seem unnecessary and it seems hardly possible that in 1997 Harry would object to this being made public. Indeed reading this account, it seems difficult to understand what so bothered Harry earlier unless there was more behind it. The interview tapes transcribed here have been edited by Ted Crawford and put into indirect speech while a few notes have been added. Our warmest thanks to Logie Barrow for the material on which this is based.
We are also taking the opportunity here to make available the results of Ted Crawford’s researches into the background of the Meerut trial, and the role of some British revolutionaries in connection with it.
Occasional explanatory notes by Revolutionary History are in square brackets, and have been added at the time of preparation for the web site.
An unpublished chapter from Harry Wicks’ autobiography
When Harry left Bradford in 1931, the CP had the utmost difficulty in contacting India where the Meerut trial (4) was taking place. Harry Pollitt and George Aitken (5) took the decision to try to send out someone in the army garrisoning India. But it was not just a question of walking into a recruiting office but of finding a regiment which was due to be posted there. They found out that the Prince of Wales Regiment, whose depot was in Warrington (a very dismal town outside Manchester) was due to go. Harry was asked to join up.
From the army’s point of view Harry had a very dubious political background and so it was necessary for him to get some kind of employer’s references. A farmer, Richard Stoker (6), who had a farm outside Manchester and who was an old BSPer [BSP = British Socialist Party] and CP [Communist Party] member and who was the very first party member to be imprisoned during the General Strike, provided them. Harry and a young man, a brother of Maggie Jordan (7), stayed for a few days at Shipley, just outside Bradford, with Jordan’s mother, a Mrs Knight, to give themselves some kind of alibi. Harry had originally wanted to take with him his friend Jesse Sweet from Maerdy whom he thought very capable for this serious and dangerous work. Jesse, who was unemployed, as was his mother and father, had just married and his wife was pregnant and he was adamant that he would not go. So Harry’s trip to Maerdy (8) was fruitless. Harry was bothered because he had persuaded Jordan to come with him against the wishes of the boy’s Catholic mother and, though in the YCL, he was not all that political.
Harry was only in the army one night. The depot was a redbrick building and guardhouse by a canal or river bridge, near which the youngsters were enroling. It was all very dismal. Many were lads “on the road”, that is walking the roads, tramping and looking for work. Some had walked up from St Helens in the Lancashire coalfields. That night they were given biscuits and a laydown on a metal frame on which to sleep and the lads talked of how both they and their miner fathers were unemployed. On that level Harry felt that he had an immediate rapport with them. Next morning they were medically inspected before being sworn in. Harry was fairly confident about his health at the time because he did a lot of swimming and it was a few months before he learnt he was suspected of having TB, but he remembered later how, as they lined up stark naked, he looked extremely skinny by comparison with some of the strapping great Irish lads. The doctor who examined him ordered him out of the line and someone in uniform came up who asked him where he was from and what he had been doing. When he said farming the man asked him to show his hands. They were clearly very soft and he was ordered out to the office. There they told Harry to clear off – they did not want him. He insisted that Jordan came with him because he felt that the lad, who had no sort of Communist background, would not be able to do anything useful and might have given everything away if he had been questioned and been put under pressure. Though he tried to find out Harry never knew if it was merely his hands that had given him away or whether they were on to him anyway. (9)
As far as Indian work was concerned the CP made some contacts through Trade Union activities as the AEU [Amalgamated Engineering Union] had a worldwide membership and both Ben Bradley and Percy Glading (10) were sent to the sub-continent at one time while, in Britain, the Party made very commendable efforts to organise Indian seamen or lascars. In addition some people in the Labour Research Department, such as Parsons, were involved and Parsons’ wife worked in a bank and was able to transfer money to India. As regards military agitation in 1931, George Aitken, who was on the Central Committee, was in charge of it. He later commanded the English Brigade in Spain but broke with the party over the Hitler-Stalin pact line in 1939-40. He was a Murphyite and was always very friendly to Harry in recent years. The CP had a duplicated paper called Soldier’s Voice and made great efforts to contact soldiers. At that time the electoral register used to give details of where soldiers, who were absent on service,were stationed and what their regiments were. Using this information the CP was able to send printed propaganda to some of them. (11)
A Note on India, the Meerut Trial and the Communist Party in the Thirties
by Ted Crawford
What is not always realised today is the immense importance of India in the twenties and thirties in the context of both British Imperialism and the British Labour movement and Communist Party. There are many articles on Indian strikes and workers struggles in Labour Monthly. (12) In the Third Period the CP correctly attacked the bourgeois nationalists in India and, even if the CP set up breakaway “Red Unions”, these were sometimes the first and only unions in an industry and the negative effects of splitting working class institutions were less obvious when there were hardly any such bodies or such organisations were very small, weak and unrepresentative or even tied to bourgeois parties such as Congress. It may even be that, cut-off as the Party was in India, Third Period tactics were perceived by the pitifully few cadres as the building of distinct class organisations rather than splitting from the Social Democrats who hardly existed. (The Girni Kamgar Union was Communist controlled and had a very democratic structure of elected committees at the lower levels.) In retrospect it was hardly possible for serious revolutionaries there to feel the need for a current deriving from the Left Opposition so early. Later, in the Popular Front period, it was feasible for Trotskyists to sharply differentiate themselves from the CP as the latter cosied up to the nationalists or even, during the war, to the imperial power. It was only then that a Trotskyist current appeared on the sub-continent. (13)
The Meerut Trial in 1929-1933 was immensely important and a great defeat for the Indian working class. The British imperialists were quite successful in dismantling the very weak and raw Indian CP and severing, for a time, its growing links to the working class movement. To some extent, as Sarkar hints, the British consciously opened the way for the Indian National Congress as, for a few critical years in the early thirties, the workers’ leaders were all in prison. If for the French bourgeoisie it was a case of “Mieux Hitler que Blum” (Better Hitler than Blum) for the more far-sighted colonialists it might have seemed to be “Better Gandhi than Bolshevism”. But the Third Period policies in Britain made it more difficult for the CP to mobilise the broadest sections of the movement behind the demand for freedom for Indian workers to organise. Such success as there was tended to be that of the better Labour Party elements. And, if some of the Labour and Trade Union leadership in Britain played a disgusting role, they were partly let off the hook by the idiocies that the CPGB were putting forward in this country. (14)
Page Arnot mentions the names and positions three British citizens (and CP members) and twenty brave Indian comrades sentenced to the horrors of transportation in the Andaman Islands or to hard labour, together with one who died in jail before the trial ended. Not all were CP members though most of them were. It is worth mentioning in these days of rising religious fury and murderous sectarianism on the sub-continent that the Indian sentenced to the most savage sentence of all, transportation for life, was of Muslim origins, Muzaffar Ahmed, Vice-President of the All-India Trade Union Congress who had already been sentenced to four years imprisonment in the Cawnpore (Kanpur) Conspiracy trial of 1924.
The three British citizens were:
Ben Bradley, 10 years transportation, formerly London District Committee of the AEU, member of the EC of the Girni Kamgar Union, treasurer of the joint strike committee during the Bombay Cotton Strike. After the trial he, with the other two Englishmen, was swiftly deported back to Britain where he wrote on India in Labour Monthly in 1934.
Phil Spratt, 12 years transportation, Executive member of the All India Trade Union Congress, active in English TU & Co-op movement work. A CPer and Cambridge graduate. He wrote Blowing Up India, published in Calcutta, 1955 which I have not seen. As a ‘Cambridge man’ and traitor to his class he got the heaviest sentence of the English.
Lester Hutcheson, 4 years rigorous imprisonment, Editor of New Spark. After the arrest of others elected to an official position in the Girni Kamgar Union. Later a well-known Labour MP who wrote a book on the Meerut trial and agitated on colonial issues.
It seems to me that this heroic tradition should be recovered for the movement, above all by those comrades who seek to do political and Trade Union work among the working class of South Asian origin in this country.
copyright Socialist Platform
1. Harry Wicks, 1905-1989 : A Memorial, Socialist Platform 1989. This pamphlet contains the transcript of an interview given by Wicks to Al Richardson in 1978, and four selections from Wicks’ writings:
The text in the first item is superceded by the more extensive version published by Prometheus Research Library
2. For details on Reiss see Poretsky, Our People, available in several editions, and articles and footnotes in Trotsky’s Writings (1936-37)
3. The Glading case was in 1938. He was a skilled worker in the Woolwich Arsenal in South East London. He had previously come to the attention of the security authorities following the 1925 raids on Communist Party offices, when details of his work in India were published. He was later to attend the Lenin School and was supposed to have been spying for the Soviets since 1937. He was given a severe sentence of 6 years imprisonment.
The case mainly involved several items of naval weaponry [not the designs for a multi-turret tank, the “Independent”, as we previously wrote.]. Joe Thomas (who knew both parties) has confirmed to Ted Crawford that Glading’s secretary, an MI5 agent, had been sleeping with Glading throughout the whole adventure, though this was denied at the time, and still is, in the official spy literature.
4. The Meerut trial lasted from 1929-1933 and involved Communist attempts to organise Trade Unions in India. Incredibly harsh sentences were handed out but these were heavily cut in response to great international agitation. See Ted Crawford’s note included with this document.
5. His son is Ian Aitken, a well-known Guardian correspondent.
6. R. Stoker of Manchester was charged and sentenced for having copies of the Workers Daily in his car. Klugmann, History of the CPGB Vol.2, p.166. From the transcript it seems Harry never met Stoker whom he calls Stokes – he certainly says he never saw the farm.
7. Maggie Jordan was from Shipley and had worked in the woollen industry. Wicks first met her at the Lenin School in Moscow and she had a long relationship with Allan Massie, a YCLer from Aberdeen. Although a good friend of Wicks she and her companion swiftly broke from him when he fell out with the party.
8. At the time Arthur Horner was also in Maerdy and in disgrace because of his ‘right-wing’ attitude. Later both Sweet and Horner were imprisoned for their part in putting back in a house furniture that the bailiffs had removed and in court the prosecution stated that Sweet had “tried to enlist in his Majesty’s Forces for the purpose of disaffection but was rejected”. Western Mail & South Wales News, 25.2.1932. There is no mention of this incident in the ‘official History’ of the CPGB while Horner’s memoirs mention an Ellen Sweet without involving a prison sentence. Much of the “official” story is in HO144/16379 in the Public Record Office.
9. Note by Ted Crawford: I am now almost certain that they knew well before. HO144/16379 was opened at my request 7.5.97 except for sub.21 which almost certainly contained information on this together with a blanked out letter from the Sec. of State to the judge which says “we know (section blanked out) that Moscow is constantly complaining that the Communists …” From the length of the section it almost certainly reads “from their messages” or “from their telegrams”. It is no secret now that the Comintern’s codes were broken then – why HMG still insist on this secrecy I have no idea. The press cuttings mentioning that Sweet had tried to join the Army have been heavily underlined in blue at the time – clearly this was sensitive and someone had blundered in letting it out. – ERC
10. Percy Glading was sent to India in 1925 and Ben Bradley in 1927. (See Henry Pelling The British Communist Party, Adam and Charles Black, 1958, p.41) and Ben Bradley, Fighter for India’s Freedom, Jean Jones, Socialist History Society.
11. Harry’s tone in the interview implies that the CP did not really know whether these blind mail shots had any success.
12. For the general background to these events see Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, Cambridge Modern Commonwealth Series, Macmillan 1989, pp244-47, 269-74 and see Labour Monthly, Vol.15, no.2, Feb 33, pp.96-101, The Meerut Sentences, R. Page Arnot. See also Labour Monthly, Vol.16, no.3, March 34, pp173-177, The Background in India by Ben Bradley.
14. The Marx Memorial Library has the archives of the Meerut Prisoners Release Committee that I have not seen.
Updated by ETOL: 28 November 2009