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Dudley Edwards

We Shall Not Starve in Silence

(Autumn 1988)

From Militant International Review, No.  38, Autumn 1988, p. 47.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We Shall Not Starve in Silence
A History of the National Unemployed Workers Movement 1920–46

by Richard Croucher
Lawrence & Wishart, £12.50, 1987

From the mid-1920s to the outbreak of war in 1939, the unemployed workers movement was led by sincere and dedicated Communist workers, men and women. But such gains as the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) made were despite the zig-zag opportunism of the Communist Party. Even today, although the unemployed are still treated as second-class citizens and are relegated to the poverty trap, they still benefit from the fight put up by the NUWM.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the NUWM brought about the welfare state (or what is left of it today), Richard Croucher is right when he says: “the NUWM laid the foundation for a new system of social benefits traditionally credited to the Beveridge Report.” Beveridge himself was disappointed in the way his ideas were implemented, as well he might have been; nevertheless he provision of social security all became less humiliating than in the 1930s and the period of the infamous means test, the worst features being the ‘on the parish’ relief from the Board of Guardians. It is hard to conceive this would have happened without the work of the NUWM.

Many academic studies of the period including those on the left either completely ignore the role of the NUWM or greatly exaggerate it. But as Engels was fond of saying, facts are stubborn things. All the contemporary newspaper reports show that in 1935 the NUWM did rouse whole communities to march against the news scales of benefit proposed by the National government. The NUWM organised mass demonstrations. In South Wales these took on a genuinely mass character because of unity with the miners union – bringing 300,000 onto the streets. This momentarily forced the government into retreat. Croucher describes what followed these upheavals:

“Oliver Stanley, the Minister of Labour, announced next day that Board benefit scales were to be suspended and claimants would be entitled to UAB or PAC scales whichever were the higher. In effect this means that there was to be no cut in benefit and the means test conditions were to be ignored. Wally Hannington, the NUWM leader, then sent out a circular on 4 January 1935 under with the heading ‘Smashing victory for NUWM’.”

But the weakness of Croucher’s analysis is that it does not adequately explain why from a peak of support in 1935, the NUWM declined into a hard core of Communist and militant workers capable only of organising publicity stunts such as laying down in snow-covered Oxford Street, or chaining themselves to town hall railings or gate crashing the Ritz hotel. Many of the lads performing these exercises were ex-members of the International Brigade in Spain.

And that was one reason for the decline – the loss of these cadres in the struggle in Spain as well as the recovery in the economy after 1935 with the expansion of the arms industry preceding the war. But this does not fully explain the withering away of the NUWM when on the eve of the war there were still one and a half million unemployed. Indeed, immediately after the outbreak of war, I personally led a demonstration of around 1,000 unemployed laid off from the old Morris works in Oxford Cowley – so there was still a cause for the NUWM to fight for.

Instead we must look to the policies of the NUWM leadership to explain its decline. And to give Croucher his due, he does describe in some detail the often sharp differences between Hannington in the NUWM and the Communist Party central committee which sought to direct his work. The Comintern attempted to interfere in the work of the NUWM. They almost split the NUWM when they insisted on loose and vague ‘unemployed councils’ as an alternative to the union-like structure of the NUWM which at one time had 50,000 people paying dues. Hannington and the recently deceased Harry McShane, the NUWM secretary in Scotland, tried to compromise with the Comintern ‘directive’ by proposing unemployed councils alongside the NUWM. Anyway the Comintern’s idea never caught on. But from then on the CP regarded Hannington with some suspicion and he was dropped from the central committee.

Croucher shows how the CP’s line had completely altered by 1938. The NUWM had become an embarrassment under the popular front policy of the Comintern which meant alliance and cooperation with the capitalist state. But he does not analyse the theoretical and social causes of this change in the CP line, which clearly lay with the false theories of Stalin and the leadership of the the Comintern who now looked to support from the capitalist democracies to preserve their position, rather than mass action from the working-class.

This explains the decision of the CP to close down the NUWM on the eve of the war, despite many active branches and resistance from its membership. This attitude has been maintained by CP members on the TUC General Council when they opposed moves to form a successor to the NUWM in the early 1980s. It is an attitude that must and will be reversed when unemployment rises to new heights in the next world slump.

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