Harry Pollitt

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For the locomotive engineer, see Harry Pollitt (engineer).
Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB.

Harry Pollitt (22 November 1890 – 27 June 1960) was a British Communist who served as the head of the trade union department of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the General Secretary of the party.[1]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Pollitt was born 22 November 1890 in Droylsden, Lancashire. He was the second of six children of Samuel Pollitt (1863–1933), a blacksmith's striker, and his wife, Mary Louisa (1868–1939), a cotton spinner, daughter of William Charlesworth, a joiner. Pollitt's parents were socialists and freethinkers and it was his mother, a member of the Independent Labour Party, who provided the youngster with his first induction into the principles and local networks of socialism. Theirs was an especially close relationship and Pollitt found in his mother both a confidante and a model of working-class dignity in the face of affliction.[1]

His own sense of injustice at family poverty, as three of his siblings died in infancy, was likewise fundamental to the strong identification with the working class that lay at the root of his political outlook. His formal education, at the local school, ended when he was thirteen. Pollitt was a boilermaker by trade and he frequently travelled around the country in this connection.

In 1915, whilst living in Southampton, he led a strike of local boilermakers.

Communist union leader[edit]

In 1919 Pollitt was involved in the "Hands off Russia" campaign to protest against Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. At the end of the war he joined Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers' Socialist Federation, which became the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). As a member of this group he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was formed in mid-1920. Pankhurst soon left the party, but Pollitt remained. He was heavily influenced by the Communist intellectual Rajani Palme Dutt and the two remained close allies for many years. From 1924 to 1929 Pollitt was General Secretary of the National Minority Movement, a Communist-led united front within the trade unions.

In 1925, he married Marjory Edna Brewer (b. 1902), a communist schoolteacher, and they had a son and a daughter. That year Pollitt was one of 12 members of the Communist Party convicted at the Old Bailey under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 and one of the five defendants sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.

General Secretary of the CPGB[edit]

In 1929 the CPGB elected him General Secretary, a position he held, with a brief interruption during World War II, until 1956. He was then made Chairman of the Party, a position he held until his death four years later aboard an ocean liner carrying him home from a visit to Australia and New Zealand.[1]

In his public statements, Pollitt was loyal to the Soviet Union and to CPSU General Secretary Joseph Stalin. He was a defender of the Moscow Trials in which Stalin disposed of his political and military opponents. In the Daily Worker of 12 March 1936 Pollitt told the world that "the trials in Moscow represent a new triumph in the history of progress". The article was illustrated by a photograph of Stalin with Nikolai Yezhov, himself shortly to vanish and his photographs airbrushed from history by NKVD archivists.[2]

Pollitt also organised a protest against Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists in 1934. [3]

Views of World War II[edit]

In September 1939, despite the Hitler-Stalin pact, he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. When this turned out to be contrary to the Soviet line (as Rajani Palme Dutt, who succeeded him as General Secretary, had warned him it would be), he was forced to resign. [4] He was reinstated when the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941.

Political activities[edit]

Pollitt contested the Parliamentary seat of Rhondda East several times; in 1945 he was less than a thousand votes from winning the seat from the Labour candidate.

Pollitt faced another crisis when Nikita Khrushchev, in his 1956 Secret Speech, attacked the legacy of Stalin. The Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 made the crisis in the party worse, and most of its intellectual figures (including Doris Lessing and E. P. Thompson) and many ordinary members resigned. Others, for example Eric Hobsbawm, chose to stay in the Party to try to reform it. Pollitt, depressed both by physical illness (including temporary blindness) and his increasing political isolation, resigned as General Secretary and was appointed CP Chairman.

In this position, he became disillusioned not with Stalin but with Khrushchev himself for telling the story of his crimes. "He's staying there as long as I'm alive", he said of the portrait of Stalin that hung in his living room.

Death and legacy[edit]

A USSR stamp of 1970 commemorating Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt died, aged 69, of a cerebral haemorrhage, after years of worsening health, while returning on the SS Orion from a speaking tour of Australia on 27 June 1960. He was cremated at Golders Green on 9 July, and was survived by his wife and two children, Brian and Jean.

In 1971, Pollitt's devotion to the Soviet cause and to international communism was acknowledged by Moscow when the Soviet navy named a ship after him. A plaque dedicated to the memory of Pollitt was unveiled by the Mayor of Tameside on 22 March 1995 outside Droylsden Library.[1] He is also ironically commemorated in the humorous song The Ballad of Harry Pollitt,[5][6] which actually circulated most popularly in his lifetime.

Secret communications with Soviet Union[edit]

In operation MASK (1934–1937), an MI5 counterspy infiltrated the party, and was for a time Pollitt's assistant and a clandestine radio operator. This allowed John Tiltman and his colleagues to crack the code and decrypt, for a few years, messages between Moscow and some of its foreign parties, such as the CPGB. They revealed the Comintern's close supervision of the Communist Party and Pollitt. Among other things, Pollitt was instructed to refute news leaks about a Stalinist purge. Some messages were addressed to code names, while others were signed by Pollitt himself. In his transmissions to Moscow, Pollitt regularly pleaded for more funding from the Soviet Union. One 1936 coded instruction advised Pollitt to publicise the plight of Ernst Thälmann, a German communist leader who had been arrested by the Nazis and who later died at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Pollitt replied that he was 'having difficulties' getting English statesmen to make public declarations supporting Thälmann but that they promised they would speak privately with German officials in London. In one of the more amusing dispatches, Pollitt (1936) informed his Soviet contact about a recent visit to France to make campaign appearances for candidates from the French Communist Party. "At great inconvenience went to Paris to speak in the election campaign". Pollitt went on to complain that he was "kept sitting two days and comrades refused to allow me to speak. Such treatment as I received in Paris is a scandal".[7][8][9]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "A Tribute to Harry Pollitt 1890 - 1960". Blue Plaques. Tameside District Council. Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Redman, Joseph "The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials", Labour Review, 3:2, March–April 1958
  3. ^ John Mahon, Harry Pollitt: A Biography Lawrence & Wishart, Limited, 1976 ISBN 0853153272 (p. 193)
  4. ^ John Mahon, Harry Pollitt: A Biography (p. 236)
  5. ^ "The Ballad of Harry Pollitt". Lyrics at Digital Tradition Mirror. October 1998. Retrieved 2012-01-12.  [But see complaint on the talk page]
  6. ^ "THE LIMELITERS - HARRY POLLITT LYRICS". Retrieved 2012-01-13.
    Harry Pollit was a worker, one of Lenin's lads
    He was foully murdered by those counter revolutionary cads
    Counter revolutionary cads, counter revolutionary cads
    He was foully murdered by those counter revolutionary cads!
    Old Harry went to heaven He reached the Gates with ease,
    Said, "May I speak with Comrade God; I am Harry Pollitt please
    I'm Harry Pollitt please, I'm Harry Pollitt please,
    May I speak with Comrade God, I am Harry Pollitt please...
     
  7. ^ West, Nigel (2005). Mask: MI5's Penetration of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Psychology Press. pp. 108 et seq. 
  8. ^ Romerstein, Herbert; Eric Breindel (1 October 2001). The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors. Regnery Publishing. pp. 86–88. 
  9. ^ Andrew, Christopher M. (3 November 2009). Defend the realm: the authorized history of MI5. Random House Digital, Inc. pp. 142, 148, 160, 176, 179, 180, 404, 1023. 

Publications by Harry Pollitt[edit]

  • The Communist Party on Trial: Harry Pollitt's Defence. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1925].
  • Pollitt's Reply to Citrine. London: National Minority Movement, Aug. 1928.
  • The Workers' Charter. London: National Minority Movement, n.d. [c. 1929].
  • Struggle or Starve. London: National Minority Movement, n.d. [c. 1931].
  • Which Way for the Workers? Harry Pollitt, Communist Party, versus Fenner Brockway, Independent Labour Party, London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [c. 1932].
  • Towards Soviet Power. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1933].
  • Into Action! The Communist Party's Proposals for the National Unity Congress, February, 1934. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1934].
  • The Way Forward: Harry Pollitt's Speech at the Great United Front Congress at Bermondsey, February 24th, 1934 (Opening the Discussion on Main Resolution). London: National Congress and March Council, n.d. [1934].
  • Labour and War. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [c. 1935].
  • We Can Stop War! London: n.p. [Communist Party of Great Britain], n.d. [1935].
  • Dynamite in the Dock: Harry Pollitt's Evidence Before the Arms Inquiry Commission. London: n.p. [Communist Party of Great Britain], n.d. [1935].
  • Harry Pollitt Speaks: A Call to All Workers. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1935].
  • Unity Against the National Government: Harry Pollitt's Speech at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1935].
  • The Labour Party and the Communist Party. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1935].
  • Forward! London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1936].
  • I Accuse Baldwin. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1936].
  • The Path to Peace. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1936].
  • Unity, Peace, and Security: Pollitt's Reply to Morrison. London: n.p. [Communist Party of Great Britain], n.d. [1936].
  • Save Spain from Fascism. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Aug. 1936.
  • Spain and the TUC. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Sept. 1936.
  • Arms for Spain. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Oct. 1936.
  • A War Was Stopped! The Story of the Dockers and the 'Jolly George.' London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1936].
  • The Unity Campaign. With Stafford Cripps (Socialist League) and James Maxton (ILP). London: n.p. [Communist Party of Great Britain], Jan. 1937.
  • The Truth About Trotskyism: Moscow Trial, January 1937. With R. Palme Dutt. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Feb. 1937.
  • Save Peace! Aid Spain. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, May 1937.
  • Salute to the Soviet Union. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Oct. 1937.
  • Labour's Way Forward. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Nov. 1937.
  • Pollitt Visits Spain. Foreword by J.B.S. Haldane. London: International Brigade Wounded and Dependants' Aid Fund, Feb. 1938.
  • Austria. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, March 1938.
  • Czecho-Slovakia and Britain. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, May 1938.
  • For Unity in London. With Ted Bramley. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [June 1938].
  • Czechoslovakia. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Sept. 1938. Reissued Oct. 1938 as Czechoslovakia Betrayed.
  • Defence of the People. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Feb. 1939.
  • Spain: What Next? London: Communist Party of Great Britain, March 1939.
  • Can Conscription Save Peace? London: Communist Party of Great Britain, May 1939.
  • Will It Be War? London: Communist Party of Great Britain, July 1939.
  • How to Win the War. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Sept. 1939.
  • The War and the Labour Movement. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, June 1940.
  • The War and the Workshop: Letters to Bill No. 1. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, July 1940.
  • What Is Russia Going to Do? Letters to Bill No. 2. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, [July 1940].
  • Wages — A Policy. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Dec. 1940.
  • Tom Mann, Born April 15, 1856, Died March 13, 1941: A Tribute by Harry Pollitt. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [March 1941].
  • Smash Hitler Now! London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [c. June 1941].
  • A Call for Arms. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1941].
  • Britain's Chance Has Come. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [c. Oct. 1941].
  • The World in Arms. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1942].
  • Into Battle! The Call of May Day 1942. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, April 1942.
  • The Way to Win: Decisions of the National Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain, May 1942. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [May 1942].
  • Speed the Second Front. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, July 1942.
  • Deeds — Not Words! London: Communist Party of Great Britain, Oct. 1942.

References[edit]

  • Cornwell, Susan, UK archives offer insight into 1930s Soviet Union, Reuters 9 October 1997.
  • Redman, Joseph, The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials, Labour Review Vol.3 No.2, March–April 1958.
  • Smith, Michael, How Communists in Britain followed the Moscow line, Electronic Telegraph, 10 October 1997.
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Much of this article was taken nearly verbatim from it).

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
Albert Inkpin
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain
1929 - 1939
Succeeded by
Rajani Palme Dutt
Preceded by
Rajani Palme Dutt
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain
1941 - 1956
Succeeded by
John Gollan