A Tribute to
1890 - 1960
Former General Secretary and Chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain
A plaque affixed to Droylsden Library was unveiled on March 22nd 1995 by the Mayor of Tameside, Councillor Pat Haslam, to remember the life of Harry Pollitt. Harry became a prominent national figure but never forgot his Lancashire roots. This page tells his story.
Early Life in Droylsden
Droylsden in 1890 had living conditions little better than those described by Frederick Engels on visiting the area fifty years previously. Local factories choked the area which suffered the highest infant mortality rate in the country. Social unrest had characterised recent decades and Trade Unionism was on the rise. It was into these conditions that Harry Pollitt was born on November 22nd 1890 at a mean little red brick terrace - No 14 Wharf Street which no longer stands. Such conditions would have a profound effect upon him.
Harry was one of six children, three of whom died in infancy. Despite hardship his parents, Samuel and Mary Louise, created a happy home for Harry, Ella and Jack. Samuel was an honest, hardworking man though prone to excessive drinking. It was Mary Louise who Harry adored. Despite long hours of work as a weaver she educated herself. She studied socialism and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) seeing in it the hope of a new and better future for mankind. Her politics influenced those of Harry.
The young Harry Pollitt (second from right) on a school outing. By permission of the National Museum of Labour History.
Harry attended local schools and was a popular pupil though often mischievous and frequently caned. However he excelled at the Moravian Sunday School where his true abilities were recognised.
The World of Work
Aged 12 Harry started to work half time at the local Benson's Mill, he became full time on completion of his schooling a year later. There was little prospect of progression at Bensons and Harry soon got his wish to train as a boiler maker at Gorton Tank. Despite a 53 hour week Harry also attended evening classes. His socialist inclinations were deepened by treatment of the labourers at work :
"the way the platers treated their labourers they might have been inferior beings from some remote planet."
At work Harry channelled his energies into Trade Union activity. Aged 16 he became a member of the Openshaw branch of the ILP on his mother's proposal. Involvement with their activities became easier when the family moved to Melba Street, Openshaw in 1907. Aged 21 Harry was secretary of the Openshaw Socialist Society (OSS) and wrote a leaflet, 'Socialism or Socialist Reform' which showed his championing of Marxist doctrine that socialism requires capitalism to be ended, not merely improved, and to that end it needs a political and social revolution. Mary Louise gave him Marx's book 'Das Kapital' for his 21st birthday upon which he remarked : 'I felt that I owned the world'. He welcomed the establishment in 1912 of the British Socialist Party to which the OSS affiliated and Harry became branch secretary.
World War I
During the first World War Harry was working at a shipyard in Southampton and as he opposed the war he refused to load munitions. In 1917 he staunchly supported the Russian Revolution, such revolutionary activity it became clear to him was the only way to challenge capitalist control, something the war had failed to do.
Hands off Russia
His fervour for the revolutionary cause led Harry to become national organiser of the 'Hands off Russia' movement in September 1919. It successfully opposed British intervention against the Russian rebels through a series of crippling strikes in British Dockyards. He was now a nationally known figure.
Harry Pollitt (second from left) leading the procession past Charing Cross to a mass meeting of unemployed in Trafalgar Square on March 4th 1934.(Photo from the biography of Harry Pollitt by John Mahon, by permission)
The Communist Party of Great Britain
The successful Russian revolution led to the formation of the Communist International in 1919 to provide a worldwide focus for communist activity. The following year the Communist party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.) was formed with Harry Pollitt as a key member.
The Young Party
The early 1920's were difficult years for the Party especially as it tried to define itself in relation to the Labour Party, the latter frequently refusing any proposals for affiliation. Harry was a stormy speaker and in 1925 found himself jailed for 12 months for seditious libel. However he took the opportunity to speak on Communist politics for three hours at his trial. Also in 1925 Harry married Marjorie Brewer a teacher who was an eloquent speaker and activist in her own right.
Elected General Secretary
Harry's endeavours were acknowledged in 1929 when the Party elected him General Secretary. He felt deeply honoured in accepting this post which he held until 1956 apart from a brief spell during the second World War. Under his guidance membership steadily increased from less than 3,000 until by 1939 it totalled nearly 18,000.
Harry Pollitt with the British Battalion in Spain on the Ebro Front (Photo from the biography of Harry Pollitt by John Mahon, by permission)
The growth in the C.P.G.B. was in part a reaction to the threat of fascism in Europe. Harry channelled his energies against fascism. During the Spanish Civil War he visited the country five times to offer support to the British volunteers fighting Franco's fascists. He was bitterly disappointed when the fascists triumphed and turned his attention to Hitler's threat. The claim of British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, of 'peace in our time' following the Munich Agreement with Hitler horrified Harry Pollitt -'the most complete and shameful surrender of peace, freedom and democracy. The peace of the world has not been saved. It has been betrayed to the custody of Hitler'. As war loomed, Harry was forced to take three months rest due to exhaustion.
World War II
The C.P.G.B. initially supported the war on an anti-fascist stance, however the Communist International declared it an imperialist conflict which the working class should not support. On October 2nd the C.P.G.B.'s Central Committee voted on the issue and the majority favoured opposing the war. Harry Pollitt was not amongst these and, in view of his difference of opinion, ceased to be General Secretary. However, when in June 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union the Communist International took a pro-war stance. The C.P.G.B. perceived a change in the character of the war, restored Harry as General Secretary and campaigned vigorously for the opening of the second front against Hitler. During the war years Harry Pollitt spoke nationally on Communist Party policy.
In November l939 his mother died suddenly. He felt this deeply as shown in his autobiography 'Serving My Time' written in the same year and which he dedicated to her.
Harry Pollitt addressing a public meeting (Photo by permission of the National Museum of Labour History)
After World War II Harry spent much time abroad at the invitation of the international communist and progressive movements. However he wrote 'Looking Ahead' in 1947, espousing his vision for the future of socialism and he was active in the General Election of 1950 when the Communist election effort was the most widespread yet. He himself contested the election in South Wales receiving a sizeable vote. Abroad his speeches made him one of the best known Communist party leaders outside Russia and many well-wishers worldwide sent greetings on the occasion of his 60th birthday in November 1950. Though still very active, Harry was now often plagued by illness and exhaustion. In March 1956 he decided to stand down as General Secretary of the C.P.G.B. Members accepted this reluctantly but with understanding and honoured him with the position of Chairman which he carried out with authority and fairness. It was whilst continuing his travels that Harry Pollitt died on 16th June 1960 on board the P and O Liner, Orion.
A 7,000 strong procession gathered at Golders Green crematorium on July 9th 1960 to say farewell to Harry Pollitt. They included his wife, Marjorie and children Brian and Jean. The following week tributes were made to him at a memorial meeting in Manchester. In 1971 his international role was acknowledged when the Soviet Union named a ship after him. More recently, in 1983, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester hosted a meeting to mark the hundredth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx by commemorating Harry Pollitt. His lifelong championing of the working classes is perhaps best summed up in the words from Ostrovsky's 'The Storm':- 'Man's dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once he must so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past: so live as to have no torturing regrets for years without purpose: so live that dying he can say - all my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world, the liberation of mankind'.
Acknowledgements to Frank Cropper, Secretary of the Tameside Branch of the Communist Party of Britain, Ron Bellamy, Editor of Communist Review, Tameside Local Studies Library and the National Museum of Labour History.