Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt, the son of a blacksmith, was born in Droylsden on 22nd November, 1890. His family had been active in radical politics in Lancashire since the early part of the 19th century. His great grandfather was a Chartist and his mother was a member of the Independent Labour Party.

Pollitt was the second of six children. Three of his brothers and sisters died in infancy. This was a common feature of working-class life and it gave Pollitt a deep sense of injustice.

After leaving school at the age of thirteen he served an apprentice as a boilermaker. He eventually moved to Southampton and during the First World War he joined the ant-war movement. Pollitt was active in his trade union and in 1915 he led a strike of boilermakers.

At the end of the war Pollitt joined the Workers Socialist Federation, an organization formed by Sylvia Pankhurst. Pollitt was also active in the Hands off Russia campaign that was opposed to the British government providing help to White Army in the Russian Civil War.

Iin April 1920 Pollitt joined forces with Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers.

Harry Pollitt was attracted to party member, Rose Cohen. According to Francis Beckett, the author of Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995): "In the early 1920s Harry Pollitt fell in love with Rose Cohen, and proposed marriage - on her account, several times, and on his exuberant and perhaps exaggerated account fourteen times. They never lost their affection for each other.... She was clever, fluent, entertaining, and attractive." John Mahon, Pollitt's biographer, has admitted that "he was greatly attracted to Rose Cohen, who had black hair, red cheeks, flashing eyes, a provocative smile and quick wit." However, she eventually rejected Pollitt to marry Max Petrovsky.

Pollitt, along with Rajani Palme Dutt and Hubert Inkpin was charged with the task of implementing the organisational theses of the Comintern. As Jim Higgins has pointed out: "In the streamlined "bolshevised" party that came out of the re-organisation, all three signatories reaped the reward of their work. Inkpin was elected chairman of the Central Control Commission Dutt and Pollitt were elected to the party executive. Thus started the long and close association between Dutt and Pollitt. Palme Dutt, the cool intellectual with a facility for theoretical exposition, with friends in the Kremlin and Pollitt the talented mass agitator and organiser."

In 1924 Pollitt was appointed General Secretary of the National Minority Movement, a Communist-led united front within the trade unions. Pollitt worked alongside Tom Mann and according to one document the plan was "not to organize independent revolutionary trade unions, or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organizations affiliated to the T.U.C. but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority." The following year he married Marjory Edna Brewer, a schoolteacher who was also a member of the CPGB.

Harry Pollitt
Harry and Marjorie Pollitt on honeymoon in 1926.

On 4th August 1925, Pollitt and 11 other activists, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, John R. Campbell, Hubert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, William Gallacher and Tom Bell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.

John R. Campbell later wrote: "The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of "seditious" communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge's offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months." It was believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending General Strike.

(Back Row): Jack Murphy, William Gallacher, Wal Hannington; (Middle Row)Harry Pollitt, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Albert Inkpin; (Front Row)John R. Campbell, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, Tom Bell.
(Back Row): Jack Murphy, William Gallacher, Wal Hannington; (Middle Row)
Harry Pollitt, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Al bert Inkpin; (Front Row)
John R. Campbell, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, Tom Bell .

The activities of the National Minority Movement came under increasing attack from other left-wing organisations and in November 1927, Walter Citrine, Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, published a series of articles entitled "Democracy or Disruption" in The Labour Magazine. Pollitt responded by asking why Citrine spent so much effort "attacking revolutionary workers... instead of using his position to help reorganise the trade union movement so that it may more effectively fight capitalism, and ultimately become strong enough to participate actively in its revolutionary overthrow."

In 1929 Pollitt was elected as General Secretary of the CPGB. Pollitt was a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin in his attempts to purge the followers of Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. In the Daily Worker on 12th March, 1936 Pollitt argued that the proposed trial of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin represented "a new triumph in the history of progress". Later that year all sixteen men were found guilty and executed.

Harry Pollitt
Harry Pollitt with Georgi Dimitrov in 1935

Pollitt was involved in the struggle against the growth of fascism in Europe. During the Spanish Civil War he played an active role in recruiting soldiers to fight on behalf the Popular Front government. He told one meeting in February 1937: "Comrades, the International Brigade, now covering itself with such honor and glory in Spain, is a real people's army. It is an army composed of the best anti-fascist fighters of all countries. We are proud tonight to declare that 750 young men from this country now form a British battalion of the International Brigade, and we pledge ourselves that within the course of the next two or three days the 750 will become a thousand."

George Aitken, the political commissar of the British Battalion, later admitted that desertion during battle was a major problem for the International Brigades. As the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) points out: "Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol. However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters." Some senior officers, such as Wally Tapsell, disagreed with this strategy.

After the fighting at Brunete, three senior party figures in Spain, George Aitken, Wally Tapsell and Fred Copeman, were called back to England. Tapsell was highly critical of Aitken, the commander of the British Battalion. He claimed that "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the british battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the battalion and the men."

It would seem that Harry Pollitt accepted this criticism of George Aitken as he was kept back in London whereas Wally Tapsell returned to the front-line and on 6th November 1937, he was appointed as political commissar of the British Battalion. As the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008) has pointed out: "At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain."

In March 1937 Max Petrovsky was arrested as a supporter of Leon Trotsky. His wife, Rose Cohen, also became a suspect and Tom Bell, a colleague on the Moscow Daily News was instructed to spy on her. According to a British Intelligence report: "Bell was instructed by his chief in the office to be very friendly with her and not to tell her that she was being watched, also to discuss her husband's arrest as often as possible and... to elicit her views on the matter. He reported that she never spoke of her husband as being guilty, and although he put it to her that he must be guilty, or implicated in some way, otherwise the OGPU would not arrest him, she always replied: An error has been made somewhere."

Rose Cohen was arrested on 13th August 1937 and charged with being "a member of an anti-Soviet organisation existing in the ECCI (Comintern) and a resident agent of British Intelligence". The day after the news came out that Cohen had been arrested, the Daily Worker published an editorial: "The National Government is starting up a new attack on Anglo-Soviet relations. As a pretext for this they are using the case of the arrest of a former British subject on a charge of espionage. The individual concerned, it is understood, is married to a Soviet citizen and thereby assumed Soviet citizenship alike in the eyes of Soviet law as of international law... The British Government has no right whatever to interfere in the internal affairs of another country and of its citizens." The newspaper also criticised the Daily Herald for bringing up the case and dismissed its "attack upon the country of socialism... This is not the first time that the Daily Herald has lent itself to the most poisonous attacks on the Soviet Union."

William Gallacher went to see Georgi Dimitrov and asked about Rose Cohen and other foreigners who had disappeared. Dimitrov looked at him gravely for a few moments, then said: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." Harry Pollitt also made representations on behalf of Rose Cohen. However, as his biographer, Kevin Morgan, has pointed out: "Rose Cohen, who was sucked instead into the maelstrom of Stalin's terror through her ill-fated preference for the Comintern representative Petrovsky. Her sentencing by the Soviet authorities, though not her death, was made known to British communists in 1937, but even in the case of a woman he had loved, Pollitt's private representations were not accompanied by any public protest or disavowal."

Pollitt remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. He published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."

Stalin was furious with Pollitt's pamphlet as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler . At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."

William Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."

John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."

Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."

However, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, William Gallacher and John R. Campbell voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.

On 22nd June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That night Winston Churchill said: "We shall give whatever help we can to Russia." The CPGB immediately announced full support for the war and brought back Harry Pollitt as general secretary. Membership increased dramatically from 15,570 in 1938 to 56,000 in 1942.

During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive".

Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact . Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprising an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.

Many members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned over what happened in Hungary. Pollitt responded by resigning as General Secretary of the CPGB.

Harry Pollitt died of a on 27th June, 1960 and was cremated at Golders Green ten days later.

Primary Sources

(1) Harry Pollitt, The Communist (30th September 1922)

The demand of the Shipbuilding Employers' Federation that the wages of the shipyard workers shall be reduced a further 10s. per week, raises once more the problem of how far are the employers to be permitted to go in their steady lowering of wages, before any united action taken to challenge their continual encroachments.

For sheer callousness and brutality the action of the shipyard bosses in launching this further demand at their workers is surely unparalleled in Labour history. First it was a demand for a reduction of 6s. per week immediately after the defeat of the miners last year. When this demand was made, the Press simultaneously launched a campaign to emphasise what reduced labour costs meant to the coal markets and how that factor would stimulate trade. The same arguments were used in reference to shipbuilding and the atmosphere created favourable to accepting the 6s. cut in two instalments.

When this was finally accepted without any resistance being offered, the employers soon worked for the 12½ per cent. to be taken off shipbuilders' wages. After lengthy negotiations a settlement was agreed on that the 12½ per cent. should come off in three instalments: again no effective resistance was offered and the very week that the last instalment was taken off, saw the shipyard unions in conference with the employers to discuss the demand of the latter that a further 26/6 should be taken off the shipyard workers' wages. This was the last straw, and on a ballot being taken there was a large majority in favour of refusing to accept this reduction and a lockout of all shipyard workers took place. This was contemporary with the engineers' lockout on managerial functions and, whilst it was known that all previous reductions had afterwards been forced on the engineering unions, and whatever terms were arranged so far as the 26/6 was concerned would afterwards be forced on the engineering unions, no attempt was made to combine these two forces.

(2) Harry Pollitt, speech (August 1928)

Last November a notice appeared in an important capitalist newspaper, to the effect that Mr. W. M. Citrine, Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, was about to write a series of articles exposing the activities of Communists in the trade unions.

Shortly afterward, a series of articles commenced in "The Labour Magazine," entitled, "Democracy or Disruption," by W. M. Citrine. They are now being used all over the country as the basis of the attack on the Minority Movement. The articles have been written at some length with the purpose of putting "paid" to the Minority Movement.

We are sorry that Mr. Citrine has had all his trouble for nothing, for the representation at our annual conference, our increasing individual membership and increasing circulation of our various trade union papers, are all indications that in spite of Citrine's attack and his control of the trade union machine, the Minority Movement was never more alive.

The trade unionists who pay Mr. Citrine his £750 a year are, however, entitled to demand to know why all this time, money and energy, have been spent by the Secretary of the T.U.C. in attacking revolutionary workers (at the same time, of course, he was hand-in-glove with Mond and his associates), instead of using his position to help reorganise the trade union movement so that it may more effectively fight capitalism, and ultimately become strong enough to participate actively in its revolutionary overthrow.

(3) Harry Pollitt, The Communist International (5th August 1935)

The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 sent an electric thrill through the war-weary workers of the world. In our lifetime, the taunt of the capitalists, such as Churchill, that the workers are "not fit to govern" has been hurled back at them with a rebound that day by day is having its revolutionizing effect all over the world.

On the ruins and decadence of tsardom, out of a backward agricultural country, workers and peasants, under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by Comrades Lenin and Stalin, have built up a new, powerful Socialist country that has to be reckoned with by every capitalist government the world over.

This transformation has been wrought despite every conceivable obstacle and difficulty, from famine and ruin to carefully prepared wrecking, organized and financed by counter-revolutionaries from abroad. It has been done on the unshakeable basis of loyalty to revolutionary principles and faith in the working class.

It was but natural that the October Revolution should have exercised a tremendous influence on the world labor movement. The contrast between the revolutionary conquest of power in Russia, where alone the Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, had a consistently revolutionary line against the imperialist war, was in such marked contrast to the policy of the reformist leaders in other countries.

The formation of Communist Parties out of the scattered revolutionary sects, the creation of the Communist International, giving for the first time a centralized leadership to the class struggle all over the world; impetus to national revolutionary struggles in the colonial countries - these were events of historic importance. But the influence of the Social-Democratic leaders was still strong, and their cunning and demagogy knew no bounds. Platonic references to the Russian Revolution were the order of the day, and always with the aim of dampening down and diverting the revolutionary struggle in their own countries into the safe capitalist channels of parliamentary democracy and the denial of the armed conquest of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Social-Democracy referred to the fact that tsarism was reactionary; there was no freedom, no legal labor movement in Russia; revolution was the only course for the workers to take. Not so in the western capitalist democratic countries. There, parliament stood waiting to be captured, and through this, Socialism could be built.

This "easy path" to Socialism prevailed with decisive sections of the masses who, at the same time, were undoubtedly ready to defend the Soviet Union. This was clearly seen in the "Hands-Off-Russia" movements that exercised great influence in the capitalist countries, in the strike of London dockers on "The Jolly George", and in the international solidarity displayed during the famine of 1921-22.

(4) Harry Pollitt, speech (February 1937)

In the name of the Executive Committee of the Communist International it is my duty on its behalf to pay its tribute to the memory of one of our most devoted, loyal and brillant Communist leaders, and in equal measure to pay its tribute to those score of other British Communists, who have, with Comrade Fox at their head, so courageously distinguished themselves by their coolness, bravery and discipline in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming odds.

In the case of Comrade Fox there was no economic reason why he should join our Party, the Communist Party. He came from a deep sense of intellectual conviction, and from the moment he took out his Party card, his life was dedicated to the cause of Communism. Whether as an author, a journalist, or as an instructor of. our factory groups in various parts of London, Comrade Fox has undoubtedly influenced the thoughts of thousands of working men and women, and also a big section of the professional classes of this country.

Comrades, we do not meet here as mourners for whom all is darkness and grief. We meet here as comrades in arms of those comrades whom we knew so intimately and so well, who have given that most precious thing that man can give - life - to the cause they believed in, and for which they were prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. We pledge ourselves to their families, their wives, their sweethearts, and in many cases, unfortunately, their children, that we will avenge their death, that we will show ourselves worthy of their trust and of their remarkably high example.

Friends of Spain in this audience who are not members of the Communist Party will pardon me if I refer with pride to the achievements that have been carried out by all Sections of the Communist International in support of the Spanish government. Without the existence of this International of steeled and. disciplined revolutionary fighters, the material and moral forms of aid sent to Spain would have been impossible of accomplishment. The dream of Marx and Engels has been realized - that dream which dominated them when they formed the First International - that one day there would arise a really single world party, that could mobilize the best of the people in every country to come to the assistance of comrades in other lands fighting a deadly enemy.

Comrades, the International Brigade, now covering itself with such honor and glory in Spain, is a real people's army. It is an army composed of the best anti-fascist fighters of all countries. We are proud tonight to declare that 750 young men from this country now form a British battalion of the International Brigade, and we pledge ourselves that within the course of the next two or three days the 750 will become a thousand.

The 750 boys who have gone from this country have gone without any fuss; it has all been done very quietly, no press photographers to see them off, but they got there, and when they got there they went to Madrid where the fighting has to be done, where the real danger spots lie. In going they have been fortified by the knowledge that they take with them the good wishes of every sincere and genuine anti-fascist in this country. Labor men and Socialists, Communists and liberals, doctor and writer, docker and intellectual, have all found it possible to sink certain of their own party and political aims in a united endeavor to defeat the common foe - fascism.

It would be a crime against the whole future perspective of working class advance, a crime against the whole future perspective of peace, if that single idea now dominating men who, in thousands, look death in the face in Spain - to bring about the defeat of fascism - did not also become the driving force of all our efforts to build up a united labor movement and fighting People's Front of all the democratic British people.

Comrades, we take legitimate pride in what comrades like General Kleber, Ludwig Renn, Hans Beimler, André Marty have said of the work of the British battalion in the Brigade. General Kleber has declared that when there is a particularly tight corner calling for coolness and courage, he has only to ask for the British Section, and men go immediately to that tight corner; and when that happens he feels safe that the objective they are to defend will be held to the very last. Their coolness and bravery have endeared them to all who have come into contact with them, and especially has the British Brigade inspired the Spanish militia who fight alongside them in a way that in life itself - in all to many cases death - has shown that international solidarity is not a First of May slogan, but a living reality for the best of our people.

The British Brigade has retrieved the honorable traditions of the British labor movement; it has upheld the fine democratic traditions that have characterized the fight on behalf of liberty. When the great poet Byron went to Greece to fight for liberty; when in a later period Comrade Brailsford fought for liberty in Greece - these are the examples our British comrades are following today in the conditions of our time.

(5) Daniel Gray, Homage to Caledonia (2008)

The dispute began when Battalion political commissar Walter Tapsell claimed that the promotions of Scots George Aitken (to Brigade Commissar) and Jock Cunningham (to Battalion commander) had left the two men isolated from regular Brigaders. Tapsell wrote that, "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the British Battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the Battalion and the men." Meanwhile, Cunningham, "fluctuates violently between hysterical bursts of passion and is openly accused by Aitken of lazing about the Brigade headquarters doing nothing." Assistant Brigade Commissar at Albacete, Dave Springhall, weighed in, claiming that the Battalion's entire leadership structure had collapsed under the pressures brought on by defeat at Brunete.

With an amicable resolution impossible in Spain, all parties involved were summoned back to London for a meeting with CPGB leader Harry Pollitt. At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain. Aitken and Cunningham, though barely on speaking terms themselves, were apoplectic at the decision, and the former wrote a 10-page letter of "emphatic protest" to the CPGB, in response to this monstrous injustice".

Within a matter of months, both had resigned from the Party, and the leadership of the British Battalion had been radically reshaped. As part of its restructuring, the Battalion became an official part of the republican army, meaning popular six month terms of service were now prohibited. Disputes at the top of the hierarchy had undermined soldier morale and damaged the reputation of the Brigades on a level that the smattering of desertions at the bottom never could.

(6) Harry Pollitt, How to Win the War (1939)

The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism.