As the 60th anniversary of his death comes about, people across the workers’ movement are pausing to remember who Harry Pollitt was and what he contributed to our class.
Harry Pollitt is most remembered for being the General Secretary and then Party Chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In these roles he helped to lead many of the struggles that people look back on as landmarks in the formation of a militant workers movement in the UK. But his contributions to class struggle in this country stretch well beyond the scope of his own party, who even today hold commemorations on the anniversary of his death.
Pollitt was born in Droylsden into a working class family. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a spinner, both committed socialists and involved in the Independent Labour Party. Pollitt’s socialism was heavily influenced by his parents, and particularly by his mother, who for Pollitt was the living embodiment of working class dignity and pride, even in the face of adversity.
His early political involvement was union-based, where he helped to organise and lead strikes in his trade as a boilermaker. He also participated in the “Hands off Russia” campaign, which protested Allied involvement in the post-revolutionary Russian civil war. The campaign won the argument around this many times, and at it’s height even provoked a dock workers strike that stopped a British ship delivering weapons to tsarist counter-revolutionaries. This was so highly valued by the Bolsheviks that the Soviet Union produced a stamp in his honour depicting the strike and Pollit himself. And after his death, the USSR also named a ship after him.
In the mid 1920’s, having been around smaller communist formations for some years, Pollitt became one of the founding members of the CPGB, and by the end of the 20’s he’d been elected General Secretary.
Pollitt was also a dedicated and passionate anti-fascist. He wrote in support of the anti-fascist resistance to General Franco in Spain and supported the war against Nazi Germany (he was in fact ahead of the curve in this respect – many on the left were cautious about supporting another capitalist war). He also organised community and political opposition to the British Union of Fascists. Thought the BUF’s existence, CPBG members disrupted meetings and rallies, and clashed with the Blackshirts in the streets, most famously at the battle of Cable Street.
Pollitt died on the 27th of June 1964, at age 69, of a cerebral hemorrhage. A “blue plaque” (in red, of course) was installed on a local library in 1995 by the then Mayor of Tameside Pat Haslam.
Harry Pollitt was a hero of the British working class, one who staunchly opposed imperialism, fascism and capitalism. Perhaps most importantly he understood the importance of community organisation, and for a long time the Communist Party was a staple in the union movement and in working mens clubs and social groups around the country.