Harry Pollitt epitomised British Communism. He was a boilermaker from Lancashire, a working class audo-didact, who led the Communist Party of Great Britain through its glory years - from 1929 to May 1956, the year that saw the double blows to its credibility of Khruschev's 'secret speech' denouncing Stalin's cult of personality and a few months later the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary.
There was a break in Pollitt's leadership, which speaks well of the man and his politics. In October 1939 he stood down as general secretary because of his unease at the Communist 'about-turn' following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which obliged Communists to oppose the Second World War as an imperialist war. He returned to the post in June 1941 when Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union led to a reversal of the Communist line on the war.
I've just come across - indeed been given (many thanks to the excellent Black Gull Books in East Finchley - if you are worried about their business model, don't be alarmed, I'd bought quite a bit of other stuff) - a copy of the order of service for Pollitt's funeral ceremony at Golders Green in July 1960. Paul Robeson gave a rendition of 'Joe Hill' and 'England Arise; and those attending were asked to join in the singing of 'The Red Flag' and 'The Internationale'. There's a small plaque to Pollitt's memory in what's colloquially known as the Communist corner at Golders Green crematorium.
There's some mute footage of Pollitt's funeral cortege on YouTube - and you can spot Robeson and also some of Pollitt's fellow leaders of the British CP, including John Gollan. George Matthews and Rajani Palme Dutt.
Harry has to take much of the blame for the British party's abject subservience to Moscow, and the failure to denounce Stalin's purges even when one of his own friends, Rose Cohen, fell victim. But he was popular within the British party - avuncular, unpompous, and a good orator (a recording of a wartime address is available here).
He also prompted the song 'The Ballad of Harry Pollitt' - better known to many as 'Harry was a Bolshie' - which, this blog teasingly suggests, has a tenuous connection to the Grateful Dead.
Of all the tributes, the one that does least service to Harry Pollitt's memory is this stamp issued by the Soviet Union after his death.
What a fantastic piece of political ephemera! It dates from the early 1640s, when tension was rising between King Charles 1 and Parliament. (Spoiler alert: it didn't end well for the king).
This broadside dates from 3 January 1642 (yes, I know it says 1641 but at this time England used 'Lady Day' dating when the date moved forward from one year to the next on Lady Day, that's 25th March). Although it cites a resolution of the House of Commons and was published over the name of Henry Elsynge, the clerk to the House, it's not an offiicial Parliamentary publication but the work of a small publisher/bookseller in the Old Bailey district of London.
The content of the broadside is remarkable - a bold assertion that MPs have the right to resist arrest unless that detention is authorised by Parliament itself.
'And this House doth further declare, That if any person whatsoever shall offer to arrest or detain the Person of any Member of this House, without first acquainting this House therewith, and receiving further Order from this House: That it is lawful for such Member, or any Person, to assist him, and to stand upon his, and their guard of defence, and to make resistance, according to the Protestation taken to defend the Priviledges of Parliament.'
At this time, Parliament was concerned about the King's determination to raise funds for the developing war in Scotland and his reluctance to call Parliament. The king reckoned that some outspoken Puritan MPs were in league with his enemies in Scotland and were intent on a prosecution of the Queen.
The day after the broadside, the king - accompanied by about eighty armed soldiers - violated Parliamentary privilege and entered the chamber of the House of Commons. He was seeking the arrest of five MPs he regarded as particularly troublesome, including John Pym and John Hampden. They had all been tipped off by the French ambassador and had hopped on a barge and travelled downriver to the City. As word of the king's action spread, some Londoners came onto the streets bearing arms to resist the king and his troops if, as rumoured, he headed to the City in pursuit of his Parliamentary quarry.
When Charles asked Speaker Lenthall about the whereabouts of the five members, the Speaker replied in one of the bravest - and most renowned - remarks ever uttered in Parliament : "May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me."
The king failed to arrest any of the five MPs - and they returned in triumph to Westminster the following day. Within a week or so, the king withdrew from London to Hampton Court and later to Oxford. He had lost his capital. Charles only returned to London seven years later, having lost the war with the army of Parliament, for his trial and execution.
So this broadside is from the moment that the row between monarch and Parliament started veering towards civil war.
It must be almost a decade since I popped into a bookshop in Cromer, on the north Norfolk coast, and came out with an assortment of goodies. The stuff that makes the rest of my household despair, but I really love ... like an assortment of old copies of Socialist Standard and pamphlets from the left libertarian group Solidarity.
I've been meaning to go back - and in the past week I managed it.
And the good news is that Andy and Susan Slovak's shop, Much Binding (as in 'in the Marsh'), is not only still going but still awash with pamphlets, ephemera and all the sort of stuff that makes a second-hand bookshop special.
So what did I come away with? Well, a couple of 1930s copies of the Daily Worker, and of the New Clarion of similar vintage complete with details of the Clarion cycling clubs which were once such an important aspect of socialist culture (the National Clarion Cycling Club is still going, by the way).
And there was this choice piece of political ephemera - the Blastfurnacemen's ball (it sounds a bit like 'I'm Sorry I Don't Have a Clue', doesn't it!), at the Beehive Hall in - as far as I can make out - Workington in Cumbria.
And here's an election canvassing card from ninety years ago - William Preston, by the way, was a Tory and in 1929 he lost Walsall to Labour.
And then there are the pieces of ephemera which offer just a glimpse of a personal story - like this 1946 recruitment leaflet for the police force in Palestine. It seems to have been an option for those required to do National Service -
And on the back, there's this handwritten note -
'I applied in march 1947. But dad would not sign the papers.' Given what was happening in mandated Palestine in the run up to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, I think Dad made a wise decision!
If this sort of thing appeals as much to you as to me, make haste to Much Binding.
To start the year, let's stop the war. This is a wonderful Walter Crane designed image from a handbill issued by the Stop the War Committee - the Boer War, of course - set up in 1899 by the campaigning journalist, W.T. Stead. The angel of peace is shown beseeching British soldier and armed Boer farmer to put down their weapons.
The campaign brought together prominent religious figures (John Clifford was a prominent Baptist and a pioneer of passive resistance) and popular novelists (Silas Hocking was a Liberal and Methodist who wrote dozens of novels, among which Her Benny was a bestseller). It was largely free of conventional political personalities - and indeed the language of the leaflet is much more religious and humanitarian than political.
'The Boers are the Dutch of South Africa', it asserts, 'white men, and Protestant Christians like ourselves' - a sentiment which immediately implies that the Committee does not seek to represent women, non-Protestants or people of colour. Even 120 years ago, that immediately excluded perhaps two-thirds of the British population.
The Stop the War Committee distributed millions of handbills, on trains and elsewhere - though of course vanishingly few have survived. It was regarded as pro-Boer, which was a damning epithet amid the khaki patriotism engendered by the war campaign.
'We do not want another Ireland in S. Africa', the leaflet asserts. Hallelujah!
This is a classy piece of political ephemera - a note issued in 1833 as part of the industrialist and socialist Robert Owen's attempt to use labour as the basis for a means of exchange. As you can see, the note is to the value of ten hours.
This is what TUC History Online says about the endeavour:
Labour notes issued by the National Equitable Labour Exchange, founded in 1832 by Robert Owen (1771-1858).
The Exchange originally located in Grays Inn Road, London but from 1833 housed in Charlotte Street, operated as a depot where workers could exchange products they had made by means of labour notes representing hours of work. The Exchange was initially successful and branches opened in South London and Birmingham, but disputes over the value of products and the time taken to make them led to the failure of the experiment and all the branches closed in 1834.
Women workers at the Grays Inn Exchange mainly needlewomen and shoemakers, were initially paid at a lower rate than men and many refused to sell their goods there unless they were offered equal terms.
There's more about the Labour Exchange and its notes here.
Owen's plan for equitable exchange failed - Josiah Warren tried something similar in the US, with similar results. But as you can see. the notes were well designed and there was a lot of thought given to the scheme.
And Robert Owen of course is still remembered for his textile mill at New Lanark, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for his pioneering role on the co-operative movement.
Annie Besant, variously radical, freethinker, trade unionist, Theosophist, Indian nationalist ... and suffragist. In 1893, Annie Besant - already interested in Theosophy - visited India for the first time. It became her home. There's still a gilded life-size statue of her on the sea front in Chennai. But this was not the end of her interest in British politics.
In March 1912, at the age of 64, she addressed a meeting of Mrs Pankhurst's pro-suffrage Women's Social and Political Union at the Albert Hall in London. This leaflet - just acquired - contains a summary of her remarks.
What a wonderful piece of political ephemera! Tom Mann was a hero of the British Communist movement - an activist who was a living link from the socialist revival of the 1880s, the 'new unionism' movement which sought to organised the semi-skilled and unskilled and the renowned 1889 Dock Strike through into the Popular Front period fifty years later. He was also a good, brave and decent man, who was loved as well as respected.
I've just been reading the (as yet unpublished) memoirs of the novelist Alexander Baron, who was an influential communist in the late 1930s. He says:
By this time, like my grandfather Levinson, I had shaken hands with Mr. Tom Mann, the old trade union pioneer. [John] Gollan had introduced me to him and told him something about me. True to his Victorian origins - he had taught in a chapel Sunday School when he was young - the old man clasped my hand and told me, in the words of the Christian hymn, to fight the good fight with all my might. ... Mann was small and bent when I met him, but he looked hale, with a leathery, unblemished skin, sprouting moustache and clear, merry eyes. When he cracked a joke he skipped in a little three-step dance to celebrate it. I revered him for the great deeds of his younger days and he still seems to me to have been one of the few early socialists who remained pure souls to the end. He had belonged to the Communist Party since its foundation, seeing it as the home for a revolutionary trade unionist. I believe that he lived insulated by his own goodness from knowledge of the dark side of communism and that to the end of his life in 1941 he cherished the same innocent dreams and illusions that my friends and I had when we were sixteen.
The menu shows how conventional was this 80th birthday testimonial dinner for a comrade: at a Bloomsbury hotel, with roast lamb and roast potatoes, toasts (I wonder if there was alcohol?) and classical-style singers (all male). It is the hallmark of revolutionary conformity.
The menu is signed by Mann, and it's a nice thing to have.
What a brilliant piece of political ephemera - from 150 years ago, and relating to my own back yard. Many thanks to the wonderfully named Bloomsbury booksellers, Jarndyce - yes, it's an allusion to Dickens's Bleak House - for providing me both with this prize item (at a price to match, naturally) and the high quality image above.
This is a programme for a Reform League procession to the Agricultural Hall in Islington's Upper Street, just a couple of miles from where I live. They were a nationwide, and very effective, campaign organisation which demanded an extension of the franchise and the introduction of the secret ballot. The Second Reform Act of 1867 didn't deliver the manhood suffrage they sought but it more than doubled the number of those eligible to vote (a property restriction remained, but male borough householders and lodgers who paid £10 or more in rent a year now qualified to vote). The Ballot Act followed in 1872. It was another half century, 1918 to be precise, before any women got the vote in Parliamentary elections
The Reform League was largely middle class-led, but artisan radicals and the craft trade societies also rallied to its standard. In central London (and Holborn most notably) several of the League's branches were notoriously left-wing, extending to sympathy for Republicanism and for the Irish nationalist 'Fenian' movement. Some of London's radical working men's clubs, such as the Patriotic on Clerkenwell Green - it's now the Marx Memorial Library - were born out of Reform League branches.
The legend 'God Save the Queen!', in capitals at the bottom of the programme, was clearly intended to emphasise the League's loyalty to the Crown, whatever some of its more wayward members might have spouted from their Sunday morning speaking platforms.
You can see from this programme how important the trade societies were to the Reform League - and also the care the League took in ensuring that its processions were well arranged and effectively marshalled. They even had mounted marshals (in other words, on horseback) - among their number was my old friend Samuel Brighty. Many years (sorry, decades) ago I started a doctoral thesis about popular politics in Clerkenwell in just this period (the chapter on the Reform League was finished, which is more than can be said for the wider thesis - details on request). Brighty was one of several local radical notables (in his case a member of the Clerkenwell Vestry) who engaged my attention. He famously gave evidence to the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes of 1884-5, but that's another story ...
I did wonder whether the 'Mr Coffey' who is also listed as a marshal might be William Cuffay, the noted black Chartist activist, Not so - Cuffay, whose father was from St Kitt's, was deported to Tasmania and elected to stay there at the end of his sentence. He died there in 1870.
I just love political ephemera - and this is really choice. It dates from 1818. And there's quite a story behind it.
Francis Burdett - Westminster School, Oxford and a Baronet to boot - was perhaps an unlikely reformer, but in the early 1800s he became an outspoken and radical advocate of political reform and a wider, much wider, franchise. In the unreformed Parliament of those times, who could vote varied from constituency to constituency. There was no standard qualification for the franchise. In one 'rotten' borough, the electorate was just six. But in Westminster, it was much more extensive. More than 10,000 constituents had the right to vote - a long way from manhood suffrage, never mind the issue of disenfrachised women, but much better than most seats. It was also a two member constituency, so those who were eligible had two votes to cast.
In 1807, Sir Francis Burdett stood for election - somewhat reluctantly - in the Westminster constituency. He topped the poll - very comfortable so. It was a triumph for political radicalism. The story in outline is told here. He stood again in 1818. Polling was in those days a protracted, and public (no secret ballot), process. This slip reflects the final result - Burdett was elected again, but as you will see he didn't do quite as well as a decade earlier, and failed to top the poll. Nevertheless in the excited political times after the Napoleonic Wars, his re-election was a reaffirmation of popular support for political reform.
In some ways, Burdett was a precursor of the Chartist movement which sprang up in the late 1830s. But by then, the Great Reform Act of 1832 had at least begun the process of Parliamentary and political reform.
So this slightly tatty piece of paper is a memento of one of the high water marks of English radicalism. I bought it from a specialist dealer. Thanks Richard!
British Museum website (Creative Commons): Above the design: 'Westminster Election June 18th 1818'. Across the design extends a section of the hustings at Covent Garden with a central upright on which is a placard: '1st Day / State of Poll / Romilly—189 / Maxwell—176 / Burdett—87 / Kinnaird 25 / Hunt 14 / Cartwright 10'. At the base of the design is a fringe of upturned proletarian heads, their words ascending in labels
Sir Francis Burdett is a curious figure in the annals of British radicalism. He was much feted in the first two decades of the century - but by the 1840s, he was representing a seat in Wiltshire and was regarded as a Tory. Hey ho!
Burdett has an interesting life. As a young man, he had a long affair with Lady Oxford (who in turn was one of Byron's lover) and he happened to be in Paris during the early stages of the French Revolution. He married into the Coutts banking family. His daughter Angela Burdett-Coutts (she had to change her surname to include 'Coutts' as a condition for inheriting her grandfather's fortune) became a noted philanthropist. Burdett also brought up two sons of his friend. Roger O'Connor, an Irish nationalist. One of these became the renowned Chartist leader, Feargus O'Connor; the other, Francisco Burdett O'Connor, fought alongside Bolivar in South America.
So that's quite a swathe of nineteenth century history reflected in just one family.
Here's a wonderful piece of political ephemera which I chanced upon in Janette Ray's secondhand bookshop in York yesterday. It's a spoof mourning card marking a moment of political vengeance - the defeat in the Lancashire constituency of Westhoughton of the sitting Conservative MP, Edward Stanley, in the 1906 'Liberal landslide' general election.
Stanley had been the Postmaster General in the outgoing Conservative government and had notoriously castigated postal workers wanting a pay rise as parasites and bloodsuckers. Not surprisingly, that insult rankled.
The seat was won by the Labour candidate, W.T. Wilson, who ascribed his victory to Stanley's contemptuous attitude towards trades unions and working people. As the result was announced, a crowd sang:
Good-bye Stanley dear, good-bye
Good-bye Stanley dear, don't cry
You're a bloodsucker so true
And we've had enough of you
Good-bye Stanley dear, good-bye
'Bloodsucker' Stanley hadn't 'departed this political life' however. In 1908 he inherited the title of Earl of Derby and in later years served twice as Secretary of State for War and was also Britain's ambassador to France.
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