For those interested in the activities of small Communist Party cells from the time after the betrayal of the General Strike in 1926 to the end of the Wall Street Crash in 1933, pit and factory papers give a unique insight into local activism.
Many were duplicated items, so were ephemeral by nature - few have survived. The viewpoint expressed gives a clear view of the working lives of people in these mines and factories. The often uncompromising opinions were at times at variance with the Communist Party line given out by the executive, especially the policy transition in the 1930s from class war to Popular Front. The hostility of the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress along with the support of local left-wing Labour Party branches and trades councils provide a complexity that the national picture often ignores.
The Library's holdings include a representative sample of just over 100 of the publications with a focus on the North West of England. Below is an article that our founders Ruth and Eddie Frow wrote for the WCML Bulletin, giving a detailed history of the genesis of pit and factory papers.
Pit and Factory Papers issued by the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1934
by Ruth and Eddie Frow, 1996
Following the betrayal of the General Strike by the trade union leaders and the defeat of the heroic struggle of the miners during the latter half of 1926, the working class movement entered into a difficult period. Trade union leaders declared that never again would there be a General Strike and called for 'peace in industry'. They entered into collaboration with the employers to rationalise industry and to speed up the work processes.
Three years later, the crash on Wall Street heralded the world economic crisis which lasted from 1929 until 1933. This was not only the longest but also the most profound and destructive of all the crises which had beset the capitalist system. It extended to all the countries of the capitalist world and dealt shattering blows to the economy as well as the political theories and ideologies of the ruling class.
During those traumatic years, the small Communist Party strove to give leadership to the workers. Every effort was made by the ruling class and the labour leaders to isolate the Party. Communists were excluded from office and membership in some trade unions. They were also excluded from membership of the Labour Party and a number of left Labour Parties were disaffiliated when they refused to carry out expulsions.
The fierce attack on the workers' standards of living, both those in employment and the hundreds of thousands out of work, was countered by the Communist Party under the slogan "independent leadership of the working class in struggle". In the course of this work, serious mistakes were made. Labour leaders were called 'social fascists' and crass sectarianism prevailed. It was assumed that because trade unions and the Social Democratic Parties were collaborating with the employers, it would always be so. It was also assumed that the rank and file would immediately follow the leaders and be tainted with the same practices(1).
Among the positive aspects was the work of the Party in factories and pits, the prominent part played by such Communist activists as Rose Smith, Emie Wooley, Jim Rushton, Harry Kershaw and Harold and Bessie Dickenson during the Lancashire cotton struggles in the early thirties(2) and the huge demonstrations against the savage cuts in Unemployment Benefit which were organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement under the leadership of Wal Hannington(3). Out of this activity, as the struggle sharpened, new cadres came into the leadership.
The Central Committee elected at the Eleventh Party Congress in December 1929 included Joe Scott who was later elected to the Amalgamated Engineering Union Executive Council and Abe Moffat who became President of the Scottish Mine Workers. The advances made by the Party during the later thirties and the war years were based on the struggles conducted during 1927-1933.
When the Daily Worker was launched in 1930, there was an initial sale which settled towards the end of the year to 10,000. It then picked up from 1931 to reach 21,000 with a Saturday sale of 46,000. Party membership followed a similar pattern rising from about 3,500 in 1929 to reach 5,500 in 1933. One commentator remarked, "All in all the three core years of the New Line, from 1930 -1933, were very good years for the CPGB"(4). A further indication of the fruits of such activity was the votes cast for Harry Pollitt and Arthur Horner in 1931(5).
The inheritance from the British Socialist Party of propaganda meetings, indoors and outside, the sale of The Communist and political literature, had continued in the Communist Party from 1920. But by 1923, it was recognised that changes were necessary and a Commission was set up to look into methods of work. On their recommendation, emphasis began to be placed on work in factories and pits and in the trade union and labour movements. The result was the establishment of pit and factory cells which were given the responsibility of producing a paper for local sale.
Writing in 1933, Idris Cox said, " The foundation of the Communist Party must be in the factories. This is where the class struggle is seen most clearly in actual practice. It is therefore in the factories that the workers can best protect their everyday interests, deal the most serious blows against the boss and organise the struggle for the overthrow of Capitalism. Factory cells, therefore, are the basis of Communist organisation". He suggested that where three or more Communists worked in the same place, there was the basis for the formation of a cell. The first objective of each cell was to lead the daily struggle of the workers. As a means of communication and organisation, many cells produced a paper which took a long hard look at the working conditions, wages and life generally of those among whom they worked(6).
There was no shortage of material for such papers. Grievances there were in abundance and workers were able to provide examples for inclusion from their own experience. The Communists also looked at the Shop Steward organisation - or lack of it - and the extent of trade union organisation. Labour Party members and readers of The Daily Herald were approached to undertake joint activity in the workplace while work within the trade union influenced Branches and District Committees.
Experience in linking the day to day demands of the workers with the policy of the Party, however, made slow progress. Victimisation was always a problem. Joe Dunn, who was a member of the Manchester District Committee of the AEU, had experience of such treatment. He also had a flair for writing. In the A.E.I. Worker he wrote," The sudden word that you are wanted at the desk, the walk down the machines trying to look unconcerned, and the failure to do so. The stealthy glances of the men who work near the desk. The long wait at the side. The meeting with the other wanted men and the forced jokes and laughter. The sudden hush. The foreman trying to look sorry. The business-like way of dealing them out, the mechanical 'Sorry, I've got to do it'. The long walk back to your machine, the glances as you go. The mechanical resumption of work and then the thought - 'How shall I break it to them at home?' "(7).
A graphic description of the way in which a factory cell was built up and operated was written about some building workers on a site. Two carpenters and a timekeeper who were Party members started by recruiting some of the labourers who were preparing the site. In time, the organisation grew and was run in a formal manner with proper preparation for meetings and allocation of responsibilities. After a time they reviewed their work and realised that they were isolated from the Sub-district of the Party. Although the connection was established, they commented that "we remain fundamentally a Works Cell. Our connection being merely a formal one. Consequently the cell members were not drawn into the local struggles". When a strike took place over the dismissal of a member of the cell, sales of the Daily Worker rose from 80 to 300 with another 200 being sold on neighbouring sites. Five months later, sales had stabilised at 360 with an average weekly sale of literature of about a £1(8).
It was the unemployed, the housewives and teachers with a later starting time who stood at the factory gates selling the papers. Factory gate meetings were held during the lunchbreak and often hundreds of workers stopped to listen. One activist who played a part during these years was Ewan MacColl (Jimmie Miller). He wrote about the Manchester scene: "There were factory papers and copies of the Party newspaper to be sold outside Metropolitan-Vickers, Taylor Brothers or Lancashire Dynamo in Trafford Park. So we got up at five in the morning and walked through the empty streets. The Salford Docker, a four-page duplicated newspaper, had to be sold to the morning shift at the docks, so we walked. There were factory newspapers to be sold outside Crossley Motors in Openshaw, at Gorton Tank or at Ward and Goldstone's Electrical Components factory in Lower Broughton. So we walked there"(9). [For further recollections by MacColl, click here]
During the last years of the thirties and the early years of the war, the factory and pit branches continued to grow. Circulation of the Daily Worker and the sales of pamphlets increased. By April 1942, the Lancashire District of the Communist Party had 109 Pit and Factory Groups involving nearly 2,000 members(10). However, in 1944 a campaign was waged to secure affiliation to the Labour Party and it was decided that concentration should be on building area branches so that the Party would be better able to work with the Labour Party ward organisation(11). Members were transferred from factory branches to the locality and in the process the majority of them were lost to the Party. Many of them felt that their political work lay in the industrial field and not at home.
1. Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 (1985) - Shelfmark: A46
2. Harry Pollitt, The cotton fight today In Communist Review (June 1932) - Shelfmark: A72
3. Wal Hannington, Unemployed struggles, 1919-1936 (1936) - Shelfmark: A51
4. Mike Squires, CPGB membership during the class against class years In Socialist history No 3 (Winter 1993) - Shelfmark: AB Periodicals main sequence
5. The Times House of Commons, 1931.
General Election, 1931. Whitechapel
Janner, B. Liberal 11,013
Hall J. Labour 9,864
Pollitt H. Communist 2,685
General Election, 1931. Rhondda East
Watts-Morgan, Lt.-Col. D. Labour 22,086
Horner, A. Communist 10,359
6. Idris Cox, How to work in the factories and streets: the way in which the factory cells and street cells organise mass activities to win recruits and build a mass Communist Party (1933) - Shelfmark: AG Communist Party of Great Britain - Box 2
7. Joe Dunn, Getting the bird In A.E.I. worker: the paper of the workers of the Associated Electrical Industries Combine (April, 1931)
8. History of a building cell (1924) Document in Communist Party Archives, People's History Museum, Manchester.
9. Ewan MacColl, Journeyman (1990) p182 - Shelfmark: E47
10. CPGB Lancashire District. Typed list of factory groups, 1 April 1942. Working Class Movement Library
11. CPGB. Proposals of the Executive Committee on Party Organisation. 17 December, 1944