Mobilising the unemployed

William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago

The boom after World War I was short-lived. In the 12 months from September 1920, unemployment rose from 250,000 to two million. Soon after its foundation at the July 31-August 1 1920 Unity Convention, the CPGB instructed members to participate in and attempt to lead the struggles of the unemployed. The results were to be dramatic and inspiring.

History is a contested arena, however - and not simply between our class and the ruling elite. If we move on a decade or so, for instance, many comrades in our movement opted for the beggar bowl-type, quiescent participants in the 1936 Jarrow Crusade as the iconic manifestation of the unemployed. Too many now accept the establishment’s lying narrative and unwittingly assist the attempt to expunge from history the genuinely mass, communist-led actions of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, for instance. In stark contrast, the tiny and dismally ineffectual Jarrow stunt has been embraced, officially lauded and actively manufactured by the establishment as “the epitome of the plight of the depressed areas” in the 1930s.1

The organisers of Jarrow unequivocally rejected the offer of Wal Hannington, the communist leader of the NUWM, to merge with the north-east contingent of its sixth national hunger march, partially because of their fears of being associated with the militant actions of that movement and the ‘extreme’ political stance of its leaders. Also, the apolitical nature of the Jarrow platform dictated a ‘go it alone’ stance.

In contrast to NUWM demands, which were national and addressed the needs of unemployed workers across the country, Jarrow represented a sectional response framed to bring to the attention of the authorities the dire state of the town after the closure of its largest employer, Palmer’s shipyard. It was a plea for Jarrow-specific measures of relief and aid.2 As such, as much as we empathise with the despair and desperation that sparked the protest, the Jarrow demands were narrow, inward-looking and pro-establishment. For instance, as part of their official welcome in London, the Jarrow marchers were placed at an advantageous location opposite the Duke of York steps, when king Edward VIII passed down the Mall: they “showed their enthusiasm by cheering lustily”, according to a special branch report.

The contrast with the NUWM - and the reception its marchers routinely received from the ruling class and their thugs in blue - could not have been starker.

But back to the newly formed CPGB. Its weekly paper carried many accounts of the fruits of this inspiring work, including the two below.

William Sarsfield

Coventry: a soviet formed

The Communist October 7 1920

Comrade I Stewart, Communist Party organiser for the Midlands, is doing good work at Coventry. At the request of the Unemployed Workers’ Committee he has been addressing huge meetings of unemployed, and his suggestions have already led to practical action which is having a marked effect on the town authorities.

At the head of 2,000 men he marched to the Deasy works and demanded to be allowed to address the men still at work there. Opposition was useless and so, at the head of his army, Stewart marched into the works and held a joint meeting of employed and unemployed. The manager wished to speak first, but the meeting insisted on him waiting until Stewart had finished.

Stewart told them that unemployment could only be finally abolished by the abolition of the capitalist system, but suggested as an immediate step that the men already employed should reduce their hours of labour until all the unemployed were absorbed.

Tom Dingley also spoke,3 and then the manager said that the firm would do all in its power to do something for them. Stewart stated, both here and at other factories that were visited, that the men were coming back again and again until they could control the entire factories.

During the weekend, more large meetings have been held at various works. Complete order is being maintained by a police force formed from the workers themselves, and the ordinary police are conspicuous by their absence. The mayor has called a town’s meeting to deal with the situation and to consider the method whereby the growing volume of unemployment prevalent in this city may be overcome, and a full living wage be assured to all citizens willing to render service to the community.

The men are in no mood to consider proposals of the usual charity dole order, and their demands are of a practical and far-reaching character, as embodied in the following resolutions:

Comrade Emery has been elected secretary of the local soviet, and comrade Stewart has been instructed to assist the Unemployed Workers Committee to the best of his ability.

The old features of pre-war unemployed demonstrations are entirely absent from these manifestations. Here is no cringing body of half-starved men begging for bread or, on the other hand, a crowd of potential rioters out for loot. It is an ordered demonstration by intelligent, organised workers that will not starve at the behest of capitalism; but that, if production cannot be carried on by the present owners of factories and plants without inflicting suffering on large masses of the community, the workers can and will. Other towns, please copy.

Let those workers still in employment resolutely refuse to work a single minute over the time necessary to ensure employment for all. Control production instead of being controlled by it. If a single man in any industry seeks employment and cannot obtain it, it is a reflection on all his fellow workers.

The workers can stop unemployment; it is clear the capitalists cannot. It is up to the workers to make the attempt.

London unemployed movement

The Communist December 9 1920

To the Islington Unemployed Relief Committee is to be given the credit of starting the direct-action campaign of the unemployed, which has now assumed such large proportions in London and the neighbourhood.

The committee, when first formed, found itself faced with the difficulty of obtaining suitable accommodation for holding its meetings, or for storing and distributing the food presented by shopkeepers in the borough.

The South East Library in Essex Road, which during the war had been used by the food ministry for controlled purposes, was empty, and seemed an admirable place for the purpose. So the committee took possession and there the Islington unemployed still remain. Apart from a summons for obstruction by taking a collection with a box, and another for chalking the pavement, there has been no trouble with the police.

The Islington unemployed are well organised. A demonstration recently to the Guardian was lined up in military formation - ie, platoons of 20 with a sergeant in charge of each. These sergeants were elected from the men themselves, and are ex-servicemen.

In Edmonton, Tottenham, Walthamstow, Hackney, Southwark, Camberwell, Peckham and St Pancras similar movements are now organised. Town halls, public libraries and empty houses have been seized in all these places. A central committee, composed of delegates from the different localities in and around London, now meets at the library in Essex Road, Islington, daily.

All this is not to say that a revolution is in progress. Nevertheless, it is a very good sign that the unemployed have determined to make their discontent open and organised, instead of keeping it secret and shameful. Already local authorities have been compelled to take steps to remedy the existing distress far beyond what they would have taken, had the unemployed remained quiescent. They will be wise if they break through their present powers entirely and throw the whole blame on the government. They will be lucky if they escape being compelled to do so.

In all these movements the active spirits have been communists, themselves unemployed. They know how impossible it is to solve unemployment while the capitalist system remains, but they realise also the necessity for organised action in order to drive the lesson home, and to ensure that something, at any rate, is done to alleviate immediate distress. Communist branches everywhere should neglect no opportunity of giving support and guidance to the unemployed movement. In most localities they are already doing so.

The day of ragged processions is over. The demands now being made are put forward by men who are resolute to redress their wrongs because they have not lost their self-respect. They are learning by bitter experience the communist lesson that only in a new order of society will unemployment be finally abolished. They are learning, too, how futile capitalism is to touch even the fringe of the problem.

  1. J Stevenson, C Cook The slump: society and politics during the depression London 1979, p184. The authors regard this as “rather curious”, given that the Jarrow crusade was “one of the smallest hunger marches” to make its way to the capital in the 1930s.↩︎

  2. The Jarrow petition was presented to the House of Commons by Ellen Wilkinson, who said: “I beg to ask leave to present to this honourable house the petition of Jarrow praying for assistance in the resuscitation of its industry … The town cannot be left derelict, and therefore your petitioners humbly pray that his majesty’s government and this honourable house should realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without further delay.” There was a measly total of 12,000 signatures.↩︎

  3. Tom Dingley was a leader of Coventry Socialist Labour Party before the formation of the Communist Party, which he joined 1920. Dingley had also been secretary of the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, but now became the driving force behind the formation of the Coventry Shop Stewards and Workers Committee. He worked with Wal Hannington on the 1920s national unemployed marches and he also led the Coventry Unemployed Workers Committee from September 1920, along with several other members of the CPGB.↩︎