Joe Jacobs was born in 1913 in the East End of London. He lived and worked in London and was involved in socialist organizations his entire life. Joe was a member of the Young Communist League, before he joined the adult party from which he was expelled not once but twice. He was later one of those who helped to found the libertarian socialist organization Solidarity, and after being expelled from that, was a founder of the network Echanges et Mouvement in 1975.
Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1913 Joe endured terrible poverty and personal hardships while growing up. His father died a year after he was born and the family was constantly short of money. When Joe was 12, he lost an eye due to a medical problem. An elder sister was lost to TB in squalid circumstances and other family members lived in equally dire circumstances.
Joe developed a fierce class politics, not surprisingly. Through his father’s first wife, Joe had an elder brother, Dave, who he never met, who returned to Russia to take part in the Revolution. Dave had been a Bolshevik supporter, but later joined the “Workers Opposition” and eventually left Russia to live in Paris. Joe’s own introduction to politics came in 1925 when he was 12 and stumbled across a demonstration in support of the Jewish Bakers’ Union; he was also “profoundly affected” by the General Strike in 1926, especially after witnessing mounted police attacking a crowd with sticks.
Coming into contact with the Communist Party, Joe joined the Young Communist League, and later the adult party. It was to become the centre of his life. In his autobiography Out of the Ghetto, he vividly describes the tremendous variety of activities and organizations in which the Communist Party was involved.
But Joe was often considered a trouble maker in his branch. Throughout the latter part of the book, he paints a picture of the struggle in the branch between those who wanted to work through the trade unions and those who looked to alternative organizations and street work to advance the party’s message, each brandishing Marx and Lenin to support their positions. Joe was a supporter of the latter group and was labelled an ultra-leftist by his colleagues.
No account of life in the East End in the 30’s would be complete without a mention of the “Battle of Cable Street.” The announcement by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists that they would march through Cable Street on Sunday, October 3 and the efforts to prevent it have become the stuff of (C P) legend. The Fascist movement in Britain, while it never gained the influence that it achieved in continental Europe was certainly growing. Mosley’s march was a provocation. Yet, despite the wave of popular indignation, and later CP accounts, the Communist Party initially decided to press on with their already announced demonstration for solidarity with Spain at Trafalgar Square on the same day. Joe was part of a faction that opposed this decision and fought for a more robust street based response to fascism. A letter from a CP leader to Joe stated that if “Mosley decides to march let him.” Organizing around the slogan ‘They Shall not Pass’ was deemed to be a stunt! When it became evident that the people of the East End were going to resist Mosley whatever the CP’s position the party switched gears. Mosley never got to Cable Street. The Metropolitan police, watching the massive display of force and resistance called off the demonstration and Mosley was forced away. Joe rightly commented that it was a defeat for Mosley courtesy of “Jews and Gentile alike.”
But Joe’s opposition to the party line eventually got him expelled from the party, a little over a year after the events of Cable Street. He did war service and did a spell in the nick after a clash with an officer. After returning to his work in the clothing trade, Joe was as active as ever in the workplace and led a strike/occupation at a factory in Warren Street .
In 1951 he rejoined the party and although welcomed with open arms, he fell out again with the Party, too much thinking for himself, and was expelled again within a year.
Joe had always been critical of the CPGB policy of concentration of the official trade union structure , favouring building up the working class organisation at the workplace. Eventually he left manufacturing and began work at the Post Office at Mount Pleasant. After brief contact with trotskyists he also turned to a more radical alternative, libertarian marxism.
Joe Jacob’s life was important for two reasons. The first was that he was one of the best examples of a political working class activist who associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain at its peak. Yet within a few years, the CPGB had lost the leadership of many of this group and in Joe’s case had expelled him twice.
Secondly Joe did not just hide himself away and pack in political activity but joined what was by far the best example of a libertarian marxist group, Solidarity , sometimes called Solidarity-for-workers-power. He participated in full and worked in both an industrial and political context – he was an ace reporter and writer.
He was a very diligent writer about the important Post Office workers strike in 1971, as he had just retired from employment at the PO. Next he was prominent in the dispute with Big Flame over the 1972 Fisher-Bendix strike and that organisation was forced to back down. Joe also wrote for the monthly journal doing reviews and suchlike.
Joe was increasingly involved in international contacts. He had lost friends as volunteers in the Spanish Revolution and later took a serious interest in French libertarian groups. He was enthusiastic about the council communist group Echanges et Mouvement. Ultimately this new version of politics took him away from Solidarity and he was expelled from the organisation. His politics were now centred in this aspect of ideas and activity.
Joe had worked on his autobiography and had practically finished the key passages when he died in 1977. His daughter Janet (partner of council communist Henri Simon) completed his manuscript and published the book privately, the great classic Out of the Ghetto (Re-published by Phoenix Press in 1991).
Alan Woodward’s brief account of Joe Jacobs’ life since 1940, After Cable Street – Joe Jacobs 1940 to 1977, is available from past tense here.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online