Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

Today in anti-war history, 1920: communists disrupt the two minutes silence on Armistice Day

Is it disrespectful to the dead of World War 1 to refuse to participate or even to disrupt the official Armistice Day two minutes silence?

If you oppose the whole spectacle of the military hierarchies, capitalist elites, religious busybodies hypocritically saluting the millions who were merrily sent off to die (by the predecessors of these worthies), for the imperial interests of the British Empire and profits of the rich and powerful that drove it?

… the same elites that today promote war-mongering, arm sales to genocidal regimes and murderous governments, backing military intervention across the world, repression and exploitation, weeping at the ‘heroic sacrifice’ of World War while dumping ex-squaddies to sleep on the street with PTSD; enlisting nationalism and racism in the service of mass murder…?

If you draw inspiration from those who refused, resisted, the conscientious objectors, the internationalists, the soldiers who deserted, shirked duty, took part in mutinies (some of which forced an end to the slaughter), those who went to prison, went on strike (illegal under wat legislation), fought against war-induced high food prices and shortages, built co-operative projects to support each other, marched, argued and spoke out against the war (and got their heads kicked in for it, by ‘patriotic mobs’ led by Special Branch men, paid by Tory MPs and whipped up by rightwing journalists) – who sheltered draft dodgers on the run, printed sedition and got their papers raided…? Got framed for invented plots to off the prime Minister because of their involvement in anti-war agitation? Who were shot at dawn for running away from murder, horror, gas and shellshock; who stood against racism and nationalism, rape and war profiteering? Who went on rent strike, tried to paralyse industry, threw down their arms?

Can you oppose the promotion of war and militarism that is inevitably associated with the red poppy, the elevation of ‘our’ dead over the dead of other places… while still remembering and mourning millions of men manipulated into thinking the war was for ‘freedom and democracy’, or forcibly conscripted – and dying for it?

Do you think its ok to ignore state-sponsored hypocrisy fests like the Armistice Day parade to the cenotaph, or refuse to be silent because the overwhelming voice of media and wider society is that silence is the only respectful and appropriate response?

The annual arguments about whether its an insult to the dead of World War 1 to not wear a red poppy, or to wear a white one (remembering conscientious objectors), have run at a higher level than usual this year as it 100 years since the end of World War 1. And the pure bollocks of the spectacle of royalty, the military, the nationalist elites and almost every level of wealth and power pretending to care for the dead is even more repulsive than in other years.

Some people have felt that respecting the silence is to consent to the militarisation of the remembrance, the deliberate conflation of respecting the dead and supporting the nation, the military, the social order that demands wage slavery and death for the profits of the few…

On November 11th 1920, on the second commemoration of Armistice Day, some communists in London were attacked for refusing to stay silent, even mocking and deliberately disrupting the two minutes silence.

Much as anti-war protestors had been violently attacked during the war by crowds calling them traitors, pro-German, spies, they were beaten up by a crowd.

The Workers Dreadnought newspaper had its offices at 152 Fleet Street, above Bolt Court. Their protest against the silence and the response was reported widely in the newspapers:

“The girl employees in the offices of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Communistic payer. The Workers’ Dreadnought, in Fleet Street, were thrashed and the offices upset just after 11 o’clock today by an angry crowd…”

“DISGRACEFUL SCENE: Revelry at the ” Dreadnought Resented by the Crowd…
As a result of the unexpected breaking of the great silence the offices of the “Workers’ Dreadnought” in Fleet-street, party of angry men and women raided the premises and inflicted rapid revenge on the persons stated to be responsible. eye witness said two or three girls the office created a disgraceful scene. They were singing, shouting, dancing, and banging tin cans. The crowd remained perfectly still and quiet until the two minutes’ silence was over, and there was rush for the premises. The noise made by the girls gave a shock to everybody in the vicinity, and it completely spoiled the whole spirit of the ceremony in this locality.”

The crowd beat up the women and trashed the office. Later, one of the women attacked claimed that they had not intended to deliberately disrupt the silence (although not especially convincingly!):

“One of the girls concerned, interviewed, said we were dusting the office; we certainly made some noise, and we did not dream of people outside hearing it. went on dusting the place, because we were not interested, we don’t believe it. workman must have told the people were the Workers’ Dreadnought,” and a lot of people rushed upstairs. A workman said, ” Are there no women in the crowd,” and then some girls knocked about. They kept on hitting us until the police came.”

Just saying – the cleaning story doesn’t entirely wash. Maybe they should have just owned their action... Many of the Dreadnought group had been part of the anti-war movement for 4 years, and were filled with a rage against the war machine, the mass slaughter and the profits it made the rich, the imperialist lies; the 1000s imprIsoned for refusing to fight, the 1000s shot for being overpowered by fear. The millions killed for a cause that wasn’t theirs. The two minutes silence, the whole Armistice commemoration may have seemed to them just another slap in the face to the dead.

The Workers’ Dreadnought, originally called the Woman’s Dreadnought, had been launched in 1914, and was published by a group based around the socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. The group had changed its name several times, having been founded as the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913, becoming the Women’s Suffrage Federation, then the Workers Socialist Federation. They had transformed themselves from an organisation working to win women the vote, into an anti-war movement, involving men and women, building daily solidarity to relive the terrible privations the war brought to working class East Londoners as well as campaigning against the war and contributing to networks of resistance against the slaughter.

In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the group, and a move towards internationalist communism.

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought had been adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), as the Workers Socialist Federation had become on merging with several other smaller communist groupings. This group would merge into the new Communist of Great Britain in 1921, despite major policy disagreements (though Pankhurst and a number of other ex ELFS/WSF activists would leave or be expelled as their doubts about the Soviet state and the CPGB’s slavish pro-Leninism and reformist tendencies grew…)

The Dreadnought had been targeted by the state throughout the war for its opposition; it was constantly being raided, especially as it publicised mutinies and resistance to the war, and for its vocal support of the Russian Revolution, and calls to spread revolution across Europe. Special Branch and other secret state organs were very interested in their links to Russian and other international revolutionaries, and to dissident soldiers and sailors… The mutinies and demob riots among British soldiers in 1917-20, especially in the light of the inspiration of the mutinies and revolutions sweeping Europe scared the British government, and they were determined to shut up anyone trying to encourage similar social change here. The WSF involvement in the movement to prevent British/Allied intervention to smash the Bolshevik regime, a campaign which was bearing fruit, was also enraging the government, who were determined to keep hundreds of thousands of men in uniform and ship them off to fight in Russia.

Even when the war ended, war legislation allowed for heavy repression against anti-war and radical voices was renewed, and used heavily to silence the Dreadnought and groups like them. Only three weeks before the Armistice Day events, the Dreadnought offices had been raided by Special Branch and Sylvia Pankhurst arrested for sedition, for reprinting an article about discontent in the British navy by a radical sailor. She was on bail pending an appeal against a prison sentence for this when the armistice day events took place, and had agreed bail conditions that banned her from wiring or publishing or taking part in any political activist, so wasn’t present in the office at the time. However, she did comment afterwards:

“I myself would greatly deprecate anything which might seem disrespectful to the dead” However, she picked up the women’s defence that they were just cleaning: ‘I have been told that it was the inadvertent shaking of a duster out of the window by a girl of 17 that was the cause of the trouble.”

Yerrrrs (strokes chin), we believe you.

This post was written in haste, lost due to a technical fault and then re-written – I did want to publish it at 11 am, but missed that deadline. I plan to add more information to it later today or tomorrow, but for now, would like to invite discussion on this – what should we do when we reject capitalist war and the lies that are used to dress up the slaughter of World War – but don’t want to dismiss the deaths of millions? Is it ok to refuse to be silent? Is silence consent?

Not sure what people think on this. But we salute the deserters, the mutineers, the women of the ELFS and the Dreadnought, Sylvia Pankhurst as well as the millions of many ‘nations’ who refused to be enlisted in the war effort and fought, died, marched, were jailed, went on strike to try to push forward a vision of a better, juster, egalitarian social order. For their sake we should not stay silent.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Today in London radical history: John Goodwyn Barmby founds the Communist Propaganda Society, 1841

John Goodwyn Barmby was a utopian communist, influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and the early 19th century French Utopian socialist theorists, who launched propaganda organisations to spread these ideas, as well as founding his own communist community in west London. He is often associated with the growth of socialist and utopian projects during the rise of Chartism.

Barmby was born in Suffolk in 1820. He had no formal school education but read widely, and deciding to not pursue a profession, but to follow a career of social and political radicalism. He was reputedly addressing small audiences of agricultural labourers when aged sixteen.

He founded the East Suffolk and Yarmouth Chartist council in September 1839, and in December was elected delegate to the Chartist convention. He was re-elected in 1840 and 1841, though by this time, he was moving away from political radicalism towards the promotion of a communal organisation of society. He became a correspondent of the Owenites’ New Moral World, where he wrote on language reform and the ideas of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and held conversations with some followers of Gracchus Babeuf. In 1840 he visited Paris with a letter of introduction from Owen, to study the French utopian socialists an their ideas; he claimed to have originated the English term ‘communism’ at this time. Barmby became impatient with the imperfectly purist tone of the Owenite movement. He and his wfire Catherine became ardent propagandists for a new society.

On 13th October 1841, Barmby founded the Communist Propaganda Society (also known as the Central Communist Bureau) to spread the idea of communal living and the re-organisation of society along communist lines. The organisation’s HQ was at 77 Norton Street, Portland Place, between 1841 and 1843.

Barmby designated 1841 Year 1 of the new communist calendar. Sadly this penchant for grandiose sounding organisations and self-important declarations was not generally born out in reality…

Barmby also founded the Universal Communitarian Association shortly later – how many members this or the Communist Propaganda Society had is unknown.

He also launched two journals, the monthly Educational Circular and Communist Apostle in 1841, and the monthly Promethean, or, Communitarian Apostle, which promoted rational marriage and universal suffrage. He lectured at a ‘Communist Temple’ at Marylebone Circus, Marylebone.

The Promethean was launched in January, 1842. The name is significant both of Barmby’s debt to the radical poet Shelley, and because of the place occupied by Prometheus in the radical thought of the time. Prometheus was the redeemer of man through knowledge, the hero who braved the wrath of obscurantists and gods to bring man his heritage that was deliberately withheld. Like Owen, Barmby believed that there was no obstacle but ignorance.

The four issues of The Promethean contained articles by Barmby on a quite extraordinary variety of subjects: one series on Communism, another on Industrial Organisation, An Essay Towards Philanthropic Philology, advocating a universal language, The Amelioration of Climature in Communalisation, on the effect of human activity on climate and the prospect of climate control in the future, and Past, Present and Future Chronology. An Historic Introduction to the Communist Calendar. The Promethean was, however,not a great success.

Out of this activity and through his contact with James Pierrepont Greaves, founder of the Ham Common utopian community, Barmby established the Moreville Communitorium at Hanwell in 1842. which featured such excitements as a diet of raw vegetables, daily hot and cold baths and a rigid teetotal regime. `

Greaves and he published the New Age, or, Concordian Gazette.

The following year, Barmby issued a Communist Miscellany, a series of tracts written by himself and his wife, and founded the weekly Communist Chronicle, which also supported the German communist Wilhelm Weitling.

Thomas Frost described Barmby at this time as ‘a young man of gentlemanly manners and soft persuasive voice, wearing his light brown hair parted in the middle after the fashion of the Concordist brethren, and a collar and necktie à la Byron.’

Barmby was also described as “a Christ-like figure, with blonde hair down to his shoulders; together the young couple walked the London streets with a cart from which they dispensed tracts and harangued passers-by.
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The Moreville Communitorium was renamed the Communist Church by 1844. Barmby conducted a propaganda tour in the north and midlands in the winter of 1845–6 and forged links with the Dublin sect of White Quakers. In 1845 he combined with Frost to revive the Communist Chronicle, for which he translated some of Reybaud’s ‘Sketches of French socialists’, and wrote a philosophical romance entitled The Book of Platonopolis, which sought to fuse utopian fiction and modern science. However, Frost soon tired of Barmby’s sectarianism and separated from him in 1846, to establish the Communist Journal.

Frost’s competition with Barmby destroyed both journals but Barmby continued to proselytize in Howitt’s Journal, and contributed to the People’s Journal, Tait’s Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and other periodicals. In 1847, he lectured at the Farringdon Hall, Poplar, London, and in July he convened a meeting at the John Street Institute in support of the Icarian settlements in Texas. It was probably to his friendship with W. J. Fox MP that Barmby owed his introduction to Unitarianism, following his post-1848 disillusionment with communism. After his return from revolutionary Paris, where he had gone in 1848 as Howitt’s representative and as the envoy of the Communist Church, he was successively minister at Southampton, Topsham, Lympstone, Lancaster, and Wakefield. He was one of the best-known ministers in the West Riding of Yorkshire and held his post in Wakefield for twenty-one years from 1858, leading the Wakefield congregation which included the industrialist Henry Briggs. He was also secretary of the West Riding Unitarian mission.

But Barmby always retained his liberal political convictions, and was closely involved in the Wakefield Liberal Association from 1859: and in 1867, he organised a large public meeting there in support of parliamentary reform and joined the National Association for Women’s Suffrage. Barmby was a member of the council of Mazzini’s International League and also supported Polish, Italian, and Hungarian freedom.

He died in Suffolk on 18th October 1881.

Some of this post was lifted from here

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: the legendary Communist Club starts life, Soho, 1840.

The Communist Club was essentially a political social club, primarily for German émigrés, which, under a variety of names, operated out of various central London premises during the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Left personages of the era had some association with the Club, but the most important was Karl Marx. The Club formed an important institutional link between Chartism, utopian socialism, the First International, early anarchism, the Social-Democratic Federation (the first socialist group in Britain) and the new wave of ‘pure’ Marxist socialism of Edwardian times (the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party). The Club also formed an important connection between the British and Continental European (German, Russian) socialist movements.

The Communist Club started life as the Deutsche Demokratische Gesellschaft (German Democratic Society) founded on 7th February 1840 by seven members of the Bund der Gerechten (League of the Just) including Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll and Heinrich Bauer.

The League of the Just itself had been formed in Paris in 1836 as a split consisting of the “most extreme, chiefly proletarian, elements of the secret democratic-republican Outlaws’ League, which was founded by German refugees in Paris in 1834” (Engels). Originally democratic-nationalist in ideology, under the influence of Wilhelm Weitling the League of the Just soon became utopian socialist.

Schapper and Bauer had been exiled to London after having been arrested following an insurrectionary action in Paris in May 1839.

According to Schapper “…the founders of this society decided to make education the foundation of their movement and not to let themselves be guided by leaders…” This was a reaction to the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1830s, which were blamed on the lack of political education of the working class, which had left it open to opportunistic leaders.

The Club was also a front for the secret League of the Just, serving as a recruiting ground and propaganda vehicle.

Until the early 1880s) the Society was known by a rapidly changing variety of different but similar names. However, the most fitting and commonly used name was the Deutsche Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (German Workers Educational Association). The DABV rapidly became the main organisation of the German workers in London, its numbers rapidly grew from not more than 30 members before 1844 to around 500 by February 1847. The Association acted as an educational and social club for German workers, of which there were then many in the capital, many exiled leftwingers. In 1845-46 business meetings were held on a Sunday, political discussions (e.g. reading and commenting on contemporary political and philosophical literature) on a Tuesday night, with Saturdays reserved for cultural activities – such as song and dance – and classes in elementary education (e.g. English lessons). There was also a choir and a library, and leftwing newspapers could be read in the reading room. Literature, mainly socialist and communist, from Switzerland, France and Belgium, was also sold. In the autumn of 1846 the Club acquired a press for printing announcements of meetings and the like, and the following year had the intention to produce a journal provisionally entitled Proletarier.

However, many of the club membership were more interested in the practical benefits than the politics (this dynamic was to increase over the years).

Initially utopian socialist ideas, primarily those of Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling, predominated. Gradually utopianism was replaced by a more class conscious approach. By December 1844 the Club was pressing atheism, opposing nationalism and had generally grown far more radical.

The Association met in the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street from 1840 to 1846. Merging with French exiled groups, the Association became more cosmopolitan; Engels remembered the clientele including “Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Czechs, Southern Slavs, and also Russians and Alsatians” as well as “a British grenadier of the Guards in uniform”.

After Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, in the summer of 1847 it was reorganised as a democratic propaganda society and renamed the Communist League. It was for this organisation that the famous Communist Manifesto was issued. The reading and adoption of this probably happened in the upstairs room of the Association premises in Drury Lane (rather than the Red Lion as indicated by Liebknecht and others).

Correspondingly the open social club was renamed the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (Communist Workers Educational Association), de-emphasising the Germanic element. Engels noted that its “membership cards bore the inscription all men are brothersin at least twenty languages, even if not without mistakes here and there”. Germans, however, remained the largest section of the Association.

After the 1848 revolution in France many exiles returned to Germany where the League played a significant part in the struggles of that year, but with the defeat of the 1848-9 uprisings, most gradually drifted back to London. Marx and Chartist socialist Ernest Jones lectured to the club at this time.

The German Workers Educational Association is believed to have supplied the choir which sung at the foundation meeting of the International Working Men’s Association (the famous First International) on 28th September 1864 at St Martins Hall, Long Acre. However the DABV did not formally affiliate until 10 January 1865. At this time the DABV was meeting at 2 Nassau Street, Soho (now Gerrard Place off Shaftesbury Avenue), the tavern of Heinrich Bolleter. Members of the Association who were on the General Council of the First International included Schapper, Bolleter, JG Eccarius and Friedrich Lessner (the latter two tailors associated with Marx).

Although clearly the German element was dominant, internationalism was not dead; the DABV taking an active part in commemorations held for the 24th June 1848 massacres in Paris.

On 15th December 1868 the General Council of the IWMA reported that the membership of the DABV was now 1,800.

The next that is heard of the club, once more known as the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein, is in the late 1870s, when it seems to have been part of what was known as the Social Democratic Club. This ultimately consisted of five sections of various nationalities.

The English section, originally known as the English Revolutionary Society, had been formed on the initiative of Frank Kitz during the summer of 1877. Charles Murray, a longtime acolyte of Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, and Johann Neve were also present. By November the group was known as the Social Democratic Club and was meeting at the Grafton Arms in Fitzroy Square. It had now acquired ‘international’ sections, the German section apparently being the CABV. The emphasis appears to have again been on the Communism rather than the Germanity of the group. Around 1878 the Social Democratic Club took premises in 6 Rose Street, Soho (now Manette Street). The building was demolished for the 1929 extension of Foyle’s bookshop.

Important practical work of the CABV at that time included involvement in a masons’ strike, raising money for the strikers and ensuring that imported German masons understood the situation and left the country. The Rose Street premises was used to house fugitives from the German Anti-Socialist Laws: “The club was crowded with refugees; our hall at times resembled as railway station, with groups of men, women, and children sitting disconsolately amidst piles of luggage”.

The CABV had extensive contacts with the English socialist movement at this time. These include Joseph Lane’s Homerton Socialist Society which was then affiliated to the CABV. This later became part of the Labour Emancipation League, which later merged into the Socialist League. Rose Street holds a particular place in the history of British Marxism, as it was here that the first meeting which was to lead to the formation of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain) took place. On 2nd March 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation.

As well as the social democrats the CABV was extensively linked to the anarchist movement at this time, being involved in the ‘Revolutionary Congress’ of 14-19 July 1881; the organising committee of this included Sebastian Trunk representing the CABV. Although designed to unite anarchists and socialists, it essentially became an anarchist affair. More importantly the CABV subsidised Johann Most’s Freiheit, a German language paper issued from 1879 to 1882.

The club split between anarchists and social democrats. The anarchist section associated with Most stayed in Rose Street, while the Social-Democrats moved to 49 Tottenham Street as the Second Section of the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein. The Second Section prefix was soon dropped, afterwards there being no more name changes (although the short English version – the Communist Club – became used in common parlance.) The anarchists later moved to Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place as the International or German Club. The premises here were the scene of a police riot on 9 May 1885.

In its final phase the Communist Club was less of a political body and more of a social club. Frank Kitz disparaged it as a mere West End dining room, but it remained an important focus of Left wing life in the capital. Several aged radicals lived close by, including Lessner at no. 12 Fitzroy Street around 1888, and William Townshend, veteran O’Brienite, who lived at the Club’s premises at no. 49 Tottenham Street. The Club band was particularly noted and performed at many left wing events.

The Club retained its importance as a venue for lectures and events. Friedrich Engels, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and William Morris all spoke at no. 49. One of the most notable was the Sixth and final Annual Conference of the Socialist League, (William Morris’s semi-anarchist split from the SDF) held at the Club on 25th May 1890. This Conference saw the ousting of William Morris and marked the beginning of the transformation of the League into an anarchist group. 49 Tottenham Street is still standing.

In 1902 the Communist Club moved to 107 Charlotte Street. Shortly thereafter Stalin and Lenin visited. This was probably in connection with the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This took place at a variety of locations. The first London sitting took place on 29th July 1903 at the “English Club” in Charlotte Street.

After 1900 the SDF renewed its acquaintance with the Communist Club. In 1903 the delegates to the Annual Conference were formally welcomed as guests to the club. This was made a festive occasion with songs and speeches – in effect the Conference’s ‘social’. The Conference had been marred by the expulsion of several leading impossibilists (anti-reformists) and shortly after the Socialist Labour Party was formed.

In April or May 1903 this newly Party held its first meeting in London at the Club; as were future SLP conferences. The SLP is most known because of its contribution to the foundation of the Communist Party. This was far from its roots, which lay in the industrial unionist ideas of Daniel De Leon.

The other Impossibilist party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, also a split from the SDF, was also greatly connected to the Communist Club. The Club was the first headquarters of the SPGB (June 1904 to September 1905) and other meetings were also held here.

The Communist Club would have been severely affected by the First World War, when most German nationals returned to the Fatherland to fight or were interned. Its end came shortly after the war.

In most sources it is stated that the Club was closed down after police raids in 1918. However the SPGB was still holding meetings here in late 1919 (which were recorded in the minutes as taking place in the Communist Club). Weller gives the date of closure as 1920. Secretary of the Communist Club during its last six months of existence was Harold Edwards. Born in 1900, this young anarchist, a friend of Errico Malatesta, dropped out of political activity in the 1920s to become an antiquarian bookseller.

The premises continued to be used as a meeting place until at least 1922. The building was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz.

Finally the existence of the International Socialist Club during the early 1920s should be noted. Based at 28 East Road, off City Road, this was promoted as the successor to the Communist Club and was the venue of a number of important meetings connected with the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including the second day of the Unity (Foundation) Congress.

This is an excerpt from The Communist Club, by Keith Scholey, published by past tense. 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Black communist Paul Robeson speaks & sings at anti-nuclear rally, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

“Shall we have atom bombs and hydrogen bombs… the hellish destruction of men, women and children… or shall we have peace in the world?”
Paul Robeson, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

On 28th June 1959, 10,000 demonstrators marched to Trafalgar Square from Hyde Park for a rally against the use and development of nuclear weapons. The procession was made up of groups and trade unionists and peace organizations and left-wing political groups.

There were a number of speakers: the most famous was Paul Robeson, the black American singer and actor, internationally renowned, a campaigner for civil rights and international peace. He was confined to the US in 1950, so that he would not be able to speak out abroad about civil rights issues in the United States and his passport was not returned to him until 1958. He ended his speech with a song, “delighting the demonstrators by ending with his beautiful singing voice rolling out across the hushed crowd and passers-by.”

We aren’t generally into Soviet nostalgia, and have many reservations about many Communist Party fellow travellers, being anti-state communists or thereabouts. However Robeson, like Woody Guthrie, transcended the genre into a whole different stratosphere. A favourite evocative image related to him is when he sang at an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine, when he was banned from travelling outside the States. An anti-racist rendering literally rendering nations and their borders irrelevant, if only for a moment… thinking about it makes my fingers tingle and my heart soar. Worth a mention this week, post-Brexit vote, with racism and nationalism on the rise, and borders going up in many hearts.

“The extraordinarily multitalented Robeson was not only a world-famous singer and actor, but became a political activist during his peak performing years. Robeson’s father, a runaway slave who became a minister in Princeton, New Jersey, exerted a strong influence on the young Robeson, instilling in him a quiet dignity, a love for African-American culture, and an all-embracing humanism.

An outstanding scholar-athlete at Rutgers University in 1915-19, Robeson went on to become one of the world’s leading concert singers, stage actors, and film stars in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. During the period 1927-39, when he was based in London, his artistic growth led him to study world cultures and to support social and political movements. He sang concerts to benefit trade unions, especially the Welsh coal-miners’ union, and he came to see the connection between the struggles of the British working class and those of the oppressed colonial peoples. Robeson was introduced to socialist ideas through his friendship with George Bernard Shaw and his acquaintanceship with several leaders of the British Labour Party. As a result, Robeson studied the classic Marxist writings and became attracted to the basic premises of communism.

In the early 1930s Robeson met many African students in London and developed a deep appreciation of the close links between the African and African-American cultures, learning several African languages. He also met Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru of India, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Prompted by the desire to extend his artistic range, Robeson studied many other languages and cultures throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mastering Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, and most European languages. This focus on the centrality of culture went hand-in-hand with Robeson’s increasing radicalism – a duality that continued for the remainder of his career.

Robeson responded to the rise of German fascism by becoming one of the world’s leading antifascists. Invited to the Soviet Union in 1934 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Robeson was almost assaulted by Nazi storm troopers in Berlin as he changed trains on his way to Moscow. In the USSR he was deeply impressed by the lack of racial prejudice and by flourishing diverse cultures in the Soviet republics. These experiences and the communist leadership of the worldwide antifascist and anti-colonialist struggles were the basis of his unwavering support for the Soviet people in their attempts to build socialism. The fact that Robeson viewed the Soviet Union and the world communist movement as reliable allies of the colonial liberation movements led him to form a close alliance with Communists despite his private misgivings about the Stalinist purges of 1936-38 and his disagreement with the Communist Left’s exaggerated emphasis on class priorities over “nationalist” priorities in the Third World.

In 1938 Robeson demonstrated his commitment to the fight against fascism by going to Spain to sing and speak in support of the Spanish Republic in its civil war against General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion. The profound effect this experience had on Robeson’s radicalisation was reflected in his dramatic statement at that lime: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice; I had no alternative.” By 1939, Robeson was a key figure symbolising on a world scale the unity of the antifascist and anti-colonial struggles.

In the fall of 1939 Robeson returned from England to the United States, where he continued his highly successful concert and theatre career while simultaneously becoming a leader of the civil rights movement and a spokesman for left-wing causes. He was the first major performing artist to refuse to perform for segregated audiences and to lead voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Robeson also played an important role in support of the union-organising drive of the CIO in the early 1940s, and in bringing black workers into the unions.

In 1946 Robeson challenged President Harry S Truman’s refusal to sponsor legislation against lynching by telling him that in the absence of federal protection blacks would exercise their right of armed self-defence. An opponent of the Cold War from its inception, Robeson attended a world peace conference in Paris in 1949 and expressed the view that black Americans should not fight an aggressive war against the Soviet Union on behalf of their own oppressors. In the wake of those remarks, the U.S. government and the media launched an attack of unprecedented ferocity against Robeson that lasted for nine years.

Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 and was not restored until 1958. Inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and numerous other U.S. government agencies compiled tens of thousands of documents on Robeson and illegally harassed him over a period of more than twenty years. Robeson was also blacklisted in the entertainment industry and prevented from appearing in professional engagements until 1957. Despite this persecution, Robeson continued to sing and speak in black churches and in the halls of the few surviving left-wing trade unions. He also wrote a book titled Here I Stand in collaboration with the black writer and journalist Lloyd I. Brown in which he outlined the program and strategy subsequently adopted by the civil rights movement and foretold the advent of the movement for economic justice.

During the anticommunist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Robeson defended the rights of Communists and defied congressional committees when they compelled him to testify before them. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, he refused on constitutional grounds to answer any questions concerning Party membership or affiliation.

Robeson remained publicly neutral concerning the USSR-China rift that began in the late 1950s, maintaining his cordial relations with both countries, and expressed no opinion about Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes However, Robeson’s political attitude on these issues was conveyed indirectly by his personal friendship with Khrushchev and his enthusiastic support of Khrushchev’s domestic and foreign-policy reforms.

In 1958 Robeson’s passport was restored on the basis of a Supreme Court decision, and he traveled abroad for five years to reestablish his artistic career. After a successful comeback, Robeson became ill with circulatory disease, and in 1963 he returned to the United States to retire. Contrary to the claims of the media, Robeson was not disillusioned or embittered. As he put it in 1973, three years before his death from a stroke: “Though ill health has compelled my retirement, you can be sure that in my heart I go on singing.” Drawing upon lyrics he had made world famous, he continued, “I must keep laughing instead of crying, I must keep fighting until I’m dying, and Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along.”

We stole this from here

Sometimes we nick things because they say we wanted to say, better than we could, and to be honest sometimes because we just run out of energy. Posting (nearly) every day is a bit exhausting, when you have to get the kids out of bed and to school and slope off to work as well. We’re not historians, just talentless amateurs. So if we aren’t always totally original, we apologise…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: veteran East End dissident communist Joe Jacobs dies, 1977.

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.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online