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Issue 169 June 2013

The Communist Party in the East End

Granite and Honey: the story of Phil Piratin, Communist MP

By Kevin Marsh and Robert Griffiths

Manifesto Press, 2012, £14.95

Reviewed by Pete Dickenson

Phil Piratin was the Communist MP for the Mile End constituency in Stepney (now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets) from 1945-50. How he came to win and lose the seat have lessons for the labour movement that are of more than historical interest. Many of the issues connected with Stalinism are not drawn out by the authors, however, one of whom is the current general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.

The CP in the East End of London grew rapidly from the mid-1930s, initially as a result of the threat posed by fascism. Oswald Mosleyís British Union of Fascists (BUF) targeted the East End because of its large Jewish population. Mosley planned a march through the area in October 1936 to try to intimidate the local population and to copy Hitlerís tactics in coming to power. The Stepney CP branch, still small at the time, led by Joe Jacobs, took the initiative from the corrupt local Labour Party and Jewish community elders and mobilised against the fascists. This immediately got a big echo, not just from the Jewish population, but also from local dock workers.

The struggle was given extra urgency and an international dimension because a desperate battle to stop General Francoís fascists occupying Madrid had just begun. This sparked controversy in the Stepney CP. The London District Committee of the CP had planned to have a rally to support Spain in Trafalgar Square on the same day that Mosley said he would march through the East End. Jacobs opposed the rally and called for a mobilisation at Aldgate. As local momentum to block the BUF grew, the District Committee called a meeting with the Stepney members, and decided to cancel the Trafalgar Square rally and stop Mosley at Aldgate. Phil Piratin, by then a prominent figure in the local CP branch, was at the meeting, but it is not clear from this book what position he took. Subsequently, Jacobs was bureaucratically removed as secretary and Piratin later took over the position.

The success in stopping Mosley laid the basis for the growth in the local CP. Piratin played a leading role in this period as an audacious campaigner and militant class fighter. He was prominent in setting up the Stepney Tenants Defence League, (STDL), set up after a successful campaign to prevent evictions at Paragon Mansions in Mile End. Several BUF members living in the block destroyed their BUF cards after the victory.

Taking this as a model, the STDL used the housing campaign to undermine support for the fascists, who had significant areas of strength in the East End. This was highly successful and the campaign snowballed across London and the country. Support for the STDL reached such a level that hundreds of successful rent strikes were organised. On the strength of this and the victory against Mosley, Piratin was elected as the first CP councillor in Stepney.

In June 1939, despite heroic resistance, police and bailiffs evicted some tenants at Langdale Mansions in Stepney while just women and children were at home. Within hours, 10,000 people marched on Leman Street police station to protest and a pitched battle resulted. As retaliation, a rent strike of 7,500 tenants took place at Langdale and in Brady Street. The landlords were forced to back down, and the prestige of the STDL and the CP received an enormous boost.

The next big issue arose during the Ďblitzí. Air-raid shelters in the East End were either rudimentary or non-existent and the population were at the mercy of the Nazi bombers. The shelter at Aldgate was designed for 1,500, but 10,000 were forced to pack in when the bombing started. The Stepney CP had been agitating about this since 1938, but the Labour Party leaders on the council had done very little. The CP now demanded that the tube stations be opened up for public use as shelters.

The government refused and so the CP led mass occupations of the stations, which forced a rapid change of policy by Tory prime minister, Winston Churchill. This enhanced Piratinís position even more, as did events at the Savoy Hotel. A safe, deep and luxurious air-raid shelter had been built for the guests of this five-star establishment, but they got a shock when Piratin marched in with hundreds of supporters and occupied the shelter. This got worldwide publicity.

It was mainly due to his record as a militant fighter at local level that Piratin was elected to parliament in 1945. He also benefited from widespread sympathy during the war for the Soviet Union, which was making the lionís share of the sacrifices. He won his seat despite his unswerving loyalty to the CPís political line which came from Stalin in Moscow. He endorsed all the disorientating policy somersaults, including the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939-41, and then the CPís super-patriotic role of policing the labour movement in the interests of the bosses after June 1941.

At the end of the war, the CP supported the continuation of Churchillís government, rather than the coming to power of Labour. This policy was dictated directly by Stalin, who thought doing deals with the imperialists was the best way of maintaining the power of the bureaucratic elite in Moscow. However, when the mood for radical change became absolutely clear, the British CP leadership was forced into a hasty u-turn.

Some critics have accused Piratin of playing an ethnic card to get elected, since he was Jewish, as was most of his core support. However, his election material always took a strong class position and rarely addressed specifically Jewish issues. In fact, because he was sensitive on this question, he tended to bend the stick in the opposite direction. In parliament he continued to fight for the interests of workers in Stepney and lived on a workerís wage, the remainder he donated to the CP. He was pugnacious. On one occasion when he was in the queue in the House of Commons cafť, he punched a reporter who made a racist comment to him.

His Achilles heel was his devotion to Stalinís line, and this increasingly undermined his support. He defended not only the planned economy, which it was right for socialists to do, but actively advocated the horrors of the Stalinist one-party dictatorship as a model to be copied in Britain. This was political suicide. What was needed was an honest appraisal of the crimes of Stalin and how the initial democratic institutions in the Soviet Union could be regenerated.

A final blow was when Stalin launched his campaign against Ďcosmopolitanismí in the late 1940s. This was thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The right-wing press picked up on this to discredit Piratin, who could only denounce it as lies of the capitalist press. Unfortunately for him, it was true and it hit his core support in the Jewish community, traumatised by the Holocaust. He was swept away in a Labour landslide in Mile End in the general election of 1950.

A major drawback of this book is that it does not bring out the lessons of Piratinís unswerving support for Stalinism. It mainly reports on events without comment. For instance, Stalinís anti-Semitic policy is mentioned as a cause of Piratinís defeat, but how the leader of a so-called Ďsocialistí society could promote filthy racism is not commented on. Another drawback is that the sections on the campaigning work of Piratin are relatively short, whereas much prominence is given to his parliamentary work. Nevertheless, much of this hidden history can be of use to those with an interest in labour history, and in how to conduct grassroots campaigns today.


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