A small bundle of letters in the British Communist Party archives, located in the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester, draws attention to an overlooked episode in Australian labour history: the three month visit to Australia by Harry Pollitt in 1960. Although Pollitt’s eloquent oratory thrilled thousands, by the end of his gruelling tour his voice was permanently silenced. Soon after he boarded ship to return to England, he was dead.
Harry Pollitt was general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1929-39 and 1941-56, and its chairman until 1960. In his autobiographical Serving My Time, Pollitt told vividly the story of his life from his birth in a Lancashire working class family in 1890 until his assumption of CPGB leadership 39 years later. His first public activities were in the pre-war socialist and trade union movement. In 1909, for example, he joined the Independent Labour Party and in 1912 became a life-long member of the Boilermakers’ Society. Unlike many British socialists, he opposed involvement in the Great War of 1914-18. After working as the first national organiser of the Hands Off Russia movement in 1919-20, he became a foundation member of the Communist Party in 1920 the year he met Lenin. It was, he recalled, ‘the most significant moment in my life’. Except for the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact when Pollitt was purged after resisting (briefly) the new Com intern line,1 he served continuously on the Party’s Central Executive.
When this pioneer British communist arrived in Australia in April 1960, he no longer occupied the commanding heights in the CPOB that he had prior to 1956. As with so many communists in the West, 1956 was the defining year for Pollitt. Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin in March and his response to the Hungarian Uprising in October inaugurated a soul-searching that irrevocably changed the Party.2 Harry could not adjust to such change and was unable or unwilling to see the implications of denying internal discussion. His response to Party members horrified by Krushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s crimes was blunt and unyielding: ‘If you’ve got a headache, you should take an aspirin’.3 Thus, as his biographer records, ‘the Stalinist caricature to which Pollitt increasingly conformed was made by the events of 1956 to appear thoroughly anachronistic’.4 Pollitt was dismayed to see his disciplined Bolshevik party riddled with dissension and defection. He experienced much of this very personally. According to one of his defenders at the time, Pollitt was ‘denounced and sneered at by youngsters who were toddlers when Harry set out on his thankless mission to create the British Communist Party’. His sense of rejection and betrayal was illustrated by ‘the angry and emotional scene’ in November 1956 during which he attacked the Marxist scientist (and Party member) Professor J.D. Bernal for questioning the use of Soviet tanks in Hungary.5
Thereafter, Pollitt’s position in the Party moved from being pivotal to peripheral. As John Saville wrote to E.P. Thompson in October 1956, ‘Harry is linked with Spain, anti-appeasement and the Hunger Marches [but] he’s washed up now. . . ‘.6 And as Harry himself commented to a friend in the late 1950s, ‘they don’t need me any more’. According to Pollitt’s wife, he had ‘an absolute obsession about becoming ‘useless to the Party…[he] almost lost the will to live’.7 It is not clear whether Pollitt hoped his trip to the Antipodes would restore his flagging spirits but he seemed to obtain that much-needed replenishment and buoyancy in Australia that was unavailable in England. The letters he wrote home to his wife, she recalled, ‘breathed happiness and fulfilment in a good job well done, with full recognition for it and good comradeship’.8
Pollitt’s journey to Australia began as unexpectedly as it ended. Aboard the ship he encountered an apostate from the past – ‘the last person I expected to see’ – Douglas Hyde. ‘I wouldn’t have known him if he hadn’t spoken to me’.9 They had last spoken together in March 1948, at the height of the Cold War, when Hyde, the news editor of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, resigned dramatically from the CPGB and embraced another faith, Catholicism.10 Despite the subsequent furore and the public vitriol hurled by his erstwhile comrades, Hyde wrote, not long before his death in 1996, that the CPOB ‘produced the best people I have ever known’.11 It is more than likely that he believed Pollitt to be one of these people.
Harry Pollitt arrived in Sydney on 11 April 1960. Although the weather was ‘just like a hot English Summer day’, the broad Australian accent of Lance Sharkey, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) who greeted him, was a clear reminder that he was ‘a long way from home’.12 It was his first visit to this region of the world and it was ‘the fulfilment of a lifelong desire’.13 His crowded itinerary included visits to every State except Tasmania, as well as many regions such as the South Coast (he had a ‘splendid public meeting at a steel town called Woollongong’) and the Northern coalfields. He also undertook a two week tour of New Zealand where he addressed the National Conference of the NZCP and visited the mother of a friend killed in the Spanish Civil War. He found this trip ‘very exhausting’ but was invigorated by the extent to which he could serve the Party: ‘They say for New Zealand I have had record meetings and certainly I have had a very good press which has given the Party a real lift’.14 This sentiment, that his tireless efforts were finally receiving proper acknowledgment, was repeated when he returned to Australia. After being given ‘a great welcome’, ‘I gave interviews to the Press and Television, and I believe I am on four channels tonight which has bucked up the Comrades no end’.15
Besides being a guest of honour at the May Day celebrations in both Sydney and Newcastle, perhaps the centrepiece of Pollitt’s speaking tour was a huge public meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall on 24 May. The Victorian branch of the CPA distributed 30,000 leaflets advertising the meeting and extensive media coverage was arranged. When one British migrant heard of the meeting he allegedly remarked: ‘Is Harry really coming? It’ll be worth going a long way to listen to him. He’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard in my life!’16 The audience of over 2000 people heard Pollitt outline the course of the Cold War from Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in 1946 to the current failure of the four-power summit designed to achieve East-West rapproachement. In this context, Pollitt referred to an episode with which most in the audience would have been familiar: the shooting down a few weeks earlier of an espionage plane, piloted by an American, Gary Powers, to spy on the Soviet Union. Pollitt ended his address on a messianic note: ‘Communism has one aim – to bring beauty, colour and dignity into the lives of the people. When power is in the hands of the people…this island home of yours will be transformed into a paradise on which the sun of joy will never set’. To the countless thousands in the original Workers’ Paradise still languishing in the Gulag, such words mocked the reality of communism, but to the many hundreds in Pollitt’s Melbourne audience (who donated £984), they were uplifting. Indeed, the meeting is still remembered by Party members who were present.17
However the tour took its toll. Whilst in Melbourne, where he stayed with the redoubtable E.F. ‘Ted’ Hill, he experienced a recurrence of ‘the same eye trouble I had in June 1956’. That year, as we have seen, was an especially tumultuous time for Pollitt. He had just relinquished the CPGB leadership under pressure, according to one interpretation, from those insisting upon democratisation of the Party, from those who needed far more than an aspirin. Haemorrhaging behind his eyes, in 1956 as in 1960, prevented Pollitt from being able to read. In 1956, he was dismissive: ‘They tell me it will clear up in six months if I do nowt, but it’s not going to take that long if I can help it’. In 1960, he was less sanguine: ‘I shall be glad to get on the steamer for home. It will be a good rest. The [eye] specialist says it is too much strain and I should rest. So that’s that’.18
Much of that strain, undoubtedly, was due to the gruelling itinerary more in keeping with an election campaign of a young politician than a speaking tour of a 70-year old. In his final aerogramme to Johnny Gollan, Pollitt remarked: ‘This week I have attended the Sydney Committee [of the CPA], a meeting of leaders on Propaganda, a meeting of the Political Committee, another meeting of Dockers, and a big public demonstration.’19 The CPA functionary who accompanied Pollitt around Australia stated: ‘It was not that the Party worked him too hard, it was impossible to restrain him…he felt he had not much time left and wanted to put all he had into every minute’.20 Yet Pollitt’s letters to London record a quite different story. This may suggest that the CPA desired to distance itself from any responsibility in precipitating Pollitt’s death. On 28 April he wrote: ‘I am going to cover the whole country but I have had to insist on cutting down on factory gate meetings’; on 8 May: ‘I have had to tone down a lot that the Party has planned’; on 10 June: ‘I finished my tour last night and about time… I hope to visit Canberra next week. But no more meetings … I am calling it a day until I start for home’.
Pollitt departed for England the morning after a small group of South Australian communists gathered with him for dinner on 25 June. He died two days later, at 2 a.m. from cerebral thrombosis, as the SS Orion was steaming towards Fremantle.
He was buried two weeks later close to Karl Marx, on the opposite side of Hamstead Heath. A portrait of Stalin was still hanging, defiantly, in the living room of his suburban semidetached. The sense of loss was keenly felt: letters poured into the CPGB headquarters. A Lancashire communist wrote: ‘The Great Harry mainly influenced me to join the Party in 1924 & I feel that I have lost my greatest pal’; a Party member from Wales regarded Harry as ‘our greatest friend…who was so much the central rock of the Party, that we still can’t imagine it without him’; while an old friend from Newcastle commented: ‘Even the manner of his passing was characteristic of his consideration for other people – it all happened in one day, 10,000 miles away when he has just completed one of the most valuable trips he ever made’.21 In this sense, Harry Pollitt’s Australian tour finally gave him that ‘full recognition’ and ‘good comradeship’ that he had found elusive during the difficult last four years of his life.
- See Monty Johnstone, ‘The CPGB, the Comintern and the War, 19391941’, Science and Society, Vo1.61, No.1, Spring 1997, pp.27-45.
- Malcolm MacEwan, ‘The year the Party had to stop’, The Listener, 16 December 1976, pp.787-8. Although Pollitt attended the CPSU Twentieth Congress in Moscow, he was absent from the closed session which heard Krushchev’s report. ‘Where do you reckon I was when Comrade K. made that speech?’ Pollitt later said. ‘I was being conducted round a French-letter factory. At my age, 1 suppose that was a compliment’. Kevin. Morgan, Harry Pollitt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 171-2.
- Kevin Morgan, op. cit., p.173
- Ibid, p.180
- Ibid, p.182.
- John Saville, ‘The 20th Congress and the British Communist Party’, in Ralph Miliband and Johm Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1976 (London Merlin Press, 1976), p.18.
- Kevin Morgan, op. cit., pp.182-3.
- Harry Pollitt papers, Archive of the CPGB, National Museum of Labour History and Archive Centre (hereafter HP), letter, H. Pollitt to J. Gollan, 12 April 1960.
- See Douglas Hyde, I Believed. The Autobiography of a former British Communist(London: Reprint Society, 1950), pp. 260-74.
- Australian,. 12 November 1996. Hyde was also making his way to Australia on a speaking tour although his sponsors, the Colwnban Missionaries, were rather different trom Pollitt’s.
- HP, letter to Gollan, 12 April 1960.
- Trihune, 20 April 1960.
- HP, letter to Gollan, 28 April 1960.
- Ibid. In his final letter to Gollan he reiterated this: ‘I think it has all been worthwhile and has given the Comrades here a great lift up’. Ibid, 10 June 1960.
- Cited in The Guardian, 5 May 1960.
- The Guardian, 26 May 1960; Tribune, 29 June 1960; conversation with Bernie Taft, 22 December 1997.
- HP, letter to Gollan, 10 June 1960.
- HP, ibid
- Cited in Kevin Morgan, op. cit., p.183
- Ibid, p.184; Executive Committee of the Conununist Party of Great Britain, Harry Pollitt. A Trihute (London: The Communist Party, 1960), pp.21-3