Saturday, November 16, 2013

Our Many Head Offices (1954)

From the September 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Party has had a number of Head Offices in the course of its career. Until recently most of them have been fair reflections of our slender funds.

Our first Head Office was little more than an address: The Communist Club, 107, Charlotte Street, W.1. Then in 1905 we rented a room for certain evenings at 1A, Caledonian Road, King's Cross Road. Here the Executive Committee used to meet on alternate Saturdays and Thursdays. Then in 1906 we rented a room at 28, Cursitor Street, where, for the first time the Executive Committee met every Tuesday evening. After some trouble with the landlord we took a room at 22, Great James Street, just off Theobalds Road, in 1907.

In 1909 we began really to move upward. We got two rooms on the first floor of a house in 10, Sandland Street, Bedford Row (a little behind the north side of Holborn). This was the first Head Office visited by the present writer. When he went there as a youth he felt he had really reached the heart of deep red revolution. The ground floor was an old dilapidated junk shop. The side  door led up two flights of dark rickety stairs to a couple of bare rooms. The floor was bare boards. One room contained an old desk for the use of the General Secretary and anyone else who had writing to do. Beside was piled the stock of unsold Standards. As time passed the pile grew far beyond the height of the desk until it was in danger of being knocked down by anyone passing. The other room contained a long table and some chairs. This room was used for economics classes on Thursday evenings and for folding Standards on Saturdays. On Tuesday evenings the table was moved into the secretarial room for the E.C. meetings. When the E.C. was sitting it was almost impossible to get anyone else into the room, in spite of the fact that we advertised and boasted that our E.C. meetings were open to the public—so they were, if you could get in!

While we were at Sandland Street the General Secretary, Sammy Quelch, had a coffee shop nearby, and he had a habit of pinning a note on the door asking any members who called to go round to the coffee shop. Robert Blatchford had a humorous dig at the Party in his paper The Clarion (the most popular Labour paper of its day) at the time. He said he "called at the Headquarters of the Socialist Party of Great Britain but found that the Party had gone to get a cup of coffee." Later this was changed to "The Secretary, the Treasurer, and the member had gone to get a cup of coffee."

The old junk shop was bombed during the last war and it and the adjoining houses completely obliterated. But the fire, passion and enthusiasm of the members that gathered in those two bleak rooms above the shop still lingers in the memory. There was a tough old member without arms (he had lost them in an accident in Africa) who used to sell boot laces and matches and would come in breathless and dripping with rain to tell of a meeting that was being held so that members could hurry there with the literature to sell. He was one of the best literature sellers the Party had and was active for many years. later on he surmounted his difficulties sufficiently to earn a comfortable living. His name was Germain.

Head Office was moved from Sandland Street to 193, Grays Inn Road in 1912. There we had two ground floor rooms and a basement in which, for the first time, the literature was put into proper order. One of the members, T. W. Lobb, made curved seats that ran around the walls of the front room. This room was large enough for the E.C. to sit round the table on chairs whilst visitors could sit along the walls.

Next door was a rather poor coffee shop but the owner had a sympathy for us and helped us in many ways, particularly during the first Great War. Every Saturday he would come in with cloths and a pail of water and clean the windows. When the police were waiting to raid us he gave the secretary word of the two men he saw watching our place and enabled her to direct E.C. members into his shop to decide what to do about holding their meetings.

The first war broke out whilst we were at Grays Inn Road, and it was there that the War Manifesto was prepared and members met to decide upon the course of action to meet the various difficulties arising out of that calamitous event. The times were certainly stirring as the pages of the Socialist Standard during those devastating years will reveal.

During the six years we were at Grays Inn Road a great deal of work was done. Before the war preparations were completed for putting a paid Organising Secretary into the field; economics and other classes and discussions were held regularly; members would meet to decide about making visits to outlying places to hold impromptu meetings; and a host of other plans were made and accomplished. Someone managed to buy an old printing machine on which leaflets, E.C. reports and treasurer's reports were printed. Comrade Alley, who recently passed away, used to set them up in type and leave a note for members to run them off—very laboriously by swinging a long arm across.

In 1918 we were forced to leave Grays Inn Road and we took two rooms on the first floor of a house at 28, Union Street, W.1, just behind Oxford Street. There again the people in the shop below were sympathetic. It was a sweet shop and if any dubious caller made an appearance or there was any urgent message one of the price-cards in the window would be turned upside-down. The General Secretary at that time occupied the floor above Head Office.

These rooms were only a temporary refuge. The next year, 1919, we got premises at 17, Mount Pleasant, opposite the G.P.O. Sorting Office. we had two floors and a fair-sized basement. It was the most "respectable" Head Office we had had up to that time, and we remained there eight years. It was to this office that many wandering members returned after the war. One night, soon after we had taken up occupation, a powerful voice outside roared a greeting to a member and then Moses Baritz walked in. He was back after being released from prison in America where he had been interned for his anti-war activities. When he went out to America during the war his hair was coal black; when he returned it was snow-white. prison had been torment to a man of his nervous energy.

Several Australian seamen visited us at this office in the Twenties. Some of them later took part in forming our companion party in Australia. We also had visitors from America who helped  to form our companion party in the United States.

In 1927 Fitzgerald, with the aid of map and compass, succeeded in proving to a majority of the E.C. members that the Elephant and Castle was really in the centre of London. Anyhow we moved over near there to 42, Great Dover Street. We took an old house with three floors and a basement. One of the members made fittings for keeping the S.S. and literature in proper order in one basement room. The other basement room ( a very small one) had tables and chairs, and a stove on which a woman member cooked for those who wanted a meal. The smoke and heat in the little place was stifling, and getting out when one had finished was a problem.

The ground floor front room was used for selling literature and packing. There was a small shop front in which literature was displayed. The first floor consisted of one good sized room in which meetings were held as well as an occasional social—when the place shook as if it was about to collapse. E.C. meetings were also held in this room. Here we had some interesting discussions on the Spanish Revolt and at the beginning of the last war. In the room above lectures were given on many subjects during the winter months.

In April 1941 a bomb fell on this house destroying most of our stuff and we had to get temporary premises at 33, Gloucester Place, which consisted of two ground floor rooms. In April, 1943, we took over Rugby Chambers, Rugby Street, just off Theobalds Road. These premises had been occupied by the Electrical Trades Union. It was from here that we ran our first Parliamentary candidate in 1945. It was also while we were here that the Party membership began to expand and the funds to reach reasonable proportions. With greater activity, the need for more space and increasing rent the members looked round for more suitable premises. A fund was started and sufficient money donated by members and friends to enable us to buy our present premises at 52, Clapham High Street, which we took over in March, 1951. Here at last we have a place of our own, with a small hall for meetings, and suitable accommodation for the secretary, committee, a library, a canteen, and a room in which members can meet and discuss.

After many ups and downs it looks as if we have reached a settled place at last.

The General Strike (1954)

From the September 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

The year 1926 was a most momentous one in working class history. It was the year of the greatest battle ever fought by the British trade union movement—the general strike.

The great world war of 1914-1918 created a vacuum in the world's markets and during the trade boom that followed British workers were able to wring a few concessions from their employers. As markets again became saturated with goods and trade declined, the tables were turned and the employers launched an attack to reduce wages and depress conditions of work.

The reparation terms imposed upon Germany after the war caused German coal to be diverted to markets that had previously been the prerogative of British coal traders. This aggravated the slump in the British coal industry and the wages and working hours of coal miners became the prime target when the employers took the offensive. In 1925, when their wages were already reduced to miserable limits, the miners were threatened with a further wage reduction, extension of their hours of work and the break-up of their national negotiating machinery.

The Miners' Federation of Great Britain rejected the employers' demands and received the support of the Trades Union Congress which arranged with the railway and transport unions for united action. The employers, lined up behind the Government, were unprepared for such action and beat a hasty retreat. The day the coal owners withdrew their demands passed into history as Red Friday.

The trade unions were jubilant but the employers and the Government set to work making detailed preparations for the show-down that they intended to bring about. A few trade unionists, like Mr. A. J. Cook, the Miners' Secretary, realised that only the first round had been fought and they called for preparations for the next struggle, but nothing was done.

Meanwhile, an Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (O.M.S.) was set up under the control of a number of military and naval commanders and prominent capitalists, whilst the Government stalled off the trade unions with a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, to inquire into the coal industry.

When the Samuel Report was issued in march, 1926, it was specific only in its assertions that the miners should accept lower pay and longer hours. Some members of the General Council of the T.U.C. argued that the miners should accept the terms of the Commission's report pending a reorganisation of the coal industry that the report recommended, but the miners adopted a slogan, "Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day."

The General Council of the T.U.C. entered into negotiations with the Government, trying by all means, even "almost grovelling" as Mr. J. H. Thomas of the National Union of Railwaymen admitted, to find a way to divert the head-on crash that was ahead. Finally, Mr. Baldwin the Prime Minister, turned his back on the workers' leaders and refused further negotiations on the grounds that a general strike was threatened and that certain overt acts had already taken place, including gross interference with the freedom of the Press. This referred to the action of certain printers who had refused to print some anti-working class statements. The fight was on.

On Friday, April 30th, the King signed a Proclamation declaring a State of Emergency. Orders in Council were issued in the form of Emergency Regulations under the Emergency Powers Act. Local authorities were reminded by a Ministry circular of the measures that had been previously arranged to cope with a national stoppage. Troops were moved to South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland and arrangements made to call in the Navy. The O.M.S. placarded the country with a poster calling for recruits.

On the third of May the General Council of the T.U.C. issued a manifesto and the following day the General Strike commenced. The stoppage exceeded expectations. All workers called upon responded magnificently, as did many who were not called upon. There were no evening papers and no passenger trains. All army leave was cancelled and the Government took over the B.B.C.

At midnight the taxi drivers came out and the next day saw seamen, transport workers, printers, journalists, engineers, dockers and many others all solidly on strike. The Government took over the Morning Post and issued the official British Gazette under the editorship of Mr. Churchill, whilst the T.U.C. took over the Daily Herald and published The British Worker.

By the third day of the strike 82 unions were involved and, considering the lack of preliminary preparation, the workers' organisation was splendid. Each succeeding day more and more workers joined the strike and the Government took further action including the formation of a "Civil Constabulary Reserve," composed of ex-soldiers with wages higher than those paid to miners. On the eighth day the High Court of Justice declared the strike illegal. The Government prepared to confiscate money sent by overseas trade unions to help their striking colleagues in Britain. The B.B.C. announced "There is as yet little sign of a collapse of the strike." There was no rowdyism, and clashes with the police and other authorities were of a minor nature.

At midday on the ninth day the General Council of the T.U.C. arrived at Downing Street and informed the Prime Minister that the General Strike was being terminated that day and the news was broadcast at 1 p.m. followed by the publication of an order by the General Council for a cessation of the strike. Sir Herbert Samuel had issued a personal unauthorative memorandum to the members of the council and they had seized upon it as an excuse to call off the strike. The miners were left to carry on an heroic struggle on their own till they succumbed in December, not even having been notified of the intending surrender.

Throughout the strike the General Council closed its eyes to the class conflict in which it was involved and insisted that the issue was purely an industrial one. Not so the Government. It realised clearly the class character of its own acts and called for support from the un-class conscious by addressing them as "the nation" and telling them that Parliament and the constitution were threatened.

The Labour Party acted and spoke similarly to the General Council of the T.U.C. It blamed the Government but did not want to see the Government defeated. Hypocritically, it said that had it been in office it would have avoided such a situation, conveniently forgetting forgetting that only two years earlier it had been prepared to evoke the Emergency Powers Act in similar circumstances when it was faced with a transport strike.

The Communists went wild and were responsible for many of the clashes with the police. They cried that Parliament was finished and demanded all power to the General Council. They saw a revolution every time a lorry was overturned or a policeman lost his helmet. After the strike they laid the blame for the capitulation to the cowardice of the members of the General Council and demanded the replacement of the cowards.

It is not easy to analyse an event immediately it has taken place, yet, such is the nature of Socialist analysis, that we would not amend one paragraph, alter one sentence or delete one word of what the Socialist Party of Great Britain said about the General Strike at the time. The twenty-eight years that have elapsed have only served to confirm what our comrades of those days wrote in the Socialist Standard.

The two outstanding lessons of the General Strike were, firstly, that while political power is in the hands of the capitalist class, and until such time as the workers take it into their own hands, they must expect defeat in industrial struggles that threaten the interests of the whole capitalist class. Secondly, the evils of leadership. To blame the General Council or call them cowards and traitors solves nothing. To replace them by other leaders is merely to invite continuous repetitions of similar debacles. To be free of cowards, traitors, hypocrites, fakirs, and even well intentioned mis-leaders, the workers must see to it that their representatives are their servants, not their masters, carrying out instructions, not giving them.

When the workers are prepared to put as much effort and heroism into the struggle for Socialism as they were prepared to devote in support of the striking miners in 1926, there will be a grand story to tell.
W. Waters