Radical London & The Workers Dreadnought in the early 1920s - Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Arriving in London from the US in 1919, West Indian writer McKay describes in these excerpts from his autobiography how he became involved in radical circles and worked on Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers Dreadnought paper.

From; A Long Way From Home, Claude McKay; Pluto Press, London 1985. Originally published in 1937.

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Radical London and the Workers Dreadnought in the early 1920s
(Claude McKay, 1937)



The International Club was full of excitement, with its dogmatists and doctrinaires of radical left ideas: Socialists, Communists, anarchists, syndicalists, one-big-unionists trade unionists, soap-boxers, poetasters, scribblers, editors of little radical sheets which flourish in London. But foreigners formed the majority of the membership. The Jewish element was the largest. The Polish Jews and the Russian Jews were always intellectually at odds. The German Jews were aloof. There were also Czechs, Italians, and Irish nationalists, and rumors of spies.

For the first time I found myself in an atmosphere of doctrinaire and dogmatic ideas in which people devoted the themselves entirely to the discussion and analysis of social events from a radical and Marxian point of view. There was an uncompromising earnestness and seriousness about these radicals that reminded me of an orthodox group of persons engaged in the discussion of a theological creed. Only at the International Club I was not alienated by the radicals as I would have been by the theologians. The contact stimulated and broadened my social outlook and plunged me into the reading of Karl Marx.

There was so much emphasis placed upon Marxian intellects and un-Marxian minds, the Marxian and non-Marxian way of approach to social organization, that I felt intellectually inadequate and decided to educate myself. One thing seemed very clear to me: the world was in the beginning of passing through a great social change, and I was excited by the possibilities. These people believed that Marx was the true prophet of the new social order. Suppose they were not wrong! And if not altogether right, suppose they were nearly right? History had taught me that the face of the world had been changed before by an obscure prophet. I had no reason to think that the world I lived in was permanent, solid and unshakable: the World War had just come to a truce.

So I started reading Marx. But it wasn't entertaining reading. Much of it was like studying subjects you dislike, which are necessary to pass an examination. However, I got the essential stuff. And a Marx emerged from his pages different from my former idea of him as a torch-burning prophet of social revolution. I saw the picture of a man imprisoned by walls upon walls of books and passionately studying the history and philosophy and science of the world, so that he might outline a new social system for the world. I thought that Marx belonged even more to the institutions of learning than to the street corners from which I had so often heard his gospel preached. And I marveled that any modern system of social education could ignore the man who stood like a great fixed monument in the way of the world.

If there was no romance for me in London, there was plenty of radical knowledge. All the outstanding extreme radicals came to the International Club to lecture and I heard most of them - Walton Newbold, the first Communist Member of Parliament; Saklatvala, the Indian Parsee and first unofficial Communist Member of Parliament; A. J. Cook of the Miners' Federation, who later became its secretary; Guy Aldred, an anarchist editor; Jack Tanner, a shop steward committee leader; Arthur McManus and William Gallacher, the agitators from the Clyde; George Lansbury, the editor of the Daily Herald; and Sylvia Pankhurst, who had deserted the suffragette for the workers' movement.

I was the only African visiting the International Club, bin I soon introduced others: a mulatto sailor from Limehouse, a West Indian student from Oxford, a young black minister of the Anglican church, who was ambitious to have a colored congregation in London, a young West Indian doctor from Dulwich, three soldiers from the Drury Lane club, and a couple of boxers. The minister and the doctor did not make a second visit, but the others did.

The club had also its social diversions and there was always dancing. The manager, desiring to offer something different, asked the boxers to put on an exhibition match. The boxers were willing and a large crowd filled the auditorium of the club to see them.

One was a coffee brown, the other bronze; both were strapping broad-chested fellows. Their bodies gleamed as if they were painted in oil. The darker one was like a stout bamboo, smooth and hairless. They put on an entertaining act, showing marvelous foot and muscle work, dancing and feinting all over the stage.

Some weeks later the black boxer gave me a ticket for his official fight, which was taking place in Holborn. His opponent was white and English. I was glad of the opportunity to see my friend in a real fight. And it was a good fight. Both men were in good form, possessing powerful punches. And they fully satisfied the crowd with the brutal pleasure it craved. In the ninth round, I think, the black man won with a knock-out.

Some fellows from the Drury Lane club had come to encourage their comrade. After the match we grouped around him with congratulations. We proposed to go to a little colored restaurant off Shaftesbury Avenue to celebrate the event. At that moment, a white man pushed his way through to the boxer and putting out his hand said: Shake, Darkey, you did a clean job; it was a fine fight. The boxer shook hands and thanked his admirer quietly. He was a modest type of fellow. Then he turned to a little woman almost hidden in the group-a shy, typically nondescript and dowdy Englishwoman, with her hat set inelegantly back on her head -and introduced her to his white admirer: "This is my wife." The woman held out her hand, but the white man, ignoring it, exclaimed: "You damned nigger!" The boxer hauled back and hit him in the mouth and he dropped to the pavement.

We hurried away to the restaurant. We sat around, the poor woman among us, endeavoring to woo the spirit of celebration. But we were all wet. The boxer said: "I guess they don't want no colored in this damned white man's country." He dropped his head down on the table and sobbed like a child. And I thought that that was his knockout.

I thought, too, of Bernard Shaw's asking why I did not choose pugilism instead of poetry for a profession. He no doubt imagined that it would be easier for a black man to win success at boxing than at writing in a white world. But looking at life through an African telescope I could not see such a great difference in the choice. For, according to British sporting rules, no Negro boxer can compete for a championship in the land of cricket, and only Negroes who are British subjects are given a chance to fight. These regulations have nothing to do with the science of boxing or the Negro's fitness to participate. They are made merely to discourage boxers who are black and of African descent.


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And then I became acquainted with Sylvia Pankhurst. It happened thus. The Daily Herald, the organ of British organized labor and of the Christian radicals, had created a national sensation by starting a campaign against the French employment of black troops in the subjection of Germany.

The headlines were harrowing:

"Black Scourge in Europe," "Black Peril on the Rhine," "Brutes in French Uniform," "Sexual Horrors Let Loose by France," "Black Menace of 40,000 Troops," "Appeal to the Women of Europe."

The instigator of the campaign was the muckraker E. D. Morel, whose pen had been more honorably employed in the exposure of Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Associated with him was a male "expert" who produced certain "facts" about the physiological peculiarities of African sex, which only a prurient-minded white man could find.

Behind the smoke screen of the Daily Herald campaign there were a few significant facts. There was great labor unrest in the industrial region of the Rhineland. The Communists had seized important plants. The junkers were opposing the Communists. The Social-Democratic government was impotent. The French marched in an army. The horror of German air raids and submarine warfare was still fresh in the mind of the British public. And it was not easy to work up and arouse the notorious moral righteousness of the English in favor of the Germans and against the French. Searching for a propaganda issue, the Christian radicals found the colored troops in the Rhineland. Poor black billy goat.

I wrote a letter to George Lansbury, the editor of the Daily Herald, and pointed out that his black-scourge articles would be effective in stirring up more prejudice against Negroes. I thought it was the duty of his paper as a radical organ to enlighten its readers about the real reasons why the English considered colored troops undesirable in Europe, instead of appealing indirectly to illogical emotional prejudices. Lansbury did not print my letter, but sent me a private note saying that he was not personally prejudiced against Negroes. I had no reason to think that Lansbury was personally prejudiced. The previous summer, when colored men were assaulted by organized bands of whites in the English ports and their bedding and furniture hurled into the streets and burned, Lansbury had energetically denounced the action. But I didn't consider the matter a personal issue. It was the public attitude of the Daily Herald that had aroused me. An English friend advised me to send the letter to Sylvia Pankhurst, who was very critical of the policies of the Daily Herald. I did, and Sylvia Pankhurst promptly printed my letter in her weekly, the Workers' Dreadnought.

Maybe I was not civilized enough to understand why the sex of the black race should be put on exhibition to persuade the English people to decide which white gang should control the coal and iron of the Ruhr. However, it is necessary to face the fact that prejudices, however unreasonable they may be, are real-individual, national and racial prejudices. My experience of the English convinced me that prejudice againsi Negroes had become almost congenital among them. I think the Anglo-Saxon mind becomes morbid when it turns on the sex life of colored people. Perhaps a psychologist might be able to explain why.

Sylvia Pankhurst must have liked the style of my letter, for she wrote asking me to call at her printing office in Fleet Street. I found a plain little Queen-Victoria sized woman with plenty of long unruly bronze-like hair. There was no distinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinguished. But her eyes were fiery, even a little fanatic, with a glint of shrewdness.

She said she wanted me to do some work for the Workers' Dreadnought. Perhaps I could dig up something along the London docks from the colored as well as the white seamen and write from a point of view which would be fresh and different. Also I was assigned to read the foreign newspapers from America, India, Australia, and other parts of the British Empire, and mark the items which might interest Dreadnought readers. In this work I was assisted by one Comrade Vie. Comrade Vie read the foreign-language papers, mainly French and German.

The opportunity to practice a little practical journalism was not to be missed. A little more schooling, a few more lessons - learning something from everything - keeping the best in my mind for future creative work.

The association with Pankhurst put me in the nest of extreme radicalism in London. The other male-controlled radical groups were quite hostile to the Pankhurst group and its rather hysterical militancy. And the group was perhaps more piquant than important. But Pankhurst herself had a personality as picturesque and passionate as any radical in London. She had left the suffragette legion for the working-class movement, when she discovered that the leading ladies of the legion were not interested in the condition of working women.

And in the labor movement she was always jabbing her hat pin into the hides of the smug and slack labor leaders. Her weekly might have been called the Dread Wasp. And wherever imperialism got drunk and went wild among native peoples, the Pankhurst paper would be on the job. She was one of the first leaders in England to stand up for Soviet Russia. And in 1918 she started the Russian Information Bureau, which remained for a long time the only source of authentic news from Russia.

Comrade Vie was a very young foreigner with a bare bland innocent face. He read and spoke several languages. I did not know his nationality and refrained from asking. For the Pankhurst organization, though small, was revolutionary, and from experience the militant suffragettes knew a lot about conspiracy. However, I suspected that Comrade Vie was a foreign revolutionist. The Pankhurst secretary, a romantic middle-class young woman, had hinted to me that Comrade Vie was more important than he appeared to be.

Comrade Vie wrote also and we often compared articles. I criticized his English and he criticized my point of view, showing me how I could be more effectively radical.

Soon after I became associated with the Workers' Dreadnought, a sawmill strike broke out in London. Most of the sawmills were in the East End, where also the publishing office of the Dreadnought was located. One mill was directly opposite the Dreadnought office. I was assigned to do an article on the strike. A few of the sawmill workers were sympathetic to the Dreadnought organization, and one of the younger of them volunteered to take me round.

There were some sixty sawmills in London, one of the most important of which was either owned or partly controlled by George Lansbury, Labor Member of Parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald. Some of the strikers informed me that the Lansbury mill had in its employ some workers who were not members of the sawmill union and who were not striking. Technically, such workers were scabs. The strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the militant Dreadnought. So did I.

The name of Lansbury was symbolic of all that was simon-pure, pious and self-righteous in the British Labor movement. As the boss of the Daily Herald, he stood at the center like an old bearded angel of picturesque honesty, with his right arm around the neck of the big trade-union leaders and Parliamentarians and his left waving to the Independent Labor partyites and all the radical Left. Like a little cat up against a big dog, the Workers' Dreadnought was always spitting at the Daily Herald.

I thought the story would give the Dreadnought some more fire to spit. Here was my chance for getting even with the Daily Herald for its black-scourge-in-Europe campaign. Comrade Vie helped me put some ginger into my article. When I showed the article to Miss Smyth, the upper-middle-class person who was Pankhurst's aid, she gasped and said: "But this is a scoop." Her gentle-lady poker face was lit as she read.

Finally the article reached Sylvia Pankhurst. She summoned me and said: "Your article is excellent but I'm so sorry we cannot print it." "Why?" I asked. "Because," said she, "we owe Lansbury twenty pounds. Besides, I have borrowed paper from the Daily Herald to print the Dreadnought. I can't print that."

It is possible that Miss Pankhurst acted more from a feeling of personal loyalty. Although Lansbury was centrist and she was extreme leftist, they were personal friends, ever since they had been associated in the suffrage cause: And after all, one might concede that there are items which the capitalist press does not consider fit to print for capitalist reasons, and items which the radical press does not consider fit to print for radical reasons.

That summer Sylvia Pankhurst made the underground trip to Russia to attend the Second Congress of the Third International.

Early in September, 1920, I was sent down to Portsmouth to report the Trades Union Congress for the Dreadnought. There were gathered at the Congress some of the leaders who later became members of the British Labor Government: J. H. Thomas, J. R. Clynes, Arthur Henderson, A. A. Purcell, Herbert Morrison, Frank Hodges, and Margaret Bonfield. The most picturesque personage of them all was Frank Hodges, the secretary of the Miners' Federation, who in his style and manner appeared like a representative of the nobility. I mentioned this to A. J. Cook, who was a minor Official of the Federation, and he informed me that Hodges was always hunting foxes with the lords.

At the press table I met Scott Nearing, who, after listening to clever speeches by the labor leaders, whispered to me that England would soon be the theater of the next revolution. The speeches were warm; Labor was feeling its strength in those times. Even J. H. Thomas was red, at least in the face, about Winston Churchill, who had declared that "Labor was not fit to govern."

As a Dreadnought reporter, I had been instructed to pay little attention to the official leaders, but to seek out any significant rank-and-filers and play them up in my story. I was taken up by delegates from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, which was the extreme leftist element of the Miners' Federation. One of them, A. J. Cook, was exceptionally friendly and gave me interesting information about the British Labor movement. He was very proud that it was the most powerful in the world and included every class of worker. He said he believed the labor movement was the only hope for Negroes because they were in the lowest economic group. He pointed out that J. R. Clynes' General Union of Workers consisted of the lowest class of people (domestic servants and porters and hotel workers) and yet it was extremely important in the councils of the Trades Union Congress.

At that time I could not imagine Cook becoming a very influential official. He was extremely loquacious, but his ideas were an odd mix-up of liberal sentiment and socialist thought, and sentimental to an extreme. He was also a parson, and divided his time between preaching and the pit. However, the radical miners told me they were going to push Cook forward to take the place of Hodges, whom they could no longer stomach. And sure enough, in a few brief years Cook became the radical secretary of the Miners' Federation.

But the labor official at the Congress who carried me away with him was Robert Smillie, the president of the Miners' Federation. Crystal Eastman had given me a note to him and he had said a few wise words to me about the necessity of colored labor being organized, especially in the vast European colonies, for the betterment of its own living standard and to protect that of white organized labor. Smillie was like a powerful ash which had forced itself up, coaxing nourishment out of infertile soil, and towering over saplings and shrubs. His face and voice were so terribly full of conviction that in comparison the colleagues around him appeared theatrical. When he stood forth to speak the audience was shot through with excitement, and subdued. He compelled you to think along his line whether or not you agreed with him. I remember his passionate speech for real democracy in the Congress, advocating proportional representation and pointing out that on vital issues the united Miners' Federation was often outvoted by a nondescript conglomeration like J. R. Clynes' General Union of Workers for example. You felt that Smillie had convinced the Congress, but when the vote was taken it went against him.

I wrote my article on the Trades Union Congress around Smillie because his personality and address were more significant in my opinion than any rank-and-filer's. It was featured on the front page of the Dreadnought. But when Pankhurst returned from Russia, she sharply reproved me for it, saying that it wasn't the policy of the Dreadnought to praise the official labor leaders, but to criticize them. Naturally, I resented the criticism, especially as Pankhurst had suppressed my article on Lansbury.

Just before leaving for the Trades Union Congress I was introduced to a young English sailor named Springhall. He was a splendid chap. He had been put into the British navy as a boy and had developed into a fine man, not merely physically, but intellectually. Springhall was a constant reader of the Dreadnought and other social propaganda literature and he said that other men on his ship were eager for more stuff about the international workers' movement. At that time there was a widespread discontent and desire for better wages among the rank and file of the navy. Springhall came to the Dreadnought publishing office in the Old Ford Road and we gave him many copies of the Dreadnought. The Dreadnought was legally on sale on the newsstands, so he had the legal right to take as many as he desired. Before he left he promised to send me some navy news for the paper.

When I returned to London I found a letter from the young sailor, Springhall, with some interesting items for the paper and the information that he was sending an article. The article arrived in a few days and it was a splendid piece of precious information. But its contents were so important and of such a nature that I put it away and waited for Pankhurst to return and pass it.

Pankhurst returned late in September. I turned over Springhall's document to her. She was enthusiastic, edited the document, and decided to give it the front page. We used a nom de plume and a fictitious name for a battleship. Only Panlkhurst and myself knew who the author was. The intelligence of the stuff was so extraordinary that she did not want to risk having the youth's identity discovered by the authorities. And she thought he could serve the social cause more excellently by remaining at his post.

A couple of days after the issue appeared, the Dreadnought office was raided by the police. I was just going out, leaving the little room on the top floor where I always worked, when I met Pankhurst's private secretary coming upstairs. She whispered that Scotland Yard was downstairs. Immediately I thought of Springhall's article and I returned to my room, where I had the original under a blotter. Quickly I folded it and stuck it in my sock. Going down, I met a detective coming up. They had turned Pankhurst's office upside down and descended to the press-room, without finding what they were looking for.

"And what are you?" the detective asked.

"Nothing, Sir," I said, with a big black grin. Chuckling, he let me pass. (I learned afterward that he was the ace of Scotland Yard.) I walked out of that building and into another, and entering a water closet I tore up the original article, dropped it in, and pulled the chain. When I got home to the Bow Road that evening I found another detective waiting for me. He was very polite and I was more so. With alacrity I showed him all my papers, but he found nothing but lyrics.

Pankhurst was arrested and charged with attempting to incite dissatisfaction among His Majesty's Forces. She was released on bail and given time to straighten out her affairs before she came up for trial. She received many messages of sympathy and among them was a brief telegram from Bernard Shaw asking: "Why did you let them get you?"

Pankhurst's arrest was the beginning of a drive against the Reds. For weeks the big press had carried on a campaign against Red propaganda and alien agitators and Bolshevik gold in Britain. Liberal intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Mrs. Snowden had visited Russia, and labor men like Robert Williams and George Lansbury. There was an organized labor and liberal demand to end the Russian blockade. And when the press broadcast the fact that $325,000 of Bolshevik capital had been offered to the Daily Herald, it must have struck Scotland Yard like a bomb.

Within a week of Pankhurst's arrest, Comrade Vie was seized just as he was leaving England to go abroad. He was arrested as he was departing from the house of a member of Parliament who was a Communist sympathizer. The police announced that he was a Bolshevik courier. They discovered on his person letters from Pankhurst to Lenin, Zinoviev and other members of the Bolshevik Politbureau; also notes in cipher, documents of information about the armed forces, the important industrial centers, and Ireland, a manual for officers of the future British Red army and statements about the distribution of money. Comrade Vie was even more important than I had suspected.

One evening when I got back home from Fleet Street I was surprised to find Springhall, the sailor, there. He had come up to London to see Pankhurst. He said his ship was leaving England and he would like to talk to her. He was on one of the crack battleships. I begged him for God's sake to leave at once, that he could not see Pankhurst, who had been enjoined from political activity by the court and was undoubtedly under police surveillance. Also, as editor of the Dreadnought, she had taken the full responsibility for his article, and her difficult situation in the movement would be made worse if the police should get him too.

Springhall returned to his ship. But he was bold with youthful zeal and extremely incautious. I remember his actively participating in his uniform in the grand demonstration in Trafalgar Square for the hunger-striking and dying mayor of Cork. And he marched with the crowds upon the prison and fought with the police and got severely beaten up. He wanted to quit the navy, believing that he could be a better agitator outside. But his friends on the outside thought that he could be of more importance at his post. Anyway he must have acted indiscreetly and created suspicion against himself, for when his ship arrived at its next port, he was summarily dismissed. However, his revolutionary ardor did not handicap him in being clever enough to maneuver his dismissal and steer clear of a court-martial. A few years after he visited Russia, and later I was informed that he subsequently became an active leader of the British Communist Youth Movement.

Comrade Vie was convicted under the simple charge of alien non-registration. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and to pay the costs of his trial and deportation. Upon his release, Pankhurst's secretary followed him to Russia, where they were married. Apparently it was his preoccupation with his love affair that enabled the detectives to trap Comrade Vie. Three years later I saw them again in Moscow, but he did not seem to be importantly employed.

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Comments

Larry O'Hara
Dec 6 2007 23:30

Very interesting: and somewhere in my archive I have a reprint facsimile of the first ever Workers Dreadnought--printed in early 1980s. Anybody else ever see that?