A short account of Gunnar Soderburg and his part in the foundation of the Unemployed Workers Organisation.
Gunnar A. Soderburg was a seaman of Swedish origin who whilst in Liverpool during World War One was in contact with fellow members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Soderburg appears to have been born in 1896 as his age in 1931 was given as 35). The main organiser of the IWW in Liverpool was Jack Braddock, husband of Bessie (the Braddocks were to be become notorious in post-World War Two Britain for the system of patronage they set up in Labour Party circles in the city). Jack had organised the Merseyside IWW along with his brother Wilf . Another Wobbly in Liverpool was George Garrett, who as a seaman had joined the IWW in 1918 and who went on to become a fine although neglected working class writer. Jack and Wilf used visiting seamen to Liverpool to send financial contributions back to the IWW in the States to help Wobblies on trial there.(1)
Soderburg, like the Braddocks and Garrett, joined the Communist Party not long after its foundation. This seems to have been a decision taken by many in the IWW in Britain, other notable Wobblies who took this route being Lilian Thring, Alec Squair, and Jack Leckie (2). Soderburg appears to have moved to London and became the London Organiser of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committees Movement (Jack Braddock became the Liverpool organiser of the NUWCM). According to material supplied by Harry Young CP circular of 6th June 1923), Soderburg was a member of the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (see Jack Tanner biography here at libcom) and as well as working as a seaman, was a boxer
Wal Hannington has given an orthodox Communist history of the unemployed workers' movement, subtly implying that the NUWCM was under the political sway of the CP. Whilst the leading body of the NUWCM, the National Administrative Council, was packed with CP members, many of the local branches were far from compliant. Not only was the NUWCM peopled with those from an IWW background, but there were also those from the syndicalist wing of the old Socialist Labour Party and all of these shared the idea of One Big Union (not all the old members of the SLP had gone over to the CP). As late as 1924 the CP raged against the loose organisation of the NUWCM, calling for its Bolshevisation and as for the idea of One Big Union of employed and unemployed workers committees that gained a hearing in the NUWCM, that was thoroughly condemned at the 5th CP Congress of October 1922. In the CP press was to be found the following comment:
”Talk of the One Big Union has become prevalent in the organisation, until quite a number of the unemployed dreamt of their organisation gradually enrolling unemployed members, until they superseded the present Trade Unions by One Big organisation of employed and unemployed”.
Soderburg was one of the advocates of the One Big Union (OBU) . Writing in the movement's paper Out of Work, he said: “The unemployed movement is the germ or beginning of the One Big Union”. This idea of the unemployed taking a leading role in the struggle was further elaborated in Out of Work in August 1922:
“The union bureaucracy which is driving the working class movement into a state of despair, can be broken by the NUWCM” and that this could “bring about the resuscitation of the whole working class movement” (quoted in Flanagan, p.152).
Soderburg clashed with Percy Haye, national secretary of the NUWCM. He began to make accusations about the expenditure of the chairman of the NAC, Holt, and of Haye, and criticised the amount of work they put into the NUWCM.
Harry Homer, business manager of the National Administrative Council of the NUWCM, was to write to local Communist Party committees on June 6th 1923 that:
“One of the influences against us has been the London Organiser, Soderburg but being a strong personality we have not hitherto been able to find sufficient grounds to justify his removal”.
The London District Committee (LDC) then made the allegation that he was a paid agent of the State. Soderburg strenuously denied this, saying that he had been set up by the CP.
A motion was passed at an LDC meeting in late 1923 that Soderburg be asked to resign. Before the motion could be seconded, he pre-empted the move and resigned (NAC minutes 29th Sept.-2nd Oct,1923). It seems pretty certain that these machinations were engineered by the CP.
Harry McShane in his book No Mean Fighter repeats the CP orthodoxies on Soderburg:
“In April 1923 I attended the 3rd National Conference of the NUWCM in Coventry. At that conference a man called Soderberg, who was leading a fraction within the NUWCM, attempted to run me for national organiser against Wal Hannington. I wouldn’t allow it. .. But Soderberg was later seen in the company of a CID officer at a Lyons’ Corner House. Obviously he was working to split the movement”.
Flanagan, who has researched this incident in his book, has gone on record to say that no such evidence of Soderburg being an informer has been found in Special Branch records.
Contrary to what some academics claim, the new rival organisation to the NUWCM , the Unemployed Workers Organisation, was not set up by Sylvia Pankhurst but by Soderburg. It declared itself against affiliation to a counter-revolutionary party, the Labour Party, similarly rejecting affiliation to the TUC. Pankhurst and her organisation, the Workers Socialist Federation, wholeheartedly endorsed the UWO, stating in the Workers Dreadnought that :
”Having read its declaration of principles, and believing these were tending towards our own direction, and an improvement on those of the older organisation of the unemployed, we agreed to allow the new organisation to ventilate its views in this paper so far as considerations of space and policy may permit” (4th August, 1923).
It should be noted that the UWO was set up before Soderburg's resignation from the NUWCM, so in some ways the CP felt justified in pushing for his removal.
The UWO had a breathtaking take-off. NUWCM branches in Poplar, Bow and Bromley, Camberwell, Edmonton, South Lambeth, Tottenham, Ponders End and Millwall came over very soon. By late September 1923 the UWO had 1,490 members. Workers' Dreadnought reported:
“Branch after branch is dropping away from the old Movement and joining the new. In January 1924 it reported that membership had grown to 3,000 in London, and that a new branch was forming in Leeds and that “the membership is increasing by leaps and bounds”.
Soderburg engaged Wal Hannington in debate in London, and won it, at least according to the Dreadnought.
When dockers on unofficial strike applied to the Poplar Board of Guardians for relief, this was granted. However the Board, among whose members were George Lansbury and other left-wingers, suffered a financial crisis and decided to reduce the relief rates. On 26th September the UWO called a demonstration and demanded that the Board reverse its decision. The UWO activists stormed the Board premises, and the police were called. They waded in with the usual brutality, injuring many, with upwards of forty badly injured, with hundreds less so. Most of the injured were middle-aged manual workers. The UWO commented that:
"We can claim victory for our defeat by being able to prove the fallacy and futility of the local governing bodies in their endeavour to abolish poverty and distress”.
Wal Hannington, standing in for George Lansbury at a meeting in Glasgow, was to face the only hostile working class meeting in his life, when John Maclean and his group began to question him about the Poplar incident. Hannington tried to explain it away, and as a result there was such uproar that the meeting had to be abandoned.
The election of the first Labour government in 1924 , coinciding with an economic upturn and an increase by Labour in unemployment benefits led to the collapse of the UWO, which disappeared as rapidly as it had risen. For its part the NUWCM managed to maintain itself, reaching a membership of 50,000 in 1932.
Soderburg moved to the USA in 1925, where he operated under the name of John G. or Jack Soderberg. He wrote to George Garrett in 1929 that the Communist Party in America were using the old Scotland Yard slander against him. It appears he was a member of the Communist Party (Opposition) led by Jay Lovestone, which had been expelled from the CP for supporting Bukharin. In 1931 he was secretary of the Independent Tidewater Boatmen’s Union. the union called a strike in New York harbour against the O’Boyle Towing Company which operated appalling conditions for its workers. During the strike, a bomb went off. Soderburg was arrested for this, with several other activists of the union, despite being at a solidarity meeting in Buffalo for Tom Mooney at the time. He was convicted of preparing explosives with the intent of taking human lives and sentenced to 25 years in Sing Sing prison. The Communist Party acted in a despicable fashion, issuing the following statement in their paper:
“Soderberg, secretary of the Tidewater Boatmen’s Union, whom the capitalist press calls a ‘Red,’ was expelled from the Communist Party for being a suspicious element and also from the Marine Workers’ Industrial Union for disruptive and antiworking class activities. Treiger, Reily and Bunker were expelled from the Marine Workers’ Industrial Union as bad elements” and “The men arrested are not members of the Communist Party, and their actions are unknown to it, with the exception of one of them, who was expelled from the Party as a suspicious character and who has been since very openly working against the Party with the renegade Lovestone group.”
For its part, Industrial Solidarity, the paper of the IWW also divorced itself from the accused, much to the anger of their New York rank and file. For his part, Lovestone expelled Soderburg from his group, but without releasing the expulsion papers publicly (this may have been a move to protect the Lovestoneites from repression, as Lovestone continued to correspond with Soderburg in jail).
A Marine Workers’ Defense Committee was set up in support, the anarchist Carlo Tresca acting as its secretary and with the support of the Trotskyist Communist League of America, led by James P. Cannon. Soderburg was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment and then to be deported on April 25th,1932. Records from the trial point to soderburg having been "naturalised" as British..
Soderburg always declared that he was innocent. Garrett and Bessie Braddock corresponded with Soderburg during his long years in prison. Whilst painting a water tower at Sing Sing with two other prisoners, Shorty and Al, there was an incident when one of the three painted a controversial picture on the tower. we are not told what the nature of the picture was or whether this was Soderburg (from Sing Sing Prison by Guy Cheli) He was finally freed on 14th June 1942 "to a Federal Immigration warrant ( letter from James E. Sullivan , Superintendent, Sing Sing to British historian Walter Kendall. Thanks to Ken Weller for copy of this). Lovestone was still corresponding with him in 1942 but after that he disappears from view. We can assume that he was deported , but to where? Britain, with Soderburg apparently a naturalised Briton, or Sweden?
(1)Jack and Wilf were born in Hanley, in the Potteries. Their father, a socialist, was a maker of baths and wash basins and died of potter’s silicosis. The brothers were on their way to Canada when they changed their minds and decided to stay in Liverpool. In his youth Jack was a boxer. He favoured wearing a Stetson hat and was to remark : “I wear a big hat because I have a big head”. Jack got work with the Cheshire Lines rail company building wagons and Wilf joined him there. The Liverpool IWW used the socialist club at 52 Byrom Street to enrol members.
(2) John Villiers (Jack )Leckie. Mechanical engineer. Born in Glasgow, of Irish extraction. “ One of the outstanding propagandists for anti-parliamentarism” according to John Mc Arthur in his memoir Militant Miners. Chair of Communist Labour Party founded in October 1920 in Glasgow by a number of shop stewards and members of revolutionary groups, including members of SLP who had previously refused to join the CPGB. With other anti-parliamentarians was denounced by Gallagher, himself formerly an anti-parliamentarian, and just returned from Russia. Drilled a “Workers’ Army” in East Fife, according to Bob Selkirk with the aid of an Irish captain (undoubtedly Jack White). In Birmingham in 1921 harangued two plainclothes policemen at a meeting , saying that the tactics of the IRA should be adopted .. “ two or three lads on the roof with rifles would put an end to these snoopers “. Leckie attended 2nd Congress of Comintern, and just back from there he had now been persuaded to change his mind re CPGB, pushing for unity as delegate of CLP at Leeds Unity Congress. Served as CPGB representative in Germany from early 1923 to end of 1925. Ran unsuccessfully against Shinwell of Labour at Linlithgow in April 1927.
Flanagan, R.Parish-Fed Bastards: A History of the Unemployed in Britain, 1884-1939
Croucher, R. We refuse to starve in silence: a history of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, 1920-1946
Shipway, M. Anti-parliamentary communism: the movement for workers’ councils in Britain, 1970-1945
James P. Cannon on the New York arrests: