The "Good Old Days" - Joe Jacobs


Jacobs' 1974 reflections on his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Including the CPGB's actions against working class autonomy during Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 31, 2022

I often hear references to the events of the '20s and '30s quoted as evidence for or against particular points of view. These are often out of context and superficial, if not downright incorrect and misleading.

I was born in 1913 and lived most of my life in the East End of London, where I was active in the working class movement, up to the out-break of the Second World War. After the war I returned to the East End, only leaving around 1962.

I have attempted to remain active, always finding it necessary to change my opinions as new situations emerged, or new evidence came to my notice, which made me look again at my experiences and assess them anew. 'Revisionism' is a dirty word for some 'politicos'. For me it is an essential element in my development and understanding.

While I was a Marxist-Leninist, believing in the need for a vanguard party, I always looked at things with this in mind. Now that I have come to believe that vanguardism leads to a new form of control and exploitation by those who become the 'leadership', I prefer to look for those activities which point to the growth of self-activity, autonomy, and the self-management of struggles.

When people try to compare capitalism's present difficulties with those of the '20s and '30s, they fail to see the very different nature of the problems. The General Strike was not about people trying to raise their standard of living by fighting for wage increases. It was a struggle against the attempts of employers and governments to carry out savage wage cuts. Mass unemployment meant a surplus of wage labourers competing for few jobs. Today the situation is different. Living standards - in the material sense - were so poor as to make any comparison with present standards meaningless. The General Strike was carefully prepared and deliberately provoked. It led to the defeat of the whole British working class and made them incapable of resisting the attacks which followed, during the next ten years.

This was the period when the Communist Party was growing in influence throughout Europe, when workers looked to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union for leadership. What did they get? Russian foreign policy under Stalin was trying to drive a wedge between the rival imperialisms in order to 'build socialism in one country'. This meant 'diplomacy' which sacrificed the workers' struggles and revolutionary aspirations in order to buy time to develop Russian military power. It also meant giving time for Fascism to grow and for the development of its military forces. Stalin's use of the Communist International as a tool of Russian foreign policy led to the surrender of the German Communist Party to Hitler without a shot being fired. It led to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution.

Communist Parties in France, Britain and elsewhere cynically followed the twists and turns in Stalin's policies to the detriment of their own supporters and the working class they claimed to represent. They endorsed Stalin's 'show trials' and the systematic execution of many of the old Bolsheviks. They denied the existence of concentration camps in Russia in which millions, including many revolutionaries, lost their lives. They called the Social-Democrats 'Social-Fascists' while in some cases actually cooperating with the Nazis.

After Hitler had triumphed they switched policies almost overnight and initiated first 'united front' and later 'popular front' movements. This misled people and prevented them from thinking along class lines. The effect was that workers lined up behind their respective rulers. As this continued, so did the drift towards imperialist war.

This sort of thing doesn't come from nowhere. The defeat of the Russian Pevolution had begun when Lenin and the Bolsheviks put down all forms of workers' self-management in Russia. At the same time the Party had opposed all autonomous forms of working class activity. This same attitude was at the core of everything done by the Communist International. When Stalin considered that the Communist International might be too hot to handle, it was systematically undermined and finally liquidated.

I saw all this happening without realising the full implications. I was hooked on the idea that 'defence' of the Soviet Union was the only way to further the 'world revolution'. The sacrifices we had to make were 'necessary'. With hindsight I now know how little I shared Stalin's objectives. But at the time when invited to follow policies with which I did not agree, I was persuaded on threat of expulsion from the Party, to follow or be branded a traitor. Despite doubts in my own mind concerning the purges and many other things I continued in the Party because I was still in agreement with their main policies.

The Invergordon Mutiny

I well remember the Invergordon Mutiny (September 15, 1931). Two leading members of the Party went to prison, one for 3 years, another for eighteen months. They were trapped by Government agents in a compromised situation. The Party was quite willing to present hem as victims of the Government's actions, without making it clear they had had nothing to do with the Invergordon Mutiny. It suited the Government to produce these 'reds under the' bed' so as to undermine the true character of the Mutiny which was started, managed, and carried through by the ratings of the Atlantic Fleet.

I got to know Len Wincott, the leading light of the Mutiny, intimately. This action was self-managed and reached a degree of success which no amount of 'leadership' from the Communist Party could have provided. On the contrary, it would most likely have failed miserably as did so many other struggles which they 'led', and in which I participated.

The Hunger Marches

The Hunger Marches and some other struggles certainly seemed to offer a field of activity which was meaningful for me. I remember marchers from different parts of the country billeted in schools, church halls and in people's homes. Meeting them, and learning about the conditions they had endured where they lived, and how they had organised the marches taught me a great deal. We chatted for hours in caf├ęs and in people's homes. It wasn't all 'political discussion' or sermons from Party functionaries, although there was more than enough of that. The miners from South Wales sang their songs, as did the Scots and Tynesiders.

We fought with the police on many demonstrations. It was always ordinary folk who decided the practical things on their own initiative, like who makes the tea, and where do we sleep, and how can we minimise the effects of police violence or deal with casualties, etc. The leaders were too busy issuing 'directions' or planning 'strategy' which usually had to be ignored because things didn't work out as they had forecast. When the rank and file discuss plans, they always ask 'what should we do?'. When leaders plan they always ask 'what should we tell them to do? We've got to give a lead'.

Unfortunately, we were only too ready to follow our leaders. Those who criticised found themselves accused of breaking 'the unity of the working class'. They were called names like 'utopians', 'ultra-left', 'Anarchists'. This sort of thing was very effective at the time, when Old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamenev were being branded and liquidated. Asking too many questions was more than enough to cast doubt as to your own reliability. If 'Old Bolsheviks' could betray, might not there be traitors in our own ranks? Strange as it may now seem, this was very effective at the time.

The Fight Agaist Mosley

This brings me to the fight against Mosley, which led to my expulsion from the Communist Party in 1937. People refer to the 'Battle of Cable Street' (October 4, 1936)1 as if it had been the direct result of Communist Party activity and leadership. Not many know that the Party was opposed to confronting the Fascists and the police when Mosley proposed to march through the Jewish areas of East London.

It was only after a bitter internal struggle that the Party's policy was changed, three days before the event. I remember the meeting at which we received the new Party line. It took place at the home of my wife's in-laws. We imwediatey communicated the new line to our members, who were waiting in cafes and other places where whitewashing, leafleting, etc., was being organised. It was around 11 pm. The whole area was alive with activity organised by many different groups, not least by groups of people who came together in the streets where they lived.

The change of Party line was only tail-ending the decisions already made by the ordinary people of East London. I was at last able to relax and get on with the real job in hand rather than trying to fight the Party line. My previous instructions were contained in a note from the East London Organiser of the Communist Party. It had run as follows:

Dear Joe, In case you come back, the D.P.C. has made the following arrangements re Mosley's March.
A Party meeting at Salmon and Ball and another at Piggott St. in Poplar, i.e near to each end of the march. Meetings to be kept orderly. Avoid clashes.

Loudspeaker van, is touring area, advertising the meetings

Thousands of leaflets are waiting at Carters for immediate distributon. I leave a copy here.

What Stepney must do Is rally masses to each of these meetings (mostly Salmon and Ball)
Keep order: no excuse for Government to say we, like B.U.F., are hooligans.

If Mosley decides to march, let him. (my emphasis. J.J.)

Don't attempt disorder (time too short to get a 'they shall not pass' policy across. It would only be a harmful stunt). Best see there is a good strong meeting at each end of march. Our biggest trouble tonight will be to keep order and discipline.

Push the Party leaflets around the crowds (Poplar and Bethnal Green are getting supplies too)

(28/9/36) F. Lefitte

It was only when the people of East London, supported by tens of thousands, had made it quite clear that they intended making every sacrifice to prevent the Fascists from marching that the C.P. agreed to 'lead' the fight. The C.P. has consistently claimed the credit for the victory ever since.

This was another clear case of people taking matters into their own hands and managing their own struggles, only to allow some party - in this case the C.P. - to take over and lead them up the garden path.

I was secretary of the Stepney Branch C.P.G.B. from 1933 to 1937, during which time I had disagreements with many local members who were backed by the London District Committee and by the Central Committee. The conflict came to a head after October 4, 1936, when I was subjected to strict disciplinary decisions and much character assassination, lies, etc., before being finally expelled.

The International Brigade

The Spanish Civil War, particularly the creation of the International Brigade, is another example of how the C.P. started by sabotaging and weakening the movement, only to take it over, claiming all the credit and ending up by subverting its aims.

Some friends of mine were on their way to the Barcelona Olympiad (to be held in opposition to the Olympic Games in Hitler's Germany). They arrived at the Franco-Spanish border on July 19, 1936. The revolt of the army under Franco had already begun. They crossed into Spain and two of them joined the Republican Militia in Barcelona. One of them later formed the 'Tom Mann Centuria' - an English unit - around the time when some Germans and others were arriving in Spain. Units were being created from among many foreign volunteers.

I received early news from my friends. Their presence in Spain was reported in the Daily Express, with an editorial condemning their actions a few days after their arrival. Despite all efforts to get the activities of my friends reported in the Daily Worker, no mention of their activities was made for many weeks to come.

In fact I now know that there was great opposition to any actions which did not come directly as a result of Party decisions. My friends were Party members. When the flood of volunteers from all parts of the world, from many different political backgrounds, had become a fact of life, the Communist Party of Spain, under the direct control of the Communist International, began to take over these units which had been created by the volunteers themselves. It wasn't until late November 1936 that the International Legion (later International Brigade) was directly brought under the control of the Communist International by Tito. The facts have still not got into the history books. The Communist Party continues to claim credit for the creation of the International Brigade.

Once again, when ordinary people - rank and file - initiate a struggle which they seek to manage themselves, and this proves effective, the parties arrive to try to take it over. In this case the C.P. succeeded. We know how the International Brigade was used against anyone critical of C.I. policies and domination. We also know how the Communist Party continues to claim credit for all the heroic efforts of all the volunteers who fought in Spain. We all know how the struggle ended.

The intellectuals who became 'fellow travellers' throughout the '30s were themselves ready to surrender their autonomy and ability to think for themselves. They got sucked into the Stalinist arguments concerning the need for uncritical support of the Soviet Union against Fascism. They were used by the arch-manipulators of the C.I. to provide some credibility and respectability for all the diabolical things they were doing in the Soviet Union, to say nothing of their efforts to justify their counter-revolutionary policies in Spain, Germany, Britain and France. All this resulted in a massive defeat for the working class movement.

The Problem Today

When I hear calls today for a 'General Strike led by the TUC' or for the 'Return of a Labour Government pledged to Socialist policies', I know that those who 'strategically' launch these slogans think they will benefit from the disillusionment that will follow. They hope that people will later turn to them for leadership. It makes my hair stand on end when such manipulators refer to the great struggles of the 20s and '30s as though this mass movement could be recreated, and as though this mass movement was an example to be followed. The defeat of the revolutionary movements of that period was paid for and is still being paid for in countless loss of life and mountains of human misery.

Things are very different now. The miners' strike (which ended with Wilberforce in a defeat for the government) and the present challenge which the miners have made to all governments, could not have happened in the conditions of the 1930s. The industrial struggles since the Second World War have found the workers far stronger than they have ever been.

Hungary and Poland in 1956, Paris and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are instances of struggles conducted before Party leaders could take them over. They have done more to challenge established society than all the mass political movements of the 1930s. To call on anyone to repeat the actions of the '20s and '30s is to further a mystification: that this period of heroic struggle could have succeeded, if only there had been 'correct leadership'. This is what is meant when the traditional left say that we are in a 'crisis of leadership'. Each group claims to be the only correct leadership, and all you have to do is join and follow them.

The past provides ample proof that all forms of Party leadership can only lead to a victory of the leaders over all those they seek to lead. Capitalism's problem today consists of a deepening crisis of authority in which Trade Unions, Parties and Governments all over the world are finding it increasingly difficult to control workers - manual and white collar - as well as other social groups. I am not saying that capitalism does not have its economic problems. I am saying that its major problems spring more from the resistance and combativity of ordinary people who challenge the values of established society every day of their lives, than from some inexorable economic laws which determine that capitalism will collapse. This is not to say that the Revolution will not entail a completely new life, which will include a new type of economy not based on wage labour or classes.

If we need to remember the events of the '30s - and we do - it is because they must not be repeated. They happened because we listened to leaders, experts, wise men, statesmen, those with fixed ideas about how the economic and political system works, who thought they knew exactly what we ought to accept, who offered to do it for us, who told us we couldn't get what we wanted by ourselves without their leadership.

We will only get what we want when we are prepared to take the responsibility for our own actions, combine with others of similar views, and reject all 'saviours from on high'. Stay on the ground. Insist on managing our own lives where we work and live, along with fellow humans who don't seek to use us for their own selfish ends. I know this sounds utopian to those who think that human beings cannot change their mode of behaviour. They do change. They have changed. If they hadn't or can't we would have to face a new barbarism. I prefer to believe - and there is much evidence for my belief - that we can avoid this.

We will - we already do - do things for each other. We are social beings as well as individuals. We need each other. We don't need exploiters, manipulators, those who seek to benefit personally at other people's expense. We can begin to be the new human being right now. Without this kind of being little will have changed, however one seeks to structure the economy or any of the relationships within society. No alternative, non-exploitative society is possible without completely new values. When these values become dominant, society will have changed. Day one of the revolution is today. You can start with yourself.

Joe Jacobs