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Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt (November 22, 1890 - June 27, 1960) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain for more than 20 years. He was born in Droylsden in Lancashire and was a boilermaker by trade.

Early life and career

Pollitt was the second of six children of Samuel Pollitt (1863–1933), blacksmith's striker, and his wife, Mary Louisa (1868–1939), a cotton spinner, daughter of William Charlesworth, joiner. Pollitt's parents were socialists and freethinkers and it was his mother, a member of the Independent Labour Party, who provided the youngster with his first induction into the principles and local networks of socialism. Theirs was an especially close relationship and Pollitt found in his mother both a confidante and a model of working-class dignity in the face of affliction. His own sense of injustice at family poverty, as three of his siblings died in infancy, was likewise fundamental to the visceral identification with his class that lay at the root of his political philosophy. His formal education, at the local school, ended when he was thirteen.

In 1919 Pollitt was involved in the "Hands off Russia" campaign to protest against western intervention in the Russian Civil War. At the end of the war he joined Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers Socialist Federation, which became the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). As a member of this group he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was formed in mid-1920. Pankhurst soon left the party, but Pollitt remained. He was heavily influenced by the Communist intellectual Rajani Palme Dutt, and the two remained close allies for many years. From 1924 to 1929 Pollitt was General Secretary of the National Minority Movement, a Communist-led united front within the trade unions.

In 1925, rejected several times by communist research worker Rose Cohen, he married Marjory Edna Brewer (b. 1902), a communist schoolteacher, and they had a son and a daughter, the first of whom alone inherited his father's communist convictions. That year Pollitt was jailed for 12 months for seditious libel. In 1929 the CPGB elected him General Secretary, a position he held, with a brief interruption during World War II, until 1956. He was then made Chairman of the Party, a position he held until his death four years later aboard an ocean liner carrying him home from a visit to Australia and New Zealand.

Stalinist policies

In his public statements, Pollitt was loyal to the Soviet Union and to CPSU General Secretary Joseph Stalin. He was a defender of the Moscow Trials in which Stalin disposed of his political and military opponents. In the Daily Worker of March 12, 1936 Pollitt told the world that 'the trials in Moscow represent a new triumph in the history of progress'. The article was illustrated by a photograph of Stalin with Nikolai Yezhov, himself shortly to vanish and his photographs airbrushed from history by NKVD archivists.

In September 1939, despite the Hitler-Stalin pact, he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. When this turned out to be contrary to the Soviet line (as Dutt had warned him it would be), he was forced to resign as party leader. He was reinstated in 1941 when the Soviet Union entered the war.

Pollitt contested the Parliamentary seat of Rhondda East several times; in 1945 he was less than a thousand votes from winning the seat from the Labour candidate.

Post-Stalin career

Pollitt faced another crisis in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev attacked the legacy of Stalin. Many members of the party resigned. Also in 1956 the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution made the crisis in the party worse, and most of its intellectual figures (including Doris Lessing and E. P. Thompson) resigned. Others, for example Eric Hobsbawm, chose to stay in the Party to try to reform it. Pollitt, depressed both by physical illness (including temporary blindness) and his increasing political isolation, resigned as General Secretary and was appointed CP Chairman. In this position, he became disilusioned not with Stalin but with Khrushchev himself for telling the story of his crimes. "He's staying there as long as I'm alive", he said of the portrait of Stalin that hung in his living room, and indeed he did. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage, after years of worsening health, while returning on SS Orion from a speaking tour of Australia on June 27, 1960. He was cremated at Golders Green on July 9, and was survived by his wife and two children, Brian and Jean.

In 1971, Pollitt's devotion to the Soviet cause and to international communism was acknowledged by Moscow when the Soviet navy named a ship after him. A plaque dedicated to the memory of Pollitt was unvelied by the Mayor of Tameside on the twenty-second of March 1995 outside Droylsden Library. He is also commemorated in the humorous song "The Ballad of Harry Pollitt".

Soviet coded radio transmission revelations

In 1997, British decryptions of Soviet coded radio messages between Soviet controllers in Moscow, Pollitt, and the Communist Party of Great Britain revealed the extent to which Pollitt and the Communist Party followed Moscow's every order. Among other things, Pollitt was instructed to refute news leaks about a Stalinist purge in the Soviet Union. Some messages were addressed to code names, while others were signed by Pollitt himself. In his transmissions to Moscow, Pollitt regularly pleaded for more funding from the Soviet Union. One 1936 coded instruction advised Pollitt to publicise the plight of Ernst Thälmann, a German communist leader who had been arrested by the Nazis and who later died at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Pollitt replied that he was 'having difficulties' getting English statesmen to make public declarations supporting Thälmann but that they promised they would speak privately with German officials in London. In one of the more amusing dispatches, Pollitt informed his Soviet contact about a recent visit to France to make campaign appearances for candidates from the French Communist Party. "At great inconvenience went to Paris to speak in the election campaign". Pollitt went on to complain that he was "kept sitting two days and comrades refused allow me to speak. Such treatment as I received in Paris is a scandal".



  • Cornwell, Susan, UK archives offer insight into 1930s Soviet Union, Reuters October 9, 1997
  • Redman, Joseph, The British Stalinists and the Moscow Trials, Labour Review Vol.3 No.2, March-April 1958
  • Smith, Michael, How Communists in Britain followed the Moscow line, Electronic Telegraph, October 10, 1997

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