Did Moscow control the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Interwar Britain?

westI’ve been reading Nigel West’s book Mask, which recounts MI5’s surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s a rum old book, and West is an odd character, but I was given it, and it tells a good story. It also includes a large amount of original material, including a 1934 message from Alexander Abramovich of the Comintern telling the British Communist leader Harry Pollitt how to handle the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

The NUWM was one of the most successful radical campaigning groups in inter-war Britain. Its protests, marches and local advocacy enjoyed significant popular support, and won the NUWM considerable publicity. But ever since the 1930s, participants and historians alike have debated the extent to which the NUWM was controlled by the Communist Party.

In the most authoritative account to date, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy concluded that from 1929 on, the CP effectively imposed its own agenda on the NUWM, at least at national level. Or, more accurately, it translated the interests of the Soviet leadership into its own agenda. It also, on Comintern instructions, tried to undermine Wal Hannington, the NUWM organiser viewed by Moscow as failing to turn the unemployed towards revolution.

Of course, if the CP did Moscow’s bidding, it did so with an eye to maintaining the NUWM’s support among the unemployed, and its attempts at control were sometimes resisted by leading NUWM members like Hannington, as well as by local branches who simply got on with their own activities without always paying much attention to headquarters.

Campbell and McIlroy benefited from access to a much wider range of evidence than was available to earlier historians. In particular, they were able to use the Communist Party archives, as well as reproductions of material in the Russian State Archives. They also use the material that West has reproduced, drawn from the declassified decrypts of radio messages between the Soviet-controlled Comintern and officials of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Campbell and McIlroy used the November 1934 message in their 2008 article, so it is not surprising that it largely confirms what we already know. In the message, the Comintern urged the CP to get the NUWM to engage with the trade union movement and their local unemployed associations in what it called the United Front, and told them to put pressure on Labour controlled councils by organising union delegations to work camps, with a view to demanding their closure.

In the event, this was pretty much what happened. NUWM branches demonstrated at meetings of public assistance committees in Labour-controlled areas like Llanelli, Kirkcaldy and Durham, and the movement made closure of the ‘slave camps’ a central feature of its campaign against the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act.

In 1934, the campaign against the Unemployment Assistance Act was genuinely popular, and the NUWM needed no persuasion to focus on the Act’s provisions for compulsory training in camps. Where the Comintern did require change was where it told the CP to get the NUWM to cooperate with the official trade union movement, particularly its local unemployed associations. For the previous four years, the CP had complained that the NUWM was not enthusiastically following it in attacking such groups as ‘social fascist’; now it turned on Hannington for continuing to criticise the official unemployed associations as too moderate.

As it happens, I had not read the Comintern message – other than the few lines cited by Campbell and McIlroy – when I wrote about protest and resistance in my book on British work camps. I can’t see that it would have changed my understanding of the NUWM, which I believe was weakened by the CP’s attempts to use it to pursue the twists and turns of Stalinist policy.

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