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Communism vs Municpalism: The struggle in Poplar 1919-21

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Some sixty years after the word 'Poplarism" was first coined, the struggle between local Labour councils and Tory central government has lost none of its importance. While, after the humiliating retreats of Lambeth, Lothian and the Greater London Council it becomes more and more difficult for "left" councillors to invoke the militant heritage of the Poplar council, it is more important than ever to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of that movement.

Although inadequate in many respects, Noreen Branson's book. Poplarism 1919-1925 affords us the opportunity to examine the significance and limits of municipal revolts and their lessons for today. Branson’s book sets out to tell the story of Poplar and this she does diligently if rather dryly. One of the main weaknesses of the book is its failure to deal with Poplarism within the context of the general class struggle of the period and in particular, to deal with Poplarism as part of the general political movement out of which it arose - municipalism.

Municipalism had its roots in the Great Britain of the 1860s and after; that is, in that period of ascendant capitalism when the grinding misery wrought upon the working class, together with the unplanned, chaotic spread of urban life, forced the liberal bourgeoisie into far reaching compromises with regard to the health and welfare of the class it exploited. Not at all socialist in character, municipalism was a pragmatic attitude towards local government. It was a measured delegation of power over revenue to provincial authorities by the central state apparatus, in order to manage the common affairs of the 'community'.

As long ago as 1907 Lenin grasped the real weakness of pure municipalism from the point of view of the working class: "Attention is diverted to the sphere of minor local questions, being directed not to the question of the class rule of the bourgeoisie, nor to the question of the chief instruments of that rule but to the question of distributing the crumbs thrown by the rich bourgeoisie for the ‘needs of the population’." Instead of directing the working class towards the need to grapple with and overcome the dictatorship of capital, and Its offspring profits; municipalism dissolves the working class into the broad mass of citizenry, thereby uniting employer and proletarian on terms which are drawn up by the former.

Municipal 'socialism’ was an outgrowth of this, its logical extension, when the widened franchise increased the number of the representatives of 'labour' in the 1890s and after. The experience gained before the First World War by Independent Labour Party members as participants in the 'distribution of crumbs', provided a solid apprenticeship for labourite leaders, parallel to, and complementing that other great school - the trade union bureaucracy. If the Liberals and Tories extended public health and education, then the 'socialist' additions were typified by the public baths and allotments.

While such reforms were welcome and necessary and were often implemented with the support of Progressives and Liberals, after World War I In a period of slump poverty and mass unemployment, more important questions were posed. Could socialist councils take real steps to alleviate the sufferings of their working class electors? Or as Branson asks outlining the dilemma facing the Labour Poplar councillors after winning a majority in 1919:

"What do you do when you get a majority? How far does the existing legal and administrative framework allow you to bring about the changes for which you stand?"

The Third International had already answered this question for its affiliated Communist Parties thus: ''Should the Communists receive a majority In the local government institutions, It is their duty to take the following measures:
(a) form a revolutionary opposition to fight the bourgeois central authority;
(b) aid the poorer sections of the population in every possible way (economic measures, the organisation, or attempted organisation of armed workers militias etc); (c) expose at every opportunity, the obstacles which the bourgeois state power places in the way of fundamental social change;
(d) launch a determined campaign to spread revolutionary propaganda, even if it leads to conflict with the state power;
(e) under certain circumstances, replace the local government bodies with Soviets of workers deputies.

All Communist activity in the local government institutions must be seen as a part of the struggle to break up the capitalist system.” (Second Congress of the Communist International 1920).

In short, neither to abstain from the responsibility of mounting a struggle against capitalism from any vantage point, nor to sow illusions In the power of local government. The still revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) put it well in its Municipal Manifesto in February 1922:

"We are, also and above all, interested in weakening by all means in our power, the hold which capitalism has upon the resources of the country, of hindering its schemes for further exploitation … Our tactic is always to be directed to weaken capitalism with a view to its annihilation.”(The Communist No 81. 1922)

This position clearly delineated the position of the Communists from that of even the most left wing of the reformists like George Lansbury, leader of the Poplar councillors. Branson's book, coming as it does from the Communist Party of Great Britain's publishing house, shows little interest in the revolutionary attitude to the municipal struggle, or in the positions of the C.P. Any such assessment is avoided, no doubt lest it be used as a yardstick to measure the current opportunist practice of the C.P.

A less forgivable weakness in the book is its almost complete lack of the contemporary historical background to the events In Poplar. Despite the impression conveyed by the singular devotion to Poplar's story, the period 1919-21 was a time of international upheavals, of immense class struggle. Without a grasp of this context it is impossible to understand Poplar's failure in terms of what was possible to achieve, given the objective situation. In an important way the struggles within Poplar were ignited by the sparks that lit the whole European scene.

The inspiration provided by the Russian revolution
The example of the October 1917 Russian Revolution was an immense source of inspiration. Equally important, masses of workers wore returning from the battlefield to exchange the discipline of the front for the discipline of the factory. Although the First World War had ended in November 1918, mutinies of soldiers impatient for jobs and 'homes fit for heroes' occurred in France and in five English camps. They wanted payment for their patriotism, a patriotism that outlasted the war long enough to return a strong Tory/Liberal coalition government the same year. This administration was forced to respond by fuelling an inflationary boom throughout 1919. Industrial workers, feeling free from the straightjacket of war time regulations were determined to recoup their losses. Strikes in 1919 reached a pre-1926 peek, double the average of 1910-1914. The Clyde Workers Committee struck for the 40 hour week, beginning a struggle that ended with tanks on the streets of Glasgow in 1919 and the Red Flag being hoisted above the town hall, something that was never to be achieved in Poplar. The working class was greatly strengthened by these struggles, Trade union membership rocketed, reaching 6.5 million in 1920 - a threefold Increase on 1914.

Given the size and immaturity of the various British Marxist groups, it was to the young Labour Party that workers looked for political leadership. Under the impact of these events the Labour Party rank and file forced the leaders to 'declare in favour’ of Soviets in 1918. That same year it opened itself up to individual membership, being at that time only a party of 389 affiliated Trades Councils and local parties. By 1920 it had over 492 constituency parties. The political and organisation groundwork for Labour's success in the November 1919 local borough elections was in this way prepared. That month Labour secured control of twelve out of twenty eight London borough councils. One of these was Poplar, and it was George Lansbury’s paper, the Daily Herald, which greeted their triumph with the words “at long last, the workers are coming into their own.”

In 1919 Labour had yet to be put to the test. Its 1918 programme had declared an intention of, not tinkering with, but reconstructing 'society itself'. Unencumbered by years of adapting its promises to reality, uncompromised by any record of governmental betrayal and deceit, the Labour Party tapped deep reservoirs of expectation amongst the masses of weary, hungry workers who trudged home from the imperialist carnage of the Somme and Ypres.

The very composition of the Poplar councillors themselves reflected the impact of the industrial struggles and working class recruitment to Labour. Of the thirty nine councillors there were seven dockers, seven railworkers, four labourers, two postmen, a toolmaker, a boilermaker and a leadworker. Only a minority were in non-manual occupations. Keenly aware of the poverty, disease and deprivation they lived amongst, they were determined to do something about it, to act.

Moreover, they had a tradition of using what they termed 'direct action’ to achieve their ends. David Adams, a stevedore and councillor, played a leading role in May 1920 in the blacking of munitions on the ship Jolly George, bound for the white counter-revolutionaries of Poland. These events and these characters guaranteed that any struggle in Poplar was bound to be intense. This was especially likely given the considerable degree of political autonomy that local government possessed in the early twentieth century. Most welfare responsibility, together with various utilities were in their charge, allowing them to effect considerable impact on the lives of the local working class.

Whether the Poplar council had captured an outpost of the bourgeois state or whether they were prisoners of the Tory-Liberal central government coalition was to be decided by the calibre of the political leadership in the borough. Poplar began in 1921 by tackling the question of the equalisation of the rates. At that time the cost of poor relief was met largely out of each borough's rates, however rich or poor that borough was. Thus, Westminster, one of the richest councils, contributed virtually nothing to the vast sums of money needed for the relief of the unemployed masses a few miles away. It was decided by Poplar’s Labour group, after a conference which consulted with local trade union representatives, that they would, until the system was made fairer, stop collecting rate precepts for bodies funded by the Tory dominated London County Council, such as the Metropolitan Police. This, of course, outraged both the local employers and central government, and court action was instituted against the councillors by the LCC.

In due course they were ordered by the courts to levy the required rate. The alternative to this was simple, contempt of court and inevitable imprisonment. The councillors answer was unequivocal: "If we have to choose between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court." It was in July of 1921 that the famous march to the Law Courts took place, over 2,000 workers following the councillors behind banners declaring that they were marching ‘possibly to prison to secure EQUALISATION OF RATES FOR POOR BOROUGHS’. It was quite clear to the council that this was not a question of a 'bad' law, or a ‘mistaken’ judge. As George Lansbury put it, "It is well that organised labour should understand that in the Courts of law all the scales weighted against us because all the judges administer class-made laws, laws which are expressly enacted, not to do justice, but to preserve the present social order."

The response from the local working class community to Poplar’s principled stand was to immediately identify with it, and support it. Large crowds gathered as each councillor was arrested and carted off to Brixton or Holloway prison. Preparations were made for an immediate rent strike should any outside body attempt to collect the rates. Thousands enrolled in a Tenants Defence League set up for this purpose; a demonstration of 40,000 unemployed, organised by the Communist Party led by the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) took place, calling, amongst other demands, for their release.

It is questionable as to who was more embarrassed by Poplar's stand. From the Tories point of view, they were in a difficult position. Whilst they were in prison the local borough of Bethnal Green (with a Communist Mayor) had decided to follow Poplar's stand, whilst Stepney were about to do the same. Were they to insist upon the collection of the full rates they faced the real possibility of mass resistance - on a demand which even some of their own supporters had voiced support for before this episode had blown up.

Equally opposed to Poplar's measures were the right wing labour leaders such as Herbert Morrison, who were tied lock, stock and barrel to the original conception of municipalism - administration of utilities in the interests of the people. His argument with the Tories was that they were inefficient not that they were class biased. Action outside the law was an anathema to Morrison and his ilk. On the eve of the imprisonment the councillors, Morrison summoned a conference of London Mayors and executive members to try and prevent 'Poplarism' spreading. His criticisms, which ran to two foolscap pages are revealing. They include the belief that the only way to achieve the equalisation was by educating people to vote for Labour candidates at elections not through direct action. He went on to declare: “by accepting office on the various borough councils we accepted the "responsibilities of discharging the functions and liabilities of those councils.” (Branson p.55).

That is Morrison was convinced that the job of councils was to administer capitalism. albeit as fairly as possible, not to challenge it. The only challenge that was accepteble was through the ballot box. Both the Tories and the right-wing Labourites were desperate to engineer a compromise and this they hoped to achieve through a special conference of the LCC boroughs and government representatives. Lansbury and Co. were obstinate. They refused to negotiate before being released. Eventually their release was conceded, the conference held and a compromise reached - a compromise which all sides saw as a victory for Poplar and direct action.

Up to a certain level, the equalisation of the cost of Poor Relief throughout London had been achieved.

With this achievement the struggle of the councillors entered its second phase. In 1922 they began to challenge two sacred canons of Tory law on unemployment relief: the principle of 'less eligibility' and the 'Household Means Test'. The former meant that relief for the unemployed must under no circumstances approach the level of the lowest wages of the employed in the district. The latter stated that the wages of every employed member of the household of the unemployed person must be taken into account when calculating relief. Poplar flouted both principles in its fight for a decent standard of living for the unemployed and again came into conflict with central government. On the first issue they even (briefly) fixed the scale of benefit above that demanded by the NUWM, before conceding that it was financially 'impracticable'. Even so, the Tories were not pleased but, again, were not eager to press home an attack. The official scales were ignored and another victory (in effect a truce) was celebrated in Poplar.

The last mayor struggle against central government taken up by Lansbury and company was in 1923, over wages. The Council saw the high rates it paid its own employees as being a contribution to the general fight against wage cuts which were rampant, particularly in the docks where Poplar drew much of its support. The £4 minimum wage was far above private industry rates, and employers were mortified because their workers saw the council rates as something to strive for. The bosses again forced the issue to court. Again the councillors were found 'guilty’. This time, the end result was a cut in wages - but even having done so they remained 20% above the prevailing rates for men and 50% above that for women.

Competiton between the ILP and the young CP
Branson's book says little about the conflicts within the council, the competition between rival political leaderships, the demands that were raised and how they were fought for. Whilst she is aware of the presence of CPGB members Edgar and Minnie Lansbury (the son and daughter in law of George Lansbury), and their energy and devotion the cause, she presents them as through they were in no way distinct from the dominant trend within Poplar as regards programme. In fact the competition between the ILP, of which George Lansbury was a key figure, and the young CPGB was intense after the latter's formation in the summer of 1920. The ILP was the Labour Party at grass roots level; it could count as its own all the best activists in the Party. On the other side, the CPGB progressed by leaps and bounds in East London. It had half a dozen branches there, the Poplar branch being formed in February 1921 shortly after the unity conference of the Party and on the eve of the great struggles of Poplar.

The attitude taken by the CPGB and Edgar and Minnie within the council, fully conformed to the policy of the Comintern. They were prepared to stand on an uncompromising platform. As the October 1921 Municipal Manifesto made clear, they did not deceive workers about the limits of town hall socialism: "Unemployment, overcrowding and general distress are direct results of the capitalist system. No local authority can do more than relieve some of the worst effects of the system. Its complete abolition is the task of the revolution and therefore the imperative duty of the workers.” (The Communist No. 64 October 1921).

But to have left it at that would have been empty, abstract posturing. Recognising that workers required immediate answers to immediate problems, the CP decided to formulate these answers in a way that would strengthen and take forward the struggle. As The Communist remarked in 1922: “Our tactic is always to be directed to weaken capitalism with a view to its annihilation." This, essentially translational method, was reflected in a series of demands relating to unemployment, police, housing, etc. In particular, the CPGB demanded the right of the infirm and aged to full and free maintenance; the right of the unemployed to work or full maintenance at trade union wage rates. The strength of the CPGB can be measured in Poplar by the fact that the demands were precisely the ones taken up by the council and which did so much to help protect the local workers from the worst ravages of the bosses offensive in the 1920-23 period.

Yet despite their presence in the council chambers of East London, particularly influential in Bethnal Green, Stepney and Poplar, they were a minority. Many of their demands were not taken up. For example their radical housing policy to ruthlessly suppresses overcrowding “within the law if possible, outside the law if necessary" based upon trade union and unemployed committees. Furthermore, the CPGB demanded of any 'Workers Council' that it use its powers to cripple the ability of the local police to repress working class struggle, smash pickets and protect blacklegs.

The CPGB did not issue revolutionary manifestos for propaganda purposes alone. They were serious about implementing it, in part or whole, whore possible. They therefore had to take a serious attitude to holding on to office and financing their programme by making the bosses pay. The CPGB argued for taxing the bosses directly via industrial and commercial rates:

"It is the duty of a workers party to see that the rates are assessed and levied on the capitalist factories etc to the utmost possible extent. We must never allow payment of rates to reduce the amount we require to purchase food and clothing for ourselves and our families." (The Communist October 1921 No.64)

From 1921 onwards it was around this programme and method that the early Communist Party endeavoured to both unite the whole working class against the bosses and split the workers off from its existing reformist and pacifist leadership. The dominance of the ILP within Poplar council explains the weaknesses and failures of the struggle between 1921 and 1924 to build on the mass support generated and thus win more than the 'truces' and partial victories which were achieved.

Two crucial and inter-related weaknesses stand out in the Poplar events which flow from the programme of the ILP; the failure to organise employed workers in active support for the council; and the 'civil disobedience' perspective with which George Lansbury and the Poplar councillors defied the law. Measured against the craven knee-bending of Lansbury's latter-day municipalists these weaknesses should not be allowed to obscure their moral and political vitality. Their individual courage is unquestioned - threatened by surcharge, with the strong probability of losing what little they possessed, and suffering great hardship in prison (which undoubtedly shortened the Iives of many of them) they stuck to their fight. That fight, however, was eventually crippled by the reformist and pacifist ideology shared by all the Labourite councillors.

East End worekrs - industrially passive in Poplar's struggles
Despite clear support for the council's stand, despite proven ability to fight against wage reductions (1923) unquestioned willingness to strike on the 'non-economic' issue of 'Hands off Russia', the workers of the docks, heartland of East London, played an essentially industrially passive role Poplar's disputes with Westminster. On the one hand there were massive demonstrations in support of the councillors stand. A trade union conference of local council employees was even called to endorse the actions of the council in early 1921. At the same time, from the evidence available, there was no strike action organised by the trade unions - even when the councillors were imprisoned. Even when the Board of Guardians premises became the de facto H.Q. of the dockers strike in 1923 people like Adams, a councillor and stevedore, did not make the connections between the disparate struggles.

Poplar council contented itself with servicing the 1923 dock strike, relieving cases of hardship. ln the same way as the dockers simply gave their encouragement to Poplar's stand against the Tories. The involvement of workers like the dockers was crucial to the prospects of a sustained victory. The councillors and the public sector workers employed by Poplar had limited strength on their own since they depended on revenue which it was in the power of the bosses and government to choke off. Only by drawing in those who, by their supportive action, attack capital itself and its profits could the Tories and bosses behlnd them have been knocked back. In a generalised anti-capitalist offensive, transcending municipal horizons. Once again, it was only the CPGB at that time which sought to further the struggle and explain the imperative need to transcend the crippling reformist divide between 'economic' and 'political' issues that was a key feature of 'Poplarism'. Reviewing the lessons of the first Poplar campaign ending in the councillors release and the reform of the rating system, The Communist pointed to the chronic weakness of Lansbury's, pacifist leadership of the struggle:

"All the same, it is true that the Poplar action cannot end in a permanent victory on any large scale. An arrangement will have to be come to. And this is because the mentality of the Poplar Council is not Communist. George Lansbury is no Communist, and what he says - in Poplar - goes. The point of this was made clear at the arrest of the women councillors. The angry crowd then only wanted the word to rescue them. One women councillor courageously argued that if they were breaking the law they might as well do it thoroughly: and it was agreed that if Poplar showed its determination strongly enough they would never dare ill-treat George Lansbury and the others as they were doing. But Susan Lawrence cleverly defeated this by the simple demand ‘What did George say? What was his last message to you? It was: No violence.’ Exactly so. The Government at the present has finally always the whip hand, because it has force and does hesitate to use it. It laughs at moral force and moral victories.” (No 64 October 22nd 1921).

The CPGB earned the right to make such criticisms through its genuine attempts to unite with the other councillors and workers to secure the municipal reforms. Substantial as some of these were the CPGB argued three things. First, it was the adoption of communist demands which helped to achieve this success. Secondly, that the struggles could have achieved much more than municipal reforms, a national generalised offensive spreading outwards from Poplar could and should have been built in which Poplar would have been one organising centre for the proletarian revolution.

The CPGB were to be proved correct in their estimate of what would happen to the reforms. They were granted largely in order to isolate and defuse the struggle. After 1925 and particularly after the failed General Strike in May 1926, Poplar fell victim to the generalised defeat inflicted upon the whole working class. The Tories took back the gains on wage levels and took away the power of local authorities – for example in the sphere of unemployed relief – severely reducing Poplar’s ability to mount resistance in future. Thus it would be wrong to reach the conclusion from Branson’s book, as it is so easy to do because it is treated in isolation, that Poplarism simply illustrated the strengths of militant reformism.

The conclusion would then be – carry out the same tactics in a determined manner and success is assured. This ignores the forces involved in the early 20s: a militant working class movement newly politically aroused and with a young revolutionary party strong enough to win representation on the council. Under this pressure lefts reformists like Lansbury went much further than today’s Knights, Livingstones and Blunketts. But it would be utterly false to draw the lesson that left Labour councillors can be successful leaders and initiators of the defence of local services. They were not in the early 1920s and are infinitely less so today. What was needed then and now was revolutionary leadership and the mobilised strength of the organised working class.