Hackney Communist Party, 1950s

Below are some extracts from the pamphlet “Poor Lenin” by Bob Darke. This was published by Irate Press and can be read in full over at Libcom.

The pamphlet is itself extracted from the 1952 Darke’s book “The Communist Technique in Britain”:

I guess the book being published by Penguin has to be seen in the context of the anti-communist sentiment of the time.

Steve Silver, formerly of Searchlight, suggests that it was “ghost written” (and also includes some interesting information about Darke’s daughter continuing his commitment to anti-fascism).

(As a further aside, Gerry Gable – the first editor of Searchlight, was previously a member of Hackney Communist Party, standing as one of its candidates in the 1962 council elections in Stamford Hill).

It’s tempting to say that Darke must have been doing something right if he could unite anarchists and New Labour Councillors in their admiration for him.

Whatever the ins and outs of it all, this century has seen the Hackney CPGB greatly reduced in its influence, not that this stops the faithful celebrating minor “victories”.

I’ll post up some more positive HCP material soon.

Why Communism

“I joined the Party because I could no longer tolerate a system which I believed to be bad. Party propaganda had told me that the system was doomed anyway and my efforts would hasten its end. I wanted to work for the improvement of society, for freedom, justice, progress, and the full expression of Man’s talent and ability. I still want to work for these things, but I know that I cannot do so inside the Party, that Communism will not bring them.”

The Party, Hackney Secretariat and democracy

‘The British Communist Party is controlled, rigidly and unquestioningly, from its glass-wailed headquarters near Covent Garden. It may not admit this, not openly, for that would suggest that all the rank-and-filer had to so was to keep in step. But it is a fact, just the same, although there is a perverse form of democracy on paper.”

“Consider the Hackney Borough Secretariat, for example. This is led at the moment by the Secretary, Comrade John Betteridge, an able, agile, and resolute man who models himself diligently on Comrade Melenkov of the Soviet Politburo. Comrade Betteridge’s parish may be a little smaller than the Russian comrade’s, but he has the same authority within its limits. The members of his Secretariat are carefully chosen so that all activity in the borough, industrial, social, professional, and racial, is represented on it”

“At any given moment someone on the Secretariat could give a detailed picture of the day-to-day problems in any one of those spheres – with the Communist solution to them, of course. The democratic nature of the branch is written in the scriptures. Theoretically all members of the Secretariat are elected by the body of the branch once a year at an aggregate meeting. They are subject, once more theoretically, to a majority vote, to the approval of the rank and file, and must be re-elected or rejected annually. You can not quarrel with that, can you?”

“Then how does it work in practice? Each year the existing Secretariat draws up its own panel of names for the new Secretariat It does this after it has consulted with the London District Committee (which is the co-ordinating authority of all branches in the London area). The Secretariat is often so satisfied with its work during the past year that it suggests that it should be elected en bloc. Of course, the London District may not agree, in which case changes will he made in the list.The panel is then placed before the aggregate meeting and comrades are invited to vote on it They have absolute freedom of choice. They may vote Yes or No. Of course No would be a wasted vote, for there is no alternative to the panel.”

Funding the Hackney Branch

“A Communist branch is expected to support itself financially. The money goes upward in the Communist Party not downward. If gold does come from Moscow, I never heard of any that reached Hackney. Payment for branch officials must be found by members, nobody is more enthusiastic in seeing that it is collected than the officials themselves.”

“The weekly membership subscription is fourpence, and since a large proportion of this is passed up the line to the District Committee it is obvious that a branch cannot support itself by subscriptions alone. The money must come from somewhere else. Thus it is that the Communist has a red flag in one hand and a collecting box in the other. […]If you want a workmate at the bench to donate sixpence to this or that fighting fund you’ve got to keep talking to him. And if he only parts with with the sixpence to stop you talking then half of the battle has been won at any rate.”

“Regularly every Friday, at the gates of factories, in canteens, workshops, at dockyard gates, in council flats and transport depots in Hackney, the good comrade may be seen rattling a box or waving raffle tickets and calling:

‘Help the Party, comrades! The Communist Party! The only party that fights for the workers!’

“There’s always some Party cause to be in need of money. The Daily Worker Fighting Fund. The Peace Campaign. The latest martyr’s defence fund. The Rent Committee’s Defence Fund. The Anglo-Iron-Curtain Society’s Fund. The International Brigade… the Strike Committee… the Spanish Prisoners. Always a fund. Always a fund because the branch is always in desperate need of money.”

Communist Living Rooms

“The Hackney Borough Secretariat meets once a week, not at Branch Headquarters, for there is none. The Party owns no property in the borough and has no fixed meeting place. It meets at this or that comrade’s house. Thus does it save money and thus does it tie each comrade’s private life more closely to the Party wheel. No Communist can indulge his fancy for bourgeois tastes when they are likely to come under the scrutiny of his Party associates. I have known Party members to sit in their own living-rooms without protest while other members of the Secretariat ridiculed and censured their choice of furniture, curtains, honks, newspapers, even toys for their children.”

“Secretariat meetings are conducted briskly and efficiently. The wife of the comrade in whose home the meeting takes place may take part if she is a Party member if not her place is in the kitchen making tea. The Secretary calls the meeting to order and the members sitting comfortably on the floor (for who in Hackney has fourteen chairs in his living-room?), quickly get down to business.”

Selling The Paper

“The Hackney Communist party, in common with other branches, has one supreme obligation. It is to sell the Daily Worker wherever and whenever possible. Each comrade is geared to this massive circulation drive and the harder he works the harder he has to work. […] The selling of the Daily Worker is organised like a military campaign, with a tactical appreciation of the strategical situation. On Saturday afternoons and evenings the branch membership turns out en masse to sell the special edition of the Worker – in Ridley Road, in the Jewish quarter, in markets, outside cinemas and dance-halls.”

“Hackney Communists sell about 20,000 extra copies of the Daily Worker every Saturday. Some Communists work themselves into nervous breakdowns over this business of selling the Worker. The Dalston bus garage has a Worker-seller outside the doors every Friday morning when union subscriptions are paid. where Party members have reported that a block of flats is sympathetic to the Party then it is invaded almost daily by comrades who knock at every door and flourish a copy of the paper under every nose.”

Hackney Factories

“In addition to the torrent of literature that flooded down to us from the District we had our own output in Hackney which a comrade printer turned off the machine for us. We selected factories for special types of propaganda. If there was a local strike on we make a point of rushing out a special pamphlet on it. We studied the habits of workers in different factories, where they ate, whether they sat outside the gates at dinnertime, what their routes homeward were. We waylaid them with literature, with loudspeaker vans, we harried them, we pursued them, we captured them. We worked, still they work tirelessly.”

“There is no special Party police, nobody detailed to watch you and see that you exert the last ounce of energy. Not one comrade really trusts another, however And weaknesses will be exposed by denunciation. We worked in every section of Hackney life that mattered to the wide political baffle, and that means every section there was – even creches. We worked, and I repeat the Party still works, in unions, schools, hospitals, factories, garages, flats, clubs, dance-halls, canteens. We had the run of the kerbstones and the playgrounds. We had our finger on the carotid artery of the borough…”

Hackney Cycle Speedway Club

“…The best example I can quote, since I was personally concerned, is the case of the Hackney Cycle Speedway Club. This was formed after the war and had a membership of some sixty boys and girls in their teens. At the time the Party became interested in it, it was a happy, non-political group without a Communist in it, except perhaps a couple of Young Communist Leaguers who, I suspect, joined it at as a relaxation. One of these Young Communist Leaguers innocently asked me, as a Borough Councillor, to help the club get a cycle track, a bomb-site which they wished to convert into a cinder-way. The club had three teams and wanted to know whether the LCC would grant them the use of a bomb-site. I put the situation to the Borough Secretariat and got their approval. To support me I had the local unions swing into line, pass resolutions, make representations. We built up quite a pressure on the subject and eventually the boys and girls got their cycle track.”

“At the big meeting held to celebrate the success of the campaign and the opening of the track the Party sent the YCL into action. Many of them had been told to join anyway, while the agitation was going on. Party literature was on sale during the meeting; copies of Challenge, the YCL paper. contained a special article by me. It was called ‘Fighting for youth facilities while money is being spent on war’. More and more young Communists joined the club and the sellers of Challenge made a straight target of it. Having secured the club’s goodwill by leading the fight for its cinder-track the Party decided that the YCL should recruit every member of the club into the Party and get every one of them to sign the Peace Petition.”

Internationalism

“To work for these things the Communist will even break union rules. In my own time on the Hackney Trades Council I have eased through Communist-inspired resolutions on peace,on Korea, on Russia, long after the fixed time for union business to end. I have eased through those resolutions knowing that the men who might have opposed them and defeated them have looked at the clock and gone home.”

“And while I have stood there in the meeting hall proposing the motions I have known that a runner was waiting outside, ready to take the result of the vote to the Daily Worker; where a hole in the paper was waiting to be filled with: ‘Twenty thousand Hackney workers oppose Marshall Aid!’…”

Dissent, and shopping

“Of course, if any party member is fool enough to voice a mild protest about this forcible sale of literature, honks and theatre tickets, there is a ready answer for him. ‘what are you complaining about? You know what Lenin said? Propaganda is the greatest weapon. Lenin always said something. I can afford to smile now at the East End busman who once looked me straight in the eye without a flicker of a smile and said, ‘Blimey, Bob did Lenin have an answer for everything?’…'”

“Most women, even Communists’ wives, like to do their shopping where they wish. But a Communist’s wife gets little opportunity if her husband is well disciplined. And there is always someone to see where your wife does her shopping. This is how the conversation went with me once: ‘I saw your wife going into X’s shop the other day, Bob. why?’ ‘To buy something probably.’ ‘This isn’t a funny matter, Comrade Darke. Doesn’t she know that man is a Tory? Why doesn’t she shop at the Co-op?’ ‘She probably doesn’t want to.’ ‘It’s not a question of what she wants. She’s your wife; get her to join the Co-op. We should build up Party strength in the Co-op guilds, you know that. Let’s not see it happening again.’ My self discipline was good. I accepted the whip. I told Ann. But I wouldn’t like to repeat what she said. She didn’t have my self-discipline…”

Communist style and fashion: a bourgeois tie

“The party will take a maternal interest even in the dress of those comrades it sees as prestige winners. when I first stood for the local council elections I had my photograph taken for the propaganda sheets and posters.I took a sheet along to the Borough Secretary for approval. I have the average East Ender’s liking for colour,and the tie i had been wearing for this photograph was no exception to that taste. The Secretary looked at it ad looked at me and then roundly abused me for being photographed in a ‘bourgeois tie’.”

“There seemed no point in telling him what he should know, that any working class lad from Hackney puts on a coloured tie when he takes his Sunday morning walk down the Lane. I couldn’t see that I was betraying my class by conforming to it. ‘Communists standing for election,’ I was bluntly told, ‘must have no bourgeois contamination. Fancy a comrade like you standing as a representative of our Party wearing spotted tie. Get some more pictures taken this afternoon, this time in a dark tie.’
‘I can’t go today. I’m working.’
‘Take the day off then. You’ve got to make sacrifices for the Party.’

Recruitment

“Both the Borough Secretariat of Hackney and the London District Committee could never understand why Ann was not a Party member They knew that many ordinary comrades found it difficult to recruit their wives, but few Party leaders were married to non-Communist women. It was a paradox to them. It was more, it was a challenge.”

“One day, during an intense new membership drive, Ann came to me and silently showed me an envelope she had received. Inside was a Party card, made out in her name and stamped with two months subscriptions. Together with it was a registration slip on which new members were supposed to list particulars of their age, place of work, union, position in the union and so on. All this had been filled in for Ann, by somebody at Parry Headquarters.”

“Ann said nothing to me, she just left the card in my hand. Later in the day my father sent a similar envelope round to me. There was another Party card in it made out in his name. I took them both round to the Secretariat, but they got a blow in first. ‘Bob, both your wife and your dad are a couple of months behind in their subs. We’ve stuck the stamps on, but just let us have the money, will you?’
They didn’t get the money, and maybe they didn’t like the way I was looking for they didn’t press the point. Anyway the cards went in the kitchen fire.”

3 thoughts on “Hackney Communist Party, 1950s

  1. Well! That’s not how I remember things in Hackney in those days and I started off with the YCL in the 1930s. Maybe that was the case for Darke, but it was rather more joyful around our house, although my father was particularly life-enhancing. And as for selling 20,000 extra copies of the Daily Worker on a Saturday – oh, please!! In my experience, you wouldn’t have been able to give it away for wrapping fish and chips on a Saturday evening. And we had far better things to do than criticise other people’s decor – as if anyone would be so rude in a friend’s house. You have to allow for exaggeration, of course, but Darke does pile it on.

  2. Pingback: Hackney Communist Party banner, 1952 | The Radical History of Hackney

  3. Pingback: Communist Plan for Life in Hackney (1930s) | The Radical History of Hackney

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