Monday, May 19, 2008

Phil Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red

Unusually for an MP, or indeed a local government councillor, Phil Piratin didn’t believe that political change came from Town Halls or even parliament. He firmly believed that change came because ordinary people fought for it. The role of Councillors and MPs representing working class people was to help facilitate those struggles.

In this capacity Piratin was elected a Communist Party councillor in Poplar and then MP for Mile End in the 1945 General Election. His campaigns centred very much on the struggle to improve the lot of ordinary working class people – working men and women who then, as now, live in overcrowded, poverty stricken conditions. Today of course Poplar council is part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, but 60 years ago the gulf between rich and poor was remarkably similar for the people of the East End.

This short book tells the early life story of Phil Piratin, how he became involved in the fight against Mosley’s blackshirt fascists in the 30s, and how he became a member of the Communist Party. It has much to offer the casual reader – particularly one who lives in the East End. Many of the places mentioned still stand and it’s amusing to read of the street fighting, street meetings and demonstrations that happened on this or that road.

Those who would really benefit from reading it are those socialists and radicals up and down the country campaigning against injustice and poverty today. This isn’t simply because of Piratin’s inspiring story. Nor is it to get a sense of what can be achieved, though both of these are important. While the reader may cheer to read the accounts of the Cable Street battles that stopped the British Union of Fascists marching through the Jewish East End in 1936, what is truly important I think for readers today is the way that socialists then are faced with the same challenges that we face today.

The late 1930s was a period of history when war loomed on the horizon. Millions of people were fed up of poverty and felt disillusioned with their normal leaders in the Labour and Trade Union movements. Radicals in the Communist Party could get large audiences for their anti-capitalist, pro-peace message. Translating this into deeper support and getting deeper networks in working class communities was the challenge.

As I write this in 2008, the picture is similar. There is anger at the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Millions face economic uncertainty and there is deep cynicism at the established “workers” parties.

At the same time, organisations of the far right, openly fascist in the 1930s but more “suited and booted” today (though still wearing their Nazi credentials close to their heart), thrive in conditions of poverty, alienation and government racism.

How socialists and radicials turn this anger into co-ordinated political activity is the question of the day, and it was also the challenge for Piratin and the Communist Party then. This is/was even more important as fascist movements need to be stopped before they can grow any further.

Piratin lead a hard battle within the Communist Party. He argued that at the same time as being involved in national campaigns like the anti-war movement, you also had to fight over bread and butter issues. In his time this was the issue of rents and housing conditions and the Stepney Communist Party threw itself into building rent-strikes and housing occupations to campaign for better living conditions. The CP didn’t ignore those supporters of fascism facing eviction. Indeed by fighting to defend their homes too, they won BUF families away from fascism, by demonstrating practically the value of working class solidarity.

As the war approached, the pressures on the CP given their uncritical stance towards Soviet Russia clearly have some effect, though the basic nature of their work on estates and in communities continued to have a hearing. Every time you see a photo of people hiding from the Blitz on the underground platforms, remember that the government refused to let the tube network be used like this, until CP members had forced open the gates to save people’s lives. Only then did Churchill’s government cave in and promote the underground as deep bomb shelters.

Piratin’s victory in 1945 came on the back of a huge desire for change that swept out the Conservatives and brought in a Red Flag singing Labour government. This book doesn’t cover Piratin’s experiences in Parliament, if his time there was spent as it was in the Poplar council chamber providing a voice for the voiceless, it must have been very inspiring indeed.

While many socialists today have numerous criticisms and differences with the ideas of the Communist Party of the 1930s, we all have much to learn from a group of men and women who believed that it wasn’t enough for the left to provide propaganda from the side-lines. The only way that socialist politics could be won to a wider audience was through the comrades rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. For that reason, if no other, “Our Flag Stays Red” should be read, and re-read by all those who want a better world today.

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