P is for Harry Pollitt

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.
Pollitt with his Stalin portrait

Pollitt with his Stalin portrait

Harry Pollitt is little known these days, but as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a friend of Russia, he was a significant figure in the turbulent politics of pre- and post-war Britain and achieved a sort of immortality in a song sung by the Grateful Dead among others.

He was born in 1890 in Droylsden, not far from where I grew up.

He was the second child of Samuel and Mary Louisa Pollitt, both committed socialists and members of the Independent Labour Party. They gave him the political literacy to express himself about the social injustice he saw around him in industrial Manchester.

In 1919 he was involved in the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign to protest at western interference in the Russian Civil War and joined Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, later to become the British Section of the Third International.

Harry Pollitt

Harry Pollitt

Pollitt joined the Communist Party in 1920 and, in 1925, he was one of twelve members convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 and sentenced to a year in prison.

In 1929, he was elected General Secretary, a post he would hold until 1956, apart from a brief interruption during World War II. He had welcomed the declaration of war on Germany and was forced to resign as this ran contrary to the line coming out of Moscow. Pollitt resumed his post after Russia entered the war in 1941.

A staunch Stalinist, Pollitt became disillusioned when Khrushchev denounced his hero in 1956 but said ‘He’s staying there as long as I’m alive’ of the portrait of Stalin that hung in his living room (above).

Harry Pollitt stamp

Harry Pollitt stamp

Pollitt was exposed as a Soviet propagandist in the 1930s after MI5 infiltrated the party as part of operation MASK, the double-agent acting as his assistant and radio operator.

Pollitt died in 1960 and in 1970 his likeness appeared on a Russian postage stamp. Moscow also recognised his devotion to the Soviet cause and to international communism when the Soviet navy named a ship after him in 1971. You can also read more about his life on the Tameside website.

But he is also immortalised in The Ballad of Harry Pollitt. As I mentioned at the start, it was once sung a capella by Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, probably at a 1961 performance with Jerry Garcia and Marshall Leicester. You can find the lyrics they sang here.

You can also listen to the full version sung by the Lampliters on YouTube, but below is a shorter recording by Joe Glazer with abbreviated lyrics beneath.


The Ballad of Harry Pollitt

Harry was a worker, one of Lenin’s lads
He was foully murdered by counter-revolutionary cads

He floated through the pearly gates and wafted in with ease
‘May I speak to Comrade God, I’m Harry Pollitt, please’

They dressed him in a nightie, put a harp into his hand
He played the Internationale in the hallelujah band

One morning when the Father was walking round the state
Who should he see but Harry chalking slogans on the gate

Harry was convicted before the Holy Ghost
For spreading disaffection amongst the heavenly host

It’s been some years since Harry died, we hear he’s doing well
He’s just been made the people’s commissar of Soviet hell

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • rhymeswithplague 2nd May 2012

    Never heard of him. The older I get the more I realize I don’t know.

  • Roger Green 2nd May 2012

    He would have fit in well in the POLLITT-bureau.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Detective Pudding 2nd May 2012

    Like my socialist revolutionary friend in Canton, Georgia – Comrade Brague – I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Harry Pollitt either. Mind you, why are you telling us about him when you could have been telling us about Juanita and Devine in the “Pole-ah Bare!” pole dancing establishment you visited in Vegas last evening?

  • Trevor Rowley 2nd May 2012

    By far the best thing to come out of Droylsden, Robertson’s Jam (especially the strawberry variety). I think Pickerings Peas had a canning factory there also at one stage. Last but not least, my Uncle Len ran his father’s pork butchery shop in the town for some years.

    Enjoy the remainder of your holiday, Mr.P.

  • Mr Parrot 4th May 2012

    Just returned from our adventure in Sin City, so apologies for the delay in responding.

    Roger, I wish I’d thought of that pun when I was writing this post. Absolutely perfect.

    But no-one has mentioned the Grateful Dead. I worked really hard to make that connection!


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