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 on the outskirts of Manchester, 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.
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 his hero was denounced by Khrushchev in 1956, but he said ‘He’s staying there as long as I’m alive’ of the portrait of Stalin that hung in his living room (above).
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. No recording exists but below is one version by The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters.