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Harry McShane

‘The only people that can talk about a future for mankind are marxists and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so’

(May 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 5, 16 May–14 June 1981, p. 14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As the NW TUC’s People’s March got under way, Mike Gonzales, went to talk to Harry McShane for Socialist Review. Harry represents a link with a chapter of working class history that is all too relevant for socialists today. For he was a central figure in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the mass organisation of the unemployed that campaigned throughout the inter-war period. The lessons of that movement must be absorbed today, for in its successes and failures it represents the highest experience of self-organisation of the unemployed that Britain has ever seen.

Harry McShane is 90 years old this month. His life is an inspiring example to us all – ‘of a rank and file leader who never left the rank and file’. A leading member of the Communist Party for thirty years, he left at the age of sixty in order to remain faithful to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. He is still very active, fighting for the unity of unemployed and employed workers and for a socialist society. Harry began by describing the NUWM campaign.

The first unemployed march was in 1922. It was a ragged thing, and I couldn’t be on it; I was in jail at the time. The 1930 march wasn’t a lot better, but after that the marches were very good. In 1932 we got a tremendous response; there were three marches in the thirties, and they were outstanding. The discipline was excellent. We got a form of democracy I’ve never seen before in the movement. We never took a decision without consulting all the marchers. We sometimes expelled a marcher, but that was always taken to a full meeting. And if there were any obstacles on the road – with the police or anything like that – we would call a meeting of everybody and discuss the tactics. In the end, the police always seemed to retreat.

We fed ourselves along the road, too, which the people won’t have to do this time. We took collections in every town. We didn’t collect in the factories then, but we took street collections, and held meetings at night wherever we stopped. But I don’t think we went through hardship. As a matter of fact, I think the marchers were happier and better fed than they were at home.

The TUC, the trades councils – none of them would touch us until 1936. As a matter of fact, before 1936 I can remember that Mary Sutherland used to go ahead of us telling the Labour Party not to support us because the march was organised by communists. But we got working class support, and we never wanted for anything.

After 1936, we did get Labour Party support, when Attlee spoke at the Hyde Park rally. At that time the Jarrow march was on, and we met and exchanged speakers with them. And when we got to London, they had formed a march council that included people like Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee.

How does the experience of the twenties and thirties bear upon the present People’s March? We asked Harry what he thought about the current march’s emphasis on the churches.

We never had anything to do with religion at that time. What we did do was to take the unemployed round the churches on a Sunday morning, to demonstrate what the situation was. But we never went into the churches. On weekday evenings we would go round the hotels, so that people could see how bad the situation really was.

There were one or two ministers here and there who identified with the movement. Most of them were just sentimental socialists. Here in Scotland there was an Englishman who worked in Scotland – Tom Pickering. He came on one of the marches, but he didn’t behave like a clergyman; in fact he never referred to the Church. He was the one who said to me one day, as we were leaving Preston, that he hoped, when he got to heaven, that the front row would be occupied by the comrades from the Communist International. Pickering had actually fought with the unemployed back in 1908, and got his head battered for it.

And what did he think of the overall orientation of the march, a ‘People’s’ March rather than a march of unemployed workers?

Well, that’s typical of the TUC isn’t it. Tom Mann used to poke fun at the TUC then, and it was nowhere near as bad as it is now; if Mann were alive now, he’d have something to talk about. This man Murray’s got no socialist principles at all, and the General Council’s terrible.

Not only did the TUC oppose us, but they tried to form a separate unemployed organisation, which is what they’re doing now. They tried to form them through the trades councils, but they never materialised.

What’s happening now is that the Labour Party are trying to forestall us. They are afraid of any big movement. I think, for instance, that the Right to Work Campaign should have formed a national organisation. I’m not complaining about what’s been done – and the chance will come again afterwards. Because these folk – the TUC and all the rest – have no staying power, they haven’t the guts to face up to opposing the authorities. And I think that in the future the Right to Work will have tremendous success. They have to keep going, because they will be the only consistent people. The TUC and the Labour Party will have their demonstration, and then it will fizzle out.

They don’t have the staying power or the people to keep it afloat – too many of them are concerned with getting themselves into parliament. So the Right to Work mustn’t slow down.

We must support the march of course. Any division in the struggle against Thatcher would be a bad thing. You have to fight on a national level, and you have to fight with all the workers, regardless of whether they are members of the Labour Party or not. But that’s why we need the Right to Work. Because I don’t think this People’s March is much more than an expression of religious sympathy for the unemployed.

Last night, speaking on television, Michael Foot was talking about unemployment, that it would be with us for a long time to come. For the first time, he was admitting that unemployment is permanent under capitalism. He had no solution to offer. And we can’t raise people’s hopes – we have to make propaganda and say clearly that there can be no solution to the problem of unemployment under capitalism. We have to argue that alongside the fight to improve the conditions of the unemployed, we must fight all the time to change the system. That’s the only solution.

I get annoyed sometimes, you know, because we forget how strong we are. Theoretically, we are the strongest people there are. We should be challenging every other school of thought to come and put their cards on the table and debate with us. Because the only people that can talk about a future for mankind are the Marxists – and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.

The labour movement is bigger than the Labour Party. For us the issue is working class unity. We never put up any barriers on our marches, and we must not now. Of course we must try to get people to join the union, to play their part. But it is workers involved in struggle that we want. At the moment there is demoralisation, and some working people want to buy their own way out for a few pounds. In that situation, principles go by the board. But we’ve got that nucleus of Marxists, and if they’re doing their job we have nothing to fear. I think we can win.

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