The 1930's saw the National Unemployed Workers Movement organise a series of huge marches that defied government, police and trade union leaders.
By two o’clock in the afternoon of 27 October 1932, there were 100,000 London workers, employed and unemployed, gathered around Marble Arch. They were there to greet hundreds of hunger marchers coming in from all the industrial areas of Britain.
It was a Thursday, but many employed workers had taken the day off to show solidarity with the unemployed. When mounted and foot police launched a series of truncheon charges, the workers fought back with banner poles and torn-up park railings.
Three days later, a second demonstration of 150,000 assembled in Trafalgar Square. Again, the police attacked, the workers fought back, and speeches continued from the platform.
Two days after that, a third demonstration battled police cordons to reach Parliament and present a million-signature petition. 80,000 workers broke through. Running battles continued across the West End into the night.
The protests were called to reverse a 10% cut in unemployment benefit, to abolish the hated Means Test, and to guarantee decent benefits for all the 3 million made jobless by the depression.
The protests were organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Its leader was Communist Party member Wal Hannington.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George had presided over the trench slaughter of the First World War. He had promised soldiers they would return ‘to a land fit for heroes to live in’. He was a lying wind-bag.
By November 1919, a third of a million ex-soldiers were unemployed. During 1921, total unemployment soared to more than 2.5 million. It hardly ever fell below a million in the entire interwar period. For a time, after the 1929 crash, it reached well over 3 million: one in five British workers.
Numerous reports catalogued the devastating effects - the poverty, the starvation, the despair, the social decay. George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is only the most famous of many accounts of the misery of the depression.
It made no difference to the ruling class. Again and again, British governments, while doing nothing to create jobs, attempted to cut back the pitiful benefits on offer, and the press ran endless ‘red scare’ stories whenever the unemployed tried to fight back.
Labour governments were as vicious as Tory. In 1931, as unemployment rocketed to its peak, it was Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald who cut unemployment benefit by 10%.
The TUC leaders were no better. They threatened trade unionists who supported unemployed protests with expulsion, and a ‘Black Circular’ was issued banning communists from holding trade union office.
But in 1920, Wal Hannington, an unemployed engineering worker and member of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain, had launched the London Council of Unemployed. The following year, this evolved into a national organisation, later known as the National Unemployed Workers Movement. It continued campaigning until 1939, when war production finally ended mass unemployment.
From the start, the NUWM was a militant organisation. Its central demand was ‘Work at union rates or full maintenance’. Rejecting the logic of capitalist crisis, Hannington argued that workers were not to blame, that the government should fund public works to provide jobs, that otherwise the unemployed were entitled to an income sufficient to cover all basic needs.
More importantly - and unlike the official leaders of the labour movement - Hannington was a class fighter. He developed a strategy of direct action, hunger marches, and self-defence against police violence.
The NUWM was open to all unemployed workers, who paid a minimal subscription for membership. It established local branches, undertook case-work, and organised local protests against attempts to cut back or withhold benefits. Links were built with employed workers, and NUWM members joined picket-lines to stop the unemployed being used as scabs.
But the real problem was government policy, and the hunger marches were a brilliant initiative for creating a national protest movement. Volunteers would be selected from the NUWM membership to form contingents departing from different industrial areas. Campaigns would be mounted in towns on the planned routes to ensure provision of food and accommodation. Demonstrations would be organised to greet the marchers as they arrived.
The hunger marches would be carefully timed so that they converged as they approached London, where a series of great rallies and demonstrations would continue over many days.
As well as the great national marches of 1922, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934, and 1936, there were many local marches and protests. Threatened benefit cuts were beaten back by a wave of local protests in 1935, when an estimated 300,000 marched in South Wales, 160,000 in Glasgow, and tens of thousands of Sheffield workers fought a three-hour battle with police as they attempted to reach City Hall.
Savage police violence became routine. One night in September 1932, lorry-loads of police rampaged through Birkenhead, smashing down doors, clubbing working class residents, and dragging off unemployed men. The following month, police in Belfast opened fire on demonstrators and drove armoured cars through the streets, while troops were held in reserve.
The treachery of trade union and Labour leaders made it easier for the ruling class to cut benefits and unleash police terror. Even so, the NUWM’s militancy, which built a mass movement of the unemployed and won the sympathy of millions of employed workers, forced major concessions.
Again and again, NUWM campaigns stopped threatened cuts or won significant increases. In 1935, for example, the notorious 10% cut in benefit introduced by MacDonald in 1931 was reversed, while the Distressed Areas Act made provision for government-funded employment in some of the worst-hit areas.
By contrast, the famous ‘Jarrow Crusade’ was a flop. This is the hunger march that right-wing labour leaders prefer to remember - because it is the only one that was not organised by the NUWM. Chaperoned by official leaders, no demonstration greeted the Jarrow marchers’ arrival in London or their departure. By contrast, the day after they left, on Sunday 8 November 1936, the NUWM demonstration was 250,000-strong.
The NUWM won real gains for the unemployed. The threat of militant resistance maintained a floor to benefit levels, preventing the ruling class driving whole communities down into actual starvation. But its 20-year history of struggle achieved much more.
In May 1926, the TUC sold out the miners and ensured their eventual defeat by calling off the General Strike. In August 1931, the leaders of the Labour Party destroyed their own government by forcing through cuts in unemployment benefit with Tory votes. These betrayals were disasters. Trade union membership and the Labour vote collapsed.
The official leaders henceforward collaborated openly with the bosses, witch-hunted socialists, and sabotaged workers’ struggles. It was left to the Communist Party to galvanise resistance.
The militancy of the NUWM under communist leadership radicalised the entire working class movement, encouraging employed workers to resist pay cuts during the worst of the depression, and feeding a mood to fight back in many workplaces as the level of unemployment fell somewhat in the mid to late 1930s. Former NUWM activists re-entering the workforce often played leading roles in rebuilding union organisation - in the South Wales coalfield, for example, on Clydeside, and on the London buses.
The NUWM provided leadership, organisation, and dignity to its members. Unemployment atomises workers: without the collective experience and strength of workplace organisation, the combination of isolation and despair can be exploited by the far right. Though funded by big business and led by the middle class, Hitler’s Nazi Party turned the unemployed into a street-fighting militia - the Brownshirts - with which to smash the unions and the left. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists tried to do the same in Britain. Wal Hannington was clear about why they failed.
‘The British fascists made strenuous efforts at labour exchanges and elsewhere to recruit the unemployed into their organisation, but they could not break through the powerful organisation of our NUWM branches. I regard it as one of the outstanding political achievements of that period.’
Because the NUWM dominated the politics of the unemployed, the BUF hit a wall. The Blackshirts remained a minority on the streets. That is why they were smashed at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 as they attempted a march through London’s solidly working class East End.
The Communist Party, on the other hand, recruited heavily. Party membership rose from 2,500 to 10,000 between 1920 and 1926. Though membership fell back to 2,500 in the years of demoralisation following the General Strike, it climbed again to 6,000 by 1931, and no less than 16,000 by 1939.
Why did the CP grow six-fold in the ‘Hungry Thirties’? Most of the new members, especially in the early 1930s, were unemployed, attracted to the party by its fighting lead in the struggle for jobs and maintenance, and by the real gains won through struggle.
NUWM work was closely linked with two other initiatives. The National Minority Movement was an attempt to organise networks of workplace union militants to resist the sell-outs of official leaders. And the CP was also central to the struggle against fascism - mobilising huge numbers to fight the BUF at home, and building support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
Could we build a national unemployed workers movement today? The daily signing-on and the queues outside labour exchanges no longer exist. The network of labour halls and local activists that supported the hunger marchers in the 1930s is much weaker. So a modern campaign would certainly be different.
But benefits have been slashed over the last 25 years, so the poverty of the unemployed is much greater than it was in the early-mid 1980s, the last time joblessness hit record levels. And instead of labour halls, we have the colleges.
Wal Hannington had to be protected by a bodyguard of dockworkers when he attempted to address hostile students in the 1930s. Students then were a small middle class minority. Even in the 1970s, there were only a quarter as many students in higher education as there are today. The modern student body is huge and largely working class.
A minority, moreover, have become politically active. Thousands were involved in demonstrations and occupations in solidarity with the Palestinians early last year. A new student protest movement has begun to emerge.
Hundreds of thousands of young people leave school, college, and university each summer. With one in five of young workers unemployed, many of these students will fail to get jobs.
There is a college or university in every locality - ready-made bases, perhaps, for a modern unemployed workers movement, where campaigns could be mounted to provide the food and accommodation to support protest marches.
Socialists facing a new great depression need to learn the lessons of working class history and at the same time think imaginatively about adapting to new conditions.
But above all, we must act, and act fast, to shape history. The story of Wal Hannington’s NUWM is a beacon lighting the way.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
More articles from this author
- The agony of Gaza
- Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence
- WWI: Imperial carve up, industrialised killing the truth about Gove's 'Great War'
- The Great Flood
- Jeremy Paxman's BBC history of the First World War is shallow, banal, and cliché-ridden
- Final Solutions: Human nature, Capitalism, and Genocide
- World War One and the rehabilitation of slaughter