Friday, 8 July 2011

Phil Piratin, the Red Commander of Cable Street

A short biography of the famous Cable Street activist (and later Communist London MP) Phil Piratin. Courtesy of Robert Griffiths

If there was a 'commander in chief' at the Battle of Cable Street, it was Phil Piratin. He would not have described himself as such, preferring to say that 'the working class had won the day'.
  But his house in New Road was the centre of operations on that Sunday, October 4, 1936.
  Piratin was born in 1907, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He grew up in Stepney, East London, one of Britain's poorest areas. After spells in the fur and other trades, and a period at sea, he began his own small business.
  In June 1934, he protested outside the Olympia indoor arena where Sir Oswald and his British Union of Fascists were holding a mass rally. As the Blackshirts brutally attacked hecklers inside the stadium, the police battled to hold back thousands of anti-fascists outside.
  Piratin heard one of the mounted police officers shout at the crowd: 'Get back to your slums, you Communist bastards!' He went back to Stepney and joined the Communist Party.
  His own organising skills played a central role in stopping Mosley two years later. But he also argued strongly that violence alone would not end the appeal of fascism among working class people.
  As Stepney CP branch secretary, he drove local communists and their allies to take up the problems of the poor and unemployed. His fearless work among tenants - many of them fascist party members or supporters - led directly to the formation of the Stepney Tenants' Defence League. Its militant campaigning against slum landlords inspired similar developments across London and beyond.
  It also led to his election to the local council in 1937, the first of what became a group of 12 Communist Party councillors in the borough.
  During the Second World War, he threw himself into the party's huge campaign for Air Raid Precaution measures to defend the working class from aerial bombing, becoming an ARP warden himself. When the blitz began, the rich and powerful took refuge in underground shelters, while the rest of the population remained on the surface.
  Piratin led a legion of East Enders to occupy the deep luxurious shelter used by the 'Savoy Hotel parasites', making world-wide news. Other local communist leaders broke open the gates to London Underground stations.
  It came as no surprise to Piratin when he was elected MP for Stepney Mile End in 1945. He then worked with communist MP Willie Gallacher and a group of left-wing Labour MPs - most of them soon expelled - to oppose the Cold War drive against the Soviet Union, communism and socialism.
  That may have contributed to his defeat in the 1950 General Election, although merger with the neghbouring constituency was the main factor.
  Piratin subseqently became business manager with the Daily Worker, rebuilt his own enterprises and raised funds for the Communist Party.
  His memoir of Stepney and Cable Street, Our Flag Stays Red, first published in 1948, remains a text-book for left-wing local activism.
  The first full account of his extraordinary life, The Red Road: A Political Biography of Phil Piratin MP by Kevin Marsh, will be published by Manifesto Press in October this year.

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