The first time I heard ‘The Internationale’, the workers’ anthem, sung spontaneously in public, I was standing outside a set of park gates in Geneva. It was 2009 and the crisis – no one had yet christened it the Great Recession – was gathering apace. Around me were an enthusiastic group of French-speaking Swiss students with their banners declaring that young people would not pay for the crisis. After singing the song and proudly giving the single first salute, they got in their van and headed away. It seemed, and it certainly sounds, like a scene from one of those comedies of the 1980s or a Godard film of the 1960s. Student revolutionaries, in the heart of the world’s most secretive banking sector, were not going to be changing anything much. I’d learned on my trip that this part of Switzerland had a strong socialist-internationalist ethic. It was, after all, why I was there: looking at the records of a Swiss-led social service initiative in Brynmawr in 1931. I’d seen graffiti declaring No Pasaran (the cry of the International Brigades), hurriedly chalked hammer and sickle icons, and the echoing phrase ‘debout, les damnés de la terre’ postered on the sides of lampposts.
Few places wear their politics openly like that – only Cork, the rebel capital of Ireland, comes close in my own personal experience. Seventy years ago, chalked Communist graffiti could have been found across South Wales and in the industrial heartlands of Britain more generally. Communists, often people long out of work who experienced the full harshness of the Great Depression, were frequently arrested for chalking messages on the pavements or on the sides of buildings. They were frequently arrested for singing songs like The Internationale. They were frequently arrested simply for speaking out against the rotten regime of capitalism.
At some point, historians of the interwar years – particularly those who concentrate on industrial areas – are forced to confront, to understand, and to come to terms with the Communist Party of Great Britain. The CPGB is a complicated beast and few historians have ever tried to understand it dispassionately, I’ve a feeling that that is impossible. Founded in 1920, the CPGB struggled to replace the Labour Party and become a mass party as happened with the Communist Parties in France, Italy and Finland. Despite this, the CPGB attracted high profile support, including from James Maxton, the leader of the ILP, and from trades unionists such as Arthur Cook of the Miners’ Federation. This gave the Communists a degree of legitimacy which, in the face of a topsy-turvy existence until the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout of 1926, secured its future. The General Strike and the Miners’ Lockout that followed in the coalfields of Britain provided a wave of new members and provided the foundations of those Little Moscows that have long drawn interest in the party.
We are, of course, familiar with Mardy (without the ‘e’ in those days) in the upper Rhondda Fach but Little Moscows could be found across the coalfield typically revolving around a small group of personalities. One of the least well-known Little Moscows is the mining village of Cilfynydd, on the outskirts of Pontypridd, which provided the only Communist ever elected to Pontypridd Urban District Council. From an unassuming terraced house, the Jenkins family conducted a vigorous campaign in the 1930s to protect the interests of the unemployed, directed the fortunes of the Albion Lodge of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, and distributed scores of copies of the Daily Worker every week. This Little Moscow came about after the closure of the Albion Colliery in 1928 following the bankruptcy of its owners. Until purchased by Powell Duffryn in 1931, and then with only a fraction of the workforce re-employed, the Albion Colliery lay dormant and its unemployed workforce increasingly radicalised.
Llew Jenkins, a slightly-built, dark-haired man in his late-twenties, was one of those whose political positions were steeled in the failure of the Albion Colliery. Since the mid-1920s, when he had joined the Miners’ Minority Movement, a Communist-backed initiative designed to create a single, powerful miners’ union, Llew Jenkins had grown in prominence as a political activist in Pontypridd. By the early 1930s, as vice-chairman and subsequently chairman of the Albion Lodge, he had developed a large support base in Cilfynydd. In 1933, in a three-way contest against the sitting Labour councillor, Ben Meredith, a company checkweigher at the Albion, he won a seat on Pontypridd Urban District Council with a majority of just 7 votes. Over the next six years, Llew fought courageously against the police and its abuse of power, against the National Government (eerily familiar coalition politics) and its attempts to demean the unemployed through the Means Test and concentration camps of the poor, and against the British Union of Fascists. He fought so hard that, like Lewis Jones, his comrade from Blaenclydach in the Rhondda, it wore him out.
Llew Jenkins’ story, along with that of his brother, forms the basis of new research I’m carrying out on the ‘forgotten’ little Moscows of South Wales. Many of them were unfashionable places, then and now, and have been left out of the history books as historians seek out their talismanic communities. Mardy was certainly the most important community that ‘went red’ in the 1930s but it was not alone. As we seek to understand the fiery politics of that age, it is necessary to recover the variety of voices, and the variety of reasons, that contributed to South Wales’ rebellious reputation. Cilfynydd is, then, only the beginning.