welch at SPAMcwcom.net
Fri Dec 10 19:34:10 MST 1999
On Fri, Dec 10, 1999 at 08:36:05PM -0500, Louis Proyect wrote:
> H-NET BOOK REVIEW
> Published by H-Pol at h-net.msu.edu (November, 1999)
> Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, ed. _Red Diapers: Growing Up in the
> Communist Left_. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1998. 320
> pp. Glossary. $49.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-252-06725-8.
An interesting, and in some ways inspiring, set of reminiscences in the
review Louis posted. There was a similar (and much missed) traditional of
familial communism within the old CPGB. This is a review of a particular
study published in the Weekly Worker.
Weekly Worker May 7 1998 #239
Cold War babies
Phil Cohen Children of the revolution - communist childhood in Cold
War Britain Lawrence and Wishart 1997, pp189
It is no exaggeration to state that the practice of CPGB history has
reached an impasse. The recent generation of CP historians (Kevin
Morgan, Nina Fishman et al) have rightly rejected the outworn dogma of
the Trotskyites, intent on picturing the Party as the mere reflex of
the CPSU - all in all, a very useful polemic. However, the distinct
under-theorisation of both schools has meant that there has been
little advance in addressing the epistemological questions inherent in
Utilising the recently opened Comintern archives, contemporary
researchers have largely followed an agenda whereby the CPGB is seen
as having 'relative autonomy' from the diktats of Moscow. None of this
has been allowed to disturb the morbid functioning of Trotskyist
orthodoxy. In a review of a conference on the subject of the British
Party and the Comintern, Bruce Robinson writes that the "new material
... does not provide the basis for any major changes in the picture of
the CPGB as the willing servant of Moscow from the mid-1920s onwards"
(Revolutionary History Volume 6, No2-3, p260). Telling a Trotskyist
that the CPGB was not a puppet of Moscow is obviously a bit like
telling Rod Hull that Emu does not exist anymore. Robinson asks the
question of whether a prominent communist like Arthur Horner would
have returned from Moscow if he had been summoned during the period of
the purges, suggesting an answer in the negative (ibid p258). In fact
Horner would have had a good chance of arriving back in Britain, in
that the disappearance of this organic proletarian leader would have
led to awkward and compromising questions in the South Wales workers'
This is not to suggest that awarding the CPGB with a good dose of
'relative autonomy' vis-à-vis the USSR is any more helpful. The
British road to socialism or not, 'official communism' was an
international movement, in which it is ultimately impossible to
dissect what was 'domestic' and what was 'external'. The BRS is a
classic case, a much trumpeted totem of the CPGB's independence,
closely supervised by none other than Joseph Stalin.
Animated though this debate may be, the fact is that both schools rely
on similar theoretical preconceptions. Karl Marx writes in The German
ideology of the "apparent stupidity of merging all the manifold
relationships of people in the one relation of usefulness." (K Marx
Selected writings Oxford 1977, p185) Both the Trotskyite and the
'revisionist' standpoints employ essentially the same abstract
methodology in ordering the experience of communism in Britain. It is
imperative that new contributions to the history of the CPGB are
judged on their ability to disrupt the rather sterile dualism that
disfigures the contemporary debate, and upon their willingness to
countenance the Party's past as the relation of a dynamic totality.
With this in mind we can turn to Children of the revolution.
Cohen's work focuses on the experience of children from Communist
Party households growing up in 1950s Britain - a problematic with a
great deal of potential. Familial communism was, and still is, an
important arbiter of identity and Party culture. The text of the book
represents a set of transcribed interviews, with some minor editing in
the interests of grammar and style. This has a tendency to make the
narrative seem a little garbled at times. In choosing such a
presentation the author's aim is clearly that of empathy. However, one
does wonder whether a commissioned choice of more considered
recollections may have been of more aid in engaging the reader.
Cohen has assembled a reasonably interesting set of interviewees,
including Alexei Sayle, Brian Pollitt, Hywel Francis, and Nina Temple.
Cohen elaborates the conceptual framework behind this selection in the
introduction: "One of the reasons for writing this book is that with
the demise of communist parties in Europe ... our generation will be
the last to have this unique kind of upbringing. Growing up in the
late 20th and early 21st centuries, our children will inherit a very
different world" (p16).
Cohen is clearly intent on the manufacture of an essentially
teleological method. As Althusser argued, such an epistemology runs
the distinct risk of floundering into the realms of reductionism. This
has particular ramifications for the structure of this text in that it
is primarily concerned with the ordering of memory. Communism and the
CPGB feature very little in the contemporary identity of the people
featured here, disrupting any notion of the Party as a lived process.
The author of this review encountered similar evidential difficulties
whilst researching a thesis on the Communist Party in South Wales. By
far the best interviews were provided by those comrades who still
considered themselves communists. Even for members of Party splinters
such as the CPB or NCP, the contested history of the CPGB was branded
into the heart of their political being. This resulted in
recollections that were alive with passion and controversy - priceless
material for any researcher.
Children of the revolution on the other hand too often restricts Party
activity to a set of frozen, and at times rather nostalgic, cameos:
"We went on the Daily Worker May Day march every year; my parents have
recollections of me in a pushchair on marches with a Daily Worker
keeping the rain off my hat ... On the Monday morning after the May
Day march I used to come to school with the Daily Worker May Day
badge, and I remember when I was about nine I came to school with it
and Mr Baggs, the deputy head of my primary school, said: 'Oh, we're
communists, are we?' " (p53).
Obviously, these fractured pieces of empiricism need to be bonded
together in order to produce an outlook in which the meaning of the
Party's past can be constructed. The idea of communism as a religion
(or semi-religion) is a consistent theme of the narrative: "I think
faith in communism was a kind of religion ... in terms of intensity of
belief, and now, with the break-up of the Communist Party, the
terrible loss and the lack of faith, it is like losing your god, and
people are all over the place." (pp41-42)
Of course religion and faith in this context are ultimately dependent
upon invoking a ritualised other. In this context Cohen refers to CPGB
members as having a "quasi-religious faith" in the USSR: "an obsessive
interest - encompassing everything from its films and books to its
tractor design." (p16) Two points can be made here. Firstly, the
CPGB's loyalty towards the Soviet Union was (in general) certainly
based on emotional considerations. However, this should not be judged
apart from the party's rationalism, as Hywel Francis recognises in his
interview (p129). Secondly, this train of argument has a certain
residue of the instrumentalism so beloved of the Trotskyists. Merely
having "faith" in the CPSU seems rather more suited to the rationale
of a 'fellow-traveller' than to a militant activist in the ranks of
the CPGB. These points can be illustrated by making reference to one
of my own interviews with Charlie Swain: "I was one of those who used
to love Joe Stalin, I must admit, and I've still got a very big
respect for him ... The idea of the people from the lower ranks
displacing the entrenched capitalists ... landlords and aristocrats
seems to me so fantastic that anybody who was at all sympathetic to
that I would support." (author's interview, Cardiff, March 7 1996)
In Swain's narrative, support for the USSR was fundamentally bound up
with the recognition of the necessity for a British revolution, thus
inserting a marked kernel of rationality into his respect for Stalin.
There are no doubt some critics who would just look at Swain's opening
line and find enough ammunition for a set of very traditional
preconceptions. Unfortunately for these people, engaging with the
mentality of British communism is a sophisticated task and one that
fails to yield to one-sided formulations.
Despite these fundamental criticisms it should be allowed that Cohen
has assembled some useful and at times thought-provoking material.
Harry Pollitt's son, Brian, talks about his life alongside the
Communist Party's best known general secretary. Pollitt's prominence
in the Party's history makes this chapter interesting in and of
itself. Hywel Francis offers himself as the most eloquent in exploring
the various facets of CP identity in a discussion of his father, Dai
Francis, one-time general secretary of the South Wales area NUM.
For anyone considering the history of the CPGB in South Wales this is
always a pertinent question. Francis argues that the "trade union and
the miners' union and the Communist Party were synonymous ... For my
father they were indivisible, he was a communist miners' leader."
(p124) In fact, Dai Francis followed his comrades, Arthur Horner, Dai
Dan Evans, and Will Paynter - all CPGB members - in approaching their
union tasks in a distinct syndicalist vein. On the whole, communist
miners focused their activities on the strategically placed miners'
lodge, rather than through the structures of the Party. This created a
marked sense of loss on the part of more Party-orientated militants:
"We have outstanding figures in the Communist Party who had become, as
one of our comrades put it, little tin gods in the village, but the
people in the village didn't see the Communist Party at work." (Annie
Powell CPGB 24th Congress World News April 28 1956).
This is not to site miners such as Dai Francis at too distant a point
from their CP identity. As Hywel Francis shows, Dai stood by the CPGB
during the 1956 Hungarian crisis, although it is admitted that "he
would be suspicious of people who tried to impose the Party line on
Possibly the worst section in this book is the interview with Nina
Temple, seemingly intent on presenting her rise through the CP
bureaucracy as a series of unwanted accidents. Temple's narrative is
however the source of some (no doubt unintended) humour. Nina recalls
all the glitz and excitement of a 1960s YCL disco on her estate. Alas,
for one young man these vicarious thrills were not enough: "...
suddenly the music went off and Fergus Nicholson gave a speech about
why Russia was right to invade Czechoslovakia. I was mortified and
embarrassed, so that was the end of the YCL disco." (p95)
There is always someone to spoil it for everyone. Actually this
extract just about sums up Temple's career in the CPGB - recoiling in
horror from everything you are meant to represent. Another chuckle can
be gleaned from Nina's father, Landon, who tactfully informed her that
the Democratic Left constitution she had been helping to draft was
"crap" (p96). Next time you are down at Progressive Tours booking your
jaunt to Cuba, remind Landon of that one. It's worth a pint or two.
Although not short of practitioners, Communist Party history is
beginning to suffer from a distinct methodological barrenness.
Ultimately these difficulties can only be surmounted by the
resurrection of a viable ideology of Partyism - a working class
organisation that can adequately unify the varied and illusory
disciplines of contemporary society. For the moment, though, you might
like to try and quench your thirst with the quaint simplicities of
Children of the revolution. Blistered and parched by the end, you may
begin to discern the oasis. If Nina Temple's standing there, you will
know you took a wrong turning.
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