Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography
John McIlroy, Kevin Morgan and Alan Campbell (eds), Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2001, pp256,£15.00
THIS book is a collection of short lives of a number of Communist Party (CP) members of the interwar years which stems from the editors’ work on an Economic and Social Research Council project at Manchester University on the collective biography of British Communists. The nine important chapters are of varying quality. Karen Hunt provides a useful if uncritical survey of the life of Dora Montefiore. The stress is on Montefiore as a woman, rather than as a representative of the politics of the British Socialist Party and what they became. There is nothing about Montefiore’s reaction to the decisions of the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in the shadow of which AE Reade took up the banner of opposition to Zinoviev and Stalin in Britain. John McIlroy provides a vivid account of the political evolution of Reade using different material and a more personal approach than in his recent essay in Revolutionary History. Unlike Montefiore, Reade is portrayed critically.
The differences between the editors are explicit in the Preface. While McIlroy and Campbell, in common with most rational historians, believe that Stalinism requires understanding, explaining and judging, Morgan disagrees. He ducks the issue by vacuously inquiring how judges acquire their authority, and he speciously invokes the relationship of Stalinism to other socialist traditions. He was not always so chary of judgement. The same writer once judged the British Stalinism of the Popular Front, the Moscow Trials and the Hitler–Stalin pact preferable to the critical socialism of the Labour Party left, the ILP and the Trotskyists (Kevin Morgan, Against Fascism and War, London, 1989, p309). Many readers of Revolutionary History will remember both Morgan’s explicit neglect of Spain and the Moscow Trials on the grounds that they had already been extensively covered (!) and his unbalanced judgements of respected writers in the Trotskyist tradition such as Brian Pearce and the editor of this journal, judgements which, it has been reasonably remarked, raise more questions about Morgan’s integrity than that of those he judges (see Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 3, Spring 1991, pp50-1). It is clear from Morgan’s chapter on the uses of biography that this new-found reluctance to judge Stalinists — no similar amnesty is accorded Trotskyists, against whom snide shots are fired under the protective cover of the footnotes and Sheila Rowbotham’s skirts — is part of an attempt to whitewash the CP and its members. His comments on the activists whose stories are told in the book are anodyne and avoid the difficult questions. Gaster, he says, learned independence in the ILP and carried it over to the CP. If that is so, the question arises as to why Gaster went along with the show trials, the tailing of Nazi Germany, the subjugation of Eastern Europe, even Hungary, which admittedly he took time swallowing, and the suppression of independent thinking. All Morgan takes from Reade’s independence and coherent political stand against the CP and the Comintern is that he was ‘intellectually restless and socially conspicuous’ — not a word about the political issues involved or the monolithic orthodoxy of the CP that the story discloses. He cannot make much of sanitising a Stalinist hack like Rust except to remark that ‘even Rust was not without his complexities’. Which of us is not? What is the point? After the ‘complexities’ of Stalin and Beria, Pollitt and Rust, have been exhaustively discussed and related to their practice, what is the final political assessment?
In rejecting Morgan’s apologetics and his tired rehash of ‘Mohammed was responsible for 11 September, indeed, perhaps all who venerate a supreme being are deeply implicated’, we remember the millions of socialists in the Labour Party, the ILP, the Trotskyist, anarchist and libertarian groups, the British proletarians who, from the 1920s to the 1940s, firmly rejected the CP and its fervent, defining Stalinism. Whatever we say about these very different socialist traditions — and none are above criticism — they should never, ever, be confused or conflated with Stalinism which, in contrast, is a fundamental perversion of socialism.
It is only when the material problem of the provision of food, shelter, warmth and clothing for everyone is solved that we can begin the real struggle for the higher life of the spirit… it is in the faith that the workers will eventually accomplish their mission that I have lived and done my day’s work in the world.
She first went out with Blatchford’s Clarion Vanners who took the socialist message to town and hamlet throughout the UK. She joined the Social Democratic Federation and its successor the British Socialist Party. But she also worked with the Independent Labour Party, Labour Parties and the Herald League.
She travelled the world, often as a delegate to international socialist conferences, addressing meetings, for she was able to speak several languages. She spoke against imperialism, and in Australia against Labour’s ‘White Australia’ policy. She was an able journalist, and wrote in a number of socialist journals. Dora was close to Clara Zetkin, and met Rosa Luxemburg, Tom Mann, Eugene Debs and Jim Larkin. One of Dora’s articles was published in Australia’s Workers’ Weekly, in which she gave sketches of friends and colleagues, including the above.
Dora met with tragedy in her own life. She was widowed early, and brought up her two children as a single parent. She first became interested in women’s rights when, on being widowed, a solicitor told her that if her husband had named anyone else as her children’s guardian she would have had no rights over them. A child had one parent only, the father.
While Dora had opposed the First World War as an imperialist conflict, her son had joined the army in Australia, served in France and died in 1921 from the effects of mustard gas. As Karen Hunt remarks, ‘Dora once again brought together the public and the private’, for she said that on joining up her son had been passed as a first-class life, but he was one of the millions of victims of imperial rivalries.
In the 1920s, when Dora was in her seventies, her health broke down and eventually she became blind. Karen Hunt wonders whether, if she had remained in good health, she would have continued to find the CP a congenial home. I like to think that she was too honest a person, and always her own woman, so that she would not have accepted the twists and turns of the CP as demanded by the Comintern. And yet, I am sure, that with the determination that she exhibited throughout her political life, she would have continued to be involved on the side of the workers in the class struggle. For, as Karen Hunt states, she was ‘a different Communist’.
The article by Andy Croft on Randall Swingler is entitled ‘The Young Men Are Moving Together’, from a poem by Swingler. He was one of a number of poets and literary figures attracted to the CP in the 1930s, at a time of economic recession, poverty and hunger marches.
Swingler was the godson of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, for he came from a solidly middle-class family with a history of service within the Church of England. As it happened, Swingler was to give away most of his inherited wealth to the CP and the Daily Worker.
He first became interested in politics as a student in 1930, when an organisation was formed following an extensive discussion in the literary weekly Everyman, on the revolt of youth — or lack of it. In the first instance, the organisation was aimed at the old men who were seen as likely to lead Britain into another war.
In 1934, Swingler was put in touch with the British Section of the Writers’ International, which followed the model of the John Reed Clubs in America and aimed at encouraging proletarian and revolutionary writing. Left Review was launched, and Swingler became its editor.
Unfortunately, Randall Swingler’s poetic and literary work is almost unknown today. However, hopefully, a biography of his life being written by Andy Croft will put this to rights. Excerpts from Swingler’s poems are published in Croft’s article, and I have been able to find three of his poems in Poetry of the Thirties published by Penguin Books in 1964 and edited by Robin Skelton. This book contains also poems by WH Auden, C Day Lewis and Stephen Spender, who shared Swingler’s politics.
For 20 years, until he left the CP, Swingler was its best-known poet and one of its most prominent cultural spokesmen. Among his many activities, he reviewed books for the Daily Worker, together with Alan Bush he edited The Left Song Book in 1938, he contributed several plays to Unity Theatre and was active in the Workers’ Music association and in many groups covering writers and readers, poets and the theatre. In 1988, he and Bush organised the massive Festival of Music and the People, including an Albert Hall Pageant written by Swingler and starring Paul Robeson. Swingler together with Auden wrote the libretto for the premier of Britten’s Ballad of Heroes. Both Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten set Swingler’s works to music. Apart from this, Swingler wrote two novels and contributed reviews, stories and poems to all the most important literary magazines of the period.
In 1988, although opposed to the Comintern’s ‘imperialist war’ thesis, Swingler prosecuted the line in the ‘Men and Books’ pages of the Daily Worker. When the Comintern called for the removal of Ralph Wright as Literary Editor, he was replaced by Swingler. When the Daily Worker was banned in 1941, Swingler went on a national speaking tour calling for the ban to be lifted.
Andy Croft writes that Swingler turned repeatedly to the idea that political commitment was unavoidable for his generation. This he expressed as a choice between rural living and the urban environment, for he saw himself as having exchanged the ‘idiocy of rural life’ for London and revolutionary politics. To Swingler, the urban environment revealed its potential for a different kind of beauty to that of the rural landscape.
In ‘Entrance to the City’, he begins by speaking of hills and valleys, and presents them as menacing. He continues:
… and I thought for a time
I was alone and joined with this delectable
Land. But I was wrong.
The mountains then become rolling trains of smoke,
furnaces glare like lions…
Denser than any wind in the summer grass.
The poem concludes:
… and I knew
That I was not alone.
In Left Review, Swingler wrote:
It is the function of art to resolve problems, not to evade them, and the creed of socialism is a great deal more than a political programme… the artist is not a special sort of being, inhabiting a rarefied atmosphere beyond the exigencies of common life. Rather it lies in his essence to have more than usual in common with the generality of men.
While Swingler did not leave the CP until 1956, when the Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian revolt, he was not the only honest member of the CP to deceive himself as to the intentions of the Russian leaders and the slavish following of the line by the leaders of the party.
I was interested to discover that in 1946 Randall Swingler had a brush with George Orwell, which resulted in both Randall and his brother, the Labour MP Stephen Swingler, being included on Orwell’s ‘little list’. Randall had replied in the magazine Polemic to Orwell’s ‘The Prevention of Literature’. While he agreed with Orwell that a writer must dare to be a Daniel against the enemies of intellectual liberty, he asked what Orwell was worried about, as he appeared to be getting more space than any other journalist to report the truth. His posture of lonely rebel hounded by monstrous pro-Soviet monopolists did not ring true. Randall Swingler was shortly afterwards blacklisted by the BBC, and his extra-mural class was closed.
I congratulate Andy Croft on pulling Randall Swingler from out of present-day obscurity, and I look forward to the biography.