How do you survive as the child of British Communists, raised in a post-war, north-London world that is “at a 90-degree angle to the rest of society”? It is a good question.
In this memoir of his parents and their circle, The Times journalist David Aaronovitch describes with perception and in a tone of ironic incredulity the experience of his childhood and youth, where propaganda against the society around them was relentless and all-encompassing: churches were denounced as “sinks of superstition”, the Royal Family was “a feudal remnant”, the police were “oppressors”, the army “a tool of imperialism” and the BBC “purveyors of lies and propaganda.”
The Communist Party of Great Britain, at war with its tolerant and peaceful host nation, was indeed “a little world within a world.”
What is significant in this memorable account is the author’s recognition that his parents’ Communist fervour “was religious rather than intellectual. Like a…Catholic, a Communist really meant to try to live a life of faith.” Indeed, cradle Catholics would find familiar ground with the author when Aaronovitch remarks that he has met Catholics whose childhood experience “seems to have been very similar” to his own: an enclosed world, separate from the wider one, where you felt yourself to be a species superior and apart.
Unlike most Catholics, however, the British Communists were possessed of missionary zeal; just as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons would go door to door with the good news, “Communists would stand on street corners selling the Daily Worker.”
The author’s father, Sam, from a poverty-stricken East End family of Jewish immigrants, was a fulltime Party functionary for many years. Branch meetings dominated his life: “The secular mass of a Party existence”, comments his son.
Sam turned his back on his East End ghetto background as soon as he could and fell into the “biggest world he could find – Communism”. Family life barely figured for him; for years he gave his time, energy and considerable intelligence as an autodidact to the demands of the Party. A ladies’ man, he was also chronically unfaithful, which inevitably produced tensions in the household.
Aaronovitch’s mother, Lavender, from a comfortably-off English family, had been abandoned by her own father as a child. The Party became a substitute family and she stayed a loyal member through thick and thin, raising four children on Sam’s meagre wages and enduring his frequent absences and infidelities with grim resignation.
The book provides a memorable portrait of the author’s ill-matched parents as they struggled to make their marriage work alongside their mutual devotion to the cause, so that that in their small, respectable part of the world “democratic revolution was functioning properly.” Except that it wasn’t.
By the 1930s the British Labour Party (which, as has been noted, owed more to Methodism than to Marx) had ended its brief relationship with the hard Left. Even though Communist Party members supported the trade unions and identified with the workers, their goals were different from British socialists. They knew the state could not be reformed or captured through democratic elections; it could “only be smashed and then remade through revolution.”
External political events made this goal increasingly distant. Lavender visited Russia in 1963. “She wasn’t stupid and she could see it still wasn’t paradise.” The brief Czech spring in 1968 under Alexander Dubcek caused a mini-crisis. British Communists had also wanted Communism “with a human face”; as Aaronovitch comments mordantly, “Communism with Stalin’s face had a selling problem.”
Even earlier, there had been a greater crisis of faith when, in 1956, Khrushchev made his historic speech denouncing Stalin and there was the Hungarian uprising. “Most comrades could not believe what they were reading” is Aaronovitch’s comment on the unease, disillusionment and anguish of Party members whose faith had been betrayed. Those who clung on to the Party in 1956 or dithered yet didn’t leave in 1968 were dealt a final blow when Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and in Russia in 1989-1990. The British branch of the Party was finally dissolved in 1991.
As one Party member confessed, this “was a shattering blow”, adding the despairing cry: “Is everything I lived and worked for only a mirage?” Yet Aaronovitch’s parents, almost alone in their obstinate fidelity to a lost cause, hung on to their tattered faith.
As he observes, with a certain filial sympathy for their plight alongside a keen understanding of the emotional deficits which underlay their commitment, they “stood to lose too much from admitting the truth – even to themselves.” His book is a sensitive and observant commentary on a peculiarly British byway in the history of Communism worldwide, along with its personalities and its casualties.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.