Reds of high ideals but low impact

Party People, Communist Lives

January 3, 2003

This volume is presented as part of a project in progress at the University of Manchester, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, which is concerned with "elaborating a prosopography of British communism".

It consists of eight short biographical sketches, one account of the fate of several British communists in the Soviet Union, and an introductory essay by one of the editors discussing and justifying the method of mini-biography, or prosopography, as a form of historical writing.

Most of the existing histories of British communists and of European communist parties are seen as having been either too tied to the communist organisation itself or dominated by a cold-war historiography of complete rejection. A work based on biographical studies of individual communist members would, it is suggested, produce a more flexible and humane account of a movement whose influence was a major force in 20th-century European politics.

Kevin Morgan's essay on the methodology of the project raises more interesting questions than any of the individual essays consider themselves. In the 70-odd years of its life, the Communist Party of Great Britain was small, made up of a fluctuating membership, which peaked at 43,000 at the end of the second world war, was reduced to just over half that number in the late 1950s, and recovered by the time of its fractures in the mid-1960s to about 33,000.

At the height of its national influence it had two members of parliament and local councillors in some parts of London and in several provincial districts. It never became part of mainstream politics, as communist parties did in some European countries.

Indeed, its relation to international communism and to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union might be compared with the relationship between the hedge priests in colonial Ireland and the Vatican.

Membership brought no material rewards - on the contrary, many jobs and professions were difficult or impossible for communists to enter. Its members were linked in loyalty and commitment of an almost religious intensity to a powerful external force over which they had little or no control. Nevertheless, many people spent time as members of the party, including a number who later became leading figures in mainstream parties and, indeed, ended up holding government posts.

Why did they join a small, highly disciplined and authoritarian party in a country in which so many other democratic options were open to them? The Manchester project is an attempt to answer this question.

The attitude towards their subjects taken by the ten authors who contribute to this volume varies from the hagiographic (in the biographies of Rose Smith and Randall Swingler) through the vaguely patronising (in the life of Arthur Reade, who "like so many bourgeois socialists of the period was in rebellion against his mother") to the seriously critical (of William Rust, for example).

This latter study, by Andrew Flinn, stands out as a crisp analysis of the motivation and behaviour of its subject in his capacity as a party leader. The other chapters could have contributed more if some kind of general rules had been adopted for the terms of analysis.

It would also have added to the value of the collection if the excellent initial essay on method by Morgan had been followed by one that provided the context within which the majority of the subjects under consideration had joined the party.

The powerful shadow of the first world war, in which some of these subjects or their parents had been deeply involved, and the growing threat of the second meant there existed a degree of desperation in the political atmosphere of the 1930s that is missing from this volume.

There are moments in several of the studies in which the chronology is unclear, others in which it is surreal. It is, for example, bizarre to suggest that Frank Thompson was a contemporary of Swingler at Winchester when Thompson was only two years old at the time that Swingler won his scholarship.

Terminology again varies between the chapters. Although the term Stalinism is usefully discussed in Morgan's essay, there is nowhere a discussion of Leninism, which is used in several essays.

If prosopography can be justified as a historiographical method, it is surely necessary that each study must have the same or very similar structure and approach. This collection offers some interesting narratives but lacks serious analysis.

Dorothy Thompson is fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography

Editor - John McIlroy, Kevin Morgan and Alan Campbell
ISBN - 0 85315 936 X
Publisher - Lawrence and Wishart
Price - £19.99
Pages - 256

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