As we look back over the century that is coming to an end, it is clear that Marxism and the communist movements which claimed it as their inspiration have been among the foremost influences on world politics. A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the experience of nations which undertook to build socialist societies based on Marxist principles. Less has been recorded, apart from a number of anguished autobiographical declarations, about the experience, which must have been shared by many hundreds of thousands, of growing up in households in which the principles of Marxism and communism were dominant.
Phil Cohen has put together the personal testimonies of a number of men and women, most of them now in their forties or early fifties, whose childhoods were spent in communist families in the 1960s and 1970s. But it is a curious selection and a very bad couple of decades from which to generalise about the effects of a communist upbringing in the 20th century.
Although most of these children came to reject to a greater or lesser degree the dogmas of their parents' faith, only Michael Rosen among them seems to understand that they were in fact, far from being the "children of the revolution" of the title, the children of the counter-revolution. Their parents were nearly all of them communists who stayed with the discredited leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain after 1956, and who by their support for the Byzantine "communism" of the post-Khrushchev Soviet Union helped to hold back the faint possibility of the development in Eastern Europe of "socialism with a human face".
It seems, too, to be only Rosen who recognises the harm which the comparatively small number of Communist party members did to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-nuclear movement generally. Not only did they refuse to believe, at least until Chernobyl, that Soviet atomic production presented any danger to the world, but they did their best to frustrate the efforts of those in and outside the Soviet Union who were campaigning against Soviet as well as American and European atomic weapons.
Nearly all the parents were apparatchiks, full-time workers for the party or one of its front organisations, acolytes of a church with an influence in many areas out of all proportion to its small numbers. Many of the children compared their parents' faith to that of members of a church - even of a sect or a cult. The comparison makes sense to those of us who have been members. The shared assumptions, the strong and self-abnegating faith and commitment, the certainty of the truth which lay in the revealed documents, together with the great sense of community with other devotees worldwide, were strengths that most ex-communists occasionally look back on with a degree of nostalgia. The real victimisation in the democracies and the often cruel and violent persecution of communists under the authoritarian and imperialist regimes of the prewar world helped to maintain the belief verging at times on the paranoid, that all the hostile accounts of life in the Soviet Union were based on lies and distortions.
Most of my generation who grew to adulthood during the war had no chance to see for themselves and in the immediate postwar years the Soviet frontiers were impenetrable to all but members of freebie "delegations" which for me and my family at least were never acceptable. The Khrushchev revelations of the spring of 1956 were therefore all the more shocking, but many of us had already begun to focus on the possibility of a more relaxed non-communist left in Western Europe. Most of those who left the British CP in the year following the secret speech did so because of the refusal by the party leadership to reform the processes of the party itself or to recognise the possibility of a view of the world which sought for peace and reconciliation and the abandonment of imperialism by all the empires old and new. Most took at least some of the positive values of the communist movement into other forms of social action, as clearly did some of the children in this volume, very few indeed of whom seem to have remained in their parents' party until its demise.
There is no space to detail particular contributions. That of Rosen, whose parents were nearly of my own generation, has been mentioned because it partly puts the case of those who left in 1956. The contribution of Martin Jones is the only one which rises above the level of rather banal information-giving - albeit information which is in its way of some sociological and historical interest. His father is the only real fanatic to be described.
Jones's story is one of real conflict and also one of the liberating power of popular music for young people all over Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. His contribution, with its story of a turbulent childhood in East Germany, is the only one which is really moving, partly at least because the drama of the story manages to come across in spite of the very flat and dull method of recording experience through a tape recorder.
For the most part, whatever the sociological interest, the lack of colour or imagination in the vocabularies of the contributors and the very superficial treatment of the actual parent-child relationship make for very dull reading.
Dorothy Thompson was a member of the Communist party of Great Britain from 1939 to 1956.
Children of the Revolution
Author - Phil Cohen
ISBN - 0 85315 841 X
Publisher - Lawrence and Wishart
Price - £12.99
Pages - 189