Growing Up Left

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Review of 'The Lost World Of British Communism', Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99

This book, consisting of three articles from New Left Review in the mid-1980s, is a curious hybrid. It is partly a polemic about the deep crisis then tearing the Communist Party (CP) to pieces, partly a fragment of autobiography by the child of a dedicated Communist mother, and partly a study of the sociology and culture of British Communism.

As Samuel shows, men and women committed to a high level of political activism find that it shapes their whole life - the party defines their friendships, their family, and above all their activity in the workplace.

SWP members will find much that is familiar here - the relentless pressure to be active, the loyalty to the organisation, the way in which the party becomes a "workers' university", encouraging a "religion of books".

They will also find things that seem to belong to a different universe - the cult of punctuality, the insistence on "respectability", the disapproval of swearing, alcohol and jazz.

Contrary to the foolish idea sometimes heard on the left that Communist Parties are external to the working-class movement, Samuel shows that the British CP had deep roots in the working class and that its membership held high moral ideals and showed great self sacrifice.

All this is true - yet it is also true that the cause they devoted themselves to was a deeply unworthy one. Samuel was no Stalinist - he left the party in 1956 - but he states here that he does not aim to judge the "rights and wrongs" of CP policy .

As a result we get politics with the politics left out. Samuel records some of the minor sillinesses of British Stalinism - for example the song by Ewan MacColl that begins:

"Joe Stalin was a mighty man, a mighty man was he.
He led the Soviet People on the road to victory."

But he says nothing of the society (based on labour camps and show trials) to which Communists devoted themselves, nor of the disastrous political lines that emanated from Moscow. To talk of "moral elitism" without reference to the politics of the CP means that the real questions remain untouched.

While the account of British Communism is often perceptive and well documented, references to the international context are banal. Samuel blurs the distinction between Lenin and Stalin, and rips a few words out of a complex polemic to claim that Lenin opposed "freedom of criticism" in principle.

Samuel gives us revealing glimpses of his own very peculiar childhood. He shows the certainties offered by historical materialism to his mother's generation, certainties that seem remote to today's more sceptical left, for whom barbarism is at least as likely an outcome as socialism.

Perhaps this helps explain why some children of prominent Communists are now found among the pro-war left. Brought up to believe that history was on their side, they now flock to the banner of the apparently strongest imperial power. In Bob Dylan's words, they "just want to be on the side that's winning". Their judgement is as flawed as their moral sense.

Raphael Samuel was an acute observer, and there is much to learn from The Lost World of British Communism. But in the last resort it is merely raw material for a real study of British Stalinism.