Ethel Mannin: hidden from history

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The prolific novelist and activist in the 1960s

Ethel Mannin, successful author, activist and fighter for sexual liberation, has truly been hidden from history. She moved in the same circles as George Orwell, CLR James and other radicals in the 1930s, yet few have heard of her today. John Newsinger recounts her fascinating political life story.

Towards the end of the 1930s Frederic Warburg published a number of dissident left wing books, including George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, CLR James’s World Revolution, Boris Souvarine’s Stalin and Andre Gide’s Back from the USSR. These anti-Stalinist books are still readily available today.

There is one remarkable volume that he published at the same time, Ethel Mannin’s Women and the Revolution, which has been altogether forgotten, however. Indeed, Mannin has been pretty much written out of the history of the 1930s left.

Why has she been forgotten? There are two overlapping reasons. One is that she was a woman and consequently suffered the fate of many women on the left, being effectively “hidden from history”, to use Sheila Rowbotham’s phrase. But even the “rediscovery” of women on the left did not lead to Ethel Mannin being restored to her proper place. Not only was she a woman, but she was also an anti-Stalinist, an opponent of Labour Party reformism, and someone who in the 1930s rejected the politics of the popular front.

Who was Ethel Mannin? Born in 1900 in London, she became in the course of the 1920s a successful and prolific popular novelist, an opponent of censorship, a champion of sexual liberation and of progressive child-centred education.

She began to move to the left politically at the end of the 1920s. In her 1931 novel, Ragged Banners, one of her characters wonders why the revolution has been “delayed so long… Men’s eyes have got to be opened.”

She joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1933. The ILP had broken away from the Labour Party after the debacle of the 1929-31 Labour government, which had failed to do anything for the unemployed except dramatically increase their number and had eventually proposed to cut the dole at the insistence of the bankers. Mannin became a regular contributor to the ILP newspaper, the New Leader.

Effigy in chocolate

In 1934 she published a travel book, Forever Wandering, in which she condemned Nazi Germany with its “brown shirts, swastikas and pictures of Hitler”. You could even buy his effigy in chocolate and have the satisfaction of biting his head off. She went on to visit the Soviet Union and returned home, in her own words, “very close” to becoming a Communist. Instead she became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union, a process of disenchantment that was completed by the “Hitleresque purges” of the late 1930s.

Mannin looked forward to revolution sweeping away the old order. In her 1934 novel, Cactus, the ghost of a German soldier killed in the First World War speaks to his British lover, who is still mourning his death in 1934, and prophesies: “Russia in 1917, Germany in 1919, Britain in 1926, Austria in this year of revolt 1934… Soon out of the rich warm soil of Spain will come revolt, from the Basque country and Catalonia.”

While the troops might fire on the workers, he urges her to remember that “soldiers and workers have been in council together before, and will be again, for that is the history of mankind, which is the history of revolt”.

When the Spanish Revolution began in 1936 Mannin threw herself into support for the POUM, the ILP’s sister party, bitterly opposing the Communist Party and its popular front strategy.

In Spain the Communists urged the rolling back of the revolutionary gains made by the working class in order to conciliate the British and French governments which Stalin hoped to ally with. At the same time, they set about the process of liquidating the POUM, which was condemned as a Trotskyist organisation secretly allied with the fascists.

The Comintern’s popular front turn under Stalin was wholly cynical. The Stalin leadership took up the Spanish struggle for one reason and one reason only: the interests of Soviet foreign policy. It had no interest whatsoever in the fate of the class struggle in Spain. Stalin’s Russia had put an end to solidarity and the idea of world revolution — which couldn’t be made any clearer than by the Hitler-Stalin Pact that would soon follow.

It suited the Russians to help fight Franco’s fascists in Spain, but at the same time to defeat and destroy the revolutionary left, using slander and lies, torture and murder.

The ILP had a contingent of volunteers fighting with the POUM militia in Catalonia. One of them was George Orwell and after his return from the front, he was to become friends with Mannin and her partner, Reg Reynolds. They were all involved with the Solidarida Internacional Antifascista that the American anarchist Emma Goldman had established to organise solidarity work for the POUM and the Spanish anarchists who were bearing the brunt of Communist repression in Spain.

Sympathies

In 1938 Mannin published her book Women and the Revolution, dedicated to Goldman, although she also makes it clear that her sympathies lie with the POUM. She stood with her “Marxist comrades of the POUM…with the Communists as bitterly our enemies as the fascists themselves”.

The neglect this book has suffered is really incredible. It alone should have earned her an honoured place in the collective memory of the left. She condemned the betrayal of the Russian Revolution, the wrecking of the 1927 Chinese Revolution and “the sabotage of the revolution in Spain”. The book’s continued neglect, one suspects, is because of its hostility to the Stalinist popular front.

Women and the Revolution celebrates the part played by women in the French, Russian, German, Chinese, Irish and Spanish revolutions, as well as making a powerful call for women’s liberation today and everywhere. It is not men who are enemy as “the feminists appear to believe”, but “the capitalist state, which exploits man and woman alike”.

Brave new world

World revolution “must come inevitably” and the women of today “must either ally themselves with freedom and life, or with oppression and death; either work for a brave new world, or surrender themselves and their children to the doomed old world”.

Defeat in Spain and the experience of the Second World War were to undermine Mannin’s faith in world revolution, although she never went over to the right.

She supported anti-imperialist struggles, befriending key black activists George Padmore, CLR James and Chris Braithwaite in the 1930s and protesting against the British colonial government’s mass executions of Kenyans in the 1950s. She was also a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The cause that was most important to her right up until her death in 1984 was that of the Palestinians. As she insisted, “It cannot be too often or too strongly insisted that being anti-Zionist, ‘anti-Israel’ is not being anti-Jewish.” What was done to the Palestinian people was a crime, a crime that demanded remedy.

In one of her last books (she wrote more than 90), Stories from My Life, published in 1971, she wrote that she had “been a socialist all my adult life…and now, at close of play, in the seventies, am more than ever convinced of the necessity for social revolution”.