Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Workers of the World, etc
My old dad, born in 1890, was a Wobbly. It was just one stage in an ongoing journey to the Left. A Wobbly was (and for a small rump still is) a member of IWW, Industrial Workers of the World, which contends that "all workers should be united within a single union as a class and the wage system abolished." Serious socialism, this.
After a traumatic period as a "conshie" during WW1 as a political not a religious objector - his stance was not recognised, which is how he ended up in Wormwood Scrubs - he married my mother and went to Murcot in the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire to help establish a commune based on socialist principles. It failed after two years, the failure due, according to my father, to human fallibility and the pressures from outside.
The portrait that hung in our "front room" (if you are not of working class origin, you may not know what a front room is) was of James Keir Hardie, a benevolent bearded
patriarch of socialism, whom I thought of as my grandfather.
Then a move further left, to the ILP, the Independent Labour Party, the spiritual forerunner of Vanessa Redgrave's Socialist Workers Party. As soon as I was able to read, I would open the "New Leader", the ILP weekly, and pick out the names of my father's heroes: Fenner Brockway, Tom Driberg, Jimmy Maxton.....
During WW2, politics were on hold, mainly because the issues were so clear cut. My father donned his ARP uniform to do his bit to fight fascism. I can remember he used to listen to a short wave broadcast called Workers' Challenge, a fiery nightly assault on the wickedness of the capitalist system with calls to overthrow our corrupt leaders. My father loved it, specially the swear words. He used to write summaries of the broadcasts in one of those moquette bound books that are normally used for double-entry bookkeeping. It was only years later - and mercifully when he was no longer around to know this - that I learned that Workers's Challenge was just one more Nazi deception, designed to rally the British working class against Churchill and all his evil works.
In 1947, the front room of our village home was the HQ of the local Labour Party during the election that swept Attlee to power after the war. I folded leaflets and licked envelopes and did my bit for socialism and gawped when my class teacher, Polly Bloom, turned up to help. My teacher! The one who used to rap my knuckles for writing my letters wrongly! And she knew my dad! And she was a human being! And a socialist like us!!
And guess who won the war. Guees who destroyed the fascists. Guess who was the hero in our house. Such a kind face. Everybody's idea of a benevolent older relative. The moustache designed to tickle as he kissed you, the twinkle in the avuncular eye. With Uncle Joe Stalin in charge, we could all sleep safely in our beds.
Disillusion with the Labour Government (He had a particular hatred for Ernest Bevin and didn't think much of Herbert Morrisson either) forced my father further left, to join the Communist Party. Now, our heroes were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallagher, the only two Communists to be elected; and our reading was now the Daily Worker. I missed the Daily Mirror, our staple during the war, because I missed the comic strips: Belinda, Garth, Ruggles, Just Jake (Ah! Cap'n Reilly Foull, my hero!). But I was happy that in my house at least, we knew the TRUTH, and we knew where paradise on earth was being built. All sorts of magazines and pamphlets about the Soviet Union seemed to arrive every day. As I grew older, I became enamoured of those smiling tractors and the bosomy headscarved girls who drove them. I have never lost my love for tractors or bosoms.
Fast forward: I go from this background and the local Grammar School, via a scholarship, to St John's College, Oxford, reading for a degree in Modern History. I return after some years to the parental home on Merseyside (to do postgraduate stuff at Liverpool University) to find my father, retired and mellowing, still active in the local Communist Party. I am tempted. I attend meetings, public and private. I even buy Anna Semeonova's delicious Russian Grammar and bludgeon my way through Pushkin's Kapitanskaya Dochka (Did I really read that from cover to cover??). The Cyrillic alphabet is damnably seductive.
They want me to join the party. And I don't. It is the time of local elections. The cell meets in my father's house. They talk tactics. Canvassing the working-class neighbourhoods has produced nothing in previous elections . My father suggests that we canvass the middle-class areas, where, he says, people are better equipped to consider the issues, they are more likely to think, discuss and reach the right conclusions. One of the cell, a professor from Liverpool Uni, rounds on my father: "That's revisionism, Jack!" Contempt in his voice. And that is the end of the discussion.
I hated that moment. All my life, my father - with whom, let's be clear, I did not have a close loving relationship - had fought for his socialist ideals. And now, he was put down, contemptuously, by a comfortable academic who wouldn't know a class struggle if it came up and bit him in the goolies. My dad wasn't an educated man, but he was an intelligent man. Hell, if there had been a 1944 Education Act in 1918, he would have been the one to get the education.
So I didn't join.
Many years later, I experienced the reality of Soviet Communism, both in the East Bloc and in Angola, and to a lesser extent in Tanzania, China and Vietnam. Thank you, but no thank you. I am just glad my father didn't live to see the destruction of all his dreams.
My dreams? Well, tractors for a start.....