Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

DOUBLE TAKE: More than one Road #1

In C.Spiby, Reviews on June 18, 2010 at 1:59 pm

REVIEW #1

I Believed: The Autobiography of a former British Communist
by Douglas Hyde (Heinemann, 1951)

As a former British Communist myself, I greeted with interest the invitation to read and review a copy of Douglas Hyde’s reflection on his life in and out of the CPGB and its paper, the Daily Worker. The reading, for me, proved personally significant and incredibly arresting. At times I was incensed, at others engrossed.

Brought up in Bristol, Hyde found his way into organised politics via the International Class War Prisoners Aid while still living with his liberal parents, which he openly refers to as ‘petty-bourgeois’. But not before he considered a life of the cloth.

The holy path, however, was diverted by his doubts. His reading of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man challenged his theological learning. His feelings that arose from the apparent abandonment of the WWI wounded or the poverty of Welsh miners just across the Severn drove him to anger. And it was society’s mute response to these issues which informed his growing sense of intolerance of the injustices of the world and the way it was ordered which finally pushed him toward socialism and inexorably away from the church.

Hyde writes in a straight-forward manner which is accessible if rather bland and, on occasion, dry. Nonetheless he comes across as a very diligent but not entirely exciting journalist. Somehow though, the bare facts and the passion still rise through this dry prose. And this story is all about passion of one sort of another. After all, what else drives a person into the Communist Party?

It is clear to me that the life quest of Douglas Hyde is all about belief systems. Indeed, you begin to get the impression that the man can see no difference between a belief in Marxism and a theological belief even though he himself fails to make this connection. Marx and Stalin are as good as Gods to him. Only this can explain why he moves from a theological future to a socialist one and then back again. His journey is a spiritual one. He’s a man in search of a home, a purpose and a soul. And this soul exists on a keen sense of social justice.

Taking us through the Spanish Civil War and into the Second World War, I Believed has many such tests of justice and parity not just for Hyde, but the Party and the paper he eventually writes for, let alone the West. It is steeped in events of the period and its authenticity is undoubted.

Later in the book Hyde describes Marxists as evil and represents Party members as one might today refer to the Moonies: a cultish, insular sect bending easily-influence minds. This too is in keeping with his almost religious understanding of atheistic socialism but it is not an all an aspect I recognise in the Party I joined in the mid 1990’s. In fact, he is out rightly ominous at some turns…

…even though we knew quite well what we would do with freedom of the Press and democracy when the revolution came.

Of course, today we should read I Believed as part of the cannon against Stalinism and not as an indictment of socialism or communism per se, which is what Hyde thought he was writing. He can be forgiven for thinking so too: when Hyde was writing Stalin’s reach was long in length and lasting, much to the disgrace of more progressive and humane communists such as the British Party.

It seems the lying had become pandemic among the Party hierarchy. For example, Hyde cites one again that following the lifting of the ban on the Daily Worker, and with a policy of strong Government support of the Red Army against the Nazis, the Government of the day actually paid for a lot of Daily Worker advertising space. So much so that the paper actually began to make money. A decision had to be made on whether the wind up the paper’s fighting fund which had previously pleaded poverty to its readers in hope of them delving into their often threadbare pockets. The outcome was to lie and continue with the pleading. This money paid for a new HQ and then surplus was passed directly to the Party. Arguing that this was all good for the cause just sickens me.

Of course, we only have Hyde’s side of the story here and it wasn’t long before those brief fortunes were once again reversed but the point remains. For my part, even when I belonged to the Party, I have never subscribed to the cause over the truth – does that make me a bad Marxist?

Also, when it is convenient for his argument against communism, Hyde tends to forget the intention of the socialist internationalism. And that is the desire to look beyond nationhood and into and for the brotherhood and sisterhood of our fellow working class the world over. In the early section of the book this is one of the attractions of communism but by the time we see Hyde’s dissatisfaction with the Party take hold, this internationalism is likened to being agents of the Soviet Union.

Russia has forty thousand such potential spies in Britain in the ranks of the Communist Party, and millions more throughout the world.

Which shows the later Hyde speaking, but this is followed, by a section looking back at Hyde the Communist…

At no point did the question of its being unpatriotic enter into our thoughts. We were, after all, agreed that a communist Britain would be a better Britain… The conventional attitude [among communists] to patriotism and love of country was easily dismissed with the question: ‘Whose country- theirs or ours?’

…To the seasoned Marxist the axiom that ‘the workers have no country’ is sufficiently well absorbed for such considerations not to enter into his conscious reasoning at all.

As an argument against communism, this to-ing (supporting internationalism) and fro-ing (accusations of acting as spies) weakens both sides of the debate without actually being balanced at all. This is a bit of an enigma, but I see the word ‘spies’ used in its negative connotation: a clandestine vanguard against Britain. In reality, communism might often have been secretive and subversive, some of which is in its nature in a capitalist society, but, as Hyde says, for whose Britain is this struggle for?

It appears to me that sometimes Hyde’s memoir sets out to be sensational in order to heighten the anti-Communist stance. If so this just adds to my case against his poor reasoning. Remember, I see Hyde as, essentially, a good Communist, and I can see why he left. Really, his reasoning should have left him to fight the socialist cause against the Stalinisation of the Party from within or elsewhere. To choose God instead seems, to me as a communist atheist, to be a weird solution. He even touches on this when he says…

For years I had dreamed of what we would do when we had set up our Worker’s State as the Russians had done. It would be different from their, no doubt, for our traditions and even temperament were different.

So this betrayal of Hyde’s own thinking is saddening. But I think we should blame Stalin, not Hyde himself – it is Stalin who sets Hyde back up the churchyard path. Let me give you another aspect of that sensationalism. Is it really true that all Communist Party of Britain members in the 30’s-50’s were sex-mad out-of-wedlock people lusting after constant free-for-all intercourse with scant regard for women’s rights inasmuch as an abortion was treated like a contraception? That is the sensational impression one gets from certain passages of the book, and I don’t buy it. Later he calls female Party members “so utterly unbedworthy”.

For sure, modern Communists need to be clear on the works of Engels and the family and where they stand on it today. After all, we do have another 100 years of human learning as well as social anthropology, sociology and psychology to take into account. Hyde’s book just puts these aspects too simply, sending a message that to be a communist is a bit like belonging to a religious cult in terms of relationships. Even though he is equally sure to point out that many took advantage of the sex but really lusted after a stable, almost Christian, family life. But why should we believe his opinion on that either?

This is, after all, the man who says…

It is difficult, I suppose, for anyone who has never been a Marxist, to understand how people who pursue immoral policies can in most cases nonetheless be likeable, intelligent and… well-intentioned…

…but this is Hyde, the Christian. The question arises as why is it valid to measure Marxists by Christian morality at all? Where I do agree with Hyde is in his more incisive analysis of the problems of communism, which is, in my view, entirely Marxist…

There is a great deal in communism which clashes with human nature.

The is a welcome point gladly accepted in John Foster’s 2006 publication for the Communist Party of Britain The Case for Communism. And communist shouldn’t shy away from such analyses.

It is sad to see that Hyde appears now to have been forgotten by the Party. Despite being News Editor at the Daily Worker and leading the British antifascist campaign for the paper at the time, his legacy does not warrant even a mention in the 2001 publication Is That Damned Paper Still Coming Out? (a celebration of ‘the very the best of the Daily Worker and Morning Star). This was when the Daily Worker was being read by an estimated half a million readers (counting the number of hands it was passing through from the original purchaser – 5 at the time).

For my part it was suggested that I leave the Party and while having done I have since felt somewhat rudderless. Unlike Hyde, I did not have an alternative faith to fall back on. The same pang which drives an intolerance of the manifold injustices of our time has not lessened. I still consider myself a communist.

This book reawakened some of that passion for the Party, although we can be sure that this was not Hyde’s intention. I respect his book and his opinion. Indeed, I believe it is time for his rehabilitation into the Party’s British history for I believe in an open communism. The same kind of openness, no less, which Marx, Engels and Lenin called for when they challenged communists to be the most robust critics of themselves. This is what progressive politics really meant. Hyde had inadvertently written a memoir which highlights this fact. Though he didn’t know it he did indeed get to the kernel of his misunderstanding of Marxism when he said…

I was a trained Marxist and so spoke and thought as a Marxist without any conscious act of will

That is not what I understand as Communism. Just as we could be a ‘community of nations’ with all our differences in culture and plurality of heritage, desires and makeup we could be individuals fighting for all. Not drones fighting for some over-centralised and paranoid Party hierarchy.

Today, the Communist Party of Britain believes the Labour Party and Labour Movement is best saved from within rather than building new divisive endeavours like ‘Respect’. Hyde’s book shows us how the same tactic should have been adopted by the CPGB for its own party under the shadow of Stalinist Russia which, just to be clear, was never a communist state. It was a dictatorship parading under communist slogans. Now we know that, communists need to move on and believe in ourselves and in the power of self-checking that proper Marxist self-criticism offers.

I look forward to your views on the matter in the letters and e-mails to The Clarion.

CS

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