Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

DOUBLE TAKE: More than one Road #2

In A.Graham, Reviews on June 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I Believed: The Autobiography of a former British Communist

by Douglas Hyde (Heinemann, 1951)

REVIEW #2

DOUGLAS HYDE grew up in a Methodist family in Bristol. In 1928 he joined the Communist Party, and spent the next twenty years or so working his way up through the ranks until finally he made it to the upper echelons of the Party, becoming a speaker, organiser and joining the editorial staff of the Daily Worker.

His book, I Believed, recalling his life in the Communist Party, was published in 1951. It ran to two reprints within a couple of months. It was a time of political polarisation, with the McCarthyite “witch hunts” in the USA at their height. Over there, being a “Commie” or a “Red” was seen as being guilty of “UnAmerican activities”, and thousands suffered as a result. Some were gaoled, others were merely blacklisted.

Though there was no blatant witch hunting over here, some of the climate had rubbed off in Britain. Coincidentally, it was about this time that I was beginning to get involved in politics. I was a teenager, just embarking on a new life in London. I ended up in a bedsitter which I shared for a while with another young lad who was a member of the Young Communist League. He made sure that I read the Daily Worker, and would engage me in “political discussions”. I never did join the Communist Party – though I admit that I did waver. The nearest I came to it was when the Rosenbergs were executed in America. They were sent to the electric chair on a charge of revealing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. They had been arrested in the summer of 1950, and despite a world-wide campaign for clemency, they were finally executed in 1953. The morning after, the Daily Worker came out with a one-word headline using the largest typeface it had – “MURDER”. The case stirred me emotionally. I believed in their innocence then, and still do today.

But eventually I veered away from the Communist Party. I think two factors helped to clarify my thoughts. One was the Soviet repression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956, and the other was the emergence of the nuclear disarmament movement a couple of years later. I took a different route, becoming increasingly involved in the peace movement – although with a developing Socialist perspective. For the record, I went on to join the ILP, which had been the CP’s major rival for the left-wing conscience in the 1930s.

It was against this backgound that I first read I Believed. It did have an influence on me – though not in the way that was intended by the author or indeed the person who gave it to me. It must have been difficult for Hyde to deny totally twenty years of selfless activity for the cause. At that time I was more interested in reading his accounts of the workers’ struggle – the hunger marches, the anti-fascist campaigns and the Spanish civil war – than the anti-Communist message superimposed as the overall theme. And I was in no way attracted by the alternative that Hyde chose – a sort of mediaevalist catholicism, beloved by such writers as Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc at the time.

Now, with maturity, I can take a more detached view of it all. Hyde knew better than most that the Communist Party at the time did as it was told, according to the shifts in Soviet foreign policy. The “party line” could (and did) change according to the dictates of Moscow, whilst the Communist policy document, The British Road to Socialism, was about as British as was allowed by the Communist International (later re-branded as the “Cominform”).

But what of the Party membership, which was still quite considerable in those days? When Hyde left the Party, it still had two MPs (though both seats were lost in the 1950 election), scores of councillors, a trade union base, and as late as 1960 boasted of a membership of some 30,000. As for the Daily Worker, it was selling 100,000 a day – and could have sold far more except for the strict rationing on newsprint that existed just after the war. The CP was not without its influence. I got to know many Party members in West London, and it was difficult to view them as “tools of Moscow”. They were sincere and committed and really believed that the “people’s democracies” offered the way forward.

Hyde was, in effect, a “proto-defector”. He was able to write his book whilst starting a new life in which he rejected “atheistic Marxism”. After he left the Party and the Daily Worker he became a columnist for the Catholic Herald. Others, of course, were to leave the Communist Party in later years, though not all of them lost their commitment to Socialism. The Party survived – but a “New Left” was also born in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

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