I've been looking for this book for decades and I've finally found a copy!
Philip Spratt was a British communist, a Cambridge graduate, who in the 1920s headed out to India on behalf of the party. He was - along with Ben Bradley and Lester Hutchinson and most of the local leadership of the CPI - a defendant in the notorious Meerut conspiracy trial. After his eventual release from jail in 1936 Spratt made his life in India, marrying an Indian woman.
This political biography was published in Calcutta in 1955, by which time Spratt had broken with the CP and indeed was fiercely critical of communism. But it promises to be a really fascinating read. It's exceptionally rare and I am delighted to have alighted on a copy.
This is the really stirringly designed title page to a book I've just bought - Young Oxford at War, published in 1934 in the wake of the famous Oxford Union motion passed by a clear majority the previous year: That this House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.
The four student contributors were from different political traditions: Michael Foot then a Liberal, and later of course the leader of the Labour party and the only one of the four to get to Parliament; Frank Hardie from the Labour party; Dick Freeman, a communist and founder of Oxford's October Club; and a Conservative, Keith Steel-Maitland.
No women contributors - not least because at this date they weren't eligible for membership of the Oxford Union.
The illustration above - and I would imagine the jacket as well - was designed by Arthur Wragg, a socialist and pacifist. Remarkably, V.K. Krishna Menon - at this time a CP fellow traveller and later India's high commissioner in London and defence minister - was the editor of the volume. Harold Laski provided a very brief preface.
It's a testament to that decade when student politics mattered, and to the strong political emotions aroused by the slow slide towards war.
It's wonderful how one thing leads to another. My last blog was about Denis Healey and his conversion to communism when a student at Oxford in the 1930s - an embrace which lasted three years.
That in turn prompted Nicholas Deakin to send me a copy of his new book Radiant Illusion?, in which Denis Healey features. The book's focus is on middle-class recruits to the CPGB in the era of its greatest success among students and intellectuals, the 1930s.
It's a mix of accounts by academics - Deakin, Kevin Morgan, Geoff Andrews - and the offspring of those recruited into the party in the (and of course those two groups overlap).
The book dispels any sense that CPers of the thirties - both those who came on board during the sectarian, class-against-class, early '30s, and those attracted to the much more open and collaborative Popular Front period from 1934-5 - were loners, sociopaths, obsessives. They tended to get on well with their parents, have lots of friends and were often among the most conspicuously talented of their generation.
As far as I am aware, there is no published study of student communism in the 1930s and '40s - which would need to embrace the Indian students communists who became so influential within the CPI. I've blogged here before about some of those who were attracted to communism as students, notably Freda Bedi and Ram Nahum. Radiant Illusion? is the wonderful sort of book which both informs and nourishes and raises a whole load of other questions which deserve attention.
As you'll see the book is published by a small press and at a very affordable price.
I liked Denis Healey (who died yesterday at the grand age of 98) - and on the one occasion that I interviewed him for radio, he was both charming and very forthcoming.
I was making a radio series for the BBC World Service about the development of the international communist movement - the audio is on this page - and called at his flat in Pimlico in December 1991 to record his memories of being in the Communist Party as a student at Oxford. He remembered it as 'a very lively happy, humorous movement - it wasn't grimly sectarian'. His wife Edna was there - I didn't record her, but I recall (I think this is right) that she also was in the party briefly while at Oxford.
Denis of course went on to be a very prominent figure in the Labour Party, its deputy leader and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He would probably have made a better prime minister than quite a few of those who took on that role.
I am posting the audio of that 1991 interview - it's been deposited at the National Sound Archive at the British Library, along with my other interviews with British political figures. I've also transcribed the interview below. Enjoy!
AW: You joined the Communist Party at the end of your first year at Oxford -
DH: Yes, in the summer of 1937.
Basically I think because it was the only party that seemed unequivocally in favour of standing up to Hitler. The Conservative party was in favour of appeasing him in the main. And the Labour party was divided between pacifists and a rather vague form of collective security. And I think that's why enormous numbers of people you'd never imagine joined at that time - John Biggs-Davison, who later became the chairman of the Monday Club; two - at least two people I know who later became Conservative ministers. And all for that reason.
But this was at a period when the Communist Party was coming out of a deeply sectarian phase, and its policy programme was still entitled 'For a Soviet Britain' -
Well, I don't think we were very conscious of its domestic policies. The watershed in the Communist Party internationally was the seventh world congress which took place I think in '35, the year before I went up to Oxford. I went up in the autumn of '36. And it was as you say very sectarian before that. Communists always wore beards, looked dirty, did badly in their examinations. Then when it became Popular Front, which was essentially the '37 move, which reflected of course the desire to create a popular front against the Nazis and fascists, everybody shaved, behaved well in public, and got Firsts in their examinations. And it was totally different. And we were hardly conscious of what it had been before that. Because young men of eighteen, they don't know what the political world was like when they were fourteen or twelve.
Edward Thompson, who I've also spoken to, who joined the party in Cambridge just a few years after you, tells me then most Cambridge communist students had got a photograph of [CPGB leader] Harry Pollitt on their mantelpiece. Did you have one?
No, I never did. No. We had a song. 'Harry was a Bolshie, one of Lenin's lads, but he was slain by counter-revolutionary cads'. But there was no hero worship at that time of Harry Pollitt or indeed of the national leadership. As I say, it was overwhelmingly, in my particular year, which was the end of the first year of the Spanish Civil War don't forget, it was overwhelmingly for international reasons rather than national.
How disciplined was the party? Did you have to sell the Daily Worker for example?
No. It wasn't disciplined in that sense at all. And again the international line of the Communist Party was the popular front against fascism [interruption] Yes, again I was a student communist so that we didn't play much part in the work of the Communist Party in Oxford except during the famous Oxford by-election of 1938, when Sandy Lindsay - he was the Master of Balliol - fought Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, on a popular front programme.
Indeed, that is the most important chapter in the British campaign for a popular front, that Oxford by-election -
Yes, I think it probably was, simply because it was the only case where you had a very well-known popular front candidate who couldn't by any stretch of the imagination be called a communist. He was a right-wing Labour party supporter, Lord Lindsay as he later became.
Any embarrassment among Labour supporters, his supporters, about working with communists?
No I don't think there was the because the trials in Moscow and the suppression of the kulaks [better-off Soviet peasant sand farmers] was not really very well known I would say among the political class in Britain. Some intellectuals like - Leonard Woolf was a notable example, had been fighting a battle for a long time with the fellow travellers like Victor Gollancz and John Strachey, who they thought totally misunderstood and misrepresented Soviet Communism. But they were a minority, and I think the bulk of us were content simply to be swept along by the tide of anti-fascism.
What about the change of party line in the early weeks of the war, when suddenly it went from being 'People's War against Fascism' to 'Imperialist War'. Any shock waves that you remember within the party at Oxford?
Oh yes. There was a tremendous shock wave over the Stalin-Hitler pact, which of course preceded the war, in a sense led to the war. It freed Hitler to mobilise his forces against France and the Low Countries. And a lot of people left the Communist Party then. I didn't myself partly because - it was rather an odd situation - I volunteered for the army on the day war broke out in September the third. And then I was told by a friend in the Communist Party that the line had changed, and we had decided it was an imperialist war not an anti-fascist war. And I said: baloney.
But of course at that time I was waiting to be called into the army, and expected to be in the army within a month. In fact, they didn't calls us up until the end of that term. They told us we could finish our Schools [finals exams]. So it was a whole year after volunteering before I actually joined the army. And I, I left the army really - I would say, left the Communist Party, over the fall of France, because I could just understand the communists supporting Russia because Britain and France had been unwilling to make an alliance with Russia against Hitler, which was the way we saw it. But then when it became obvious to a child like me that after the fall of France, Britain would be the next target, not to see this danger seemed to me absolutely ridiculous. And that's when I formally left the party.
You've described it as a bed-and-breakfast organisation, but in fact you stayed for three years. So that's rather more than an overnight stay -
No, but that is bed-and-breakfast in terms of politics, bed-and-breakfast in the sense that you join one day and leave the next I don't think's ever happened. But the average length of membership of the Communist Party was two or three years in those days, internationally not just in Britain.
Is there anything that's worth resurrecting from the shambles of the Communist experiment? Anything in terms of idealism, comradeship? Anything else?
Well, I think the idealism and comradeship was very real, and of course it exists in other parties of all types, Catholic parties too. But I think the world in which the Popular Front became a massive force, after all it formed a government in France under Leon Blum don't forget, that world has totally disappeared.
I think the thing you've got to remember is that the thirties was the period when it seemed as clear to young people that capitalism has failed as it's clear to young people know that communism has failed. We'd seen capitalism produce fascism in Italy, Hitler in Germany, a great recession which had produced mass unemployment all over the world. And there were very, very few people in the chattering classes, among intellectuals, who thought capitalism had a future at all.And, as I say, the failure of capitalism was as evident then as the failure of communism now.
Now, it could be people will change their attitude towards communism because in China, for example, where they've gone about things in the opposite way from the Russians, concentrating on introducing bits of the market in their economy, it's probably the fastest growing economy in the world, faster even than Japan. But at the cost, as you know, of terrible oppression in the political field.
I just wonder if you had any anecdotes about your time in the CPGB in Oxford which would give some impression, some flavour, of what party activity was like? What it meant to be a communist then?
Well, I think the big thing to remember is that the student movement at Oxford was a very lively, happy, humorous movement. It wasn't grimly sectarian. We used to sing songs about: 'I'm the man, the very fat man, that waters the workers' beer'. And, you know: 'As I crouch beneath the table, where the politburo meets, they would startle from their seats, if they knew of half the feats, of diversionary aims and espionage, and civil and military sabotage, that I've performed the whole year round for Hitler'. And I always remember a friend of mine who made a parody: 'Twas Christmas Day on the kolkhoz [Soviet collective farm], local river in flood, peasants were sitting on doorsteps, all sunk in depression and mud'.
It was, as I say, a very outgoing and open movement, and appealed to an enormous number of people. I mean, most of the poets of that time were communist - Auden, Spender, Isherwood - or fellow travellers; Louis Macneice was one of the very few who rejected that. Very large number of painters; the surrealists, oddly enough, although surrealism is as far from communism as ever you could imagine and rejected by the Russians of course - they were nearly all communists.
So warm memories on the whole?
Oh yes, of that period, yes. I mean, I think I was wrong now, of course. On the other hand, I don't know quite what one could have done otherwise, except worked harder in the Labour party to change its policy and make it more realistic.
Alys George was born a century ago this month. She was better known as Alys Faiz - she married the renowned Pakistani poet, journalist and activist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I met and interviewed her twice at her home in Lahore in the 1990s - and I am posting the audio of those interviews on this blog with the blessing of her daughter, the artist Salima Hashmi.
Alys was the daughter of a bookseller in the London district of Walthamstow. In the 1930s in London, she became politically active eventually joining the Communist Party, and got to know Indian nationalists and leftists in London. In 1939, she travelled to Amritsar to visit her sister Christobel, who married Dr M.D. Taseer, a noted Marxist thinker and educationalist. Two years later, Alys and Faiz married at Pari Mahal in Srinagar - with the nikah conducted by Sheikh Abdullah.
When I interviewed her in Lahore in October 1995, Alys reminisced at length about becoming involved in the British Communist movement ('I wanted to go to Spain but my parents said no'), getting to know Indian activists, coming out to Punjab and spending time in Kashmir. She recalled the tragic, cathartic violence which accompanied Partition, and spoke of her husband's ranguished poetic reflection on the manner in which India and Pakistan gained independence, 'Freedom's Dawn'.
Audio of Alys Faiz interviewed in October 1995, press the arrow below
I first met Alys Faiz a few months earlier, and talked to her then more briefly both about her memories of Partition, and her reflections on the then impending marriage of Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith, and what advice she might give the new bride:
Audio of Alys Faiz interviewed in June 1995, press the arrow below
The second time we met, I brought a long a copy of her book of letters to her husband when he was in jail, Dear Heart. My wife, Anu, was with me - her only visit to Pakistan. Alys signed the book to us both - a nice personal remembrance of a warm and courageous woman.
There is to be a centenary tribute to Alys Faiz in Lahore on September 20th.
Both interviews with Alys Faiz will also be posted in due course on the Partition Voices page of this website.
Alys Faiz (nee George) 22 September 1914 - 12 March 2003
Twenty years ago this month, I set foot in India for the first time. A life changing trip.
I landed at Calcutta on Royal Jordanian airways - my luggage landed at Dharan in Saudi Arabia. It was mid June, sweltering. I took a taxi in from Dum Dum airport, and gagged with disbelief as we passed the stink of Tangra.
The Kenilworth hotel denied any knowledge of my room booking, but had a vacancy in the 'old' wing. A room as big as a ballroom, with lots of fauna - but the lights were so dim you couldn't see the cockroaches. Very thoughtful!
A great trip - met Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, and Mamata Banerjee, who's now in charge.
My task was to make a radio programme about Communism in West Bengal, which much to my amazement and delight attracted the most prestigious award I've ever won. (If you're curious, you can hear the programme on this page - it's the third in the series).
I fell in love with Cal - and I've never fallen out of love with the city.
The photo above is of a street scene in Calcutta, near the CPI(M) headquarters in Alimuddin Street - the flag is of the street hawkers' union. I managed to see a bit of Wet Bengal beyond Cal. The photo below was taken as I was interviewing villagers in Nadia region - I can't remember whether they were CPI(M) supporters, or people complaining about thuggery by party comrades.
I stopped at Delhi on the way back. A year later, I pitched up as BBC correspondent there. And the rest ...
The very first time I set foot in India was at Calcutta airport, back in 1992. I was making a radio documentary about the staying power of West Bengal's communists - you can hear it elsewhere on this site. Back then, Jyoti Basu's CPI(M) has been in power for fifteen unbroken years.
Fast forward another eighteen years to the present, and the Communists still govern West Bengal. Jyoti Basu, who at one stage came within a whisker of becoming India's Prime Minister, is now dead. But his party marches on.
Not for much longer, according to Jason Burke in today's Observer. He reports that the party is being outflanked by a populist split from Congress led by Mamata Banerjee - who I met on that first trip to Calcutta all those years ago. The party's epitaph has been written many times and they have proved remarkably resilient - but this time, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from Alimuddin Street (the CPI(M) headquarters).
Whatever, that first trip to India instilled in me a huge affection for Calcutta, which remains undimmed. A wonderful city with fantastic architecture and a vibrant culture.
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