Dorothy Thompson nee Towers (1923-2011), historian of Chartism, was a member of the YCL/CPGB from 1939 to 1956.
This interview was conducted at the Thompsons' home in Worcestershire on 1 December 1991. It covers joining the Communist Party while still at school at the end of the 1930s, party discipline, and recollections of leaders such as Palme Dutt and Harry Pollitt; the role of women in the party, especially during the Second World War; CPGB activity; leaving the party in 1956; recites ‘Harry was a Bolshie’, song about Jubilee. An interview conducted on the same day with E.P. Thompson is available here.
Dorothy Thompson nee Towers (1923-2011) talking to Andrew Whitehead at her home in Worcestershire on 1 December 1991 about her involvement with the Communist Party and the peace movement, and the political songs she once sang:
Let me ask you if I may when you joined the party and why you joined the party?
I joined in 1939 about a year before war broke out. And I joined - I was at school, I was in the sixth form. My family were radical but not communist and I suppose you always move slightly to the left of your family at that age. And they didn't like the idea of my actually joining but they had always been very supportive - they supported the government side in the Spanish war, they admired the Russian Revolution. And my grandmother particularly because of the overthrow of Tsarism. My grandmother remembered Tsarism as the height of reaction in the world. So it was a sort of movement left from a fairly radical family background.
So this was the Popular Front period?
How then did you react to the twists and turns in '39?
Well, to us it seemed very obvious. That the phoney war seemed totally phoney. One of the girls at school with me, her father had to have lunch with the Swiss ambassador because they traded with Germany through Switzerland. Now we were at war with Germany and we didn't believe that it was a serious war. And we thought the Nazi-Soviet pact was necessary because otherwise the Germans would have gone straight for the Soviet Union. This was how we saw it at the time.
We were much less sure in '41 when the Soviet Union was invaded that the British really would come in behind the Russians, you know. We heard Churchill's speech that night and we sought of thought: well, does he mean it? Or are they going to stand back as Brabazon said and let the Russians and Germans fight it out?
What awareness was there at local level, at branch level, of the divisions within the Communist Party hierarchy, the fact that Pollitt and Palme Dutt were at each others' throats?
Well, we were in the Young Communist League - and in the Communist Party - and Dutt was the person, the 'Notes of the Month', he was the person who we really took very seriously. And Pollitt came round very quickly. I mean that - as far as the sort of picture went, it was just a very short difference. It was only late - since then that it's been shown this to be a fundamental difference, hasn't it. At the time, it just looked like a wobble on Pollitt's part.
You mentioned Palme Dutt. Can you give me some idea of, first of all, what he looked like?
Well, he was very - he looked very Indian. Shaw says somewhere that Palme Dutt and his unEnglish logic. And he had this wonderful sort of Eastern, very very meticulous and clear way of speaking. And he was very humorous, he could make jokes. And he had this clarity which I suppose when we were young we admired very much. Only later one became more suspicious of it.
He does seem to have been the Machiavelli of the British party.
Well, I don't know. No I don't think so. I think really that people like Jimmy Stewart and Harry Pollitt were much more Machiavellian. Dutt never pretended to be a great working class leader. He was a theoretician. So you can say he was wrong as a theoretician but one didn't see him as a manipulator or organiser whereas these other people - these King Street lot - were much more prepared to say one thing -
I mean, I was at a meeting of the YCL - I think it was Wainwright, no Robson was speaking - and some young people brought up the question of the trials, the Trotskyist trials, you know. They said to Robson - and he said: well I know these Trotskyists were guilty. And they said: how do you know? were you there? Yes, I was there? You were actually in the courtroom? Yes, I was in the courtroom. You heard the evidence? Yes, I heard the evidence. The Young Communists were a bit set back and then he said: of course when I say I was there, my party was there, my party was in the courtroom (Laughs) These were the manipulators. Dutt would never have done anything like that. He would have given you an argument that, you know, maybe there was injustice but the cause of the class struggle is a greater cause - you know, that kind of argument. (4:00)
Again, Pollitt - what did he look like?
He looked like most people's Dad. I mean, people had pictures of him on the wall. They would say, oh is that your Dad or your uncle. He looked like a working man, red faced, beefy looking, very stentorian voice, very loud voice with a slight Lancashire accent.
You say people would have photographs of him on the wall?
Oh, every YCL-er - even at Cambridge some of them had Pollitt with his cloth cap on the mantelpiece or on the wall.
And Stalin as well?
No, I don't think people had pictures - I think we were always very suspicious of Stalin. I mean, I was. These Soviet films which showed Stalin over-ruling the whole of the Central Committee and making the right decision, I was always very uneasy about that. And all the birthday presents he had. You felt this was an evil that you put up with because the Russians were simple people and needed a father figure. I don't think I ever felt Stalin was a great theorist or a great idealist.
And Pollitt was the father figure of the British party. You are suggesting almost that there was a bit of a cult of personality.
I think there probably was, yes. There was always a lot of songs about Harry Pollitt that we used to sing, but they were mostly funny songs.
I've actually tried to track down some of those sing, 'Like Harry was a Bolshie'. 'Harry was a Bolshie' has never been commercially recorded, apart from in one version by an American folk group which is too bowdlerised for use. There was a streak then of irreverence -
Youthful rebellion against party leadership and line?
Very much so
How far was that taken?
Well, we had a great row at the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union when they all swung round - we got to support, some of us in the League, and the person that was sent down to discipline us was a man called David Springhall, who was later arrested for spying for China. And he was a real bully. We really - the youngsters didn't like these heavyweight middle-aged men. So I suppose we were rather hostile in some ways.
The Communist Party never seemed to produce women in senior ranks in the same way that we had people Pollitt and Palme Dutt and Willie Gallacher. How involved were women in the party hierarchy?
Well, there were one or two - Isobel Brown, Marion Ramelson, Nan Green who had been in Spain and driven an ambulance. There were one or two and they - one always felt that these women were exactly equal, you never felt they were put in charge of women's work. And when they did introduce the party women's committee to do women's work, we were all a bit resistant to it - but in fact we did do some.
What about at local level in the branches? Was there any division between male and female comrades?
There wasn't in any of the branches I was in but then during the war, most of the leadership was women, as it was presumably in the Labour party - the secretaries and the chairmen were usually women. And - so there was a very heavy involvement of women. And one did feel that they were absolutely equal in a way that I'd never felt - I mean, I always despised the Labour party for having a women's section. I would never go to women's section meetings when I was in the Labour party.
How did the party latch on to the great surge of support that came its way after '41? What did it do to capitalise on that support?
Well, it partly couldn't. I gather that in places like Coventry, they never got a full record. People just came up and joined and they never even got their cards issued. They had very big meetings for things like the Second Front - you had Trafalgar Square absolutely packed solid, something you never really saw again until the peace movement. So that there was a tremendous support - the Daily Worker, when it became legal again, had the biggest circulation that it's probably ever had in terms of genuine circulation. And there were branch meetings and public meetings, particularly on specific issues like the Second Front. But also some cultural things and some of the party - folk singers and people like that got big audiences.
How far did party members think the party could go? Was there an actual expectation that the Communist Party could become the main party of the left in this country? Or the slogan from the thirties 'For a Soviet Britain', did anybody actually believe it?
'Forward to a Soviet Britain' (Laughs). Well no I think the whole line from the earliest days was affiliation with the Labour party, that eventually the Labour party would accept as it had done with the ILP that the Communist Party would be a legitimate part and then the superior logic of the Communists would take them into the leadership. And after the war, I mean, OK, the Communists didn't put up a great number of independent candidates but they did get Piratin and Gallacher back in, they got - they helped in a lot of Labour candidates who then, I mean I know our local one at Cambridge use to let us send our Communist Party propaganda out with his free election stuff. You know, there was a very close relationship in the immediately post-war period.
That's interesting. So you're saying that in '45 the Labour candidate in Cambridge allowed Communist party propaganda out in the same envelope?
Yes. I don't know whether that's libellous, whether (laughs) I don't know if he's still alive. He was a chap called Leslie Symonds. But yes - yes, he did. He let us put out our local election - we ran local candidates and he used to let us put our stuff in - because we had undoubtedly helped him back. And I think this happened in a lot of places - that they worked very closely together. And an awful lot of those first - those 1945 Labour MPs were ex-Communists: Geoffrey Bing, Charlie Smith - I could probably tell you eight or nine of them, who had been in the army and their membership had lapsed and they had come back. But they were very close - so in that sense you had the picture of a Labour movement which would have much more of a Communist input. And I think we really did think - not that the Communist Party would have all the answers - that, you know, it would be a broader movement. (10:00)
So when did the two parties really start diverging, because join membership really would have been unthinkable in the fifties wouldn't it?
Absolutely, yes. I suppose it was associated with the cold war, with the NATO pact and the Warsaw Pact and the - and Michael Foot, didn't he, took Tribune very strongly down the cold war line, that no association with the Communists was acceptable. And there was the black circular in the TUC that wouldn't allow Communists in some unions to be officers. And I suppose this is in the late forties that all this happens.
When did your dissatisfaction with the way the Communist Party was conducting itself become more than simply a grievance but a burning cause?
Well, it was three things. One was Stalin, and when Stalin died I remember I had to chair a meeting and being told of by Edward because I couldn't be enthusiastic. One felt that the whole Stalin episode was worrying with - the doctors' plot was very worrying. I remember either there was a new man and there were splendid Soviet doctors or there was villains who were putting away - you couldn't interpret the doctors' plot in any way favourably to the Soviet Union.
And then this party women's movement - when the peace movement got going, the National Assembly of Women, of which I was on the central committee, passed a resolution in favour of unilateral disarmament by Britain. And the party members on the committee simply said: oh, well of course, we can't accept that, this is a dangerous policy. So that the peace movement, particularly the opposition to the British bomb, was something that the party was very very late in coming in, you know - They were in favour of the five power peace pact, which was a more-or-less meaningless thing. So, I think it was the peace movement - And the whole period after the death of Stalin, obviously, even before the secret speech - we were very concerned about the way things were being manipulated - people were popping up and popping down and - So I suppose from about '52 onwards. (12:00)
And then in '56 you were involved in the Reasoner. You were saying earlier some of the anecdotes about the pressure that was put on you and other comrades by King Street and others. How oppressively did you feel that at the time?
Well, it's very difficult to think back to how much one valued one's party card but - as Edward was saying - we really thought we could change the party, we could make it something British. And the pressure that you would be forced out was very strong because we felt that the party was divided and we were on the right side of the divide - not that we were in any position of being critics from outside. And one was moved throughout '56 slowly into the position where you suddenly realised that you were totally outside.
But in the years before '56, I would say that we really fought hard for our kind of broader party and respect for the people we work with, not seeing them just as recruits. One colleague of mine who was a doctor worked with the tenants' movement in London and suddenly found that the party said: OK, you've got these tenants organised, get them into the party. So he left: I'd organised them to fight unfair rents not to join the Communist Party. We had that sort of pressure all the time - that we should see any movement that we were involved in as a recruiting ground. Whereas we felt that these movements were in fact building up a broader left.
You were telling me earlier the anecdote about James Klugman. Could you tell that again?
Yes, well - James was a very good friend of mine. We used to go to the second-hand book stores and buy books always when I went to London. And he was coming to speak to the Communist Party Historians' Group. He had been to Russia to the Soviet historians - and there had been an attack by one Soviet historian or something on historical method. And James rang me up the night before the meeting of the historians' group and said: what do the historians want me to talk about, they don't want all this Joe business do they, they want me to talk about the historians' congress? I said: well James, I think they want you to talk about the Joe business. And he really was talked down at the conference - he was talked into a corner. We went back together on the bus. About half-way home I raised this question of Stalin having written part of the British Road and he got off at the next stop. And we've never spoken since. You know, he was - I think he knew more about the dark side of the Communist Party than anyone but he was one of the ablest and brightest people and I think in a sense lived in a world of his own. He lived in a world in which these things didn't really matter.
You mentioned Stalin's role in drafting the 1950 British Road - again, did you hear about that from Mick Jenkins?
Well Edward heard it from Mick and he told me -
So word was going round the branches even then - in the early- to mid-fifties - that Stalin had some hand in drafting this British Road?
Yes. Definitely yes, there were - well, this was in '56 that Mick actually said that. And it was denied by some people - but no it was known by then, yes.
Was there no channel in the party in which you could ask for information and seek an authoritative comment?
[Edward Thompson makes an indistinct comment]
Well, that was what I was doing from James and he got off the bus. (Laughs) This is what it amounted to, I actually asked them. They would then say - I wrote and protested when Julia Wright was being persecuted - I said something about Julia Wright should surely be protected by the Communist women of the west. And I got a letter back from the women's organiser: I didn't see you protesting against concentration camps in Kenya. It was always that sort of level, you know - if you protested about something you would be told you ought to be doing something different. This was, again, a reason why you couldn't in the end work with such people. (16:00)
But you were thinking of relinquishing your party card before Budapest?
Yes - yes, definitely. In fact, I was in hospital having my third child at the time of Budapest. I got a telegram from one of the New Reasoner people - we knew you would produce a third issue, even if the party wouldn't accept an advertisement in the Daily Worker. (laughs) These things were all running together.
Then you left the party - what, October, shortly after October?
Yes, I suppose it would have been the end of - the middle of October or the end of October '56.
And you'd been a member then for seventeen years. How much of a wrench?
By then, it wasn't a wrench. But they were seventeen very important and formative years. But actually, one joined then - by leaving the party, you joined people all over the world - I went to a conference in Paris for the foundation of the UGF and all the French party people who were leaving at the same time were, you know, many of the best people in the party. And even some of the east European people we met, some of the refugees from '56 - So one wasn't going out into a total void. One was going out into an intellectual argument which was quite stimulating and powerful.
With hindsight, do you think you left too late?
Well, we joined - our friends had been leaving since the early fifties and with many of these we hadn't quarrelled at all. And when the peace movement started, these people came in with us - so, one could have left any time from say '52 onwards and not have ended up in a very different position. I don't really regret having stayed in partly because I got much more of a sight of how things worked by being at the centre of the conflict than I probably would have done as an outsider. So I don't particularly feel - I mean, in some ways, as Edward says, it was a waste of time but -
Let me ask the question that I asked Edward - looking back on your long period of membership, to what extent do you feel pride and to what extent do you feel regret about your period of membership?
Well, I think what being a Communist was in that period was internationalist. OK, one was perhaps - lent too much towards the Soviet Union. But the Communist Party was an international movement. Any country you went to - I went to Austria in '48. I immediately got to know the local Communists and could talk to them. So you did get an education in internationalism which probably, outside of church, you - young people don't get that now. You see, my own children don't have this immediate contact all over the world. So it did have its positives. And I think also for women - with all the, one might say against it - you were respected as a political person not as a female putting a female line. You were expected to hold office and introduce political reports just as much as a man with very little discrimination. So there were positives and negatives . Which would hold sway now in retrospect? Do you regret joining the party in '38 [sic]?
Ask anyone about, their youth they're not going to say they took the wrong turning (Laughs) If I hadn't been in the party, where would I have been, you know. One can't see another movement one might have been in. And when I see students nowadays who are not attached to anything, they often become much more self-absorbed, much more introspective, much more concerned with their own emotional lives, than we were. I mean, having an outward - a comradely, outward moving thing at that age is a very useful device. So I don't really regret it.
If I can ask you a couple more questions, the songs that you sang at YCL get-togethers - the informal songs - can you remember any of them? ... There are very few songbooks which record any of the words. There's - 'Harry was a Bolshie' was in a couple of the songbooks. ...
There were some very vulgar ones. ... And songs about the Jubilee. ... Well, 'Harry was a Bolshie' you've got, have you? ... Well, do you want to waste your battery on this? (Laughs)
Harry was a Bolshie, One of Lenin's lads, But he was foully murdered, By counter revolutionary cads,
Harry's ghost appeared and said, My comrades do not sigh, For I'm off to do some basic work, In the land above the sky.
He floated up to heaven, Feeling weak about the knees, Oh, may I speak to comrade God, It's Mr Pollitt please.
St Peter said how are you, Are you humble and contrite, I'm a friend of Lady Astor's, Then OK you'll be alright
They put him on the choir, The hymns he didn't like, He organised the angels and brought them out on strike. ...
One evening as the Lord went out, To rest and meditate, Who should he see but Harry, Chalking slogans on the gate
They brought him up for trial, Before the holy ghost, For spreading disaffection, Amongst the heavenly host
The verdict it was guilty, Said Harry well that's swell, So he tucked his nightie round his knees, And floated down to hell (Silence)
Now seven long years have passed away, And Harry's doing well, He's just been made first people's commissar, Of Soviet hell -
There is another verse in-between about shovelling brimstone, but I forget how that goes. But it's that sort of thing, you know.
Are there any other ones that you remember the words of?
Well, things like - which has only one variation in each verse: Blow the bloody bugle boys - I have to sing it. [Singing]
Blow the bloody bugle boys And bang the bloody drum, We'll send the bloody bourgeoisie To kingdom bloody come We'll make a bloody bonfire [mumbles to indicate these words forgotten] And we'll throw them on it one by bloody one
And the next one:
Hurrah, Hurrah, We've had the Jubilee, Hurrah hurrah, But not for you and me, Only for King Georgie and the fucking bourgeoisie, Bringing us hunger and starvation.
You know that one don't you! (Laughs) Marching song of the young left
What were the mainstream songs that were sung: the Internationale - ?
They would tend to be Soviet ones, Soviet land, so dear to every toiler, and Higher than the Soviet star - that one, yes (Laughs)
[Edward joins in]
[Roaring] the USSR - Should dictators with their snouts come rooting - You've got that? Those are all in print aren't they. What else did they sing? Oh, the partisan one, yes: At the call of Comrade Lenin arose the partisans. And there were lots of sectarian versions of that. And: I'll sing you one-oh - You know that, there's a red version of that
Red fly the banners-oh ? Yes. Oh, and: When we sang the red flag inside the Red Cow. I don't remember all of that. That was a Cambridge one. No Bolsheviks drink has some - they sit on committees and meetings all day, But that's an opinion I'll never allow Since we sang the red flag inside the Red Cow. That went on and on and on. Well, there's an awful lot of them - I can't sort of remember them all.