John Saville (1916-2009) was a British historian, particularly of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He spent most of his working life at the University of Hull. Saville joined the Communist Party when a student at the LSE in the mid-1930s and remained a member for twenty-two years.
During the Second World War, he served in India as a gun instructor and met many of India's leading communists. He was a prominent member of the influential Communist Party Historians' Group. After Khrushchev's 'secret speech' in 1956, Saville, along with Edward Thompson, established The Reasoner to campaign for internal democracy in the CPGB, which led to their resignation from the party. John Saville remained active on the left, politically and intellectually, notably in the peace movement.
This interview with him was conducted by Andrew Whitehead at Hull in January 1993. Professor Saville made clear at the time that there was no restriction as to availability or use. A full transcript of the interview is posted below.
interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, Hull, 12 January 1993 - no restrictions
A COMMUNIST STUDENT AT THE LSE
AW: You joined the Communist Party in 1934. Why?
JS: Late autumn - The obvious political party I think All the intelligent people that I knew - with one or two exceptions - like Alec Nove, the professor of Russian history at Glasgow - were in the CP. I wasn't especially political when I went to LSE but it seemed a fairly natural thing to do. The arguments and the reading I took to very easily.
So you joined in your first term as a student?
Yes. After about two months.
How big was the party branch in the LSE then?
I can't remember but it was probably about 30 or 40. I think at its peak it may have got up to somewhere between 80 and 100. And its peak would be, oh, 35, 36, 37.
But when you joined in 34 the CP was still rather unfashionable. It was coming out of the 'Class Against Class period. We weren't into the Popular front phase which came a year or two later. What was the intellectual attraction of the CPGB?
Well, they had moved from the 'Class Against Class' and in fact people of my generation who joined the CP and those who came after me knew nothing, or almost nothing, of the history of the CP And the Class Against Class episode, period - the third period as it's called - was not known at all. And most people from certainly 34 onwards took a more-or-less United Front line, which was already coming into political life on the left. So it is very important to appreciate that most of the people who became communists in the 30s did not know about the sectarianism of the 29-32 period.
How sectarian was the party even so in that period in the mid-30s, when the Labour Part after all - or the bulk of the Labour Party wanted nothing to do with the CP?
No - in terms of students we were not sectarian and we always worked with social democratic students. I don't recall any problem of this kind because you must remember that early in 1935 the French were already establishing a united front against their own fascists; the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in the spring of 1935; and then of course at the end - in August 1935 came the seventh World Congress. So my introduction to the Communist Party was one in which the United Front was already well underway and within a year the seventh World Congress had of course adopted a much more flexible - and indeed sensible - line towards working with other sections of the labour movement.
But 1935 was also the year in which the CPGB adopted a party programme entitle, I think -
'For a Soviet Britain'
- which was positing a Soviet model, a revolutionary road rather than a democratic road. Was that the way in which young communists saw the future?
It was a ridiculous title and as you say - or as you indicate - was quite out of keeping in fact with the practical politics that we ourselves were involved in. The answer about the Soviet Union is that of course the general attitude and approach to the Soviet Union was that socialism was going to be built, or was being built in the Soviet Union - whether it would follow the Soviet pattern, since the title of that pamphlet was very soon discarded, was I think an open question. Much more important for us were journals such as Left Review, which was an extremely important influence, and of course the writings of people like Maurice Dobb, and in particular Labour Monthly. Labour Monthly, which had 'Notes of the Month' by Palme Dutt, and which historically speaking is I think the only intellectual journal which has been read seriously by large numbers of working class militants. You mention Palme Dutt. Virtually everybody I speak to about Palme Dutt is less than complimentary about his personality, about the rigour with which he held to communist dogma. What are your feeling about him both at the time when you were reading his 'Notes of the Month', and more particularly in retrospect? In the 1930s there's no doubt at all that Palme Dutt's 'Notes of the Month' were the most seriously studied statements of any of the communist leaders. Everybody read Palme Dutt. And everybody argued about what they read. Moreover his book on world politics which was published - 1937 or 1938, probably I think 1937 - published by the Left Book Club was I think an interesting book - did not show the kind of intellectual lack of rigour that applies to his works in the post-war period and had a very interesting and important influence upon us. The great thing about Palme Dutt was that he showed you the inter-connections on a world scale and the point, I think, I would make about the communist students of the 1930s was that the Communist Party instilled a sense of internationalism in their members, and certainly in the student members, that has remained with me at any rate ever since. It's very important indeed - what pressed us in Brazil, and what the resistance fighters in Greece, and what was happening in China, all of these things were of major importance in our general thinking and in our political attitudes and we were very far from taking a Little England attitude in general.
This is a bit of a stab in the dark but I know many of an earlier generation of communists found one outlet of their internationalism in learning Esperanto. Was that ever the case with students of that -
Not at all. I think that had finished by the early 30s. It was I think important in the late 20s, or during the 20s, but I never met anybody who was at all interested or who really raised the question. And certainly none of the students did. Coming back to Palme Dutt, there's no doubt that he was a very difficult person in personal terms. There's no doubt looking back, to my mind, that the 20s was his most interesting period and his most intellectually liveliest period. There's no doubt that in the post-war years his books lacked rigours, mainly I think he felt that there was nobody in the part who could in fact criticise or comment on them seriously and I don't believe anybody in fact did. And the result is that while his post-war books, from 1945 onwards, were based on quite serious research, they were badly structured and they ought to have been commented on by other historians and other economists and they were not. The result is that intellectually he did not do himself justice. But of course politically - this is the most important thing about Dutt - he was an ultra-Stalinist and he had in my view a devastatingly unfortunate influence upon the CP.
Even in the late 30s? I'm thinking of the 'About Turn' debate.
Well, yes. Of course. That is clear in the minutes that have been published about the great debate in 39 about whether the war was an imperialist war or not.
How important was Pollitt as a role model or as a charismatic leader to people in the LSE communist group?
I think he was quite extraordinary. There was no orator who touched Pollitt except Nye Bevan and Pollitt I think in some respects had the edge. He was a superb speaker. He was also a man of humanity - although there is no doubt either that he had to tell lies in the 1930s already about what was happening in the Soviet Union, the incident of Rose Cohen is of course well known. But Pollitt compared with Dutt was a human being and people liked him (10:00). He was a man who was trusted, I think, in general n a way that Dutt was not. He was a man who was enormously liked - certainly that was not true of Dutt. So Pollitt for me was a very attractive personality. As a working class militant there was no one really at that time, or since, that I can compare him with - except Nye Bevan, and Nye Bevan intellectually was, especially in the 1950s of course, all over the place in a way that Pollitt himself wasn't. Pollitt in the 50s of course became increasingly dogmatic - he was getting older - but his great period was the 1930s and in particular the Spanish war period. Edward Thompson mentioned that some of his fellow communists at Cambridge actually had a portrait of Pollitt on their matnlepiece -
- was that the case in London?
I don't know. (Laughs) I don't think that kind of devotion ever affected me. I was enormously respectful of Harry Pollitt. I knew him personally, but not very well, of course - after all, I was only a student. I knew John Gollan much better and actually did some research work for Gollan for his book 'Youth in Modern Industry'. So I very often walked into King Street and I saw Pollitt several times and talked with him and so on - but he was a man I greatly respected and so did everybody else, I think, who came into contact with him.
In the LSE Communist Party group, how many women among the members?
Oh, quite a lot. I don't know the exact proportion but they would certainly, I think, be equal to the proportion of women in LSE as a whole. I would guess about a quarter to a third women.
Did the Communist Party then take sex equality seriously or was it lip service?
(Pause) They would certainly have accepted the equality of women as a socialist principle. Whether their practise was adjusted to a complete acceptance of sex equality is quite a different matter. There were certainly some women that I can recall who took as leading a part in the discussions as the men. I think it is fair to say that it was mostly males who took a leading part in the debates and discussions in the party groups.
The party group at the LSE, what was its activity consisting of? Was it simply debates and discussions, or were there meetings, rallies, selling the 'Daily Worker' - activities of that sort?
Most of the activity of the party group was their involvement within LSE. Of course, having said that we always took our people out in the streets - against Mosley fascists, on all the major demonstrations - so that while our political work was among our fellow students, both politically and intellectually, and the intellectual side I think was as important as the political that is to say the discussion of Marxism - at the same time, everyone was expected to be active in a practical way . And that in particular meant taking part in the many demonstrations, and you must understand that there were many, many demonstrations - which involved London workers, London anti-fascists, for Spain, and so on and so forth. So it was a very active and lively life. There was one major exception, and that is that communist students were expected to be good students. Now this is a slogan that has often been misunderstood. There are some idiots, for example, on the extreme left who've suggested that after the seventh congress of 1935, everybody dressed like bank clerks and were very respectable and that of course is absolute rubbish - and nonsense. But what a good student meant as far as I was concerned was that you were good at your academic work - on the general and sensible grounds that if you wanted, this was long before Gramsci let me say, if you wanted to be able to debate on the level of bourgeois ideology and bourgeois ideologists, then you had to know what you were talking about. And it was this aspect of being a good student - that is to say that you had to confront bourgeois ideologists on their own ground at their own level and you couldn't do that if you were not intellectually sufficiently equipped. And for me, that was what a good student meant and certainly in the party group - I don't know whether this happened in Cambridge or elsewhere - but in the party group at LSE, being a good student meant that however active you had been in your first two years, in your third year you did absolutely no political work but you concentrated on your degree.
So you didn't attend meetings, you didn't go to demonstrations, you did nothing?
Well - the theory always was frayed at the edges. That is to say, you did not necessarily have to attend party meetings although I think you were probably expected to - private meetings that is inside - but you were not expected to take an active part in the Socialist Society which was by then a joint society of communists and socialists. And you would not necessarily, I think, be criticised if you did not appear on a demonstrations. In my case, for instance, I had done practically no academic work, I'd hardly written a single essay, in my first two years - LSE was very slack in this kind of respect, thank God - and, I'd read an enormous amount and LSE was fortunate in having nearly half its students postgraduates with whom you ate every day and the intellectual discussion as at a high level for a university, having seen - or heard - a lot of university discussions in my last forty years or so, But in my case, I worked something like ten hours a day on academic work until Easter, and then I worked twelve hours a day. And working for my Finals took up all my time and my whole life - except for the fact that the woman I was to marry came up as a first year student in my last year and we used to walk around Lincolns Inn Fields and occasionally, later on in the year, go away for weekends. But that was my only removal, as it were, from my general commitment to getting a good degree- and I did. My year I think four out of seven Firsts were communists.
That suggests that the party organisation was very disciplined. If you require to be excused - almost formally excused - from attending meetings, it suggests a fairly iron discipline, a fairly strong commitment to the party.
Oh, yes. That's right. There was. Yes, you were expected - look, you were expected, let us recognise that in any organisation of this kind, however committed the theory - of course - behind it is, the fact is there are some people who will work very hard and there are some people who will work less hard and one has to take notice and accept that, But generally speaking, of course there was a reasonably high degree of discipline - one mustn't exaggerate it. I would have thought that it was probably less strict and rigid than some of the post-war Trotskyist groups have been.
Have you got any general impression of the social basis of your fellow communist students? Who they were? Where they came from?
Well - they were different in social background, or most of them were, from the communist students one knew at Cambridge and Oxford. One had a great deal of contact with both in my case - it was mainly Cambridge, I knew John Cornford quite well for example. And I knew Mohan Kumaramangalam, the leading Indian communist who actually was one of the very few Indians to come out openly as a communist. But // [20:00] social basis, yes of course, the general composition of LSE students was petty bourgeois to middle middle class I would thin, with only one or two, relatively few, from the top public schools, which of course was not true of either Cambridge or Oxford. So - yes, middle to lower middle class I would think. A few working class people - quite a high proportion compared to most places of Jewish students, and this was really my first introduction to Jewish culture. Not only English Jewish students of course but the fact that England was taking a fairly liberal attitude towards Jewish refugees and there were quite a number of Jewish refugee students from central Europe and in particular from Germany. So this was a new dimension for me, this Jewish culture, and although it was a communist Jewish culture nevertheless it was different from anything I had previously experience and indeed it was very important for me. The other component of the student body that was important were the Americans. And I was very close to a number of Americans - postgraduate students these, there were practically no undergraduates - but as I said earlier the great thing about LSE was the way in which everybody ate together, the postgraduates and the undergraduates, and the level of intellectual discussion was, I think, very lively indeed. But in the 30s - in my 30s at any rate, from 34, the importance of the New Deal was considerable and we all read radical literature from the States This was partly encouraged I think by Harold Laski because for me the only lecturer who had a really serious impact and influence on me was Harold Laski who was a superb performer at the - on the rostrum. And he was the only one whose lectures I went to for every one of the three years.
You mentioned John Cornford. He's becoming something of a legend following his early death - his writings, about him republished not all that long ago, a volume in tribute to him. What was he like? What was your impression of him at the time?
Well, I think you'll probably get the best account of John Cornford in the memoir that was published soon after his death, edited I think by Pat Sloan, and the essay by Victor Kiernan, who knew Cornford very well. I met him of course a number of times, He was a very lively chap. I didn't pick him out as anybody very special. He was just one of the best students of course around but there were a lot of very good people around. Very lively. And John, who was big with dark hair, full of energy and so on, was impressive but there were other people who in my view were as impressive. It's only later that I - when I came to read some of his writings - that I came to realise how extraordinarily, how extraordinarily bright - intellectually bright - he was.
After the LSE you became London student organiser for the Communist Party which -
Only for a year. Yes.
- and how much tied in were you then to the CPGB bureaucracy?
Well not very much. There was a full-time organiser called Jack Cohen who I think became organiser - national organiser for students and whose biographical entry will be found in volume nine of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. Jack- working class - Jewish bloke from Manchester - poor family - an extraordinarily nice man. I think these were probably his most interesting years. He was just the right chap for the students and did a very good organising job and my contact with the - what you call the bureaucracy was very largely through Jack Cohen who was the party's national organiser. I didn't really have much to do with King Street. I used to drop in but that was all. (25:00)
Jumping ahead just a touch to the About Turn, did that worry you at the time?
No it didn't actually - mainly, curiously enough because I was less involved in politics at that particular period than I had been through the whole decade. When I graduated I was unemployed for some six months and I worked for the - in a voluntary capacity for the Union of Democratic Control in Victoria Street and up above our offices were the offices of Claude Cockburn, who edited 'The Week'. Then I got a job - as assistant secretary to the dictaphone company at the salary of £3 10s a week - £3.50. And I stayed there about a year. And then I got a job at £5 a week as a research economist with the British Home Stores. This was in the spring of 1939 and very sensibly they said: there's no point you coming into head office until you know something about British Home Stores so you will in fact go through every grade that there is. So I started and worked a fortnight as a porter and it nearly killed me, physically speaking. And then I went on the floor and I went to seaside stores and so on and at the time of the change of line, I was actually in the north-east working in - to open a new store, I think in Sunderland, and I was extremely hard worked and I had no contact with the party group and I was entirely on my own and just working and dead tired at the end of the day and just flopped into bed. So n that period when everybody was madly discussing the change of line, in my case all I was doing was working for the British Home Stores and that carried on until Christmas and then I came to London. But by-and-large I accepted the change of line I have to say. Largely I think because I - like everybody, I suppose - I never trusted the Chamberlain government and by the time I got back to London of course the Finnish war was in fact beginning to get underway and the possibility of British military - British and French military intervention was of course was very much on the agenda. And the shift in the war from Germany to the Soviet Union was well in the interests of a significant minority of the Tory party and of the upper classes.
Moving back a bit to your involvement with Indian students, how did that came about?
Not really before 1939. Since the Indian Communist Party was illegal, although we knew a number of Indian students at LSE and in Cambridge, more in Cambridge I think than at LSE were members of the Communist Party, we were very careful not to expose them. And we had relatively little contact - and I think this must have been a deliberate decision but I can't remember. We had relatively little contact with Indian students. either in London or in Cambridge. I knew Mohan Kumaramangalam because he was an open communist but there were very few like him because if they'd become open and then gone back they'd have been arrested. So one had to be very careful. So my contact with Indian students was fairly minimal.
But in the summer of '38 you were among those who attended a meeting which Nehru addressed -
Oh yes. That's right. But that was Nehru talking to I suppose mostly members of the London district of the Communist Party - with members that is to say it wasn't a meeting for Indians.
But this wasn't a public meeting, this was a -
No, this was a private meeting and I take it had been arranged through Palme Dutt.
What did Nehru say?
He was talking about the situation in India and the political situation - I remember I asked him a question about the differentiation within the social strata - or stratum of the peasantry (30:00) It was an economic, political account of India and there was a general and open discussion with him.
Would he be viewed by you then, at that time, as a fellow traveller?
Well, I don't think we used the word fellow traveller. We would assume that he was on the left, yes.
POLITICAL ACTIVITY WHILE A SOLDIER IN INDIA
Then you served in India during the war, from - when did you arrive in India?
Well, not until the last two years of the war. I left India in March 1946 - an went therefore in 44. I got there, I don't know, late summer 44.
And you made contact with the party in Bombay?
Oh straight away. I carried letters from the - from King Street to - to the party headquarters in Bombay.
The party then being legal?
And you were telling me that you spent two-and-a-half months more-or-less working on behalf of the CPI in Bombay.
Well - what happened was, and I wasn't alone, there were many other English comrades who did the same and so did Americans I may say, there were quite a lot of American radicals who made contact with the American - with the Indian CP. But it was relatively easy for English communists at all levels, whatever your rank that is to say, to make contact with Indian communists - in Bombay or wherever you were stationed. There was usually no problem and in my experience a lot of people did this. I did it - I went straight to, straight off the boat to the party headquarters in Bombay and there the first person I met was Mohan Kumaramangalam. So that was easy - I was introduced to the, as it were, top level of the Indian Communist Party. And I got to know P.C. Joshi and all the other leading members of the central committee. I didn't stay in Bombay long on that occasion. I went to Karachi and I made contact with the district committee secretary in Karachi. And wherever I went in India, since I was a gunner instructor I moved around quite a lot, I made contact. The most important places were Bombay, Karachi and Poona. And in the last six months before the war ended - the war with Japan that is - I was about 100 miles from Poona and used to go into Poona most weekends and stay with some party comrades. He, the man, worked - he taught mathematics at Poona College, and his wife was a full-time organiser for women for the Indian party. And they used to give me a bed, which means I used to put up a mosquito net n the same room as they slept.
This was a very difficult time for the CPI because their support for the war -
- after 41 made them deeply unpopular in India -
- at least with their natural constituency. Then at the end of the war, the party was seriously divided about tactics and adopted the Ranadive insurrectionary thesis which led to something close to tragedy in 48 -
Well, when I was there they were not developing the insurrectionary thesis. The problem when I was there was the problem of the Muslim League and partition of India and so on. This was where Dutt, of course, got himself much involved in the internal discussions in India since he did not agree in a number of ways with the leadership of the Indian party. I thought P.C. Joshi was an enormously attractive personality. He was of course deposed by the more sectarian members of the central committee, Ranadive and Adhikari, but I think that was a great mistake. I think Joshi had a very - had the common touch and he really was a most attractive personality - spoke well, but he was very well, communicated. And he I think was responsible really for building something of the basis of a mass party in the latter years of the war and in the immediate period after the war.
What was the nature of the relationship between the CPGB and the CPI? (35:00)
Well, I don't know what it was formally. There's no doubt - it may well have been that the Comintern and I think did - yes, I think the Comintern did in fact make Britain, as it were, quote unquote responsible. Communist parties always had - in the colonial countries. communist parties always had some kind of outside reference and I think the British party always had that, after all in the 20s it had sent people into India and of course three of them were at the famous Meerut trial from 1929 to 1932. Dutt, because he'd written this famous book, Modern - India Today, Dutt was regarded as one of the great Comintern experts and was certainly taken seriously by Indian party members.
Though Dutt of course was not Indian himself. He was of Indian origin but not India -
Well he was half-Swedish half-Indian.
Was there some resentment about the role Palme Dutt took on himself, being the communist ideologist for India?
Well, I think he - wait a moment, I am not sure he - I suppose he took it upon himself. You must also understand that one of the things the Communist Party did between the wars was in fact to put imperialism, anti-imperialism on the agenda and this is very important considering the jingoism there was, as there still is to a lesser extent, about empire. Now the Communist party was not along. People like H.N. Brailsford, who was the greatest socialist journalist of the inter-war years; the ILP - the left of the labour movement was always anti-imperialist. But the communists played, in my view, an honourable part in the development of an anti-imperialist consciousness. So that - and Dutt was very important in this. The British Communist Party had Dutt as a considerable expert on India. I'm not talking about whether he was right or wrong on this issue or that issue, but he knew a great deal about it. They did not have anything like the same expertise on Africa, which the Labour Party did. The Labour Party advisory committee on international affairs had a number of quite important Africanists on their committee - and they were people like Norman Leys. They were very important indeed. So I'm not suggesting it was only the Communist party that developed this anti-imperialist consciousness. Far from that. But they were an important component.
In chat earlier, I mentioned to you what Ralph Russell had told me, that CPGB-trained Indian communists came back to India, he said, and were quite unjustly promoted straight away to the top of the party, the CPI.
Yes, well I don't believe that. My own experience of the central committee of the CPI, the Communist Party of India - when I got there in the autumn of 1944 and went to the party headquarters, and I met most of the central committee, as far as I recall there were only two - and these were the youngest members of the committee, Mohan Kumaramangalam and one other whose name for the moment escapes me - who had been educated in England - I mean, trained I think is too strong a word - who had been educated in England. Mohan Kumaramangalam went to Eton before he went to Cambridge. Most Indians who came of course - they didn't go to school in England, they came straight from India to university in England - either Oxford, Cambridge or London. So trained is not, I think, the right word. Trained is not the right word for Mohan Kumaramangalam, who trained himself within the context of the Cambridge communist groupings. But coming back to Bombay, as I was saying I don't think Georgie Russell's right because none of the central committee except these two were intellectuals from abroad. Some of them were intellectuals but as far as I know they'd been in India the whole time.
Talking about the CPGB - you've talked about the importance of its anti-fascist activity, of its anti-imperialist arguments. What you haven't talked about is the class perspective. How strong was the class perspective? (40:00)
Oh, very strong. Oh yes. What I got from my time as a student and afterwards in the 30s were two things: one is I totally distrusted the English - the British ruling classes and that's remained with me ever since; and secondly I was deeply sceptical about the Labour Party leadership , and that too has remained with me ever since. But certainly class - there's no question, of course, about the wickedness of the British ruling class in the 1930s. Their non-intervention policy in Spain which undoubtedly, in my view, was a major factor in the defeat of the republic. I think it's usually underestimated as to do what they did. Their appeasement policy was something that they genuinely believed in because of their anti-Bolshevism and anti-communist line. And the ruling classes generally, apart from their social and domestic policies - which again I totally, of course, disagreed - the ruling classes for me became the enemy of decency, of progress, and that as I say has remained with me ever since. Are you suggesting that in some way or other, in the Popular Front days, the Communist Party played down class? because if you are I don't believe it's true.
No I'm not suggesting that - I'm asking you - my purpose is to ask not to suggest. How much was the party's activity working class oriented?
Oh totally. Of course. We all that the working class were clearly the most important and if you look at the composition of the people who figure most, say, in the Daily Worker or in the party's publications, it's the miners, it's the engineers, it's to a lesser extent the textile workers, but it's working class people and working class militants. It's people like Horner, Arthur Horner of the South Wales miners. It's people like Leo McGrieve [ph] on Merseyside. It's people like Joe Scott. These are the names that come up again and again when you are talking about party policy. There's no question about the emphasis on working class militancy.
THE COMMUNIST PARTY HISTORIANS' GROUP
Taking another jump - the CP historians' group. With hindsight it seems to have operated as an internal opposition. Was there any semblance of that at the time?
No. It's not true it operated as an internal opposition. It's true that it became exceedingly sceptical and it became the centre of opposition in 1956. But before that people in the historians' group were ordinary communist party members who did their own job.
What were the antecedents to that antipathy? When did unease become something more than that? You'd survived the 'Jewish doctors', Slansky, all those other debacles. When did people start to get really worried and talk to each other privately about their fears and concerns?
Oh, not I think until 56. I speak for myself. After all, whatever one's private worries were, and they were there - for example, James Klugman's From Trotsky to Tito was a book that I thought was terrible. I didn't believe it. And there were other things that worried me. I didn't accept the cultural nonsense of Zdanov [ph] and I didn't believe in the genetic controversy. But these were, for me, comparatively minor things - I'm not trying to dismiss them but I'm saying that by comparison with what in fact the western powers were doing, culminating in the Korean war, and in the empire generally, in Mau Mau for example and in Kenya, for me there is no question at all that, in the balance that one always has to make in politics - if you take decisions - there was no question in my mind that one had to be against the Labour governments after 1945 and the Tory governments after 1951 and that this was the over-riding consideration. (45:00) This was our country and these were the things that we were doing. And whatever one felt about the Soviet Union - and I was not totally starry eyed by any means except on one issue, I didn't believe in anti-semitism and I was wrong. I did not believe in anti-semitism mainly because I had a lot of very good Jewish friends, some of who had come from Russia and who read Russian regularly and who gave no indication to me at all of anti-semitism in the Soviet Union and I was prepared to believe them rather than the bourgeois press. And I was wrong.
How uncomfortable was it, perhaps for you personally, being a communist -
Oh, very difficult. I don't think - I did quite a lot of open-air speaking in Hull in the early 50s and there's no doubt that the Korean war period was the most difficult period of the Cold War for communists. There was a great deal of jingoism. People really got hysterical at the beginning of the Korean war. If you read - as I've just done - a biography of Simone de Beauvoir, for example, the point is made there that she believed a world war was a likely possibility. It was a very high spot or low spot, however you define it, in [interruption]
We were talking about difficulties in being a communist in the Cold War period.
Oh yes. And I was saying that it was a much more difficult period than people often believe. There were various points to be made. The first is that no communist could possibly get a job. Even someone as decent as G.D.H. Cole, when he wrote references for people, would give a very accurate and often glowing account of the individual concerned, but he would also add at the bottom of his letter - at least this happens in one letter that I have seen: I have to say that this man is a communist, as far as I am concerned that would make absolutely no difference to my appointing him to this particular job and I do in fact recommend him most warmly.
But by saying that he almost certainly bar him from any job -
I'm afraid so, yes.
So he was playing along with the mood of anti-communism
It's amazing how much it affected people. And G.D.H. Cole was a man of principle. But I've seen one letter only - and that was enough. The most interesting - there was a great deal of this that went on on the telephone which you can't of course record. But Victor Kiernan has a very nice story. Victor Kiernan had a fellowship at Trinity - a five-year fellowship which involved travel abroad for one year and after two years in England he went abroad, namely to India and got caught and stayed there seven years, so when he came back Trinity gave him his remaining two years and he tried of course to get jobs and his tutor wrote a testimonial for a job at Oxford which Victor later saw which said: on no account should you appoint this man, he's a Marxist, and so on. And the same tutor wrote a testimonial for the University of Edinburgh in which he gave a glowing picture of Victor, and Victor got the job. The man in question was the former - now dead - soi disant liberal, conservative - I've forgotten, I'll remember it later. But that sort of thing went on. And of course George Rude, who's just died today or died a few days ago, was a victim of this - Alfred Cobban at the University College, London, deliberately of course made certain that he never got an academic posting in England, and George had to go to Australia for his first academic job. (50:00) But there were other examples that I could quote - people who couldn't get jobs. Mind you. there weren't very many academic jobs and it may well be of course that some people who were not appointed were in fact beaten by better people on the day of the interview.
Looking at that talent within the CP Historians' Group, it's quite amazing the number of people who came to be major, powerful intellectual forces - very powerful intellectual forces in Britain were in the CP Historians' Group in the late 40s and the 50
Yes, it is isn't it.
But why? What do you think is the reason for that?
(Laughs) I have no idea.
I can see the intellectual attraction of communism in the late 30s. What is more opaque is the attraction of communism to young intellectuals in the late 40s and early 50s.
Well, look - I think what you have to appreciate is that most of the historians in the Historians' Group became communists in the 30s. The war experience, whatever their experiences in particular were, confirmed them in their general view of the British ruling class and British class system and of the way the world was going. And similarly the wholly reactionary foreign policy which Ernest Bevin followed from the day he entered office, and the reactionary role that Britain played in conjunction and in connection with the United States of America, confirmed us all I think - whatever the problems inside the Soviet Union, and the fact is our side was in fact pursuing these very reactionary and illiberal policies, particularly with regard to the empire. And it's interesting that the members of the Historians' Group who had been through the experience of the late 30s, the war years, the early - and the late 40s and the early 50s, and none of them as far as I know ratted. All of them remained. Now, when they left in 56 they may not all have remained politically in the same - exactly in the same way, but they all have remained, it seems to me, as far as I know, on the left. But why it was such a lively intellectual group, why the individuals concerned were so intellectually lively, I've no idea - except that the Communist Party did attract, not all the intelligent people of the 1930 of course, that would be ridiculous to say that, but certainly a significant proportion. Isn't that it?
You tell me. But let's have a roll call of the Historians' Group. There was yourself, Eric Hobsbawm who remained in the party -
Yes, but Eric remained in the party as an iconoclast. He never went back on what he thought was a principled position. You've only got to read for example in New Left Review Eric's own review of James Klugman's History of the Communist Party to realise that Eric was an honest man. He said what he really believed. Right?
I entirely accept that. But who else was there? Christopher Hill, Dorothy Thompson, to a lesser extent Edward Thompson -
Well, when you say to a lesser extent, that's only because I earlier pointed out that Edward was less prominent in the Historians' Group than Dorothy. It may well have been. may I just make the point - because he was teaching history, remember, he wasn't teaching literature - he was teaching history but: a, he was on the Yorkshire district of the Communist party; b, he was running their journal; and, c, they had - did they have children? I can't remember - but her was very busy, particularly in the evenings because he was an adult tutor and had to go all over the place. So it was Dorothy who came to London, or wherever - usually London - for the meetings. Edward did, but I don't think he took, as I say, a particularly prominent part, whereas Dorothy did.
We also have Royden Harrison, Leslie Morton, Victor Kiernan - Raph Samuel was probably too young was he?
Well, Ralph was the only student, I think, at the famous week we had - the whole week of discussions at Netherwood in Hastings.
Yeah - he came. He was a schoolboy - 18-year-old or whatever, I think, before he went up to Oxford. In that, he was just very precocious - and very unusual. George Rude - Ken Andrews - Ken Andrews who in fact was important, he was a 16th century, 17th century historian but who, after about 1960 I think, didn't become anti-communist but just became neutral in politics. Allan Merson, by the way, remained in the Communist Party when he was a 17th century historian.
1956 AND 'THE REASONER'
'56. And the secret speech. When did you hear about it?
Well, I don't know. I read about it, I suppose, when it first broke in the Observer or Sunday Times - Observer, was it? And it was soon after that that it became clear that there was a great deal to it. t wasn't just a propaganda stunt, as I suppose I thought it was immediately - I can't remember. And it was at the first historians' meeting (pause) in March, April 1956 - it was the first one anyhow - that we began raising serious questions about the way in which King Street, the party bureaucracy, were in fact treating and meeting the problem of the secret speech. And then it became clear, of course, with additional evidence that there was ferment over the speech in lots of communist parties, particularly the American CP. The American CP was very important in this context, not least because of the Jewish aspect of the oppression inside the Soviet Union.
When you said the first meeting of the Historians' Group, you mean the first meeting after the secret speech?
I mean the first meeting after the - yes. And certainly I was very active in speaking about it but you would have to get the minutes, which I haven't got, of that meeting. And they can be got, as I told you.
How did you move from that open - or increasingly open dissatisfaction with King Street to breaking the rule and publishing The Reasoner?
Well, because we were finding it difficult and not only ourselves individually, finding it difficult to get material published in the party press. And this was the first time that we'd ever experienced, of course, censorship of this sort. And it surprised us and indeed began to appal us - that you couldn't have a democratic discussion. And when Edward and I made contact with each other - and it was fairly late that we did this - we found our experiences to be the same. And we also had lots of other contacts who were writing and talking to us, of course, at the same time. And in my case, of course, there was always the Jewish contact with Chimen Abramsky and his group - in London. And that, together with the New York ferment and comments that were coming from New York, I think kept the thing boiling and - very hard indeed.
And The Reasoner is a title borrowed from a paper of Holyoake, isn't it?
Yes. I think it was my idea.
How was -
Now we were very much worried about this - Edward was - because Holyoake had somewhat anti-semitic attitudes. And it was he who mentioned it and it was I who perhaps - I don't know, I may be exaggerating - bulldozed the name through. Just like the Socialist Register was my idea, coming from Cobbett.
How was the first issue of The Reasoner physically put together? (60:00)
Well, all the issues were put together in the same way. That is to say, Edward and I edited it - and we agreed on what should go in. Edward typed it - the whole lot. So I mean, in some cases he would be typing 40 to 50 stencil sheets. And I had a business friend who ran a small business down by the docks. And he had a very old-fashioned Gestetner where you turn the handle. And the bloody thing always leaked ink, and gave up, and gave you blotched copies. So, I can remember the third issue - I didn't have a car in those days, I had a bicycle. And it's about two miles to the docks, I suppose, from here. I got on my bike every night and took Edward's stencils which he put on the train and I'd collect them at the station. And I'd run off fifteen-hundred copies - this was the third issue - and I did that for a fortnight. And the last weekend, I worked on the Friday night until midnight; I worked all day Saturday, right - no, not right through Saturday night; I went home Saturday night, worked all day Sunday and worked right through Sunday night until 7 o'clock in the morning, and came home. It took me about three hours to clean up the office at the end.
So what was your print run, if that's the appropriate term, it probably isn't?
Just fifteen-hundred copies?
Oh yes, I turned the handle. I say just fifteen-hundred copies, when you think of all those pages, it was a -
It was a hell of a lot. It took me a fortnight and this last weekend.
How did you distribute the first copy? Who did you send it to?
I don't know. I've forgotten. We had no problem of getting it known and around. We tried to get it advertised in the Daily Worker but failed. We were very careful about not talking to other left-wing journals. We were very anxious never - not to do anything apart from publishing a journal which would allow the party bureaucracy to come down on us and expel us for a breach of this particular regulation or that. And we were quite sincere in arguing and believing that we did not wish to leave the party. And it was only I think in the last two months that both of us, both Edward and myself, gradually came to the view that we were never going to shift the party bureaucracy - you see, before the third issue was published, indeed just at the time the second issue was published, although the political bureau didn't know this, we were called up for a meeting early in September 1956 and we had a long meeting in the morning with the political bureau - Harry Pollitt was there, John Gollan was there, Dutt was there - and we were told to go away and came back in the afternoon with our answers as to whether we would in fact forego the publication of volume - of number three. So Edward and I went away and went back and said: no, we cannot give this - we think it's necessary, we will however give an assurance that when number three is published we will not publish any more at least for the time being.
Were they satisfied by that assurance?
No. Well, they said: we hope you'll think about it. They were very civilised about it - nobody shouted at us. There was no point. We would have shouted back. But once we published, and it came of course just at the time of Hungary, and we had to ed - we had to alter our editorial, which we did on the phone from this friend's office on the Sunday. And I had to retype it, I suppose - I can't remember - and then run it off. And when it was published, then the party - did not expel us, but they suspended us. And at that point, Edward and I - having talked it over, of course - decided that we would resign.
Do you think if it hadn't have been for Budapest, you might have stayed in the party?
Oh no. No, no. No, no. No - no, no. Hungary certainly was an important factor, as it were, in supporting our general opinions, but what we were concerned with was the absence of genuine democracy inside the party which we'd always believed was in fact a democratic party. And moreover - and this is very important because many people get it wrong, that communists left the Communist Party because of Hungary. They didn't. They did, of course - but the whole thing started with a demand from people like Edward myself that the party should tell the whole truth now about the Soviet Union, and about socialism in the Soviet Union and what had gone wrong. That we would have no credibility, we said, with the public - with ourselves or with the British public or with the labour movement unless we were prepared to say: we were wrong. And this is what happened. And Hungary came on top of that - but Hungary was not the key question at all. The key question was: what was happening in the Soviet Union according to Khrushchev, and why we'd not been told this, and now we're told this the party had to come clean.
Obviously, most of the Historians' Group left the party in 56. Among the rest of the party, how much support do you think you had?
Oh, considerable. It was often said at the time that of course it was a matter of intellectuals, and that's not true for one thing, Lawrence Daly had left - had left the party before we did - some time in the summer of 1956 - and he then got in touch with us after that. And we of course remained close to Lawrence Daly and helped him in his general election campaign in 1959 -
For the Fife Socialist League?
That's right We were very close to Daly. Very. A most - at the time, a most attractive personality. Brilliant speaker. A serious working class intellectual. A man who had read an enormous amount, and thought - He was a very attractive man. But, to answer your question, there were many, many people who left - workers, industrial workers, trade union officials, whose resignation was in fact never reported. For example, the Fire Brigades Union - which I know something about because I've been helping edit their recent history - almost all the leading figures in the Fire Brigades Union, John Horner and his senior officials who were party members, left.
To what extent did these important trade union figures who left in 56 leave because of concern about inner-party democracy and to what extent were they using the divisions within the party as an excuse to abandon what seemed to be a sinking ship, in political and industrial terms?
I don't think it was a sinking ship. The party in 56 had a very considerable industrial base. It had a very active base - in localities. It wasn't a sinking ship. I don't believe that. It didn't sink for some time. It had a lot of genuine industrial militants in groupings, which have not been reproduced since. The Trotskyists have had a clear field since 1960 and they haven't made it, as we all know. Unfortunately the kind of industrial militancy - and militants - that the Communist Party developed, trained and brought together has not been repeated since the break-up. And f that 8,000 or so who left in 1956, a very large number were industrial workers and - or industrial militants. Of course, a lot of intellectuals left as well. But it is incorrect, as I said earlier, to argue or to suggest that most of those who left in 56 were simply intellectuals who didn't really know where they were going.
You and Edward were at the fore of those leaving the party in 56. Did you ever consider setting up a new organisation - a party or some other form of organisation - which would be a new home to those who were leaving the CP? (70:00)
Well, naturally one talked about this at great length. I personally never believed in the possibility of an independent party and I was never in favour of that. I was, I may say, somewhat sceptical - much more than Edward - of the New Left clubs. And I visited a number of them and I was not happy with what I saw. I don't think I understood in the way I do now that it was an historic breaking-up, as it were, of a left which unfortunately has not been reproduced since. And one of the great tragedies of the present situation, as far as I'm concerned, is that there is no left of any significance, or any weight, to the left of the Labour party. There are quite lively groups but they are nothing comparable to the position of the Communist Party in its heyday. You were approached - I think you were saying that Edward was approached as well, but maybe it was just you - by the Socialist Labour League. Can you tell me the story of how they approached you? Well, they just came and talked to you, or wrote to you - We had one of their national organisers in the house one evening. It was I think expected after we'd resigned that we should get this kind of approach. As I was telling you, I went down on behalf of Edward and myself specifically to talk with Gerry Healy - which I did for three hours and came back and wrote a report to Edward in which I said I thought he was a bully and somebody that one really could not and should not associate with.
What has been your personal political home since 56?
Well, I've remained on the left. I remain a Marxist in intellectual terms. I take part in all the left movements that have, as it were, developed over the years - that is to say, I took a very active part in CND and so did my wife, my wife did every single Aldermaston march, and on the cross-country march from Hull to Liverpool. I ran a debating forum for six or seven years here in Hull every month. I never refused to speak on a left platform. I tried to accept and adopt a non-sectarian attitude to movements on the left which in many ways I don't agree with - the only exception to that is what used to be the Workers Revolutionary Party, the WRP, Gerry Healy's group. And at the time of the Falklands war, I opposed it. At the time of the Gulf war, I went on a speaking tour through the north of England in opposition -meetings which were organised by a variety of organisations of which the SWP, the Socialist Workers Party, I think was the most important. So in general, I have remained politically active as far as I can be on the left and that is true of my writing as well as my activity.
Of those that left at the same time as you, Edward Thompson was for quite a long time in the Labour party - though he left a few years back; Royden Harrison I think is still in the Labour party and at one stage stood for the National Executive; a number of others have been in the Labour party; a few went to the SLL. Why did you personally choose not to join the Labour party?
I suppose it goes back to my attitudes in the 1930s and my general view since then of the history of the Labour party that this is not a socialist organisation, is not an agency for socialism. It obviously has some extremely good, lively, sincere, devoted people in it. I always vote Labour naturally. I give money to it at the time of the election. People like John Prescott were my former students and I'm very fond of him. But by and large, I don't think I could feel at all happy in an organisation like the Labour party which I think has many sins attached to it. I've now just finished a first volume of the foreign policy of the Labour government of 1945, and it is in my view an horrendous story. So, the Labour party is not for me. I think it's too tainted. I think it has too many stains upon its political character which it's not been prepared to make evident or to come clean about.
Looking back on 22 years in the CPGB, how do you view that now? With nostalgia? With pride? With a certain element of shame? How -
Element of shame! Certainly not. Nostalgia? No - one doesn't in politics have nostalgia. That's a sentimental view of life. I regard it as an extraordinarily lively and important period for me. After all, I was mixing with some of the liveliest intellectuals - they were not the only lively intellectuals, there were plenty of intellectuals who were lively outside the Communist Party, but inside they were devoted socialists. They were lively intellectual people who cared - Who cared for the future of society. So I regard my communist years as extremely important to me And I'm only sorry that the Communist Party could not in fact bring itself to reform itself in ways which I could accept. And I should be very happy today to be a member of a left-wing organisation that was sincerely principled. But I don't see one around.
When I've asked former members of the CPGB whether they feel any sense of shame, most say: well, I feel very uncomfortable with some things I've done in my past - on the whole, no, shame isn't the dominant emotion, but certainly there's a little bit of it there. You're very forthright in saying: certainly not, no shame -
Oh, absolutely not.
No, of course not. I know too much about the foreign policy, for example, of the Labour government of 1945. And I went through things - periods and episodes and events like Mau Mau in Kenya, like Cyprus, like Aden, the dying lights of the Empire. And it was monstrous what we did. And this was our country - this is nothing to do with Russia, this is our country. And we were against it. Now of course in politics, as I am quite aware, you cannot have a Simon Pure organisation. Politics isn't like that. You have to make choices. But I am quite sure in my own mind - I hope this doesn't sound impossibly arrogant and/or complacent, because it's not - but I am quite sure that while of course I defended things that were indefensible - of that I am of course absolutely certain, of which as I've told you anti-semitism in the Soviet Union was the most important, because I actually stood up and said there wasn't any - the labour camps I knew about, but anti-semitism I said there wasn't any. because I was convinced by my Jewish comrades that there wasn't. But for the rest, of course, given the fact that there were indefensible things - the, as it were, the bulk of the majority opinions on which I stood where those which I would stand today. And these were simply a better life for working class people in general; a decent, humane society and a foreign policy where you don't screw other peoples.