What happened to British communism?

David Aaronovitch’s family memoir reminds Alan Johnson that — thanks to the Labour party — communism failed to capture British hearts and minds

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists David Aaronovitch

Cape, pp.304, £17.99, ISBN: 9780224074711

Like most trade unionists in the 1970s and 80s I worked with a fair few communists. Men like Dickie Lawlor, Jock Cowan and Maurice Styles, postal workers for whom all events were viewed through the prism of ‘scientific socialism’. Communism gave them a philosophy by which to live their lives, and they were respected as men of principle even by those who abhorred their politics.

Marx may have disparaged religion as the opiate of the people (and, in an even more memorable phrase, the sigh of the oppressed), but it was difficult to avoid the term ‘religious zeal’ when describing the way men like Dickie, Jock and Maurice approached their union work.

By the time I knew them they’d long passed the stage of seeking converts. Indeed young commies were a rare species — and the number of communists I knew was far exceeded by the number of ex-communists.

When I asked Tom Jackson, my avuncular (and lavishly bewhiskered) general secretary and mentor at the Union of Post Office Workers, about his previous membership he adapted the aphorism attributed to Burke about republicanism: ‘If you weren’t a communist at 20 there was something wrong with your heart: if you were still a communist at 40 there was something wrong with your head.’

Tom was one of a multitude on the left of British politics (and a few on the right), who looked back on their involvement with the hammer and sickle as a youthful indulgence. Most had abandoned the cause after Stalin’s atrocities were revealed, or when the Hungarian revolution was brutally suppressed, or when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague.

The parents of David Aaronovitch were still communists at 40 and for the rest of their lives. For Sam and Lavender Aaronovitch the Party was as central to their existence as the air supply. As their son explains, it ‘amalgamated the radical and the conservative, the idea of massive, transformative change with the existence of a clear hierarchy of decision and the demand for loyalty’.

Sam Aaronovitch was born to illiterate Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe who’d arrived in London just before the 1906 Aliens Act severely restricted the right of entry. His very birthplace, Cable Street, was to become synonymous with the battle to the defend the East End from Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s.

Unwilling to follow his father into the rag trade and possessed by ‘a ferocious determination to learn’, Sam was educated mainly by the ‘University of the Ghetto’, otherwise known as Whitechapel Library. Soon he was defining his identity through the scarlet banner rather than the Mogen David.

Lavender’s background could not have been more different. The daughter of a senior British army officer who had married an actress, she was born in an outpost of empire and must have been expected to lead the genteel life of the comfortably privileged.

By the time she became Sam’s third wife she was a single parent and committed communist. Her new husband had by then become a full-time organiser for the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Together they set out to lay the necessary foundations for the revolution that was bound to rescue the country from its bourgeois democracy and transform it into a workers’ state under a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Through the skilful pen of their son the story of Sam and Lavender avoids cliché and simplistic interpretation. Communism is never presented as the political equivalent of Scientology. It had so many proponents and fellow travellers precisely because it seemed to offer a pragmatic and achievable alternative to the brutal and demeaning existence endured by so many under capitalism.

Given that for much of the 20th century around a third of the world’s population was governed by communism this book would have been deeply interesting as an insightful and accessible guide to how the doctrine fared in Britain. But it is so much more than that, weaving together social history with memoir in a way that enhances and enlightens both aspects of the book.

We baby boomers grew up in a world divided between communists and capitalists. Whole swaths of our continent lay behind the Iron Curtain and the social, political and economic ideology of Russia was a constant feature of everyday life and (through mutually assured destruction) a threat to our very existence.

But communism failed to capture sufficient hearts and minds in Britain even at its zenith, principally because of the Labour party. As Lenin mused: ‘At present the British communists very often find it hard to approach the masses and even to get a hearing from them.’

His solution was entryism; to urge workers to vote Labour and, once that party had gained power, replace its leaders with revolutionaries — or, as Lenin put it, ‘to support Henderson [then Labour leader] in the same way as the rope supports the hanged man’.

Aaronovitch relates all this with his usual clarity and style. He points out that by the time a more successful attempt at entryism was made in the early 1980s
the far left had become entwined in what Sigmund Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor differences’.

His description of the various trendy middle-class Trotskyist outfits he encountered at university and their vicious battles with each other over esoteric points of
philosophical difference is hilarious.

Sam and Lavender have more tangible differences, related to his adultery and her fear of abandonment. Their story is the personal thread that binds these pages. It’s told with tenderness and veracity. For David Aaronovitch their lifelong commitment to communism was explainable thus: ‘She was a Party member through thick and thin because it was a kind of family. He was a Party member despite everything because it was his bigger world.’

The problem was always with their hearts rather than their heads.

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Show comments
  • William Brown

    It is alive, well and spreading like ebola within the current Labour Party.

    • Hippograd

      New Labour was full of ex-communists and ex-Marxists. That’s why they opened the borders to the enrichers of the third world. And ignored the vibrancy in Rotherham for so long.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    It always struck me as odd that otherwise intelligent, literate, successful people could give Communism the time of day. I mean, anyone capable of reading a teeny bit about world history since Marx, especially the bits about Marxist or proto-Marxist regimes and the miserable state to which they reduced their countries, ought to reflect a little. My own experience is that Communists, or their sympathisers, were most likely to be found in academia and the teaching world; I put this down to their lack of real-world experience in commerce or industry, in addition to a curious blind-spot and/or partial stupidity.

    • grutchyngfysch

      The blind-spot makes sense when you think that the principle output of educators is ideas and the expansion of availability to ideas to their students and readers. This being the case, a political and economic system that appeals to the realm of ideas to overcome the material and geopolitical inequalities of the world is always going to be highly attractive to such people.

      For most people, work colleagues work because they need income, exhibit commitment and passion because they desire promotion, and so better intuitively grasp the fact that a system build on ideas which cannot provide bread will not be willingly embraced or upheld, and can only be maintained by the direct application of force.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Well put.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      The response of the hard left to your question was always that “real” socialism/communism had not yet come about anywhere. but that when it did all the errors of the past would be corrected. There are those that believe it even to this day.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Yes indeed, I’ve come across thaat response many times. They acknowledge that there were one or two teensy bit OTT things about e.g. the USSR, and that a few million deaths from violence or starvation might have been, er, unnecessary, but that the next Marxist government will really, really make it work as planned. Really.

        • The Laughing Cavalier

          The same people will often tell you that when real socialism comes they will no longer need to live off their trust funds. But until the glorious day comes they must game the capitalist system.

      • Sue Smith

        Another perfect example of leftist ideological eugenics.

    • Zalacain

      Communism is a type of religion. It’s about blind faith, logic doesn’t come into it.

      • berosos_bubos

        Same logic as the EU brigade in fact.

    • Sue Smith

      Your clues reside in the phrase “anyone capable of reading a teeny bit about world history since Marx”. I think we must assume that most simply haven’t.

      As one of the Soviet ‘envoys’ in the satirical film “Ninotchka” (Lubitsch/Wilder, 1939) said to another of his comrades:

      “It’s an idea; but who ever said we had to have an idea”?

      • Malcolm Stevas

        You’re probably right that few people know much history: I used to teach, and was always disturbed by the minimal knowledge of history even among students in their late teens or older. Everything from (say) the 1970s back to the Paleolithic was pretty much contiguous, “old stuff” that didn’t matter. I doubt most of them went on to correct this. But some of my colleagues in teaching had disturbing views – and these were folk one might expect to be better informed. They might assert that the late unlamented USSR was ruled by “the people” for instance, or that it had been brought down only by the wicked machinations of Uncle Sam – and so on. Extraordinary.

  • Helen Fairgrieve

    It is alive and well in the form of sjw politics.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Reviewer and reviewed clearly good enough chums to ensure there is no embarrassing mention of the latter’s own time in the CPGB. The review’s even coyer than Aaro’s Wiki entry.

  • If you need, Germany can send you some of its Lenin statues:

  • Fenman

    Yep Cavalier, they are called Corbinistas, and are taking over the Labour Party, lock stock and barrel. It will after its next conference be an unreconstructed commie party in all but name.. and apalogists like Johnson will still pretend otherwise.

  • shaunantijihad

    “British” Communism? Oh dear.

  • Polly Radical

    The worrying thing is that they expect us to be interested in this.

  • The call of Communism in the 1930s was strong and I doubt that many of us who are, like Alan Johnson, baby boomers would have resisted had we been born in the post WW1 era not the post WW2 years. If we are of the Left that is. The USSR was the bulwark against Hitler far more than the neutral FDR or the appeasing British establishment. Or was seen to be.

    • Eric Sachs

      Thought that USSR had a treaty with Germany/Hitler and Hitler attacked which helped split the armies for our advantage. USA only entered when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and Hitler declared war against America in accordance with his pact with Japan.

  • Sue Smith

    Communism is alive and well at “The Guardian”. They never give up trying – with them at the top of the pecking order, naturally.

  • Hippograd

    The problem was always with their hearts rather than their heads.

    Yes, communism is famous for its warmheartedness, isn’t it? That’s why they didn’t need to issue much clothing to prisoners in the Soviet re-education camps. The warmth pouring from the guards’ chests kept them toasty as they worked.

    Sam Aaronovitch was born to illiterate Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe who’d arrived in London just before the 1906 Aliens Act severely restricted the right of entry.

    Ach, to think we could have had more warm-hearted communists in the UK if it hadn’t been that evil Aliens Act. Then the Revolution might have happened here and David Aaronovitch wouldn’t have had to use New Labour as a vehicle for his humanitarianism and support for open borders.

    • greencoat

      Yes, damn shame.
      The ten-hour working day, rotten food, drab clothing, secret police, labour camps, re-education centres, mass pollution. We missed the lot.
      But don’t despair – Mr Corbyn is doing his best to get it all back on the agenda.

      • Hippograd

        I think New Labour already got there. They certainly imported huge numbers of potential Gulag guards.

  • “What happened to British communism?
    David Aaronovitch’s family memoir reminds Alan Johnson that — thanks to the Labour party — communism failed to capture British hearts and minds”

    Who is the author trying to kid? With the failure of the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe, Communism went underground, as the following illustrates…

    The following is a discovery I made in April 2015 regarding the fake collapse of the USSR, and what that fraudulent collapse proves about the institutions of the West…

    When Soviet citizens were liberated from up to 74 years of horrific Marxist-atheist oppression on December 26, 1991 there were ZERO celebrations throughout the USSR, proving (1) the ‘collapse’ of the USSR is a strategic ruse; and (2) the political parties of the West were already co-opted by Marxists,* otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ruse.

    ZERO celebrations, as the The Atlantic article inadvertently informs us…

    Notice, however, the Kremlin staged anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia (and other Soviet republics) in the years immediately preceding the ‘collapse’, yet ZERO celebrations after the ‘collapse’!

    For more on this discovery see my blog…

    The above means that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is an operation being carried out by the Marxist co-opted governments of the West in alliance with the USSR and other Communist nations, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending ‘War on Terror’; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union ‘From the Atlantic to Vladivostok’;** which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    The political parties of the West have long been co-opted by Marxists, otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ‘collapse’ of vanguard Communism ruse.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West ‘lost’ China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms, and proving that the Sino/Soviet Split was a ruse, as KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn told the West back in 1962), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.

    Now you know why not one political party in the West requested verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the ‘alternative’ media. When determining whether the ‘former’ USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the ‘former’ USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    The fraudulent ‘collapse’ of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Marxists, which explains why verification of the ‘collapse’ was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    It gets worse–the ‘freed’ Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of ‘Perestroika’ (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.


    The West will form new political parties where candidates are vetted for Marxist ideology, the use of the polygraph to be an important tool for such vetting. Then the West can finally liberate the globe of vanguard Communism.
    * The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848(1) taught Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly,(2) so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions. In the case of the United States…(continue reading at DNotice)…

    ** ‘Russia is an inalienable and organic part of Greater Europe and European civilization. Our citizens think of themselves as Europeans. We are by no means indifferent to developments in united Europe.

    That is why Russia proposes moving toward the creation of a common economic and human space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean – a community referred by Russian experts to as “the Union of Europe,” which will strengthen Russia’s potential and position in its economic pivot toward the “new Asia.”’ – Vladimir Putin (2012).

    • WFB56

      Wow, you have some serious problems.

    • Zander

      It always amazes me how extreme a person’s drive can be to answer a question while simultaneously reserving themselves to a bubble of cherry picked and non-factually supported information. Sure, the world needs conspiracy theorists for countless reasons; I get that. But at least base your theories on the presence of information, not the absence of it.

    • David S

      Those bloody lizards again

  • Oddsbods

    Isn’t Mr. Corbyn a communist?

  • WFB56

    “But communism failed to capture sufficient hearts and minds in Britain even at its zenith, principally because of the Labour party. ” This seems both a fairly patronising and self-serving suggestion.
    Isn’t it possible that the British working many simply had more common sense than to believe in absurdity of communism and that they were wary of a relatively benign hierarchy being replaced by a tyrannical one?

    • Alex Lothian

      As they now don`t believe in the absurdity of the current labour party make up.

  • Spud Gansroond

    They all joined the Labour Party.

  • Mara Naile-Akim

    the problem was that the british communists were seen basically as stooges of the USSR (which is exactly what they were). And once the evils of Stalinism became common knowledge, they were never going to do well.

    many socialists visited the USSR and came back and wrote about the problems there. Orwell saw the Soviet attempts at taking over the anti-fascist side in Spain. Those voices could not be silenced.

    • Ivor MacAdam

      Yep. Read “Time to Explain” by Christopher Mayhew.

  • Alex Lothian

    Try asking Corbyn and company, they all joined the labour party

  • berosos_bubos

    Why is the Spectator promoting a lefties book ?

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      Readers can make up their own minds, I think. Besides, the book is about the failure of communism, something a few Spectator readers might welcome (or deny).

      • Ivor MacAdam

        Communism has not completely failed – it is alive and well, running the European Useless Union.

  • robnorthlondon

    There was a Radio 4 prog with Andrew Marr that included an item with this author and others earlier this week
    It was all about Russia as well. V Good.

  • John

    One communist who was a colleague of mine bought a Moscowich car it proved to be almost instant cure.

  • Mr Data

    What happened to British communism? Like what happens to all of the lefties in the universities. They earned money and decided the system wasn’t so bad after all.

  • Mack

    One misses The Heralds of the Red Dawn and The Black Shorts.

  • William Matthews

    I was lead to believe that Communism failed because the working-class hold a lot of conservative views. Something that irks the whiny Lefties in this country today.