This book of three essays recalling the life and culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s is a reminder in more ways than one that time flies. Surely it can’t be ten years since Raphael Samuel died? Surely it can’t be nearly 20 years since the last of these pieces appeared in New Left Review? But it is, and it won’t be very long before the CP described so sympathetically here is beyond living memory.
Samuel was born in 1934 into a middle-class Jewish family, and his mother joined the CP in 1939. But although he was “brought up as a true believer” and joined the party as soon as he could, his membership was brief. He left in 1956, like so many other intellectuals, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then played a major part in the first New Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s before going on to found History Workshop, an organisation (if that’s the right word) bringing together academics and amateurs committed to “history from below”.
The Lost World of British Communism is a fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of Samuel’s death. It shows him at his very best both as a historian and as a writer. The everyday life of a tiny political party that was obsessively deferential to the Soviet Union and had few major internal disputes (at least from 1939 to 1956) might not seem a promising topic – and indeed there are plenty of studies of British communism that are painfully boring. But Samuel makes the CP come alive, mixing his own and other former members’ reminiscences with excerpts from novels, letters and material from the official archives to produce what is still by far the best account of what it was actually like to be a communist 50 to 60 years ago.
But it is more than that. Samuel wrote these essays after the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, just as the Communist Party was going through the bitter split that finally destroyed it – and they are also his take on the state of the left at the time. And even though it feels like only yesterday that they appeared, it’s strange to be reminded how much has changed since then.
I have a hunch no one will be writing elegaically in 20 years’ time about the cosy comradeship of Marxism Today or the day-to-day rituals of Straight Left and the Morning Star. The bust-up between the “Eurocommunists”, who felt that the CP should move away from confrontational class politics and pro-Sovietism, and the “tankies”, the traditionalists who preferred business as usual, was a vicious affair that ended with schism and both factions utterly marginalised.
Samuel was writing as someone who believed that a viable socialist left could emerge from the wreckage after the defeat of the miners, the implosion of the CP and the rightward mid-1980s turn of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. It never happened. The past 20 years have seen a succession of single-issue campaigns – against the poll tax, against road building, against various wars – but no left revival worthy of the name. Could it have been any different if only we’d taken notice of Samuel 20 years ago and rediscovered the virtues of 1940s communism (while ditching the bad bits)? Perhaps not, but rereading these essays did get me wondering.