The LetterPress Project

Books Can Change Your World

»

The Lost World of British Communism

posted on 15 Jul 2017

The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel

An unpromising title, I know, but in this relatively short book a vanished world of experience is examined in lucid, fluent prose and I can’t think of another book quite like it.

Along with other Marxist historians, Raphael Samuel advocated a view of working class history ‘from below’. He co-founded the journal Past and Present, established the History Workshop group and journal at Ruskin College, and set up the short-lived Partisan Coffee House in Soho as a meeting place for the New Left. It worked well until it became evident that a coffee shop aimed primarily at argumentative but impoverished intellectuals was never going to constitute a viable business model. He was born in 1934 and died in 1996 a couple of weeks short of his sixty-second birthday. He was the son of Jewish parents and spent his childhood and teenage years in the Communist Party of Great Britain.

I can’t remember what prompted me to read this book in the first place. It’s the kind of title that would normally pass me by. But I must have read something that spoke of it highly and I have now read it twice. It’s marvellous. But in order to explain why, I really need to try and describe what it is – and what it isn’t.

Published in 2006 to mark the tenth anniversary of Samuel’s death, it collects together three multi-part essays published between 1985 and 1987 in the periodical New Left Review.

If it were a straightforward history of the CP, then frankly it wouldn’t be interesting – at least, not to me. Yes, it certainly does include some Communist Party history and this necessarily involves some elaboration of its politics, its ideological shifts, its splits and schisms, but it isn’t really a history as such. Rather, Samuel’s purpose is to “reconstitute a political mentality” and in doing this he treats himself and his own family as historical sources that enable him to scrutinise and recreate the years he spent as a “true believer” in the CP from about 1942 to 1956 when he was expelled. A full rendering of political experience, he believed, should be capable of considering “those points at which the imaginary and the real coincide” – there should be room for both “self-perception” and “self-deception”. It is perhaps more accurately described as a kind of political anthropology – a study of the political organism and the behavior of those within it.

Samuel’s highly personalised approach did not always find favour on the Left. Some thought it historically invalid. But others, Gareth Stedman-Jones, for example, believe that Samuel’s work has expanded the intellectual and imaginative range not just of English history but of the writing of history itself.

How best to sum up Samuel’s approach? His perspective seems to be that of the chastened sceptic – a man whose political world has collapsed but who nonetheless continues to consider the world of working class and revolutionary politics to be fertile ground for historical study. But even that – while accurate – makes it sound too dry. For an objective, academic historian, Samuel has a marvellous ‘voice’ – warm, affectionate, sometimes exasperated, wry, often slyly funny. His footnotes are often tiny masterpieces in themselves, mixing asides, polemical comment and fascinating digressions.

He says that for his mother’s generation, communism paradoxically represented “a way of being English, a bridge by which the children of the ghetto entered the national culture”. It was also a “break from hereditary upbringing”, a means of achieving emancipation “from the narrowness of a religious environment”. But for him, communism satisfied a “craving for authority” which also sanctioned “the repression of doubt”. “Like many Communists of my time,” he says, “I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd.” This he regarded an “unresolvable duality” on which many British Communists found themselves “impaled” for decades.

The lost world Samuel describes now seems doubly, trebly vanished. He is writing about the CP at the peak of its power and influence; but he is doing this from the vantage point of the mid-1980s – now an increasingly vanished age in itself. This means that it does sometimes feel as if one is witnessing a sort of double excavation, but personally I found this added to the narrative richness.

This is a somewhat specialised book, but it is nowhere near as specialised as its title might suggest. It is also creative, deeply insightful, beautifully written and hugely enjoyable.

 

Alun Severn

July 2017