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Book Review: 'Lost Illusion'

Lost Illusion

'Lost Illusion', by Freda Utley (Allen & Unwin,  237 pages, 10s. 6d.)

'Lost Illusion', by Freda Utley, tells of her conversion to the  Communist Party in 1926, of her marriage to a Russian and her life in Russia for many years, of her disillusionment and eventually of the arrest without charge or public trial of her husband. Except that she received a postcard in 1937 from a Siberian concentration camp she has never heard from him since his arrest and all her efforts to get information from the Russian authorities have produced no result whatever. She says that she refrained from publishing the story all these years lest it should harm him, but she assumes now that he must be dead, or, if still alive, that he no longer has any chance of release whether she publishes the facts or maintains silence.

Those whose interest in the book is in this tragic personal story will probably be well satisfied and will doubtless accept the tribute to her sincerity paid by her friend of many years Bertrand Russell, who contributes, an Introduction. If, however, they have the curiosity to wonder what led the authoress through her various political enthusiasms they may well be puzzled, as indeed she is herself. She writes: “ Looking back on that distant time, I now wonder, did I really believe it? 1 suppose I did, or I should never have thrown up my job in the capitalist world and gone off with my husband to take part, as we thought, in the construction of Socialism.” (p. 17). Elsewhere (p. 11) she quotes what Bertrand Russell said to her when she was toying with the idea that it was all Stalin’s fault and that perhaps Lenin or Trotsky would have changed things. All Russell said was: “ Will you never learn and stop being romantic about politics?” The truth appears to be that in spite of having had what among the rich would be called a good education, and in spite of her economic and political studies, her changes of political faith have never been much more than violent emotional reactions against whatever unpleasant facts forced themselves on her attention. So when she came up against the sordid cruelty of British capitalism in the General Strike she suddenly had a vision that strange, faraway Russia, with its Communist Government, was different and must therefore be noble and beautiful. It is not clear from the book exactly where Freda Utley’s present political sympathies lie but we do know that it is the fate of many who approach politics in this emotional way to end up as cynical upholders of things as they are.

Socialists who read “Lost Illusion” will be interested in Freda Utley’s many first-hand examples of the inequalities of wealth, the class distinctions and snobbery, the callous attitude of the ruling clique towards the workers and peasants, and the brazen way the outward forms of democratic methods embodied in the Constitution are ignored in practice. Above all. Socialists will notice her description of Russia as a form of State Capitalism:

    “The Russian workers, like the peasants have no say at all as regards the disposal of the wealth created by their labour. The Communist Party, although not in theory the ‘owner’ of the means of production, appropriates to itself or for its own purposes the profit and benefits derived from the labour of the rest of the population. One can call the system state capitalism with the Bolshevik Party drawing the dividends.” (P.184.)

By itself this may appear to indicate that Freda Utley has a clear insight into the nature of capitalism and Socialism. In fact she seems to have reached a correct form of words by accident, for there is nothing in the book to show that she understands what Socialism and capitalism are and much to show that she does not. Nowhere does she say what exactly she understands by Capitalism and Socialism and she repeatedly uses terms in a way that betrays lack of understanding. On page one we are told that Russia in 1927 “ might be called semi-Socialist,” and we learn that some time earlier she was “ active ... in the Socialist movement" but what she means by the latter is that she was a member of the Labour Party. As such, as also when she was in the I.L.P., she was supporting the movement to establish State capitalism in Britain, which makes her criticism of “State capitalist ” Russia somewhat mystifying. If in her eyes the difference is that Russia is now a dictatorship it is pertinent to remind her that so it was in the early days of her admiration for it. And when we are asked to note that in State Capitalist Russia since 1935 “the salaries of high officials have been anything from ten to thirty times as high as the wage of a worker of average qualifications” (p.191) it is relevant to point out that exactly the same inequality prevails in British State capitalism under [a] Labour government. There is just such a gulf between a railway porter’s £5 a week and the £8,500 a year paid to heads of some State Boards.

Quite late in the book (p.183) she is still calling the Russian government “Stalin’s Socialist government,” yet she complains (p.175) because the idea still persists in western countries that Russia is a “Socialist state.” She forgets that she was one of those who in the Labour Party and I.L.P. and later in the Communist Party spent years building up the illusion that State Capitalism is Socialism. If at the beginning she had seriously studied the problem and had asked herself whether the working class could be emancipated within capitalism, she would have realised that emancipation requires common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution, that this cannot be achieved until the majority become Socialists, and that it involves the ending of property incomes, the wages system and production for sale and profit. Had she done this she would not have contributed to the perpetuation of forms of capitalism by backing the Labour Party and Communist Party. Incidentally she would have escaped the painful experience of going to Russia only to be disillusioned by what she found there. She would have known from the outset that Socialism did not exist in Russia and was not being built up there any more than it is being built up in Britain today.

Edgar Hardcastle