Book Review: He Believed

 A fundamental human desire is to be correct, and in the quest for this correctness a man may be forced perhaps several times to reconsider and revise his opinions. To do otherwise, to hang on to outworn ideas out of misplaced loyalty or pride is sheer dishonesty and frequently a forerunner of dogmatism. At the same time it is wise for an individual perceiving a flaw in his ideas to elucidate the facts of both his old position and the new and examine them carefully lest he finds himself jumping straight out of the frying pan into the fire; or as in the case of Douglas Hyde, out of the Kremlin and into the Vatican.

Douglas Hyde was a well-known British communist, for many years news editor of the Daily Worker, and as such an unprotesting subscriber to its policy. When Russia threw in her lot with Germany in 1939, he faithfully swallowed his ideas of a “war for freedom.” Russia was invaded. He spewed them up again and cried for a “strike in the west” but of course, for no strikes at home. He supported the Labour Party in the ’45 landslide and later opposed it. Then one day he perceived certain contradictions so glaring that even he couldn’t stomach them. Slowly he transferred his affections and capacity for, believing in the unreal to the Roman Catholic church.

And “I Believed,” recently published by Heinemann. Ltd., is his story.

The national press received it warmly, but it is doubtful whether their joy was over Mr. Hyde’s redemption. More likely was it welcomed as more grist for the mill; fuel for the immediate task of preparing their readers for a future war with their erstwhile allies. In a world imbued with a complex of “leadership,” a leader changing camps is something great and his words must be taken as gospel.

It is interesting to note that several newspapers made great play of the Communist Party’s morality or lack of same. We used to read similar tales of the Nazis, all calculated to raise the indignation of the masses at the “unBritish” behaviour of the enemy. Yet in the same issues these papers reported several sordid court cases including one unsavoury “breach of promise ” without a word of editorial comment. Presumably those people involved were not members of the Communist Party.

However let us get back to the book itself. So far as Mr. Hyde as an individual is concerned, self styled communist or catholic he is our opponent, but his story, and one must admit his apparent sincerity, may serve as a useful guide to why so many workers can subscribe to the fantastic aims and claims of the Communist Party yet still from time to time change their allegiance to organisations which seem diametrically opposed to it.

Right from the word “go” the Communist Party has been primarily the overseas instrument of Russian policy and propaganda, and its ultimate aim to “Sovietise ” the country in which it operates. In a jargon of Marxian phrases and Lenin’s writings it has justified every move of Russia and its own subsequent recantation. At the same time it has sought to build up its membership and the main method used is not one of explaining socialism (which in view of Russia they hardly dare do) or even of finding reasons for the series of crises that have permanently been with us since the first world war and their inception, but by exploiting working class indignation at these recurrent crises and concentrating upon sectional issues in what they refer to as the “day to day” struggle. As Hyde puts it “A strong resentment against social injustice was another of the things which drove me into the Party.”

Under these circumstances they are not fussy whom they take. A signature upon the dotted line is all that is needed. When Hyde joined he was still a practising Methodist. When one considers that the International Class War Prisoners Aid (later International Labour Defence), the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the “No More War” movement and various organisations crying for Indian independence were but few of the organisations and committees inspired by members of the Communist Party, the hotch-potch of ideas and misconstructions that centred itself at King Street is not surprising. More recently when the Union Movement returned after its seven year enforced vacation we witnessed a Communist Party revival in the Jewish section of the East End, and also this ubiquitous body as the stalwart champion of better pay for nurses.

But a party membership based upon such shifting premises can never boast of a large stable membership. As the spotlight of world events changes its position one section of the membership drifts out another flows in. It is a transit camp and we must concern ourselves with the permanent staff, that hard core which remains stable when all the rest have gone.

Excluding those who are possibly careerists, we cannot doubt their almost fanatical sincerity. Showing a complete disregard for themselves many have been victimised and persecuted by their employers and more than once imprisoned. Yet still they have carried on and it is difficult to analyse their outlook.

Above all things is Russia, a light in a world of darkness as is Mecca to the Mohammedan. There is the home of “socialism” they say, to be protected not only from military assaults but also those of logical argument. Within the party they are compelled to toe the “party line” in whichever direction it may go and it is in this way that it may be compared with the church of Rome, unswervingly obedient to the bulls of Pope Stalin and encyclicals of Cardinal Palme Dutt.

Mr. Hyde chooses to call this fanatical devotion “Marxism” and throughout his book he throws the word about with the liberality of a drunken Scot on New Year’s Eve. In his eyes every step, thought or action made by the Communist Party is either “cold, ungodly Marxism” or “dialectics.” He claims to have read Marx. Perhaps he got hold of a different edition because as we see it Marxism is not a gospel but the findings, namely the materialist conception of history, the labour theory of value and the theory of the class struggle, of a nineteenth century political-economist who was sometimes wrong. One thing is certain. He did not advocate the state capitalism of Russia.

This is not the first time a man has changed his religion. When the confusion of twenty years had taken its toll Douglas Hyde found himself in a wilderness. A chance reading of catholic writers exposed for him a certain affinity of ideas especially about architecture and music. As the “communist” religion withdrew the catholic religion seeped in. At no time was there a vacuum which may have succumbed to reason.

In the closing chapter he writes, “ If I knew from my own experience that communism is wrong I as a writer must say so. That did not mean that I should suddenly start writing as though all my old comrades and colleagues whom I had been proud to call my friends were now a bunch of crooks and morons. At all costs I must hold fast to what I felt to be the facts, those which I knew from my own experience to be true, the belief that the most evil thing in communism is that it claims some of the best and moulds their minds and twists their consciences so that they can be used for the worst”(Our italics.)

Such a highly emotional paragraph, charged as it is with sentiment, could be applied to almost any religion, ancient or modern. Indeed, it is the penalty for belief without reason.


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