Why I Joined the SPGB

I was, of course, not the only one to leave the Communist Party. My main claim to distinction is that I was for many years a national official of the Young Communist League—its National Organizer, in fact. During most of the ‘twenties I was the official representative of the YCL in Moscow, and subsequently, a member of the five-man secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Communist Youth International, the “Sanctum Sanctorum”.

The manner of this was (as always) mainly the result of outside circumstances. You see, my older cousin, Fred Peet, was the acting General Secretary of the newly formed Communist Party in 1920, while Inkpin (the Secretary) was doing twelve months for publishing the Theses of the Third Congress of the Communist International.

Even as a fourteen-year-old kid I was a regular listener to the numerous meetings at Highbury Corner, near my dad’s bicycle shop. There I heard Alex Anderson and Adolph Kohn—though the man who impressed me most of all of them was Charlie Lestor: he burst in on the London scene like a Canadian bison.

After mucking about in the Herald League for a bit I joined the CP in 1920, and was offered a job in the bookshop at 16 King Street. The Communist International was anxious to get a Communist youth movement going in Britain, and sent someone over to jog the CP into doing it. The procedure was quite simple. All CP branches were instructed to send delegates to a convening conference. This took place at the old International Socialist Club in East Road, City Road, in 1921. To my considerable astonishment, I was elected chairman. An Executive was elected, which at once appointed me National Organizer.

I should add here that despite (or more likely because of) my youth I had already taken to the outdoor platform, and made the grade as a Communist Party rabble-rouser. There were occasions when speakers didn’t turn up (like now), or organized groups tried to break up the meetings. Up I jumped, and repeated most of what Charlie Lestor had said the last time I heard him. What was lacking in knowledge was covered by youthful enthusiasm; and at a comparatively early age I was in demand for meetings with the best of them.

I tried to look unconcerned when Zigi Bamattre (the Swiss CYI representative) announced: “You are coming back to Moscow with me.” The gigantic upheaval in Russia had stretched out its mighty arms to Islington! In November 1922 I pinched myself to ensure that it really was me listening to Lenin and Trotsky in the marble and gold halls of the fabulous Kremlin in Moscow.

Rushed back to England, I did a speaking tour from Penzance to Aberdeen for six months, forming YCL branches (it was all done on one Tourist ticket costing £5). Back again to Moscow, to take part in the first major crisis for the British CP: the sacking of Inkpin and MacManus to replaced by Pollitt and Dutt.

So it went on for six years. Of course I knew the SPGB—hadn’t I encountered those over-logical pests at many a meeting? At the Communists’ 5th Congress there was an almost unique specimen—an SPGB-er who had joined the Communist Party, Frank Vickers from Tooting. I recall many times when members of the SPGB debunked my oratory: at Wood Green Corner, Tottenham, a little bloke murmured in my left ear “If they won’t vote for it, they won’t fight for it!”

A disturbing thought – but I was too busy predicting the imminent collapse of capitalism. In Moscow we were privileged members of the famous Dynamo sports club, with the best instructors and equipment: we were the golden boys, the Youth of the Revolution, destined to take over the world. Among them were Jacques Doriot, to become founder of the French Blackshirts; Liebknecht’s son; and Naygen Ali Ivak, later known as Ho Chi Minh. In naval uniforms we lined up outside the Comintern building and marched back to the Lux Hotel singing “We are the Young Guard of the Proletariat”.

Yet the writing was on the Kremlin’s wall. 1925: struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. 1926: Trotsky’s expulsion. 1928, and I resolved to return to England and refuse to accept any more paid employment in the CP. I did—I remember Eddie Fitzgerald, the translator of Mehring’s “Life of Marx” saying to me “You must be mad! What job will a Communist agitator get in England?” I found a job as a foreign language telephonist (to be demoted by the Post Office when they found out).

There were the Great Depression and the National Government. Mosley’s Blackshirts: Pollitt issued his call to break up opponents’ meetings, and the CP formed the Workers’ Defence Force, drilling with broomsticks in Epping Forest. I declared it ridiculous, and by 1934 was in active opposition to the Central Committee. I was summoned to a disciplinary court of the CP, to which the officials never turned up.

During this time I was still editor of the English-language edition of the CI’s official monthly, the Communist International. When the Spanish Civil War started, Harry Pollitt asked me to go and see him: Would I proceed to Spain immediately as interpreter to the British battalion of the International Brigade? It dawned on me that all those in opposition to the CP’s Central Committee were being cleared off to Spain, like my bosom pal Wally Tapsell who was shot in Galicia. It was to be a political execution. This was the end. To hell with you!

I obtained employment with the Workers’ Travel Association as a courier, spending most of my time until the war in 1939 in Switzerland, Italy and France. Then, one balmy evening, I strolled in Hyde Park with a girl friend. We listened to Groves, Turner and Rubin on the SPGB platform destroying all the pretensions of the CP. This was it! I joined the Party the following week, and soon after that took the platform myself for the first time, One result of my advent was the discomfiture of the Communists who used to bawl at Party speakers: “Have you been in Russia?”

“Have I been in Russia?” I used to answer. “Listen, mate, I grew up there!”

Horatio (Harry Young)

Leave a Reply