Book Review: ‘Children of the Revolution: Communist Childhood in Cold War Britain’
‘Children of the Revolution: Communist Childhood in Cold War Britain’ by Phil Cohen, Lawrence & Wishart. £12.99.
To begin with I was quite excited at the prospect of reading this book. In a sense I would be returning to my childhood, to a life shared with a Communist Party father, and then later on to a schism in that relationship during the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the revelations about Stalin, and to my subsequent resignation from the Communist Party at the age of twenty-two.
Although it would be true to say that I could identify, politically and emotionally, with some of the experiences of the “children” interviewed, there are nonetheless, major differences. Whilst I lived with a father who possessed a paid-up CP card but was not active within the CP the people portrayed in the book are offspring of parents who were very active within the party and also often held leading positions in the CP and the trade union movement. Despite my father’s infatuation with Communist Party ideals, the fact that he met few other party members meant that he did retain some original Marxist thinking, so that although he always supported the Soviet Union he most certainly never claimed they had socialism and he believed implicitly in the abolition of capitalism. Also only two of the people interviewed in the book were born in the thirties (1936 and 1937) others in the forties and fifties and one in the sixties, while I entered this world in 1935 and eventually became a member of both the YCL and the Communist Party where I was to remain for about six years.
But I found much in this book to depress me. When those interviewed use the word “socialism” none of them gives a satisfactory definition of it. Neither does anybody talk about the abolition of the wages system, although all appeared to believe in a fairer distribution of wealth and social justice, apparently this to be achieved by reforms to take place sometime in the future. Most disturbing is that even with the full knowledge of the denunciation of Stalin and the tragedy of the Hungarian uprising the children could still see no reason not to join the YCL and the CP not so long after these very events had become a catalyst for my leaving. But, as Phil Cohen says in his introduction, “Values are partly a question of upbringing affected by what you know will please your parents, and the experience that shape you as a person, which are inevitably bound up with your parents. But the benevolent paternalism of the CP could be stifling to those growing up within it. Teenage rebellion was not easy when you were told that saving from the world from imperialism was the key thing in life.” Quite so, but similar pressure did not prevent me from making my exit from the CP in 1957 and what is more I still held to the basic tenet of socialism somewhere in the back of my mind.
But some lessons had been learnt. Another contributor states “We weren’t a revolutionary party at all, and I was a member for thirty years, half of its existence. We had the rhetoric, we talked about the class moving this and that but we never saw it in those terms. Even when we analysed our electoral work, which I now look back on as a complete waste of time, we presented the lowest common denominator of the argument: that we were part of the anti-Tory movement and a lot of people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote communist would be stimulated to vote Labour, so we were vital to help return Labour candidates. To some extent that was true, my great moment was getting five hundred votes in the East Lewisham constituency and people saying to me there was absolutely no doubt I had helped Labour to get elected. But what is revolutionary about helping to change the complexion of parliament.”
To Communist Party parents the education of their children was of vital importance so that as a result most of those interviewed have professional jobs or careers. I had a rather different experience where my father saw nothing wrong with manual work or labouring although he did tentatively suggest I might feel more comfortable in an office. My own experience of being a member of the CP was that those members with well-paid careers or important political administrative posts were much admired. I’m not saying that this was in any way party policy, but doctors, teachers, writers, scientists and so on were regarded with a good deal more respect that, say, factory workers or shop workers. During my time in the party I was very much aware of this, perhaps because I was a factory worker at the time. Another theme running through the book is of the liberality and freedom permeating the children’s childhoods. Books, family discussions, and always a feeling of being somehow “different” from other children. My own experience too, but some of the children say their parents exhibited a kind of religious fervour and a streak of puritanism.
This book cost me a couple of sleepless nights; reading it forced me to examine my own political life since 1957. I too joined the Labour Party, but briefly and for infiltration purposes, and I became quite active in the peace movement, whilst always arguing from a working-class standpoint.
This is a fascinating book, well worth reading, but at the end of each and every interview I felt disappointed, let down, as though I had come to expect something “other” from the children, perhaps even fuller analyses of why they had come to join the CP at such an inauspicious time.