Communism and Pandora’s Box
For years I was sarcastic about earnest Communists who took trips to Russia and saw what they wanted to see. A printer, Tom Charlesworth (nephew of Fred, an old anti-parliamentarian communist with whom I had friendly arguments for years) was persuaded by his girl friend, a YCL stalwart, to join a tour to Moscow and Leningrad. There were five places vacant at cut prices and he rashly invited several workmates to join him. The lads had a seemingly profitable time flogging nylons (it was before the jeans revolution) but found they could do nothing whatever with the amassed roubles except spend them on drink and prostitutes. Tom was with his fiancee and precluded from these diversions, and he also denied on ideological grounds there could be such a thing as prostitution in the Land of the Revolution. Economic necessity no longer drove girls on the streets, he explained to his sniggering friends, and these women must be princesses brought up under the old regime and unaccustomed to normal work. A burst of laughter greeted this information. It was forty years since the Tsar had fallen and the ladies in question, however bedraggled, were barely twenty years old.
Some years later the Charlesworths, now married and in the Party, took a trip to Russia by car. They were earning good money and she spoke Russian. They were disconcerted when everyone assumed they were capitalists. As if a working printer could afford a car! “You’ll tell me next that the Black workers drive around Brixton in cars”, said an incredulous local, whose knowledge of England came from an amalgam of Dickens and the Daily Worker.
Their son Frank, like many another, turned his back on the faith of his parents. I had hopes he would become an anarchist. Even his father wavered in his Stalinism after that trip though his mother remained faithful to the end. John Lawrence, the local CP guru even after he joined the Labour Party, became Mayor and hoisted the red flag on the Town Hall one May Day, defected again to become first a Trotskyist and then a Tolstoyan “Christian Anarchist” and an editor of Freedom. He took Tom away from the Communist Party. Equally however he put Frank off anarchism, to which he was inclined, because of the asssumption that Lawrence was a real anarchist.
I always thought it unlikely I would ever go to Russia with the vague idea many had that it would be a charnel house and under jackboot domination. This image was fading after Stalin died though nobody saw where the transition from dictatorship would lead. I too assumed you could “only see what they want you to see” as if the “West” held conducted tours round its prison and mental institutions.
I finally took a sudden plunge one January (with owed leave from Christmas), notwithstanding Tom’s insistence I too “would see what I wanted to see” but in my case all bad, and took a package tour to Moscow and Leningrad. I found that while, as in the days of the Tsar, one could only visit cities which the police agreed on in advance, one could go anywhere within those cities and see anything. The idea that Russia was a classless society was so absurd that I wished others would take the trip too, and one would not have heard about the working class having taken power. Or perhaps not. They might not have noticed the smart people in fashionable furs marching purposefully to their cars to take them to their weekend dachas contrasted with the dispirited workers queueing for the store or working all hours.
As the trip included several excursions, I visited Leningrad University and the vice-chancellor gave us a propaganda lecture about the Russian education system. He pointed out that they had (so far) no drugs problem nor youth delinquency, though he agreed it might happen in the future. It was, to him, unthinkable that there should be such problems in a University. Students in Russia were not like those in turbulent Paris, they knew they were a privileged class and that when they passed into society they had top jobs for life and better conditions than the average. Why on earth would they want to make trouble for themselves? In any case the authorities knew how to deal with trouble-makers. The “trade union” representative at the school would be informed if the pupil was misbehaving and his parents would be interviewed. If necessary the mother would lose her job and be told to stay home and look after her children. The father might have his wages cut, to be reminded of his responsibilities. All the audience bar me were British social workers and teachers and nodded approvingly.
I had the opportunity of mild revenge on two Communists from Manchester in the group, well-meaning elderly lady teachers. Back at the hotel they told us we should all subscribe to a wreath to lay on the Leningrad monument “to the heroic soldiers who died fighting fascism”, accompanied by a picture of Karl Marx’s tomb at Highgate which they had brought with them especially. When they asked me, I said I would agree if they would add to the description “and those heroic sailors at Kronstadt who died fighting tyranny”. Thinking of me as probably nothing more sinister than an old salt, and not having heard of one of the last stands against Soviet dictatorship, they agreed eagerly. They went to the Russian guide, who knew all about Kronstadt, for a translation. I was never asked again and got black looks from them ever after. They remarked loudly about our fairly passable hotel how wonderful it all was. “And to think how things were before the Revolution! If only some of the carpers could see it!” one said, and the other answered, glaring at me in a manner that must have brought alarm to her infant pupils, “Some folks will never believe anything, even when they see it.” “Oh, well, Trotskyists!” sniffed the other, though Trotsky, not Stalin, was the despotic supppressor of the Kronstadt mutiny.
I was able to persuade the guide who took us to see the fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, to point out where the anti-Tsarist revolutionists were detained and were duly honoured, save for those who lived long enough to challenge the Leninist State. The guide knew about Bakunin, but his cell had been wiped away in an inundation from the Neva. She showed me Kropotkin’s unmarked and unhonoured cell, however, claiming he could not have escaped in the manner he describes in his memoirs. Her version was that as Tsarism was still around he probably invented an unlikely story to throw the Tsarist police’s suspicion away from his friends.
When Kropotkin returned to Russia the Soviets had re-named a square in his honour. I went for a wintry swim in the open-air baths at Kropotkin Square in his memory. They were delightfully warmed, though if one strayed over a narrow margin around the pool one was in grave danger of losing one’s virility.
I discovered by devious means some elderly anarchists who spoke German. When I commented on the fact that Kropotkin’s square had survived his influence, they assured me that there were still people who preserved anarchist memories in secret, and there had been local strikes and insurrections even in the Twenties and Thirties, the brutal suppression notwithstanding. They took me to a railway workers’ club where several older workers were survivors of the libertarian movement and would form independent trade unions the moment it was remotely possible. Unfortunately the language barrier prevented our discussing this, as my hosts were not good at interpreting, and I was inclined to be sceptical, knowing that optimism is inevitably the last hope of the defeated.
A few years later the whole communist system fell and all dissent came out into the open in a rush, as if a Pandora’s box had been opened. One or two of those Russian anarcho-syndicalists, as representative of a not inconsiderable movement, were being given a fair hearing on their local TV which, though the capitalist economy also collapsed a few months afterwards, we here have still to achieve.
The break-up of the Soviet system came as no surprise to those who had no illusions about State Communism. What puzzled the journalists and professors was crystal clear to many who had received no London School of Economics brainwashing, but used their common-sense. The Russian Establishment under both Lenin and Stalin paid the same attention to proletarian values as the Christian world did to the teachings of Jesus on humility, poverty and non-resistance. It placed them on a pedestal and left them there. What reigned in Russia was not capitalism, nor communism but the State in control of everything.
Some dissident Communists introduced as an alibi a fiction that State Capitalism existed in Russia but all that oppresses is not capitalism. The party tried to impose State Communism but found it impossible to enforce. The reality was Party Tsarism.
Centralisation of rule by one man was replaced by that of one Party, and eventually under Stalin by one man again. To have sole responsibility for the manifest problems of one City would drive a person out of his wits. Many politicians in countries where power is shared by many become clinically insane. To take responsibility for the manifold problems of peace and war of one tiny State, let alone a vast empire, would make a person a raving gibbering criminal lunatic. This is what happened to Stalin and Hitler, and would have happened to Lenin had he not been stopped short in time. Throughout the years of Stalinism there was an anarchist resistance, most notably in Bulgaria, but on a scale impossible to define within Soviet Russia itself. Language always presented a problem, but most obstacle to international co-operation were caused by Interpol. The “West” may have been opposed to communist tyranny all those years but it was vigorously committed to sustaining it all the same. Perhaps Interpol preferred the devil it knew, but it must take the credit for preventing subversion within the Russian and Chinese blocs. They preferred “cold”, open or even nuclear war to any revolution that might arise from below, whatever the politicians said.
I was in touch for years with Chinese anarchists, until the old generation, or at least my contacts within it, died out. In doing so I encountered more espionage interference than I did with contacts in fascist Spain, yet the Government throughout was supposed to be hostile to Chinese Communism most of all. Special Branch were always concerned that I in my tiny way could be plotting the overthrow of the powerful Chinese State, yet China in turn thought anyone giving comfort to revolutionaries must be backed by foreign Intelligence.
So far as Bulgarians were concerned, they were always in touch with the international movement through the exile movement in Australia but had their problems with the Australian police too, just as they did with Soviet espionage. I had fleeting contacts with the Russian movement throughout the post-war period. Special Branch was always keen to intercept any news on resistance within Russia, though one might have thought they would approve of it in return for Communist subversion here, if only as tit-for-tat. It didn’t work out that way. There may have been a Cold War but always and in every way the “West” prevented any form of assistance or encouragement reaching the Russian oppositional workers that might enable in even a small way to overthrow the regime. What they liked were groupings demanding freedom of religion or nationalist groupings asking for autonomy or minority rights within the Soviet bloc. But they did not like anyone wanting to overthrow the tyranny against which they inveighed endlessly, even capitalist groupings.
At the very time they seemed to be gearing up for war with Russia, in the cold war period, I had a visit from the police enquiring about a “Makhnovist Saboteur” grouping in the south of Russia, which, if it existed, I would have thought hindered the then prospective enemy. I did not even know it existed but was warned not to help it. Chance would have been a fine thing! I doubt if they were merely playing the anti-Bolshevik game in a sporting fashion.
It did not surprise me too much when glasnost revealed that the anarchists were there all along, that great prison camp mutinies in the Stalin years by libertarian political prisoners had not been reported, that anarcho-syndicalist organisation was springing up in every big city in a wave of strike actions; that they started to declare themselves openly in the Red Army; and, since it was less hierarchic than ours, were even among the officers. The opening of the State and KGB archives in post-Soviet Russia may yet make it possible to document the ‘lost years’ of Russian anarchism. Some indication of the scope and continuity of underground acitivity in the USSR between 1921 and 1989 is given by Phil Ruff in his introduction to an anthology of writings by or about the re-emergence of anarcho-syndicalism (Anarchy in the USSR: A New Beginning, ASP London 1991).
Now that the whole Russian scene is opening up again, there are few ways I personally can help. But it is a consolation to look back and realise that I am one of the minority of my generation in the working-class movement of this country who ever wanted to do so.
A Rebel Spirit
I knew Leah Feldman, one of the last survivors of the Makhno movement, from 1936 to her death at ninety-four in 1993. She was a constant leitmotif in my experiences of the movement. When still attending the boxing academy I used to call in to the sweatshop where she worked as a furrier and hand in collections I made among the young pugilists for Spanish prisoners, even before the Civil War broke out, little thinking I would still be at it sixty years later.
She had come from Warsaw as a girl, to break from her orthodox Jewish parents and to be active in the anarchist movement. Even in her teens her parents were hiding her shoes to stop her going out to illegal anti-Tsarist meetings, and she hid an old pair in her room to enable her to do so. In London she joined the Yiddish-speaking anarchist workers movement of the day (of which she became the last survivor). In 1917, the male Russian anarchists in exile took advantage of the arrangement by which they could join the Russian or British Armies and joined the army in defeat to be home for the revolution. The women had no such option, but Leah independently made her way to Moscow. Like others, but quicker than many, she was speedily disillusioned.
She attended Kropotkin’s funeral (1921), the last open demonstration of anti-Bolsheviks under the dictatorship. Anarchists were released from prison to attend. The anarchists working in the capital stole the flowers from the constant massed tribute to the dictator Lenin, then at the height of his power, no wreaths being available in a Moscow winter. Later she left Moscow for Odessa, giving that as her place of birth, and fought alongside Makhno in the train that accompanied him, caring for orphans and preparing clothes and food. When the army was defeated she took advantage of the one ‘privilege’ women had, of contracting a marriage in name only to a German anarchist to enable her to leave the country. She could not find work in Berlin, though she helped the Black Cross established there for Russian prisoners, and came back to London.
Deciding in the Thirties that her ‘husband’ was probably dead when the Nazis came to power, she married an old ex-serviceman named Downes, left derelict after WW1, giving him £10 for the service. She was thus belatedly a British subject and able to travel, and she was active in many movements when I first met her in 1935, though she always hankered for what we all then thought was the vanished Russian movement. It was her enquiries into the fate of her Makhnovist comrades in 1948, which I transcribed, when she received some leads from an exile in America, that caused the police interest in whether I was up to something with Russian resistance. She was then half blind following an eye operation, but they questioned her too. They could not be too careful about security matters, even Russia’s.
During the war I made contact with several sympathetic to anarchism in the Polish army and air force who came to see her. But, like many who never overcome the problems of a new language, the old one was now hopelessly mixed. Her Polish was incomprehensible to them, but she gave them her Polish books. The race divide in pre-and inter-war Poland had been such they had never heard a Jewish accent in Polish.
She never lost her enthusiasm for activities for anarchism, whether the harmless Freedom variety or the real thing. She associated with the Spanish struggle strongly, and when after the Civil War ended she joined a number of anarchist women in an enterprise started by another Russian anarchist Marie Goldberg. They had a tailoring workshop in Holborn and were joined by Suceso Portales (of the “Mujeres Libres” organisation) and others. The babble of tongues in broken English, Yiddish, Polish, bits of French, Spanish, broad Scots, Catalan and Greek-Cypriot over the rattle of the machines, made me wonder how they ever understood one another but they made up in volume what they lacked in linguistic conformity. The postman once said to me on the stairs, “I can never work out what nationality those ladies are. They told me they come from somewhere called Anarchy, but Christ knows where that is.”
During the hectic struggles of the sixties and seventies, Leah, by then half blind and increasingly deaf, helped the First of May Group, looking after weapons and even smuggling items into Spain, where she was known affectionately by the nickname “la yaya (granny) maknovista”.
Though she supported Freedom financially and by selling copies, she was neglected by them for some reason. Perhaps they feared her a bit, though occasionally the earnest “researcher” would come, notebook in hand, to ask about the past. After her death one such, a Mr Whitehead, waxed sarcastic about this funny old lady with frazzled hair who spoke English badly and annoyed Philip Sansom. He poured scorn on the idea that a working woman could have done half the things she did, citing the misprint in my obituary in The Guardian (for “Lenin’s tribute” it said Lenin’s tomb”) to prove nothing she did was of any account, and one wonders why he bothered to write about such an insignificant person. As to working with the Spanish struggle, that was not what anarchism consisted of: it was writing university theses at State expense, which she certainly never did.
I am very proud of my young friends and colleagues on Black Flag who knew of the tremendous work Leah put in during her years in the movement, and who unflaggingly looked after her in her later, difficult years, when a series of accidents made her impatient, demanding and difficult, but unflagging in revolutionary spirit, some taking her on holiday, others looking after her needs week after week. Some fifty attended her funeral, and afterwards I went to a gathering to scatter her ashes at the Chicago Martyrs’ Memorial.
1984 and All That
Wilf McCartney, a catering worker in his late sixties, was a regular speaker at anarchist meetings when I first attended them in the Thirties. He was also one of the Syndicalist Propaganda League, who joined the ASU but not the Anarchist Federation (as reconstructed in 1940). He took the view, held by many, that what was needed was workers as a whole to organise, not the anarchists as such, or it would become another political party, though nothing angered him more than the customary philistine statement, “the anarchists don’t believe in organisation”. In 1941 Tom Brown suggested to McCartney he should write his memoirs. McCartney named the pamphlet Dare to be a Daniel! a Nonconformist slogan which appealed to old-time radicals, even atheists.
It was still assumed Freedom Press belonged to the anarchist movement, but by the time it was written, in the following year, this was dubious. The “Freedom Press Group” insisted the book was impossible to publish, giving as an excuse the admittedly scarcely legible script. I typed it out laboriously one weekend I was in London only for it to lie on the table in the flat of two of the group while they thought of fresh excuses why it could not be published.
However, they were friends of George Orwell, who happened to call and, seeing it, was interested enough to ask if he could take it home to read. Next week he came in and said enthusiastically, “If you’re going to publish it, I’d like to write a foreword.” It was a story of catering conditions in the West End which, he said, exactly concurred with his experience when down-and-out in Paris and London (the difference being that McCartney showed how they fought back).
Though Orwell was not as famous then as now, he was a Noted Intellectual and this altered the situation! They “agreed” it should be published, but George Woodcock, as a literary “expert” wanted it re-written in his brand of Standard Boring English. Brown objected vigorously. However, by the time the booklet was ready for printing, the clique had seized control of the press. Woodcock made several deletions, and changed the title to The French Cooks’ Syndicate, with an introduction by Woodcock and a preface by Orwell. McCartney, who did not expect nor receive a penny for the work nor even a free copy, was not consulted.
When he saw it printed, he objected strongly to the patronising introduction by the ultra-Pacifist Noted Intellectual Woodcock and he also resented Orwell writing that his experiences agreed with those of the author, who regarded him, fairly or otherwise, as an “upper class twit playing at workers, who said that the working class stinks”.
Wilf’s daughter, before she died in 1977, asked Leah Feldman, with whom she was friendly over the years, to get Cienfuegos Press to re-issue the pamphlet, preferably under its original title. They did not have a copy and it was long out of print. Freedom Press wrote to Stuart that it was “their” pamphlet and they were about to reprint and jealously preserved the right to Orwell’s few words. Fifteen years later, it still being unpublished, I found a copy, re-set it and had it published by the Kate Sharpley Library.
Some paragraphs had been missed from the Freedom Press edition, but as the manuscript hadn’t been restored, I couldn’t remember them well enough to reproduce them accurately. These paragraphs were on early anti-fascist activity during the General Strike, when the Imperial Fascisti organised a strike-breaking force, which despite Regular Army protection was routed in the Old Kent Road by dockers with their hammers and catering workers with their carving knives. The heroic scabs took one look, broke ranks and ran, to the hilarity of the squaddies. An amusing paragraph on Victorian schools, with some sarcastic comments on the class prejudices of even the best professional writers, was also missing. These deletions in the first edition were no doubt made by Professor Woodcock in the interests of space, and the omission of his unsolicited five cents worth in the second edition may be considered pure sectarianism on my part.
According to Woodcock ‘s later distorted recollections of those days, Freedom Press, from which he then loftily detached himself, was offered Animal Farm but turned it down. I find it highly unlikely, especially with Woodcock in control of its literary output and given Marie-Louise Berneri’s worship of Noted Intellectuals like her father. Had they published it Orwell would never have been brought to the notice of the literary dictators of opinion. It would have been just another obscure book.
Published by a mainstream publisher and reviewed by accepted critics, it brought Orwell into consideration by the Establishment, and not just the literary one, as an outrageous and original critic of Soviet Russia, and by implication an opponent of the liberal version of State Socialism he had peddled for years and still did.
Orwell was then too ill to enjoy the sensation of being one of the literary figures of our time, but in 1948 1984 put him on the map. As with Animal Farm many people misunderstood it. What he was doing was not predicting a future which never happened, at least within the timescale, but, like Jack London in The Iron Heel, exaggerating current trends in terms of the future. He was essentially a liberal Socialist, disenchanted with the Communist Party and the way socialism was going, but with a love-hate relationship with both, like many of the intellectual left before and since. The Right took it for hate and clasped a reluctant and dying Orwell to its bosom.
I only met Orwell once, in Charlie Lahr’s bookshop. I never agreed with Wilf McCartney’s description of him, partly because of his Homage to Catalonia, though it was not as good as it was cracked up to be by later generations.
Nowadays they seem to think he was a significant military figure in Spain instead of being an obscure foreign volunteer in a minor party’s division, though he made no claims to being anything more.
I remember him talking to Lahr about the American Albert Weisbord, who wrote a tome on the counter-revolution in Spain. Weisbord, Orwell said, was a former Trotskyist who had gone through Trotskyism and Oehlerism and was now the only Weisbordian apart from his wife. When they divorced, he said, there could be no more splits, unless he became schizophrenic. Weisbord had apparently turned up in Barcelona just on the eve of the Communist internal coup in 1937, and had locked himself in his hotel bedroom for two days, eventually creeping out at night to the British Embassy over the road who afforded him a swift car to the American Embassy and a safe passage out before the OGPU got him, for what purpose one knows not. One would have thought they were not that hard-up for spare Trots. He then returned to New York to denounce the cowardice of those who had let the Communist Party gain the upper hand.
Orwell also said that Weisbord had once campaigned to be Governor of New York State on a manifesto addressed “To the Workers and Peasants of Brooklyn”. To be honest, I thought Orwell a lot wittier than his writings, which I found usually, and at that time always, a dreadful bore. Such an opinion became literary heresy.