14 I Join the Communist Party

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 15, 2020

Travelling around the country under the auspices of the many front organisations in Britain gave me a new insight into a way of life lived by a large part of the population but never really presented to the public by writers of note, except by a few failures. It seemed to me that almost every street of every town yet there were no films about it. It is not my job to ask why this should be so, and anyway if I did, the Professors of Gabology would all rise like one man and hand out a verbal thrashing that would leave me a mental invalid for the year or two left to me on this earth.
However in those days I came upon this life every time I visited a town. True, I had the most valuable pass-key one could wish for: my own working-class accent. Unlike the intellectual type who does not know the difference between slumming and helping, I did not have to prove my credentials by standing at the corner of the street with a flowing red tie for everybody to see and shouting `Daily Worker` in an accent which would have got me a chair at Oxford without any exams. As soon as I appeared amongst these people, they knew me for theirs. They showed me respect and in some cases admiration, after all I had made a bit of a name for myself at Invergordon, and they recognised it, although they all made the same mistake of thinking it had been something of a `Potemkin do`. In that they were wrong.
What interested and impressed me most were the little moments when the difficulties these people were facing came staring out at me. Following a tried and practised pattern I always arrived in a new town with a copy of the Daily Worker on view. The chap appointed to meet me knew me immediately, came and introduced himself and announced that he had been made responsible for me whilst in the town. They usually invited me first to go to their homes and have a bite, and then go on to the meeting place.
Everywhere I met the poverty of the unemployed. It is true that I was brought up in poverty, but the poverty of the poorly paid worker cannot be compared with the poverty of the unemployed. The poorly paid worker has a bright day at least once a week, the day when he collects his wages. For then he has the joy of picking out a penny here or there to give to his children. He knows he can scrape together the price of one trip to the cinema for him and his wife. However drab his life may be in the main, those little pleasures he still enjoys. It is the unemployed man who is denied even the simplest of these pleasures: for him pay day is a burden over which he has time to brood, gradually giving way in many cases to a despair which is reflected in the state of his home. Except for the `good Samaritan` groups that can always be organised around the hardest-hit cases, nobody was interested in the unemployed, especially not in helping to stop their moral decay.
That was where the Communists came in. one felt the difference as soon as one entered the house of an unemployed Communist. There was the same poverty as elsewhere. The little treat prepared for the visitor from the centre was obviously something they never had themselves. The little pale-faced child with the big round eyes, watching the strange man eating nice-looking tasty bits and hoping he would not eat it all, was there just the same. But there was an atmosphere of confidence, there was no sign of moral decay.
That was the picture I met when I went on these speaking trips, and the reason for it was that the Communists, whilst not offering anybody a rose garden, raised a feeling of hope. The slogan of the workers becoming the masters is as old as the hills. It is the same as the biblical saying that the last shall be first etc. But when an unemployed working man is told day after day that he must create the new world himself, he feels an inspiration that no charitable organisation can provide. True, he will take a hand-out from these organisations but he will never become part of them. For him they are either the enemy or near to it, the enemy being the person who knows not poverty.
He is ready, therefore, for a man who speaks his own language, who lives in the same insufficiency, but whose determined militancy imparts a moral uplift to those few he has collected round him.
For a person of my experience, who had seen and, to some extent, undergone injustices, it was the high moral standard of these people, their insistence on doing everything on behalf of those whom they called class brethren, which was the great attraction. It was least of all the will-o’-the-wisp idea that there existed a country where this idea held sway. For those who had looked on the world from the end of Wigan Pier this might be an attraction. But the Navy had at least given me the possibility of seeing the world better than many people see it, and during those travels I had become convinced that loaded tourists and newspaper correspondents were about the most ill-informed people of anybody in the world. One cannot see a country by driving round town in an excursion motorbus, nor learn about it by hanging round the bars of the best hotel, picking up fairy tales from drink scroungers. I, at any rate, had made a very simple discovery: that if the poor man gets the crumbs from a rich man’s table, the crumbs are somewhat different in different countries. Some are small and very dry, others are bigger and more nutritious.
I joined the Communist Part in July 1932 and, to begin with, it made little difference to my speaking in London and round the country. Then, in August, I was delegated to my first international congress, the first World Anti-War Congress, held at Amsterdam.
The hall was a huge velodrome with tables for representatives from all nations, spread all over the wide floor space. In those days halls were not fitted with facilities for simultaneous translation, so the congress was a real Tower of Babel with German the predominant tongue. In fact it soon became clear to me that the Germans were running this show, as the Soviet delegation, which included Maxim Gorky, had been refused visas by the Dutch authorities. When our little delegation tried to arrange for a representative to be elected to the speakers’ tribune, the man we talked with was Fritz Eckert, a member of the German Central Committee. The members of our delegation wanted to put forward my candidacy, but Eckert vetoed it right away. He said that first of all the British party was very small and secondly he knew that the sailors at Invergordon had sung `God Save The King`. It was pointed out to him that this was an anti-war congress, and that therefore anybody who was against war could speak, whether he sang `God Save The King` or not. We finally wore him down and he reluctantly agreed that I should speak.
Not before I had learnt, however, that there was a peculiar sort of `class` ladder in the international Communist movement. The German Party was at that time the biggest in numbers, other than the Soviet Part. It had over four-hundred-thousand, paid up, card-carrying, members. Its candidate in the German presidential election, Ernst Thaelmann, polled over ten million votes. The Party had a large apparatus and a widespread publishing concern, printing quite a number of daily, weekly and monthly papers and magazines. Besides these largescale propaganda media, there was a mass semi-military organisation called the Red Front Fighters, which claimed to be a counter-organisation to the Nazi Storm Troopers. So whenever there was any International Front affair outside the Soviet Union, the Germans took charge of it and imposed their will on it. They were good Communists to their own way of thinking, only they forgot to prefix the name with the word `German`. The influence of their nationalism was to be tragically proved in the bitter lessons of the period of Nazi power and the suffering it brought the German people.
In November of that same year I made my first visit to the Soviet Union, this time as a delegate to the international congress of the Labour Defence Organisation, for which I worked. Its head, at that time, had been a very well-known figure in the revolutionary movement before the October Revolution, although originating from an aristocratic family. For some strange reason aristocratic revolutionaries were not at all rare in Tsarist Russia. One poet of that day described the phenomenon in a short verse which I shall try to give in prose translation: `In the West, when the dustman wants to become a duke he makes a revolution. In our country the dukes make the revolution. Maybe they want to become dustmen.`
Yelena Dimitrovna Stasova was a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party before 1917. She had spent some time in Siberia in exile. After the Revolution she was a secretary to Lenin and subsequently occupied important state posts. A very well-educated woman, she knew all the chief languages of Europe. She was a strict disciplinarian and had a biting sarcastic manner for people who made feeble excuses when she taxed them with laxity in their work. The employees of the organisation all knew her as `the Tiger`, but she was far from being a fierce character. On the contrary she was charming and polite in her everyday contacts with people. She died a couple of years ago at more than ninety years of age.
However on our first meeting at this congress in 1932 she was hale and hearty, for there she delivered an eighteen-hour speech to us. Of course, there were breaks, and it stretched over two days, but the lady did all the speaking for this time.
After a sightseeing trip around the country, which took in Erivan, Tbilisi and other towns, I returned to England through Germany on 1 February 1933, the very time when Hitler was preparing to take over completely.
Back in England I continued my public speaking obligations in different towns until a cablegram from Canada sent me speeding through England on a rescue mission. The telegram was very brief and rather confusing: `Kacik being deported to Yugoslavia on board Montrose`. I had to dig up a little party history to know what it was all about.
It appeared to have begun in 1930, when the whole Central Committee of the Communist Party in Canada was arrested and the members given prison sentences from two to five years. Amongst those who had a two-year sentence was Tom Kacik, who had escaped from prison in Yugoslavia, where he was under sentence of death, and had got to Canada. There he had received political asylum and had begun working for the local Communist Party, as head of the large Yugoslav contingent. He had now finished his time in prison and was being sent home, where his death sentence still awaited him. Hence the telegram, a cry for help to save this man from the gallows. The Montrose was due in Liverpool in a few days, when it was expected we would make some effort to prevent his dispatch to Yugoslavia.
We had the telegram, we had the desire to save him, but apart from that we had nothing, and quite a lot was needed: a car, since a rescue operation by train was out of the question, and money for expenses. However it seemed that a man knew a man who could get another man to lend us his car. As the owner of the car was the son of rich parents, who were much against him mixing with the Reds, the car’s delivery was to take place under special circumstances. He was to drive it up to our office and leave it outside, facing the window, and after we had given him time to get clear we would take it over. We agreed not to look out of the window during this manoeuvre in case our observation of the street should expose his connections with us and thereby lead his father to changing his will. So we sat deep in our one-room office and counted on our fingers the minutes necessary for him to get away. The we looked out of the window. That was not the only looking we did, for we looked at each other more amazed than ever before in our lives.
The chariot that stood outside had been, goodness knows how many years before, an Armstrong-Siddeley two-seater with a dickey. It looked as if the fifth owner had taken it to the knacker’s yard, tried to push it through the crusher and only succeeded in badly bruising it. So it was reprieved to take us to Liverpool. We went out to get a better look at this battered rickshaw. On the steering-wheel was fastened a piece of paper listing all the car’s defects and what one had to do to make sure they did not all operate together, as this would mean certain death to motor and motorists. One of the more outstanding defects was the steering-wheel itself, which had more than a half turn of free play each way. The radiator also leaked, but rags had been stuffed in cracks to ward off any threat from that quarter. It seemed from the long sheet of paper that the only thing in good working order was the sphynx sitting enigmatically on the radiator.
We knew we had to make the best of it. One must not look a gift horse in the mouth, even if the steed has lost several sets of teeth years and years before. At least the car went. It had arrived at the office, and we hoped this fact belied its appearance. Anyway we got it to a nearby garage and asked the attendant there to service it by midnight, the time we had decided to set out.
Exactly five minutes to the hour we arrived and sailed out of the garage at a good speed under the eye of the grinning attendant. We kept up a steady pace and soon reached the outskirts of London and the beginning of the Great North Road, as it was then called. It was when we were going up a small incline between rows of two-storey houses and shops that the motor died. We kicked it, cursed it and coaxed it, but it gave only one shudder, which was enough to bring us close to the causeway, and then expired. We were alone with this corpse in a deserted street, with the time going on for 2 am and no one about to lend us motorcars for love and kisses.
There we sat, looking at each other, not speaking and not knowing what to do, when a high-powered engine revved to a stop behind us. There was no mistaking that noise. We whispered to each other `Flying squad`. We were right. A head was stuck through the window and a voice said `What are you people doing here?` We said we didn’t know: the car had brought us to this spot and was now refusing to take us away from it, let alone to Liverpool, our intended destination. The policeman asked to see our driving licenses, then walked round the car examining it from all sides and chuckling as he did so. `All right,` he finally said, `but you chose a bad place to break down.` He nodded to the houses, and we discovered we had stopped next to a jeweller’s shop. That car certainly had it in for us. We pushed it into a side street and came back to the city by the first bus. Later we discovered that the attendant had serviced it thoroughly but had forgotten one thing: to fill up the petrol tank.
For all that, we could not abandon our mission, a chap’s life was at stake. So we started telephoning all over London and at last came upon a man willing and able to help. This was another of the well-loaded youths who were playing at Communism in the thirties. His father was chairman of the board of a large insurance company, and sonny boy was using his father’s allowance to keep the red flag flying high. He lived in a flat in the area of Russell Square, where all the Bloomsbury intellectuals spent their days arguing the virtues and vices of this or that `ism`, and on Sundays went to the Film Society to see a Soviet film. To show how involved he was, he had the walls of his biggest room decorated with murals of tow-headed workers demonstration under the Red Flag in defiance of Lord Trenchard1 and his merry men. He had a new Morris coupe which he gladly presented to us, together with a real gilt-edged fiver. We were in clover and off we set again.

Without further setback we arrived in Liverpool at the very time when the local people were having a meeting in their hall. We went into a huddle with the local Party secretary and began to work out a strategy. Nobody in Britain had ever seen Kacik, and nobody knew whether he was travelling under guard or free. The Canadian court’s deportation order meant only that they wanted him out of Canada, and where he went thereafter was no business of theirs. The British authorities had the right to prevent him landing in Britain or staying there, but in fact they were acting not altogether legally, keeping his arrival secret so that they would not have to recognise, officially, his landing on British territory. That was our key argument. But we had to find out Kacik’s situation.

Most CP members in Liverpool were seamen. Amongst them we were lucky enough to find a ship’s cook who, dressed up in his white cook’s rig, talked somebody on the tug going out to meet the Montrose into taking him along. The cook had with him a letter for Kacik. If Kacik were free, he was instructed to leave the ship holding the right lapel of his coat so that it could be plainly seen as he walked down the gangway. People stationed at intervals in the port would tell him where to go and he would finally leave by a gate where a blue closed car was waiting with two men in it. He was to take a seat in the back and say `Let’s go`, and the car would set out for London.

As it turned out, however, Kacik was under guard, and when the other passengers left the ship, he was still aboard. Nevertheless the outposts we had placed everywhere remained in position. Shortly after all the passengers had been cleared, a black maria drove down to the ship and a number of policemen under the leadership of a local inspector got out. The inspector mounted the gangway and started to board the ship. Suddenly he stopped and looked back. For a moment he could not believe his eyes. The gangway was surrounded by Communists, every one of them known to him. It was a very unpleasant surprise, for it was clear that the secrecy of Kacik’s arrival in Britain was well and truly blown. Our outposts remained silent and waited. Later the black maria left the port and as it passed through one of the gates, we dropped in behind it and followed it to the police station where Kacik was to be housed until arrangements had been made for his further despatch through England.

Without stopping we dashed as fast as traffic laws allowed to the offices of the late Sydney Silverman2 . We explained the situation to Mr Silverman, particularly emphasising the death sentence awaiting Kacik in Yugoslavia and our view that his being held by the British police was illegal. Mr Silverman, who must have been as much against death sentences in those days as he was later, immediately got on the telephone to the immigration authorities. Their first question was how he knew of Kacik’s secret arrival. Mr Silverman of course did not disclose his source, but emphatically demanded the right to have a meeting with Kacik. It was granted. His intervention delayed Kacik’s journey to Harwich by twenty-four hours and thereby saved his life. Having heard Mr Silverman’s report of his meeting with Kacik, we decided to make for London post haste and there continue harassing the authorities. It was dusk when we crossed on the Mersey ferry and already dark when we hit the little town of Whitchurch in Shropshire and with it more trouble, or, as they say in the Navy, things started going in favour against us. We had filled our petrol tank before leaving Liverpool and on seeing this small town we decided to top up so that we might make London without another stop. At the first garage I called for two gallons of petrol. The owner casually asked where we were going and we told him London. At that a policeman appeared from deep inside the garage. He had evidently been listening to our conversation from the start.

I am sorry to have to state it, but he was the typical storybook village policeman and his paunch was a typical village policeman’s paunch. If he had been tied round with a piece of string in two or three places he might have been taken for a roll of bacon with a helmet. `So,` he said, `you’re going to London on two gallons of petrol?` He looked us up and down and his suspicions were confirmed. It was almost three days since we had left London, and during that time neither of us had touched a razor to chine. We had slept in our clothes, added to which was the fact that I had been wearing the same white collar all the time and it was now the new modern colour, pale black. The policeman did not exactly take us for Bonny and Clyde, after all my companion was also male, but I am sure he thought we were just as dangerous.

We explained about our almost full tank and challenged him to measure it. He did so, and as the mark on the stick confirmed our assertions, the suspicion temperature around that garage dropped a bit and we took our seats to speed off. If, two nights earlier, the ancient Armstrong-Siddeley had refused duty because we had not fed him, why should the new Morris, only just fed to the tank-cap, similarly refuse? It did, and try as we might we could get nothing out of it except a splutter. I got out and started to push, my partner steering. Then the policeman joined in, but there was still no response from the motor. There was a little incline leading down to the centre of the small town, so thinking this would help restore discipline to the works we ran and pushed. No go. We pulled up at the next garage, the policeman remaining with us.

After a look at the engine the garage man quietly gave us the shattering news that the batteries had run down because of a broken lead and it would be necessary to put them on charge all night. This new delay put the criminal bug back in the policeman’s helmet. `Is that your car?` he asked. `No,` I answered, `we borrowed it from a man in London.` `Oh`, said the policeman, with a nasty shade of doubt in his voice, `and what is his name?` Well, that put the final stamp on our criminal characters. Neither of us knew the name of the owner and we were unaware that in the right-hand, door pocket was the insurance, complete with all necessary details.

But it was not the policeman’s suspicions that were worrying us now. We had to wait till morning before we could move on, and our meagre finances were in danger of disappearing entirely if we had to spend the night in some hotel. Then a brilliant idea came into my head. I turned to the policeman and hinted that perhaps it would be a good notion if he took charge of us. He seemed to suspect us in some way or another, so why not lock us up for the night? He fell for it and pulling a bunch of keys out of his pocket, said, `Come with me.` But my joy was short-lived, for as he got the door of the lock up, he turned round and said to me, `Oh, young man, you are very cunning, but it won’t was with me. You want me to put you up for a night free of charge. No, it won’t do. Wherever you are here, I’ve got you.`

There was no point in arguing, so we went in search of some place to rest our weary heads. All the doors were closed as it was now late, but at last we found a sympathetic old lady who agreed to take us in. in the morning the bill she gave us with the breakfast made me look round to see if there were any gold-braided flunkeys carrying the tray. When I had got over the shock I asked her `Is this place called the Ritz?` But she told me to mind my language in her house. Reduced to our last few shillings we made our way to the garage to find whether the owner was about to take the rest. He had more humane feelings, however, and charged us only one-tenth of the sum the old woman had demanded. Seeing no policeman about, I asked the garage owner where the roll of bacon was, at which a door in the side of the garage opened and out came our friend. He had found the insurance papers, telephoned to London and checked that everything was all right. We were free to go. Go we did, almost breaking some of the current world records, and very soon we found ourselves on the road to Oxford.

My companion, who was doing the driving, was an American, and he continually hugged the right side of the road in spite of a thick fog which had settled down, turning the asphalt surface into a perfect pitch for the Montral Stars ice hockey team, in addition to its other hazards. Then it happened. Out of the fog a horse and cart suddenly appeared, standing at a gate on the right side of the road, which my driver seemed to love so much. As he swung round, a huge van came tearing from the other side. Our car skidded under the impact of the brakes and a corner of the van hit us just in front of the right rear door. All the back part of the coupe was smashed to smithereens, hanging over like a heap of unwashed Maltese lace. Miraculously neither of us was in any way hurt, although plenty of glass had been shot in all directions. Moreover the chassis was in good order and the car could go as well as ever, if no longer with the contours given it by its makers.

After the usual writing and measuring by the police and the AA men, we mounted our wreck and drove into Oxford to the amazement of the people, both students and otherwise. We stopped at the first telephone box and I looked up the number of a student who was among those playing at revolution at that time. (Judging by a letter I received from him a few years ago, he has found other interests in the interim.) He told me to come round, and when we drove up to his house, in a classy residential district, all the window curtains in the street surreptitiously twitched. His own housemaid nearly fainted. Here we lunched, and then our student friend piled us into the wreck, drove us to the station, bought us tickets for London and after seeing us off took the car to the Morris works.

Back in London there was a telegram waiting: `Kacik leaves for Harwich today`. Then we knew that no more than for sinners is there rest for the unfortunate. Somehow we had to find another car, and we had already reduced the reserve borrowing park by more than fifty percent. But at that point fate began to blush a faint pink for all the dirty tricks she had played on us. The British immigration authorities had arranged with their Belgian counterparts that Kacik should be shipped to Antwerp, but fate moved in with a thick fog and the ship was diverted to the Hook of Holland.

Now it was the turn of our man, sent to Harwich to take what action he could. More by good fortune than by good choosing we had picked on the right kind of person for the operation he had to carry out. He had a most impressive looking pair of horn-rimmed glasses and an equally impressive leather brief case, as well as the face of a lawyer who never uses the same lie twice. As soon as the ship carrying Kacik and himself docked in the Dutch port, our man was first off and went straight to the Dutch immigration official, to whom he told a really hair-raising story. He had, he said, absolutely authentic knowledge that the British police were attempting to dump on Dutch territory the most savage and bloody Communist rebel in the world. He had been kicked out of Canada for taking pot-shots at ministers, setting fire to government buildings and making bombs as big as coconuts. The story worked, the scared Dutchman went straight to the ship and told these perfidious Britons that they would not get away with it, Kacik must go back to England.

In the meantime we had been raising a little hell in official quarters and they gave us a letter to allow us to see Kacik at Harwich.

At this point the search for transport began again, and fate was absolutely red by now, for she helped us find a man with a Bentley and another student with an Austin Seven. The owner of the Bentley was G.P. Wells, son of H.G. whom we had appealed to on humanitarian principles. Evidently the idea of chasing through England on a life-saving mission stirred the romantic in him, and he took our chief and some other chaps with him full speed to Harwich. Following behind, with, of course, no hope of overtaking the Bentlry, was the Austin Seven driven by the student, and carrying the American, myself and none other than `I Claud`3 , at that time editor of The Week as well as being, simultaneously, the owner, the publisher, the printer, the sales manager and the office boy.

If the previous dash had been fraught, this one was no less so. Ours was the smallest and frailest car on the road. In addition it possessed no light-dimmers, and the continual flow of trucks and vans passing us in the pitch-black night took us for a crowd of road hogs that needed to be taught a lesson, and flashed the full power of their headlights right in our driver’s eyes. Half the time we were driving blind and sometimes we passed so close to an oncoming truck that I, sitting on the inside rear seat, was slashed by the ends of the securing ropes on the trucks. There was never a dawn so gratefully greeted as the one that met us as we drove into Harwich.

There we collected our fellow rescuers and learnt that they had managed to pass five pounds in money and a Soviet entrance visa to Kacik, who was leaving for Antwerp that day. Years afterwards I learnt that he had arrived in Vienna at the time of Dolfuss’s putsch, and, taking advantage of the upset, had walked out of the train, bought a ticket for the Soviet Union and lived their till the Civil War in Spain. He served in the Yugoslav battalion, which was led by Tito, and after the collapse of the Republic was landed in a French camp, where he was offered a ticket to Canada by the Canadian repatriation commission. This he refused. He wandered around Europe for some time, and when the Germans occupied Yugoslavia, he attached himself to Tito’s partisans and fought with them to the end of the war. He died in 1949.

Not foreseeing the future travels of Kacik, we returned from Harwich to send a delegation with a letter of protest to the Yugoslav Embassy in London. The letter was signed by the usual number of `Good Friends`, and at the head of the delegation was `I Claud`, who also wrote an article about Kacik for an American newspaper which he entitled `Is this the Yugoslav Dimitrov?` - uite a popular name4 in those days. I imagine `I Claud` was then serving his apprenticeship before joining the Party.

After the Kacik saga I was sent to Belfast to give some talks, and there I met a Communist who was so anti-negro that when he was obliged to refer to negroes in party meetings he could not avoid adding a whispered `nigger`. When I taxed him with it, he pulled out the old excuse: would you like him to sleep with your sister? To which I always replied `I would like his sister to sleep with me`. And there was another one who went to Mass every Sunday morning, I called it working on two fronts. Late, I heard that they were both expelled from the party.

On my return from Belfast I was told by the then secretary of the Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, that I was to go to the Soviet Union to work in the International Seamen’s Club in Leningrad. So, on 17 May 1934, I boarded the Soviet passenger ship Smolny and on 24 May arrived in Leningrad to take up my position.

  • 1I assume this is referring to Hugh Trenchard the first viscount Trenchard. Trenchard was general in the British army who was active in establishing an air force during the First World War. He was a close associate of Churchill, an arch conservative and actively threatened to shoot mutinying soldiers at Southampton docks in 1919. In 1931 he was made Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and intervened with force against many demonstrations and strikes in London. [Reddebrek]
  • 2 Sydney Silverman (1895-1968) was Labour MP for Nelson and Colne from 1935. Before that he was a solicitor. He was the author (with R.T. Paget, QC, MP) of Hanged -and Innocent?
  • 3Claud Cockburn, author of I Claud, London, 1967
  • 4Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), Bulgarian Communist who became an international symbol of martyred innocence when the Nazis tried to blame him for the Reichstag fire in 1933. He was acquitted and went to Moscow. Appointed General Secretary of the Comintern in 1935. First President of the Bulgarian People’s Republic after the Second World War.