Keep The Red Flag From Dying

Growing up Communist in post-war Britain

Books
The Times

Growing up Communist in post-War Britain must have been a strange experience. David Aaronovitch, now a columnist for and soft-left supporter of Britain’s recent foreign military interventions, was immersed in Communism from his birth in 1954.

David’s father Sam was a full-time organiser for the party and his mother Lavender an ardent member. His childhood friends were children of fellow Communists. He went to socialist Sunday school. His babysitter, dentist and doctor were all party members. When his parents needed work done to their home they would turn to a party builder or architect. This reliance on party members led to work being done cheaply — they always offered a discount to fellow Communists — but not necessarily well. The party builder, when repairing the garden shed, killed off Mrs Aaronovitch’s beloved honeysuckle. Only when there was a falling out with the party dentist did David discover that other practitioners used local anaesthetic.

David’s parents followed very different paths to Communism. Sam’s own parents were Jews from near Vilnius, then in the Russian empire, who came to Britain in the early years of the 20th century. Like many others, they settled in east London and lived a life of grinding poverty. When David’s grandmother died in Dalston in 1969 she still spoke very little English, conversing almost entirely in Yiddish. Sam rejected his parents’ Judaism, seeing it as mere superstition, and gravitated towards the Communist Party. In 1934, aged 14, he joined the Young Communist League. A year later he left school with very little in the way of qualifications. Work eventually took him to Glasgow. He laboured there in the Rolls-Royce engine works until leaving in 1942 to take up a full-time party position, propaganda secretary for the Scottish Communists. He would remain in the party’s employ until 1967.

Back in London and ensconced in the party’s Covent Garden offices, Sam was given responsibility for culture. Doris Lessing, who encountered Sam when she had become a party member in the late 1940s, described him in her memoirs as “lean, stern, military in style, with the grim sardonic humour of the times. He had been a very poor boy from the East End. The Young Communist League had been his education but not his nursery, because he was a Jew and one of the people of the book.” She went on: “Why had the party chosen a young man who had read nothing of modern literature, and was not interested in the arts, to represent culture?” 

David points out that while Lessing was right about his father’s lack of interest in modern literature, “By the time he met Lessing . . . he had read Goethe, Schiller, Dickens, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac and Shelley. He had taught himself German and some Russian.” Sam appears, as “Comrade Bill”, in The Golden Notebook, pehaps Lessing’s best-known novel. 

Much of his time in the 1950s was spent campaigning against American cultural imports. “Degenerate” American culture — from horror comics to Hollywood films, via the music of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby — was a poison seeping into British homes. In Sam’s words of the time, “Wish fulfilment, sloppy eroticism and similar features are not harmless simply because we take them for granted. They are useful aides in drugging the minds of the people while US big business goes about its plan.” Good art, in Sam’s view — and indeed, not coincidentally, Stalin’s — had to be realist and serve the interests of socialism.  Whatever emanated from the US — be it the latest Hollywood B-movie or the work of the abstract expressionists — was merely serving the interests of US big business.

David’s mother’s background could not have been more different. Both of Lavender’s parents were the younger children of mid-ranking industrialists — they would not inherit the businesses so had to find an alternative path. Her father, Wyndham, stayed in the army after the First World War, eventually retiring as a fiercely right-wing, somewhat bigoted lieutenant-colonel. His younger brother had a more illustrious military career, serving as the last commanding officer of the RAF in India and ending up as Air Marshal Sir Hugh Walmsley, KCB, KCIE, MC, DFC.

In 1930, when Lavender was seven, her mother died — an extreme reaction to an insect bite whilst she was recuperating from the birth of another girl. Lavender was sent to live with family friends, Robert and Winifred Vale, in Worcestershire.

David writes: “Life in Worcestershire was not hard. There were servants, trees to climb, and ponies. But Lavender expected continuously to be called back to a father and a family of sisters; to be returned.” That call never came. Lavender’s father remarried and started a new family. Perhaps partly as a result of this rejection, Lavender started to take strongly against her bourgeois existence and the expectations of what life would be like for an upper-middle-class woman in the 1940s. Unmarried, she gave birth to a daughter in 1945 — the Vales were not pleased.

Nevertheless, around 1950, the Vales bought Lavender a house in Parliament Hill Fields, next to Hampstead Heath. Around this time, having secured somewhere permanent to live, she joined the Communist Party. The branch she joined was the same one that Sam was a member of. They married in 1954 — in Sam’s case it was his third marriage and this one, too, would not last.

Sam left full-time party work because he had been accepted, despite his near-complete lack of qualifications, as a doctoral student at Balliol College, Oxford. His acceptance there was helped by the fact that Christopher Hill was Balliol’s Master at the time. Hill had been a party member until 1956, when he resigned over the invasion of Hungary, but nevertheless remained sympathetic and close to the Communists.  Sam’s party work was well known to Hill. After his doctorate Sam became an academic — in business studies, of all things — but he remained a party man.

David himself went up to Balliol in 1973 but dropped out after a term — just enough time for him to formally join the Communists himself. He remained in the party until 1987, aged 33 — although he says he left it “in his head” in 1980. His decision to leave the party was not taken for noble reasons, He had just taken a job as an editor of a BBC politics programme and was told that he would have to resign from the party. “They couldn’t really be doing with the adverse publicity if a paper like the Daily Mail discovered that I was still a Commie.” The decision to leave did not go down well with his mother.

Party Animals deals very honestly with the moral blindness that those who remained in the party had to adopt. David shows how various members — including some close to the Aaronovitch family — had spied for the Soviets, yet could still muster outrage that they were on occasions spied upon by the British state. The crimes of Communism were somehow overlooked — moral outrage over South Africa would overcome any amount of Soviet wrongdoing.

Party Animals is, however, less a book about politics than a memoir of the peculiarities of a Communist upbringing. David’s childhood comes across as fairly miserable, but, he writes, “If my childhood was not much fun it had nothing to do with the Party.”

He says of his mother, “I feared and mistrusted her and she clearly — but conflictedly — did not like me.” Of his father he says, “I think Sam might have liked me had he taken the time.”

Perhaps it does have something to do with the party — or rather with people who would so devote themselves to a cause to which all else, including their son, came second.