Uncle Joe's offspring

19th September 1997 at 01:00
A collection of accounts of childhood in the 1950s by the sons and daughters of Communists offers some fascinating snapshots of family life in an outcast political sect, writes Colin Ward

There is an engaging literature, from Edmund Gosse's Father and Son to Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, exploring the experience of childhood in non-conformist sects that alone were the messengers of the truth. Phil Cohen was the child of Communist parents and,having described his own shift of allegiance from Lenin to Lennon, he interviewed 12 people who grew up as the children of Communist parents in the Cold War Britain of the 1950s.

He says that the analogy with religion (not non-conformity but Catholicism) cropped up again and again in the interviews, bringing a recurring question to his mind: "Why did sincere and intelligent people suspend their critical faculties for so long, both in supporting foreign leaders and regimes that were so evidently not worthy of support, and believing that British people would eventually 'see the light' and vote for them?" The testimonies are absorbing for anyone who is trying to understand the period. I can remember people reared in the 1930s who recalled for me the embarrassment of parental beliefs, like the agony of belonging to the family who stayed seated when the national anthem was played in the cinema.

None of this awkwardness in being different is reflected by Phil Cohen's witnesses. Nor is there evidence of a particular style of Communist parenthood. One of his interviewees reports her father's authoritarian and dogmatic response to her opinions: "Oh, don't be stupid, you don't know what you are talking about."

However, another recollects: "We had very open discussion in the family, and one of the things I noticed at the time, and my children subsequently commented on, is how much more debate there was in our home compared to other children's. "

My own feeling, for which the contributors provide some evidence, is that, like the three major parties, even the Communist party contained both authoritarians and libertarians. It had its automatic bureaucrats, who in Eastern Europe became the people who cheerfully sentenced their rivals to death. (The son of CP general secretary Harry Pollitt reports on his own personal brushes "with the well-known 'excesses' of Soviet and East European regimes in which they'd devoured their own children".) And of course, when a youth culture emerged in the Sixties, the bosses of the Young Communist League were completely out of touch with what was happening.

Yet there were also party members who could not be contained by the party puritanism. Mike Rosen recalls gratefully how his parents "worked on the principle of giving us enormous freedoms; looking back they gave me many more freedoms than I give my kids". He attributes their liberality to the fact that "they were the kind of CPers who had been affected by the Bloomsbury end of bohemian life and it was no problem for them to encompass that within their socialism".

He reckons that his mother was "an anarcho-Stalinist", however absurd that sounds, just as Phil Cohen's father was "a born anarchist" and the niece of the satirical poet Roger Woddis sees him as "an anarchist, although it was a left-wing anarchism". Alexei Sayle explains that "there was a thread of not complying with Victorian social mores, which were still running through British life then".

Inevitably, those children of party members who themselves served the party's purposes are the most bitter. Mike Power explains that "what the party gave me was not what a group of corrupt full-time officials presented. It gave me an idea about struggle, about empowerment, it gave me a sense of class loyalty - which has become less and less relevant in the sense that the world has changed".

He now sees the Communist party as something we did not need, imposed on British socialism to suit Lenin's foreign policy. "And yet I gave the best years of my life to something which was objectively destructive to socialism. "

Indeed, this collection is punctuated by a series of defections by either parents or children. There was the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 - and finally, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the decision in 1991 that the only thing for the rump of the Communist party to do was to wind itself up. The book puts a variety of private faces on the public record.

Colin Ward's most recent book is Reflected in Water: A Crisis of Social Responsibility (Cassell 1997)

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