Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party By Francis Beckett, John Murray, #163;19.99, O 7195 531O 5.
Jad Adams on the rise and fall of the British Communist Party. This is that most choice of morsels: a history about major events which actually has a beginning and an end, and does not pale at either end into remote causes and consequences.
The British Communist Party was born in 1920 at Lenin's specific instigation. Churchill and others were arguing for a rearmament of Germany to fight the newly-Bolshevik Russia. The first task of the new party was the defence of the Soviet motherland, and Lenin funded the British communists specifically for this purpose.
The party was wound up in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of that motherland, amid revelations that despite the years of protestations of its independence, Moscow had been funding the British party directly with big bags of used notes, at least between 1957 and 1979.
While the trail of the red gold is the journalistic meat of this account,by far the most interesting part is formed by the biographies of individual communists, such as Henry Pollitt who suffered grinding poverty and cruel injustice as a child, which led the boy to swear he would "pay the bosses out" for the suffering of his mother.
A very different character was the doctrinaire Palme Dutt, the product of a Swedish mother and Indian father who was a brilliant scholar but turned his great intellect to the sterile analysis of dogma. Accused by someone of being humourless, he replied irritably: "When a comrade tells me a joke,I laugh. "
This book is full of pictures of more junior communists who worked with a selfless, religious zeal, for the party. It becomes the genuinely tragic story of how, step by step, from the best of motives, the good people of the British Communist Party became apologists for one of the worst tyrannies of the 20th century There were real triumphs of courage: fighting against the Blackshirts; for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; squatting in empty properties in the aftermath of the Second World War. But every time its superior leadership and dedication earned the party respect in Britain, it threw away the gains by slavish adherence to the letter of Soviet foreign policy.
British communists had fought well and bravely against fascism until 1939,when Stalin and Hitler formed an alliance, and they were instructed to oppose the Second World War War as an imperialist front. Most did, though it was a relief for them when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and all the comrades sent into internal exile for failing to find common cause with fascism could be welcomed back.
Nor was this the most crippling humiliation. At least one leading party worker recalled for Beckett the horror of sitting in a meeting and hearing that close family friends in Eastern Europe had now been "rehabilitated", meaning their names had finally been removed from the list of class enemies, but not before they had been tortured and shot.
Sometimes it was not only friends, but members of their own families who were brutalised by the Soviets, yet the British Party members just kept on justifying everything done in the name of the "worker's state".
Despite the party's many failures, Beckett is alive to the positive attributes of the Communist Party, revealed in, for example, the story of Douglas Hyde who abandoned communism, joined the Catholic church and wrote a book about the underhand machinations of the Communist Party. He was hailed as a hero of the cold war. But he came to be disillusioned by the Catholics, too, and never found there the comradeship or concern for the underdog which he had known with the communists.