I have recently been reading David Aaronovitch’s affectionate and mordantly humorous memoir, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists, published by Jonathan Cape. As he makes clear, for his parents and their Communist circle in post-war north London, Communism was a faith rather than a political system. Behind the public rhetoric, that the churches were “sinks of superstition”, the Royal Family was “a feudal remnant”, the police were “oppressors”, the army was “a tool of imperialism” and the BBC “purveyors of lies and propaganda” (I have a sneaking sympathy for this last notion), lay the bald fact that “it was religious. Like a…Catholic, a Communist really meant to try to live a life of faith.”
I have only known one Communist, a friend from my student days, and although he would protest loudly if I levelled the charge of “faith” at him, his belief in Communism has been just that: his whole life. He lives it and breathes it. Perhaps the same is true of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in their extreme brand of socialism? Indeed, where is the dividing line between an intellectual sympathy for a particular political party and a political “creed” that comes to dominate one’s life?
Aaronovitch describes the regular “branch meetings” of the Party as “the secular mass of a Party existence”. His parents’ Communism affected his family’s whole life. Indeed, he goes on to say that he has met Catholics “lapsed and practising, whose childhood experience seems to have been very similar…” He is clear that the Party “was a church, not a cult” because there was “no psychological game played to keep members docile and loyal. Its strength was that it was about belief and faith as much as about intellect.”
All this is very thought-provoking. The book shows how deep the religious impulse is in human beings. We all have an instinct to worship which, as adherence to Communism demonstrates, will follow a perverted truth rather than endure a spiritual vacuum. Thus, the final collapse of Communism was catastrophic for Aaronovitch’s parents, their friends and fellow Party members. One official described is as a “shattering blow” and asked, “Is everything I lived and worked for only a mirage?” The brutal answer must be “Yes”.
What is interesting in this memoir is the level of self-delusion the members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (founded in 1920, when the Terror in Russia was just getting underway) went along with, without questioning or unease. Alongside Aaronovitch’s book I have also been dipping into John Ure’s Beware the Rugged Russian Bear: British Adventurers Exposing the Bolsheviks. Ure, a retired diplomat, was posted to Moscow during the Cold War. He had frequent contact with Khrushchev and met Russians in the 1950s who had lived through the Russian Revolution. They told him that although they knew the days of autocracy were numbered – and rightly – they were shocked at the level and extent of cold-blooded violence on the part of the new Soviet Union that followed the collapse of the old regime.
In this country, as Ure describes, people were duped by the reports of HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs and others, that Russia was now a new socialist paradise. They refused to listen to the eye-witness accounts of people like Robert Bruce Lockhart, Maurice Baring, John Buchan and Somerset Maugham who saw the Bolshevik takeover for what it really was. Aaronovitch comments that when the British comrades heard Khrushchev’s famous speech of 1956, denouncing Stalin, they “could not believe what they were reading.”
Of his own parents, Aaronovitch writes, “They stood to lose too much from admitting the truth – even to themselves. About the Party, about themselves…” His memoir is a salutary lesson in the human craving for a cause to believe in – and the wrong paths such a craving can take.