Friday, July 22, 2016

Douglas Hyde: I Believed (1950)

Subtitled, The Autobiography of a former British Communist.

Douglas Hyde resigned from the Communist party in 1948, some twenty years after joining. He also resigned from his job at the Daily Worker, where he had been News Editor (Bill Rust was Editor) for most of the eight years he had worked there. Hyde and his wife had converted to Catholicism of a conservative kind (he was drawn to the neo-medieval Distributist movement that began with Belloc and Chesterton). A couple of years later, true to his campaigning and journalistic instincts, he wrote I Believed, a book aimed squarely at Middle England and intended to supply it with an understanding of British Communism on the know-your-enemy principle.

It will come as no surprise that Hyde’s name does not featurely largely in pro-Communist histories (his book was immediately exposed as treacherous lies). But one doesn’t have to be a Communist to view the book’s narrator with certain misgivings; somehow, politicals of all colours have succeeded in making us queasy about turncoats – the word is deeply pejorative, yet what other term is there?   

Hyde himself as a Distributist is almost laughably true to his character; an instinctive journalist and campaigner, used to making enemies, and capable of arguing himself into incredible positions.

I had believed that Catholic culture had been outgrown at the time when the new economic system of capitalism had broken the fetters of feudalism, that it could all be explained in terms of economics. But had men outgrown it? There appeared to be a convincing case for saying that it was not outgrown but that there had been an attempted murder which had not quite succeeded...

(Hyde’s favourite books had always been Chaucer and Langland. They had once taken their places “quite naturally at the side of Morris’s Dream of John Ball, Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution “, but now they led him in a different direction.)

Anyway, we appreciate unreliable narrators, and these misgivings about the author only add to the absorbing interest of his book. The credibility of Communism was at its apogee. When Hyde joined up, the Paris Commune was still within living memory, the October Revolution was recent, and very soon there would be Communists running Madrid and Anarchists running Barcelona; the overthrow of capitalism in Europe was something that could happen.

And superficially the Red tide was still running when Hyde left, since the end of the war meant a host of new Communist nations in Eastern Europe.  When the International appeared to be reborn as Cominform in 1947,

The Parties invited to the initial meeting had been those of Russia, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania. They were those which were already ruling Parties or those which Moscow thought would soon be so.

Hyde’s change of creed clearly didn’t mean a change of everything. And, especially in the early chapters, one senses that while writing them Hyde re-vivifies his erstwhile beliefs. He is still full of admiration for Communist directness, organization, opportunism and power to mobilize ordinary working people.

At great London meetings men and women were throwing on the platforms their wedding rings, pitiful little heirlooms or everything they had in their wallets at the time. Our political opponents, who charged us with faking these things, most foolishly under-estimated the depth of feeling we had succeeded in creating. 

His accounts of e.g. the successful takeover of a local Labour party in Surrey, of illegal preparations for the national underground Press organization (during the ban on the Daily Worker early in the war), of passing secrets to Russia, and of on-the-spot reporting of the V-1 blitz, are exciting, sympathetic and often tinged with pride.

The deepest of his beliefs had perhaps never changed. The book registers a continuing distrust, sometimes rising to condemnation, of his new book’s new audience.   

They went over so frequently that suburban Bristol began to yawn and Chief Sub-Editors with news sense told their underlings: “Just one paragraph and a small head ­– it’s only another gone over the top.” Once four unemployed pooled all they had to hire an old car, then drove it straight through the railings and over the cliffs, and the Sea Walls hit the headlines again for the moment.

But the “comfortable” folk in the district where I lived felt secure enough in the main and their sense of comfort was heightened, if anything, by the sound of jobless Welsh miners singing, unceasingly, for pence in the street outside, the inevitable “Cwm Rhondda”, “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more”. Then, in little groups on the Downs at night, the younger miners joined with the local communists to sing “Watch and pray, live on hay, you’ll have pie in the sky when you die.”

The professional Communist’s contempt for fellow-travellers, those sympathisers who lacked the moral courage to join the Party outright, is something that Hyde can transfer wholesale to his new position. Or consider this, about those “sensitive intellectuals” (Hyde sounding like Kipling here) who were troubled by the sharp switch of Communist policy at the time of the Soviet-German pact.

Their attitude was summed up in a letter I received from a well-known poet who, after being drawn to the Party because of its anti-fascist propaganda, wrote: “A plague on both your uncles, Uncle Joe and Uncle Adolf” – then disappeared into an ivory tower from which he has never since emerged.

“Emerged” suggests (naturally enough) a media-oriented view of human behaviour. Hyde never changed his mind about contempt for the “ivory tower” and he uses the phrase again, in vastly changed circumstances, to explain why as a Catholic convert he could not retire into one, but must now write this book. 

This reminds me that the book-jacket quotes a review by Stephen Spender in The Spectator, perhaps not one of his best-known texts:

Alas, this book goes a long way to justify the Red scares emanating from America. No one can read it without realising one simple fact: that no true Communist has any interest at heart except the party line emanating from the Soviet Union.

Hyde’s account of Communist thinking is more complex than that.

Communism is necessary and desirable above all else. The fight for communism stretches across the world, which is divided by the two opposing classes and not vertically by different races and nations. In fighting for a communist Britain I am fighting for a better Britain and for the destruction of all that is rotten and decadent. In that fight I have the assistance of all who are operating on the same world front against capitalism. My desire to make my country communist therefore makes me an internationalist.

But at one point in that world front there is a whole nation on my side, a great State, the U.S.S.R., where a strong-point has been established, around which all future battles will tend to turn and without which any other, local victories must fail. At all costs, therefore, Russia, bastion of communism, must be defended.... Who attacks Russia attacks my hope of a communist Britain. In helping Russia “with all the means at his disposal and at any price”, therefore, the British communist is working for a better Britain, the French communist for a better France, and the Icelandic communist for a better Iceland. He is, in his own eyes and that of his Party, the super-patriot. ....

The Soviet-German Pact therefore in August 1939 did not trouble the trained Marxist at all. The Soviet leaders had a responsibility to the working-class of the world to defend the U.S.S.R. and could, if necessary, for this reason make an alliance with the devil himself. ...

It was this last part that the sensitive intellectuals had trouble with. The foregoing argument is not meant sympathetically by the post-Communist Hyde, who intends his ironic glance at the pretensions of a “super-Patriot”, but in fact it retains its logical force. In civil war, loyalty to a Nation ceases to supply a normative guide to behaviour. The Communists projected a real civil war in every capitalist state, but they were already engaged in a mental and emotional civil war within themselves; therefore national loyalty was a mental weakness which meant nothing more than subservience to the present crop of robber-barons and their troops. But the argument extends much wider than Communism; few people today would want to think of themselves as Nationalists or believers in a Hobbesian “law and order at any price”. So what exactly are the grounds for our de facto civil obedience?

It’s easy to see, however, how Hyde’s lifelong love for Somerset Gothic churches, apparently so trifling, led to hairline fractures that slowly but eventually shattered his Marxist credo. (Perhaps he should have talked it over with Alan Mitchell, the strongly left-wing expert on the show-piece trees of Britain’s great estates.) 

Communism justified free love (defying “outworn, bourgeois conventions”) but this is something that Hyde never seems to have felt much enthusiasm for (of course, this could be the Catholic speaking, or perhaps he thought that any kind of defence just wouldn’t play in Middle England). Hyde’s (and his colleagues’) attitudes to women were, in fact, fairly unreconstructed:

Go to any Communist Party Congress and watch the hard-faced women who go to the rostrum. The hatred which the Party kindles and uses is often quite shockingly apparent in eyes as hard as those of a Soho prostitute and lips as tight as those of a slumland money-lender...

“We get women in the Party, and they are all right for just as long as they remain obscure,” one Political Bureau member complained to me, “but within twelve months of our turning them into Marxists they are about as attractive as horses.”

The Party aims by its training to produce “men of steel”. But “women of steel” attract neither other women nor even the men of steel themselves... Thus, the working-class housewife or the fresh young girl who comes into the Party is at once the centre of attention... She is useful for breaking down the suspicions of other women and so is seen as an effective “front”, and at the same time she is a welcome relief from the steely, hard-faced, betrowsered women who have made their way to the top and who are, in Party parlance, so utterly unbedworthy.

[Unattractiveness of senior females]  is general enough to be a matter of concern to the Party leaders and even from time to time to feature on agendas as a problem to be solved. ...

But I want to quote some sentences, finally, about the attractions of Communism, without which there would have been no book and nothing to write about. This was in Bristol in the late 1920s.

As I watched and helped to lead each demonstration of unemployed, my feelings were a compound of both anger and pity. As I saw them trampled under the horses’ hooves during baton charges, or tugging with bare hands at paving-stones in their search for ammunition to be used against the police, hope and pride would mingle with my anger. Each man who disappeared between warders from the court-room into the cells added to my own hatred of the capitalist system and of the capitalist class, and strengthened my revolutionary determination. ... We sang of the revolution,, dreamed of it, fought for it, studied for it, worked for it and, often enough, suffered for it too.

As the economic crisis deepened, the poverty, and the vast scale of that poverty, appalled me. .... When the Daily Worker began to appear, the unemployed queued at the “bomb shop” in the Horsefair in order to be able to read it free of charge. And the Bristol demonstrations, riots and prosecutions featured more and more in its columns. ... The strength and influence of the Communist Party cannot be gauged in times of normalcy, when democracy is working smoothly. ... The real test is in time of crisis. The crisis had come and we were proving our ability to lead as trained Marxists should.

Hyde's switch from Communism to Distributism was not quite so perverse as it may seem. William Cobbett had long ago shown that pre-Reformation rural labourers were far better provided for than their grossly oppressed descendants in the nineteenth century. Socialists and neo-mediavalists recognized a common enemy in Protestant capitalism.

[After writing I Believed, a best-seller, Hyde slowly became disillusioned with Catholicism. For many years he was a foreign correspondent in parts of the third world. In the later part of his life he was an undogmatic socialist campaigning for issues of justice worldwide. He died in 1996.]  



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