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Review of Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion?

This edited volume is based upon a series of public lectures and seminars at Gresham College London delivered during 2013 and 2014. It features an introduction and two central essays by professional historians (Roderick Floud, Kevin Morgan and Nicholas Deakin) and a number of biographies, most by family members – the so-called ‘red nappy babies’ – with brief additions by Denis Healey, Peter Hennessy and Juliet Gardiner.

The book’s central premise is to critically re-examine the reasons that lay behind middle-class men and women joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. One obvious answer, of course, might be that following the Party’s abandonment of its disastrous class-against-class policy, they were no longer discouraged from doing so. Kevin Morgan’s essay, however, provides a rather more detailed analysis of, what Juliet Gardiner describes as, ‘a perfect political storm’. Clearly, the rise of fascism was crucial, but Deakin argues that there were as many different reasons for joining the Party as there were members: some practical, some philosophical. And, of course, Spain played a vital part, becoming ‘the “good cause” of the decade and one on which communists could campaign – and recruit – without inhibition, alongside other progressives.’ (p. 63.)

While many of the essays are critical in the strict academic sense, there is the sense that, twenty-five years after the end of the cold war and freed from its intellectual baggage, studies of the CPGB in the 1930s are free to adopt a more nuanced view. Yes, there is recognition that many recruits had to suspend their critical faculties in order to swallow the Party’s unquestioning support for the USSR, their philosophical about-turns and ideas of ‘revolutionary expediency’ and ‘democratic centralism’. However, at the same time there is an acknowledgement that most people became communists because they wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the Party was the best means of achieving this. As Elizabeth Dolan puts it, writing about her parents, Mary Macintosh and Richard Clark:

It is my contention that this youthful enthusiasm for Communism, with its at that time inevitable support for the Soviet Union, far from being an illusion, or misguided or naïve, in fact helped to produce well-balanced, thoughtful citizens whose subsequent lifestyle, attitudes and values were a direct development, not a contradiction. (p. 149)

What is missing from the book is a discussion of the Cambridge spies. It’s true that plenty has been written about them already, but it does rather lead to an unfortunate feeling that there is something important that everyone is carefully avoiding. Apart from Denis Healey, that is, who cannot resist drawing a comparison between the Oxford Communists (of whom he was one) who ‘never wanted to do anything particularly for the Russians’, with those from Cambridge who ‘all spied for the Russians’. Clearly sectarianism can be just as rife in academia as it is in politics.

This review appears in the January 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

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