The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:
When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.
The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.
The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.
Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.
Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’