BRITISH COMMUNISMíS CULTURE WARS
An exhibition at the Peopleís
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Looking around this small, but fascinating exhibition in Manchester, I was intrigued by one or two items that pointed to the Partyís opposition, about 1950 or so, to the many aspects of American culture which, in the eyes of the cultural commissars, were being imported into Britain and consequently corrupting the young people of the country. Comics, pulp fiction, films, jazz. To be fair, the Party wasnít alone in condemning them, and church leaders, politicians of all parties, and other worthy people, all added their voices to the clamour for controls on imports of suspect materials.
I was 14 in 1950 and Iíd just discovered Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and bebop. It wasnít a music looked on kindly by the Party. New Orleans-style jazz and the performances of rural blues singers were acceptable and could be related to black (ďNegroĒ it would have been then) culture, but bebop and the sort of urban rhythm and blues that big-city blacks favoured were not acceptable. I carried on regardless, spending the money from my paper round on what few bebop records were then available, and avidly reading the Melody Maker rather than the Daily Worker.
When it came to films, I was at one or other of the townís 16 cinemas, usually watching a Western, instead of attending a Party-organised showing of Battleship Potemkin or other Russian classic. As for books, I did read Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Milton as part of my schooling, but outside it I was finding paperbacks by Ernest Haycox in back-street bookshops. A little later, when I was 18 and joined the army, I spent almost three years in Germany where American books were easily available and I read Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Caldwell, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and many more. And then it was Kenneth Rexroth, the Beats and Abstract Expressionism. I suppose that, by the standards of the Party stalwarts, my ďAmericanisationĒ and associated corruption was complete.
That little exercise in nostalgia was, as I pointed out earlier, triggered by some of the items in the exhibition Iím reviewing, and I have to stress that there is much more to it than Iíve so far indicated. But it did also strike me that the whole thing may well be an exercise in nostalgia for many older people, as well as providing a glimpse into a lost world for some younger ones. The clothes, the causes, the people, the publications, the seriousness, the solidarity; how strange they must seem to anyone under the age of 40. And perhaps to many people over 40, unless at some point theyíd been involved in radical activity of one sort or another.
In its heyday, the British Communist Party had been culturally
dynamic, at least within the boundaries prescribed by the Party
hierarchy. I suspect that, outside the hierarchy, quite a few people
ignored the strictures about what to watch, read, or listen to.
There were surely Party members in the audiences when I saw John
Wayne in She Wore a Yellow
Ribbon at the Plaza Cinema in
The exhibition naturally focuses on aspects of culture that the Party approved of. Folk music, socialist choirs, summer schools. By the 1960s even some areas of pop culture were starting to seem worthy of attention, especially as a tool towards bringing in younger recruits. The Party supported magazines like Arena and Daylight, publishing poetry, fiction, and commentary. I have a copy of the first issue of Arena in front of me as I write. It dates from 1950 and features work by Tristan Tzara, long past his Dada phase, Paul Eluard, Albert Camus, and others. Daylight (not to be confused with an earlier publication, edited by John Lehmann) Iíve never seen, but from the cover of one issue shown in the exhibition, Iíd guess it wanted to appeal to a wider readership than Arena.
I never thought of joining the Communist Party, much as I was always
curious about its activities and read its publications. I recall
attending a couple of Party conventions held in
This has been a purely personal response to
British Communismís Culture
Wars, and no matter what Iíve said I found it totally absorbing
and, in its way, quite moving. People were genuinely trying to
change things and make a better world. The dedication of the
rank-and-file members was only to be admired, even if the leadership
was doubtful. Many
years ago I worked with a man who had been a member of the Young
Communist League and, in the 1940s, had heard Harry Pollitt speak at
the Free Trades Hall in