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BRITISH COMMUNISMíS CULTURE WARS

An exhibition at the Peopleís History Museum, Manchester, 9th June to 28th August, 2017

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 Preston, and some who read Raymond Chandler crime novels.

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 Manchester in, I think, the 1970s or early 1980s. My curiosity was aroused, and in any case there were bookstalls, and Iíve always been a collector of books and magazines. And I knew about its early history. But I never have been much of a joiner, even of the Boy Scouts when I was young. They, like the communists, seemed to want to protect me from the pleasures of the American films, music, books I liked so much, and either get me to sing in support of the Empire, or think that life behind the Iron Curtain was to be admired. It wasnít when I visited East Berlin and Prague.

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 Manchester. He was long past his days as a young revolutionary, as he would jokingly describe himself, but he would sometimes get a little wistful about his experiences. He once told me that, no matter what anyone said about communism, there were a lot of good people in the Party.  Iím sure he was right.