Their Cookery from Paris and Their Opinions from Moscow : Writers and the CPGB

'By this time, so many people of relative eminence were writing, speaking, or marching in one or another form of militant political expression that St John Clarke's adhesion to the Left was a matter of little general interest... as an elderly, no longer very highly esteemed writer such views may even have done something to re-establish his name. The younger people approved, while in rich, stuffy houses, where he was still sometimes to be seen on the strength of earlier reputation as a novelist, a left-wing standpoint was regarded as suitable to a man of letters, even creditable in a widely known, well-to-do author, who might at his age perfectly well have avoided the controversies of politics. However, St John Clarke himself apparently felt less and less capable, in practice, of taking part in the discussion of Marxist dialectic, with its ever-changing bearings. As a consequence of his laxity in "keeping up" he had lost ground in the more exacting circles of the intellectual Left. His name was rarely seen except in alphabetical order among a score of nonentities signing at the foot of some letter to the press...'

Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960)

'The meeting began on time. It was quite a distinguished platform - an assortment of well-known Communists, and various hardly less-distinguished "fellow-travellers" - a well-known actress, a well-known poet, a distinguished cleric, authors, male, female and intermediate. The chairman, a party member, rattled of a set piece about the struggle of the Spanish people against Franco being part of a world-wide struggle... the struggle of the forces of progress against the forces of reaction... class struggle between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited... call upon... distinguished poet... read translation he has made of one of the poems of a distinguished Spanish anti-fascist poet... The distinguished poet, clad in classy tweeds, heaved up languidly from his chair and in a bored, classy tone murmured that he would first read the perm [sic] in the original Spanish...'

Ethel Mannin, Comrade, O Comrade (1947)

'Who was Tristram Abberley ? What manner of man was he ? Sportsman ; idler ; intellectual poseur ; spendthrift ; communist ; homosexual ; womanizer ; traveller ; wastrel ; husband ; father ; soldier ; poet'.

Robert Goddard, Hand in Glove (1992)

Three novels - high-brow, middle-brown and low-brow, written in different decades with very different purposes, but each employing the idea of the Communist writer as dishonest, a knave and a fool. Communist writers have a special place in the popular demonology of British Communism. Variously dismissed as power-fantasists, neurotic scions of the ruling-class, intellectual elitists, cynics in love with violence or hopeless idealists, they are expected to bear a special responsibility for the crimes and failures of the Communist idea. As writers they had a duty to tell the truth. Instead they betrayed their country - and their art - for a sinister and foreign ideology which they knew to be based upon cruelty and injustice:

'between the October revolution and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, numberless men of letters, both in Europe and America, were attracted to Communism... Their conversion therefore expressed, in an acute and sometimes in a hysterical form, feelings which were dimly shared by the inarticulate millions... The intellectual in politics is always "unbalanced" in the estimation of his colleagues. He peers round the next corner while they keep their eyes on the road ; and he risks his faith on unrealized ideas, instead of confining it prudently to humdrum loyalties. He is "in advance," and in this sense, an extremist.' (1)

Or as George Orwell once put it,

'They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality... All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.' (2)

An interest in Russian opinions or a taste for French food - it is difficult to tell which seemed most treasonable to Orwell ('the patriotism of the deracinated,' 'the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled,' 'playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot') (3). This is what the writer on espionage Andrew Boyle has called the 'climate of treason', a literary intelligentsia composed of 'rebellious and discontented idealists' who were easy targets for Soviet intelligence. (4) For the US writer Stephen Koch, the Communist conspiracy in Britain operated on two levels, connected by 'the language of the democratic elites and the language of revolt'. Culture - more specifically literature - was the 'point of intersection between propaganda and espionage', a meeting place of knaves and fools :

'On the public level, the move to Stalinize Bloomsbury taste was led by Otto Katz and the Munzenberg apparatus, using British fronts such as the Left Book Club and its many appendages. Covertly, the process was led by Blunt and his gofer, Burgess, guided by Maly and by Ludwik's Recruit in the London offices of the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS), silently sustained by the talent-spotters throughout the universities and in the Munzenberg-Gilbarti propaganda network, and tied to the Soviets through a dual NKVD-Comintern network running through Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris.' (5)

For Koch, the fact that the most famous British recruits to Soviet Intelligence numbered left-wing writers among their friends - Anthony Blunt (Louis MacNeice), Guy Burgess (Rosamund Lehmann), Michael Straight (John Cornford) and Kim Philby (Graham Greene) - confirms the suspicion that the cultural campaigns of the Popular Front years were a cover for something else. Recent revelations that Orwell later provided the British Intelligence with lists of suspected CP members and fellow- travellers (including several notable writers) has only served to underline his claims that the Communist Party and its writers were up to no good.

The idea that British Communist intellectuals were all either knaves or fools is found in British fiction, where they usually appear either as humourless, dishonest, bookish and uncompanionable zealots - for example, George Orwell's Coming Up for Air, Evelyn Waugh's Unconditional Surrender, Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point - or as sad and solitary figures caught up in espionage - CP Snow's The New Men, Graham Greene's The Human Factor, John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Considering the importance of these caricatures to popular anti-Communism, historians have paid curiously little attention to the facts of the Party's literary life. If Communist writers are remembered these days, it is either despite their Communist attachments (Patrick Hamilton, Sylvia Townsend-Warner, John Lehmann, Cecil Day Lewis, Nancy Cunard), or because of their subsequent anti-Communism (Doris Lessing, Edward Upward, Stephen Spender).

Most histories of the Party, like Henry Pelling, The British Communist Party, Willie Thompson The Good Old Cause : British Communism 1920-1991 and Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy, Under the Red Flag : A History of Communism in Britain attend rather more carefully to the Party's relationship with the Soviet Union, to its industrial struggles and its anti-colonial and Peace campaigns than to its cultural achievements. Of the six volume official history of the Party, only John Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict : the CPGB 1951-8 pays any serious attention to the Party's 'cultural workers'.

And yet the Party's literary culture may prove to be one of its most enduring achievements. For over seventy years the British Communist Party conducted a sustained, concentrated educational and imaginative intervention in British literary life, quite out of proportion to either its size or political influence. (6) No British political party ever contained within its ranks so many distinguished writers as the CPGB. Kingsley Amis, Brendan Behan, Robert Bolt, Elizabeth Bowen, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Patrick Hamilton, Hamish Henderson, Doris Lessing, Joan Littlewood, Ewan McColl, Hugh MacDiarmid, Olivia Manning, Iris Murdoch, John Prebble, Stephen Spender, E.P. Thompson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Arnold Wesker and Raymond Williams were all Party members at one time or another. Cecil Day Lewis, Poet Laureate in the 1960s, was one of the Party's most public literary figures in the 1930s. Dylan Thomas used to call himself as a Communist. EM Forster once said that he would have joined the Party if her were younger. Graham Greene (who was briefly a Party member while he was a student in the 1920s) told Salvador Allende that he was 'forever searching for Communism with a human face'.

Despite the disadvantages which inevitably accompanied a party card, a remarkable number of professional novelists were once party members (or so close as to make no difference), most notably Honor Arundel, James Barke, Ralph Bates, Robert Briffault, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Ralph Fox, Yvonne Kapp, Margot Heinemann, Jack Lindsay, Olivia Manning, Iris Morley, Edith Pargeter, Maurice Richardson, John St John, Montagu Slater, John Sommerfield, Philip Toynbee and Geoffrey Trease.

Among the Party's published poets were Valentine Ackland, Jack Beeching, Maurice Carpenter, John Cornford, Nancy Cunard, Charles Hobday, Geoffrey Matthews, Frances Moore, Arnold Rattenbury, Edgell Rickword, Roger Roughton, Hugh Sykes-Davies and Randall Swingler. Even in the last years of crisis and decline, the Party's ranks included poets like David Craig, Julia Darling, Jackie Kay, Jackie Litherland, Wendy Mulford and Chris Searle. In the early 1970s Searle attracted national attention when he was dismissed from a school-teaching job for publishing a book of poems by his pupils, and the children went on strike in protest.

From the early 1930s to the early 1990s, Communists were responsible for producing an almost unbroken line of literary and critical magazines - Storm, Viewpoint, Left Review, New Writing, Left Book Club News, Poetry and the People, Our Time, Seven, Theatre Today, Arena, Circus, Daylight, Fireweed, Artery, Fires, Red Letters - as well as hundreds of locally produced magazines and poetry anthologies. Left Review was the second-best-selling monthly arts magazine in late 1930s London. The Party's publishers Lawrence and Wishart first published the ground-breaking journal New Writing (which later became the long-running Penguin New Writing). By 1939 there were twenty poetry-groups around Britain attached to Poetry and the People. The magazine Seven - a war-time publication devoted to writing from the Forces - sold 60,000 copies a quarter. Our Time, which ran from 1940 to 1950, sold 18,000 copies a month. The radical paperback publishing company, Fore Publications, sold over half a million books in its first twelve months.

From 1936 to 1975, Unity Theatre was effectively the Party's theatre in London. A collective of theatre semi-professionals and amateurs (the company briefly turned professional in the late 1940s), Unity produced many nationally-known actors, including Michael Gambon, Bob Hoskins, Warren Mitchell and Bill Owen. They staged British premieres of work by playwrights like Brecht, Sartre, Adamov and Frisch. Unity also maintained an extensive network of regional amateur theatres, including Glasgow Unity, which also tried to go professional after the Second World War. The first London musha'ara (an Urdu poetry-reading) was initiated by the Communist Party. The Notting Hill Carnival was largely created by Caribbean Communists living in London. Poetry readings were a regular feature of Party Congresses from the early 1950s to the last Congress in 1991.

The Sunday Worker, the Daily Worker and the Morning Star always devoted generous space to reviewing contemporary fiction, theatre and poetry. The Party's long-running weekly, World News and Views used to carry a regular poetry-supplement. The theoretical journals Modern Quarterly and Marxism Today were frequently enlivened by literary criticism and controversy. The magazine Arena published for the first time in English new work by writers like Neruda, Aragon, Pasternak, Eluard, Cassou and Hikmet.

Why was the CPGB so interested in literature ? Why did such a tiny, hard-pressed, over-stretched and often defensive organisation take literary culture so seriously ? What could it possibly hope to gain ? And what did achieve ?

First, Marxism was a totalising ideology. There was no aspect of living in which Communists were not supposed to be interested. The Party's 1945 Congress declared that 'it is essential that our members take a lively interest in all questions in which the people are interested, including social, art, music, literature entertainment and sport. We must strive to end the feeling, which undoubtedly exists, that members of the Communist Party should be interested only in politics.' If the Soviets took literature seriously, then it was clearly the duty of British Communists to do the same. Lunacharsky's writings on education and culture were available in Britain in the early 1920s ; Trotsky's Literature and Revolution was first published in Britain in 1925.

Being part of an international movement the Party was encouraged - if not expected - to imitate the examples of more successful Communist parties. In the early 1920s, Communists tried to import the ideas of the Soviet Proletkult into Britain (via the magazine Plebs and the National Council of Labour Colleges). The Party's publishing house Martin Lawrence translated a number of Soviet and German writers into English. During the Third Period, the Party's cultural initiatives were more closely modelled on those of the KPD, the Worker's Theatre Movement self-consciously imitating the work of the Volksbühne and the Rote Sprachrohr. There was even a bold attempt to reproduce the success of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung with the short-lived Workers Illustrated News. After the Second World War, Communists were responsible for publishing the first English translations of writers from the People's Democracies like Fucik, Vitezslav, Mickiewicz and Vaptsarov. During the Cold War the Party's cultural apparatus made some unconvincing attempts to introduce Zhdanovism into the Party's internal literary life with the stage-managed 'Caudwell Controversy' in Modern Quarterly. From the late 1960s onwards, the Party increasingly looked to the PCI for its strategy and to Gramsci for its theory. The Party's 1977 People's Jubilee (attended by over 11,000 people) was expressly modelled on the Festa dell'Unita and the Fète de l'Humanité.

Second, the Party was the inheritor of pre-1917 working-class and radical political traditions - particularly the Sunday Schools movement, the Chartists, the Independent Labour Party and the Labour College Movement - in which literacy and literature had always been central preoccupations (Walt Whitman had a special place in ILP iconography). Britain was the first mass-literate society, with the first literate working-class. The Party's first generation leaders were the products of a skilled trade-union autodidact culture which respected books. The Communist MP Willie Gallacher (the titles of whose memoirs were all quotations from Shelley) once published a book of poetry, Palme Dutt wrote a play about Dimitrov and Wal Hannington a semi-autobiographical novel. When Tommy Jackson collected some of his essays from the Daily Worker about the English Realist novel, he gave pride of place not to Defoe, Fielding, or Dickens, but to 'the incomparable' Jane Austen.

Lewis Jones, unemployed leader in South Wales and a delegate to the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, published two novels. Tom Wintringham, one of the twelve Communist leaders gaoled for 'sedition' in 1925 and who later commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain was a widely published poet. Ralph Bates was a railway-worker who served as a Political Commissar with the International Brigades. He also wrote a biography of Schubert and a great many novels, including two set in Spain Lean Men (one of the very first Penguins) and The Olive Field, which earned Bates comparisons with Malraux, even Tolstoy.

Lawrence and Wishart published the first unabridged edition of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In the late 1930s and again in the early 1950s they encouraged the development of native, working-class bildungsromans. The British Communist Party may have attracted some distinguished and well-known writers, but more significantly it encouraged young working-class writers to write. A remarkable number of these went on to be published - Brian Almond, Charles Ashleigh, Fred Ball, George Chandler, Alexander Baron, Dan Billany, Simon Blumenfeld, Robert Bonnar, Max Cohen, Len Doherty, Willy Goldman, Frederick Harper, Harry Heslop, William Holt, Lewis Jones, Dave Lambert, Julius Lipton, Jim Phelan, Charles Poulsen, Herbert Smith, Dave Wallis, Bert Ward, Ted Willis, Roger Woddis. Several of these were successful enough to make careers as professional writers - Willis and Baron in television, Doherty in journalism, Blumenfeld as a theatre critic, Woddis as the New Statesman's resident satirical poet. The film rights to Dave Wallis's novel Only Lovers Left Alive were bought by Mick Jagger (though the film was never made). In the 1970s and 1980s individual Communists were heavily involved in establishing and maintaining the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers.

Third, cultural activity was understood by Communists to be a valuable and necessary bridgehead on the mainland of British life. For such a small political party, with little or no access to the mainstream media, literature was a particularly effective way of communicating, popularising and naturalising its ideas and values to a public well beyond its natural audience.

Although the Left Book Club was not formally a CP-operation, it is usually denounced as such ('it was how Stalinist opinion was "networked" in England' according to one historian). The LBC was a publishing success story, publishing 260 titles and selling millions of books in its thirteen year life. It had 40,000 members by the end of the first year ; by 1939 it had a membership of 57,000 and 1,200 local and specialist LBC discussion groups, including groups for London taxi drivers, architects, teachers, railwaymen, lawyers, accountants, poets, cyclists, musicians, puppeteers, scientists, postmen and sixth-formers.

Virginia Woolf and JB Priestley wrote for the Daily Worker. Alan Sillitoe wrote for the Morning Star (Arthur Seaton votes Communist in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). Sean O'Casey sat on the editorial board of the paper for many years. During the Spanish Civil War, Randall Swingler and Nancy Cunard published a questionnaire about the war in Spain, Writers take Sides in which almost all the most famous writers of the day declared their support with the Spanish Republic. The polymath Jack Lindsay wrote over two hundred books of poetry, fiction, science, translation, history, archaeology and art-criticism. He one filled Trafalgar Square with a performance of his Mass Declamation On Guard for Spain. During the Second World War the poet Montagu Slater - a founder editor of Left Review - was head of film scripts at the Ministry of Information. Slater later devised and scripted Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and wrote the libretto for Britten's opera Peter Grimes. Dirk Bogarde starred in the film of one of Slater's novels. Randall Swingler once packed the Albert Hall with a musical pageant starring Paul Robeson and set to music by twelve of the most distinguished contemporary composers, including Vaughan Williams, Elizabeth Lutyens and Alan Rawsthorne.

Literature was also a two-way process, by which the Party saw itself reflected in the public imagination. In Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood (who was then very close to the KPD) based Sally Bowles, the most famous character in 1930's English fiction, on the Daily Worker film-critic Jean Ross. The distinguished Communist scientist JD Bernal appears in CP Snow's The Search. The character of Guy Pringle in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy is based on the legendary 'Red' BBC radio producer Reggie Smith. The NUWM leader assaulted by the police in Walter Greenwood's best-selling Love on the Dole was the young Communist Eddie Frow, later AEU Manchester District Secretary, bibliophile and historian. Arthur Seaton in Silittoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning attends a factory-gate meeting addressed by John Peck - later a Communist councillor in Nottingham. National Organiser Dave Cook is one of the main characters in Alison Fell's Tricks of the Light. The gamekeeper in the first draft of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is secretary of a Party cell in Sheffield...

Even in the worst periods of self-immolation (1929-33, 1940-1, 1949-1958) Communists demonstrated an extraordinary ability to keep open lines of communication with mainstream literary life in London. They often shared the same agents and publishers - and pubs - as non-Communist writers, who could usually be persuaded to contribute a poem, a story or a book-review to the Party's publications. At the height of the Cold War, Edith Sitwell and George Barker - who could never have been accused of Communist sympathies - were published in Swingler's Key Poets series. The poet and folk-sing collector Hamish Henderson, expelled from Italy (after pressure from the US), where he was lecturing on folk-song, won the Somerset Maugham Prize for his collection Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. Hugh MacDiarmid re-joined the Party in 1956. Two of Patrick Hamilton's plays were filmed by Hollywood studios in the Cold War years, Rope (starring James Stewart) and Gaslight (starring Ingrid Bergman).

Fourth, because this was an organisation at ease with literary controversy, organisational and ideological debates were often mediated through arguments about books. An apparently arcane debate in Marxism Today in 1957 about the relationship between literature and ideology was actually a coded discussion of the Dr Zhivago affair. When, ten years Marxism Today held a similar debate around the Party's statement on Questions of Ideology and Culture, the discussion about the relative autonomy of culture may be seen as sublimated disagreements over the Party's emerging Eurocommunism.

During the late 1920s the popular books-pages of the Sunday Worker were marked by a series of fierce and coded debates about DH Lawrence, the Workers Theatre Movement and Shakespeare. Some readers objected to the paper carrying any arts coverage at all, in a way that can have left no-one in any doubt that the debate was really about the party's relationship with its allies in the National left-wing Movement and to the rest of British society. Not for the first time, anti-intellectualism proved to be a useful tool in disciplining the Party's own writers. When one of the editors, Tommy Jackson, ridiculed the arcane and sectarian language of the Third Period, the Comintern EC took the opportunity to overhaul the British Party leadership ; the Left-wing Movement was liquidated and the Sunday Worker closed down.

Almost two years before the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, the establishment of the Writers International in Britain anticipated the Popular Front by calling for the broadest possible alliance of writers, artists and intellectuals to defend the 'best achievements of human culture' against Fascism. The 'left' opposition, arguing for the class-basis of language and literature, was swiftly defeated in the pages of Left Review. The situation was reversed again in 1950, when Jackson was the subject of another furious correspondence in the Daily Worker about cultural 'snobbery'. His argument that 'there is no such thing as "bourgeois" or "capitalist" culture... only our common cultural heritage' was clearly incompatible with the Cold War 'Battle of Ideas'. This was followed by a series of critical rows in the paper around the magazine Arena and the Key Poets series. Although they were ostensibly about Modernism and 'bohemianism', they may be seen as coded attempts to control the intellectual loyalties of the Party's best-known writers in the worsening political climate.

Because of the shoe-string nature of the Party's finances, few of the cultural publications with which it was identified were actually owned or controlled by Party Centre. The Party did not really try to organise its writers before 1947 (and then without much success). On the other hand, Communist writers could not rely on the Party for subsidy or for a sufficiently large readership for their books and magazines. Instead they had to negotiate the market. British Communist thus writers enjoyed a degree of autonomy which was probably unique in the Communist world. The consequences of such freedom were complex and not always advantageous. When Communist writers were black-listed at the BBC during the Cold War, their work attacked by reviewers or rejected by publishers, the Party's largely unpaid cultural infrastructure was unable to provide alternative sources of professional employment or satisfaction.

On the other hand, British Communist writers were able to develop a native radical literary tradition, almost entirely independent of theoretical developments elsewhere. The vicious literary controversies that disfigured other, bigger Communist parties (the 1947 row between Aragon and Garaudy, for example, the controversy over Picasso's Stalin portrait, or the Lukacs-Brecht polemic) went largely unreported in the Party's literary magazines. The reports in Left Review of the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress barely mentioned the notion of Socialist Realism. Even Zhdanov's assault on Akhmatova and Zoschenko was disingenuously referred to, at least at first, as 'the Soviet Literary Controversy'.

Few of the most imaginative and enduring interventions made by British Communist writers owed anything to the Party's 'international' commitments. During the 1930s, for example, Communist novelists breathed new life into generic fiction, particularly the historical novel (Lindsay, Townsend-Warner) and the detective-thriller (Day Lewis and the fellow-travelling Eric Ambler). Montagu Slater and Randall Swingler (working with the Communist composer Alan Bush) re-invented the mass theatrical pageant in the 1930s and 1940s. The work of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Reggie Smith effectively shaped radio documentary and drama for a generation. The early years of British TV drama were heavily influenced by Unity Theatre writers.

Above all, British Communists were able to develop a home-grown, popular Marxist literary criticism. Between them, the group of writers who dominated the Party's literary culture during the years of its ascendancy in the middle decades of the century - Montagu Slater, Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay, Alick West, Randall Swingler, Christopher Caudwell, George Thompson, Ralph Fox, Tommy Jackson, Leslie Morton and AL Lloyd - created an extraordinary body of criticism and literary history. Some of this was published in book form - notably West's Crisis and Criticism and The Mountain in the Sunlight, Fox's The Novel and the People, Caudwell's Illusion and Reality, Lindsay's John Bunyan ; Maker of Myths, Jackson's Charles Dickens : the Progress of a Radical, Lloyd's The Singing Englishman, Morton's The English Utopia. But most was published as essays and reviews, a developing, informal and accessible critical corpus (only George Thomson of the older generation was employed by a university), celebrating the English realist tradition in fiction and the English romantic tradition in poetry. While this may have dovetailed with the political requirement of the Popular Front (and later of the Cold War) to promote radical national traditions, it nevertheless helped to mitigate the destructive effects of Soviet literary politics on the Party's intellectual life. Moreover, the work of this group was crucially influential on a group of younger Communist writers - principally EP Thompson, Christopher Hill, Raymond Williams and Arnold Kettle - who after the Second World War were responsible for the development of cultural studies in post-War adult education and later the Open University

In European terms, none of this may seem remarkable. But in the context of British political life it is a unique and extraordinary record. The Conservative Party has occasionally included writers among its parliamentary leadership (Disraeli, Churchill ; Enoch Powell ; more recently Edwina Currie, Anne Widdicombe and Douglas Hurd). Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson's wife Mary used to write poetry ; the novelist Melvyn Bragg is a very public Blairite. But British political culture is generally afraid of the arts, as British artistic culture is hostile to politics. Economism and electoralism leave little room for the imagination. The Labour Party - like the British ultra-left sects - has never been famous for an interest in the arts. Labour Party conferences do not include poetry readings. The Labour Party has never, of course, published any literary magazines. The Labour Party's only response to the first Edinburgh People's Festival (the forerunner of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) was to declare that - because it was organised by Communists - attending the Festival's poetry-readings and ceilidhs was incompatible with membership of the Labour Party.

In comparison with other Communist Parties, the CPGB never possessed the resources to create a literary culture of its own able to compete with the dominant literary culture or to compensate those writers who found themselves - because of their Communism - excluded from its rewards. Joining the British Communist Party (as opposed to leaving it) was never a good career move. Not all the books written by British Communists will last, although many still deserve to be read. It was a long-term, educational project to debate and popularise ideas about the relationship between understanding and action, between culture and politics, writers and readers, literature and society. The Party's efforts were always under-funded, sometimes ill-considered and often self-defeating. But no-one could ever argue that it did not take literature seriously or that individual Communist writers did not create a remarkable body of literary criticism, history and theory, fiction, drama and poetry.

Andy Croft


  1. Richard Crossman (ed) The God that Failed : Six Studies in Communism (1950) p8
  2. George Orwell, 'England Your England' (1940), collected in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell vol 2 (1970) p95.
  3. George Orwell, Inside the Whale (Gollancz 1940), collected in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell vol 1 (1970) p562
  4. Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979)
  5. Stephen Koch, Double Lives : Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals (1995) p184
  6. This essay is confined to observations about Communist writers ; for other aspects of the Party's cultural life see Andy Croft, (ed) A Weapon in the Struggle : the Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain (1998)