Michael Rosen: Confessions of an accidental communist
The author on his childhood, his parents' life in the East End and where he parted from Christopher Hitchens in talking about his identity.
My parents were what the Nazis called Jewish Communists. I think it’s what in some circumstances they called themselves but it always feels different when someone who doesn’t like you calls you that. I had the same problem when I opened Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22 and found him, too, calling me that when writing about our time together at Oxford University. I must say, there were echoes of McCarthyism in there, not least in my note to Hitchens reminding him of something he knew full well; that I was not a member of the party and never had been. If he wanted to call my dead father a Stalinist, I suppose that was his prerogative but Hitchens also knew that my father, Harold, had left the CP some ten years before Hitchens and I were non-Communist comrades in 1968, on the barricades of some very old university buildings, at the big anti-Vietnam war demo in Grosvenor Square and at an anti-racist sit-in on the floor of a hairdresser’s that refused to cut black people’s hair.
I tell this story because of the awkwardness and sensitivity here. I am the child of two people who joined the Young Communist League around 1935, when they were 16. They were both the grandchildren of eastern European Jewish families that migrated to France, Britain and the US from places that I find listed on censuses as Russified Poland or Austria but that we now call Poland and Bukovina. The trades they brought with them were mostly in how we cover our bodies: hats, caps, suits, dresses, boots and shoes – though one of them seems to have tried to sell dairy goods and another tried a bit of glazing.
Playing table tennis at the YCL HQ in Whitechapel doesn’t pose much of a problem in my mind in terms of how my father found his way there, but I must admit I can only guess when it comes to my mother. My father’s Zeyde (grandfather) seems to have been some kind of Jewish socialist who berated the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, H M Hyndman, who in his eyes was guilty of two crimes: being anti-Semitic and leading socialist workers into the trenches in the First World War. I think that this sweatshop worker, Joseph Hyams, whose English was too shaky for him to read the Daily Worker to himself – my father aged ten would read it to him – must have had links in his life to the university of the eastern Jewish left: the Bund. Founded in Vilna (now Vilnius) in 1897, this league of Jewish workers was an outward-looking, secular, militant organisation trying to overcome low wages and discrimination. As Jews spread westwards, they brought with them branches of the Bund and its fraternal organisation the Arbeter Ring – the Workers’ Circle or, in the US, Workmen’s Circle.
My father didn’t know his own father. Morris Rosen was too busy organising the Boot and Shoe Workers Union in Brockton, Massachusetts, and, indeed, speaking at their national congress in 1921 in St Louis. I have the transcript. Morris wanted the union to congratulate the Bolsheviks on their revolution. He and my father’s mother, Rose, and their five children lived in a “row house” in Brockton but they split in 1922, Rose taking her three American-born children with her and leaving the two British-born boys with Morris.
The legend in the family, which I have never been able to confirm, is that Morris stood for the Socialist Party of America in the 1928 elections for the Pennsylvania senate and won more local votes than the SPA’s presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. I have a picture of him with his brother and their family at what looks like a Seder night (first night of Passover) from some time in the 1940s. His nephew told me that Morris wore nice clothes – he had five suits that he kept in a trunk – but when he turned up in his convertible he didn’t give his sister-in-law a ride. I don’t know how that figures, given that everyone said he was blacklisted in every boot and shoe factory on the eastern seaboard.
Morris and his brother Max and Max’s wife (who didn’t ever get that ride in the convertible) are buried in the Jewish Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Melrose, Boston. The letters “AB” for Arbeter Ring are engraved on their stones; each has his branch number engraved there, too.
Back in London, Rose joined the Communist Party. I notice on the census she is listed variously as a milliner or secretary but my father’s story was that she couldn’t work as she had been paralysed by polio. Indeed, he has written of the time Rose and he went begging to various boards for boots, only for him to be told that, as Rose was still married, the boy wasn’t entitled. In 2012, I hear that story in my head every time the Old Etonian talks of the “big society”. People like my parents worked hard to rid themselves of begging boards of guardians to release a pair of boots to children in poverty.
I remember Rose when she was old and not very coherent but it was clear that she was someone whom people wanted to see. My father
described their house behind the London Hospital, on Whitechapel Road, as somewhere that seamen from Russia and Jamaica would come but also how she seemed to know some posh Communists, such as the bohemian Beatrice Hastings, once the model for Modigliani.
My mother talked of herself and her background in disparaging terms, as if her parents were trapped in some kind of superstitious 19th-century place. Certainly, her mother seemed to me, as a child, permanently worried, permanently complaining, inward-looking, but her father was an amiable, more open person, worn down by work in a boys’ cap factory. He would take me to Hackney Downs for walks where he met up with men in suits talking in Yiddish to each other. I’m almost certain these were his friends from the Workers’ Circle and once my mother said, in her CP voice, that when she was a girl he would go to “Trotskyist meetings”. I suspect it was the party line on Bundists.
So, my parents as teenagers met up by a table-tennis table at the YCL. My father got there via his Zeyde’s and his mother’s radicalism. My mother, I think, got there through the company she kept at Central Foundation Girls’ School in Spital Square, where her group of very close friends included a woman who would later lead the huge East End rent strike of the late 1930s, Bertha Sokoloff. My father talked of this group with awe and respect as readers, writers, politically sophisticated people who, he thought, put him and his friend Moishe Kaufman to shame.
In the crucible of the East End, my parents engaged simultaneously and passionately with collecting for the Spanish Republicans, telling the world of the dangers of German Nazism, defending themselves against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, Shakespeare, Picasso, W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, rent strikes, elections and more. My mother left school and went to work as a secretary at the Daily Worker, where she came across CP journalists and organisers such as Sam Russell, who in an earlier life was called Mannassah Lesser, William Rust and, at a distance, Harry Pollitt. (As “Pollitt”, he led the Communist Party for more than 20 years.) My father stayed on at school but moved out of the East End Davenant Foundation School, whose arch still sits on the Whitechapel Road, and went to what used to be called the Polytechnic, or “the Poly”, on Regent’s Street.
He often described this as a cultural and political shock, sitting side by side in school for the first time with boys who were not Jewish, who came from places on the Metropolitan Line with names such as Preston Park and Harrow. He would have been horrified if he had known then that that was where he and my mother would bring up my brother and me, ten years later.
The 1930s had a particular hold over us. It was both a mythic place and a mythic time in our house as our parents traced and retraced the leafleting, the public speaking, the fascists on street corners, the camping holidays, the competing pulls on their allegiance from Habonim, the Zionist youth group, the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. At the heart of these stories was Cable Street, when Jewish and non-Jewish anti-fascists faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and prevented them marching through the East End. A day which, in comparison to the defeats and terrors of the Second World War (yes: I never thought “we” won a war), was a glorious success and victory.
One irony of the day for them was that they found themselves on the wrong side of the barricades – literally – in a side alley off Cable Street and were only saved from having their heads cracked with a mountie’s baton by a kind stranger pulling them indoors.
In our flat over a shop in Pinner, Middlesex, in the 1950s, these events seemed centuries ago and the place they talked of didn’t exist either. The Jews, they said, had all gone. They all lived in Stoke Newington, Golders Green and Stanmore now, they said, gone on the “North-West Passage”, as they called it.
My parents ran a CP branch from our flat and though, cruelly, I tell it that the branch had only two members, Harold and his wife, Connie, in truth I can remember leaning over the bannister and watching at least ten people coming in. My dad told me that some of them worked in a plane factory on the North Circular.
They campaigned for comprehensive education and equal pay for teachers, which came in in increments over seven years. “Look!” my mother would cry when the increment envelope would arrive. “I’m four-sevenths of your father.” In 1957, they took my brother and me on a teachers’ delegation to East Germany where we were shown the great humanist achievements (or houses) of Frederick the Great, Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Mozart, Luther’s prison, Carl Zeiss optics and the towers of Stalinallee, where my parents bought some posh smoky wine glasses.
They came back ashen-faced from a visit to Buchenwald and my brother snapped away as we were driven past Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, and my mother suddenly announced that she could understand everything that was being said. “Why?” we asked. “Because I was brought up speaking Yiddish,” she said. Even as an 11-year-old I could feel in that comment the tensions running to and fro across Europe and through my mother’s head. That year, they left the Communist Party.
I can remember standing in Trafalgar Square a year earlier to protest against the invasion of Suez when their friend John Flower arrived, tight-lipped and drawn. “The tanks have gone in,” he announced to the Harrow and Muswell Hill CP-ers. I could hear Nye Bevan’s voice rising and falling and saw in my mind British tanks driving past the pyramids. Our hero Nasser was going to die. “Budapest,” said John – “the tanks have gone in.”
I don’t think my parents were too bothered at the time. They had learned that backs-to-the-wall, defend-the-revolution, defend-the-Soviet-Union, anything-they-say-against-us-is-the-bourgeoisie’s-lies way of thinking and talking. They talked of western agents skulking round the streets of Budapest; and when Hungarian refugees came to Britain they scoured the papers for evidence that they were “lumpen” pickpockets and bank robbers.
But in 1957 they did leave, a wrench from my father’s old friends Roy Zemla, Moishe and Rene Kaufman, the Aprahamians, the Cooks, the Craigs, the Kayes, Dorothy Diamond, the Dunnings and many more, even though, somehow, unlike for many others who left, the friendships lasted.
My father’s university colleague Margaret Spencer once told me that she reckoned the reason why they left was that their liberal, child-centred attitudes to education ran into an unbridgeable schism with the party’s education committee. Or it was a schism in their own minds as they explored the thoughts of Dewey, Froebel, A S Neill, Margaret McMillan, Susan Isaacs and the Russells.
We all went on the Aldermaston marches and in the hurly-burly of those few days I would meet up with some of those CP and ex-CP parents and their children, but also with Quakers, Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-imperialists, Spartacists. I collected leaflets and pored over them back home, like young children study the Beano. My parents looked at them quizzically and were amused to find that my father’s university hero and our one-time lodger Brian Pearce, once the Stalinist hammer of the Trots, was now the Trot hammer of the Stalinists and was carrying a placard saying “Nationalise the Arms Industry”, while their old pal Francis was carrying one saying “Atoms for Peace”.
I was shown people such as the Communist former East End MP Phil Piratin; the Labour politicians Anthony Greenwood, Ian Mikardo and Fenner Brockway; this or that survivor of Dachau or Auschwitz; and such heroes of the anti-colonial struggle as the Indian nationalist Krishna Menon. Of course, we all waited for Bertrand Russell to speak.
By the late 1960s, I was immersed in what people were calling the New Left. The view that I felt most at home with was “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and one of its most articulate exponents was Christopher Hitchens. Holidays back from university often meant chats from midnight to three in the morning, discussions, memories and storytelling with my father. I would tell him about a sit-in; he would tell me about sitting in the University College London canteen in 1939. I would tell him about a Maoist. He would tell me about one of his students who had told him that he was part of the problem.
When I was arrested at Grosvenor Square, during the anti-Vietnam war demonstration outside the US embassy in March 1968, and kept in cells until four in the morning without charge, it was my father and my brother who were outside waiting to run me home from the police station on Savile Row.
Once, Adam, the son of their old CP friends the Westobys, sat on their front-room floor and berated them for having joined the CP and stayed in the CP. By this time, I think he was in the Trotskyist fragment the Workers’ Socialist League – the WSL or “Weasels”, as some of their ex-comrades called them. My mother, who usually left these kinds of conversations to my father, suddenly flipped and shouted at him, “Adam, who do you think was defending Jews in the East End? The Labour Party? The ILP? The synagogues? Where else could we go?” I seem to remember Adam didn’t answer. I suspect that this was not because he didn’t have an answer but because of some kind of residual respect for people who had struggled to understand, fight back and go beyond their tribe to find some kind of universalism.
In opposing the CP as much as he opposed the right and most of the left, Adam knew that his particular group was no nearer to locking horns with the bourgeoisie over the matter of who owns the means of production.
My parents were Jews. Neither of them ever denied it. They both learned how to deal with a posh, sneering kind of anti-Semitism from people who worked in rooms called “studies”. They both tried to understand and explain what had happened to their relatives in Poland and France who seemed to have disappeared without a trace simply because they were, like them, Jews. I never really had conversations with my mother about being a Jew before she died in 1976, cut off intentionally from her living relatives. My father brooded on what he wanted to keep from his family’s Jewishness and loved the memory of their multilingualism, their jokes, their stories. He regretted that they hadn’t at least done Seder nights and Hanukkah. He relished teaching me the Yiddish he knew.
Politically, he found a home in the company of the French marxisants Bourdieu, Barthes, Foucault, Genette, Macherey and Althusser, along with some of the American radicals, Jameson and Bruner. He seemed saddened by how drawn he was to Russian thinkers such as Chukovsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Vygotsky and Luria and to Russian writers such as Babel, because it meant confronting the lost hopes of his youth. From the 1970s onwards, he never denied that it had been a disaster.
People arrive in the left for many different reasons. I remember having a strong feeling at university that there was a difference between people like Hitchens and people like me and it was something to do with culture. I admired him because he seemed to have arrived at this pure leftness, pure Marxism by dint of intellectual effort. I arrived at it because I hadn’t, I thought, worked very hard to do anything else. I would say now that we all bring with us who we are and where we come from, even if we react against them.
In a way, I did a bit of both: brought with me the stories and meanings from my family but also a reaction against its allegiance to the God that failed. When I saw that phrase “Jewish Communist” in Hitchens’s book, I thought, no, that doesn’t say who I was. I asked him to change it for the paperback. He did.
The poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen is the author of the memoirs “Carrying the Elephant” and “This Is Not My Nose” (both Penguin)