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Illuminating insights into middle-class converts to communism

Radiant Illusion: Middle-class Recruits to Communism in the 1930s
Edited by Nicholas Deakin
(Eden Valley, £10)

THE 1920s and 30s represented a unique period in European history, with a deep crisis of capitalism and increased working-class agitation coinciding with the creeping rise of fascism.

Privileged and often wealthy students in Oxford and Cambridge were confronted for the first time in their lives with hunger marchers passing through their university towns and at the same time with Mosley’s blackshirts parading and holding rallies.

It was also an era in which the Soviet Union still had the aura of being a vibrant workers’ state ushering in a new more egalitarian and just society.

While some students were drawn to the fascists, many more felt attracted to socialist and communist ideas and, while never a majority, they constituted a significant section.

Although some simply flirted with the idea of rebellion and slumming it with the workers, many went on to devote much of their lives to the communist cause, sacrificing career opportunities and material gain.

The lectures and seminars by this book’s editor Nicholas Deakin at Gresham College in 2013 and 2014 led the way in opening up a new post-cold war perspective on middle-class communists who joined the party in the 1930s.

He argues that in Britain this was as much a generational as a social phenomenon, with a common generational identity bound up with anti-fascism and the civil war in Spain.

As James MacGibbon, scion of a wealthy Scottish family, succinctly put it: “It was the feeling that we were part of a movement that would change the world that kept us going.

“It was for people like us a time of political innocence: we believed that the Soviet Union would lead us to a new, enlightened age and it must be supported.”

This fascinating collection of vignettes of middle-class communist lives provides an inkling of what that period meant for these young men and women on the cusp of adulthood.

They demonstrate that those who joined the Communist Party were not weirdos or “Stalin’s useful idiots” as they have invariably been painted during the cold-war period and since.

These were, in the main, very bright, socially aware and humanistically inclined individuals who wanted to help bring about a more just world.

It would be, of course, very easy with hindsight to condemn them as criminally naïve and blind to Stalin’s excesses.

But such a simplistic viewpoint ignores the context, their vibrant idealism and the ossified mainstream political constellations of the time.

As such, Deakin’s book is an invaluable addition to the history of the Communist Party and of the individuals who were part of that broad movement.

John Green

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