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Edgar Young

 

Although he never joined the Communist Party, Young took a strongly pro-Soviet line on a number of historic issues and his life was so thoroughly associated with aspects of the Communist Party’s work, he is one of the few non-members who deserves to be included in this Compendium. .

 

Edgar P Young was born to British parents near Calcutta on 5th October 1899. He returned to England as a young child and after completing his public school education, joined the Royal Navy in 1917. As a result he received his training and his first experiences at sea under wartime conditions. After a short period as midshipsman on HMS Ajax, he achieved the rank of Sub Lieutenant in mid-1919. He was posted to the Mediterranean to serve on board the aircraft carrier HMS Pegasus, which formed part of the Black Sea fleet, and spent almost two years engaged in naval intelligence work.

 

Young began his adult life conventionally enough as a Conservative in the sense that he held views suitable to his class and background. Although, in a lecture on the Royal Navy and the transition to socialism, which dates from the 1930s, he characterised the Naval Officer (and himself by implication) as politically neutral. During the 1930s, in the process of becoming politicised, Young moved progressively leftwards.

 

The seeds may have been sown in the first few months of 1920, when his ship, the Pegasus, was involved in the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war. Young's diary for 1920 records the chaos which surrounded the White Russian withdrawal from Novorossisk:

 

After returning from the Mediterranean in autumn 1921, Young embarked upon a naval training course at Cambridge University, was awarded a first class certificate and rose to the position of Lieutenant. His aptitude for languages led to his selection by the Navy for training as an interpreter and translator. From May 1924 he spent five months in Paris learning French, followed by specialist training in signals and wireless telegraphy.

 

He married his first wife Geraldine Leahy at St. Jude's Church, Portsea on 11 December 1926, and travelled with her the following spring to Prague, to spend nine months living amongst the Russian emigre community and studying their language. His naval career continued to flourish with his appointment as Officer in Charge of HM Signal School at Shotley, where he was responsible for developing the training of ratings in the Visual Signalling and Wireless Trans-mission branches of the Navy.

 

On becoming Lieutenant Commander, Young rapidly moved from the post of Signal Officer on HMS Ganges to an overseas posting in late 1930 as Fleet Signal and Wireless Operator on the staff of the Commander in Chief, China Station. During this time, Young and his wife travelled extensively in Indochina, Thailand (then known as Siam), the Philippines, China and Japan. His subsequent move to HM Naval Wireless Stations, Singapore, enabled him to undertake an extensive tour of Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies) in September 1932, taking in the islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali. On his return from the Far East, Young produced a series of articles about sites of cultural importance in South East Asia, including the 'buried cities' of Sri Lanka, such as Anuradhapura, the Dieng Plateau in central Java and Sigiriya, the Lion Rock, in Sri Lanka. These were illustrated by some 200 small black and white photographs which feature the landscapes, architecture and peoples of the region.

 

1933 was something of a turning point in Young's life. After returning to HM Signal School at Portsmouth, his disillusionment with the Navy grew in proportion to his interest in politics. Within the space of a few months, he became a Fabian, applied for voluntary retirement from the Navy and embarked upon what he hoped would be a parliamentary career in the Labour Party. In correspondence with Sir Stafford Cripps, it was clear that his views were still relatively unformed. As he admitted in a letter of 13 August 1933, “… I am not sure whether my views are Left Wing Socialist or Communist”, although on balance, he felt that his support for the monarchy precluded him from being a Communist. Lacking in political experience, he was nonetheless adopted as Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Hull North West constituency and campaigned against the National Government in the 1935 general election. The seat was retained by the Conservative and Unionist candidate Sir Lambert Ward with a reduced majority of 5,234.

 

Shortly after the 1935 general election, Young joined the British National Committee of the International Peace Campaign (IPC). The IPC sought to co-ordinate the work of existing pacifist organisations and other groups opposed to war and to this end, Young was chosen to undertake an extensive tour of Central Europe in May and June 1936. During his travels between the capital cities of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, he met many leading pacifists and encouraged the establishment of IPC National Committees, as documented by a daily record of his activities. His credentials for the tour included a letter of introduction from the Harry Pollitt, a fact which was to prove controversial later in life. In September 1936 the IPC organised its first World Peace Congress in Brussels which Young attended, collecting copies of publicity leaflets, discussion papers, reports and resolutions, transcripts of speeches, newspapers, pamphlets and bulletins, as well as similar material for the concurrent International Agrarian Conference.

 

During 1937 and 1938 Young visited Czechoslovakia with regularity and published his first book, Czechoslovakia: keystone of peace and democracy, in mid-1938, as part of his efforts to defend the country against German aggression. In 1938 alone he travelled to Prague, Karlovy Vary, Liberec (in the Sudetenland) and Tatranska Lomnica (to attend a League of Nations summer school on Central Europe). He was in fact in Prague during the days leading up to the signing of the Munich Agreement on 29 September which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany and he reported on the political atmosphere to Clement Attlee MP.

 

Young's involvement with the short-lived Unity Campaign, launched in January 1937, brought the first signs of conflict with the Labour leadership. He stood on a unity platform as Labour candidate for St. Marylebone in the 1937 local elections and consciously associated himself with the local Communist Party. In an address to Hull North West District Labour Party, he justified his conduct thus, “I am no doctrinaire and am prepared to collaborate with and to accept the collaboration of anyone who wishes to carry on uncompromisingly the struggle against the present rotten social system . . .”.

 

When the Campaign dissolved itself and gave way to the Popular Front, Young became Organising Secretary of the Petition Committee set up by Cripps. It was because of these activities that Young was expelled from the Party in March 1939 in the company of Cripps, Aneurin Bevan MP and GR Strauss MP. The Party's refusal to re-admit Young unless he conceded certain terms led him to condemn its “intolerance of constructive criticism and rigid restriction of democratic rights” (letter of 31 October 1939).

 

By 1939 Young was bankrupt, without permanent employment and disillusioned with the Labour Party. He relied increasingly on freelance journalism to make a living and in July and August acted as tour leader for a party of Left Book Club members visiting the Soviet Union. In the October he divorced his first wife and married the Czech academic Dr Ida Sindelkova two months later.

 

He continued his political activities after the outbreak of war and campaigned on behalf of the People's Convention which first met in January 1941. He produced two pamphlets during the early 1940s, `A people's peace’ and That Second Front’, and acted as naval correspondent for both the Yorkshire Post and the Sydney Daily Mail. Young remained in central London throughout the Blitz. In a letter dating from early 1941 he commented to a former neighbour that “Life in London is very flat nowadays, but one becomes accustomed to being bombed”.

 

Young's travels in Eastern Europe began again only a few months after the end of the war with a trip to Czechoslovakia. He was introduced to several leading Czech politicians whilst in Prague, including President Benes. More importantly, during a prolonged five month tour of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania in 1946, he met Klement Gottwald, the Prime Minister and leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In Bulgaria he toured the country with the General Secretary of the Bulgarian trade union movement and attended several election meetings in factories, villages, and even a lignite mine, in and around Sofia.

 

He also had a lengthy meeting with the newly elected Communist Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov, and to discuss the country's economic reconstruction. In a radio broadcast for the BBC in January 1947, Young spoke in support of the Fatherland Front and quoted Dimitrov's defence of the new regime: “… he [Dimitrov] picked up from the table a rather queer-shaped peanut, and said: "What matters, surely, is not the shape of this shell, but the quality of the kernel inside it."'.

 

On the basis of research carried out during his visits, Young published a second work entitled Czechoslovakia in 1946. He also became heavily involved in the work of post-war friendship societies with Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and later Cuba. He returned to Eastern Europe for a three-month tour of Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in July 1948 and amassed material for a companion history of Bulgaria, but this was never completed.

 

After the suicide of his second wife in March 1949, he married Amicia More Bassadone (see separate entry), whom he first met in 1948 during her period as Assistant Editor of the New Central European Observer. A six-year period as translator of Russian and several other Eastern European languages for the Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty ended in 1950.

 

In early 1952, he was notified of his removal from the Retired List of the Navy for the reason that “his activities on behalf of the Communist Party were proving a source of such embarrassment and distress to the Royal Navy at home and abroad” (First Lord of The Admiralty, House of Commons, 19 March 1952). He was thereafter denied the right to call himself Lieutenant Commander RN Retired or to wear naval uniform, but the furore which the decision aroused – questions being asked in the house - meant that these restrictions were never enforced.

 

Young's visits to East Germany to attend the Leipzig trade fair began with regularity in the 1950s and included tours of the Baltic shipyards at Rostock, Stralsund and Wismar, as well as a performance of the play 'Mother Courage and her children' by Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble in December 1955. He made a month-long tour of Bulgaria in early 1957 and in the winter of the following year, embarked upon a journey through Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, before finally arriving in Vietnam. His wife accompanied him and used the trip to establish contacts with Vietnamese scientists as part of her work for the World Federation of Scientific Workers.

 

Young's political activities found a new focus in 1950 with the establishment of the Ex Service Movement for Peace (ESMP), of which he was President. Essentially an anti-fascist organisation, the ESMP campaigned against German rearmament and had links with the Soviet War Veterans' Committee.

 

Young's support for the Soviet Union was strengthened in 1956 by the armed suppression of the Hungarian uprising. He consistently adhered to the line that the uprising was fomented by counter-revolutionaries and this led to his disillusionment with the Union of Democratic Control, of which he was an Executive Committee member and which published a pamphlet by Basil Davidson exposing 'What really happened in Hungary'.                 

 

Pic below Young in East Germany in 1969

 

According to his wife Amicia (who was a Party member from 1945 onwards), widespread condemnation of the Soviet intervention almost propelled him to join the Communist Party. Again, in 1968, Young expressed public support for the Warsaw Pact intervention in Tribune and other journals. He was awarded the Lenin centenary medal by the Soviet Union in 1971.

 

His stance brought him to wider public knowledge and, in 1973, the publication by David Caute of `The fellow-travellers: a postscript to the Enlightenment’ caused Edgar Young, by then in his seventies and a veteran of many radical causes, to engage in major public controversy with the author. Caute had been granted access by Young to his personal papers, which the author mercilessly used, with a total lack of sympathy, to query the motivations and activities of those in the west who had never held a Party card but who could be termed 'fellow-travellers' of the Communist movement.

 

Until his death in 1975, Young occupied his time with travel and to a lesser extent, with the campaign against the Vietnam War, in which his wife was heavily involved. His most frequent destination was East Germany where he visited several former concentration camps, namely Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, but he also made a study tour of shipyards in Romania in 1961 and several visits to the Soviet Union. He spent a month in Havana, Cuba in early 1971 and his final journey abroad was in June 1973 to Czechoslovakia.

 

Young's papers, were acquired by the Brynmor Jones Library in 1983.

 

Source: extracts from article by Helen Roberts, Brynmor Jones Library, (1998), Paragon Review, Issue 6

 

 
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