Guest was a noted Communist intellectual, first class scholar at Cambridge and International Brigadier who was killed during the battle of the River Ebro in July 1938.
He was born in 1911, his father being Dr Hayden Guest, Labour MP for Southwark (1923-27) and Islington North (1937-50), for whom a hereditary peerage – a Baronetcy – was created on his retirement from the Commons.
His mother was Muriel Carmel Goldsmid,daughter of Colonel Albert Edward Williamson Goldsmid, a career army officer from a historic family of financiers. An ardent Zionist, in 1895 he founded the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade.
David became a student at Cambridge University in 1929, securing a first honour’s degree in Mathematics. He went on to study Mathematics & Philosophy at Göttingen, in Germany, from between 1930-1931. Seeing the growing threat of fascism first hand, he first became involved in anti-fascist activity while in Germany, for which he received two weeks jail. On his return to Cambridge, it was therefore not surprising that he joined the Communist Party in 1931.
Guest, along with Maurice Cornforth, James Klugmann, John Cornford (see alphabetical entries on the site for each of these), John Lehmann (the poet and associate of Isherwood and Auden) and four or five others established a Communist cell at CambridgeUniversity. By 1935, it had risen to 25 members and then jumped to about 150 across the whole university soon after. TrinityCollege alone had 12 members and weekly meetings in the students’ rooms.
This reflected a conscious drive by the Communist Party to orientate some of its work towards students. In 1932, the Communist Party Federation of Student Societies (FSS) was established, under the watchful eye of Dave Springhall, YCL national organiser.
Initially the FSS had about twenty organizations affiliated, including at the LSE (a Marxist Society was established in 1931), Oxford (the October Club, established 1932) and the universities of London, Reading, Durham, Leeds, Manchester and Cambridge (where there was a long-established student Socialist Society). The Federation of Student Societies journal was the “The Student Vanguard”. It was during this period of the early 1930s, that enthusiasm for the party secured the election of Philip Toynbee as the Communist Party’s first Oxford Union President (OxfordUniversity) and a Communist MP for the CardiffUniversity constituency.
Willie Gallagher visiting CambridgeUniversity in 1934 set the tone in stating: “We want people who are capable who are good scientists, historians and teachers … we need you as you are; if you have a vocation, it’s pointless to run away to factories. We want you to study and become good students.” Out of this meeting came the slogan, “Every Communist student a good student”. Dennis Healy, a Communist student at Oxford University in 1937, has recalled that “Communists started shaving, tried to avoid being drunk in public, worked for first-class degrees and played down Marxism-Leninism”.
The students themselves wrote the following ironic ditty:
Dan, Dan, Dan
The Communist Party man
Working underground all day
In and out of meetings
Bringing fraternal greetings
Never seeing the light of day.
In 1933 Guest moved to Battersea, South London, lodging with the Simes family in Bolingbroke Grove, to work in the Party’s “Peoples’ Bookshop” at 115 Lavender Hill. He soon became active in Battersea Young Communist League. Bob Gorham, Battersea YCL’s Secretary, said of Guest that: “David would go out whitewashing until 2 or 3 in the morning”. While working at the bookshop he joined the shop workers union. In May 1935, he organised a Youth Peace Parade of fifty young people, some dressed as nurses, others with gas masks and with stretchers, to warn of war.
Guest also lectured to Communist Party classes on Mathematics and Angela Guest, his sister, commented on his work in Battersea that: “Here David learned things about the working class life that few who are not workers can appreciate in full. He saw families sell their furniture stick by stick so they could buy food. He saw families thrown into the street for the heinous crime of spending their rent money on food. He saw families refused relief without cause.”
For a period of time he taught in Moscow but returned to England to lecture at UniversityCollege in Southampton. In 1938 he declared his joining of the International Brigade: “Today we have certainly entered a period of crisis, when the arguments of ‘normal times’ no longer apply, when considerations of most immediate usefulness come in. That is why I have decided to take the opportunity of going to Spain…There is … the need to show that there is no division between party workers and intellectuals over this matter, particularly in view of the large numbers of young workers who have gone from Battersea.”
As well as David Guest, Battersea activists included: Ralph Fox (killed Cordoba, December 1936), Tom Oldershaw (killed Aragon, March 1938), Martin Messer (killed Boadilla, December 1936), David Halloran (killed Jarama Feb 1937), Michael Kelly (killed Brunete, July 1937), Bert Simes, George Leeson, Joe Ilean, Percy Cohen, Eddy Bee, Clive Branson, G W Baker, Bill Davison, Angela Guest and the (unnamed) future medical director of Battersea’s Public Health Department.
Guest threw himself into the Republican struggle. In a letter home from Spain, Guest wrote: “I have…a lively desire to explore whole fields of theoretical work, mathematical, physical, logical … but of course, this is not possible now – today the struggle”. Despite Guest’s “thin and emancipated” body, his friend, Bill Davison of Battersea, reported that “he had some guts, did Dave”. Rhonnda miner, Billy Griffiths, stated that he performed “Herculean tasks” in the fighting.
In July 1938, at the battle of Ebro, the British Battalion was ordered to take Hill 481, known to the men as `The Pimple’; they got within a few metres of well-fortified positions on the summit before, over the next six days, these brave attempts by the Battalion to take the Hill were repulsed. It was during this battle that Guest was killed.
After his death, notes he had made while lecturing at the Marx Memorial Workers’ School were published as `A Text Book of Dialectical Materialism in 1939. His sister, Angela, who had also served in the International Brigade in Spain, became a doctor in 1945 and worked for the World Health Organisation, but was tragically killed in a car crash in Africa in 1965.
Sources: Jim Fryth `The signal was Spain’; N Branson `History of CPGB (1927-1941); Francis Beckett `Enemy Within’; J Hopkins `Into the Heart of the fire’; M Squires `Aid to Spain in Battersea’; David Guest “Reasons for my decision”; Carmel Haden Guest (ed) `A scientist fights for freedom – a memorial’.