COMMUNISTS IN THE ARTS, SCIENCE AND CULTURE
It is worth concluding this chapter by noting that the feverish obsession with the supposed loss of large numbers of intellectuals at this time had a devastating effect on the Party. What is clear is that huge numbers of highly talented individuals, many of the unsung in the annals of ant-communist diatribes on the history of the Party, simply stayed loyal. The Party remained fascinatingly strong in the cultural and scientific sphere. Taking each aspect in turn, the Party’s involvement in the musical sphere was that perhaps least affected by the Cold War, in that it was a discipline that could be maintained with little resource and was less subject to authoritarian pressures from the state. But someone who was certainly damaged in his now greatly respected career by his Party membership was Alan Bush, a Communist composer of some distinction. Whilst always well thought of in Eastern Europe, under socialist governments, his ability as a composer was never given much scope for performance in his native country.
In 1949 the newly-formed Arts Council announced that it would commission a number of full-length operas in connection with the Festival of Britain. Composers were to compete under pseudonyms. At the time of the announcement it was carefully stated that no production could be guaranteed. Four works were commissioned under the scheme and one of these was Alan and Nancy Bush’s “Wat Tyler”. In the event, none was performed in Britain at the time of the Festival.
“Wat Tyler” did, however, achieve great success in Germany: it received two studio broadcasts from Berlin in 1952 and these led to a stage production in Leipzig during the 1953-4 season. This first run comprised 14 performances and the opera was revived again in the following season. In addition Bush received three further operatic commissions from German theatres. Other well-known operas of Bush are the “Sugar Reapers”, “Men of Blackmoor”, “Joe Hill, the Man Who Never Died” and “Guyana Johnny”; whilst “Voices of the Prophets” was more of a choral piece (1953). “Africa is My Name” also appeared in the 1950s. A series of BBC programmes in the 1980s at last gave Bush the recognition he deserved as a British composer of distinction. Reflecting this, perhaps, Bush produced his last major composition, “Six Short Piano Pieces” in 1983 and died in 1995, still a Communist.
But the Party’s musical involvement was generally much more involving that the extraordinary talent of such persons may suggest. The internationally famous Glasgow YCL Choir, formed in 1945 won awards at World Youth Festival in Berlin, Bucharest, Warsaw, Moscow and Vienna. The Choir turned down offers of recording contracts in Britain because they would not drop the word `Communist’ from their title. A 1960 recording of the YCL Choir for BBC Scotland of two settings by Alan Bush, of the Red Flag and L’Internationale are still widely used on TV and radio.
In a similar vein, Birmingham’s Clarion Choir, founded by Communists some years before and still going to this day, found that the climate for all progressive organisations became difficult owing to the influence of “McCarthyism” and the development of the cold war. Nevertheless, the choir appeared on platforms against German re-armament and persecution in America. In 1952 they embarked on their first foreign tour – to Romania. This was most successful and the first step towards Clarion’s involvement with the progressive songs of the new Socialist world. [Ray Pegg, A Song for the People; the story of Clarion (2003)]
But in 1956, the bicentenary of the birth of Mozart, the choir decided to present a musical documentary of a biographical nature. This took place at the Birmingham Alexandra Theatre. The audience was treated to a selection of scenes from “Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and “The Magic Flute”. The following year choir members were once again touring abroad, this time in Czechoslovakia. English music was performed in Prague, Brno and Gottwaldev and twelve months later, a Czech ensemble was brought over to this country to delight Midland audiences with their ‘foot-tapping’ national songs.
The choir’s next major production was another work by the American, Earl Robinson. 1959 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and many exhibitions and events were staged, both here and in the United States. Robinson’s “The Lonesome Train” had been written as a tribute to the concept of popular democracy. Produced by BBC’s Charles Parker, the work was staged at Birmingham’s College of Food and was hailed as a memorable experience.
With the coming of the early 1960s, the choir was now firmly established on a broad basis in the Labour movement of the Midlands. Many union branches affiliated to it and the singers were in constant demand at hospitals, trade union socials, pensioners’ clubs and organisations for the disabled. In order to extend the scope of their entertainment they had developed a feature greatly in demand – The Old Time Music Hall! The men’s section of the choir was also invited to take part in a radio production of Charles Parker’s ‘Singing the Fishing’, which was seen as a kind of ‘folk cantata’, and was one of his most famous “Radio Ballads”. This was written and recorded by Ewan McCall and Peggy Seegar, and the later highly successful folk singer Ian Campbell, also a Communist, was one of the lead singers. This work won international acclaim and won the Italia Prize. Another of Charles Parker’s works was “The Leaveners”, in which Clarion also took part.
Hamish Henderson, like many Communists, was a Scottish poet and song writer who threw himself into the movement developing the folk revival. He, and other local Communists, were instrumental in bringing about `People’s Ceilidhs’, celebrations of traditional Scottish culture that led to the establishment of the Edinburgh Peoples’ Festivals that ran from 1951 to 1954. and were widely supported by the local labour movement, though some have suggested the truncation of the events was due to Cold War paranoia. This intiative foreshadowed and directly led to the modern Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Another Communist cultural pioneer, Claudia Jones, can legitimately be accorded the credit for founding the Notting Hill Carnival. One frequent criticism levelled at the Communist Party by commentators on this period has been a supposed failing of support for Jones, who was a deported black American Communist. She had been born in 1915 in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Following the loss of the family fortunes due to the post-war cocoa price crash, she was sent at the age of eight with her three sisters to join her parents in New York. Jones’ mother died five years later and, in the depression years, her father was fortunate to obtain work as the janitor of a run down apartment block in Harlem.
So wretched was their poverty that they could not afford the ‘graduation outfit’ to enable Claudia to receive the Roosevelt Award for Good Citizenship she had earned, and so damp was their apartment that her formal education was virtually ended in 1932 by the tuberculosis which irreparably damaged her lungs. That, with the added complication of severe heart disease, plagued her for the rest of her life. For over 30 years she lived in New York and was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Like many American blacks, Jones was persuaded by the spirited defence by the Communist Party of nine Negro boys falsely convicted of rape in 1935 in Scottsboro, Alabama. She joined the Young Communist League, where her talents as a writer and organiser were soon recognised.
By 1948, Jones had been elected to the National Committee of the CPUSA, was the Editor for Negro Affairs on the Daily Worker and had been arrested for the first time under threat of deportation to Trinidad. A much sought after speaker and advocate for peace and civil rights, she travelled widely in the United States but was arrested several times eventually being imprisoned for a year on trumped up charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the US government. While in prison her health deteriorated and in 1955 she was deported to Britain, much to the relief of the British colonial governor of Trinidad who had feared that she might “prove troublesome” had she been sent there.
She was given an affectionate send off by 350 friends and comrades led by her closest friends, the great, black singer/actor Paul Robeson and his wife Essie. The British government refused her a full passport until 1962 in spite of representations from Trinidad’s first black Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, its white colonial governor having argued for restrictions on her freedom to travel to be maintained. The British Communist Party naturally responded to requests from their American comrades to help Claudia Jones find a role but it was no simple matter to parachute her into a leadership role. Her cultural and political affinity was less Trinidadian than American. Black nationalists and others, usually from the Maoist tradition, have both sought to paint a picture of alienation from the Communist Party in her last years, which is at the very least an arguable proposition.
There was however, definitely an underlying political problem in that the experience of the CPUSA, with a long-established black community engaged in an intensive liberation struggle, contrasted sharply with that of the CPGB, which was seeking in the late 1950s and early 1960s to establish an integrated relationship between newly established Commonwealth arrivals and a wider labour movement. Questions related to organisational forms of organisation of black and other `immigrant’ communities within the British Party could possibly have been at the root of some differences – and this is the source of some criticism of the Party from without – but Jones was not actually at the heart of this debate. The controversy over whether separate black, Jewish, Indian and Cypriot branches should exist, or whether these members should be allocated to residential or workplace branches had begun to surface. Perhaps astutely recognising her effective alienation from mainstream British life, Claudia Jones in fact opted to spend her remaining years working with London’s African-Caribbean community and she did this with extraordinary distinction.
Interestingly, for all that much has been written about the supposed dissonance from the Communist Party of many members of its 1950s West Indian branch in London, of which there were about 50, other black activists were perfectly comfortable within the Party’s mainstream. Although this was more of an evident trend in the north and Midlands of England; for example, the famous Manchester black boxer, Len Johnson had acquired a mighty reputation in the fairground boxing booth circuit and was a supporter of the Party from the 1920s. His life-long fight against the colour bar that prevented black citizens from fighting for the Lonsdale belt bore fruit in 1948, at a time when he had retired from active boxing and was now a campaigner in his home town, where he joined the Communist Party. During the 1950s he wrote a regular boxing column for the Daily Worker. A Communist Party candidate in Manchester’s local elections on six occasions in this period, he acted for many years as an unofficial representative of the city’s black community – personally intervening in disputes involving racism.
Johnson’s experience made him a doughty fighter against racial injustice but, being locally born, he carried this out by being an organic part of the Manchester labour movement, and through the Party. Claudia Jones’ response was somewhat different and was perhaps more in tune with the needs of recently arrived black communities from the West Indies. In 1958, she founded and edited Britain’s first black weekly newspaper `The West Indian Gazette’. Then, in response to the infamous Notting Hill white racist `riots’ of that year, Jones began to organise Carnivals under the auspices of the `West Indian Gazette’.
The initiative came after an increase in violence was specifically directed towards black people during the summer of 1958. Although tension did not seriously rise to actual violence in most parts of the country, a distinct rise in difficulties was evident in many urban areas and activists such as Len Johnson were to the fore in tackling the problems. A survey of the Manchester Evening Chronicle shows press attention rising as the summer proceeded. There were, as it was described, only around 500 Muslims and 600 Hindus in Manchester at this time but the number of West Indians was now significant. In a matter of weeks the paper had coverage on the colour bar in housing, the protection needs of Jamaican female immigrants, the efforts of a Nigerian resident to open a “club for coloured (sic) people”. There were five special reports on the growing population of Manchester’s immigrants, with titles such as ‘Strangers in Our Midst’, `A dream ends in squalor’. It was said that Moss Side was “now synonymous with vice to most people”. But the underlying problem was all too obvious – the colour bar in jobs. Of the nine thousand unemployed in the Greater Manchester area, over five thousand were registered at the office covering Moss Side. [Jackie Ould “Strangers in our midst: reporting on immigrants”, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archive, 2003; Manchester Evening Chronicle, 2nd June, 24th June, 19th August, 29th August 1958]
In London, fascist groups had become active and were exploiting the rising economic problems to create an anti-black backlash. Amongst them were the White Defence League and the National Labour Party (NLP), led respectively by Colin Jordan and by Andrew Fountaine, who would become even more significant figures in British fascism. The former group made no secret of the fact that it was a Nazi organization and the latter that it was a racial nationalist group. Their campaign went by the slogan `Keep Britain White’, which began to appear on walls around the country. On 17th May 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year-old carpenter from Antigua, was killed by a group of white youths in Notting Hill Gate; no-one was ever convicted. This failure of the police was set against the widespread knowledge that fascists openly boasted of the murder and this helped build their reputation for violence.
Racial tension in Nottingham began on Saturday 23rd August and continued on and off for a couple of weeks. Then, in London during the small hours of 24th August, a group of ten whites committed serious assaults on six quite innocent Afro-Caribbean in four separate incidents. A riot broke out on Saturday 30th August when a gang of white youths attacked a white Swedish woman, who had been seen the night before arguing with her black husband at Latimer Road tube station. Yet she had rounded on them when they hurled insults at him. Seeing her the next night, the same gang threw bottles, stones, and assorted debris and then actually hit her with an iron bar. Later that night, a mob of some four hundred white people were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of the black residents.
This “Keep Britain White” mob was armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts. With these weapons they openly went what they called “nigger-hunting” in Notting Hill and its surrounding areas. The black community responded in kind; Thomas Williams was stopped by the police on his way home and was found to have a piece of iron down his trousers, a petrol bomb in his right pocket and a open razor blade in an inside pocket: “I have to protect myself,” he told the arresting officer.
At one point several thousand white people roamed the streets, breaking into homes and attacking any black person they could find. One policeman, in his report recorded that he had seen a mob shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” Another that he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.” A third officer intervened to stop a black man being beaten by a white gang, one of whom had a piece of iron tubing raised above his head: “There were milk bottles raining down on us. I felt blood running down my face, the side of my nose and cheek,” the policeman reported. These outrageous attacks continued every night until 5th September. Of the 108 people eventually charged for a range of crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were black, but most of the latter had been charged simply with possessing offensive weapons not using them.
Yet, after 44 years, in 2002, files were released which revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance. The riots were dismissed as the work of “ruffians, both coloured and white hell-bent on hooliganism”. But police reports had actually confirmed that they were mainly down to a white working class mob out to get black people. [MEPO 2/9719, 1959-72, Records of the Metropolitan Police Office: Racial incidents: relations between police and the black community in the Notting Hill area, MEPO 2/9838; 1958-59, Racial Riots at Notting Hill between 31 August and 3 September 1958 `Witness statements and police reports’ T 233/2388]
In January 1959, in the wake of these events and as a response to them, the Communist Claudia Jones began working towards the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival, an event that still celebrates good community relations today. For her, Carnival would “present West Indian talent to the public, which at that time could not see Caribbean people as anything other than hewers of wood and drawers of water”. The programme for the first show in February 1959 clearly declared her intentions: “A part of the proceeds of this brochure are to assist the payment of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events.”
In the final analysis, perhaps because of her greatness in the black American struggle, Claudia Jones was very a different person to other, mostly white, American Communists who found sanctuary in Britain, some of whom were married to British Communists, or forged stable personal links; certainly, she had few connections here and encountered frustration especially as her health gave away. She died in 1964 but her lasting legacy is undoubtedly the Notting Hill Carnival, which she is described as being `the mother’ of. A degree of posthumous fame has arisen from this, which has resulted in a latter-day resurgence in recognition of her. [See: Marika Sherwood `Claudia Jones’, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd (2000)]
Elsewhere in the field of the arts, in the realm of the acting profession, there were many actors; some were even famous for their talents. Alex McCrindle had been a massively successful radio star, appearing in the hugely popular `Dick Barton’ series. In the 1950s, although branching out very successfully into scriptwriting, McCrindle was effectively blacklisted because of his Communist and Equity activities. He was married in this period to Honor Arundel, the Communist children’s author and Daily Worker film critic and their home in the Fifties was always a hub of Party activity and organisation.
McCrindle had often to appear uncredited to escape the blacklist, in a string of small budget movies as a character actor. But, in the main, blacklisting resulted in him devoting more time to building up Equity and securing improved pay and conditions for Actors, to meet this objective he was sent by his union to found Scottish Equity, which only had 15 members before he began his work. He worked at this full-time for the next seven years, leaving the union in a flouring position north of the border. In this period, he only worked in British television and then only twice during the early 1960s, although work would then pick up, even though he never compromised on his politics, and he ended his career as a Hollywood actor, appearing in the first `Star Wars’ movie in which he played a rebel general!
Communists had always displayed a keen regard for the value of film; increasingly, during the 1950s, Communist election campaigns and May Day demonstrations were filmed by Communist cameramen such as Lewis McLeod and Manny Yospa. After the 22nd Congress when Party organisations were urged to develop the cultural struggle as a part of the political struggle, film shows proliferated in the events of local Party organisations. Plato Films provided films and even a projection service for Party and progressive organizations. After it had fought a successful campaign to lift the ban imposed by the British Board of Film Censors on an east German documentary, Plato was hit in February 1959 by a libel suit issued by British lawyers on behalf on the NATO General Speidel. The court battle went all the way to the House of Lords and lasted more than three years. A new company was set up, Educational & Television Films Ltd (ETV).
The Party could rely on sculptors as well as performing arts specialists. In 1955, the Communist Party set up the Marx Memorial fund. Laurence Bradshaw (1899-1979) was the man who won the commission to sculpt the famous brooding monument at Karl Marx’s graveside. Bradshaw viewed the commission as a tremendous honour. He designed the entire monument from plinth to the choice of texts and their calligraphy. There were practical as well as aesthetic considerations. The original family headstone had to be incorporated, the hilly site allocated was uneven and the tomb had to be protected from possible attacks. To withstand these, Bradshaw used military engineering construction methods.
Bradshaw wrote that the first problem to be grappled with was to produce “not a monument to a man only but to a great mind and a great philosopher.” Convinced that Marx “would prefer the simplest type of monument” and that “he would prefer to be on the Earth and not in the sky,” Bradshaw set the powerful head and shoulders on a body which is not described but expressed. Designing a plinth of “a shape and width that would give the same effect as Marx himself would have done if he was silhouetted against the sky,” Bradshaw set it level with the path to convey that Marx was among us and “not towering over the people.”
Although he referred to photographs when modelling the head, here too,
Bradshaw aimed to go beyond description of Marx’s physiognomy, explaining that he wanted to “express the dynamic force of his intellect and the breadth and vision and power of his personality, along with a feeling of energy and endurance and dedication to purpose.” Yet these are expressed in an accessible, realist manner rather than with modernist figuration’s expressionist or surrealist distortions. The geometric shape and plain surfaces of the polished granite plinth and the simple lettering used for the texts are modernist, so that the contrast between these and the expressive but realist bronze head was an inspired solution to an aesthetic and ideological dilemma. This monument was made with conviction by a Marxist and it shows. [Christine Lindey – Morning Star 3rd April 2007]
After the war, many of the architects and planners working on new towns, or on reconstruction of cities such as Coventry and Plymouth, were either members of the Party’s Architects & Allied Technicians group, or influenced by it. In few instances the bold, innovative and people-friendly projects influenced by the A & AT Group were actually taken up in such areas.
But literature, especially in the form of novels, plays and poetry, the latter arguably loosing ground as a mass interest in this period, was to be a sphere where tensions arose. The Party had begun to challenge the increasing domination of American cultural forms and to seek to promote more native and more obviously working class culture in the written word. Aside from the popularization activities of the Daily Worker, with its children’s and soccer annuals, encouraging the writing of novels by working people were a particular interest for the Party.
Some time around 1954, Len Doherty was a working miner at Thurcroft pit in Yorkshire when he first met and engaged with Frank Watters, the Yorkshire coalfield organiser of the Communist Party. Subsequently, the miner joined the Party joined the Party and became active in it. A talented person, with a great interest in literature and writing, Doherty gravitated towards the work carried out by the Party’s Yorkshire District Cultural Committee, most of the activists of which were in Leeds, with a heavy bias towards lecturers at the local university. Doherty found himself mentored by Professor Arnold Kettle, a Communist lecturer in Literature. This resulted in the 1955 publication of Doherty’s novel, “A Miners’ Son” by the Party’s publisher, Lawrence and Wishart. From a political point of view, it is notable for its depiction of the character of the Communist Party’s intense and impressive full-time political worker, Frank Wells, a very thinly disguised version of the real life Watters.
It was Frank Watters who would later opine that Doherty had found himself so lionised by the Party’s London-orientated literati, and some of their fashionable and famous friends, especially the notorious Doris Lessing, as the ultimate proletarian writer, that this had caused a sense of subsequent disillusionment in Doherty. This especially as, for all the declarations of amazement at the miner’s feat, most of his new-found literary mentors both dropped him and the Party as the cataclysmic political events of the 1950s unfolded. Sadly, there was little outlet for Doherty’s socialist realist writings by any mainstream publisher and Lawrence & Wishart’s 1950’s project of developing a line in socialist novels came to an end with the political and financial challenges of the post-1956 era. With this, Doherty’s short-lived and narrow fame faded and he was left adrift, unable to return to the pit after the experience and he became a local newspaper journalist in Sheffield, not unfriendly in his later years to Communists, never to produce a novel again.
Scientists worked in sensitive areas in those days and many Communists, or allies, found their careers stymied, leaving the Party or shifting careers to save themselves. But some remained broadly loyal in one way or another for the rest of their lives. Anne McClaren and Donald Michie, married Communists during the 1950s, were such persons. They could, without exaggeration, perhaps be assigned scientific responsibility for the development of cloning and computers respectively. McLaren was one of Britain’s leading scientists in the fields of mammalian reproductive and developmental biology and genetics. Michie was a pioneer in the field of machine intelligence, creating “computers that can think”. Both would hold honours and distinctions aplenty from wider society but for Communists they “exemplified the engagement of science with society, of knowledge as entwined with social progress at every stage”, having joined the Communist Party during the cold war. [Andrew Murray, Morning Star 10th July 2007] In their case, perhaps their fast-moving interests and sheer distinction saved them from the life-churning hostility of the state. Perhaps because his area of work was non-defence related, Arthur Simpson was able to become a senior government advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His expertise was in the study of the population dynamics of fish and he became a director of an experimental fisheries station without having to loose his politics.
Medicine was also less affected by the pressures of the time and there were many highly capable and active Communists involved in the medical profession. Health centres were actually proposed by the National Health Service Act but by the mid-1950s there were only “five or six health centres” in the whole country. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] Most of these must have had some kind of Communist initiative behind them, given the number of Party doctors, nurses and health professionals who we can definitely say had a hand in such initiatives. Moreover, no new general hospital had been completed since 1939, though in 1952 there were half a million people on hospital waiting lists.
One of the most prominent Communist advocates for health centres was Dr Julian Tudor Hart, a physician and epidemiologist, was a long-term General Practitioner in the NHS in the South Wales mining village of Glyncorrwg. He was the son of the Chief Doctor at Motoro Hospital during the Spanish Civil War and an Austrian Marxist intellectual. Like many Communists involved in medicine in the post-war period, in his own practice, he early on introduced the concept of all-round localised medical care. Concentrating on studying how his patients’ lifestyles, their diet, smoking, and exercise, affected illness and then worked with them to make their lives healthier.
Hugh Faulkner, like all Communist doctors, he saw his role as a GP very much in a social context. Despite the fact that Nye Bevan had not been able to insist that all NHS GPs operate medical health centres, Hugh Faulkner built up his own group practice, the Caversham Centre, in north London, long before such notions became commonplace. His centre began not only with a co-operative group of GPs but with a practice nurse, secretary (an innovation then) and, in time, expanded to a health visitor, midwife and even a social worker.
Dr Ruscoe Clarke was a pioneer of advanced military surgery and served in Spain in the struggle against Fascism. Afterwards, Ruscoe Clarke settled in Birmingham with his wife Avis, where she was secretary of the Birmingham Peace Committee up to 1959. Avis was also a Communist Party medical activist, nurse and health visitor and Ruscoe was a medical researcher and a trauma specialist at Birmingham Accident Hospital and later worked at the newly built Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Like many Communists, he was the only doctor to speak in favour of the NHS and abolition of private patients at meetings of the profession in Birmingham. (Clarke died in 1959 and Avis would later marry Alan Hutt.)
Dr Donald Cameron was an Edinburgh Communist, for many years, senior lecturer in community medicine at Edinburgh University; as a young doctor, he campaigned for the creation of the NHS and in the 1950s, Dr Cameron advised on the development of health services and urban redevelopment in Edinburgh. Dr Ruscoe Clarke was a medical researcher and a trauma specialist at Birmingham Accident Hospital. His partner was also a Communist Party medical activist, nurse and health visitor and peace campaigner, Avis, later married to Alan Hutt.
Finally, Ida Fisher worked as a doctor in Sydenham for many years, a part of London that long boasted a Communist Party branch with the highest concentration of veteran and well-known leaders of the Party. As such, she was personally closely associated with Robin Page Arnot and other veterans who were registered as her patients. In her medical work, she pioneered advanced ideas in community health care at a time when group practice and health centres were still innovations.