Colin Chambers: Cultures of Communism
Happy December! Tomorrow afternoon I’m meeting up with Helen Lindsay in Greenwich market. Helen is the daughter of the leftist poet and translator Jack Lindsay (1900-1990). One of the things we’ll be talking about is the invasive and ideologically motivated surveillance she feels her father was subject to over decades for his political beliefs and cultural activities by the not-so-secret service. But we’ll chat about much besides. I’m going to ask her, for example, about an all-expenses paid family holiday they went on in Russia when Jack was awarded a top honour by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. But most of all I’m simply looking forward to hearing plenty of stories about Jack, whose classical writings and kind heart I’ve long admired from a distance. I’ll be recording our conversation, and hopefully it will form part of a podcast I’ll be making over the festive season.
Speaking of podcasts, just today I posted the transcripts from Elinor Taylor’s and my conversation with the theatre historian and activist Colin Chambers. My two favourite takeaway quotes from our extraordinarily wide-ranging conversation come from moments when Colin punctured two common preconceptions: one about British communism and the other about the relationship between political activism and cultural practice. The first comes from Cultures of Communism Side A:
“People have an idea of communist parties being monolithic. In my experience that’s not true. Even though they tended to be top-down organisations, when you got down there were people of the most extraordinary variety, creativity, energy. I mean, the complete opposite of the idea of, if you like, the robot party members simply following the party line. The whole point about the party line was that it was discussed from the branch-level up and at the end of the day the party made its decision on what it wanted to do and then, as it were, that was a decision that you all agreed to follow in order to have discipline. Without discipline you wouldn’t get anywhere. And that’s true if you were fighting a war or whatever. The fact that you followed a party line didn’t mean to say you left your brain outside the front door.”
The second comes from Cultures of Communism Side B:
“Underlying all my work is the idea that you can be politically engaged and creative… Political and cultural engagement are not mutually exclusive or detrimental. And that’s really why I wrote the book Here We Stand, which is the one on [Paul] Robeson, Isadora Duncan and Charlie Chaplin: to say you can be culturally active and politically active and… you can’t just dismiss it all as propaganda if you’re being political.”
Enjoy the podcasts and feel free to leave your comments. Don’t forget that you can now subscribe to the Conversations on Communism podcast on iTunes, and follow BNC on Soundcloud. Also, if you hadn’t noticed, just below the “submit comment” button (below) is a box you can tick to have these blog posts arrive in your inbox automatically… Magic!