What did you say?
Alick West

“The goal then, for many, was equally cultural and political—to open the floodgates of the best that had been made and thought of by man.” (1969)

- Alick West

This conversation between Colin Chambers, Elinor Taylor and Henry Stead took place in Elinor’s office in University of Westminster, just off Oxford Street, London, on 15 November 2016. It is the second podcast from the Conversations on Communism series. There was some heavy construction going on just across the street. The photograph shows Colin (right) taking over the role of books editor of the Morning Star from Robert Leeson.

HS. Today I am here with Elinor Taylor of Westminster University, the co-creator of this podcast series, and Professor Colin Chambers.

CC. You do feel now, I feel now, that, whatever you want to call ‘the left’ (I don’t know if that’s the right term) doesn’t really exist, but you desperately need it.

ET. Yeah.

CC. Need something. Because the right have tapped into something. Simple slogans, you know, rubbish, as far as I’m concerned. But, you know… ‘make America great again’. Dead simple, ‘We want that!’

ET. ‘Take back control!’

CC. Yeah, why not? Why not? ‘Oh, these buggers in Brussels have got it haven’t they?’ The fact they haven’t is irrelevant. That’s what it makes people think: ‘Yeah, I’ll have some of that.’ And the left hasn’t got anything. I’m not saying it’s as simple as that but… And where do people start to find out about this stuff [the leftist cultural tradition]? I mean, I had to find out… Every generation does. I could do it through people, like Jack [Lindsay] and Bob [Leeson] and others. Hence writing the Unity book.[1]  The people I was with, you know, Red Ladder and all those people in the theatre hadn’t got a clue about Unity [Theatre]. And so, and I wanted not only to write the history because it needed to be written but also I believe people need to learn that stuff and then do with it whatever they want. I know everyone thinks they reinvent, you know, every young generation does — and that’s, I’m not saying we should stop that because that’s part of the interest, that you’ve got the curiosity to do it. But when you discover that you’re not really inventing it is also wonderful. ‘God! Somebody thought of that before!’ You know, somebody actually said things like that. And I think there has been a sort of disjoin: all that was fantastic about the sixties and seventies somehow got buried. I mean Thatcher buried it to a large extent. That’s where our generation sort of gave up, after she destroyed the miners…

HS. Most people who have heard of you or seen your name on books, Professor Chambers, will know you as a theatre historian, fundamentally. But you are also deeply interested in left wing politics and history and, also, were you a member of the Communist Party at some point?

CC. Yes.

HS. When did you join it?

CC. I think… I’m not quite sure, 1971. I had left school and was at Cambridge University but wanted to join my local branch where I lived as opposed to the university one, which is probably a slightly sort of workerist thing at the time, of thinking I don’t want to just be an intellectual. I want to, you know… one of the points of joining the Communist Party was that you had a connection with the working class. People outside, certainly outside the academic sphere. And, so I joined in North London where I lived in Stoke Newington and… I think it was ’71. And I stayed until the party dissolved after its battles in the nineties which, well actually was it, the late eighties was probably, over, well, very broadly speaking, what was called the Euro-Communist Wing and what people sometimes call a Stalinist Wing, but I’m not sure that’s quite the right term. But I was in what was called the Euro-Communist Wing and lost. And the party wound itself up.

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. And, I certainly came across people who had left their brain at the front door, but I also met some of the most exciting people I’ve ever come across. And the Euro-Communist side — you would then say ‘Well I would say this, wouldn’t I?’ — had people that I thought were the most interesting. And, generally, thought that their version or their interpretation of what it meant to be a Communist was about empowering people, was based on democracy at the lowest possible level. So you wanted to involve communities, at that time particularly the Women’s Movement was just starting and it was strong. So you recognise the power of the Women’s Movement, of anti-racist movements, the Gay Movement. And people on the other side who, let’s just for argument’s sake call them the ‘Stalinists’, were much more rigid and much more, if you like, economistic about it. They had a view about the nature of politics which was a bit more, in our view, two-dimensional. They tended to be people who supported anything the Soviet Union did. Whereas the Euro-Communists were critical (not for the sake of being critical) but were critical of the Soviet Union because they felt that, in almost all respects, it was not representing what we thought of as Communism.

I was at King’s College, which was probably the centre of the Communist thinking and activity at Cambridge. There were some remarkable people there. We can talk about them if you want. They were quite inspirational for me, particularly on the economics front. But there was an economist called Bob Rowthorn who ran a Marxist reading group and we read Das Kapital and I joined that. And I just generally found it much more interesting while I was supposed to be doing in my studies, which is probably what quite a lot of people find. I was, I suppose I was a, what you might… I suppose you could call me a lower-middle class Grammar School boy. I’d never come across anything like Cambridge until I went there. I hadn’t even thought about doing that until my school said, well, you should apply for Cambridge. I didn’t really know what that meant.

And when I went up for the interview it was the most, I don’t know quite how to describe it, it was like something out of Dickens ’cause the interview was in the winter. You had to stay on an extra term to do Cambridge entrance and then you got interviewed, you know, if you got through whatever the hoops were. And I remember I got off the train, got the bus into King’s and it was dark, and I didn’t quite know how you got into King’s, and the front of King’s was all closed up, so I, sort of, had to knock on this door and then a little bit of it opened and a guy in a bowler hat sort of… And it was like something out of Dickens. And then he opened a bit more of the door, not the whole door. You sort of step through into a Harry Potter world. It was extraordinary because there’s a building called Gibbs’ Building which is the most beautiful Georgian building, straight in front of you. You’ve got the chapel, which is also the most extraordinarily beautiful building. And I was staying in Gibbs’ building overnight and I’d never been into a place like that… And I woke up in the morning and you could see properly in daylight and I went into the chapel and I… [thought] this is just amazing. And I had the interview and I got in.

But when I got there, I soon discovered that for almost everybody else it was just an ordinary progression. That’s what they expected to do, and they’d all been to these boarding schools. And you realise actually how different it was. And, as I say, I was lower-middle class from Tooting Bec in South London. I’d never come across this sort of thing before. And when we had a sit in, I remember the people in what they called Officer Training Corps, all got dressed up in their army uniform and came to try and break the sit in, which they didn’t manage to do because we were rather organised. And the party was pretty important in that.

But I remember Eric Hobsbawm came and spoke to the sit in and he was really good because he said, ‘You probably all think of yourselves as rather special, and you probably think you’ve done something rather clever. Well, don’t. Come back in ten, fifteen years and tell me what you’re doing.’ You know, ‘…If you’re still fighting for something then fantastic but I suspect a lot of you won’t be and don’t just look back…’, you know, ‘Don’t just use this as an anecdote to pass on when you’re older and you’ve given up the fight.’ I thought it was a pretty, sort of, cool thing to say actually, to all these people…

Asked about the Little Red Book:
CC. Mao was cooler for a lot of people because they thought the Soviet Union had sold out. And the Chinese were really still, you know, real revolutionaries. The fact that what they were doing was pretty unspeakable and caused I don’t know how many millions of people to die is a whole other matter. But amongst certain intellectual strata, being a Maoist was actually sort of much cooler. You tended to have… Mostly people were Trotskyite. Sorry, this is probably a bit boring… People I suppose, you’d expect a lot of people from when I came from to have joined International Socialists or something like that which was one of the Trotskyist groups. It wasn’t cool to join the Communist Party, really. Because that was old hat and they were supposed to be these sort of, you know, state bureaucracy and all that stuff. And if you were a bit more on the fringe you could be a Maoist or perhaps be in one of the smaller Trotskyist groups like the IMG, International Marxist Group, which is Tariq Ali’s group. And I went to a lot of their meetings because I found them intellectually quite interesting but I didn’t actually in the end agree with the politics. I didn’t really get on with their political stance. Although I was quite interested and I read Mao, I didn’t really take to him.

There was a sort of loose formation, I don’t know if it was called the National Union of School Students, but I think it was called that, which was, I suppose, the junior version of the National Union of Students. They had this publication called The Little Red Schoolbook. And they organised a strike. And I remember going on strike and it was at the same time… It was all mixed up in the sixties with counter-culture, with rock and roll, with beginnings, although not that open because it was illegal, changes in sexuality. I was involved in the early days of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and went on [demonstrations]. I remember there was a big protest over someone called Mary Whitehouse. She had a thing called the Festival of Light.

HS. She was the BBC censor.

CC. Yes. They had a big rally in Westminster Central, and GLF, we organised a protest by infiltrating the meeting and we were all in different parts of the building. And I happened to be… We were all dressed as nuns. We clearly weren’t nuns. And the idea was that at different points we’d stand up and disrupt it. And I think my lot had to shout ‘Fuck for Jesus’ or something like that as if we were actually like, ‘Hallelujah! Let’s…’ [laughter] And actually we did manage to disrupt the whole thing because the stewards didn’t know how to handle it. The political thing was all bound up with a whole shift in social attitudes and how you saw yourself and empowered yourself. And so at school I remember reading Bukharin, which unbelievably was on sale in the WHSmiths on Streatham High Street. At college I read tons of Marx, Engels, Lenin, you know, and I thought, this is what makes sense to me. So when I left college, after a pretty… Well I didn’t really do much studying, conventional studying. I was in a street theatre group in London, lived in a commune in Notting Hill and we were involved in the Notting Hill carnival. And that’s also when I got involved in a lot of the anti-racism stuff because the police were very heavy.

HS. To say ‘a Communist student — a good student’ wouldn’t then necessarily apply to you. Have you come across that?

CC. Well, except on the same token, I still… If you were going to be a Communist you had to be better than everybody else at what you were doing. But to me that didn’t mean passing exams.

ET. I just wanted to ask about, sort of, the Communist Party when you joined it, what its attitudes to culture were. You’ve talked about a lot really fascinatingly about things like gay liberation and street theatre. Did you feel that those were quite separate forms of activism from actually being in the party?

CC. Yes.

ET. Did the party see them like that?

CC. Yes. Because the street theatre movement was very vibrant at that point, really the beginning of… They had no clue about their own history.

ET. What the theatre movement?

CC. The theatre movement. I mean David Edgar, I don’t know if you know his name. He’s quite a big cheese in the left-wing sort of playwrighting community. He wrote something about political theatre began in 1968. Which is one of the reasons I wrote the Unity book because I thought, I’m sorry, you know, this is just not true. When I… Because after I left college I briefly worked through an outfit called The Movement for Colonial Freedom which changed its name to Liberation, then I went from that to the Morning Star. And it was at the Star I started to get to change their cultural coverage and to embrace things like this alternative theatre movement and I organised sort of conferences under the Morning Star umbrella of radical theatre groups. And at the same time on the Star there were people who were interested in the women’s movement. There was a writer called Bea Campbell, now quite well-known… Bea was quite a leading light in Red Rag which was a feminist magazine at the time. So we were, it was sort of across borders, if you like, trying to shift the party. Because the party as the party really, although they were, I think their view of culture was that it should be available to everybody and so in a sense it was the idea of what we call bourgeois culture, if you like. You know, Mozart, Beethoven, Titian, Van Gogh, but everybody should be able to have it, not just posh people. And so they had to have good education so they could learn about all this stuff, then free entrance in museums so that they could… It was that sort of slightly economistic thing of ‘culture is good’, if it’s universal values type, humanist stuff, and everybody should be able to have access to it. It shouldn’t just be the preserve of the rich or the elite.

HS. What was it like being in the culture group? Had it already existed before you joined?

CC. I can’t quite remember. I don’t think… It had existed but I didn’t discover that until I did some digging around. And it certainly existed just after the war. It may have faded in the early fifties but I’m not entirely sure about that, and I’m not sure if there are, I suppose there may be records somewhere. But it wasn’t, if it did exist it wasn’t active and I’m not, I’ve got a feeling I may have revived it. I certainly became chair of it but I’m not, and it sounds a bit odd, but I can’t quite recall. I was working with a woman called Margot Heinemann. I mean, if you’ve done anything on the Spanish Civil War you’ll know her through John Cornford. And she was at one time with J. D. Bernal, who was one of the, you know, great scientific figures. And Margot, in her own right, was, you know, a poet and a writer, and also interested in theatre. But Margot and I, Margot may have revived it and I joined it or, I can’t remember. She was on it with me. It was supposed to, I mean, the thing it was supposed to do when I was in charge was to produce a pamphlet on culture which I somewhere have all the rough versions of. And we set up working groups on theatre, film, music, libraries, you know, and the stuff that we were doing was actually now, you know, very interesting. Bob Leeson, the person I was mentioning to you who was the books editor at the Morning Star before me, great friend of Jack Lindsay’s, president of the Writer’s Guild, great children’s book writer, and also writer about trade union history, Bob did a thing on libraries, and this was in what the mid-seventies, and it was all about making them community resources on a multimedia basis. You know, opening them up to have music you can take out, having coffee bar, you know, stuff that now people are still vaguely just trying to scrabble around. And it was all good stuff, you know, the theatre stuff, anyway. So we had all these little groups, and we all produced… A guy called Ralph Bond did the cinema one. I can’t remember who… But in the end we found it impossible to agree on a way of unifying it all into a pamphlet so it never got published.

HS. What was Jack Lindsay working on?

CC. Jack was sort of just… Jack used to read things and tell you what he thought of it.

HS. Because you were books editor for…

CC. I took over from Bob. And that was again a political thing. Because in the Morning Star, just like everywhere else, there were factions. And there was, roughly, the Euro-Communist and, roughly, the other lot. And the editor, when I joined, was, sort of, probably in the middle but in his heart probably more Euro-Communist but wouldn’t really let that out. And he supported Bob in what Bob did, and was very supportive of wider cultural stuff in the paper. And I think the Star was probably the first paper to review The Beatles. We wrote about folk music, we wrote about rock music, we covered gay, you know, positively gay, GLF, people like Bea, so it was actually, you know, it was quite, that little bit of it was progressive but that got up the noses of the people wo were the conservative element. The editor changed and the editor that I was mostly working under was a much more right-wing, what I call radical right-wing editor who didn’t like all this stuff and wanted it to be much more straightforwardly what he could recognise as being, you know, a communist thing. So, it wasn’t that he was against culture. It had its place, you know, and it was down therein a little box.

Anti-racism – I wanted to run a black column, because we had a women’s page, and we had a books page, well I didn’t want a whole page, but if you had every week a, you know, a column that just dealt with the anti-racist struggle. ‘Oh no no no no, that’s elevating it.’ You know, ‘it’s gotta be in its place’. This is the sort of base/superstructure model, if you like, as opposed to a more organic model of seeing either society of culture and he got, when I was books editor I was always in trouble with him. I remember, oh the biggest one I think was when we reviewed a book on the massacre at Katyn in the forest which I believed was done by the Russians. But that wasn’t what you were supposed to put in the Morning Star, you know. And I published this thing and he didn’t know that it was going in. And it was a book that said that and was reviewed sympathetically, actually by a Polish guy who was, I knew was living in London. And all hell broke loose. And they got a guy called Ivor Montagu who you may have come across to write a rebuttal of it, and I was told after that I had to submit every review to him before they were published. And, of course, history now we know, Montague was wrong and… Anyway, things like that happened. I’d get books on, you know, it was, if you like, it seems small potatoes now, but, you know, it was actually quite important at the time. There was a guy called Roy Medvedev who was a sort of liberal Russian historian but a no-no for the, sort of, certain elements of the Communist Party, who was a friend of Sakharov, the dissident. Andrei Sakharov? He was, there a whole sort of dissident movement and..

HS. Where were they living?

CC. They were still in Russia. There would be some that at moved out, I mean gone into exile like the poet Joseph Brodsky who I met. And I was 100% on the side of the dissidents. Whether they were right-wing people or not, like Solzhenitsyn became a… he was bonkers in my view. But, you know, that wasn’t the point. You know, that he shouldn’t have been treated as he was. So the books page tried to express that. And there was a lot of tension. So in terms of the party and culture, the party sort of recognised it was important but didn’t really know how to actively engage with it. It was the same with Unity. In Unity, for example, the leading people were in the Communist Party, but while lots of the activists might have supported it [CPGB], they weren’t necessarily party members. Then, the party didn’t really want to [be associated with leftist cultural enterprise] because it was a problem and they didn’t quite know how to handle it all.

Emile Burns tried to, after the war, lay down the line on, you know, what culture should do, but of course it doesn’t work. And if you look at the people who were in the Communist Party who were writing about culture and were themselves poets, novelists, there’s no way all those people are going to be, as it were, corralled. You know, Patrick Hamilton, you look at what Patrick Hamilton writes, you know, that doesn’t figure in Emile Burns’ world at all. And then with Patrick Hamilton you’ve got, you know, you’ve got the sexuality issue as well. Of course, that was a complete no-no. I was in the World Youth Festival in Berlin with, well, Red Ladder was there, and a guy ([laughing] a guy?!), Peter Tatchell, do you know Peter? Peter was giving out leaflets about gay rights — this was in East Germany — and he was being followed by the Stasi all the time. Then we were on a beach by a lake and he was giving out more leaflets and then all of a sudden you’ve got all of these youngsters in their uniforms, the uniform of the youth movement. They came and took his leaflets and [thought] ‘oh, this is a bit odd’. And they formed a circle round him and then the leader came and he lit them, so there was a bonfire which of course has echoes for anybody who… And then we had to get, because I was with Peter and we had to get him off the beach before he got beaten up. But the people who actually beat him up were on the British Delegation who were in the Communist Party! I mean, he carried a placard on the final demonstration. It was torn down by other party members.

HS. Do you remember what was written on the placard?

CC. It was very, very mild. But anything with ‘gay’ in it was just… And I remember having to go to party headquarters when I got back to tell them what had happened because it was another party member who’d done this. And he was NUS secretary or something. Quite a big cheese. And he got sanctioned or whatever. But, so the cultural… It was all sort of like, cultural politics was part of sexual politics, was part of ‘politics politics’. I mean that was the whole, the personal was political but the political was personal. You know, it was the whole thing. And, so we tried to reflect that in the Star, which we did. Then of course the Star, with the battle between the Euro-Communists, you know, then the Communist Party decided it was, it didn’t approve of what the Star was doing, and the Star then went, because it was, because for historical reasons it had been set up as a separate entity, the Star broke away from the Communist Party and then the Communist Party dissolved and it became the paper of the, I think it’s now called the Communist Party of Britain.

HS. I was under the impression that it was, the Daily Worker somehow morphed into the Morning Star.

CC. It did, into the Morning Star, yeah.

HS. Okay.

CC. That was a good example, if you like, of a Euro-Communist move. Because the editor, who I said was a bit ‘in the middle’ but privately Euro-Communist, was the one behind the change of name. And the idea was that the Daily Worker was a bit too hammer-and-sickle, and you wanted to get a broader readership. So, he got the name changed and Dame Sybil Thorndike pressed the button to get the presses rolling for the first Morning Star. ‘Sybil Thorndike: cultural icon’. George [Matthews], the editor’s favourite composer was Shostakovich. He was a great opera man as well and he often used to write the opera reviews under a pseudonym… not always under a pseudonym. They were cultural, but then the new editor [Tony Chater] wasn’t at all, he was normal. So it’s a sort of complex relationship. And the Cultural Committee Group never had any power at all of any sort. And the Party actually after Unity decided not to really get involved. But there were rows as you’ll know with Our Time, and you know, all that happened during the war, the whole issue with the Party and the Soviet line, with the Stalin/Hitler pact and the General Secretary resigned when he lost that vote. So, it’s complex… And then he comes back when the Nazis invade the Soviet Union. And so the change of line again. So, yeah…

End of Side A

Side B

[1] Chambers, C. (1989) The Story of Unity Theatre (L&W).