The Observer January 2016
When the Soviet Union fell, my grandfather’s second wife did not share the wonderment at the passing of one of the most terrible regimes humanity has seen. She felt as if her life had been wasted, and hinted that her one consolation was that my grandfather had not lived to see it.
“How could you?” I thought as I listened. The same question powers David Aaronovitch’s account of his communist upbringing, and takes it far beyond the boundaries of memoir into an often moving and always wise examination of the legacies of childhood.
It took Aaronovitch time to realise “the complete otherness” of his shabby Hampstead home. (Intellectuals could afford to live there in the 1960s.) Not everyone thought that God Save the Queen was an anthem of oppression, apparently, or sent their children to Socialist Sunday Schools. It wasn’t as normal as it seemed for the police to pick up your parents. Nor did all his classmates have a Communist party to hand to give them “a place to be on almost every question”.
His father, Sam, was a charismatic agitator and tireless autodidact. He was born in the Jewish slums of the old East End. A bright boy without hope of a decent schooling, he educated himself at the “University of the Ghetto”: Whitechapel Library – described in the lines of the working-class poet Bernard Kops.
“Welcome young poet, in here you are free to follow your star to where you should be.
That door of the library was the door into me
And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
Sam’s history provided a partial answer to the question: “How could you?” Like my grandfather and many others, he found that the Communist party and the wider Labour movement allowed him to travel to a new world, and one in which his class was no longer a handicap. The Communist party is gone, the Labour movement is dying, and the government is closing the libraries. His successors won’t be so lucky.
It was once said that the largest political party in Britain was the ex-Communist party. From the late 1940s on, Sam knew all the intellectuals, who joined and resigned – not all of them smartly enough to preserve their reputations. “He heard me out like an officer interviewing a rookie,” Doris Lessing said of Aaronovitch père, and said he “looked forward to reading my denunciations” when she resigned. She duly did and painted Sam as a cynical cultural commissar in The Golden Notebook: “tight, defensive and sarcastic”.
Lavender, Sam’s wife and David’s mother, could not have been more different. Like my grandfather’s second wife, like many on the far left today, she was from the upper middle class. Her father was a career army officer, who retired as a lieutenant colonel. He dumped her with family friends after her young mother died, and ended his days as a nasty old man who sponged off everyone he could while bitching about “fuzzy-wuzzy” foreigners swindling the taxpayer. Why did communists want a revolution? Lavender’s story provided a partial answer too: there was much to revolt against, and not only in Britain’s colonies but closer to home.
Aaronovitch doesn’t follow suit by bitching about his childhood. He knows that growing up in a communist family had its blessings. Instead of learning about kings and queens, he was taught about Greece under the colonels and impermissibility of racial prejudice. He may have had an odd upbringing, he says, but who can deny its richness?
The temptation for him and the reader is to join those who say that communists were better than the Nazis, and scorn conservatives who draw a moral equivalence. To his credit, Aaronovitch won’t slosh on the whitewash. He says that Lessing had a point about his father’s dogmatism. He investigates the Soviet spies his family knew, and the half-forgotten men who can still produce a shudder among leftists of a certain age. On the party’s instructions, James Klugmann and Derek Kartun produced screamingly mendacious indictments of eastern European communists, who had often been their friends when Stalin decided to kill them. As with today’s propagandists for Putin and Assad, that they were citizens of a free country, who would have suffered nothing more than a few harsh words from their political allies if they had refused to take the Moscow line, makes their behaviour all the more contemptible. Whatever else you say about British communism, you must begin by admitting it was the servile accomplice of an unspeakable regime.
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Aaronovitch opens with a quote from a letter from Arnold Wesker’s mother about Chicken Soup with Barley, Wesker’s story of the disintegration of a Jewish communist family. “Who’s going to be interested in that, silly boy? It’s about us. It won’t mean a thing to anybody else?” He has no need to be nervous. His humanity, as well as his flair and his scholarship, ensure that his autobiography is more than just a parochial history. Aaronovitch could easily have written a Marxist misery memoir. His parents were hopeless. His mother blamed and belittled her children for the problems in her marriage and childhood. His father was an energetic adulterer, who eventually ran off. Both were violent.
But instead of aping the old Stalinists and denouncing them, Aaronovitch shows them as creatures of their circumstances. How could they have done it? Easy – his father found social mobility and radical energy in communism. His abandoned mother found the opposite. Marxism gave her order and certainty. The party was her replacement for the parents she had lost.
They reacted to their circumstances as we react to ours. Children brought up in religious and political cults are not so different from everyone else. We are all defined by what we accept and reject from our childhoods. In Aaronovitch’s case, his rejection of Marxism turned him into an effervescent and essential writer, the enemy of every species of conspiracy theory from right or left.
If he cannot find the malice to condemn his parents, the rest of us can surely thank them.