David Aaronovitch, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
Across the water in Ireland, you will be told from time to time that a forebear of your interlocutor ‘shared a cell with de Valera’. One has to feel for the giant of 20th Century Irish politics – should all these stories be true, then it is a miracle he did not die of suffocation during his confinement.
My father once shared a cell with Ted Willis, the novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Not a prison cell, I hasten to add, but a political cell. Both my father and the man who would go on to create Dixon of Dock Green were young-ish members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
‘I grew out of it,’ was my father’s terse obituary for his not-very-revolutionary past. So, presumably, did Ted Willis, who was elevated to the peerage in 1964.
Sam Aaronovitch did not. From the old East End, he became a full-time Party worker, for a while running the CPGB’s cultural side; he was district secretary for the ‘strategically and psychologically important’ area of south Essex (important not least because of the huge car plant at Dagenham) and candidate for London district secretary.
When he didn’t get the London job, he left the Party’s employ and enrolled as a doctoral student at Balliol College, Oxford, an extraordinary achievement for a non-graduate who had left school at 15, although the fact that – through the Party – he knew the Master, Christopher Hill, must have helped.
From then on to an academic career: ‘He became Professor of Business Studies at a London polytechnic, set up a think-tank and – for twenty years – worked as hard as he ever had in politics. He wrote books, served on the Party’s Economic Committee … He never stopped being in a hurry.’
A true believer to the end, it seems, he died in 1998.
The quotes, you will have guessed, come from this intriguing book by his son David, author, broadcaster and columnist for The Times. Really, it is three books in one: the story of growing up in a Communist family during the post-war years (complete with the background to that family and that Party from earlier years); an investigation into the story of that family within the context of ‘the hopeless, hopeful, sometimes heroic and sometimes unpleasant and stupid reality of British Communism’ and, finally and most extraordinarily, the bizarre tale of how David, Sam and David’s mother Lavender underwent family therapy between 1967 and 1969 only for their entire case history to be published by the therapist in a book some years later.
Communism is supposedly a universal creed, yet this book is very good on the peculiarities of the British variety in the 1950s, ’60s and beyond, with particular emphases: folk music (Pete and Peggy Seeger rate a number of mentions), South Africa (SACP exiles were treated with special respect, having been given the backhanded compliment from the white regime of passing a law specifically to ban their party), intellectual self-improvement (‘Party members venerated adult education’) and, of course, Jewishness, especially of the East London variety, although the author is under no illusions about the sort of home in which his father grew up:
This was not one of those semi-mythic Jewish homes of Arnold Wesker’s play Chicken Soup with Barley, where newspapers were avidly read and discussed by a procession of friends and relatives. From what little I could gather from my father in later life, this was a depressed household, almost pulverised by poverty.
David too joined the party but was to leave when promoted to editor at the BBC, this being a condition of service. He doesn’t sound too bothered by the enforced separation. By now, disillusion was setting in among Communists throughout the country and elsewhere; the things about which they had been proved right (such as racism in southern Africa and inner-city London) were outweighed somewhat by all the things about which they had been proved wrong, not least economic matters.
The CPGB eventually dissolved itself in 1991.
The author concludes the first section with the death of his mother five years into the Millennium: ‘So, by July 2005, Lavender, Sam and the Party were all over.’
The middle section is a meaty read in its own right. With admirable balance, the author both excoriates British Communists and defends them.
Regarding the fondness of MI5 and other agencies for spying on Party members, the author uses the example of the Klaus Fuchs nuclear espionage affair; he notes of his parents’ household and their closeness to some of those involved: ‘As a Party family we were only two degrees of separation away from the biggest spy story of the century … How loyal, after all, were we?’
And he is pretty merciless on the delusions of British Communists about the Stalin era and after: the show trials, mass executions, famines and acts of aggression against ‘fraternal’ countries such as Czechoslovakia.
But he has no time for the claim that the term ‘Communist’ ought to be a term of abuse, that former British apologists for Stalinism are being given a scandalously easy ride even now – easier than would have been the case had they been supporters of Hitler – and that the time has come for a thoroughgoing naming and shaming of ex-Communists.
One may as well, writes the author, seek out those who said nothing about colonial-era massacres and famines and happily went along with notions of the natural superiority of the white race. ‘If it was criminal to have been a believer in Communism and an apologist for Russia, then why was it less criminal to have been a believer in colonialism and an apologist for racism?’
So to the final, extraordinary section of this book, the starting point for which is that the author’s childhood was not particularly happy: ‘I wasn’t hated, or neglected, or starved or regularly beaten. Now, with children of my own, I see the sad truth that Sam and Lavender didn’t seem to get anything out of having me for a son.’
All three ended up in family therapy under Robin Skynner, who is probably best-known for co-authoring with John Cleese Families and How to Survive Them, published in 1983. Less well-known is his 1976 work One Flesh, Separate Persons: Principles of Family and Marital Psychotherapy.
Chapter 17 of that book is entitled ‘Outline of a Family and Marital Therapy’. With just a change of name, it is the Aaranovitch case from the late 1960s. True, Sam and Lavender gave permission for this publication, but David did not.
By the last session, Skynner – a firm believer in what has since practically become the state orthodoxy, that the ‘denial of emotions’ is at the root of low-level mental illness – is convinced he has sorted the family out and that all will be well.
He had not, and it was not. Sam and Lavender’s marriage broke up, not least because of Sam’s infidelity.
But the general tone is not miserable, rather marvelling:
How can I give an idea of the complete otherness of the world view that I was brought up with? The facts of existence, the assumptions about how the globe turned that we imbibed were not the same as – and often the opposite of – what everyone else deemed normal … Our world had a parallel history, a separate culture and argot, its own music, a distinct cosmology. Even when the mental furniture was the same as everyone else’s, it was often put in a completely different place.
Sounds like an excellent start in life. It clearly didn’t do the author much intellectual harm.