Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Man from Nowhere

One sunny day in April 1926, twenty-five thousand workers gathered outside the gates of Brixton prison to celebrate the release of Tom Wintringham, who had just served six months for sedition. Mounted police were called in to try to restrain the crowd, which broke into an excited rendition of 'The Internationale' when the young communist intellectual and eleven of his comrades walked into the sunlight.

A decade after inspiring this huge demonstration, Tom Wintringham was the driving force behind the creation of the International Brigades, the army of volunteers from four continents which would fight with legendary heroism in the Spanish Civil War. When the war against fascism came to Britain's doorstep in 1940, Wintringham quickly became a household name, as the country's leading expert on guerrilla warfare and the unofficial theorist of its newly-created Home Guard. When he capitalised on his fame by running for parliament on the ticket of the short-lived Common Wealth Party, Wintringham twice came within a hair's breadth of upset victories against Tory incumbents.

By the time he died prematurely of a heart attack in 1949, though, Tom Wintringham had already become an obscure figure, deemed worthy only of terse obituaries in most of Britain's papers. In the decades since his death, Britain's 'revolutionary patriot' has been accorded only a walk-on role in histories of the war in Spain and the Home Guard. Nobody who reads The Last English Revolutionary, Hugh Purcell's crisply written and beautifully packaged new biography of Wintringham, can doubt that the man deserves far more from posterity. Tom Wintringham was a complex and frequently flamboyant person, interested in poetry and women as well as war and revolution, and Purcell's narrative reads more like a thriller than an exercise in academic history.

The Making of a Revolutionary

Purcell's first chapter follows Wintringham from a comfortable upbringing in the northeast port city of Grimsby to Greshams, the small public school that WH Auden and Donald Maclean also attended, and on into the trenches of the First World War. Like so many men of his generation, Wintringham found the war a deeply disorientating event which invalidated forever the right-wing patriotism he had inculcated growing up in Edwardian England. At Greshams Wintringham had fallen in love with the poetry of Rupert Brooke, but the mechanised slaughter of the 'war to all end all wars' seemed to mock the sentimental heroism that Brooke's war poems celebrated. He was soon swapping Brooke's War Sonnets for the socialist literature that anti-war working class comrades in the trenches gave him. The tone of his letters home became bitter, where once it had been excited. In the early summer of 1918, at a time when discipline was collapsing on the Western front, Wintringham helped stage a mutiny at a field hospital where he was being treated for a severe case of the flu. Purcell believes that by the time Wintringham returned from the war he had become 'a rebel, if not a revolutionary.'

It was at Oxford University in the immediate post-war years that Wintringham began to study Marxism in earnest, and to involve himself in political activism. Like many other ex-servicemen, Wintringham was greatly impressed by the Soviet Union, the new revolutionary state which seemed to owe its origins to a mass anti-war mutiny on the eastern front. In the summer of 1920, when a British declaration of war against the Soviet Union looked likely, Wintringham set up a Hands off Russia committee at Oxford, and found himself an invited guest at the founding conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Before the end of the year Wintringham was heavily involved in work for the new party, writing journalism for its weekly paper and for Out of Work, the fortnightly the party had established for the hundreds of thousands of war veterans who had been unable to find jobs in victorious Britain. In his spare time he was churning out poetry which applied the sentimentality and verbal imprecision of Rupert Brooke to the new subject matter of revolutionary communism:

Men will remember the past and its defects;
Men will remember their dreams trodden underfoot
When they went into the mills, to the docks, to the deep sea,
To the mines where the black dust gleams,
Or scarred the coloured hills with a grey plough -
Man's work,
And boys' hopes, boys' dreams.
Men will remember!

The revolutionary optimism of these lines was not without foundation. In the first half of the 1920s Britain was swept by a series of strike waves, which led many in the ruling class to fear a home-grown version of Russia's October revolution. The loyalty and cohesion of the armed forces had become a concern, after the mutinies of 1918 and 1919 and massive protests at the beginning of the twenties by war veterans disgusted by the failure of the system they had fought for to give them a better life. Wintringham spent his six months in Brixton because he touched on this insecurity in an article calling on 'soldiers, sailors, and airmen' to turn their weapons on their commanders, in the event of either 'a class war or a military war.'

Riding Lenin's Tractor

The seditionist got out of jail in time to play a role in the 1926 General Strike, the epic struggle between capital and labour that Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin saw as a harbinger of civil war. After Baldwin's police raided Communist Party headquarters and prevented the publication of the party's Weekly Worker for the duration of the strike, Wintringham went underground and helped edit a crudely-printed substitute. (Shortly after the raid that shut down the Weekly Worker, strikers put their own suppression order on the mouthpiece of the ruling class by burning the printing presses of The Times.)

The collapse of the General Strike in the face of threats of massive violence from the state did not seem to dim Wintringham's revolutionary optimism. As the 1920s wore on he and most other leading members of the Communist Party happily embraced the ultra-left 'Class against Class' policies being exported from Moscow, where Stalin had now taken firm control of the Bolshevik revolution.

The era of Class against Class, or Third Period Stalinism, as it is often nowadays called, was marked by a semi-religious belief in the imminence of revolution and a hysterical hostility to non-communist parts of the left. In Britain, the Communist Party denounced the Labour Party as 'social fascists,' refused to work within the official trade union movement, for fear of having its revolutionary purity besmirched, and filled its new daily newspaper with phrases like 'right opportunist deviationists.' Hugh Purcell sums up the spirit of Class against Class by quoting a few lines from Wintringham's 1932 poem 'The Immortal Tractor:'

I have heard Lenin speaking. And I know
This Tractor we are building - it will grow...
We are moulding, forging, shaping the steel of our iron wills
Into pinions, into pistons, crankshaft-web and crankshaft-throw,
We are building Lenin's Tractor. It will grow!

Only a few months later, though, Wintringham was writing very differently. A poem called 'Before Prison' registers discouragement, not hope:

I have known fear, defeat...
Lost youth, lost health, let run
Lust's snake across my brain;
and I've known pain...

By the time he wrote 'Before Prison,' Wintringham had begun a sharp argument with his party's leadership over one of the key policy planks of Class against Class. In an article written in the middle of 1932 called 'Allies are Needed for Revolution,' he called for cooperation not only within the workers' movement but between the working class and progressive parts of other classes. Realising that Class against Class had led to a disastrous evaporation of support for the party despite the onset of the Great Depression, Wintringham had looked abroad and been inspired by the success of the Indian and Chinese anti-imperialist movements, which included 'progressive bourgeois' figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Chiang Kai-Shek. Wintringham insisted that in Britain not only non-communist trade unionists but also 'shopkeepers and smallholders' could be won to the cause of the revolution, if the party would only abandon its sectarianism and its bizarre jargon and discover a strategy and language suited to local conditions.

After being publicly scolded for his heresy by his boss, Daily Worker editor William Rust, Wintringham wrote a long and still-unpublished document called 'To Hit the Target We Must First Learn to Aim,' which made his unhappiness with the whole gamut of party policies unmistakably clear. Unwilling to leave the party, Wintringham enjoyed a much lower profile in the dying days of the Class against Class era.

Waking up in Spain

The rebel became more popular with his superiors in 1935, when the Comintern belatedly realised the folly of Class against Class and, in an overcorrection sadly familiar to students of the history of Stalinism, instructed its member parties to adopted a new policy of building cross-class 'Popular Fronts against war and fascism.' In July 1936 the struggle against fascism erupted in Spain, as General Franco launched his war against democracy and the threat of socialist revolution. Wintringham, who had spent much of his time in the party backwaters studying and writing about modern warfare, was determined to play a significant role in what he believed was the start of a new World War. After he was made the official representative of the British communists in Barcelona, he lobbied tirelessly for the creation of an 'international legion' to join the fight against Franco.

In November 1936 Wintringham was made a staff officer and machine gun instructor in the newly-formed International Brigades. The following February he commanded the British battalion of the Brigades during the bloody battle of Jarama, where hundreds of poorly-trained volunteers sacrificed themselves to stop Franco reaching the gates of Madrid. Wintringham was shot in the thigh while organising a bayonet charge and spent weeks in a filthy hospital where he nearly died of typhoid. In August 1937 he was shot again, this time in the shoulder, as he led an effort to capture a small town along the railway between Zaragoza and Barcelona.

Shipped home to recuperate, Wintringham received something less than a hero's welcome. His complicated love life had for some time met with the disapproval of the party hierarchy, and rumours of three women all calling themselves Mrs Wintringham visiting the veteran's hospital bed soon reached the Central Committee. The final straw came when Kitty Bowler, the American journalist who had become Wintringham's lover in Spain, was accused by the Comintern of being a Trotskyist spy. Neither Bowler nor Wintringham had ever had any sympathy for Trotsky or Trotskyism - Wintringham had been ill-informed enough to support the Stalinist suppression of the Trotskyist and anarchist militias in Barcelona during the 'May Days' of 1937 - but this counted for little in the hysterical atmosphere that Stalin's trial and purges had created inside the international communist movement.

On July the 7th 1938, in a comic footnote to the tragedy that was being played out in the Soviet Union, the Daily Worker announced that Wintringham had been expelled from the fold for 'refusal to accept a decision of the Party to break off personal relations with elements considered undesirable by the Party.' Wintringham was lucky to live in Britain: Rose Cohen, an old friend of his who had married a Russian and settled in Moscow, paid for her 'Trotskyism' with her life.

Wintringham may have come to resent the bureaucratic autocracy of the Communist Party and Comintern leaderships, but he certainly did not regret the time he spent in Spain. Purcell quotes an unpublished note from 1941:

Spain woke me up. Politically I rediscovered, realising the enormous potentialities in a real alliance of workers and other classes, the power that can come...when a Popular Front is not just a manoeuvre but a reality...Two bullets and typhoid gave me time to think. I came out of Spain believing, as I still believe, in a more humane socialism, in a more radical democracy, and in a revolution of some sort as necessary to give the ordinary people a chance to beat fascism. Marxism makes sense to me, but the 'Party Line' doesn't.

Bringing the War Home

Freed of his commitments to the party, Wintringham was soon writing prolifically on military and political affairs for mainstream periodicals like the Daily Mirror and the new Picture Post. In an acknowledgement of his hard-won knowledge of warfare, the War Office paid Wintringham to produce a series of booklets on Battle Training in 1939. Seeing the inevitability of a new, wider war with fascism, Wintringham wrote incessantly about the need to reorganise the British army. He believed that fascism could only be defeated by a democratic 'people's army' that relied on rank and file initiative as much as orders from above and that used popular support to make the territory it defended utterly hostile to invaders.

But the army could not be reformed in isolation from the society it represented. Styling himself as a 'revolutionary patriot,' Wintringham argued that Britain could only defeat fascism if it abandoned its dangerously obsolete social structure. After the fall of France in 1940, Wintringham became associated with George Orwell and JB Priestley, two other writers using the mass media to preach the necessity of socialism to the war effort. Like Priestley, Wintringham demanded the expropriation of large houses owned by the wealthy, so that they might be made available to those made homeless by bomb raids; like Orwell, he insisted on the necessity of nationalising all war industry and placing it under worker control.

In the middle of 1940 such demands seemed less utopian than they would even a year later. When Chamberlain resigned in disgrace and the new Churchill administration made desperate overtures to the Labour Party and the trade unions even a section of Britain's ruling class seemed to be accepting the need for change. Orwell summed up the feverish atmosphere in the months after Dunkirk when he wrote in his diary on June 20th that 'If we can hold out for a few more months, in a year's time we'll see red militias billeted in the Ritz.'

While Orwell wrote these words, Tom Wintringham was laying the foundations for his own red militia. Impressed by Wintringham's articles for Picture Post, the Earl of Jersey offered Osterley Park, a mansion with huge grounds on the outskirts of London, as a training centre for the people's army he wanted to build. The Earl of Jersey shared Wintringham's disgust at the reluctance of the Churchill government to turn Britain's newly-established Home Guard into an active combat force. Like an increasing number of Britons, he felt that there was no time to waste in training an irregular army that could resist a German invasion that looked well-nigh inevitable.

By the middle of July Wintringham and a team of instructors, many of them veterans of the war in Spain, were training enthusiastic volunteers in guerrilla warfare at Osterley Park. Purcell describes some of the lessons Wintringham and his band of assistants gave:

The structure...was deliberately democratic and informal; no compulsory uniform, no rank, parades or drill. The exercises were improvised but highly practical...a lorry representing a tank was towed behind an old car and blown up with landmines...a replica model of a Stuka fighter descended on wires on a dugout and was, it was hoped, shot down by rifle fire...bombs were improvised - the jam-tin bomb, Molotov cocktails, smoke bombs, mortars...

Wintringham's acceptance of help from the Earl of Jersey did not imply a completely sanguine attitude toward the British ruling class. Wintringham believed that, as the choice between social transformation and German rule became ever starker, the ruling class would split between a Fifth Column that would take active steps to sabotage the defence of Britain and a minority that recognised the need for revolutionary anti-fascist war. The Earl of Jersey and Edward Hulton, the wealthy publisher of Picture Post, were part of this minority.

In the desperate year of 1940, Wintringham was determined not to allow the War Office to stop the growth of a 'people's army.' Angry at Churchill's failure to arm the Home Guard properly, he organised a secret shipment of ten thousand rifles and pistols from America, paid for by Hulton and his fellow press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The guns were distributed to factory branches of the Guard.

By the end of 1940 Osterley Park had become famous, and thousands of volunteers had passed through Wintringham's crash course in guerrilla warfare. Thanks partly to Wintringham, the Churchill government conceded that the Home Guard should be a combat force, rather than a simple auxiliary of Britain's civil defence organisations. As the threat of invasion declined in 1941, though, the War Office worked hard to regain control of Wintringham's 'people's army.' The Office gradually colonised Osterley Park, using conscription to disperse many of its more radical instructors. 'Captain Mainwaring' types were appointed to Home Guard units across the country, and drilling replaced training in guerrilla warfare. Frustrated, Wintringham resigned from his position at Osterley.

Towards obscurity

Soon Wintringham's energies were being redirected towards the Common Wealth Party, a curious alliance of anti-Stalinist Marxists, radical Christians, and semi-detached Liberals united by a desire for an ill-defined 'New Order' to emerge from the chaos and destruction of the war. The wartime non-aggression pact between Britain's major parties gave Common Wealth an opening, and in a 1943 by-election Wintringham almost succeeded in winning the safe Conservative seat of North Midlothian from the Solicitor General for Scotland.

In the 1945 general election Wintringham again stood for Common Wealth, this time in the southern electorate of Aldershot, and again came close to victory. Common Wealth as a whole scored 100,000 votes and had one MP elected, but suffered from the co-option of much of its rhetoric by the Labour and Communist Parties. Deciding that the organisation had become redundant, Wintringham supported the decision to close it down shortly after the election. He recommended that the people who voted for him join the Labour Party, and many observers expected him to be given a plum job by the new Attlee administration, but the call never came.

In any case, Wintringham was rapidly disillusioned by Attlee's reform programme, which he considered both timid and bureaucratic. He refused the offer of the Labour candidacy in his native Grimsby in the 1948 election, on the grounds that he would not be able to 'put forward a clear socialist policy' of mass nationalisation and workers' control of industry. Wintringham was living as a freelance writer when he died of a massive heart attack in the autumn of 1949.

Assessing Wintringham

Hugh Purcell packs Tom Wintringham's extraordinary life into a very entertaining 250 page narrative, but the strength of his book is also its weakness. Purcell does not pause often enough to consider the meaning of the exciting story he relates. In particular, he neglects to consider the reasons for the repeated failures and disappointments that had helped to make Wintringham an obscure figure by the time he died. It is up to Purcell's readers, then, to construct their own interpretations of this 'revolutionary patriot.'

It seems to me that in 1932 Wintringham over-reacted to the undoubted idiocies of Class against Class policies, by adopting an almost uncritical attitude toward the tactic of the Popular Front. From the mid-30s on Wintringham was so pleased to be rid of the mindless sectarianism of Class against Class that he failed to think through the pitfalls of an alliance between the working class and its traditional enemy, the bourgeoisie. When Popular Front policies led the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain to suppress the militias of the anarchists and Trotskyists, Wintringham failed to draw the necessary conclusion. (To be fair, the suppression of the militias happened when Wintringham was desperately sick, and it is not easy to engage in political analysis when you are lying in a filthy hospital with a bullet in your thigh, stricken with typhoid.)

In 1940 and 1941 Wintringham's belief in the possibility of winning a fraction of the British bourgeoisie to the banner of revolutionary anti-fascist war led him to underestimate the resistance of the Churchill government and even the least conservative staffers in the War Office to his vision of a 'people's army.' Later Wintringham's laudable efforts to find a distinctively British expression of Marxist politics led him to cut too much slack to the Labour Party and right-wingers in the Common Wealth Party.

The repeated failure of Wintringham’s political projects limits the intrinsic value of his political writing, which was almost always focused on practical tasks, rather than theory-building. Wintringham is not like Trotsky, whose political failure is incidental to his theoretical insights. But to say that Wintringham is mostly of historical interest today is not to demean him. In his restless desire to affect the course of history, Wintringham forged a career that ought to make us reconsider the way we think about the history of the British left.

Purcell's account of Third Period Stalinism, and his revelation of Wintringham's initial enthusiasm for it, should interest historians arguing over the responsibility of British communists for the doctrine. Matthew Worley's 2004 book Class against Class caused controversy by arguing that the disastrous policies composed in the Kremlin were initially welcomed by many British communists, not grudgingly accepted as orders from HQ. Purcell's research seems to back Morgan's case by showing that, even without the intervention of the Kremlin, British communist politics were infected with sectarianism and catastrophism. (The rarely-studied Ridley-Ram Theses, which are the first known document of indigenous British Trotskyism, suggest that the disease was not confined to 'official' communists.)

Perhaps most importantly, Wintringham's simultaneous enthusiasm for the Popular Front and hostility to the bureaucracies of the Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain ought to help us appreciate the complexity of British Marxism in the 1930s. Recently British MP George Galloway launched a bitter attack on George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom, suggesting that they traduce the memory of John Cornford and other martyrs of the International Brigades by criticising the policies of Stalin and the Spanish Stalinists.

For Galloway, the Britons who fought in Spain were divided between a majority who followed the party line and revered Stalin and a tiny minority of treacherous Trots like George Orwell. The case of Wintringham reminds us that reality was considerably more complex, and that Cornford, Christopher Caudwell and the other brave young Britons who died fighting fascism in Spain should not be press-ganged into posthumous service in the cause of Stalinism just because they were not Trotskyists.


Anonymous Bob Wood said...

Fascinating stuff. For much of my life I lived near Osterley Park and frequently visited it, indeed as a schoolboy I did cross country running in the park. But I never knew of its connection to Wintringham and guerilla training until now. Thanks.
Bob Wood

5:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Bob - enthralling. Maps - you make politics almost meaningful again (sub speciae aeternitatis I have been feeling a little Schopenharian of late!)

Interesting how complex the situation was. This guy was pretty dymnamic - the idea or myth of the British as kind of dull and ossified is one the right wing cultivate I think.

Popular fronts are a necessary evil - but there are always complexities. Mao had to cooperate with the Kuomintang at certain critical points for example in the Sino-Japanese war of liberation for China. Interesting but not surprising Britain was contemplating a war with the Soviet Union... (Various western nations invaded Russia about 1919 or so

But I will still enjoy watching (repeats of) Dads army!!

10:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can a New Zealander pass judgment about World War Two? You never had the swastika flying over any part of your country.

2:58 am  
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