|Introduction: rootless, cosmopolitan, petty-bourgeois
- and internationalist
Like Alain Lipietz (1992), I feel that the 21st century
has begun, presaged by Berlin, Baghdad and Rio. As a lifelong socialist
I cannot but feel a responsibility for what collapsed in Berlin, even if
I left the Communist Party in 1970. And as a lifelong anti-imperialist
I feel the same responsibility for not having been at least prepared for
Gulf War. I rejoice at the rise of the green `global solidarity' expressed
by the ecological movement. And I see a possible and necessary role for
a new kind of labour movement amongst this and other new internationalisms
(Waterman 1991a, b). But the earthquakes of 1989-92 have certainly given
me cause to reflect on my own itinerary as an internationalist.
It has occured to me that the active agents of even `proletarian'
internationalism have customarily been people like myself, `rootless petty-bourgeois
cosmopolitans': Flora Tristan, Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky,
Lenin, Emma Goldman, Pablo Neruda. The quoted phrase is, of course, from
the vocabulary of Hitler and Stalin, and it customarily referred to Jews,
whether the word was spelled JEW (Hitler) or ZIONIST (Stalin). Many of
the major and minor agents of socialist internationalism have also, like
myself, been Jews. Yet even if those who played these roles over the last
one to two hundred years were customarily `petty-bourgeois cosmopolitans',
they have not necessarily always been rootless or Jewish. Today they are
more likely to be nationally-rooted Liberation Christians than stateless
Jewish socialists. Nor, it seems to me, would the relationship of these
with the movements of their days be similar. I would, indeed, tentatively
suggest a tripartite historical typology, corresponding to succeeding periods
of capitalist and statist development: the c19th Agitator, the c20th Agent
and the c21st Networker. Having played all these roles (though neither
in the 19th nor the 21st century), I feel that some self-reflection may
throw light on at least the red internationalists, or provide a trial sketch
for a more general study.
This essay therefore represents the first part of an autobiographical
sketch which I hope to later put into a work of historical biography, or
itself develop into an autobiography. It covers the period up to 1970,
at which point I became one of those ivory-tower academics I had always
railed against. It thus covers My Life as Internationalist Agitator and
Agent. For My Life as International Networker readers will have to wait
(but are advised not to hold their baited breath).
The personal: amongst the Jews, atheists and Communists
I was born in London in 1936, the year scheduled for the
Popular Olympics in Barcelona, an event cancelled by the outbreak of the
Spanish Civil War. Some of those who went to this Communist-organised alternative
to the state-glorifying Olympic Games (held that year in Berlin) stayed
on to join the International Brigades. This act, that war, represented
both the zenith and nadir of the 19th century tradition of democratic and
socialist nationalism and internationalism. All this is more than coincidental.
My parents were Communists, my mother working as a secretary for such bodies
as Workers' International Relief and the Relief Committee for the Victims
of German Fascism, and my father to become General Manager of the best-known
Communist bookshop, Collets. They were not only Communists, they were also
Jews, my mother born into a shopkeeper's family in London's East End, my
father an illegal immigrant from Poland. To be a Jew, an atheist and a
Communist meant to belong to a cosmopolitan and internationalist tradition,
including Marx, Luxemburg and countless other `non-Jewish Jews' (Deutscher
1968). It also meant a double exclusion from a then very English Britain.
But, as Deutscher and so many others have since recognised, the position
of the stranger is one that sensitises as well as isolates (explaining
the high proportion of rationalistic Jewish sociologists, seeking to understand
society, as well as of possessed Jewish revolutionaries, seeking to save
it - or at least blow it up).
We (my elder brother, David, and I) grew up during and
after World War II in different and changing circumstances that even my
child's mind recognised as such.
There was the East-End Yiddish culture of my mother's
parents, known to us as Booba and Zeida, rather than grandma and grandpa.
My grandfather was living proof that being a Jew is no guarantee of success
at business: he was known in the warehouse as `Mr One-Twelfth' for his
caution. Yet this unassuming and incompetent man had two toes amputated
in attempt to get out of the British Pioneer Corps in World War I (since
this was an imperialist war it was something of which I was inordinately
proud). Behind the drapery shop in East London's Stepney Green there was
a rich and incomprehensible life, lived at the top of its Yiddish voice,
dramatic and exotic, though completely unreligious. There was an Uncle
Yankel (the fat one with the bowler hat) and an Esther-Soora (who laughed,
cried and sang). People drank tea noisily from saucers. There were kichelech,
rather than biscuits, much sighing and schreiing. There was plenty
to sigh and schrei about as fears, rumours and then photographic
evidence (unsuccessfully concealed from us) arrived from Russia about what
Hitler was doing to Jews in occupied Europe. Some of the family had been
bombed out, most of them had sons in the army, two returning injured and
another mentally scarred. Nobody tried to get out of this war.
There was the international Communist culture of my father,
bringing home revolutionary books from the US, Emil and the Detectives
from a mysteriously non-Nazi Germany, Soviet calendars showing heroic figures
(one male, one female) atop electricity pylons. Dad sang: not only Yiddish
but British music-hall, folk and international labour-movement songs. Born
and raised in a poverty-stricken orthodox Jewish family in anti-semitic
Poland, my father was an early convert from Jewish dogma and messianism
to the Communist variety. He never totally mastered English and remained
emotionally attached to Yiddish language and culture all his life. He hardly
talked to us about his background or family, even before he knew for certain
that both family and community had been removed from the face of the Polish
earth. So I didn't know what a shtetl (small town) was till I read
Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. My only image of his youth was
of a young, emotional and determined revolutionary, escaping from anti-semitic
and anti-Communist persecution to England. Active in East End Jewish socialist
politics for long after we had moved (like most of the Jewish population)
to middle-class North London, my father was traumatised by the revelations
of anti-semitism at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956. In the
remaining years of his life he spent most of his political energy working
in defense of East European Jewry, sometimes with former political opponents.
I was unable to handle my father's emotionally violent Communism, even
before I began to qualify my own attachment to it. It was therefore as
a conscious act of personal reconciliation, as well as out of a sense of
political responsibility, that I joined him in yet one more unsuccessful
campaign to get the British CP to take a clear public stand against Soviet
anti-semitism in the early 1960s.
My mother - who looked and looks as Jewish as my father
looked like an East-European peasant - was much more English in temperament
and culture. She was (until the British CP Congress that followed the Soviet
one) a convinced but unfanatical Communist, being deeply marked by English
ideas of tolerance and fairness. She could not in any case understand a
socialist doctrine separate from kind and humane personal behaviour. She
didn't like my father telling us anti-Nazi jokes from the papers that were
actually `funny foreigner' ones (especially since he was himself a funny
foreigner). Mum was and is a great admirer of a British Communist type
whose existence is being forgotten in the rush to write Communism out of
British history: the self-educated working-class intellectual. An avid
reader and a would-be writer from childhood, she trained as a secretary,
doing a series of low-paid or voluntary jobs, many of them for Communist-controlled
or inspired international solidarity committees (Spain, Soviet Women, the
Rosenbergs). After we had left home, after my father and her parents had
died and she had herself retired, she achieved her ambition, publishing
two semi-autobiographical novels and a number of short stories. She has
also provided interviews and recollections for a fascinated and admiring
younger generation of Jews, socialists and feminists - not to forget Jewish
socialist feminists (Adler 1989). My mother was neither a doctrine-preaching
nor a street-marching feminist, but she grew up in the wake of first-wave
feminism, as a socialist, and she fought the good fight against the usual
roles assigned to Party wives and mothers by their doctrine-preaching,
street-marching husbands and sons. In her youth she acted in street theatre
(Waterman 1985). Today she seems to provide a role model for younger feminists
on how to become a great-grandmother without losing emotional or intellectual
and artistic vitality. My mother's internationalism continued after she
broke with the Party, keeping up contact with Lilian Ngoyi, a banned (and
pro-Communist) South African women's leader, for 20 years after she disappeared
from public eye, and playing a role in rescuing from Communist Poland,
Leopold Trepper, the most successful Soviet agent in wartime Europe. I
recall, age 20 or so, my mother remarking to me that I was more interested
in ideas than people. It was not meant as a criticism, but I certainly
considered it no compliment. It was only later that I came to appreciate
her combination of Jewish, socialist, English and liberal, personal and
political convictions and attitudes.
We grew up during the war chanting `Open the Second Front!',
`Free India Now!' and `They Shall Not Pass!'. There was a worldwide struggle
between Red Communist Revolution and Black Nazi Reaction. Britain could
go either way. On VE (Victory in Europe) Day, 1945, David, our friend Raph
Samuel (later a founder of History Workshop) and I went out at night
to join the celebrations. Here we were anxiously sought by my father and
Raph's uncle, afraid that three Jewish kids, singing the Internationale
in the dark, might get beaten up by British fascists. Victory in Europe
evidently did not mean Victory in England. Out walking on Hampstead Heath
with a dozen other kids from school a couple of years later, we were confronted
by a group of working-class boys who lined us up and, with unerring skill,
identified us one after the other: `Yid, English, English, English, Yid,
English...'. A classmate, whom I had thought of only as a fat Jewish boy
with bad breath, began hitting at them, whilst I stood paralysed by. It
was a menacing and humiliating experience.
Seeing the dramatic postwar spread of Communism, however,
we had no doubt that the Future Was On Our Side. Aged 14 or 15, I told
the Labour Party mother of a schoolfriend that there would be a revolution
in Britain within five years. Her response to this somewhat optimistic
prediction (one of many made by Communism and Communists) was to give me
Wolfgang Leonhard's Child of the Revolution (1979), an account of
what was done to his German parents and himself as Communist refugees in
Stalin's Russia. I instinctively adopted the correct Communist posture,
returning it after reading the first disturbing chapter, with the ominous
words `I am not going to believe this book'.
As time passed I increasingly felt myself split between
a parochial world of schoolbooks, country-dancing and cricket, and the
`real world' outside: the squatting of disused barracks, dock strikes,
Polish war films, the Chinese Revolution, the Korean War, the trial of
Kenyatta. Filled with dread and discomfort, we met Jewish orphans who had
survived the holocaust. I wept secretly over the Nazi occupation, the concentration
camps and the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. Why had I not been there to
fight - or die - with the heroes and martyrs? At home we received American
technical magazines that the Russians were unable to order direct from
the USA. This lent Communism a further aura of daring and clandestinity.
My father went to Moscow for Collets and came back with stories of streets
planted overnight with fully-grown trees, thus adding to the aura elements
of magic and power.
The political: dazzling international, Communist
and sexual vistas
Romantically, I joined the Young Communist League on my
fifteenth birthday, January 26, 1951. This was more or less the peak of
the Cold War. At an open-air meeting a British fascist screwed his iron
heel into my sandalled foot. On a (Communist) Five-Power Peace Pact march,
they flung paint at us, whilst the police chatted quietly on the opposite
pavement. McCarthyism was creeping into British public life, the trade
unions and Labour Party. Our conviction and determination were only hardened.
I must have spent the equivalent of two days a week for and with the Party,
whether at meetings, demonstrations, socials, classes, selling papers and
pamphlets, going to East European movies, or on holiday with the YCL. Within
the Party I never heard an anti-semitic or other racist remark, felt protected
by the best of the British working class, and even in some way especially
respected. If I was accused of anything it would be of `petty-bourgeois
liberalism', the accusation frequently coming from a petty-bourgeois Communist
who was certainly no liberal. I, in my turn, would adopt the strategy in
dealing with others: I desperately wanted to be working class and - and
therefore - politically correct. Or was it that by being politically correct
one became working class?
The Party and `the movement' became my family, my club,
my church, my country, my universe. Joining the YCL we got membership cards
printed with words from Ostrovski's Socialist-Realist Soviet novel, variously
translated as How the Steel was Tempered or How Heroes are Made
( * ). I memorised the phrase and can recall it, at least in part, even
Man's dearest possession is life, and since it is given
to him to live but once...He must so live that dying he can say, all my
life and all my strength have been given to the greatest cause in the world,
the liberation of mankind'. ( * )
Despite the sexism here (as elsewhere in a novel of wooden
revolutionary heroism), there was a rough and ready egalitarianism between
the boys and the girls in the YCL. I suppose the girls did most of the
tea-making. They certainly did the actual crying the day Stalin died, whilst
we wondered what we should be feeling, swallowed lumps in our throats and
kept our upper lips stiff, manly and English. A Communist girl could easily
demonstrate, however, that she was as good as a Communist bloke. When we
wanted to discriminate we would accuse them of being petty-bourgeois
rather than female. `After the Revolution' we would joke, `the men will
have all the babies'. This quip is so rich in ambiguities that it would
take time to sort them out even today. The egalitarianism, such as it was,
made it difficult for me to start something sexual with a YCL girl. I fell
in silent, hopeless and miserable love with several of them instead.
In the summer of 1951 I went to the first of my four World
Youth Festivals, this one in East Berlin. It was some adventure for a 15-year-old,
just five or six years after the war. It was a unique and confusing experience,
though in those days of cast-iron certainties, confusion was something
Communists did not discuss and would rarely even admit to themselves. Berlin
was a mess of bombsites and swirling sandstorms. I envied my YCL acquaintance,
Monty Johnstone, translating for heroic youth-leader Erich Honecker just
outside Friedrichstrasse Station. Stalinallee (two years later the site
of the first major East-European worker uprising) was under construction
in bombastic Soviet weddingcake style. All the adults we saw had been involved
in Nazism. How could I possibly tell the (ex-Nazi? ex-SS?) doctor who gently
and efficiently treated my infected and swollen ankle that it belonged
to a Jew? The young Germans were now in blue uniforms, marching under the
blue and gold banners of the Freie Deutches Jugend to the music of brass
bands. They sang what we irreverent and undisciplined Brits (who couldn't
even agree to wear a uniform of grey trousers and white shirts) called
the Bow-Wow song:
Bau Auf! Bau Auf! Bau Auf! Bau Auf!
Freie Deutsches Jugend, Bau Auf!
When anti-Communist leaflets fluttered down from West
Berlin, FDJ zealots grabbed them out of our hands. As I `helped' them,
I stuffed one into my shirt so that I could have it translated and judge
it for myself at home. Without telling a friend, or even my brother David,
I broke ranks and went by U-Bahn two stops into West Berlin (I forgot to
get a return ticket and it was a long, hot and dusty walk back). We hugged
the squat, bemedalled and shockingly made-up women singers from the North
Korean army, currently locked in war with British working-class soldiers
on the other side of the world. I learned and sang Bert Brecht lines or
verses in German. This felt good. I was neither English nor Jewish but
a member of an international community of nationalities and races. We were
joined indivisibly by an unsingable song that began, `One great vision
unites us, though remote be the lands of our birth'. Brian, a proletarian
South London Jew who knew some German, carried fraternisation further than
me. He actually `had sex', pointing a drunken finger to the proof on his
trouser front. I was simultaneously amazed, disgusted and deeply envious.
Dazzling international, Communist and sexual vistas beckoned from the horizon.
I left my middle-class liberal school to finish my education
in the more plebeian, bracing and adult atmosphere of Regent Street Polytechnic
in Central London. I met socialist Israelis, South Africans, Pakistanis,
Nigerians, and Americans. Romantically - again - I had my first sexual
experience and relationship with a coffee-coloured girl from what was then
called British Guyana. This first relationship was not a very happy one,
mutual sexual inexperience and anxieties aside. Adrienne was, for example,
interested in modern dance and anarchism - both self-evidently petty-bourgeois
activities. And I could not tolerate the fact that she was not a Communist
(was she or was she not from a British colony, for chrissake!?), nor even
that she was an independent human-being. I was determined to impose my
will on her, much as we Communists were going to remake the world in our
In pursuance of the second objective, I got myself arrested.
This was on a Save the Rosenbergs demonstration. It was not so easy but
I was angry, frustrated and determined. In the same mood, presumably, mum
said something loud and unparliamentary from the Public Gallery and got
herself ejected from the House of Commons. The legal execution of the Rosenbergs
was acutely felt at home. They were, after all, a middle-class, leftwing,
Jewish couple with two boys... My grandfather, who had a wry sense of humour,
said `and if the secret of the bomb they did give to the Russians,
the Nobel Peace Prize they should get!'. It was what we were all feeling,
although none of us would admit that the Rosenbergs might have been guilty
as charged. Any fullblooded Communist would have been prepared to lie,
spy and die for the Soviet Union and the inseparably linked World Revolution.
If I did only the first of these, it was, I suppose, because I had total
faith in the rationality of our cause and therefore in the possibility
of convincing people of the superiority of Communism. My half-truths
and repressions were therefore justified as `interpretation' or as `only
giving people such information as they can understand'. Our identification
with the Soviet Union and with the Rosenbergs was just part of a wider,
indeed all-embracing, sense of the world and commitment to international
solidarity. For me it was certainly the first or second of the two attractions
of the CP. The other was, of course, the identification with the wretched
of the earth - the working class and oppressed peoples.
I had no academic inclinations at all, although I loved
social history and read voraciously. I didn't even have an image
of the university so many of my friends saw themselves destined for, and
which my parents so much wanted us to attend. In the end, and in our own
time, both David and I got ourselves advanced degrees. But at the age of
17 or 18 I wanted only to get out and make the increasingly-overdue revolution.
I did a one-year journalism course at Regent Street Poly, editing and running
up a debt on the student paper. There was no real student movement at this
time, so our little bunch of cosmopolitan Communists, fellow-travellers
and leftist Jews could easily dominate the Student Union. But we couldn't
get the students to buy its paper. And when a non-Communist Irish nationalist
we had put up for union President turned coat and mobilised the otherwise
apolitical Engineering Department, they wiped us out. I began to write
occasional items for the YCL weekly, Challenge. These were mostly
on foreign issues. There was a piece on intervention against the elected
government of British Guyana and another on the US-backed coup in Guatemala.
I liked editing and layout and wanted to become the editor of Challenge.
Instead, age 19, without a university education, and definitely wet behind
the ears, I landed myself a job in the international Communist movement.
The professional: Prague winter, Prague spring,
Prague 1955-8: we were the youth
Although the British CP had no influence in the National
Union of Students at this time, it was certainly interested to have its
people in the Communist-controlled International Union of Students in Prague.
And, particularly since its official language was English, the IUS was
interested to have English people there, both in political and technical
capacities. Indeed, the pioneering Communist spirit was still strong enough
at the IUS to allow us - representing no one - to sit and vote in its interminable
Secretariat meetings. In London I had to fill in a form for King Street,
carefully balancing the spontaneous self-praise and the ritual self-criticism.
I was not to tell anybody I had got this job - although I don't suppose
the Class Enemy was worried: Britain, as Harold MacMillan was telling Britain
in the mid-50s, had `never had it so good'. Around this time my parents
decided to change their name from Wasserman (which no one in England could
pronounce, and which was in any case an assumed name of my father) to Waterman.
Embarrassed at abandoning a Jewish name, I was also relieved to have an
English one to take to a Communist world that I knew to be suspicious of
Jews. My army call-up papers arrived while I was attending an obligatory
CP residential school on imperialism. I was rushed out of the country and
spent two or three weeks as dangling man in Paris, where I fell in love
with the beautiful Egyptian Mimi (rather than her more socialist, more
interested but plainer friend). I spent my time taking `neo-realist' photos
of Paris street life with the tiny 35mm camera my mother had given me as
a farewell gift.
I was to be English Editor, and therefore Chief Sub-Editor,
of the IUS monthly, World Student News, for some two and half years.
Given that this organisation was supported from above by the Communist
states, that there was no mass European student movement at the time, that
WSN was published in Prague, and was sent out free of charge, there was
no reason why it should be attractive in form or relevant in content. It
was neither. It was, in fact, fairly ghastly in content, style and appearance.
My English predecessor (a working-class bloke who had learned his journalism
on the Daily Worker) had, moreover, picked up the Soviet journalistic
practice of not so much publishing all the news fit to print as rewriting
or inventing the news to fit the line. To my horror and anger he did this
in my absence to my first report, on the 1955 Warsaw Youth Festival. My
idea was that revolutionaries could and should put into practice the ethical
preaching of liberal journalism: I thought Our Morality was Better than
Theirs. I was also prepared to fight with the Russian editor, Igor, who
was some kind of father figure since he had fought as a tank officer all
the way to Vienna. Igor was rather Germanic for a Russian, abandoning his
heavy caution on but few occasions. One was an anti-semitic slip of the
tongue, which he quickly withdrew. Another was an expression of disapproval
when I told him that Soviet tanks had reoccupied Budapest in 1956. A third
was about the mistake he had made on arrival in Vienna in 1945 in trying
to celebrate victory with a bottle smelling slightly alcoholic and labelled
Eau de Cologne. A couple of our fights were about coverage of anti-Soviet
student demonstrations in London 1956 (I lost), and democratic student
demonstrations in Prague around the same time (I won). Victories were disappointing,
since they were measured in words or centimetres, were invisible to anyone
outside the building, and never established any new principle. WSN certainly
improved in appearance during my time there. But my efforts to turn it
into something that would be both read and bought by Western students makes
tilting at windmills seem mundane.
I began to feel depressed about Czechoslovakia from the
time the train bringing me to Prague stopped at Plzen and I saw a myriad
grey-faced, olive-coated and silent figures shuffling home from work. I
could not really take to the Czechs, having ambiguous feelings about even
The Good Soldier Schweik, a character who made a fool out of the
Austrian occupiers of Bohemia by himself acting the fool - or was he acting?
The Czechs were not and are not heroic. What they are good at is withdrawing,
refusing cooperation, and surviving the overlordship of more backward but
more powerful states. These were qualities that did not much appeal to
me at that time, our historiography and hagiography being dominated by
strikers, uprisings, insurrections, revolutionaries and wars of liberation.
We were more attracted to Notes from the Gallows by the Communist
journalist and resistance martyr, Julius Fucik, patron saint of the Union
of Czechoslovak Youth. The Czechs, in any case, only came publicly alive
for six months in 1968 and again in 1989. There were one or two women interpreters
or other technical staff in or around the IUS of whom it was whispered
that their husbands had been involved in the anti-semitic show trials of
the early 1950s. The Czechoslovaks at the IUS were already plunged into
a post-trials lassitude and depression that would last until 1968. In two
and a half years in Prague I was invited to only one or two homes of Czechoslovak
staff - tiny havens of private respite from a public world they increasingly
feared or disliked.
The foreign community at IUS was, however, highly congenial.
It consisted of red-hot young Communists from Guatemala, Iraq, Scandinavia,
Japan, Australia, Italy and elsewhere. Largely isolated from the Czechs
by our lack of the language, and by the Czechs' fear and apathy, we spent
much time together in our dingy little pension. Mostly young men, we exchanged
life stories, recipes (an escape from the heavy and monotonous local cuisine),
argued politics, got heavily pissed on excellent beer and petrol-like slivovitz,
fantasised about each other's foreign wives or Czech girlfriends, complained
about the Czechs, Czechoslovak Communism and the IUS bureaucracy.
In Prague I met students of the later-famous Prague Film
School, where they liked my photos of Paris and London. I toyed with the
idea of going to the school and getting into film-making. I had my second
relationship, with Zuzana, an attractive, intelligent, pony-tailed and
peasant-skirted student of English, who was certainly more interested in
my knowledge of English life and literature than my faith in Communist
myth and dogma. When, some years later, she visited the West for the first
time as an interpreter, she wrote to me in the UK, expressing her feelings
of being in a `normal country' and her anger at my postal propaganda letters
from the UK. I hitched with her, an Icelandic girl and a Slovak friend
to the mountains of Slovakia. Here, on another occasion, I got stopped
in the muddy Danubian plains, by what we called the polizei, for
the second or third of several occasions in Czechoslovakia. Within the
IUS I also got into trouble, proposing an egalitarian wage and housing
policy whilst knowing that most of the East Europeans were being paid and
privileged by their embassies. Although he only spoke to me personally
once or twice, I knew that IUS President, Jiri Pelikan, admired my brass
nerve. I followed from afar the creation of the British New Left, in which
my old family, school and YCL friend, Raph, played a leading part. Whilst,
on the one hand, the New Left were obviously a bunch of petty-bourgeois
intellectuals and, as such, self-condemned, I nonetheless said that we
had to see what came of their effort. I felt myself buffeted by conflicting
sides in the arguments of Communists and socialist ex-Communists. I settled
down as a convinced `revisionist' (i.e. liberal or democratic) Communist.
I felt more comfortable being wrong inside the Party than right outside
it. But I also began to feel the need for the university education most
of my colleagues and friends had. There was so much I didn't know and couldn't
understand. But I wasn't qualified for university entrance, and I still
wanted to make the revolution.
Britain 1960-65: a stranger in working-class Britain
Back in the UK I had to do my two years' military service,
thus at last living with the working class I had so much wanted to merge
into. This was my first extensive visit to the foreign country of working-class
Britain. As 23559089, Private Waterman, of the Royal Army Service Corps,
I discovered the young British worker of 1960 to be not particular about
washing his feet, incapable of darning a sock, politically apathetic but
amazingly tolerant. I was, after all, the only Jewish squaddy, the only
one who had been to grammar school, the only one to be a Communist, the
only one to have ever travelled abroad, the only one to say `fucking hell'
instead of `fuckinell', and the only one who read both Hank Jansen's lurid
and sadistic crime novels and Tommy Jackson's Historical Materialism.
I sabotaged our collectively-purchased radio, which was endlessly pumping
out the 1960 Top of the Pops - words and tunes that are still buried somewhere
in my memory. I got my jaw broken by failing to either sit down or put
up at the right point in an argument, thus demonstrating the profundity
of cross-class cultural differences. Although the army kept me out of its
officer corps and educational staff, it mysteriously permitted me to spend
a year in pretty Hameln (the Pied Piper town) in West Germany. Here I learned
a useful smattering of German and sneaked out of the barracks to photograph
a rally of drunken former SS soldiers, some wearing uniform. More than
anything else, the army was a fat two-year bore. The major topics of conversation
were fucking, football and fags, though not necessarily in that order.
The blokes were amazed that I had actually slept in bed with women, rather
than doing it standing up in an alley, and were profoundly shocked that
one of the beds had been at home and been used with parental knowledge
and approval. They couldn't understand that I didn't smoke, repeatedly
asking me to `crash the ash'. I had a new and pathetic dream, of standing
there puffing out a cloud of nicotine fumes with the best of them.
Back in Civvy Street I found my Prague experience an obstacle
to a decent job, or even an indecent one with the YCL or Party (the editorship
of Challenge went to a reliable and unimaginative YCL official with
no journalistic qualifications). I got boring sub-editing jobs with two
trade magazines, where I had to wear my godawful grey suit. I recruited
for the National Union of Journalists. And I slipped out lunchtimes and
worked evenings as co-editor of Youth Against the Bomb. I was one
of many premature Communist supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,
a point I later made at a `London Party Aggregate' on the Peace Question,
at which it switched its old correct line into a new correct line without
so much as a hiccup. (I will be eternally grateful to whoever it was who
said that a `question' for Marxists is something for which they don't have
an answer). I got myself out of my dead-end jobs by entering the union-linked
Ruskin College and then the University of Oxford, where I eventually earned
a respectable degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I found Ruskin
petty-minded and conservative, and the University intolerably bookish,
arid and elitist. The pressure of study was enormous even for me, with
a good grammar-school education, and some of my working-class Ruskin friends
broke down under it. For many years after Oxford I had a recurrent nightmare
of having to take an exam in mathematics (I am almost innumerate) in its
famous Examination Schools. I struggled to hold on to and develop my Marxism
in the face of unrelenting intellectual pressure. A few years before 1968
I produced what I called something like `An Anti-PPE Reading List'. This
included references to a philosopher called Marcuse, at that time almost
unknown - at least in Oxford.
Between Ruskin and the University I had a year driving
a truck for Coca Cola. This was bad for the truck and for my teeth (we
got a free crate every month and could fiddle more). But it again required
me to come to terms with workers, as distinguished from `the working class'.
Recruiting for the Transport and General Workers' Union meant - to my combined
shame and relief - that the T&G also paid a fine for an almost deadly
accident I had caused.
By now I had a wife. This was Ruthie, an attractive, impulsive
and creative nursery-school teacher, Dutch, Jewish and Communist, met on
a Ban the Bomb March, 1960. Where I was introverted, slow and uncertain
Ruthie was extrovert, fast and self-confident: she took the emotional decisions
for both of us. Ruthie was and is a spontaneous and enthusiastic internationalist.
In the 1980s - having turned herself into a sculptress - she built a monument
to the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. By 1965
we also had two kids. I needed a job, and the choice was between the Workers
Educational Association in Birmingham and the World Federation of Trade
Unions in Prague. Ruthie knew several languages, had lived on a kibbutz
in Israel, had travelled widely and was not attracted to the idea of Birmingham
(where, as we later found out, they are really nice but only speak Brumagem).
Prague 1966-9: Stalin never sleeps
So, in 1966 I returned to Prague for some more well-paid
disillusionment with Communism, national and international. I could not
yet abandon the dream that had taken me into the movement, nor the community
(now actually a sub-community of dissidents) I found there. Disillusioned
church members must have the same difficulty of separating from something
which is not simply a community of belief but also charged with ethical
meaning and aesthetic appeal. What I also experienced was the difficulty
of taking total personal responsibility for my own judgments and behaviour.
No doubt this had to do with an underlying lack of self-confidence. But
I had also grown up within the British CP at a time of deep moral dependency
on the `revolutionary states' that already existed, or social and national
revolutions occurring elsewhere. This was a case not so much of export
of revolution as of revolutionary aspiration. It was also,
therefore, a period of maximum dependency among Communists. Authority and
initiative resided eventually in the Kremlin, where, as Soviet children
(and grown-ups) were told, `Stalin Never Sleeps'. Inside the CP, one could
always await the next issue of Labour Monthly, fall back on the
Party or, as a critic, blame it. Inspired by the optimistic evolutionary
rationalism of 19th-century socialism, moreover, I could not but assume
that the 20th Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956 had marked a turning
point for Communism and that Things Were Inevitably Getting Better. That
they appeared, or even were, worse could be explained by the dialectic
(the Communist word for God).
I had to do a three-month trial period before they would
confirm my employment at WFTU. This turned out to be for political rather
than professional reasons. I had not been either recommended or decommended
by the Party. Maybe word had come through from the IUS. The British CP
was increasingly involved with Little Britain and had lost interest in
most of these international Communist organisations, although it didn't
mind hearing from me on occasion.
I worked in the WFTU Education Department, ostensibly
responsible for the English-speaking developing countries. In almost three
years I produced one or two sets of educational brochures and ran not more
than three courses, though one was a substantial one in Nigeria. This was
not considered a low level of productivity by the WFTU, since the concept
was unknown there. The organisation was much bigger, more bureaucratic
and more moribund than the IUS - where at least the foreigners had still
been inspired by Communism. Unlike its predecessor, the Red International
of Labour Unions, the WFTU never produced even a leaflet on how to organise
a strike. There was, moreover, no library or documentation on Africa, even
in the African Department. I ordered some, privately, from the US. So the
basic WFTU documentation on African unions in the 1960s was provided to
it - free - by the US State Department. My Czech boss, Chleboun, was an
old Communist union bureaucrat who did not speak French, the working language
of the organisation. My Czech colleague and office-mate, Jarda - totally
disillusioned with the Party he had spent his adult life in - used most
of his time gossiping about his political experience. This was also unproductive
but it was highly educative.
We lived in Prague from 1966 to 1969, before, during and
after the famous Prague Spring. Again our circle of friends was a cosmopolitan
one, including a Jewish Communist family from Chile, a few of the younger
and more open WFTU staff, and a handful of Czechoslovak friends and neighbours.
We did not witness the Prague Spring and Soviet invasion, we lived it,
viscerally, with these friends and neighbours, and with a dozen or so foreign
friends who had come to see Socialism with a Human Face. We saw the dour
Czechs slowly come to life, gaining expression, smiling at one another
in trams, appearing on TV without ties. Together with the foreign friends,
scattered in flats over our housing estate, we saw this face pushed into
the mud by olive-green Soviet tanks, these being driven by catatonic pink-faced
18-year-olds from rural Russia. Their reasons for being in Prague were
much the same as those of their German opposite numbers thirty years earlier:
they had orders from their leaders; they believed their leaders; they obeyed
their leaders. When Czechs painted tanks with swastikas, or put SS flashes
in the middle of USSR, we at last got the message.
The day after the invasion and after a sleepless night,
I opened the front door to find Robin Blackburn (now Editor of New Left
Review) and his beautiful Chinese wife (who later died, tragically
young). She had her hair en bouffant and wore a chic green minisuit.
He carried a big red Samsonite suitcase. Who was living in the real world?
We were living in the khaki and iron socialist world of the 1940s
where politics was a matter of who had the most tanks and the least scruples.
In our world they painted on the walls, `A Nation That Oppresses Others
Cannot Itself Be Free (Karl Marx)'. They came from a brightly-coloured
capitalist world, with news of other 1968s, where students shouted `Demand
the Impossible Now'. As Robin and I watched the nervous Soviet tank crews
and anguished crowds in the debris-covered Wenceslas Square, he asked me
whether it was not time to break with Communism. Of course it was, but
at that moment I was more concerned with getting enough oil and petrol
to escape it if necessary. I also started having a new recurrent
dream: of five minutes on Soviet TV, during which I poured out scorn, ridicule
and righteous anger on Brezhnev, in front of an audience of 200 million.
What of the international Communist trade-union organisation,
confronted by mass popular and proletarian mobilisation against a foreign
invasion? Well when, after eight increasingly exciting months in 1968,
the Russians invaded, the most unpredictable thing happened. With but one
exception (the Soviet) the members of the WFTU Secretariat condemned it.
They also, it seemed, had not forgotten the dream, nor abandoned the hope.
They had witnessed Czechoslovak society coming gradually to life again.
They had begun to think a Communist regime could again be popular. Within
six months of the invasion, discipline and routine were re-established,
and even the Italians agreed not to raise the issue at a Council Meeting
in East Berlin. We, who with our Czechoslovak and foreign friends had been
totally identified with the Prague Spring, watched with dismay as the Czechoslovaks
accepted - even collaborated with - the re-establishment of order. I now
began wondering what sort of life existed on the other side of international
Communism. And whether I was at all qualified to earn a living in it.
The Third World came to my rescue. I never had the illusion
that I would develop it, but I also had not imagined how much it would
develop me. I had spent one month in Nigeria in early 1968, running a trade-union
course for the Communist-controlled Nigerian Trade Union Congress. Apart
from a trip to Cuba in 1963, as a prize in a photo contest, this was my
first visit to the Third World. I was fascinated by union life in Lagos,
but shocked and alarmed at the nature of Nigerian Communism, which was
definitely more Nigerian than Communist. I had brought with me $1,000 from
WFTU for the course, got no receipt for it, and calculated that the event
could only have cost a fraction of what had been sent. It was obvious from
the reactions of both the Nigerians and Chleboun, when I raised this matter
with them, that this was how they understood proletarian internationalism.
I spoke to many of the unionists in the NTUC, made longtime friends of
some of them, and collected piles of newspapers and documents. A young,
rather dumb, Soviet-educated economics lecturer at Lagos University asked
me - as a houseboy served whisky in his luxurious campus bungalow - why
I didn't apply for a lecturer's job in economics there. Since I can't count
and never felt at home with even CP-type political economy, I burst out
laughing. But in the Party's Executive De Inn, I also met a redhaired ex-South
African, Robin Cohen, another Jewish socialist, who was doing academic
research on Nigerian labour. He was later to become a teacher, friend and
comrade. And I was to become a university lecturer - first of all in Nigeria.
During the second half of 1968 the WFTU was more or less
paralysed, so I used my time to write up a 50-page report on the NTUC,
attempting to do so independently and critically (although not so independently
as to mention the financial funny business). This unique effort drew some
impressed mumbles from the Education and African Departments, which then
put it in their respective drawers and forgot about it. But the study helped
me to get into the Master's Course in West African Studies in Birmingham,
where Robin was now a teacher. This was the first such course I actually
enjoyed, pouring into it all the practical and book knowledge I had picked
up whilst at WFTU. I had never thought much of my own academic capacities
but, then, I began to think not so much of those of many of the academics
I came into contact with. Could it be that becoming an academic required
not so much intellectual brilliance as desire, effort, ingenuity and luck?
Conclusion: an international of the imagination
I did not drop out of the Party yet. Indeed, I re-joined
it on return to the UK (to my later shame, putting down Ruthie's name without
asking her first). In the District Office in Birmingham I was confronted
with District Secretary Frank and his memories of historical struggles
and strikes. Frank was a Scottish worker who still wore his proletarian
hobnailed boots. At this time Birmingham proletarians were wearing suede
Hush Puppies, driving secondhand versions of the cars they themselves produced,
and were - despite effective solidarity action by some of them at Saltley
Gates during the 1972 miners' strike - increasingly impervious to proletarian
romanticism. Leaving the UK in 1970 I finally cut (well, quietly dropped)
the umbilical cord.
From now on I would have to create my own international
solidarity, community, movement. Although I continued to travel widely
- and hopefully - for my work after 1972, my internationalist itinerary
would represent something less of a search for the crucial geographical
place and a privileged political base, something more of the creation of
a new international social space. In the coming period what would be required,
firstly, was an `international of the imagination', secondly an understanding
that communication was more crucial to a new internationalism than organisation,
thirdly the discovery that the new crucial role of the internationalist
was less that of the Agitator or the Agent than that of the Networker.
NB. This is an extremely limited selection from
a large and growing electronic database, kept on CDS-Isis. It covers internationalisation
and internationalism, and communication in relation to internationalism.
I would be happy to receive further contributions to this, as well as to
collaborate with others in its development. PW.
Adler, Ruth. 1989. `Ruth Adler: Woman of the Eighties',
in Jewish Women in London Group, Generations of Memories: Voices of
Jewish Women. London: The Women's Press: pp. 25-47.
Deutscher, Isaac. 1968. `The Non-Jewish Jew', in The
Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays. ????: ????. pp. ??-??.
Dijkstra, Sandra. 1992. Flora Tristan: Feminism in
the Age of George Sand. London: Pluto. 217 pp.
Freeman, Joseph. 1938. An American Testament: A Narrative
of Rebels and Romantics. London: Gollancz. 576 pp.
Goldman, Emma. 1977 (1931). Living My Life. New
Hobsbawm, Eric. 1988. `Opening Address: Working-Class
Internationalism', in F. v. Holthoon and M. v. d. Linden (eds), Internationalism
in the Labour Movement 1830-1940 (2 Vols.). Leiden: Brill. pp. 1-18
Lane, Tony. 1981. `Local History: A Merseysider in Detroit',
History Workshop, No. 11, pp. 138-153.
Leonhard, Wolfgang. 1979. Child of the Revolution.
London: Ink Links. 447 pp.
Lipietz, Alain. 1992. Berlin, Bagdad, Rio: La XXe Siecle
est Commence. Paris: Quai Voltaire. 158 pp.
Neruda, Pablo. 1977. Memoirs. London: Souvenir.
Ostrovski, Nikolai. ????. How the Steel was Tempered
or How Heroes are Made. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House
or New York: International Publishers. ??? pp.
Perrault, Gilles. 1967. L'Orchestre Rouge. Paris:
Perrault, Gilles. 1984. Un Homme Apart. Paris:
Editions Bernard Barrault.
Perrault, Gilles. 1987. A Man Apart: The Life of Henri
Curiel (Part I). London: Zed Press. 210 pp.
Thompson, Edward. 1978. The Poverty of Theory and Other
Essays. London: Merlin. 406 pp.
Torr, Dona. 1956. Tom Mann and his Times. Vol.I: 1856-1890.
London: Lawrence and Wishart 356 pp.
Trepper, Leopold. 1977. The Great Game: Memoirs of
a Master Spy. London: Joseph.
Waterman, Peter. 1991a. `Understanding Socialist and Proletarian
Internationalism: The Impossible Past and Possible Future of Emancipation
on a World Scale', Working Paper, No. 97. The Hague: Institute of
Social Studies. 66 pp.
Waterman, Peter. 1991b. `Social Movement Unionism: A New
Model for a New World', Working Paper, No. 110. The Hague: Institute
of Social Studies. 26 pp.
Waterman, Ray. 1985. `Memories of Proltet', in Samuel,
Raphael, Ewan MacColl and Stuart Cosgrove (eds), Theatres of the Left
1880-1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 149-55.