by Sean Matgamna
"Even such is time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days..."
— Sir Walter Raleigh
Henry Suss, who was for 70 years a member of the Communist Party, has died at the age of 91. Suss’s political experience was representative of a whole, Jewish, layer of the Manchester working class, and of many others. Last year a big book of interviews with Suss, by Dave Chapple, about his years in the Communist Party, was published:"Henry Suss and the Jewish Working Class of Manchester and Salford". I found it a scary, and in some respects, a terrifying book.
I read what in effect are his memoirs on the evening before I went on the big London "Stop the War" demonstration against the July 2006 Israeli-Hesbullah war in the Lebanon.
What I saw on that March made me think of Suss' experience, not as a matter of history only, but as a grim warning for young political people today.
Jews had always contributed a disproportionately large contingent to the Socialist and Communist parties. In the ‘30s, in a world which threatened them with fascist oppression and annihilation, very large numbers of Jewish workers turned to “communism” — to the Stalinist organisation.
In Cheetham Hill, which had been a Jewish area since the mid 19th century,and where many Jews worked in the garment industry, the main industry in the area, the CP and its youth organisation the YCL became a mass movement.
I knew Henry Suss, though as little more than a figure to put a name to.I knew the world of Manchester's Jewish CPers (my family settled in Cheetham Hill in the mid-1950s) a generation and more behind Suss and his close comrades: like them went from school to work in one of the numerous cutting rooms on and around Derby Street; joined the garment workers union; Cheetham YCL, by then, though still sizable, and with 3 or 4 times the number of all the Trotskyists in the whole city, shrunk (Suss' daughter, Linda, was in the YCL); and, as a Trotskyist, the Labour Party.I knew some of the people Suss recalls, such as the Gadians, Sol and Abe.
In the 1950s it was then still very much a Jewish world — the rag trade, the union, the CP and YCL, and to a considerable extent the Labour Party. At meetings of CP garment workers, the conversation frequently revolved around the doings of the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s association, where their opponents were entrenched.
You would still in the '50s find many traces of the once-upon-a-time mass influence of the CP in the area. I remember a foreman in one cutting room, Izzy, a decent man who in size and features looked like a pale-skinned Paul Robeson: firmly non-political now, he once playfully sang at me the Soviet Air force Song — “Flying higher and higher and higher… defending the USSR!…” — his face showing what it had once meant for him.
In the ‘30s, according to Henry Suss, even prosperous bourgeois in the area, like the car dealer Sid Abrams, gave money and the use of premises to the Communist Party.
Henry Suss got drawn into the CP when it still had something of a revolutionary movement about it. Soon in the mid-30s it turned sharply to the right, preaching a "popular front" against fascism, in which the CP, LP, the Liberal Party, and “progressive Tories”, would unite to oppose Hitler. Under Stalin’s orders this was the policy of the CPs everywhere in the world.
The CP had jumped to the right of the Labour Party’s right wing — which wanted not a coalition but a Labour government. It grew phenomenally in influence.
In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed an alliance to invade and carve up Poland, and Russia agreed to supply Hitler with materials for War. The CPs turned again... In their propagand, Hitler, yesterday’s fascist arch-demon, was “a man of peace”, the victim of British and French imperialism. Again the CPs were “anti-imperialist revolutionaries” —but only against the enemies of Russia’s ally Hitler.
The CP was “anti-war”, but in a highly partisan way: against Britain’s war, they were effectively pro-Hitler, propagandists for the foreign policy of Russia’s ally Germany.
When, not quite two years after the Hitler-Stalin pact, Hitler invaded Russia, the CP swung fully behind the government of the British Empire, the chief villain in their propaganda since September 1939.
Now they opposed strikes and wage claims. They organised scabbing on strikes they couldn’t stop. Party leader Harry Pollitt insisted publicly: “ Today it is the class conscious worker who will cross the picket line.” Everything for Russia and its allies!
When in 1947 and after, Britain and Russia became Cold War antagonists, the CP swung into opposition again… You will see the pattern.
In 1936, 1937 and 1938 Stalin put the surviving leaders of the Russian October Revolution on trail as traitors. Most of them were shot.
Now CPers had to accept the mind-bending absurdity that all the leaders of the Russian revolution, except Lenin and Sverdlov, who were safely dead, and Stalin, had been agents of hostile foreign government. Accept it or break with “the party”, “the revolution”, and “communism”.
At each turn there was of course a shake out. But the hard core — of which Henry Suss was one — remained. They learned to think in what was called “dialectics”: everything was relative, forever in flux, in line with Russia’s foreign policy needs
Opponents of the CP mocked them by singing a song to the turn of My Darling Clementine: “ Oh my darling, oh my darling party line/, you are lost and gone forever,/ dreadful sorry party line.”
The “cadre” of the CPs, good decent well-meaning people most of them, became in politics de-politicised political sleep walkers. Rigidly controlled, and rigidly self-controlled, they employed all sorts of Jesuistical tricks to keep themselves in line. Henry Suss, on his own account of it, was one of these too.
Russia and its rulers could do no wrong.
Suss comes through in these interviews as an honest but insufficiently self-examining militant who surrendered himself body, mind and soul, to “The Party” — which meant to the Russian government. The USSR and "The Party", these were the fixed reference points, politics and policies mere artefacts to be used, or jettisoned, as Stalin thought fit…
The interviewer, Dave Chapple, takes Suss through the main crises of the "Communist" party and the Russian Revolution. What you get is a scary portrait of a 20th century “revolutionary”, a “communist”, whose functional politics was a blind loyalty to the government of a foreign country and to a political apparatus, the CP, its franchised British representatives, both of which he thought embodied socialism.
Was Suss typical? Of a whole species numbering many millions across the world — yes, alas. Details would be different from person to person, from country to country, CP to CP, but the fetish of the USSR and its CP was common to them all; it was what made them Stalinists, whatever politics they were, for now, pushing.These once-critically-thinking, rebellous, aspiring people surrendered everything to those they took for the pre-ordained leaders of the world socialist revolution — and by doing that, they became the very opposite of what they started out to be, revolutionary working class socialist militants.
Suss and his millions of political sisters and brothers revolted against capitalism, wanted to fight for socialism; and their political spirit and energy was annexed, with their agreement, by the Stalinist movement and transmuted into something else.
Genuinely indignant at wrongs and ruling class crimes in Britain, they simultaneously defended similar and far worse things in the USSR, China, etc. The less worldly-wise simply denied what they didn’t want to know; the sophisticated ones might, in a lucid moment, have summed up their attitude like this: the concentration camps, jails and torture chambers of a socialist state are not the same thing as identical things under capitalism.
It is possible to see someone like Suss in one of two ways. As a “salt of the earth” militant, an unquellable foot soldier of socialism, communism and the labour movement. That, I think, is how the interviewer, Dave Chapple, sees him.
Or, as a tragic example of the typical Stalinist Movement militant — depoliticised, irresponsible, crassly ignorant of the socialism they sought to serve, obedient tools in the hands of the Russian Stalinist ruling class and its franchised "Communist Parties". These were "communists" who fought not for a cause consciously understood and used to measure societies, organisations, and people, but for a fetish — the USSR and its franchised “communist” party — which in their minds replaced the great Socialist cause and came to substitute for it.
It is impossible not to sympathise and empathise with such people on a human level, and impossible not to find something almost heroic in their doggedness. That is what makes the story tragic — the terrible, murdering, effect on the cause which, in their festishtic way, they sought to serve, of the depoliticised, soul and mind- surrendering, operationally mindless, way they worked for it.
But, even so, they were thinking, reasoning beings, like ourselves now, who made choices. Even if their thinking never got beyond the decision that “the USSR is the measure of all things socialistic”, and “Stalin" — like the Catholic Pope when speaking from St Peter’s Chair on "matters of faith and morals" — "can not be wrong” — thinking people is what they were. They made choices, which contributed to the degradation and rot of socialism, so far for generations.
A line (which I quote from memory) from a song about a mining disaster by one of those like Suss, a committed Stalinist, Ewan McColl almost sums up their tragedy:
“Through all their lives they dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone”.
The present state of the labour movement is the marking stone over the grave which the Henry Susses inadvertently dug for socialism in the 20th Century.
Of course those of us who became communists after Stalin's successor, Khruschev had denounced him as a paranoid mass murderer, thus shattering the mystique of the Stalinist papacy in Moscow, were luckier than those of Suss’s generation. Would we have seen through it if we had been of that generation? I would distrust anyone who confidently replies: “of course I would”. We can’t know. The earlier generations were not inferior to us, only more unlucky in their time, and in the situation they fell in with.
Marx truly wrote that it is the ideas of the ruling class which govern each epoch. It was the ideas of the Russian bureaucratic ruling class, disguised as communism, not the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, which dominated the “communist” , and "communist"-sympathising, segments of the labour movement to which Suss belonged.
The tiny forces of authentic Marxism were not able to compete with the powerful CP apparatuses and the plausible ideas of the “official” “communist” movement. After all a view which held that one sixth of the globe — and after the Second World War one third of it — were already socialist had more attraction and more holding power than the view that the Russian Revolution had been betrayed and subverted, and that the Stalinist Russian regime, as Trotsky wrote in 1938, differed from Nazism only “in its more unbridled savagery”.
That picture of reality — the only truly revolutionary picture in those conditions — was to people of Henry Suss’s generation, and especially after the victories of fascism in Europe in the ‘30s, as attractive as the view that humankind, and each individual human being, is alone on an island in space, each of us for a very brief life, en route to nothingness — as that view is to someone steeped and spiritually corrupted by the easy lies and fantasies of the religions.
The myth of the socialist USSR was the all-poisoning “noble lie”, the opium of Suss’s generation, and of others after it. The Stalinist Russian ruling class and its agents, the "Communist" Parties, won the battle of ideas against the Marxists who enlisted under Trotsky’s banner…
I saw a variant of the same thing now on the "Stop the War" march last Saturday.
Vast numbers of people, a lot of them young people, turned out to express their anger at the horrible spectacle of Israel, politically and diplomatically protected by the USA, pulverising Lebanese society and Lebanese people. They are right to be angry, right to want to “do something”.
They groped for slogans that would express their idignation, their instinctive siding with the weaker forces in the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict, and their need to see a possible solution. They were right to do that; in any case, in the nature of things they couldn’t do anything else.
They found themselves last Saturday on a march together with people intent on glorifying Islamic clerical fascism as authentic and progressive "anti-imperialism". Who sold advocacy of the wiping out of the Jewish nation under cover of indignation at Israel’s ill-treatment of the Palestinians and Lebanese. Like the Henry Susses and such unfortunate rebels of the past, who were "captured" by the Stalininst, they encountered a corrupt political machine that cynically manipulates, manoeuvres, lies. They are offered heroes like Saddam Hussein’s very good friend, Mr Galloway MP.
They found on the march a political party as undemocratic — more! — than the CPs were, its members given the choice of either expulsion or parroting the line decided by a narrow clique of leaders without principle — other than organisational (and personal now, it seems) self-proclamation and self-promotion.
They found a small number of people giving out literature urging them to think a bit more about the issues, about politics in general. Little has changed?
No — a very great deal has changed! The Stalinism our Trotskyist predecessors confronted was a world-wide movement with the wealth and the prestige of a gigantic state behind it. All that is gone. Compared with that, the “apparatus”, wealth, etc, of the SWP (and its satellite parties such as the Mandelite "International Socialist Group") is puny indeed. The forces of Marxism were infinitesimally small compared with the Stalinist behemoth. The ratio of forces between Marxists now and those who in their methods emulate the Stalinist parties is vastly more favourable to us.
The author of the lines of verse at the top of this column were, Sir Walter Raleigh, was an Elizabethan-Jacobean “renaissance man”, buccaneer, explorer, author of a history of the world, who was beheaded after a long imprisonment on the orders of his King, James I.
He put two other lines after those above, expressing his hopes for Christian salvation:
“But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God will raise me up, I trust.”
But there is no God to raise up either us or our movement. That we must, and we will, do for ourselves!