The General Strike of 1926 was the turning point of my early political development. The high hopes raised when it began and what then seemed to me the “betrayal” of the workers by the Trade Union Council and the Labor Party, which had backed down in the middle of the fight, led me all the way into the Communist camp.
I became convinced of the reality of the class war and of the truth of the Communist thesis that Socialism could not be obtained gradually by Fabian methods. There was apparently no solution for unemployment and low wages under the capitalist system. Only its overthrow by the unity of the workers of the world under Communist leadership seemed to offer a way of escape from poverty in the midst of plenty, gross inequalities in income and opportunity, periodic economic depressions or crises, and “imperialist wars.”
The General Strike stirred all my emotions, the more so as I was then living at Westfield College among the most conservative set of University teachers I had ever met. My crude, somewhat childish, but I believe sincere, revolutionary reaction is expressed in a letter written to my mother in Devonshire on May 10:
I have never lived through such a terrible week. I feel all hot inside and trembling all the time. It is such an unequal fight for us, and I want so much to help. I am speaking tonight at Edgware, I am glad to say. I wish I could speak all day – never was there a more unjust issue and more lies told by a government.
Yet the government is so ruthless it may win. It is parading armored cars about and soldiers are all over the place. The buses are running with two policemen on each and volunteer O.M.S. labor. Everything is quite safe for ordinary people like me – I almost wish it were not! I cannot write properly, dear, I am too worried and upset. It is so dreadful not to be able to help and to have to listen to the misrepresentations of the capitalist press. Westfield is impossible except for a few students. I spent last night with the Boothroyds.*
I saw Wilmot, a well known humorist and cartoonist under the name of Yaffle, who is half expecting to be arrested for sedition. Anything almost can be called sedition. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the churches proposed terms of peace: withdrawal of both lockout and strike. The Government would not allow the proposal to be broadcast! It would be acceptable to us and not to them.
A few years later I was to realize that the behavior of the British government was like that of a loving mother in comparison to that of the Soviet government toward the Russian working class. But I still remember the passionate anger I felt in 1926 against the “capitalist government” and its most ruthless member, Winston Churchill, who was responsible for the show of armed force and was prepared to have the workers shot at if the strike went on. (Fifteen years later Winston Churchill was to become for a while the darling of the Communists and their fellow travelers, as also a hero in American eyes as Germany’s most implacable foe. But to me he seemed no more admirable then than in 1926, since he went along with Roosevelt in demanding the unconditional surrender of the German people which led to the Communist conquest of Eastern Europe.)
Today, I also realize how tolerant were the Principal of Westfield College and the staff members with whom I argued fiercely in the Common Room and who appeared to me in the guise of ‘class enemies’ or bulwarks of reaction. No one interfered with me, even when I took a group of the undergraduates to T.U.C. headquarters to offer our services.
The day I was invested with my M.A. degree was the day the General Strike was called off. After bicycling all the way from Hampstead to the Senate House in South Kensington and sitting impatiently waiting in a borrowed cap and gown to receive my scroll, I tore off to T.U.C. headquarters. The bitterness of defeat and the long agony of the miners which was to follow the end of the General Strike have obliterated from my mind the feelings of satisfaction I must have had in having finally achieved more than even Mrs. Burton Brown had expected of me.
My M.A. degree had been awarded with the coveted mark of distinction and a recommendation by the Senate of London University that my thesis be published, for which purpose £ 50 was made available. This led to my being appointed to the Ratan Tata Fellowship at the London School of Economics and Political Science which was one of the juiciest plums in the academic world of my time since it paid £400 a year for two years. I no longer had to worry about how to make enough money to provide for Mother, and a successful academic or political career was open to me. Yet it was now that I prepared to take the fateful step of joining the Communist Party.
The subject I chose for my research and for the book which I was expected to write for publication by the London School of Economics, concerned Eastern competition and the declining Lancashire cotton industry. This may sound an odd transition from my previous work on the Roman Empire, but as I saw it, there was a parallel between the economic and social effects of the competition of slave labor on the condition of free labor in the ancient world and that of cheap “colonial” or Asiatic labor on Western labor standards in the modern world. I had moved from the study of ancient to that of modern imperialism.
The book which I eventually wrote on this subject, entitled
Lancashire and the Far East* was to be published without the blessing of the London School of Economics because its principal. William Beveridge, objected to my indictment of British Imperialist rule in India and insisted on the revision of my chapters on India as a condition for his approval.
Subsequently knighted, Sir William Beveridge became famous as the author of the Beveridge Report which laid the foundations of today’s Britain’s “Welfare State.” He was an outstanding example of those, perhaps justly designated by the communists as “social fascists,” since his main concern was with the condition of the British working class whose livelihood depended on the preservation of the British Empire and the continued exploitation of its colonial subjects.
Following World War II the United States came to supply the subsidy formerly available for the welfare of the British laboring and middle classes for the maintenance of the standard of life to which they were accustomed.
For the most part, the L.S.E. professors, in contrast to those at Kings College and Westfield, were liberals and socialists. Graham Wallas, R. H. Tawney, Eileen Power, C. M. Lloyd (who was also foreign editor of theNew Statesman), and above all Harold Laski, to mention only some of the best known names of the lecturers at the L.S.E., exerted far more influence than the few conservative economists and political scientists who taught there.
I naturally felt very much in my element at the London School of Economics and Political Science and soon came to exert some influence there myself, after being elected chairman of the London University Labor Party.
My friend, Jane Tabrisky, who was Secretary of the L.U.L.P., was already a member of the Communist Party, and between us we largely controlled the show. Since London University was a constituency which sent two members to Parliament, our activities and influence had some importance outside college. On one occasion Herbert Morrison came over to address one of our meetings in a vain endeavor to stem the Left Wing tide which I was leading or being led by. This one-eyed right-wing Labor Party leader was a fighter and man of integrity and intelligence besides being a most eloquent speaker, and I respected him even while opposing him. He well deserved to become Prime Minister in later years but was passed over in favor of the colorless Clement Attlee who made no enemies, thanks to his ability to sit upon a fence.
I was also Vice President of the University Labor Federation which comprised the Labor and Socialist Clubs of all British universities. The President was Arthur Greenwood, M.P., a Cabinet Minister in the first Labor government. Elegantly attired, very tall and rather gaunt in appearance despite his liking for liquor, good natured, amiable, and convivial and apparently devoid of strong political convictions, Arthur Greenwood had charm and the impeccable good manners of the British upper class. He frequently invited me and other students to drink a glass of sherry with him on the terrace of the House of Commons, and these social amenities helped him to preserve unity between the warring right and left wing factions of the University Labor Federation. A federation which comprised all the colors of the left rainbow ranging from such avowed Communists as Professor Maurice Dobb of Cambridge, and the aristocratic Irish Earl of Listowel, to Colin Clark, at that time a boyish looking rosy-cheeked and intrepid right wing Labor man from Australia, today internationally known as a brilliant and enlightened conservative economist.
We were a society of ‘Lib-Labs’ and socialists or ‘progressives’ who managed to retain a comradely atmosphere in our debates because we imagined that we all wanted to achieve the same end, albeit by different methods. As also because we paid due regard to the old maxim that “the secret of a close community is toleration of each other’s idiosyncracies.”
Happy days of innocence before Moscow became strong enough to divide the sheep from the goats and the lions, with intent to destroy all who failed to at least act like sheep in the Bolshevik fold.
The majority of our articulate and active members were ‘Left of Center.’ Among them, the leading light was G. D. H.Coleand his wife Margaret, already well known as economic historians and later also to become authors of successful detective stories. This brilliant and versatile couple wrote humorous verse and staged skits on topical subjects performed by our members. It was largely due to them that the University Labor Federation meetings at Oxford and Cambridge were great fun as well as forums for earnest discussion of the great issues of our time.
By now. besides my stipend from the L.S.E.. I was earning quite high fees as a lecturer to extra-mural “Tutorial Classes” paid for jointly by London University and the Workers’ Educational Association. I was also making a little money and establishing a reputation as a writer by the articles and book reviews I contributed to such publications as the New Statesman, Labor Monthly, and The New Leader, and soon also to the Contemporary Review and other nonpartisan journals.
For the first time since I left school I had no money worries, and had embarked with a fair wind on the scholastic career which I had hoped to pursue a decade earlier while at Prior’s Field. As Arnold Toynbee’s future wife, who was at this time Secretary of the London School of Economics, was to tell me in America some twenty years after, it was confidently expected that I would become as distinguished a woman economic historian as Dr. Eileen Power, who was a member of the Board which had chosen me for the Ratan Tata Fellowship against all my male competitors. Such was not to be my destiny. I was too deeply involved in politics, or as I saw it then, in the struggle for the emancipation of mankind. The study of history could no longer satisfy me; I yearned too greatly to take part in making it.
In 1928, two years after I had won the Ratan Tata Fellowship, I abandoned my promising academic career. Forever, as it turned out, since a decade later when I emigrated to America after my disillusionment in Soviet Russia, my anti-Communist views were to preclude my obtaining a University appointment.
In later years I was to regret having so light-heartedly thrown away the opportunity given me long ago to become a professor and make teaching my career, for I liked to teach and was successful with my classes. Moreover, the chance then afforded me to live the contemplative life, which failed to appeal to me in my 20’s, seemed very attractive to me in my 60’s. Today, I would ask for nothing better than a secure niche in the academic world.
Yet even now, in the evening of my life, I do not really regret having by-passed the opportunity given me in my youth to acquire academic fame and material security. It would be very nice to have them, but I ask myself whether I would consider them worth the loss of the experiences, the freedom, the joys and the sorrows which have made life’s great adventure worthwhile, and have given me. if not any great measure of wisdom, knowledge obtainable only in a life of strife and struggle and an unending quest for the unobtainable.
As Temple, my long dead brother, expressed it, “We think there is something on the other side of the furthest ridge. There is not, but a further one. However let us go on looking for something we know is silly from all the viewpoints of others.”
The ‘motive patterns’ of socialism, to use Max Eastman’s expression, are various. As also the reasons why at various times and places, one man or woman or another has joined the Communist Party. My own case proves that it is not necessarily, or even primarily, poverty or lack of opportunity which makes Communists, since it was only after I began to earn a good income that I joined the Communist Party.
Nor would it seem to be true, to judge from my personal experience, that sex frustrations, or loneliness, or unhappiness in their personal lives lead both young and old to embrace the Communist faith.
I realize, in contemplating and endeavoring to analyze the motive forces of my life, that my unsatisfied longing for husband, home and children played a large part in impelling me into an increasingly absorbing political life. As also how true it is that, in Russell Green’s words: “The hobby-horse of one’s discontent becomes the Pegasus of one’s ambition.” But my decision to join the Communist Party came after I was not only on the way to realizing my worldly ambitions, but had also at long last found a man to love who loved me.
I first met my future husband Arcadi Jacovlevitch Berdichevsky when Boris Plavnik took me to his house on Goldhurst Terrace in Hampstead on a gloomy rainy autumn evening in 1926. I have no recollection of what we talked about as we sat sipping tea through sweets in the Russian fashion around the dining-room table where there may or may not have been a samovar. But how easy to recall and how difficult to convey by the printed word the current which passed between us, the look in Arcadi’s expressive eyes which made my heart beat faster, the humorous twist to his generous sensitive mouth, the touch of his hand at parting when we arranged to meet again alone.
We knew we loved one another after only a few meetings, and in the Christmas vacation we journeyed together to Herrenalp in the Black Forest for a premature honeymoon. Premature, since Arcadi was married and it was to take much time, travail and heartbreak before he could divorce his wife and become my husband in the summer of 1928 in Moscow.
Arcadi, whose love was to illumine my whole life, was a Russian Jew, whose family had moved during his boyhood from Odessa on the Black Sea to Lodz in Poland. After studying at Zurich University in Switzerland for his Masters Degree in Economics and Commerce, Arcadi had emigrated to the United States shortly before the first World War. In New York he had married the daughter of a well-to-do family of Russian Jewish extraction. Her name and patronym was Anna Abramovna and they had a young son called Vitia. They had begun to be estranged when Arcadi, in 1920, gave up a $600 a month salary as representative of an American firm in London, to work for only $150 at the newly formed trading organization of the Soviet government known as ARCOS.
By the time I met them in 1926, Arcadi had become Finance Manager of the Soviet Trade Delegation in London, at a salary of $500 a month, which in those days in England enabled him and his wife to live well in a large house with a servant. But he had become increasingly dissatisfied both with his personal life and his comfortable “bourgeois” existence.
Arcadi was not a Bolshevik, but had been a member of the Jewish Social Democratic Party, known in Poland as the Bund, and had retained his socialist ideals. In 1923 he had been asked to join the Communist Party, thus ensuring his future career, in the Soviet service. But he had the feeling that since he had played no part in the Revolution he could not join now that the fighting was over and membership in the Party had become a privilege. Also, and basically more important, Arcadi had the same repugnance as my brother to adherence to any creed or dogma. He wanted to believe that the Soviet Government could and would establish a Socialist order of society fulfilling the aspirations of men of good will for social justice, but he was never able to subscribe to the Bolshevik philosophy.
In spite of what Bertrand Russell called my incurable political romanticism, my father’s and my brother’s scepticism, and the distrust they had inculcated in me of those who profess altruistic motives, were not without influence on me. Arcadi attracted me precisely because he made fun both of himself and the lofty pretensions of the Communist ‘Saviors of Mankind,’ even while ready to work harder, and make greater sacrifices than most Communists, in order to help build the good society. He was as witty, intelligent, and charming, and far more handsome and virile than Walter Field, whom I had once loved, but who, as he told my brother, had run away from me in spite of wanting me, because he was afraid that life with me would be dangerous and uncomfortable.
Arcadi loved me for the very reasons which, as my mother had so often told me, were likely to prevent any man I liked from wanting to marry me. Far from wishing me to be a ‘good wife’ subordinating myself to him and my interests to his, Arcadi loved me because he thought I was different from most women. Being an attractive man, he had long since enjoyed a surfeit of feminine women, and was always concerned that I preserve my individuality, go on with my work, and not succumb to the temptation of becoming just another wife and mother.
Anna Abramovna, never having understood or sympathized with Arcadi’s socialist aspirations, could not see why he was not satisfied with a comfortable home, a pretty wife, a child and a well-paid job. To the last it remained inexplicable to her why he left her for me, since as she told their friends, I was not pretty and would never make him comfortable.
In the summer of 1927 I was invited to visit the Soviet Union in my capacity as Vice President of the University Labor Federation. My writings had attracted the attention of Ivan Maisky, then Counselor of the Soviet Embassy in London, and I was by this time well acquainted with the British Communist Party leaders. I had met Petrovsky. the Comintern representative in England during the General Strike, and became friendly with him and his wife without knowing his identity or even his real name. He then called himself Max Breguer and was masquerading as a “Nepman” – meaning a businessman – un-der the New Economic Policy dispensation in Russia which permitted a limited degree of private enterprise. I had accepted him as what he professed himself to be, namely a “good capitalist” friendly to the Soviet Government, and was astonished in Moscow to discover that he was a V.I.P. in the Communist hierarchy and its secret apparatus.
I was regarded, I suppose, as a promising young ‘bourgeois intellectual’ whose writings displayed appreciation of Marxist theory and whose conversion to Communism would have an impact on British Left Wing intellectual circles. I intended to join the Party as soon as I returned. The propaganda effect would be greater if I joined after, not before, I saw the U.S.S.R.
My excitement at my coming visit to the Land of Promise knew no bounds. My brother from his bed in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Surrey wrote me some words of caution:
My dear Freda:
This is just to wish you luck in your adventure. I think in one way you are quite right. I would do the same thing if I wanted to. I expect. After all, one must follow one’s own thinking and one’s own desires. It is an adventure, but I do not expect for a moment that you will find what you are seeking for intellectually. Men are much of a muchness everywhere, and they behave much in the same way whatever they profess to believe.
Of course you will see the country and the people and the society as you wish to believe they are, at first. But later, your scepticism will reassert itself.
But don’t join the Communist Party. It seems to me a terrible thing for any intelligent person to adhere to any creed or dogma; to have to say that you accept any empirical generalization as an article of faith. I do not see why you should not work for them and with them and yet reserve your opinion about their fundamental propositions.
These sweeping generalizations are to be distrusted. Even when you are dealing with a subject like physics – a subject by which human desires and fears are little affected in its findings, as more and more is discovered and its fundamental promises examined, you are all the time modifying and modifying.
And what a phrase that “materialistic conception of history” is: ‘Matter’ – the word is not really used in Physics. Bodies have mass and the mass of a body is its weight divided by the acceleration due to gravity. That is all Physics knows about it.
Matter psychologically is one’s sense of resistance – pushiness – quite different. Matter is also a “banner word,” a symbol with emotions attached to it used by various sects to throw at one another.
I must end half finished, or I will lose the post. I need another four pages to explain myself. Anyhow, the best of luck, my dear, and all my love.
Failing at that period of my life to appreciate my brother’s wisdom, I brushed aside his wise counsel as I had Bertrand Russell’s warnings. All their arguments seemed abstract. I could not see that they had any relevance to the concrete problem of how to establish socialism. I suppose I was then like a religious convert whose beliefs are no longer susceptible to reason or philosophical argument. I had faith in socialism as the answer to man’s age – old longing for justice and a well-ordered universe; I failed to perceive that Communism, with its false hope of establishing heaven on earth, was a substitute for religion, luring men to worship the devil under the guise of a great emancipator. I replied to my brother: “In spite of what you say, I must join the Communist Party. I cannot live without feeling I am doing worthwhile work. I see no hope in the Labor Party. I think the Communist thesis is right.”
Thus, I departed on my first visit to Russia in June 1927, full of enthusiasm and willingness to believe that the Communists were in the process of creating the best economic and social system which the world had ever known.