Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tom Wintringham

A sad aspect of the fragmentation of the Left, apart from blatant sectarianism, is an ignorance of the historical contributions made by people from different political traditions. So until reading the Last English Revolutionary, I knew next to nothing about Tom Wintringham. I found something very appealing about him – a Marxist theoretician (and practitioner) of guerrilla warfare with the appearance of an absent-minded academic. That he was also a keen motorcyclist and admirer of the English radical tradition dating from the Levellers also helped.

Not so long ago I would probably have dismissed him as just another Stalinist. In fact having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 he was also airbrushed out of their historical pantheon. However he remained a Marxist all his life and so was never accepted into the Labour mainstream. As a result he falls between a number of Left traditions and remains a relatively obscure figure.

A brief biography should show that he deserves to be better known: Born into privilege, he served in the ranks in the Great War as a dispatch rider. This radicalised him and he was imprisoned for mutiny. After the war as a student he visited Bolshevik Russia and was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Along with a number of leading Communists he was imprisoned for sedition in the run up to the General Strike of 1926. He went to Spain and became involved in the raising of the International Brigades, and later went on to command the British Battalion. Twice wounded in action he was invalided back to Britain, but clashed with the Communist leadership and was expelled from the party. At the outbreak of war he threw himself into the war effort under the slogan of ‘a people’s war for a people’s peace’. He was a pioneer of the Home Guard and with other Spanish Republican veterans set up a school of guerrilla warfare. He opposed the wartime electoral truce and set up the Common Wealth Party. After the 1945 election he joined the Labour Party and was involved in the peace movement until he died in 1949.

At one time various organisations used to talk about ‘unconscious Trotskyists’ – it was a way of laying claim to individuals and other organisations who probably wouldn’t be seen dead with them – a bit like Mormons retrospectively converting their ancestors. Despite the grounds given on his expulsion from the CPGB – that he had consorted with a ‘Trotskyist agent’ - Tom Wintringham certainly wasn’t a Trotskyist unconscious or otherwise.

He was however a serial womaniser, and the paranoid CP leadership distrusted his affair with Kitty Bowler, a wealthy American woman with general left sympathies. Wintringham was given an ultimatum to choose between her and the party and he chose her. But nonetheless there was also a political basis for the expulsion - unlike much of the CP, Wintringham genuinely believed in the Popular Front.

He had recoiled from the insane sectarianism of the CP’s ‘class against class’ strategy which saw other left parties as the main threat rather than the Right - a strategy that was undoubtedly instrumental in allowing the Fascists to come to power. In Spain he developed his idea of a people’s war, and a broad alliance that would take in all working class organisations along with ‘genuine democrats’ from the middle class. How much he knew of  the CP’s  suppression of other Lefts – the POUM and anarchists in Catalonia – is debatable, but he was appalled at the cynical sectarianism of the CP in Spain.

Most of all he was outraged at the CP’s endorsement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, which he regarded as a betrayal of the anti-fascist cause. It was this that drove his vision of ‘people’s war’, with the Home Guard not as the comic version of Dads’ Army and Captain Mainwaring but as a highly politicised militia based on factory workers such as the union militias of Spain or the partisan bands on the Eastern Front.

The Common Wealth Party was at the same time both a bizarre postscript to his political development and also its culmination. It was an odd alliance of Lefts discontented at Labour’s acquiescence to the wartime coalition and assorted oddballs such as the Christian socialists seeking a ‘moral revolution’. It also expressed Wintringham’s vision of a Popular Front that had a peculiarly English slant - even the choice of name revealed his vision of radical continuity going back to the seventeenth century.

Wintringham died in 1949 not long outliving the 1945 Labour landslide, after which he advocated the folding of Common Wealth into the Labour Party. Until his death he remained an eccentric and marginalised figure on the Left seeking inspiration from the regimes in China and Yugoslavia as alternatives to what he saw as an increasingly discredited Soviet Union, although he could still never quite bring himself to condemn Stalinism.

With the benefit of historical hindsight it’s very easy to condemn Wintringham’s failure to break with Stalinism. But it’s also easy to underestimate the magnetic pull that the first worker’s government had to those on the Left in the 1920’s and its ability to command continuing loyalty in the face of the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s. For people who supposedly believe that 'conditions determine consciousness' we Marxists are too often hyper-critical of people from the past who didn't arrive at a 'correct' position. I find this particularly distasteful when applied to individuals who have risked and endured far more than their critics.

It’s not necessary to have a party list of approved historical characters or to try and retrospectively appropriate   them to our own cause.  It's should be enough that we recognise them honestly.

No comments: