The Crisis of the Thirties: A View from the Left

[ Keep the Home Fires Burning ]

Keep the Home Fires Burning, Avrom, 1935-03-28, A communist suggestion that large metallurgical companies will benefit from rearmament

It’s very important, I think, to understand the Communist party if you want to understand the decade. [...]

At the beginning of the decade the CP [in Britain] was in a particularly weak position, but by the end of the thirties it was exercising an extraordinarily large influence in some sections of the working class and in some industries like mining, and a very wide influence amongst students and intellectuals and in the field of culture. This involved a move from an extraordinarily difficult period, a bad period if you like, in the life of the Communist Party at the end of the twenties and early thirties, to an extremely fruitful period in the middle and later thirties—from ‘Class against Class’ to the ‘United Front’ and ‘Popular Front’.

- 22 -

[In the 1930s] professional people, cultural workers, people in all types of creative activity, of different class origins, became conscious of the class nature of Britain, and committed to that class — the working

- 27 -

class—whose destiny it was to replace capitalist Britain by a socialist Britain. The class nature of Britain rose to the surface, as it were, in many ways, partly because of the economic crisis, partly because of skilful propaganda, explanation, education and writing. Important sections of the middle class, professional people, intellectual people, came to understand, to sympathize, to want to help, then to struggle with and alongside the working class.

Perhaps I am speaking too much from personal experience, but I suppose the unemployed struggle was one of the struggles that most exposed the class nature of Britain. [...]

When I was first sent, after a few weeks’ membership of the Communist Party in 1933, to a South Wales mining town, I met people (I was then twenty-one) older than me who had never worked at all, didn’t know what work was. I saw empty houses furnished with bits of wood and orange boxes, children without shoes, rickets everywhere; small shopkeepers ruined because their customers couldn’t buy; illness, tuberculosis (TB in those days was a dread word rather like cancer is now—it often signified that you were waiting for the end); emigration, either to other countries or anyway out of South Wales. And yet, in utter contrast to that, I experienced the humanity, wisdom, logic and dignity of the hunger marchers.

- 28 -


I remember the marches through towns like Oxford and Cambridge, the fraternization of students with the hunger marchers and, be it said, of hunger marchers with the students, which wasn’t so easy, going into these centres of the children of the rich. These were quite traumatic elements in the birth and growth of the student movement and broke down many resistances. We, an extraordinarily erudite and arrogant generation of Cambridge students, who thought that we were the best intellectuals, and that the intellectuals were the wisest of the community, we were still lost at the beginning of the thirties, often with immense knowledge but no philosophy, immense mental effort and activity but no purpose. And then we suddenly met up with people who knew where they were going, knew what they were doing, who could discuss a problem in a clearer, more coherent, more logical way than the most advanced ‘double first’ amongst us. And do so with a resilient humanity absent from the typical intellectual of the time, where there was a constant kind of internal strife, deep introspection, a not uncommon suicide. [...]

- 29 -

Like all things, you have to see it as a process. People became committed in different ways, some more rapidly, some by classic slow stages. For some it started as a feeling of guilt: you could have upper-class people, public school people, Church people, orthodox Christians, philanthropic people, finding these conditions, feeling guilt and wanting to help. And then came a process of being drawn in to active help in one or other sphere—nutrition, against war, medical aid for Spain, the unemployed, collections, demonstrations, posters. And then, in the process of struggle, came the first meetings with the working class and the closer identification with the heart of the struggle. Then the understanding of the relationship to capitalist society, of the causes of the issues on which you were struggling, and then finally the commitment to belong to this or that organization, in the last analysis a revolutionary organization implicit in the need to change society.

- 30 -

By 1933 more people were joining the Communist Party in the universities; it began to develop into something like a movement.

Source: James Klugmann, "The Crisis of the Thirties: A View from the Left" in Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolies, and Carole Snee (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979), 22-23

Return to parent page