A fighter who got lost

Issue: 107

John Newsinger

A review of Hugh Purcell, The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham 1898-1949 (Sutton, 2000), £20

‘You probably have not heard of Tom Wintringham,’ writes Hugh Purcell, ‘but by the time you have finished this book I hope you will agree that you should have.’ And he is absolutely right. Wintringham is one of those people who was well known when he was alive, but subsequently disappeared from view. His falling out with the Communist Party (CP) in 1938 meant that he was effectively airbrushed out of their history and his refusal to embrace the Labour Party until just before his death excluded him from theirs.

Instead, according to Purcell, he stands alone, as someone who attempted ‘to explore a distinctively English way to revolution’. This is, however, not the case. What Wintringharn really stood for at the height of his influence was a popular front politics that never really took off in Britain. This is the real reason for his neglect. Nevertheless, Purcell does make a very good case for a sympathetic re-examination of the man and his politics.

Wintringham was born in Grimsby in 1898, the son of one of the town’s most prominent families. He was educated at private schools before joining the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Here he broke decisively with his family background by serving in the ranks as an air mechanic. After the war, he went to Oxford University, but as someone who had moved dramatically to the left. He visited Soviet Russia in 1920 where he worked as a translator, meeting John Reed
among others. As Purcell notes:

‘Moscow 1920 remained in Tom’s mind as the practical affirmation of his faith in socialism. This was not the Moscow of the 1930s with its paranoia, purges and misery. The mood was youthful, idealistic and free. It was still the revolution of the Soviets rather than the dictatorship of the Communist Party.’

Wintringham returned from Russia a committed revolutionary socialist and in 1923 he joined the Communist Party. Within the party, Wintringham was associated with Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt in their efforts to ‘bolshevise’ the party, to turn it from a propagandist into a fighting organisation. He was appointed assistant editor to the party newspaper, the Workers’ Weekly, and was considered dangerous enough by the authorities to be one of the 12 party leaders imprisoned in the run-up to Britain’s 1926 General Strike. Wintringham served six months and was only released weeks before the battle began. He was responsible for the covert publication of the party’s Workers’ Bulletin, the mere possession of which could earn a prison sentence.

Purcell begins to have difficulties with Wintringham’s transformation into a Stalinist apparatchik in the aftermath of the General Strike. He went along with the Communist International’s Third Period turn and its ultra-left sectarianism without a word of complaint. Purcell suggests that he kept his head down during this period, but this is not really credible. One feature of the Third Period was precisely that party members could not keep their heads down, particularly if they had Wintringham’s class background. Moreover, Purcell acknowledges that he ‘penned his share of “class against class” agitprop’, attacking both the Labour Party and the left wing Independent Labour Party as fascist organisations.

More important, he played a key role in launching the Daily Worker, and only someone fully on board the Third Period madness would have been in such a responsible position. Purcell, it has to be said, never really gets his head around the way that men and women like Wintringham, in many ways admirable, nevertheless willingly subordinated themselves to the dictates of Moscow, no matter how disastrous. He is not, of course, alone in this.

Wintringham clearly welcomed the Communist International’s 1935 popular front turn. The embrace of the broadest possible alliance against fascism seemed to offer the CP a way into the political mainstream. Wintringham was very much to the fore in this endeavour, becoming the party’s military expert and commentator. He put his money where his mouth was by going out to Spain to serve with the International Brigades fighting against Franco in 1936.

As Purcell makes absolutely clear, Wintringham wholeheartedly endorsed the Communist line in Spain, including the repression of the revolutionary left, most notably the POUM. Indeed, he joined in the slander of the POUM, whose leader, Nin, was tortured to death by the Communist secret police. Nevertheless, it .was in Spain that he began to fall out with the party.

Wintringham seems to have believed every lie that the CP told about the POUM, every lie that they told about the victims of the Great Terror in Russia, and every lie that they told about Trotsky and the Trotskyists and their collaboration with the Gestapo. What he refused to swallow was the denunciation of his American lover, Kitty Bowler, as a Trotskyist. His refusal to break with her led to his expulsion from the party in October 1938. In Russia, of course, such a stance would have cost him his life, but Wintringham never grasped this. His disagreement was with the British party and he never uttered a word critical of Stalin. Purcell has difficulty with the way that Wintringham’s experiences never actually led to him denouncing the Moscow Trials or Stalin’s murderous regime. Indeed, he was to remain an admirer of Stalin right up until his death in 1949. Purcell does not adequately get to grips with the remarkable hold that Stalinism had on so much of the left, even outside of the Communist Party.

Wintringham rationalised his break with the CP with the argument that whereas he had wholeheartedly embraced the popular front as the way forward, for the CP it was merely a tactical manoeuvre to be cynically taken up and just as cynically put down. He argued that Communist conduct in Spain demonstrated how skin deep the party’s popular frontism really was. And, of course, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 which led to the popular front being unceremoniously thrown overboard bore this out.

Purcell is much too uncritical of the popular front politics that Wintringham was to try to sustain throughout the Second World War. Far from offering a way forward, they were to inevitably end up with his joining the Labour Party after the war. To be fair, however, there was some way to go before this result became clear.

A good case can be made that Wintringham actually achieved his greatest influence during the Second World War. He was one of a number of individuals (George Orwell, a great admirer of his at this time, was another) who believed that Britain was approaching a revolutionary situation in the summer of 1940.

Defeat had completely discredited the old order and growing resentment at continuing inequalities and injustices in wartime was fuelling widespread unrest. The organisation that Wintringham saw as potentially decisive in any revolutionary outbreak was the Home Guard. To a generation raised on Dad’s Army this seems positively ludicrous, but at the time there were significant numbers of people for whom the Home Guard was the arming of the workers and for whom this was a guarantee against any compromise peace with Hitler. Wintringham established a training school for the Home Guard at Osterley Park and taught revolutionary guerrilla warfare to thousands of volunteers, much to the alarm of the government. His New Ways of Warfare, published in 1940, sold 75,000 copies in a couple of months.

The revolution proved stillborn, however. If Britain had been invaded or if a collaborationist government had taken power the Home Guard might have become an important part of the British resistance, but instead Churchill’s Conservative-Labour coalition government successfully contained the unrest. The authorities took over Osterley Park and Wintringham and his fellow thinkers were pushed aside.

He continued his campaign for ‘the imperialist war to be turned into an antifascist
war’, arguing the case in his book The Politics of Victory, published in June
1941. This coincided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, which saw the CP turn from opposition to the war to enthusiastic support for it. This support extended to the Churchill coalition government and involved ferocious opposition to the sort of regrouping on the left that people like Wintringham were trying to bring about. He was one of the architects of Commonwealth, a loosely organised movement that attempted to challenge the coalition. For its pains Commonwealth was denounced by the CP as ‘crypto-fascist’. Although it achieved some success at wartime by-elections, Commonwealth was never to overcome its middle class origins. If Labour had remained in a coalition with Churchill in 1945, as the CP had urged, the movement might have achieved some sort of breakthrough. As it v.ras it never managed to go beyond middle class radicalism.

In 1945, Wintringham published his bestselling attack on the Tories, Your MP, which sold over 200,000 copies-but it actually helped Labour into power. Only one Commonwealth MP was elected and Wintringham subsequently joined the Labour Party. His popular frontism led relentlessly to the embrace of reformism. Wintringham was to die prematurely in 1949 and was, sad to say, soon forgotten on the British left.

Clearly Wintringham is an interesting figure, someone who had a considerable impact during his lifetime, but whose politics, in the end, were found wanting. Purcell sees him, if he had lived, as a future Eurocommunist, a contributor to Marxism Today. This seems most unlikely: Wintringham was much too much a man of the left to have ever been comfortable in that particular milieu. Much more likely is that his failure to break intellectually with Stalinism together with his continued popular frontism would have seen him embrace some sort of Third Worldism. This would probably have been irresistible in the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution of 1949.

Of course, this is all so much speculation. Whatever he might have become, his life provides a useful case study of the impact of Stalinism on one of the more independent thinkers on the left in the period between the two world wars.