Robert James [1*]

Why did you join the party?

(July 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 60, July 1973, p. 11.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Years ago, a question much bandied about in the Communist Party was: ‘Why did you join the party?’. At this remove it is difficult to remember why this mild obsession took hold. Suffice it to say that the usual answer, in the immediate post-1945 period, had more to do with a feeling that ‘Joe Stalin would teach those bloody Germans a lesson’, than devotion to world revolution.

One or two of us would conjure up visions of lamp-posts tastefully decorated with hanging plutocrats, more to outrage our mums than as a short-term perspective for action. Apart from bloodthirsty juveniles, middle-aged Germanophobes, premature anti-fascists from the Popular Front and a sprinkling who actually joined when the CP was a revolutionary party, way back in the 1920s, there were also some splendid eccentrics. One I recall with considerable affection. His name was Fred; he was short, spare, wore a cap, muffler and Wellingtons and was seldom seen without an unlit, hand-rolled fag between his lips. These fags he seldom smoked; his intention seemed to be to dissolve them after the manner of boiled sweets. In the process they acquired a rich, juicy, brown appearance that defied combustion. At this stage Fred would pop them into a small cough lozenge tin. What he did with them then is not known, although there was some speculation that he used the soggy wrecks as a lethal insecticide in his job: tending the municipal gardens.

Fred seldom spoke at meetings, and despite the fact that he was obviously a poor man, kept a fully stamped card, paid all the party levies and his Daily Worker quota. Joining the party in 1929, he had lived, with complete unconcern, through the ‘Third Period’, the Popular Front, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the ‘imperialist’ and ‘anti-fascist’ phases of the war. A solid comrade, the backbone of the party, a dedicated street seller of the Daily Worker despite police harassment and the occasional arrest. He would never set the Thames alight – with his fags he would probably poison every fish in the lower reaches – but of such is the party built.

The last time I saw Fred to speak to was just after Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform. A local meeting had been convened for a party luminary to expose to us Tito’s long history of ‘Trostky Fascism’. Not many turned up and among those missing was the speaker – a not unusual occurrence. The chairwoman, a comrade much addicted to East European dirndl and extirpating heresy, permitted desultory chat until it became obvious that our speaker was engaged elsewhere. Marjorie, for that was her name, called the meeting to order and, so that the evening was not a complete loss, suggested that we explain – in turn – ‘why we had joined the party’. It may be that her object was to discover some comrade foolhardy enough to confess joining on a wave of sympathy for the Yugoslav partisans’ gallant struggles against the Chetniks and fascist hordes. If so, she was disappointed. Most of us had played the game before and had thumbnail sketches that reflected credit on ourselves, the party and, above all, Comrade Stalin.

That is, until we came to Fred. ‘Why did you join, Fred?’, he was asked. Crossing his legs, and in the process dislodging a fair-sized lump of council clay on the carpet, Fred took a long suck on his nauseating fag and explained: ‘I joined because I have been a life-long spiritualist. After considerable thought and communion with long-dead thinkers, I came to the conclusion that only under socialism could the genuine claims of spiritualism be scientifically tested and proved’.

Our chairwoman was caught in a horrid dilemma. Here was a splendid opportunity to denounce an insidious attempt to import religious opium into the party ranks, an attempt so subtle that it took 20 years in the unmasking. At the same time the culprit was an ace Daily Worker salesman, a top levy payer, a class war prisoner and a worker to boot. Before she could resolve this problem, one of the young female comrades, noted for light-mindedness, had asked Fred if he could read palms and bumps on the head, with the obvious intention of requesting an immediate investigation of her own bumps (a trick that most of us had been unsuccessfully attempting for some time).

Fred replied in the affirmative and proceeded with more enthusiasm than he had ever displayed before to disclose the secrets of life lines, mounds of Venus and other exotica. His dissertation was not without interest; it certainly beat Tito-bashing by a mile. It might well have gone on longer to our mutual edification and education, had it not been for one adolescent element, much given to tormenting his elders, who, removing his left shoe and sock, demanded to know if Fred could read feet. Apart from the objectively unwholesome character of the foot, Fred was clearly mortally wounded by such obvious lack of seriousness and the consequent hilarity among the younger and rowdier section of the branch. The meeting broke up if not in disorder, without the usual stirring injunction from Marjorie to go forth and multiply.

Fred never appeared at meetings again, although I did see him once outside the town hall sneering at the flowers, still sucking a soggy brown fag. By now he must be dead; he was an old man when I knew him. Perhaps, though, after the revolution he may get in touch again from the other side. All he needs to do is indicate the impossibility of reading feet and his 20 years for the party will not have been wasted.


1*. Robert James is a pseudonym used occasionally by Jim Higgins.

Last updated on 23.9.2013