Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 1


Michael Tippett (1905–1998)

THE CAPITALIST press came to bury him under praise. Some of them mentioned his episode in the Communist Party, but (with the honourable exception of Meirion Bowen’s obituary) ignored the important fact that he joined the Communist Party with the intention of converting its members to Trotskyism.

The Trotskyist press afforded him little more respect, at best regarding him as a minor member of a minor group. My intention here is to propose a contrary view – not only that Trotskyism was an important element of Tippett’s development, but also, insofar as the documentary evidence is available, that Tippett was a valuable individual contributor to the Trotskyist movement in Britain. We have a right to be proud of the fact of his participation, and a responsibility to enquire further into the fact of the impossibility of his remaining with us.

Tippett’s autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues (London, 1991) gives a good account of the revolutionary elements in his background (whilst not seeking to cover up the fact that they were a ‘comfortable middle-class’ family with servants). His mother was a suffragette, an active member of the Women’s Freedom League (founded by Tippett’s cousin, Charlotte Despard), as well as of the Labour Party. She was arrested and briefly imprisoned in 1911 for demonstrating unlawfully near to the Houses of Parliament. The young Tippett accompanied her on visits to the East End of London to deliver soup to the hungry poor.

As a schoolboy, he found rebellion in atheism, when he refused to play the piano for the daily hymn singing, and subsequently refused to join the military cadet corps which was de rigeur for prefects. His time at school was made difficult by his growing awareness of his gay sexuality, but the reason for his expulsion was his refusal to attend daily prayers. He remained pragmatic enough to exchange singing in a church choir in exchange for receiving organ lessons.

Those Twentieth Century Blues is not a straightforward chronological account, and it does not focus strongly on the author’s political experiences. In some areas, it is clear that Tippett is writing reticently, and this is particularly the case in relation to his experiences of Trotskyism, and the relationships between his politics and his art.

We can see a phase in the late 1920s and into the 1930s where Tippett’s music and his politics are strongly linked. From the late 1920s onwards, Tippett had known and worked with the composer Alan Bush, a long-time Communist Party member. Bush was the conductor for the London Labour Choral Union, and was an important figure in cultural politics. Tippett and Bush collaborated in the 1934 Pageant of Labour, in celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and in 1935 at the Strasbourg International Workers Music Olympiad – a major anti-Fascist manifestation. In 1936, Tippett became an executive member of the newly-formed Workers Music Association.

In 1934, he wrote a ‘ballad opera’ with the title Robin Hood, which, in his own words ‘enabled me to reinterpret the legend of the famous outlaw in terms of the class war then dividing English society’. This and other early revolutionary pieces are never performed today. In his autobiography, Tippett refers to ‘an Eisler-ish piece called Miners’, as well as a setting of William Blake’s Song of Liberty.

In the early 1930s, Tippett involved himself directly in questions of working-class culture. He became the conductor for amateur choirs organised through the Co-op in South-East London, and subsequently in the London Labour Choral Union. In 1932, he formed the South London Orchestra, based at Morley College, to find work for unemployed musicians (there were large numbers of former cinema musicians made redundant by the development of sound on film). He also worked in work-camp projects in Northern England, where community self-help schemes were being developed in the face of unemployment following mine closures. There he organised performances of The Beggar’s Opera in 1933, and in 1934 of his own Robin Hood.

‘In the mid-1930s’, Tippett’s cousin Phyllis Kemp began to involve him in discussions about Marxism. In response, he read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (which had been published by Gollancz in 1932–33) and John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. He must also have had access to more immediately oppositional literature, because he writes that at this time he regarded Stalin as ‘inherently a tyrant’, and the Communist Party as ‘slavishly Stalinist’.

In his biography of Tippett, Ian Kemp states that these ideas came from the propaganda of the Communist League, the British Section of the International Left Opposition. This group developed out of the Balham Group, a Trotskyist opposition within the Communist Party, and operated between 1932 and 1934. Reg Groves, one of the leaders of the Communist League, recalled that Tippett attended their meetings and took part in discussions, but was not a member. The Communist League managed to retain a toe-hold in the Communist Party until 1934, and their paper, The Red Flag, described the struggles of the Trotskyists within the Communist Party. Kemp’s theory is therefore consistent with the available facts.

With Phyllis Kemp, Tippett was admitted into membership of the Communist Party after being examined for suitability by no less a figure than Emil Burns. He neglected to inform Burns that most of his political education came from Trotsky. He joined the Camden Town branch, but he gives us no account of his activity there. It was his intention to convert the party to Trotskyism, but whether he actually attempted any such thing is not recorded. In any event, he left after a few months, having made contact with some other Trotskyists (who presumably did not try to persuade him to conduct a protracted fight within the Communist Party). Nor does Tippett inform us of the name of the group he joined, or the names of any of his comrades (with the exception of a mention of Betty Hamilton, in a context where she could not be politically identified). One of Tippett’s biographers, Meirion Bowen, dates the episode with the Communist Party to 1935, and claims that Tippett left having ‘failed to convert his party branch to Trotskyism’. We know from Groves and Wicks how short-lived any open oppositional activity would have been.

Phyllis Kemp broke off relations with him because of his adherence to Trotskyism, and they did not meet for many years. Tippett found his own position reinforced by the purges and the Moscow Trials, and also by the way the Stalinists betrayed the Trotskyists and the Anarchists during the war against Franco. Tippett is generously and benevolently reticent about his relations with Alan Bush after this political break. Other writers have suspected that Bush, who became influential within the BBC (part of the Communist Party’s ‘long march through the institutions’), played a rôle in preventing Tippett’s music from being broadcast. If this was the case, then Tippett is doubly kind to him – Bush’s name, along with his music, has faded from public view almost entirely, and Tippett’s comments on him are almost the only notice that has been taken of him in the last decade. (Some years ago, Bush spoke at a conference in East London organised by a Maoist group which had included the composer Cornelius Cardew in its desiccated, depleted ranks.) In fact, Tippett himself does not claim that his music was blocked at the BBC. On the contrary, he writes that ‘from 1946 onwards, with the creation of the Third Programme, the opportunities burgeoned’.

The group that Tippett joined was the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party, formed at the end of 1935. Work in the Labour Party was one of the key aims of this group, taking its central political perspectives from Denzil Dean Harber. Often known as the Youth Militant group, or sometimes just as the Militant group, they began to attract a cadre of skilled and experienced revolutionaries, including Bert Matlow and the formidable organiser Starkey Jackson. In Bornstein and Richardson’s Against the Stream is an extract from a transcribed interview with Rose Carson, who remembered Tippett visiting her father’s shop in the East End to buy copies of the Militant. (Sam Levy told me that he bought Trotskyist and Anarchist literature there, and once met Starkey Jackson visiting the shop.) But, again, the comments we have available are not adequate to date Tippett’s affiliation to the group with much accuracy.

Tippett informs us that in the 1930s, he was in regular contact with activists in his local Labour Party (Oxted), and trying to make converts to Trotskyism there. The syntax of this section is, perhaps deliberately, obscure, and can be read as referring either to 1932 or to 1938. Certainly by the later date, he was attending Labour Party meetings with his neighbour ‘Bolshie Ben’ Lewis (previously a coal-miner in Wales, and subsequently a road-mender), and trying to convert Labour Party members to Trotskyism. This pattern of activity is strongly indicative of the guidance of the Militant.

We owe to John Archer’s diligent research a document providing not only a definite date for Tippett’s presence in the BLG, but also an indication of his significance within it. In preparing material which he intended to be appended to his article on C.L.R. James in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no. 2/3 (Summer 1996), Archer provided us with a statement by the Executive Committee of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party, dated 29 December 1936, addressed to the Bureau of the Fourth International.

In analysing the relations amongst the UK Trotskyist groups and the Fourth International, the Executive Committee of the BLG stated:

‘The fact that the MG now have principled differences with the policy of our international organisation was admitted by Cde James in a conversation with Cdes Harber and Tippet [sic], when he stated that the reason why they had not expressed these differences in the form of theses was because they feared this would mean expulsion from the international organisation.’ [1]

Clearly then, by the end of 1936, Tippett’s status within the BLG was such that he was able to take part in discussions amongst leaders of contending groups.

Another important political influence on Tippett in the 1930s was Paul Dienes, a mathematician who had served as Commissar for Education in the short-lived revolutionary government in Budapest led by Béla Kun at the end of the First World War. Dienes introduced Tippett to the writings of the major Anarchist theorists – Kropotkin, Bakunin, etc. – as well as instilling in him an enthusiasm for the music of Bartók. Tippett explains: ‘For Paul, Anarchism was the next step after the Communist revolution.’

In 1935, Tippett’s agit-prop play War Ramp was performed in Labour Party halls around London. In its final scene (from which Tippett was later to recoil as his pacifism became more explicit), two soldiers returning from the First World War conclude that they should get back their guns to solve the social and economic crisis in which they found themselves.

There is reason to consider that Tippett was less than wholeheartedly in support of Trotskyist work in the Labour Party at this point. Ernie Rogers has informed us that Tippett wrote to the Leninist League in 1935, expressing agreement with their opposition to Labour Party ‘entry work’.

A play was never going to satisfy Tippett as a means of expression. He began to make plans for a major musical work that grew out of his revolutionary ideas. Charlotte Despard suggested to him an opera about the 1916 revolution in Ireland, but this project did not make much progress. Tippett’s determination to make a major musical statement of his political and ethical positions meshed with the gathering pace of political events in mainland Europe. The outcome was to be the oratorio A Child of Our Time, which probably remains his best known work. As he expresses it himself, ‘the work began to come together with the sounds of the shot itself and the shattering of glass in the Kristallnacht’.

A central inspiration to the piece was the figure of Herschel Grynszpan, the young Jew who, in November 1938, shot a German ‘diplomat’, as a result of which a wave of terror was unleashed against the European Jews. Trotsky’s article For Grynszpan: Against Fascist Pogrom Gangs and Stalinist Scoundrels appeared in the US Socialist Appeal on 14 February 1939. The document which we reproduce below proves that Tippett was still actively involved in the Militant group at the beginning of 1938. It is almost certain therefore that he would have read Trotsky’s article, and very likely that he would have taken part in selling and circulating it. [2]

Trotsky wrote of Grynszpan in language and tone quite unusually emotional and moving (compare it, for example, with his obituary notice for Krupskaya only a few days later). He, of course, disagrees with Grynszpan’s individualistic action, but is full of praise for his courage and self-sacrifice, describing him as ‘the precious leaven of mankind’. It does not seem fanciful to see in this article one of the roots of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time.

It was around this time that Tippett parted company with the Trotskyist movement, but his parting is as little documented as his arrival. We don’t have any direct information on this development. The suggestion that he found too much conflict between his Trotskyism and his pacifism is probably not accurate. In 1935, Tippett had joined the Peace Pledge Union, a mass pacifist movement of people pledged never to support war, directly or indirectly. (Bowen writes that Tippett joined in 1940, but Tippett himself is clear that he responded to Dick Sheppard’s letters in the press which established the PPU.) We know that he continued as an active Trotskyist at least into 1938, so there was an extended period during which he was active in both movements.

In June 1943, he was imprisoned for following his Peace Pledge through to its practical conclusion – a refusal to take part in any war work. In his letters from prison, he mentions correspondence with Betty Hamilton, one of the longest-serving of the Trotskyists in Britain, but gives no more information. Although his term in Wormwood Scrubs lasted only a few weeks, and was not especially unpleasant by the standards of the times, Tippett had made his point, and was not pressed any further by the authorities.

In 1948 and 1949 attempts were made to recruit Tippett into the circuit of international peace congresses and similar events (splendidly satirised by Anthony Powell in his A Dance to the Music of Time) through which the Moscow bureaucracy sought to influence and manipulate the international intelligentsia. He declined all such blandishments, and continued to do so in protest at the Stalinist repression in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Although Tippett never returned to the Trotskyist movement, the following extract from a letter to the Guardian, 16 January 1998, from Peter Young illustrates how in later life he held to the political lessons he had learned from Trotsky and Trotskyism:

‘Sir Michael Tippett (Obituary, 10 January) was 74 when I met him during my research into conscientious objection in the Second World War. My first impression of him as being his own man was confirmed in his early remark: “Being a natural maverick, I read Trotsky before I read Marx and was pretty clear that Trotsky had the truth of it. Stalin’s notion of Socialism in One Country was a backward move.” Appalled by Stalin’s show trials, he explained that he began to ponder issues of violence and the extent to which an artist could or should abstract himself from social commitment.’

The document which we reproduce below was written by Tippett in response to the ‘Lee Affair’, which exploded within the Militant group in November 1937. In the summer of that year, a group of South African Trotskyists arrived in London and joined the Militant group, operating in the Paddington Branch, to which Tippett refers several times. Depressingly quickly, rumours began to be circulated amongst the Militant leadership to the effect that one of the South Africans, Ralph Lee, had misappropriated strike funds from a struggle by laundry workers he had led in South Africa. These rumours in fact originated with the South African Stalinists, but in London they were not challenged by the Militant leaders. When Lee discovered what had happened, the result was a series of angry meetings, culminating in Lee quitting the group, accompanied by Ted Grant, Gerry Healy, Jock Haston and others. The Fourth International intervened in the affair, and condemned the actions of the Militant leadership, and also criticised the walkout by the Lee group. But by that stage, the breach was irreversible, and the Lee group was to become the Workers International League. [3]

Tippett’s statement was written after the departure of Lee’s group, but several months before the International Secretariat announced its views. Whilst he does not condemn the split as unpolitical, as the International Secretariat was to do, he criticises the failure of the Lee Group to force a fuller discussion of the issues and methods involved. But he adopts no even-handed pose here. His trenchant criticisms are directed squarely at the leadership, and he proposes that the strongest disciplinary measures against them should be considered.

This is not a resignation statement, but it does indicate a clear move away from the Militant group, and the beginning of a search for a better context in which to operate. We have no information available on how Tippett carried out his search, and when he decided to break from the Militant. We know from an interview given by Ted Grant to Sam Bornstein that Tippett was a supporter of the WIL for a short period, recruited by Betty Hamilton, but we have no information at present about how long he remained in the movement.

The foregoing indicates the seriousness with which Tippett handled the revolutionary ideas that came his way, and the key rôle they played in his development, at least into the early postwar period. They enriched his insights and thus his music, which in turn enriches all of us still.

J.J. Plant


1. The full text of this and other documents prepared by Archer could not be included in the issue of Revolutionary History, for reasons of space and cost, but are now available from the Revolutionary History website.

2. L.D. Trotsky, For Grynszpan: Against Fascist Pogrom Gangs and Stalinist Scoundrels, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938–39, New York 1974, pp. 191–3.

3. Several documents supporting Lee, written by South African workers, are available on the Revolutionary History website.

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011