Reg Groves Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Reg Groves

John Strachey

(September 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 62, September 1973, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John Strachey
Hugh Thomas
Eyre Methuen, £4.50

LACKING GUIDING theme and political analysis, this biography of Evelyn John Strachey makes of him an enigma, a political and psychological conundrum – a view that finds some support in the picture on the bookjacket, which gives Strachey a curiously Mephistophelian look.

Professor Thomas is, alas, concerned chiefly with the froth of politics (‘a disappointed man ... but then so are most politicians who fail to become Prime Minister’); and with gossip and opinions gathered from past and present top-level mediocrities (‘ambitious, too, for power for its own sake’ says Peter Shore; ‘a backroom character who wanted to be in front’ is George Brown’s judgement; and ‘not a political operator’ is an unintentional compliment from James Callaghan, who should know!)

An underlying denigration is fairly constant through the book, and is a poor substitute for serious study of Strachey’s life and work and worth. To take a couple of examples – the suggestion that Strachey made sacrifices for the labour cause brings from Professor Thomas the comment, ‘the sacrifices of ambitious men are not acts of charity’; and when Strachey, after visiting a Central Europe ravaged by war, revolution and counter revolution, collecting on the way as mistress a radical French journalist named Yvette Fouque, joined the Independent Labour Party and Labour Party at the end of 1923, doubting Thomas questions his motive for doing so.

Strachey, Thomas says, was having an affair with Elizabeth, daughter of ex-Liberal and by then prominent Labour Party politician, Arthur Ponsonby. Horrified at the prospect of having Strachey as son-in-law, Ponsonby had a serious talk with the young man. That talk, says Professor Thomas, ‘must have strayed into politics, and Ponsonby perhaps pointed out the possibilities now opening to Labour as the party of government.’ Thus, it seems, Strachey embraced Ponsonby’s politics instead of his daughter!

Mr Worldy-Wise would, of course, expect Strachey to rise rapidly to the top in politics, for, after all, he came from a socially prominent, comfortably placed family, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and wrote for his father’s paper, the influential and successful weekly the Spectator. He was on friendly terms, too, with those restive, radical young Tories, Bob Boothby and Oswald Mosley. It was Mosley rather than Boothby that Strachey followed, for Mosley resigned from the Tory Party, and, after a period as Independent MP for Harrow, joined the Labour Party and became Labour candidate for Neville Chamberlain’s constituency of Ladywood.

Mosley helped secure the neighbouring constituency of Aston Manor for Strachey: both men raised the Labour vote substantially in the election that followed the fall of the 1924 Labour government, and both men were to be elected to parliament for Midland constituencies in 1929.

In the interim, Strachey edited the ILP monthly, Socialist Review and the miners’ union weekly, The Miner. He collaborated with Mosley in preparing a programme for the ILP to urge on the Labour Party a programme which included control of banking and finance, an expanding home market, and a planned, controlled economy. It was an embryonic Keynesianism, now so depressingly familiar in most capitalist and some communist countries.

Professor Thomas records such events, but only superficially. He clearly enjoys, however, probing into Strachey’s affair with Celia Simpson, and his subsequent desertion of her, without warning, to marry a rich, 30-year-old, American-Irish Roman Catholic, Esther Murphy, ‘attracted,’ says Professor Thomas, ‘by Esther’s money.’ The Professor’s academic objectivity, so far unruffled by the condition of Britain at the time, by the plight of the poor, by the callousness of the rich, or by the treacheries of the 1929–31 Labour government, is thrown out of the window when it comes to dealing with the hapless Esther.

She was a compulsive talker ... ‘a Lesbian ... hideous ... she squinted ... She was very tall ... She drank like a fish ...’ and so on and so on. The marriage broke up after a couple of years, and Strachey resumed his separate relationships with Yvette and Celia.

In the 1929 government, Strachey was private Parliamentary Secretary to Mosley, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and responsible for co-ordinating the Labour government’s policies on unemployment. As the government had no serious policy, and retreated from any sort of action as the depression advanced and unemployment mounted, Mosley prepared a series of proposals. These were rejected by the Cabinet, and by almost every Labour MP. Mosley resigned to form the New Party, and Strachey and a few others went with him. It was not envisaged as a socialist party, but as a centre party of state action and planning which might attract the more humane, radical Tories and Liberals to it. It foundered when Mosley moved towards fascist ideas. Strachey, after considerable hesitations and uncertainties, turned to the Communist Party.

He was to make a circuitous and prolonged journey with the Communists, away from classical communism and socialism towards that same kind of coalition, centre party projected by the New Party; to a combination of ‘progressives’ – and towards the end, non-progressives as well – that was known for a period as a Popular Front.

The dishonest, unscrupulous Communist-directed campaign to this end reached its peak in the Left Book Club rally in June 1939 at the Empress Hall, Earl’s Court, at which Lloyd George, Stafford Cripps, the Dean of Canterbury, Harry Pollitt, John Strachey, Norman Angell and Victor Gollancz all spoke. Strachey went on praising Stalin and defending the terror trials in Moscow at least until November 1939. But he had been shaken by the Stalin-Hitler Pact of August 1939, and he did sell the Russian Five-Year Plan bonds he had bought some years before, to reinvest his money in America’s General Motors and other companies.

Professor Thomas’ section on the Left Book Club shows clearly enough how the Communist Party secretly controlled the club, and how their main instruments in this were Strachey and Gollancz, with help from Harold Laski, and, apparently, from Kingsley Martin. But Professor Thomas does not attempt to discuss the doctrine and arguments involved, nor to assess the consequences for British socialists of the ideas and practices, treacheries and deceptions, spread by the Club, which demoralised the Socialist Left and contaminated the intellectuals of the movement. Many never recovered from the sickness and passed it on to others, so that today’s left still has symptoms of the disease – the double standard of values, the double-think, the double talk, the outwardly-fair, inwardly false which was and is the essence of the corruption.

Strachey, more responsible for spreading the sickness than almost any other British intellectual, never recovered from it. In 1960 he explained the belief that still guided his actions. For him ‘the word “good” meant that which lay along the evolutionary axis; the word “evil” that which pointed in the reverse direction down the evolutionary axis on the time scale, or branching off from it at too sharp a tangent.’ This, though in more moderate terms, is the familiar doctrine by which Stalinism and all its evils flourished; and Professor Thomas’ account of Strachey’s wartime and postwar ministerial career in Attlee’s two governments shows it.

Strachey died aged 61 in 1963. It would be kinder to record some things in his favour – such as the fact that he was bitterly detested by Dr Edith Summerskill, or that he was a keen cricketer and leave it at that. But the evil that men do lives after them – and seldom on such a scale as that left with us by the disciples of Stalin. Strachey had great gifts, and as a cogent expositer of complex ideas and doctrines had few equals. But he wasted his bounty on base causes – and this has to be understood and thought about and discussed, if ever we are to recover our senses.

‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.’

Reg Groves Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 3 March 2015