‘I hope I’ve shown, then, that William Morris was a great artist, a great writer and a great socialist. He’s part of our tradition, the British tradition, and of course it’s very important to stress that. At a time when this country’s being taken over by the Yanks, when people who fight for peace and socialism are accused of being agents of a foreign power, we have to stand up and defend our national traditions.’
George Cook looked round the hall. There were about thirty people in all – half of them teachers, plus a couple of students, a few Party members like himself and, at the back, a man in dark-rimmed glasses whom he had never seen before.
‘But,’ the lecturer continued, ‘we also have to understand what Morris’s limitations were. Morris was a Utopian. As Frederick Engels pointed out, the Utopian socialists of the nineteenth century were progressive in their day; they showed that an alternative was possible. But since those days we have acquired practical experience of what a new social order can be. The Paris Commune, the Soviet Union under Lenin and above all Stalin, and now the People’s Democracies, are showing us in practice what a real Utopia, a materialist Utopia, can look like.’
The lecturer, Derek Eastman, paused. A middle-aged, shabbily dressed man, he had written a couple of articles on Morris in the Modern Quarterly which George had started but never finished. The lecture that was now at last drawing to a close was on ‘William Morris and Our National Tradition’, and had been organised by Teachers Against Colonialism and War, which, as everyone knew and everyone denied, was a front organisation of the Communist Party.
‘Morris,’ he went on, ‘was a Romantic. Now it’s important to be very clear about this, because some people – even some people who call themselves Communists – have argued that Romanticism is progressive and that Morris’s Romanticism converges with Marxism. This is a dangerous argument, and I think we’ve seen that it leads to dangerous political conclusions.’
I wonder if I’m a Romantic, George thought; John Mitchell’s always telling me I am.
‘When we look at Morris’s Utopia, News from Nowhere,’ Eastman continued, ‘the most striking thing is that he neglects the political level. There are no state institutions in News from Nowhere. Morris undoubtedly believed in the withering away of the state. But as Stalin himself pointed out, for the state to wither away, the state authority has to be strengthened. That was the kind of dialectical thinking that Morris was incapable of.
‘And secondly, in News from Nowhere there are no leaders. Again this is a sign of Romanticism. Marxism isn’t about some anarchistic dream of getting rid of leaders. People will always need leaders. What matters is who the leaders are and where they are leading.’
Eastman now moved into his summing-up, which consisted mainly of a repetition of points he had already made at considerable length. When he had finally brought his remarks to a close, the chairwoman of the meeting, Mary Hichens, the deputy headmistress of a local school and a Communist Party activist, rose to her feet:
‘I should like to thank Derek Eastman very much for an extremely interesting talk. I’d particularly like to stress what he said about our national tradition. That’s very important at a time when our country is being virtually invaded by the Americans, and when we’re seeing a revival of the German warmongers. Those of us who work in the schools have seen the terrible impact of American horror comics and now this awful ‘rock and roll’, which in some places is leading to a complete breakdown of discipline. So it’s very pleasing to be reminded that there’s a native English tradition of peace and socialism. I often think what a pity it is that Karl Marx was a German.’
‘He did spend most of his life in England,’ chipped in Eastman.
Mrs Hichens now threw the meeting open to questions and discussion.
The first speaker was a furniture-worker, a pillar of the local Communist Party: ‘I’d like to agree very much with what the speaker said about Romanticism. Those of us involved in the day-to-day struggle, we can’t afford to be Romantics. We haven’t got time for fairy-stories. I’ve read News from Nowhere, but I can’t see much connection between that and what I’m doing, in terms of improving working conditions and getting resolutions passed. I think we have to tell some of our younger comrades to get the Romanticism out of their heads.’
He was followed by a woman teacher with greying hair: ‘I thoroughly agree with that. People spend too much time talking about what it would be like in an ideal world. We have to live in the real world, and face real problems. It’s the same with the Soviet Union. We can’t measure it against someone’s abstract dreams, we have to look at the real problems they face. The speaker’s quite right about leadership. People need leaders.’
George felt an undefinable depression. Presumably these people had become Communists because they had some sort of vision of a transformed world. But in concentrating on the very necessary means they seemed to have lost sight of the end. Was the same thing happening to him, he wondered?
After a few more contributions George raised his hand and was called to ask a question:
‘I was very interested in what the lecturer had to say about political institutions in Morris. I was struck by that myself when I read Morris. He says virtually nothing about how decisions get made in society, and yet obviously in any society there are going to be choices about priorities. And I was interested that you mentioned the Paris Commune, because they had a system of government with delegates who could be recalled. I wonder if you could say any more about that.’
‘You’re quite right,’ Eastman replied, ‘to say that Morris didn’t give enough importance to the organisation of the state. But I don’t think we should put too much emphasis on procedural details from the Paris Commune. It was a very primitive form of workers’ government, and in many ways it’s been overtaken by more recent developments.’
More questions followed. George noticed that the man in glasses at the back had had his hand up since the beginning, but Mary Hichens hadn’t called him. Eventually, however, contributions began to dry up and his was the only hand left, so she could scarcely ignore him.
‘There’s a lot of recent historical work,’ he said, when called, ‘for example Edward Thompson’s book, that shows that Morris was a Marxist when he wrote News from Nowhere, and that what he sets out in that book are Marxist standards for a socialist society. Now the speaker seemed to suggest that if there are discrepancies between Marxist standards and the actual reality of workers’ states, then we ought to modify the standards to fit the reality. I’d put it the other way round; we have to judge the workers’ states in terms of Marxist standards. In the light of that argument I’d like to ask the speaker his view of Kruschev’s recent disclosures about Stalin.’
There was a ripple of discontent, with several people muttering ‘Sit down!’ The furniture-worker who had spoken first rose again: ‘I don’t think we should take any notice of that contribution. That so-called speech of Kruschev’s was obviously a forgery – made in America.’ A number of people looked rather uncomfortable at this utterance and John Mitchell, the local Party full-timer, put his hand up.
‘I don’t want to get caught up in an argument about whether Kruschev’s speech is genuine or not,’ he began. ‘We all know the press makes up a lot of lies, but history will show the facts about that. Stalin may have had his faults, but the fact that there are sometimes sunspots doesn’t stop the sun being a source of heat and warmth. Those of us who have had the privilege of visiting the Soviet Union and seeing the achievements they’ve made there know that you can’t measure that against some book written a hundred years ago. Morris sat in his study and dreamed about socialism; Stalin got on with the job of building it.’
About two-thirds of the people in the room clapped. George joined in, not because he was sure about Stalin (he wasn’t – the Kruschev speech had upset him a lot when he’d read it in The Observer), but because he had a gut feeling that anti-Communists were scum. George couldn’t get over that and he knew he never would. The man in glasses started to shout that Morris was an active revolutionary who had spent the last thirteen years of his life trying to build a revolutionary party, but Mary Hichens stood up and said: ‘We have to be out of the hall by ten o’clock and we don’t want to make the caretaker work overtime, so I’ll thank the speaker and close the meeting.’ Since it was barely quarter to ten she was being quite generous to the caretaker, thought George. He was still a little bemused by the last exchange, but remembered that he’d arranged to have a talk with John Mitchell at the end of the meeting. He spent some time looking before he found him.
‘Sorry to keep you hanging about,’ said John, ‘I wanted to make sure that Trotskyist wasn’t still loitering around. They’ve been gathering like flies on a turd since that wretched speech. Now what did you want to talk to me about?’
‘I’m worried about the situation at Pattersons’,’ said George.
‘I thought things were going reasonably well,’ said John. ‘You’ve been re-elected steward again, haven’t you? And you got a resolution on East-West trade through your union branch not long ago.’
‘Oh, the union branch doesn’t mean much. There were only about a dozen there, and half of them would vote for anything to get it over so they could go down the pub. It’s what’s happening in the factory that worries me. You know we make components for the car industry. Well, with this credit squeeze they’ve got short time in the car factories – and our lot aren’t getting so many orders. I get the feeling they would quite like to provoke a strike. They can afford it better than we can just now.’
‘We have to be careful of provocations.’
‘I know that, but we can’t just lie down while they kick us in the balls.’
‘It looks to me,’ said John, ‘as though the big slump is coming quite soon. We know it has to happen sooner or later.’
John had nothing practical to say, and seemed preoccupied with other things, so George let the matter drop and went home. He had to be up early in the morning.
* * *
At eight o’clock the next morning George was at work, making screws, feeding metal into the machines and clearing away the metal shavings. He knew, as a piece of intellectual information, that the screws he was making would end up somewhere inside a motor-car. But he had never owned a car or understood how one worked, so he had no sense of what function he, or his product, would actually fulfil. He felt less and less certain whether it was the screws or himself that were going through the machine.
George hated the factory. The air that seemed always full of swarf, the foul smell of acid from the next shop, the fact that it was always too hot or too cold. But above all he hated the boredom, the fact that such a huge piece of his life was torn out and devoted to labour that meant nothing to him. He began to calculate in his mind; half an hour gone today, another seven and a half to go; eight tomorrow, eight on Friday. Twenty-three and a half hours. That was 1410 minutes and – since he had been good at mental arithmetic at school (the only thing he was good at) – 84,600 seconds. He was never sure whether turning the time into seconds made it go quicker or slower – at least a few of the bastards passed while you were working it out. George thought that even a minor accident – a drop of blood and a bit of time away from the job – would be welcome.
Being a Communist had made George in one sense proud of being a worker. There was a certain charm in listening to middle-class intellectuals talking about the historic mission of the working class. And he remembered the old bloke who had said to him: ‘Go up to Ally Pally and look round you. Everything you can see – except the trees and grass – was made by workers.’ But was it really worth the boredom and the being pushed about? Didn’t George Bernard Shaw say that he had become a socialist in order to abolish the working class? Roll on the day, thought George…
George had been at Pattersons’ for seven years and had been a shop steward for four. Under the piece-work system this meant that he tended to get slightly less money than the people he represented, and he reckoned he spent at least ten hours a week on union work – and that was before the time he spent on Party work was counted up. It certainly meant that he saw a lot less of Rachel and the children than he would have liked to. And a lot more that he’d have liked to of these bloody screws. He looked at the clock. Seven minutes past eight. 1403 minutes, 84,180 seconds. Not, he reflected, that there was anything special lined up for Friday night…
* * *
At ten o’clock there was a ten-minute tea-break. A young woman arrived pushing a tea-trolley and George paid threepence for his cup. He was glad of the drink, gladder of the chance of being able to talk to other human beings.
He caught the eye of Charlie O’Brien, a foreman who spent all day strutting around, making sure that everybody was working hard enough. O’Brien had been shop steward when George first arrived at Pattersons’, but had taken the foreman’s job not long afterwards. He stalked up to George and said: ‘Your mate Gray’s been booted out.’
‘Geoff Gray?’ asked George, taken aback.
‘That’s right,’ said O’Brien with a smug grin. ‘Five times late in a month. Total of fifteen minutes. He’d had a warning. They took him to the office and he’s gone.’ And O’Brien walked away, looking very pleased with himself.
As George drank his tea, he tried to digest the implications. Geoff had been a steward longer than he had; the fact that there was a half-way reasonable organisation in the factory was mainly due to Geoff and George. Geoff was not a Party member, but he was sympathetic on the main issues. For him to be thrown out was a very serious blow.
But one question was beating its way round George’s brain like a wasp trapped in a jam-jar. Why had the management done this now? Was this the provocation he had sensed might be coming? Geoff had undoubtedly broken the rules – not that he could help it; the bus route he lived on had been disastrously unreliable recently. But many others had been equally guilty, and when the firm had been short of the kind of workers it needed, things like that were overlooked. And Geoff was known to be a popular steward, who had a good record for spending a lot of time helping people with problems – not just problems at work, but all kinds of domestic difficulties that workers used to go to the steward with.
Did the management expect a strike? Did they want one? Would it be playing into their hands to call one? George had led strikes before, but they had been short ones, because the management had to meet orders and they’d had to give in. Many stewards, George knew, had a motto: if you’re going out on strike, make sure you win it before the union full-timer gets there. If they came out this time, he thought, it might be a bit different. But what else could they do? You couldn’t just lie on the floor and nurse your wounded testicles…
* * *
News of the sacking spread round the factory rapidly. At lunchtime George and the five remaining stewards tried to get everyone into the canteen. George climbed on to a chair. In eleven years as a Communist he had spoken at a lot of meetings, but he knew this was he most difficult task he had had yet. He was the most experienced steward now Geoff had gone, and it was obvious he would have to take the lead.
‘Brothers,’ he began, ‘management have dismissed Geoff Gray. They claim it was for lateness but we know that they want to get rid of him because he was a good shop steward. It’s up to you to decide what to do about it, but I just want to say three things.
‘First of all, an injury to one is an injury to all. It’s not just Geoff who suffers because of this, it’s all of us.
‘Secondly, the management want to weaken the union. Now it’s not much fun working in this place as it is, but if you didn’t have a union to turn to it would be a lot worse.
‘Thirdly, we have to be honest. The management have picked this fight, and they’ve chosen their time because they think they’re going to win. It’s not going to be easy. But we’ll have to fight them some time, and the longer we leave it, the tougher it will be.
‘There’s only one way we can deal with this, and that’s all-out strike action – now!’
There was some applause but not very much. The proposal for strike action was put to the vote. George watched anxiously. A few hands shot up straightaway; other people looked round, trying to see which way things would go. More hands started to go up. People were voting, not as individuals, but as if they were part of a huge, living organism. It wasn’t the arguments that mattered, George thought; people knew that what he’d said was right, but they needed to see whether others were prepared to act in order to be willing to act themselves.
It was soon clear that a large majority of the three hundred or so workers in the canteen were in favour of strike. George felt a sense of power – not so much his own power, though he was undoubtedly pleased to have made a successful speech – but rather a realisation of the power of the working class. This was the power that had made the Paris Commune and the October Revolution, and if it stood firm, did not surrender to its own doubts and divisions, it was unstoppable. Yet George could not rid his mind of anxiety, of the fear that he was like a foolhardy drunk who had let himself get into a punch-up with someone much larger than himself.
George watched the men streaming out of the canteen. Among them were several whom he knew from past arguments to be Tory voters. One man, Pete Matthews, was a quiet bloke whom George had rarely spoken to, but often saw reading the Daily Express. He smiled at George and said: ‘We’ll stop out till Christmas if we have to.’ It suddenly penetrated George’s brain that it was only eight weeks to Christmas. Well, that was just one more problem that would have to be faced.
* * *
‘Your tea’s nearly ready,’ called Rachel.
George, who had spent the afternoon organising picketing and contacting the union office, had arrived home late. His two children were sprawled on the floor near the fire listening to the radio. Jenny, who had been born six months after George and Rachel married in 1946, was now ten; Michael was two years younger.
A voice which George disliked rather intensely but whose potency he could not deny was repeating ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog’. ‘With words like that it should be a woman singing,’ muttered Rachel.
George thought about the strike. The more he thought, the more problems he could see. Another voice, less modulated than the first, was now declaring that the Campbells were rocking the blues away. That was a nice tune till they fucked it about, thought George. He looked at his watch. ‘Come on, turn that over to the news.’ ‘But Dad,’ Michael and Jenny protested in chorus, ‘it’s Rockin’ Through the Rye. ‘Turn it over and shut up,’snapped George. ‘You can listen to Radio Luxembourg later.’
‘Don’t be so bloody bossy,’ said Rachel, bringing in George’s tea.
George looked at Rachel and thought how she had changed since that time they first met. She had stayed in the Labour Party when George resigned, but effectively dropped out of activity when Jenny was born. Since then she had only worked part-time. George’s party and union activity had meant that she was left at home, night after night, with the children. George knew in principle that this was a bad thing, but the urgency of each particular cause or issue made it seem as if there was no alternative. Rachel’s ideas had not changed – at least not to George’s knowledge. They seemed to talk about anything significant – certainly about politics – less and less. When told about the strike Rachel had not disapproved; she accepted that George had done the only thing possible. But her main concern was obviously not the defence of trade unionism but how she was going to feed the children. That, presumably, was why she was so irritable this evening.
The first news item, the one George had been waiting to hear, concerned the Suez crisis. There was nothing new, but military action seemed imminent. The second item was a report from the BBC correspondent in Budapest:
‘Here in Hungary extraordinary developments have been taking place. All over Hungary in the last day or so committees have been being set up. They have different names – revolutionary councils, revolutionary workers’ councils, workers’ and soldiers’ councils, revolutionary socialist committees – but what they’re doing is pretty much the same everywhere. They’re running factories, organising food supplies, publishing newspapers. In the Budapest bus factory a workers’ council has been set up which has procured food for the workers and had been giving supplies of provisions at its disposal to clinics and hospitals. In a telephone factory workers were told by officials of the National Trade Union to form a workers’ council. But they didn’t do it the way they had been expected to. They elected their own representatives instead of those proposed by the leadership. The officials had no alternative but to resign. The director asked if he could remain in the factory and work as a toolmaker, as he had done before being appointed director. Everywhere power seems to be passing out of the hands of the government and into the hands of these new workers’ councils.’
It’s happening again, thought George. It’s the same as what happened in Italy at the end of the war; what happened in Russia; what happened in the Paris Commune. Workers could take over society, could run things for themselves. George had realised for some time that something was wrong in Eastern Europe; that events like this could happen confirmed that a lot of the propaganda the Party had put out had been grossly over-optimistic. But now, George thought, what’s happening shows that abuses can be corrected; communism can get back on the right road again. The problems of his own strike began to fade; if there was going to be an upsurge all round the world, then maybe they could win after all.
The news had come to an end and Michael promptly switched back to Radio Luxembourg. Someone called Be Bop A Lula was apparently demanding ‘More More More’. Jenny was enjoying it hugely; George just hoped to God she didn’t know what it meant.
Rachel looked up, with a worried frown. The joyful inspiration George had found in the news from Hungary seemed to have passed her by. ‘Do you think there’ll be another world war, George,’ she asked, ‘with the trouble over Egypt and now all this upset in Hungary?’
‘Well, if there is,’ George replied, ‘they won’t have time to call me up. We’ll all be dead before anyone has time to get a uniform on.’
‘That’s what really frightens me,’ said Rachel, ‘a full-scale war with the atom bomb.’
‘The Party’s doing its best,’ declared George. ‘We’ve been calling for a summit conference and we’re campaigning against the atom bomb and what it can do. You should get involved; we want to have more women active.’
‘Yes, but you never campaign against the Russian atom bomb, do you? I don’t see how you can distinguish between one atom bomb and another. It’ll be Russian bombs we all get killed by.’
George was silent. This argument about Russian atom bombs had him confused, despite John Mitchell’s explanations. He knew a socialist country had to be prepared to defend itself. But surely it was the workers of all countries who should be the main defenders of the socialist states. And how could you appeal to those workers if you were preparing weapons that would wipe them all out?
‘It’s when I think of the children I get really frightened,’ said Rachel. ‘I worry about what will happen to them if the world goes on in this way.’
‘It’s not just what happens to them,’ said George; ‘it’s what they’re going to do to change things.’
‘Now if there was a movement that was against all atom bombs, American and Russian and British,’ said Rachel, ‘I could really get involved in that. It might make me take up politics again…’
* * *
‘Never mind, George,’ said one of the pickets. ‘Under communism there won’t be any rain.’ George thought back to the William Morris meeting, and how the lecturer had mentioned that in News from Nowhere the sun was always shining; he’d argued that you could compare this to the way human power had transformed the environment in Russia.
It was just a week since the lecture, but it seemed like a month. George and the other stewards had done all they could to get the action organised. Picket rotas had been prepared and as many strikers as possible involved. Placards had been made: PICKET – DO NOT CROSS; AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL; DON’T SACK OUR MATE – JUST BECAUSE HE WAS LATE.
So far only a few workers had gone in, most of them well-known as arse-lickers. George recognised one man who was so keen to keep the foreman sweet that he had gone to help him when he was building a bungalow at weekends. He would get his promotion, George thought. There had been only two bits of excitement. One was when the boss had driven his Jaguar at speed through the factory-gate and they had had to jump out of the way. The other was when the union full-timer, Haddon, had tried to cobble up a deal with the management behind their backs. George and the other stewards had made it quite clear that any agreement would have to be approved by a mass meeting of the strikers.
None the less the mood was not good. Picketing was boring, but the worst thing was the rain. It had rained nearly every day. This morning it was pouring down. George had a thick raincoat and a cap on his head, but already by ten o’clock the bottom two inches of his trouser legs were soaked. If it went on like this he would certainly get flu.
The only thing that passed the time was arguing. From the first day Pete Matthews had turned up to picket, his Daily Express sticking out of his pocket. George had asked him how he reconciled being a striker with reading a Tory paper. Pete had replied: ‘I agree with most of what it says. But you’ve got to support your workmates, haven’t you? That’s basic decency. But I don’t support socialism or communism. If you made everyone equal, it would be the end of achievement. You wouldn’t have anyone being the first to the top of Everest, or driving a boat faster than anyone had done before. We’d all have to be the same. What a boring world it would be!’
‘Not so bloody boring as working at Pattersons’.’ George replied…
* * *
‘I’m worried about the strike,’ said George. ‘The morale on the picket is going down like a barometer in a storm. We’ve got a mass meeting tomorrow and I’m afraid they’ll vote to go back. My guess is the management are banking on us crumbling in a week; if we can keep going two or three weeks I think it’ll start to bite. But I’ve got to offer the blokes something to keep it going.’
John Mitchell looked preoccupied. If George hadn’t known him all these years, he would have said he looked bored with the strike, wanting to get on with something else. ‘How about the Trades Council?’ he said distractedly. ‘Can’t we get a resolution and a collection? No, maybe not. It doesn’t meet for another three weeks.’
‘Well, that’s no good,’ said George. ‘Anyhow I doubt if it would have had much impact. I don’t think most of our people know the difference between the Trades Council and the Chamber of Commerce.’
John creased his forehead, making a major effort to concentrate. ‘I’ve got it. We’ll get a delegation down from DST.’ John seemed to liven up at this thought. DST was a large factory a few miles away, which had a reputation in the area for strong union organisation, good conditions and high wage rates. ‘You know we’ve got a Party branch in the factory. They produce a bulletin every month, six pages; they sell about a hundred. The convenor, Jim McGee, is excellent. Have you met him? He told me this lovely story last month. He went into the manager’s office to negotiate, so he sat down and put his feet up on the table. When the manager asked him what he was doing, he said: “You’re always telling us the company’s one big family. When I’m with my family I always put my feet up.”’
‘I’ll talk to McGee tonight. We’ll get a delegation down to your picket on Friday, the day after the meeting, and then we’ll see if we can get them to organise a levy in DST to give you some financial support. Leave it to me; I’ll fix everything.’
‘Thanks,’ said George, ‘that may just be enough to swing it…’
* * *
‘I’d like to thank Brother Haddon very much for his contribution,’ said George. He was addressing a meeting of strikers in the local church hall. Haddon’s ‘contribution’ had in fact consisted of an extensive recital of procedural details that were lost on most of the strikers and a thinly veiled suggestion that the strike was as good as lost so they might as well pack it in. This had fairly effectively counteracted a rousing speech by Geoff Gray in which he had thanked his fellow-workers for their support. The mood of the meeting looked as though it might turn very sour indeed.
‘In a moment we’ll take a vote,’ George went on, ‘but first I want to say a couple of things. If this strike was about money I’d say that maybe we could compromise; take something less than our original demand. But this strike is about principle, and there’s no compromise on principle. We don’t go back through that gate until Geoff goes with us. If it means sacrifice, so be it. I’m willing to stay out here till Christmas if we have to; I’ve already warned my kids there may not be any presents this year. We know the order-book is a bit slack – but it’s not that slack. If we can keep going for a week or two the boss’ll start feeling the squeeze.
‘And I’ve got a bit of good news for you. The stewards at DST are going to give us their support. There’ll be a delegation coming down to our picket tomorrow and next week they’ll be starting to organise levies to support us.’
This last piece of news brought a round of applause. The fact that George was putting his own head – and his own family – under the axe while Haddon was drawing a salary whatever happened also seemed to have made some impression. When the vote was taken there was a large majority for carrying on the strike…
* * *
George turned on the radio (fortunately the children were playing next door). The first item on the news was the aftermath of the cease-fire at Suez, but it was the second that gripped George’s attention. It was an eye-witness report from a correspondent in Budapest, describing the events of the previous few days. Russian tanks were bombarding working-class areas; the correspondent, who had managed to make contact with some of the workers’ councils, claimed that the Russians did not dare to use infantry for fear their soldiers would see that they were shooting ordinary workers. The death-toll was feared to be as high as twenty thousand. But the workers had fought back against the tanks, with rifles and petrol bombs. In the eighth district of Budapest, a working-class area in the industrial belt, fighting was still going on.
George, who had been cheered up by the morning’s meeting, felt a sick pain in his gut. He hadn’t sorted out the issues; he couldn’t reconcile the arguments in the Daily Worker with the accounts on the BBC. But there was no doubt that the people fighting back against the tanks were workers; if they were wrong, they were workers – and he was on their side. He thought of the Paris Commune, and how the River Seine had run red with blood for three days after the corpses were thrown into it. Now they were doing the same in Budapest. It was the same old story. Those who ran this world didn’t dare let workers’ democracy exist for more than a few days.
Rachel looked up. ‘Isn’t all this violence terrible?’
‘The tanks, yes,’ George agreed; ‘but I don’t see what alternative the workers have to fighting back.’
‘There must be a better way of changing the world than throwing petrol bombs.’
Was there, George wondered? Was there a better way to change things? One thing he did know. His dream of reforming communism had collapsed. After the bombardment of Budapest there was nothing to reform. They would have to start from scratch, with their bare hands…
* * *
The rain had stopped, thank God, and there was even a little pale sunshine. But the mood of the previous day’s meeting had already faded. The demoralisation was visible in small things. Everyone, of course, knew that George was a Communist; in the first few days there had been reasonably jovial remarks about it, but now the tone was becoming more bitter.
Pete Matthews had arrived, as every day, with his Daily Express in his pocket. ‘So what do you reckon to Budapest?’ he asked George. George didn’t know what to say. He could hardly defend the tanks, but he wasn’t going to line up with the Express. Rather half-heartedly he mumbled something to the effect that there had been real problems but that a lot of the trouble had been caused by Western secret agents.
‘What? You mean like in those James Bond books? They must have been some special agents to get a hundred thousand people on a march.’
George changed the subject. The real problem was where was the delegation from DST? It was now quarter past twelve. The picket would pack in at four thirty, which was when the factory normally shut, so it would be no good if the delegation came any later than that. That was 255 minutes, 15,300 seconds. George kept looking to the end of the road, hoping to see something that might look like a delegation. But there was nothing other than the usual traffic and passers-by. 12.33 – that was 237 minutes, 14,200 seconds. Still nothing. 12.47 – 223 minutes, 13,380 seconds…
* * *
It was Monday morning. The rain had started again. Quite a few of the original strikers had gone in to work. They had spent the weekend at home, with their families leaning on them, reminding them how many shopping days there were to Christmas. And from one or two of the jeering remarks George gathered that the news about the non-appearance of the DST delegation had spread quite quickly. (He had spent the weekend unsuccessfully trying to contact John Mitchell. He realised now he should have got in touch with McGee himself, instead of leaving it to the Party.)
The number of pickets was smaller today. It was no good believing you were right, George thought, if you didn’t have the confidence that you could win. Only Pete Matthews showed no signs of being disheartened, as he did the Express crossword.
As George tried to work out the alternatives, the dilemmas he faced gave him a massive headache; the bone between his eyes seemed about to split. As a steward and a Communist, he had a duty to give a lead; but as a steward, he was supposed to represent those who had elected him. And that was only the half of it. If the trickle back to work went on, then by the end of the week there would be only the stewards and a handful of others left on strike. That would make it easy for the management to victimise a small number of activists. And if George lost his job, it wouldn’t only be Rachel and the kids who’d suffer, it would be the end of the union at Pattersons’.
There was only one thing to do. There’d have to be another mass meeting and a vote. George didn’t like it one bit. He’d have to withdraw his own brave words about staying out till Christmas, and apologise for the absence of the DST delegation. (Unless the delegation came today. That could still swing things. He peered hopelessly down the road.) But it was better to go back united, even in defeat, than to let the strike crumble like a lump of mouldy cake.
The meeting was held. George and the other stewards explained their position. When the vote was taken, only a handful – less than a dozen – voted to go on with the strike. One of them, George noticed, was Pete Matthews.
* * *
‘Hello. John Mitchell speaking.’
George had at last found a telephone box in working order and had got to speak to the organiser.
‘It’s George Cook speaking. I thought you might like to know that the Pattersons’ strike is over. And I should like to know what happened to the DST delegation.’
‘Oh God,’ mumbled John Mitchell. ‘I’m sorry; I just never got round to it. I’ve been so swamped with work with this Hungary business. I’ve had four resignations, two more I’m trying to talk out of leaving, and two who want to sign a letter to the bourgeois press. And that bloody Trotskyist is going round visiting people. And the Commission on Inner Party Democracy want to talk to me.’
‘So those are your priorities,’ snapped George. ‘I joined this Party because I thought it put workers in struggle first.’
‘Listen, George. You know what Lenin said about economism?’
‘Economism. Lenin said purely trade union struggle would never achieve socialism. We have to give the political level priority. Don’t start drifting into economism, George.’
George’s head felt like an over-inflated balloon. For ten years the Party had told him to build in the workplace, build in the union; he’d done both and torn his life and his family apart doing it. And now they were telling him he was an economist.
‘You bloody rat!’ George slammed down the telephone and left the kiosk…
* * *
Two nights later George turned up at the Party branch meeting. The various procedural formalities were quickly dealt with, as it was clear that there was only one thing that everyone wanted to discuss – Hungary. John Mitchell gave an introductory report, outlining the main issues. There had been real problems in Hungary, especially in the management of the economy, and the Hungarian Communist Party was doing its best to deal with them honestly and efficiently. But the tragic violence that had occurred must be blamed almost entirely on Western intelligence agencies, which had worked with extreme right-wing elements in Hungary. And, he concluded, they must not forget West Germany. West Germany was full of ex-Nazis who were just waiting for their opportunity to get revenge on the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union had shown it was weak and irresolute in Eastern Europe, then that would have been a green light for the warmongers in West Germany.
George watched with interest to see how the discussion would develop. It was all too predictable. The first speaker was the furniture-worker who had spoken at the William Morris lecture. His contribution was to repeat, in a rather less coherent form, what John Mitchell had already said, stressing the involvement of the CIA and the role of the Catholic Church inside Hungary.
The next to speak was Mary Hichens. ‘We have to look at the serious effect these events are having on our Party,’ she began. ‘A number of leading figures in the Party have seen fit to make public criticisms of the Party’s position, in the bourgeois press. We have to be very careful about the role of intellectuals in the Party. Because of their class position in society, they often become personally unstable and untrustworthy. Lenin often reminded us of how irresponsible intellectuals can become; remember Trotsky was an intellectual. We have to make sure that intellectuals are firmly subjected to the discipline of the workers; otherwise they’ll wreak havoc in the Party.’
This was immediately followed by an Irish building worker whom George had known only vaguely as he attended meetings rather spasmodically. He spoke in tones of raging fury: ‘I’d like to thank the horny-handed daughter of toil who spoke last for her remarks. I think I may be somewhat unstable myself because I’ve always fancied myself as something of an intellectual – that is, I try to read the odd book when I have the time and money to do so. Of course, as the sister has reminded us, Lenin himself wrote all his books and articles in the evenings, after carrying a hod all day.
‘But there’s one thing you don’t need to be an intellectual to know. And that is that in Hungary today you’ve got a state apparatus on one side and workers on the other. And I know which side I’m on, even if the self-appointed vanguard of the working class doesn’t.’
With that he walked out, slamming the door hard behind him. George had remained silent, not because he had any doubts about the issue, but because he was biding his time for the next item. No decision was reached; John Mitchell tried to forestall all criticism by urging that no-one should do or say anything hasty, and promising that there would be further discussion, possibly even a special Congress.
When the discussion on Hungary was finished, many members seemed ready to go, but George asked to speak. George was a well-respected activist, and apart from John Mitchell hardly anyone knew of the events of the last fortnight. It seemed impossible to prevent him from speaking.
‘I won’t waste your time with a report on the strike at Pattersons’,’ he began, ‘because that only involves a defeat for the workers in the firm and a partial destruction of the union organisation that a Party member has spent seven years of his life building up. That probably won’t interest many of you. But there is something we have to look at as a Party. We have a full-time organiser here – a very hard-working organiser he is; so hard-working he hadn’t time to organise support for a strike. He promised me a solidarity delegation from DST, and I conveyed that promise to the shop-floor workers who elected me. I don’t mind them thinking I’m a fool; but they know I’m a Communist, and I don’t want them thinking ill of communism. And above all our organiser let down a comrade; in my book that’s the worst crime of them all.
‘So, comrades, I want to move that we demand the removal of John Mitchell as full-time organiser. I don’t enjoy saying this; I fought in the army with John Mitchell, and he taught me a lot of what I know about Marxism. I used to admire him very much; but now I can see he’s nothing but a cheap bureaucrat. If he was in Hungary he’d be using the same clever forms of words to send people to jail.
‘Comrades, in the trade unions I’ve always argued that officials should be subject to re-election by the members. What’s good enough for the unions is good enough for the Party. If the Party’s going to rule on behalf of the workers, then the workers in the Party must have the right to recall their officials. I’ve heard a Party intellectual say that the Paris Commune was ‘primitive’, but what was good enough for the Paris Commune is good enough for me. So I’m going to move that this branch calls for the removal of John Mitchell as a full-time organiser.’
There was a moment of silence. Even John Mitchell seemed to have been unprepared for the degree of venom in George’s intervention. Then Mary Hichens began to speak.
‘Comrades, George Cook is getting very excited. But let’s remember it was only a very small strike, and a strike that was doomed to defeat from the start – indeed, if comrade Cook had had rather more tactical sense and less impulsiveness, he might have decided it would be better not to launch the strike in the first place.
‘Now this strike – this very small strike – was taking place in a week when the British armed forces were invading Egypt and when the Soviet Union was facing a major threat from the German and American aggressors. Should our organiser really have given priority to a little strike in an insignificant factory? Comrades, we’ve all heard the slogan “Every factory a fortress”, but we all know that Pattersons’ is no more than a sandcastle. There’s a name for the kind of politics that wants to put trade unionism before everything else; we call it syndicalism. Lenin and Stalin fought like tigers against syndicalism.’
George had reached a state of calm that lay beyond fury. He noted with interest that the heresy he was accused of had changed its name from ‘economism’ to ‘syndicalism’. Was this, he wondered, a collective decision or had they just been reading different volumes of Lenin’s Selected Works?
‘The resolution is, of course, completely out of order,’ Mary Hichens went on. Full-timers are appointed by the Central Committee and local branches cannot challenge such appointments. That’s a basic principle of democratic centralism. When comrade Cook has been in the Party a bit longer he may learn to understand such things.’
It’s the same old story, thought George. He stood up. ‘I shall learn nothing,’ he said, ‘because I’m going. For good. If this Party doesn’t put workers’ struggles first, whether they’re in Hungary or in Pattersons’, then it’s not the Party that I thought I’d joined.’
George walked out of the room. He took the bus home. Rachel was apparently already in bed. He sat down in an armchair and took out his Communist Party card. He thought of those workers in Hungary who, with hammers and ropes, tore down the giant statue of Stalin, leaving nothing standing but his boots. As he looked at the card he seemed to see Stalin’s features, no longer avuncular but sinister, emblazoned upon it. He closed his eyes and tore the card, imagining to himself that he was tearing Stalin’s flesh, into two pieces, then four, eight, sixteen…
* * *
George stood up to address the shop meeting. After the strike the order book had begun to fill up again, so the management were in a conciliatory mood and had agreed to a meeting on the premises
‘I’ve called this meeting,’ he began, ‘because I was wrong about the strike. I misjudged it. We couldn’t win. And I promised solidarity from DST. I couldn’t deliver that promise. I was elected to serve for a year, and I’ve another eight months to go. But I believe a steward must always be called to account by his members. So I’m offering my resignation forthwith so that a new election can be held.’
George saw a white shape flapping about. Pete Matthews had his hand raised and was waving a rolled copy of the Daily Express.
‘As far as I can see,’ Pete said, ‘George Cook acted in the best interests of everyone; if he made a mistake it was an honest one. And he never asked anyone else to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself. So I propose we ask him to carry on as steward.’
There was no opposition to this and George was re-elected unanimously.
* * *
Coming home on the bus that evening George thought over the day’s events. He was not dissatisfied. Leaving the Party had made a great hole in his life; but the support of the people he worked alongside was even more important to him. He thought of something else. For the first time in three weeks he actually wanted to fuck Rachel…