By A STUDENT OF COMMUNISM
AFTER much talk of Communism in the abstract (and who now- adays can escape it?) there is something to be said for attending an actual Communist meeting, where the thing can be observed in concrete shape. I trudged through the snowy wastes of Marylebone to the twentieth National Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain in a mood of professional resignation. But, having got there, I must admit that the human interest of the spectacle got the better of me, and I spent the best part of a day rudely staring back down the body of the hall from my position at the Press table. Here, then, were the comrades. More than a thousand of them. " Party card, comrade? "—the stewards were vigilant but fraternal. One had the usual feeling of raw concrete, stuffy pipes and pervasive whispered conversation which any large political conference always engenders in any large hall. One had the same sense of a small band of platform personalities (behind the same floral barrier) con- fronting a large patient mass of listening cattle, who might, never- theless, be expected to emit an occasional lowing noise. All this, one might say, was common form. Wherein, if anywhere, lay the distinctive feature?
The first, salient impression will surprise—and perhaps a little disappoint—the conventionally-minded. This was very much the tamest party conference I have ever attended. The quiescence of the audience, the lukewarmness of most of the applause, were striking. The Seymour Hall is a big place, with a fine single-span roof over a vast auditorium, with capacious side-galleries. There is an admir- able system of sound-amplification, which ensures a distinct hearing for the least articulate speaker. The place was packed. And yet, except on rare occasions, one did not feel the atmosphere warm up in the authentic manner, and the ovations—except to Pollitt—were not of the kind to sweep one up in a wave of mass emotion. This was no doubt due in part to the fact that there was no real discussion. At the Labour Party annual conference one feels the tug and play of passionate opinion, and, even in these days of respectability and office, some uncertainty of equilibrium as between the platform and the floor. The Conservative Party conference, despite the old gibe about " an outing for grocers' wives," can be the scene of conflict, and requires a strong chairman. The Liberals produce the effect of a brilliant and impassioned debating society, in which argument can really sway opinion. But here, beneath the endless torrent of ex- hortation and invective, no individual mind seemed to stir.
All the speeches were read. I do not think I heard an extempore utterance from start to finish, except the interjections of that warmly human personality, J. R. Campbell, who was in the chair. What is the quality in Marxist prose which marks it out so indelibly? Is it perhaps a tendency to the abstract, and in particular to the reiteration of certain stock abstractions? I cannot precisely tell, but certain it is that every speaker at this conference gave the impression of having been briefed by a nineteenth-century pamphleteer. The content of the speeches was often excellent in a factual sense. These people seldom—almost never—get up and vapour. But a dead level of reading—page following monotonous page—was soporific, and prob- ably a factor in the general deflation of spirits. It will not do to dismiss Communist oratory as such. Pollitt is perhaps too fluent, but still a wonderfully lucid and essentially sympathetic expositor. Arthur Homer is incisive. He bites, rather as Herbert Morrison used to bite in the old days. And John Gollan has the makings of a real revolutionary spell-binder, such as we have not heard since the former wild days of Clydeside. But, good as they were, all these were to some extent muted by the occasion. One longed to hear what a single well-placed interruption might have called for from any one of them.
Who are the rank and file of British Communism? All sorts of random answers are given. A glance round the hall suggested that these answers are over-simplifications. Is this, for instance, the party of the Jews? Well, there were certainly a good many Jews about—more, I should say, than one sees, at a glance, at the corre- sponding gatherings of the other parties. There were, also, sprinkled about a noticeable number of delegates who were evidently of recent foreign extraction other than Jewish. There were, of course, some coloured people. But it would be absurd to suggest that these made up a large proportion of the whole. I tried hard to establish types— to observe some general criterion by which to judge the membership. The nearest I could get, in all honesty, was a certain shabbiness, a general mediocrity of outward appearance.
I came to the conclusion, after watching the flux of the crowd for some hours, that manual workers—certainly the heavy and the un- skilled types—did not bulk very large. These men bring with them an indefinable atmosphere, which is very apparent in any gathering where they predominate. One feels it in a northern football crowd. One perhaps comes nearest to describing it if one says that they give the impression of feeling themselves to be on holiday. That is very strongly the impression given by certain sections of the mining and heavy-industrial representation at Labour Party gatherings, even when business of terrible earnestness is on the carpet. It is not levity. It is not irresponsibility. It is simply the sense of free-and- easy release which any robust man must feel if he is used to working at a coal-face or a blast-furnace and finds himself for the moment away from it. It is written all over him, and he just can't help showing it.
I saw few such men at the Seymour Hall. I judged the majority to be workers of other categories—skilled tradesmen of the electrical and engineering industries, perhaps, and surely many clerical and office workers of the less remunerative grades. The earnest • intel- lectual of the poorer suburbs—the man of little means who might a generation ago have been attracted to street-corner evangelism—he also was there. And from time to time one was reminded, by the emergence of a face positively contorted by inner conflict, that this, above all other parties of our day, gathers the social misfit and the outcast. Arthur Horner, in his speech, gibed at the old Communist avant-garde of twenty years ago, at Will Mellor, Ellen Wilkinson and Raymond Postgate—" the party of long-haired men and short- haired women." Whatever the merits of the case, it is apparent that in the party of today they have no successors. Nowhere in all this gathering did the gilded intelligentsia show its face. The claim that the Communists are now more than ever a working-class party in the technical sense is probably a fair one, though it is, of course, open
to question how wide their working-class representation goes. If the youth of Oxford and Cambridge were represented (as I believe they were) they belonged to a workaday breed far removed from the fashionable extremists of a decade or two back.
But this would not have been a London gathering had it not pro- vided one glorious anomaly. An elderly gentleman of military appear- ance, who might have served a Hollywood film director as the type of a retired Guards officer, sat not far away from me throughout the proceedings. He wore an exclusive tie. He clapped a little from time to time, but otherwise evinced no emotion. Towards the end of the afternoon, he lit an enormous cigar.