Meet the Jewish Communist, Hymie Fagan! The riveting and political context to his, ‘An Autobiography’ reveals the life of a working-class politician. In 68,000 words, Fagan covers a lifetime of historical events. As a full-time worker for the British Communist party, we learn about his activities as a political instructor, General Secretary and propagandist. His memoir, I find, is intriguing in the way it chronologically documents his development from a child, dominated by his religion and faith, to becoming an adult so rooted in the politics of trade unionism and communism.
Hymie was born in 1903, brought up in the East End of London in the district of Stepney. Stepney was a main area for accommodating working immigrants and both Fagan’s parents had emigrated from Russia due to the pogroms, the persecution of the Jewish population during the Russian Empire. Interestingly, when researching records of the Fagan family through ancestry.co.uk I found they had anglicised their surname to ‘Fagin’. In doing so, Simon and Kate Fagan were able to settle in London as British citizens raising their three children in a safe and homely environment, escaping the violence and brutalities of Russia.
The memoir paints a vivid description of Fagan’s childhood, depicting twentieth-century struggles of a Jewish, working-class family. Fagan records his experience of growing up in the East End of London during the early twentieth century, as almost living in ‘Eastern Europe’ (7). Most Jewish people, who had immigrated to the United Kingdom throughout the nineteenth century, had also been affected by the pogroms. An influx of immigrants settled in London in aid of a better life. Although many became subject to working-class poverties, the prevalence of Jewish immigrants in Stepney provided a strong sense of community throughout the area, which Fagan’s autobiography depicts.
“It made them feel a sense of togetherness in a foreign land”
At the age of six, Fagan lost his father to tuberculosis. Loss of the main breadwinner meant living became harder for the family. As a consequence, Fagan and his family frequently moved around London, residing in slum areas such as Hoxton. Despite the adversities throughout his childhood, Fagan remembers his adolescence as a happy and enjoyable time. A practising Jew up until the age of fourteen, Fagan’s transition into early adulthood illustrates his disillusionment with his faith, in exchange for trade unionism and socialism.
Leaving school, he was contracted at a carpet warehouse, and then later, employed at a tailoring factory. At the age of sixteen, he was eligible to join the union at the tailoring factory. This experience shaped Fagan’s appreciation of work ethics and class- consciousness. He reveals: “It was there in the factory where my real education began. It was my university.”(45). It is from this point onwards that we witness Fagan mature into adulthood.
The factory was the start of his dedication to politics. The second part to the autobiography notes his development within the Labour movement, and his progression into the Communist party. In 1928 he began working as a full-time paid party member right up until his last post as the London Correspondent for the World Marxist Review. However, we also see the struggles of a working-class male, with Fagan signing up to the Labour Exchange in aid of finding suitable employment, as he became burdened as the male breadwinner.
The first person account provides an overview of the political strife in Britain from the beginning of the First World War. Historical events are first-hand recorded, such as the 1920 Anti-Soviet campaigns and the General Strike of 1926. A full account of Fagan’s involvement with the Communist party is recorded over a period of forty years. We learn about his participation in the international sports event Spartakiad, during his time at Moscow in 1928. During the 1930s he attended the Lenin School, and spent many years studying Marxist literature to which he became the director of the Communist party’s bookshop and newspaper called the Daily Worker. We also learn about his time spent in the Armed Forces during World War Two from 1941-1945, and the defeat against Fascism.
The desire to write became an ambition for Fagan, to which he successfully published his book in 1950 under the title, ‘The English Rising of 1381’, which gained him credibility as a historian and a writer. In this sense, the historicism of Fagan’s autobiography can be viewed in terms of his political career. Serving a lifetime of loyalty to his party, at the age of sixty-five Fagan finally left the platform of politics.
The historicism of Fagan’s autobiography is truly fascinating. The account relives a period of political turbulence, which comments on the national and international situation of British politics in the years 1928-1968. The text also unravels the working-class identity of a true communist.
‘Hymie Fagan’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, Vol. 2, no. 261
Fagan, Hymie, ‘An Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:261
1911 England and Wales Census http://www.ancestry.co.uk/