Welcome, dear reader, to first instalment of three posts that concern the political persuasions and ideologies of Mr Harry Young. Although I will deal with the idea of class in a later entry, it is worth noting at this stage how Harry’s impoverished, working class upbringing shaped his political allegiances, and ultimately the majority of his working life. Harry’s introduction to the world of Socialism was down to his cousin, Fred, who, he writes, ‘[persuaded] my parents to send me to the local Socialist Sunday School at the age of about 6 or 7 which every S.D.F. branch ran.’ (Socialist Democratic Federation)
Ironically, given the traditional practices of a ‘Sunday school’, Harry’s weekly congregations were ‘completely secular’, and readings came from ‘something specially published for this [Socialist] purpose, […] or just a straight fairy story from a standard work.’ Socialist songs such as William Morris’ “The March of the Workers”, and Jim Connell’s “The Red Flag”, were sung by the children of all ages in place of the traditional religious hymns of praise and worship.
Harry was caught up in the Socialist movement, even if he did not yet fully understand its implications. The message that the Sunday School was striving to implant in the young minds was one of inclusion and equality for all. Jonathan Rose, quoting Frank Goss, explains the notion that was beginning to take shape in young Harry’s consciousness. Speaking of Socialists, he said:
”They looked forward to a new world in which all people of the earth would be equal, brothers who would use the earth and its products for the benefit of all, each contributing in effort according to his ability and receiving according to his needs. A good socialist was one who acted in his everyday life in his relations to others in the sense of this hope in the brotherhood of man. To them, the sanity of their proposition was so obvious that it only needed explaining sufficiently for all people to adopt it. Each socialist would become the nucleus of a snowball of revelation which, gathering momentum, would soon embrace all the world.’ (‘Alienation from Marxism’, 2008, 298)
Despite the political message of these meetings, Harry lets slip a rare insight into his initial motivation for attending when he remarks, ‘I enjoyed it all immensely, affording, as it did, a brief escape from my poor father’s toil-worn gloom.’ I have already mentioned Harry’s disdain for his father in an earlier post, but it sounds quite possible, if not likely, that Harry’s initial immersion into the Socialist world can be attributed to his desires to escape the hopelessness and misery that was his home-life.
Cousin Fred’s role in Harry’s early political leanings did not stop at his recommendations for Sunday schools, at the outbreak of the First World War, Fred was, once again dominating Harry’s political awareness.
Fred, ‘when conscription was introduced in 1916 […] claimed exemption from Military service as a political Conscientious objector.’ As a result of his actions, Fred, along with others, was ‘sentenced to an indefinite term at Wandsworth Scrubs’, and his conviction to the Socialist cause, despite his incarceration, was something that left an indelible mark on Harry’s consciousness – he freely admits that he ‘appreciated Cousin Fred’s stand and was strongly influenced by his opinions’.
Harry speaks so passionately about Fred and the work he did as Assistant General Secretary of the Communist Party, but there is a particular passage that shows just how deeply Harry’s respect for his cousin went. According to Harry, ‘Fred was bound to be a back-room boy’ due to the fact that ‘Despite his considerable talents and undoubted ability, Fred Peet […] never developed oratorical or platform mastery’; something which Harry did, and that he considered as, perhaps, his most effective political skill. Later in his life however, ‘when doing research for a dissertation on the History of the British C.P.’, Harry discovers ‘a whole series of articles on a variety of topics’ written by Fred, extolling the virtues of the Communist Party at the cost of the then-current administration. Harry admits that he:
‘realised for the first time just how much [more] there was to “Fred” than I had ever given him credit for. Fred Peet was typical of the bright intelligent young working-men of Edwardian days who formed the backbone of Socialist Parties and movements. ‘
Unfortunately, ‘due to pressures of the war-time blackout, family troubles, […] Fred eventually took to the bottle’ and later ‘collapsed with a heart attack’ and died (what a shame he didn’t write a memoir!). Harry’s lament of his death, and the realisation of his true worth to the Communist Party leads to a particularly poignant admission that ‘Due to my political intransigence I had ignored and practically ostracised him [Fred] for years. What a disgusting little snob I was!!’ Harry’s early interactions with Fred, and the role the latter played in Harry’s introduction to Socialism, provided the foundations for Harry’s political allegiance and, arguably, catalysed his journey from working-class urchin to prominent Communist Youth League apparatchik.
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858
Rose, Jonathan. ‘Alienation from Marxism.’ The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. London: Yale UP, 2008.