Book Review from the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists'. By David Aaronovitch. (Jonathan Cape. 2016)
Aaronovitch is not, it is fair to say, universally popular as a political columnist but this book shows another side to a quite complex individual, centered on his upbringing and early life in the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is for the most part engaging and well written and there is much here that anyone familiar with radical and revolutionary politics will be able to identify with.
His father was Sam Aaronovitch, a working class full-time Communist Party official who later became an academic, while his mother Lavender was a radical activist and equally fervent in her leftist and pro-Soviet views. They were contemporaries of well-known CPGB activists like John Gollan, Jock Nicholson and Peter Fryer, and Aaronovitch deftly analyses their North London social and political milieu. This book is an attempt to explain why they thought as they did and to explore the cultural environment and reference points of those who set themselves in this way outside the mainstream of society. In this respect, it is a personal exploration of what it means to be ‘the other’ and how political ideology was reflected in music, holidays, food eaten and a range of other ostensibly non-political activities that were nevertheless impacted by the sense of being different and apart from the mainstream.
While the CPGB had its own distinctive internal culture and identity it would be churlish to deny there is a wider resonance here of sorts, including with organisations like the SPGB that have had a similar ancestry in the self-educated working class ‘autodidactic’ tradition. This has been a tradition often at variance to the prevailing attitudes and codes of behaviour in society (from say, negative feelings towards religion, to refusing to sing the national anthem at school).
In some respects there are interesting parallels with the approach taken in Alexei Sayle’s 'Stalin Ate My Homework', though compared to Sayle what this loses in humour it perhaps gains in terms of psychological insight. Aaronovitch is impressive in his analysis of psychological attitudes and responses in the CPGB towards the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 (including why some members left at this time while others reconciled themselves to stay), the Czechoslovakian events of 1968 and then the long decline of the CPGB from the 1970s. He takes in the split with the hardline so-called ‘tankies’ in 1977 and the final dissolution of the organization in 1991 with the founding of the Democratic Left. But by then the Party had been over for him for some time and this book is the culmination of many years – decades even – of soul-searching about his upbringing and involvement in it.
Some of what emerges about Aaronvitch’s family background is clearly uncomfortable (his father was an adulterer and it appears that the family were the thinly-disguised subject of a chapter in a well-known book by the psychologist Robyn Skinner, consequent on a series of family therapy sessions they had with him). There is a sense of some score-settling too as the book progresses, though this doesn’t detract too much from what is an otherwise insightful work. It is mainly an autobiographical and sociological account rather than an expressly political one perhaps, and it would have been interesting to have explored more closely at times the political assumptions that lay behind the belief in so-called ‘actually existing socialism’ in the Soviet Union and its satellites. For this was not a ‘socialism’ that degenerated over time, but a complete mirage from the outset, and one the CPGB were at pains to promote and uphold despite all the evidence to the contrary from 1917 onwards.