A HUNDRED years ago today, the people of Motherwell returned Britain’s first Communist MP. J T Walton Newbold (1888-1943), standing for the Communist Party of Great Britain, received more than 8,000 votes, defeating Independent Unionist, Liberal and National Liberal candidates. For the record, four other avowed Communists have been elected to Parliament, all during the 1920-50 heyday of British communism: Cecil Malone (Leyton East), Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North), Willie Gallacher (West Fife) and Phil Piratin (Mile End).
Granted, this is tiny in comparison with the hordes of Communists elected on the Continent, particularly in France. Still, it’s five times as many MPs as the Green Party has had, and consider the pervasive influence of Ms Lucas and Co. For those, then, who still cleave to the notion that ‘it could never happen here’, it already has. Moreover, it happened years before Gramsci’s writings were disseminated, decades before the Long March, and generations before Blair’s social revolution.
Despite today’s important anniversary, Lancashire-born Newbold is unlikely to be toasted by the comrades tonight. He publicly abandoned the CPGB in 1924-5, drifted further to the right and made enemies along the way. His character may also have contributed to his neglect. He was variously described by former colleagues as rude and insensitive, difficult, awkward, caustic, insufferable, intellectually arrogant, eccentric, lacking in political judgment and unfit for Communist work. By 1931 he was quite the establishment figure, a member of the second Labour Government’s commission on Finance and Industry.
But in the early 1920s nobody questioned Newbold’s Communist credentials. He came from a wealthy liberal family, and enjoyed a considerable private inheritance. Like middle-class utopians the world over, he could afford to immerse himself in Marxist-Leninism, insulated from its depredations. A conscientious objector during the First World War, he was a leading light in the Hands Off Russia campaign, and attended four conferences in Moscow and Leningrad in 1923. The European revolutionary spirit of 1916-20, rising unemployment and the strike wave of 1919 gave him receptive audiences.
A few quotes from Newbold published in the first edition of The Communist (August 5, 1920) illustrate his uncompromising outlook (emphasis in original). He begins by declaring unity with those who ‘embrace without hesitation or reserve the soviet system, the dictatorship of the proletariat, with all that it entails,who reject parliamentary democracy and all the apparatus and ideology of the capitalist state’.
How will such a radical creed prevail in Britain? Education, agitation and revolution.
‘The education of the masses tocommunism, the shattering of their faith in the institutions of capitalism, the encouragement of a belief in their own powers of social construction . . . the general work of agitation and organisation, and the stimulation of an aggressive revolutionary fervour amongst the working class. These are but a few of the matters to which we must bend our efforts at once.’
In present-day terms, the focus on the working class is almost quaint. The far-left long ago conceded that the ordinary person’s innate conservatism and love of country precludes a class revolution. We’ve never been forgiven for it. By contrast, ‘powers of social construction’ seems eerily prescient, given the modern woke fixation on the self-defining and fluid nature of gender and sexuality.
The religious zeal of contemporary control freaks, disastrously emboldened by the response to Covid, is more than matched by Newbold. The status quo’s ‘shams, hypocrisies, and lying subtleties must be torn aside, and the beast revealed in all its perfidy and soullessness’. The faithful are engaged in a ‘struggle . . . to smash capitalism in its entirety’. Sage member and prominent communist Susan Michie, aka ‘Stalin’s nanny’, couldn’t possibly have had an ulterior motive in endorsing business lockdowns, could she?
Today, the collectivist virus has returned, and the reformulated ghost of Marx stalks the land. The word ‘communism’ is studiously avoided, but in rehashed form that’s what ‘wokeness’ is. Ordering people around is the idea. To that end, societal norms are destabilised and confected crises like climate change demand ever more obedience to the state.
The lesson of this inauspicious centenary is clear. Let’s be dismayed, but not surprised, by what’s happening around us. There have always been people in our midst, like Newbold, who wish to tear down what is good. When – or whether – the wider population will wake up to the threat, and do something about it, is another matter. As Graham Greene writes in The Comedians, ‘Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent.’ It’s high time all remaining complacency ceased.