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Belief and Disbelief in the Space Between, 1914-1945

 “From the Kremlin to the Vatican: Going Over Twice in Douglas Hyde’s I Believed. The Autobiography of a Former British Communist (1950)”
Jean-Christophe MURAT


Cet article s’intéresse au cheminement politique et spirituel de Douglas Hyde (1911-1996), du méthodisme au catholicisme en passant par le communisme, cheminement qui fait l’objet de son autobiographie, I Believed, publiée en 1950. Membre important du Parti communiste britannique entre 1928 et 1948, Hyde occupe une position dans l’histoire du communisme qui est à la fois typique et atypique. Son adhésion au Parti en 1928 représente une forme de « conversion » partagée par nombre de ses contemporains. Dans son propre cas, une telle démarche impliquait d’abord un rejet des valeurs non-conformistes de son milieu de naissance, à l’origine de sa décision initiale de devenir prêcheur. Malgré son implication active dans toutes les campagnes officielles, Hyde s’est cependant trouvé en décalage grandissant avec la ligne officielle du Parti. L’annonce de sa démission en 1948, consécutive à sa conversion au catholicisme, lui valut naturellement la haine de ses anciens camarades. Le triomphalisme quelque peu irritant des derniers chapitres de I Believed peut être interprété comme l’enthousiasme d’un converti tout à la joie de sa Révélation, mais aussi comme le signe que l’entreprise autobiographique de l’auteur n’était rien d’autre qu’un règlement de comptes avec le communisme.

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 “To trust anyone or to admit to any hope of a better world is as criminally foolish as it is to stop working for it.” (Keith Douglas, Notes, Collected Poems, 150)

1This paper proposes to explore the political and spiritual journey of Douglas Hyde (1911-1996), from Methodism through communism to Roman Catholicism, as described in I Believed, his autobiography published by Heinemann in 1950. I will begin with a few preliminary remarks: Douglas Hyde is not to be confused with his more famous namesake (1860-1949), Prime Minister of Ireland between 1938 and 1945. “My” Mr Hyde, who was no Irishman, was a prominent member of the British Communist Party (or CPGB) from 1928 to 1948. The title of his book is rather misleading. The use of the preterite in I Believed seems to suggest that the author’s period of faith is over, and that his autobiography is yet another story of growing scepticism and final disaffection. We will see how in fact several conflicting modes of faith succeed each other until at long last the final Truth manifests itself to the convert, causing all previous creeds to recede into the realm of illusion.

2This book is not so much an autobiography as a memoir. Hyde is less concerned about his own private life – birth, childhood, upbringing and so on – than about the social, political and religious context he grew up in, the various personalities he got involved with and the cause he upheld for two decades. It is only in the last four chapters of I Believed that he allows himself to voice his private doubts and aspirations, before deciding (literally) to cultivate his own garden for a while. But even this is only the penultimate stage of his journey, as the gleeful notes of Onward Christian Soldiers – or rather a Catholic version thereof – are meant to ring in our ears long after we have closed the book. This said, the crux of the matter probably lies elsewhere, and has to do with the specificity, or even the uniqueness of the Communist Party experience between the two world wars. In a fairly recent study entitled Communism in Britain 1920-39: From the Cradle to the Grave, Thomas Linehan has underlined how CP membership in those years – a period that can be extended to the war and its aftermath – inevitably questioned and blurred traditional distinctions between memoirs and autobiography:

For those who opted to commit themselves fully to the communist way of life it would offer a complete identity and reach into virtually all aspects of life and personal development. [...] Communists found that they were fully engaged in a life which aimed to cater for their cultural improvement, physical well-being and recreation, as well as other areas of their personal and interpersonal development. [...] Thus [the CP’s] reach extended to take in children, youth, and the adult experience, including marriage and aspects of the marital and family relationship. (Linehan, 1-3)

3Hyde’s experience as an important member of the British Communist Party takes pride of place in his autobiography: twenty out of the twenty-four chapters are devoted to it. The more strictly private aspects of his life – his marriage, his children’s births, etc. – are characteristically blended into the political field. When I Believed was published in 1950, the author was thirty-nine years old, which means that he had spent more than half of his life as a CP activist. The title also lays emphasis on this long stretch of time, which follows a pattern of rising enthusiasm, devotion to the cause, declining faith and final breakaway. The ultimate keynote, however, is not one of bitterness and despair, as was the case for many of his ex-communist contemporaries, but of hope and buoyancy. Chapter 24, entitled “The God that Did Not Fail,” is an explicit intertextual reference to the best-selling book The God that Failed, issued a few months earlier by Hamish Hamilton, a London publishing house, and collecting the contributions of six major ex-communists or fellow travellers: Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, André Gide, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender. The question I want to ask is how, and whether, Hyde’s ultimate revelation constitutes an appropriate response to the mood of despair that prevailed among numerous post-war left-wing intellectuals.

Into the Camp of Unbelief

4Douglas Hyde’s so-called “autobiography” dispenses with memories of childhood and with the traditionally formative years of adolescence. This may be accounted for by the fact that his sensitisation to social issues and experience as a communist plays no part in his life until early manhood. From the perspective of the Communist Party, everything prior to revolutionary activism amounts to petty-bourgeois egotism and deserves to be dismissed as irrelevant. We should also point out that the author belongs to a generation of men who missed World War One. Born in 1911, he was of course too young to even remember it. What is rather striking is that the Great War is referred to as a “backcloth” (34), whose significance is to be measured by the yardstick of a Marxist interpretation of history. More precisely, the Great War comes over as a spurious master narrative: the gap between this official dogma (to the effect that this is the war that will end all wars) and facts (by the late 1920s a new war was already in the offing) is revealed and exposed. The opening chapter of I Believed is set in 1927, at a time when Hyde was seriously planning to become a Methodist preacher. It is worth recalling that Bristol, the author’s hometown, had been a stronghold of nonconformism since the seventeenth century. Quakers erected a meeting house there in 1670 and John Wesley, the Methodist leader, had a chapel built in 1739. It remains today the oldest Methodist building in the world. Hyde’s family is no exception to the Dissident rule, and the first three chapters, written from the point of view of a forty-year old man who has long outgrown this creed, depict the nonconformist milieu he was born into in very unflattering terms, sternly criticising the community’s complacency and lack of sensitivity to social issues:

Those I met were mostly lacking in fire and in any sort of self-critical approach to their lives. They were resentful of change and of anyone who wanted change. In their West Bristol suburb they lived sheltered, comfortable lives, remote from the world about them. (17)

5Unsurprisingly then, Hyde’s religious aspirations are from the start inseparable from a set of political ideals, which he sets forth in fashionably radical terms: “God, for me, had to be in a workman’s jacket, not in boiled shirt and tails.” (28) His becoming a member of the CPGB in 1928 represents a form of “going-over” shared by a great many young men and women of his generation. I use the term “going over” in the same metaphorical sense as Valentine Cunningham in his now classic study British Writers of the Thirties:

Going Over is the key metaphor here. It’s an intimate part of the widespread feeling among ’30s authors of being travellers, on the road, making some literal or metaphorical journey (or both), of being involved in a pilgimage to socialism and Moscow, it might be, or to Christ and the Church. In other words, the sense of being in transit or transition, [...] particularly into new poetic and political country. (Cunningham, 211)

6The first significant turning point for Hyde is the reading of a book by D.F. Buxton, The Challenge of Bolshevism, written in 1928 by a Quaker woman who had just returned from Soviet Russia, and in which the rhetoric of sacrifice blurs the borderline between Christian martyrdom and communist activism. The book is dedicated to “the nameless host, who under the Tsars perished as martyrs to their ideals of justice and freedom.” Buxton’s study “provided a bridge by means of which the man with some religious belief could cross with a clear conscience into the camp of unbelief.” (26) I will try to work out the apparent contradiction of this statement in a moment.

7Self-depiction in I Believed constantly strives to close the gap between speech and action. This is probably the reason why Hyde’s initial creed – nonconformity – can be dismissed at such an early stage, and with relative ease.

I could doubt the resurrection of the dead, have doubts about the miracles, [...] believe that first and foremost Christ was just the ideal man, the Great Example, and the Son of God only in the sense that all are also sons of God – and still become a Methodist minister.

But if I put a shilling on a horse, was seen going into a public-house or spent my Sunday afternoon mowing the lawn or painting the garden gate, I should most certainly never get into the Ministry. (18)

8Judgment has been passed on nonconformity: it is a religion for philistines, indifferent at heart to the mysteries of the faith, but very particular about the surface rules of its practice.

9The necessity of commitment to a political ideal is therefore the driving force of Douglas Hyde’s defection to the enemy, the British Communist Party. This crucial move, which may be termed Hyde’s first going-over, implies swearing allegiance to a party whose ideological foundations lie in Marx and Engels’s thought, but that takes its cue from Moscow and never decides on any course of action without referring to its Soviet master first. One may wonder whether Hyde’s conversion to communism matches George Orwell’s own analysis of how a Soviet-led party could possibly attract British middle-class intellectuals. Here are Orwell’s words in “Inside the Whale”:

Why did these young men turn towards anything so alien as Russian Communism? Why should writers be attracted by a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible? The explanation really lies in something that had already made itself felt before the slump and before Hitler: middle-class unemployment. (Orwell, 34)

  • 1   Both Thomas Linehan in Communism in Britain and Margaret McCarthy in her autobiography Generation (...)

10The differences between the two men are obvious. While Orwell is careful to avoid class-based oversimplifications, i.e. clear-cut divisions between deserving workmen and bourgeois villains, Hyde offers a view of his social environment that rests upon a more simple dichotomy between the “haves” (the Methodist middle class he was born into) and the “have-nots” (the jobless miners who hang around the Bristol Downs at night). The second difference between Orwell’s analysis and I Believed has to do with Hyde’s own status. “Inside the Whale” is mostly about the leading figures of the literary world during the first four decades of the twentieth century. If Hyde is no doubt educated, he is neither a creative writer nor an artist. I don’t even think that he regards himself as an intellectual. His rather humble position stamps a distinctive “no-nonsense”, “hands-on” attitude on the whole narrative. He becomes a CP member with a view to performing the tasks that have been set rather than sitting at his desk in order to write books of Marxist theory. Interestingly, this pragmatic approach to revolutionary militancy is perfectly in step with the massive overhaul of CPGB policy after the summer of 1923, when the Party executives decided to reform the inactivity of many of the members and the inefficiency of local branches left to themselves by enforcing Soviet-inspired centralised discipline.1 From then on, every recruit would be obliged to carry out a task and would receive systematic training in Marxist principles. “This would be a ‘total’ way of life for those who subscribed to abide by the new membership ethos.” (Linehan, 95)

11This brings us to work out the complex relationship between the concepts of belief and unbelief. In many respects communism acted – in retrospect at least – as a surrogate faith for people who, having rejected their initial religion – nonconformity, Anglicanism  or Roman Catholicism – saw political action as a source of spiritual regeneration. As Margaret McCarthy writes in Generation in Revolt, her autobiography published in 1953, “the Communist Party gave me a faith”, before explaining that “it contradictorily replaced [religion] by filling my life with a tremendous emotional force.” (McCarthy, 267) True, this insistence upon the links between communism and religious faith has become rather trite, and to some extent one might be tempted to play devil’s advocate by suggesting that Hyde’s own memoirs do not really depart from the need of left-wing intellectuals and activists for a “Second Coming,” be it political or religious. Allowing for the existence of such underlying conventions, Hyde’s forte consists in depicting daily life in the CPGB in terms that emphasise how the Party’s rank and file is made up of ordinary but entirely trustworthy individuals willing to sacrifice themselves (a key-word, used at least twenty times in this book) for the cause. The “tremendous emotional force” evoked by McCarthy precisely happens to be the driving force behind each member’s actions:

Thousands of people in all parts of Britain had sacrificed for years to keep the paper [The Daily Worker] going. Every communist looked to it for daily guidance and leadership. There were hundreds of workers in industry all over the country who regularly got up earlier than was necessary, adding to the length of their working day, in order to sell it or to get it from the local railway station to the factory, depot, mine or shipyard. (Hyde, 78)

12Hyde proceeds with a series of individual portraits. The people he describes are at once commonplace – they are “nobodies” – and outstanding in their ability to renounce their  creature comforts and personal happiness in the name of a far superior ideal:

There was the aircraft worker who went to the station at five o’clock every morning all the year round, collected a huge parcel of hundreds of papers, took them home and then, with the aid of his wife, did them up into bundles of various sizes for the different departments throughout the works. [...] He never missed a day.

And there was Jimmie. [...] Early each morning he set off on his crutches to collect an enormously heavy bundle of papers and then got them around to his network of sellers. [...] He bought an old bicycle with a fixed wheel, had one pedal removed so that his artificial limb could hang free, and cycled at night through the blitz to the Daily Worker building. His course lay right down the Thames waterfront, which was a regular target for the Nazi bombers. [...]

There was, too, the little East End Jewish clothing worker who decided that the blitz was a heaven-sent – or Hitler-sent – opportunity for selling more Daily Workers than ever before. “The workers are in the shelters,” he said, “and our place is with them.” So when the sirens sounded and most other people were making for safety he set out to collect the papers as they came off the press, then went from shelter to shelter selling them. [...] But going from shelter to shelter that night he became just one small part of an “incident”. And a widow and seven small children were left in one Jewish corner of Bethnal Green. (80-82)

13These pages may have drawn their inspiration from some Mass-Observations testimonies, but the keynote here is not so much ordinary day-to-day living as the extraordinariness of that workaday experience. The physical exploits of the Party’s rank and file are performed not through muscular abilities but despite a context of disability. Jimmie the one-legged man, the East End Jewish “runt” – these people are not fictitious characters, but they seem to have been chosen because they match certain stereotypes that both belong to and fall outside CP rhetoric: the encouragement to extreme efficiency, day in, day out, constitutes a form of Stakhanovism; on the other hand, these disabled or undersized men hardly meet the masculine criteria of Stakhanovism. Their achievements are therefore supernatural as it were.  

14In fact it takes Hyde only a few years to perceive the deep split within the Party structure – a split that his narrative insists on describing at great length: at grass-roots level, self-sacrifice and idealism prevail among the members. At the topmost level, the Party executives, being subservient to the Soviet interests, alter the official line arbitrarily – or more precisely according to Moscow’s instructions – and marshal their troops into complete submission. This accounts for Hyde’s change of mood, from pre-war faith and confidence:

But marching from Bermondsey Town Hall to Hyde Park with the hunger marchers after a spate of rousing speeches at a ‘Congress of Action’, I was carried along on a great wave of excitement and certainty of victory. [...] To me and my comrades this was the proletarian army, forerunner of the great Red Army which Britain would one day boast. (50)

  • 2 This analysis is strikingly analogous to Arthur Koestler’s own reading of the situation of the rank (...)

15to gradual disillusionment (“I knew that the fire had gone from my communist faith, that it was no longer the driving force in my life that it had been.” 202-203).2

  • 3 “The simple festivities [for V.E. Day] which I had seen under preparation in those little back stre (...)

16The writer lays all the blame on the blatant cynicism and shameless lies of the Party’s executives, their total disregard for factual truth and their profound ignorance of, and indifference to, ordinary human reality.3 After the sympathetic portraits of the rank-and-filers come the stern, uncompromising portraits of the Party’s leading figures – William Rust, editor of the Daily Worker, Harry Pollitt, the Party’s General Secretary, and above all Rajani Palme Dutt, the Party’s vice-chairman:

Temperamentally he [Palme Dutt] was the perfect Marxist. To him Marxism was a science, human sympathy and idealism appeared not to enter into his make-up at all. The changing world situation was something to be analysed with an ice-cold, scientific mind, and the necessary policies initiated with equal coldness. [...] If the need was to work for policies which in the event of their success would result in widespread suffering for millions, he could still make his decision and expound his case to the leaders with not a thought for the human consequences. (154)

17Palme Dutt therefore epitomises the “steel-hardened cadre,” a category set up following a speech by Stalin in May 1935, and which may be defined as a group of people “trained and ready to do anything, anywhere, for communism.” (90)  The cadres were to become responsible for all purges, with overriding authority when it came to keeping the Party free of deviationists. Symptomatically, as a character the “steel-hardened cadre” takes centre place in the literature of the 1940s. Philosophical novels like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) with the figures of Ivanov and Gletkin, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) with O’Brien, construct their plots and argument around the close links between Soviet-style Party politics and totalitarianism. Big Brother may decide as he pleases that Oceania is at war with Eurasia, or Eurasia’s ally, irrespective of objective reality. Similarly perhaps, the CPGB may decide at the outbreak of World War Two that this conflict is none of its business, it being yet another imperialist war, then suddenly decree, after Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, that the members must do their utmost to help the war effort (ch. 9, “Working for Defeat” and ch. 10, “Working for Victory”).

The Catholic Church Stood, Foursquare, Like a Rock?

18The war years correspond to a crucial semantic evolution of the concept of “unbelief” in Hyde’s autobiography. While “crossing into the camp of unbelief” in the late 1920s meant turning one’s back on a religious faith held in suspended animation by a listless, soulless congregation of well-fed bourgeois, two decades later the same word has become full of negative connotations:

Communism is the child of unbelief. Bad social conditions are only the things on which it feeds.

And that is why communism has been able to take what is essentially a religious instinct and to use it for evil ends, take good qualities and use them for evil too. (273)

19This dogmatic assertion – one must note the characteristic change of style here, i.e. the introduction of a very simple language and of very simple rhetorical devices – appears in chapter 23, after the author’s decisive letter to the Catholic Herald in January 1948, in which he explains how “it had taken [him] five years to travel the road from the Kremlin to the Vatican” (251). It is also posterior to his official resignation from the CPGB on March 1st, 1948.

20Nevertheless it would be a mistake to regard Hyde’s conversion to Roman Catholicism – his second going-over so to speak – as a sudden, irrational move following a flash of divine inspiration. The turning point of his experience as a communist takes place when, after spending nearly twenty years looking forward to the day when Britain will become the motherland of the workers like her Soviet model, Hyde begins to realise that such a dream is unachievable. One thing he fails to mention, though – perhaps because he is not aware of it – is that the impossibility for the political revolution to take place on British soil is not to be put down to the cynicism of the CPGB leaders only. As Jenni Calder explains in Chronicles of Conscience, this impossibility has a historical cause: after the autumn of 1942, the allies began to understand that they would probably win the war, and Churchill realised that he could do so without altering British society in any radical way, the support of the left now being of lesser importance (Calder, 180).

21As a consequence, Hyde gradually turns towards the remote past and starts reading books on medieval society, or more generally books that offer an alternative to the industrial, urban capitalist society he abhors. He develops a concomitant interest in the Weekly Review and inthe Catholic Herald, officially for the purpose of exposing the falsity of their religious views in the Daily Worker, but also – if less avowedly –for the purpose of preparing his political “apostasy.” A couple of years later his analysis of the post-war world has turned into a full-scale indictment of “the modern age.”

I was asked to review Ayro Manhattan’s book, The Catholic Church against the Twentieth Century, along with a pamphlet by the Rev. Stanley Evans. [...] I found myself saying: The Catholic Church against the twentieth century? So what? So am I, if the twentieth century means the crazy world I see about me which has endured two world wars and goodness knows how many revolutions already, and with the war-clouds gathering so soon after the last war.

Against the twentieth century? Against the century of the atom bomb? Against a world right off the rails? [...] So am I. (235)

22Striking resemblances can be found between Hyde’s perception and G.K. Chesterton’s definition of the concept of progress:

I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you [...] call it the doctrine of progress. [...] I call it what it is – the Fall. (Chesterton 1908, 197)

  • 4   “One may perceive the inner trend of the Forties as maintaining this desperate struggle of the mo (...)

23Like Hyde, Chesterton converted to Roman Catholicism late in his life (at forty-eight years old). His famous hostility to the notion of linear progress can be explained by his hostility to Darwinism, so fashionable in the early decades of the twentieth century: “Evolution has produced the snail and the owl; evolution can produce a workman who wants no more space than a snail, and no more light than an owl.” (Chesterton 1910, 22). Explicitly referred to as Hyde’s new model (pp. 184 and 216 in particular), Chesterton is only a little more dogmatic than the author of I Believed, who might at first come over as a disenchanted liberal-humanist like his contemporary Cyril Connolly.4 Hyde’s interest in Chesterton is mostly aroused by Distributism, the philosophy underpinning his economic and political views. Distributism is a fin-de-siècle philosophy which draws its inspiration from Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical, Rerum Novarum. On Capital and Labour. That Encyclical first condemns the evils of capitalism, which have led to the current poverty of the masses, “surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” But in the same breath – presumably to dispel any suspicion of Marxist sympathy – the Pope blames “crafty agitators” intent on perverting men’s judgments so as to “stir up the people to revolt.” Leo XIII asserts the right for every man to live in a world that is neither in the hands of a small number of wealthy individuals, nor in those of an omnipotent State. It then follows that a) “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own”, and b) that State supervision of people’s lives at every level is a great error and injustice. This conception of society, whereby only small-scale structures and corporate bodies ought to exist, happens to coincide with Chesterton’s Catholic world-view, which eventually Hyde makes his own:

The maldistribution of property did not necessarily prove that private property was wrong in itself. If it proved anything at all it was surely that its distribution was wrong and that a means must therefore be found to spread it more evenly over the population as a whole. [...] I was opening my whole mind receptively at last to anti-Marxist ideas.

I got hold of everything of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s on which I could lay my hands, tried to find out more about their Distributism and the philosophy behind it.

Then, after buying a cheap edition of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I went on from that to books by other Catholic authors. (216)

24Even though Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is nowhere mentioned in I Believed, there is good reason to assume that Hyde had heard of it, and had probably read it at first hand. One may even imagine that Pius XI’s 1931 Encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (written to pay tribute to, as well as to update, Leo’s seminal Encyclical), was also familiar material to him. His implicit theory of social and economic relationships is very close to Chesterton and Belloc’s belief in a Third Way, one that would reject both the Left’s reliance on the advent of communism and the Right’s trust in unfettered capitalism. The main problem about Hyde’s new faith is that it advocates a world-view focused on land as the centre of economic life, at a time when industry and capital had long become the driving forces of social and economic relationships. Unfortunately I Believed does not go very deeply into the technicalities of social and economic organisation. As a consequence, the dividing line between Hyde’s distributism and Guild Socialism, whose heyday also coincided with the opening decades of the twentieth century, is not explained, let alone theorised. One may infer, however, that Guild Socialism and Hyde’s “philosophy” part company on at least two important issues: a) the Guild movement was never medievalist, its thinkers (Cole and Hobson) being more intent on transforming the industrial world than on abolishing it (Wright, 168); b) although most of the Guildsmen were middle-class intellectuals, they understood that political change would be brought about not by themselves but by a great mass movement. Hyde, on the contrary, remains to the very end a typical product of his middle-class milieu, and perceives middle-class values as the only possible salvation. In the final analysis, he stands for a philosophy that rests on virtue and benevolence, bringing together the professional sphere (small-scale land ownership) and the domestic sphere.

Carol [his wife] had read the Catholic papers which I had been leaving about the house and from them she had got the picture of what a home and family might be like – a picture the exact opposite of that which we had known as communists. [...] We both agreed that all our experience showed that the Marxists were wrong, whether we judged in the light of our own lives or of the broken homes of the comrades we know.

But the Catholic Church stood, foursquare, like a rock, utterly uncompromising on this question. How right it was. (220)

25This page is rather embarrassing. Besides being struck by the irksome complacency of the author’s tone, one finds it difficult to gauge the validity of Hyde’s opposition between the “broken homes” of his former comrades and the model of stability represented by the Catholic family. As a matter of fact his depiction of the communist family runs counter to other analyses:

The marriage knot was probably the most salient family tie within the communist family network. There were certainly communist couples to be found at all levels of the Party structure, and at all stages of the CPGB’s development through the 1920s and 1930s. (Linehan, 68)

26One should also remember the slogan adopted by the Daily Worker, on 7 August 1930: “Every communist’s wife in the Party.” Marx himself wrote in the Manuscripts of 1844:

In the approach to woman as the spoil and hand-maid of communal lust is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself, for the secret of this approach has its unambiguous, decisive, plain and undisguised expression in the relation of man to woman and in the manner in which the direct and natural species-relationship is conceived. [...] From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development. From the character of this relationship follows how much man as a species-being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s natural behaviour has become human, or the extent to which the human essence in him has become a natural essence – the extent to which his human nature has come to be natural to him. This relationship also reveals the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being. (Marx 1844)

27Recent scholarship on CP history has stressed that marriage and the family always ranked among the top priorities of the Party’s blueprint for social betterment, and that the improvement of financial and material conditions of life in working-class households would put an end to deprived homes full of ailing, underfed children. Hyde, in contrast, describes the Party executives – men and women alike – as irresponsibly promiscuous creatures. My point is not to disprove Hyde’s account on the basis of statistics or factual data I do not possess, but to suggest that his new Catholic faith has now superseded the desire for objective truth. By the end of World War Two, his language is underlined with finality. He has already passed judgment on the CP. His second “going-over” is no less than a second apostasy – a crossing into the camp of belief with the spirit of a crusader: “If I thought that Christian culture was worth fighting for, then I should be in that fight. If the Faith was today, as so often before, assailed by the pagan, then I must be in the crusade.” (276)


28The second half of the 1940s witnessed a loss of political illusions for many Marxist intellectuals. As David C. Engerman puts it in the Foreword to the 2001 Edition of The God that Failed, “the trajectory from Depression-era communist to postwar anti-communist was a common, even ‘banal’, one” (Crossman, xxvii). Beyond this general statement though, one ought to make a distinction between European intellectuals and their British counterparts. Onetime European communists, best embodied by Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler, had to deal with the political hangover of resignation, or dismissal from their own Communist Party, as well as with the threat of rising Fascism and Nazism.

I served the Communist Party for seven years – the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter. When the time was up, the bride was led into his dark tent; only the next morning did he discover that his ardors had been spent not on the lovely Rachel but on the ugly Leah. (Crossman, 74)

  • 5 “ Marx and Engels appeared to be able to account in scientific language for most things in heaven a (...)

29More often than not, British Marxist intellectuals, in comparison, enjoyed the benefit of a solid public-school cum Oxbridge education which provided them with a tradition they could fall back on. That was certainly the case for Douglas Hyde’s famous contemporary Stephen Spender who, after renouncing his (very brief) experience as a member of the CPGB, resumed his literary activities. But things are different for Hyde, who goes from one commitment to another, first espousing the theories of Marx and Engels with a willing suspension of disbelief5, then “going over” for the second time, claiming in the process that everything he had believed in so far was evil and deceptive, and vowing to “try and make more converts to the Faith in the next ten years than [he] had made for communism in the past twenty” (277).

30Ultimately he doesn’t seem to have experienced revelation as such, but to have reached a reasoned sort of conversion based on a good dose of realism and good old English common sense… Common sense is a value often attached to English radicalism!

31In the editor’s introduction to Raymond Williams’s posthumous collection ThePolitics of Modernism, Tony Pinkney explains how Williams relentlessly criticised “self-congratulatory dramatic radicalisms [which] so often remain captured by the very structures of feeling of their apparent opponents.” (Pinkney in Williams, 3). The problem with I Believed – and also the reason why one may suspect that this text never reached the status of an authentic confession like McCarthy’s Generation in Revolt – is that Hyde’s autobiographical enterprise was nothing but a wholesale indictment of communism, together with a latent praise of the Catholic Church, all along.

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Buxton, D.F. The Challenge of Bolshevism. London: Allen & Unwin, 1928.

Calder, Jenni. Chronicles of Conscience. A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. 1908. London: The Bodley Head, 1957.

    What’s Wrong with the World. London: Cassell, 1910.

Cole, G.D.H. Guild Socialism Restated. 1920. New Brunswick: Transaction, Inc. 1980.

Connolly, Cyril. “Comment”, Horizon XX: 120 (December 1949): 365-366.

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Wright, Anthony W. “Guild Socialism Revisited.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 9.1 (Jan. 1974), 165-180.

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Useful quotations from The God that Failed (ed. Richard Crossman, 1950. Repr. Columbia University Press, 2001):

a) Introduction by R. Crossman

- “The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.

Once the renunciation has been made, the mind, instead of operating feely, becomes the servant of a higher and unquestioned purpose. To deny the truth is an act of service. [...] This may be one reason why Communism has had much more success in Catholic than in Protestant countries. The Protestant is, at least in origin, a conscientious objector against spiritual subjection to any hierarchy. He claims to know what is right or wrong by the inner light, and democracy for him is not merely a convenient or a just form of government, but a necessity of human dignity.” (6-7)

- “The true ex-Communist can never again be a whole personality.” (11) -> goes on to compare Koestler and Silone (K: “this inner conflict is the mainspring of his creative work. The Yogi looks in the mirror, sees the Commissar, and breaks the glass in rage. [...] Silone, by moving full circle back to the Christian ethic from which he started, has achieved a moral poise which gives him a certain ‘distance’ from the conflict.”)

b) A. Koestler

- “Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act. [...] A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree.” (15)

- “I had been appointed Foreign Editor of the B.Z. am Mittag” (// Ullstein press barons, liberal) (25)

- “Gradually I learned to distrust my mechanistic preoccupation with facts and to regard the world around me in the light of dialectic interpretation. It was a satisfactory and indeed blissful state; once you had assimilated the technique you were no longer disturbed by facts; they automatically took on the proper color and fell into their proper place.” (34)

- “We lost the fight [the elections of the summer of 1932], because we were not fishermen, as we thought, but bait dangling from a hook. We did not realize this, because our brains had been reconditioned to accept any absurd line of action ordered from above as our innermost wish and conviction.” (44)

- “As a rule, our memories romanticize the past. But when one has renounced a creed or been betrayed by a friend, the opposite mechanism sets to work. In the light of that later knowledge, the original experience loses its innocence, becomes tainted and rancid in recollection. [...] The shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory.” (55)

- “The lessons taught by this type of experience [in the Spanish jails], when put into words, always appears under the dowdy guise of perennial commonplaces: that man is a reality, mankind an abstraction, that men caccnot be treated as units inoperations of political arithmetic because they behave like the symbols for zero and the infinite, which dislocate all mathematical operations; that the end justifies the means only within very narrow limits; [...:] yet every single one of these trivial statements was incompatible with the Communist faith which I held.” (68)

- “dialectical tight-rope acts of self-deception, performed by men of good will and intelligence” (71)

- “I served the Communist Party for seven years – the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter. When the time was up, the bride was led into his dark tent; only the next morning did he discover that his ardors had been spent not on the lovely Rachel but on the ugly Leah.” (74)

c) I. Silone

About D. Hyde’s second “going-over” (his conversion to Roman Catholicism):

“how self-congratulatory dramatic radicalisms so often remain captured by the very structures of feeling of their apparent opponents.” (Introduction to R. Williams’s Politics of Modernism, 3; // Ibsen’s plays)

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1   Both Thomas Linehan in Communism in Britain and Margaret McCarthy in her autobiography Generation in Revolt (1953) show that the British Communist Party was always perceived by its detractors, as well as by fellow-communists from other countries, as one of the worst parties in the world – low membership, inefficient and arrogant leaders, an under-performing Party press were among its major weaknesses.

2 This analysis is strikingly analogous to Arthur Koestler’s own reading of the situation of the rank and file within the German Communist Party at the beginning of the 1930s: “We lost the fight [the elections of 1932], because we were not fishermen, as we thought, but bait dangling from a hook. We did not realize this, because our brains had been reconditioned to accept any absurd line of action ordered from above as our innermost wish and conviction.” (Crossman, 44).

3 “The simple festivities [for V.E. Day] which I had seen under preparation in those little back streets, and our ignorance of what the ordinary people had planned, seemed to me to cast doubt upon our claim to be ‘the vanguard of the masses’, their only real mouthpiece and champion. The simple joys and sorrows of the masses were, it seemed, something outside our ken after all.” (199)

4   “One may perceive the inner trend of the Forties as maintaining this desperate struggle of the modern movement, the struggle between man, betrayed by science, bereft of religion, deserted by the pleasant imaginings of humanism, and the blind fate of which he is now so expertly conscious that if we were to close this last Comment with the suggestion that every one who is reading it now may in ten years’ time, or even five, look back to this moment as the happiest in their lives, there would be few who would gainsay us.” (Connolly, 366)

5 “ Marx and Engels appeared to be able to account in scientific language for most things in heaven and earth.” (37)

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Référence électronique

Jean-Christophe MURAT, « Belief and Disbelief in the Space Between, 1914-1945 », E-rea [En ligne], 8.2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2011, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.1538

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Jean-Christophe MURAT

Aix-Marseille Université
Agrégé d’anglais, ancien élève de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay Saint-Cloud, Jean-Christophe Murat, est maître de conférences à l’Université de Provence. Après avoir travaillé sur le postmodernisme, il consacre depuis une douzaine d’années sa recherche universitaire à la littérature britannique des années 1930, 1940 et 1950 (fiction en prose et essais), et au lien entre littérature et histoire des idées.

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