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How did my communist family get it so wrong? Because politics was their religion

Martin Kettle

The first public event I can remember took place in 1953. I was three years old. But I don’t remember the Queen’s coronation, as other children of my age may have done. What I remember was my mother reading from the Daily Worker about the death of Stalin. This tells you a lot about what it was like to grow up in a communist family, even in a not particularly doctrinaire one like mine. We lived in a different world from normal people.

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch lived in that strange world too, though his bit of it was in north London, and mine was in Leeds. But the communist life he writes about in his new book about his family, Party Animals, is very familiar to me. We don’t know one another all that well, Aaronovitch and me, but we knew many of the same people as kids, went on many of the same demonstrations, went briefly to the same university (though not at the same time), were active in student politics (him even more than me) and have both ended up as newspaper columnists who are pretty sceptical (him more than me again, perhaps) about the future of the kind of leftwing politics in which we were raised.

Although Aaronovitch is very funny about the communist world, and sometimes very affectionate about it too, he is anything but sentimental. Nothing is harder for an atheist than to be told they are, in fact, religious. But in his book Aaronovitch makes just such a claim. The Party was a cause and a world– an incredibly supportive world in my experience – to which people, including his parents and mine, chose to dedicate their lives. “The Party was a church,” he writes. “Its strength was that it was about belief and faith as much as about intellect.”

I think that is an important insight, and it still matters in leftwing politics today. It’s one that Eric Hobsbawm also came to, years ago, when he described the cold war as a war of religion. But in the 1950s the claim that communism was a religion would have been both insulting and laughable to my parents. For we communists had Marxism to guide us in our world view. Marxism was scientific – its laws of history were as incontestable as the laws of physics. Marxism was, quite simply, true. Everything else was mere ideology or, in the case of religion, superstition.

This left of today looks suspiciously as if it is developing into another church to me

The question at the heart of Aaronovitch’s book, just as it must be at the heart of any study of British communism, is a much wider one, wider even than politics. With some notable exceptions, many of the communists I knew seemed to be essentially decent and intelligent people. But how was it that decent people like Sam and Lavender Aaronovitch – or my parents – could stick with the Party when they all knew, at some level, about the inhumanities for which the communist movement was responsible? And how was it that they stuck with it when it was becoming ever more obvious that the whole determined communist experiment was failing?

The answer, as Aaronovitch movingly argues, is that these people were human and flawed. They believed in the ideals. They believed that Marxism was true. They had faith for a lifetime. When the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, with whom the book starts, my boyhood hero too, flew into space in 1961, the faith still seemed plausible, providing you overlooked Stalin’s trials and purges, the invasion of Hungary, the ban on Boris Pasternak and the rest. But they went on believing in the ideals and the Party long after it became obvious that it had all gone irrevocably wrong, and was perhaps even wrong in the first place.

Communism didn’t work. And most people who lived under it hated it. These are not passing objections. They will need to be relearned as the centenary of the Russian revolution approaches. Yet our parents were like the deluded old Bolshevik in the gulag in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, who cannot see the connection between his youthful political commitment and the horror of life and death in the labour camp. They were like – in Sam and Lavender’s case they actually were – people who remained in a failed marriage. They couldn’t in the end face the reality that something that had given their lives such meaning had turned out so badly. They put loyalty before sense and reason in their politics and in their lives. They lived with their lies as best they could. And they certainly weren’t the only ones, then or since.

Steeped in it though I was, I confess that, for much of the 25 years since the Party finally died, I have been suspicious of books and seminars and websites that try to keep its memory alive in a world that has happily moved beyond it. Too often, these votaries seem to me to be clinging to something that was moderately interesting in its time but ought to be let go, at best a curiosity like the theosophical movement in which my mother was brought up a century ago. In some cases, as seems glumly inevitable in small leftwing movements, some of the acolytes of communist history are intent on refighting old battles, as though they still matter and nothing has changed.

But Aaronovitch’s song of love and pain for the lost family of British communism has made me think again. True, we don’t have a communist movement any more. But we do without doubt have a revived left in Britain, which has dusted off some of the same ambitions, some of the same political ideas, some of the same historic dreams and some of the same deep flaws, foolishness and even intellectual turpitude that made British communism unsustainable.

This left too seems happiest as a fellowship of true believers, dismissive of all those who remain sceptics

This left of today looks to me suspiciously as if it is developing into another church. This left too is marked by a reluctance to ask necessary but difficult questions about its plans for the world beyond the church walls. This left too seems happiest as a fellowship of true believers, squabbling among itself, dismissive of all those who remain sceptics or whose beliefs the elders find unacceptable. Just as the communists knew things deep down that they should have faced up to, so too does this left.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a politics that is essentially a religion, providing that you recognise it for what it is, something personal between you and your friends. But I’ve been there and done that. If politics is an act of faith – rather than a programme and a willingness to change and adapt to new times – it will fail, as communism did. That’s fine for those for whom belief in socialist principles matters more than anything else, just as it was for the communists. But it won’t work. And in the end people will hate it too.