Party Animals is a fascinating memoir about growing up in a British Communist family during the Cold War, written by David Aaronovitch, the son of Sam Aaronovitch, Communist Party worker and Marxist economist, lecturer and writer. (David Aaronovitch also happens to be the eldest brother of Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Rivers of London series, who makes a brief appearance in this book, aged three months, attending his first May Day rally.) As David Aaronovitch explains, being a Communist in the 1960s meant living a life set apart from most of their neighbours:
“We didn’t believe in God, go to church, stand up for the Queen in the cinema when they played the national anthem (which in any case, wasn’t our anthem, our anthem being the Internationale). We didn’t moan about strikes, because we liked them, and we would complain about South African oranges in the local greengrocer’s when most people had no conception of food being political.”
David and his siblings attended Socialist Sunday School (where “much of the time was taken up with writing and rehearsing plays with a suitably socialist or anti-fascist theme”), played with folksy wooden toys imported from Eastern Europe, celebrated the success of Soviet cosmonauts, went on Party-sponsored camping holidays to Bulgaria and of course, took an active part in weekly marches and protest rallies. His account of his childhood is remarkably balanced. He is able, for example, to admire the Party’s commitment to social justice and education, while bitterly regretting that his parents refused to allow him to apply for a scholarship to Westminster or even attend the local grammar school (he was sent to a Party-approved comprehensive secondary school, where he was bullied and his academic performance plummeted). He also writes approvingly of how his parents and their comrades fought against racism, at a time when no one else in Britain (especially racist trade unions) seemed to care much about the rights of non-white British workers, let alone take any interest in the US civil rights movement or anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa.
However, he also questions how the adults who brought him up – mostly thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent people – could give such unquestioning support to the Soviet Union for so long. Somehow these people had managed to ignore any misgivings caused by the 1930s Soviet purges, Stalin’s 1939 pact with the Nazis, Stalin’s subsequent backflip in 1941, the Katyn massacre and other wartime Soviet atrocities. But then came indisputable evidence of Soviet evil – the 1950s show trials, the invasion of Hungary, Kruschev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin as a murderous despot, the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and still Party members refused to admit they’d ever been wrong. It was, the author decides, not unlike a deep religious faith. He notes that his mother, in particular, valued loyalty above all and despised anyone who was cowardly enough to leave the Communist Party:
“In a way everyone was right. It could be cowardly to leave and courageous to stay. The leavers no longer had to face those Cold War battles in which they were always on the wrong side of received opinion. The stayers, on the other hand, maintained their commitment in the face of everything the bourgeois media could throw at them.
But it could also be cowardly to stay and courageous to leave. The leavers went from the comfortable if constricting shape of a life in the Party, their certainties and their relationships all abandoned. The stayers carried on in the familiar routines, buying the Party paper, attending meetings, knowing exactly where they were on almost any issue in any country of the world.
And, to an extent, the longer you’d stayed already and the more you’d endured, the longer you would stay and endure […] If you’d suffered for the cause, you thought more highly of it. This is one reason why being rude to someone whose political ideas you think are stupid – however truthful you are being or however satisfying it is to do – is more likely to confirm them in their opinions than change their mind. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the commitment.”
His mother’s belief in duty, loyalty and sacrifice – and her firm denial of the truth – extended to her marriage. Her husband was often absent on ‘Party business’ (which included affairs with Party women), leaving her to bring up three children by herself on very little money. Her own childhood had been marked by loss and abandonment and she was an intelligent woman who’d been denied an education. She took out her frustrations on her eldest son, which led to the whole family ending up in psychotherapy with Robin Skynner, who used them as a case study in one of his famous books, One Flesh, Separate Persons: Principles of Family and Marital Psychotherapy. This book, in combination with his late mother’s diaries, allows Aaronovitch to examine how his mother and others “insisted on being lied to” in many aspects of their lives, although this section is frustratingly brief. I would have liked to have learned how this affected the author himself in later life, in both his political beliefs and personal life, and I would have loved to have heard more from his siblings. I can understand someone might be reluctant to explore such a personal topic in great depth, but in that case, why choose to write a memoir? Despite this quibble, I found Party Animals engrossing, thoughtful and often very funny. It will appeal to those interested in Cold War politics, but I also think it will resonate with any readers brought up in religious and/or dysfunctional families.