PARTY ANIMALS: My Family and Other Communists
Jonathan Cape, 2015, 309 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Party Animals, a memoir by David Aaronovitch, columnist with Britain’s establishment newspaper, The Times, seems, at first blush, to be a critical but sympathetic account of the lives of the socialists, including Aaronovitch and his parents, in the post-war Communist Party of Great Britain. In Part Two of his book, however, Aaronovitch warms to the role of bitter ex-Communist and gives us the “real story” of what he sees as a monstrous, self-deluding ideology.
David’s father, Sam, a poor, atheist Jew, became a Communist in 1934 to combat poverty and fascism, and spent 25 years as a leading Party official. Soap-box, loudhailer and self-education were his tools of choice, and, by all accounts, he was “charming, inspiring, a great teacher, a wonderful public speaker …”. David’s mother, Lavender, from an upper class family, was likewise a tireless Party stalwart. Whatever their illusions in the Soviet Union, Sam and Lavender were not ridgy-didge Stalinists – they were, rather, “people who cared about the downtrodden and the oppressed” and they devoted their lives to building a better world.
David Aaronovitch followed in his parents’ politically-outsized footsteps, as did many other baby-boomer ‘red diaper babies’ (in the fifties, “a third of the membership of the Party still had parents who were Communists”). Despite regretting some “eccentricities” (no Beano comics because the publisher was non-union), Aaronovitch concludes that his Party upbringing was “not a poor heritage, but an oddly rich one”.
Now, however, Aaronovitch is older and wiser and he unpicks the “comfortable assumptions” he held in his younger years about his parents and their politics. Like a recovering alcoholic fervently severing all ties to the demon drink, Aaronovitch, the recovering Marxist, renounces his socialist addiction, discovering that strikes are awful, that his father led a campaign to censor lurid and violent US comics, that the Party harboured spies, and that it is a slippery slope between Stalin and a hypothetical British communist government which would eagerly “sentence dissidents to slave labour in the Welsh salt mines”.
Rather than openly tub-thump his neo-conservative/neo-liberal epiphany, however, Aaronovitch seeks to explain his political volte-face through the mysteries of “the psyche” as they played out in his family’s relationship pathologies and traumas. Sam’s energetic adultery made his real family dysfunctional, says Aaronovitch, and it explains Sam and Lavender’s steadfast commitment to their substitute, idealised ‘family’, the Party, despite all its communist wickedness.
Aaronovitch’s rejection of his parents’ transgressions of infidelity and wilfully blind party loyalty accounts, he says, for his rightwards political trajectory. Thus does Aaronovitch rationalise his anti-socialist spittle-flecked, ‘God-That-Failed’ anger as caused by psychology, not his political choice to go the full Thatcher. In Party Animals, we get discount psychoanalysis not measured political analysis.