This is my review of Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch.
Born in the 1950s, journalist David Aaronovitch grew up in a bubble of North London Communist Party activists. This book may be of particular interest to someone of about the same age who can recall the impacts of Yuri Gargarin’s space orbits or the Prague Spring, but with events seen oddly through the different end of a telescope. The young David was not allowed to read comics like Beano published by D.C. Thomson, a non-unionised exploiter of labour; he couldn’t be a Cub like his best friend since that would have meant monthly prayers for the Queen and Baden Powell. On the plus side there seems to have been a good deal of jolly socialising and when David’s father Sam fell victim to internal politicking and failed to get promoted as expected in the Party because he was judged “too ambitious”, his contacts with one of the few Communist academics in England enabled him to study for a degree at Balliol College Oxford with Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger singing at his leaving party.
In an interesting parallel with the radicalism of present day second generation migrants, Sam’s Jewish parents arrived in London just before the passing of the 1906 Aliens Act which restricted right of entry, and the grinding poverty and inequality suffered as a child in the Cable Street area triggered his lifelong passion for the Communist cause.
The book falls into three parts. The first is an account of David’s family life from a political viewpoint up to his own resignation from the Communist Party because membership was deemed incompatible with his BBC journalist role.
The second part deals with the interesting ethical dilemmas on which he came to reflect in later life. This is when he discovered that, although the bugging of comrades’ families by MI5 was often ludicrous and pointless, some had, for instance, helped the atomic spy Fuchs to pass information to the Russians. He was also forced to accept that his own father, so often praised for his brilliance and charm, had in fact attempted to restrict freedom of expression by writers in the name of “political correctness” and advocated Stalinist “socialist realism” to counter the threat of American capitalist culture. This brings the author to speculate how repressive a British Communist Party would have been if it had ever gained power, particularly with so many members’ unquestioning reverence for Stalin as “ the great leader”. David Aaronovitch describes vividly how Communist families and friendships were torn apart when disillusionment drove some to quit the Party over Krushchev’s destruction of Stalin’s reputation in 1956, closely followed by Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising.
The third part reworks the family history to expose on a personal level the hidden truth, which the author only laid bare after his parents’ death. Family psychotherapy sessions recorded under pseudonyms by the famous therapist Skynner, and probably instigated by David’s mother Lavender to remedy his difficult behaviour, in fact revealed the dysfunctional nature of his parents’ marriage. Much of his mother Lavender’s harshness towards him appears to have been displacement activity, not just for her stressful life but also deep unhappiness over Sam’s infidelity. The extracts from her diary and intimate details of marital deception, even violence, may stem from the author’s journalistic necessity to provide supporting evidence but I can understand why the manner and intimate detail of his revelations angered some readers, since they made me feel forced into reluctant voyeurism. What began as a wry take on an unusual family ends up as an exercise in public therapy for the author. This book reminds me of Maxim Leo’s “Red Love” analysing an East Germany family, also thought provoking.