James Klugmann: historian, wartime SOE operative, antifascist, writer, theoretician, founding editor of Marxism Today, avid book collector and communist.
Klugmann was one of the key contributors to the postwar consolidation of Marx Memorial Library as an archive of the working class and communist movement in Britain.
On Thursday 10 December the MML held a panel discussion on Klugmann's legacy with contributions from a number of people who worked with him, both at the MML and elsewhere. Contributions are transcribed below.
Thank you for inviting me to this gathering, which I look on as a celebration of James Klugmann's outstanding life.
I knew him before I met him, which was in the 1950s, as he was the subject of table talk between my parents, who knew him from his Cambridge days and remembered him, among other things for sharp repartee in conversation with a reactionary tutor at Trinity College, and, something my mother never really forgave him, his absent-minded eating every single one of the biscuits she had bought out of a tight budget and put on the table, hoping they might last. There was not much money in the house.
I came to know him personally when I was a student at Manchester university in the 1950s and then, more thoroughly when I became a full-time worker for the Communist Party from the 1960s onwards, in party schools, at committee meetings at Party headquarters, often staying overnight in is house.
JK was a professional revolutionary, always conscious of the role of imperialism, the labour movement and the socialist camp and the part played in the struggle for socialism in Britain and its Empire. I remember when I went to work full-time for the Party he stressed: “Remember that this is for life.” And that was his own commitment.
His strength lay in his enormous experience, on which he drew as an educator and organiser, very much a leader in the “battle of ideas”, at all times seeking to broaden support for Marx's ideas so as to turn those who might be intellectually attracted into militants and, especially, into revolutionaries.
If I had to write a book on JK that would be the theme and everything else about him, his presence, not excluding his jovial love of schoolboy pranks would be within that context, as I experienced it over the years I had the privilege of knowing him.
He directed his considerable personal qualities to the end of securing revolutionary change and he could convey the ideas of Marx and the policies of the Communist movement equally to students, not least in the pre-war international student anti-fascist movement, to Communist Party members, shop stewards, Christians of all denominations, including their clerics, to Kwame Nkrumah's college students in Ghana, on a Commintern tour to China, in Yugoslavia and beyond. One of the outstanding qualities of his lectures and the discussion he engendered was ever to link his presentation of theory to the burning issues of the times. He was no dogmatist nor was he didactic.
His opening words at a fortnight's school for Communist students near Eastbourne were: “I hope that you will derive greater clarity about a number of issues [PAUSE] and come to question some of the certainties you brought here with you.”
He introduced anecdotes and colourful illustrations, such as telling Ghanaian students that Marxist theory “covered everything “from an erection to the revolution”; his analogy of the bourgeois state not being like a bicycle that could be ridden by just anyone as it existed to defend the capitalist system, and many others that time does not allow to develop today.
He encouraged study and had me go into anarchism when one of the the leaders of the student radicals in Paris in 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bend, proclaimed his belief in the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno. I mentioned I had seen a Soviet film on Makhno and James encouraged me to to study for the Party, who the hell Makhno was, making me something of an expert on his movement. Shortly afterwards he encouraged me to write on Soviet trade unions. Cohn-Bendit, by the way, is now a German Green MEP who supported the Western military bombings and invasions of Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Most people joined and still join the Communist Party attracted more than else by seeing Communists at work, often around an issue that is of particular concern to the new member, be it gender discrimination, pay, pensions, housing, benefit or child entitlements, war and peace, national liberation and what have you, including on intellectual grounds. In James' time, at school and university it was the fight against unemployment and fascism and the attraction of the Soviet Union as it was building socialism and was the only state standing in the way of the fascists. It was not uncommon for members to part from the Party when they found they did not agree with Party policy on a particular issue – such have been the Soviet-German non-aggression pact that came after Munich, the break with Tito's Yugoslavia at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet interventions in Hungary and then in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic... you know the issues, and most writings on the Party continue to single out such moments and projecting the views of those who dropped out preference to recounting the exceptional achievements of the Party since its birth. James had not come to the Party on a single or small number of issues and nothing in his experience, as he saw it, ever led him to question his membership or the foundations of Marx's and Lenin's scientific theory on social development and the attraction of socialism. He was a professional revolutionary and, as such, like a good footballer, kept his eye on the ball.
He was a man who thrived on free debate and when presented with new approaches, such as surfaced widely in the youth and other cultures, and within the Communist movement that arose in the 1960s he was interested in them – the ferment of ideas had always thrilled him. He was, however, never a dilettante and suggestions that have been made and printed that it was intellectual cowardice that drove him not to espouse the ideas loosely referred to as Euro-Communist are false. My experience with James would at best suggest that was a misjudgement although, to be honest, the sources for that allegation are disreputable, coming from people who have long abandoned the fundamental premises and findings on which Marx based his theories. He did not go along with the revisions of Marx as seen, on the one hand in the studies of Roger Garaudy or, on the other, the structuralism of such as Louis Althusser. Indeed it was in Marxism Today that he, as editor, published John Lewis' resounding challenge to the latter's thoughts, the first in the world Communist movement.
He wrote extraordinarily interesting articles, a book on the Marxist-Christian Dialogue and a pamphlet that could do with being read today: The Future of Man and much else.
His volume: From Trotsky to Tito , written to order of the Party leadership after Tito's expulsion from the Cominform, reflected an uncritical acceptance of the Soviet version of the political trials of a number of prominent East European Communist leaders and was later withdrawn by the Party when Khrushchev made it up to Tito in the 1950s.
I'll end as I began, James was a professional revolutionary and a soldier of the Communist Party. I never saw him as a tortured soul.
I have been asked to speak on the Christian-Marxist dialogue and James contribution to it.
I have been asked, I expect, because I am a Christian, and an unorthodox Marxist. More importantly, I was also, for several years during the 1970s a member of Marxism Today’s editorial board and a member of the Party from 1970 until the expulsion of the London comrades when I resigned in solidarity.
In the time given, I am not going to speak of the dialogue as such, but of James’ world view and how this might have resonated with Christians.
So I won’t be speaking of how Bloch’s Marxism influenced the theology of hope of Rahner, Metz and Moltman; or of liberation theology, martyred Jesuits and Francis, bishop of Rome; or of Togliatti, Thorez and the ‘open hand’ strategy; of dissident Marxists in Eastern Europe and Marxist Dominicans in Britain and so forth.
Rather I shall be talking primarily of James’ Marxist humanism which led him to help develop the C/M dialogue in this country, a humanism which shone in everything that he did, especially in his work for Marxist education and the development of a Marxist worldview.
This world view is encapsulated in the little booklet that he wrote called The Future of Man later amended for inclusion in the SPCK publication The Christian Hope as The Marxist Hope which is a small miracle of lucidity, brevity and profundity.
James, in the late sixties, looking at what Christians would call ‘the signs of the times’ pointed out that we live in ‘stormy weather’ and that ‘Never has the great contradiction been so clear between what is and what could be’.
That is even more true today. There is growing inequality in wealth, opportunity, living standards etc; humanity is threatened by wars promoted and maintained to increase imperialist domination. In developed Capitalism, we are threatened by the loss of those civil liberties gained by past struggle. Scientific knowledge is prostituted for profit and access to higher education is the pathway to lifelong debt for the majority.
James resolutely called for the application of scientific thinking to human society, to transform social relations and to end the many forms of alienation that hinder human development both social and individual.
In this he made common cause with Marxist Christians, such as the Dominicans Laurence Bright and Herbert McCabe, leaders of the Slant Group, and friends of mine, who also saw the need for a scientific analysis of human society and who had come to an assessment that Marx and Engels had been responsible for the development of such an analysis – but they didn’t think that the last word had been said.
James view, in line with the founders of Marxism, was that the laws of history are laws of trend, of direction, not inevitabilities. In order to bring about change people have to make their own history by working with the potential in given social, cultural and economic conditions. As he put it, Socialism is possible and necessary, but the need for it has to be consciously understood.
In such thinking he was committed then to more than dry scientific analysis; he was living a life which expressed a profound HOPE; a hope which sustains us through darkness, conflicting demands and social ostracism. A hope he shared with left and Marxist Christians. A hope founded on a belief that the unlocking of human potential will lead, eventually, to transformed human beings living in a society where each will be treated according to their needs.
Marx, when he first used this phrase was quoting directly from an account in the Acts of the Apostles of the first Christian community; one consciously communist, practising common ownership, solidarity and commitment to human transformation. A community led by James, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Galilee whose brother James was.
Did the teenage Norman John Klugmann , while at Gresham’s (his boarding school) change his name to James and called himself a communist in order to dialogue with his fellow students who were nominally Christian ? In his gentle but formidable way saying, I am James, the Jew, the Communist, and perhaps I understand the teachings of Jesus of Galilee rather better than you do?
James knew how to ground his thought in the actualities of living but also knew how to release the hope in human beings. He also knew how to bring the mind down from a dry heights of theoretical circling into the living strength of the HEART linking with others in outgoing purposeful and courageous activity to bring about a new society.
He had absolutely no truck with that kind of instrumental thinking which owes more to Machiavelli than Marx. So, towards the end of his life he resolutely opposed the anti-humanist, vulgar materialist, structuralism of Louis Althusser which held many British so-called euro-communists in thrall by its showy jargonizing. He tried to expose its weaknesses through OPEN DEBATE in Marxism Today because James was deeply committed to democratic methods.
He had learnt this commitment during the long struggle against fascism which led to the strategy of the POPULAR FRONT. Unlike some, James really understood the term BROAD DEMOCRATIC ALLIANCE. This shaped his dialogue with groups within and outside of the Party. In this work he was outstandingly courageous from his work in the International Student Movement onwards.
However, no one could drag him into any sort of Party factionalism as opposed to democratic debate; his gentle silence always defeated them (I felt sick when reading Jacques comment that James was timid; what a travesty of the truth!).
But James always recognized a real ally when he met one – that was one of his great strengths. He didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body nor any narrowness in his spirit. So when Christians, following Vatican II started to talk about the option for the poor and the need for solidarity he knew he could dialogue with them. They were looking and sounding more like James his namesake!
Challenging certain misconceptions among Christians, James quoting Marx, Engels and Lenin (Socialism cannot be decreed from above) to do so, argued that democracy was central to socialist transformation. As he said, for this (socialist transformation) to become a reality men and women must be more and more involved in building their society.
He was a notable and admired intellectual but above all he was loved and respected because of his commitment to the movement; he knew that such work must be developed in solidarity with the struggles of ordinary working men and women. James felt that in the struggle to change society, human beings, especially working people, learnt a wisdom that transformed them and released their human potential; that Marxist intellectuals must always learn from such wisdom which had been acquired through suffering, solidarity in struggle, the deepening of hope and of revolutionary experience.
James, like all Marxists, believed that all things develop and change, and cannot be understood except in the context of their change and development, human nature being no exception. James rejected the view, held by some, mostly Protestant Christians that this struggle starts with the individual, acting alone, which he thought a slogan to keep things as they are.
But he also thought crass the view that simply changing social structures changes human beings inevitably. As he put it: men make themselves Marx and Engels saw this very early and very quickly. ….the educator must be educated. ( By the way this view is close to that of progressive Jesuits).
We might say of James that he was a first class educator of himself and others. And, one might add, made us more and more aware of the processes that form both social and individual consciousness. In his emphasis on the education that raises consciousness James completely rejected any sort of vulgar materialism and also found himself close to progressive Christians.
James rigorously opposed all elitism: he was very deeply committed to the view that socialist and communist leaders must always see themselves as part of the movement and not as dominating it (a welcome example – Jeremy Corbyn.) The only time I heard him make a personal criticism of someone in the Party was when he expressed a fear that this person, in a leading position, was seeing himself as above working people a bit of a snob.
Individuality, James held, was not best expressed in Capitalism but in Socialism because in Capitalism the lives of individuals are narrowed, limited, confined. People are reduced, very often, to the status of commodities; this is combatted best by solidarity in struggle; not by powerless individuals standing alone, but through trade union and other forms of progressive group struggle. (These insights are now expressed by regularly by Christians, for example in papal encyclicals…partly as a result of dialogue with socialists and communists.)
James believed that if people live and work for communist ideals and the release of human potential, then they can then learn to accept death because they have learnt that life exists through and beyond their individual existence and that life is given meaning by the long, difficult and multi-faceted struggle for human liberation.
As Christian I believe in the hope of Resurrection and that it shows itself throughout life and not just at death. And Communists experience that hope deeply although most give it another name: Marxist hope. I tell my Christian friends that Communist funerals are deeply hopeful in character because in them the continuity of life and community are affirmed and the contribution of each person to human liberation is recognized and celebrated.
Speaking as someone who owes so much to James’ Marxist humanism, I think he would be glad to join with us with us in the old Yiddisher toast to Life: Lockheim!
I am very pleased to be able to speak here in Marx Memorial Library, a place where I have spent many hours researching and, of course, the Library was very important for James who was himself a phenomenal book collector as well as being great Marxist scholar, intellectual and party tutor. There is fittingly a room dedicated to James himself here. Michael did not tell the story of his collapsing book shelves in North London and of how, when he moved to Clapham, ‘Juggernaughts’, (according to his lodger Pete Carter), arrived with his books.
I have only limited time and I want to focus on James in the 1930s, a crucial decade for understanding James’s politics, his life and his status as an intellectual and, as Mick called him, as a professional revolutionary, a very good description. James was part of a unique generation of Communists defined by their internationalism, by their political commitment and in James’s case with his middle class background the breaking down of barriers with the working class. I should mention here the new book Radiant Illusion by Nicholas Deacon* which was the story of middle class recruits to communism and of course James was one of these.
James came from a well-off Jewish background in Hampstead. His father was a Liberal-voting businessman; his mother’s people were prosperous wine and tea merchants. He went to the Hall Prep School and then on to Gresham’s School. We have not mentioned his sister Kitty who was a great influence on James and who went to a very special independent girls school at the bottom of their street, the Kingsley School, which had been established to teach the daughters of gentlemen and doctors but which had at that time been taken over by a group of women including the first English female professor of philosophy, Susan Stebbing, who introduced Kitty to the ideas of the suffragettes and radical politics. Kitty was always an important influence on her brother. I don’t think many of the women of this generation of Communists have received the attention they deserve. Kitty was four years older than James, preceded him to Cambridge and introduced him to radical politics. His first poem, which can still be found in the school archives, was on the General Strike, written while he was still at the Hall School and published in its magazine in 1926. It seems to mark James’s first step into politics. He edited the school magazine along with his cousin Charles Rosenheim. The school records show him to have been academically always at the top of his class, one of the best students the school ever had.
He went on to Gresham’s School which was recognised at the time by the children of middle classes as very progressive, not permitting caning and with a broad range of subjects. James was at the school at the same time as Roger and Brian Simon, life-long friends, Bernard and Peter Floud and Benjamin Britten. There’s a James Klugmann character in Tony Britten's wonderful docu-drama ‘Peace and Conflict’ about Britten and his journey towards pacifism in the 1930s, a generation with the menace of war always hanging over it.
A key influence at Gresham was this extraordinary tutor, Frank McEachran, very eccentric, nominally teaching French but in practice an understanding of the humanist tradition in European civilisation covering the enlightenment, the revolutions of the nineteenth century and of course Marx – something virtually unknown in schools at that time. McEachran was later the model for Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys – and later taught a generation of boys at Shrewsbury, including some later Private Eye contributors For James, McEachran was very influential and especially for his humanism. It was at this point that James developed his commitment to a humanist perspective later exemplified by his pamphlet The Future of Man. He contributed to a debate in 1929-30 at Gresham when he was 17 or 18 where he talks of similar things and is very critical of the way the capitalist economy corrodes culture and the soul of man. It’s already there at that stage. He saw himself as in revolt against the system, calling himself a Communist, though he had not read much of Marx and was not a member of the party. From the debating society minutes it is clear that he was a dominant presence. He was not particularly good at games, was not a prefect, not popular with the school authorities but was intellectually ahead of the game. Other pupils looked up to him and he was already developing his political ideas – and excited by ideas.
He went up to Cambridge the same month that his sister was marrying Maurice Cornforth, the Communist philosopher, and straight into this remarkable student generation. There had been no previous mass student movement and now James played a very significant role in creating one. He was co-leader first with David Haden-Guest and then with John Cornford, both of whom died in Spain. Cornford was three or four years younger and they were a perfect combination in recruiting communists and in organising the student movement. Cornford was impetuous, impatient, intense, an orator, always wanting to combine with the working class groups in the town. James was quieter, a persuasive type who spent hours and hours talking to people winning people for Communism. It was a great team.
1933, the date this Library was founded, was the year James joined the Communist Party, somewhat later than one might think. But we should remember how important parental relations were at that time and the arguments that James was having with his family. This year saw the Communists in Cambridge hold two major peace demonstrations. One was at the armistice parade and the other was to disrupt a military film – and James seems to have impressed both King Street and also the Comintern with his organising abilities. In 1935 he went to work for the World Student Association in Paris, a remarkable time to be in Paris - of the Popular Front in France and the onset of the civil war in Spain.
Previously Willie Gallacher had paid a visit to Cambridge in 1934 which in hindsight was a very important meeting for James. Gallacher was shocked to find students posing as ‘honorary proletarians’, dressing as workers and not taking their studies seriously. Gallacher said No. It was the duty of Communist students to be first rate as students, to become first rate intellectuals. This influenced James a lot. It meant for him he could be both a professional revolutionary and also an intellectual. Indeed when he went to Paris he was nominally on a research degree, partially funded by a Cambridge research grant and partly by funds from his grandmother’s family.
A lot of his contemporaries went on to become academic historians: Victor Kiernan, Christopher Hill and A somewhat later contemporary Eric Hobsbawm. James wanted to become a teacher. But his choice, his dedication, was to the Communist Party
He was of course a remarkable tutor and it is evident throughout his life. It is evident in the boat university he set up on his way to Egypt when he was supposed to be delivering language classes but he was in fact teaching politics to clerks and fitters at the time when the Soviet Union was entering the war. It was evident again in Cairo when he was in SOE and lecturing to exiled Croatian communists and briefing them on their dangerous assignments. He was indispensable to SOE. He was the only one who had met Tito previously and the only one who could communicate with the Communist partisans. He was crucial in persuading the allies to make common cause with them and his rapid rise in SOE was, incidentally, to the horror of MI5. There are fascinating records of correspondence between SOE and MI5, who wanted Klugmann brought back, and SOE who were having none of it.
Basil Davidson in his book on this period SPECIAL OPERATIONS EUROPE talks about James’s lecturing style. You can also hear James lecturing in the sound archive in British Library: James talking to south London communists in 1973. When he died the Morning Star described him as a teacher of genius and this indeed was his great legacy. When I was doing research for the book in this Library I remember listening to a tape of James, I think it only exists here, made by the BBC in 1974 for a programme called ‘It takes all sorts’ in which he is interviewed about his love of books. James was an obsessive book collector but he WAS very insistent that he is not simply a collector of books but a collector of books for a purpose: because book-collecting was part of his commitment to preserve the history of the working class movement. It was part of his wider commitment to the cause. He makes this point again in his contribution to the Lawrence and Wishart book Culture and Crisis in the 1930s in which he describes the 1930s as a ‘decade of commitment’. The Communists then had to make difficult choices, often at the behest of the comintern, and in a sense they had the choices made for them. Loyalties then were not within nations but across nations and James made his decisions in the 1930s on these terms. That’s why that decade is so crucial for any understanding of his life.
*Nicholas Deakin (ed), Radiant Illusion? Middle-Class Recruits to Communism in the 1930s Eden Valley Editions (2015)