British communism was the real Blitz spirit

In the wake of Thursday’s update, I’m reliably informed by one of Twitter’s trigger-happier inhabitants (rather literally in this case, it appears) that I’m a ‘twentysomething whackjob with a garbage degree who never saw real communism‘, unqualified therefore to praise anyone even the slightest shade of red, as the post noted European freethought’s standard-bearers often were. Would he prefer, I wonder, Christopher Hitchens’ dictum several months before his death, ‘From the many Marxists who took issue with Lenin, there proceeded a number of works of a high order of seriousness, and failing to scrutinise them would severely limit one’s knowledge of modern history‘?

The anti-Muslim right and pro-Islamist left show equal keenness to claim ‘true Islam’ for their side’s case, jihadists, Wahabis and Salafis on the one hand, liberals, sufis and Ahmadis on the other. None of these schools is more or less ‘real’ than any other: hijackings, Dervishes and calligraphy are all real expressions of Islam. ‘Real communism’ then seems equally elusive. Were the communists in Oswald Mosley’s way at Cable Street, obstructing the procession of his Union of Fascists, somehow unreal? Were the communists of the Gay Liberation Front, and those present at the Stonewall Inn’s eponymous riots, not real ones either? Was Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to Britain during the Blitz, more of a real communist inside his £1600 personal shelter than Communist Party members agitating as bombs fell for the poor to be let underground?

Tube tunnels lined with Londoners in photographs have mythologised the war. They tell, we like to think, of a universal struggle, prince and pauper driven alike beneath the surface, fires levelling not just buildings but society itself. The story is told over and over, in disaster films where heiresses bond with barmaids, by all-in-this-together politicians bidding us summon our ‘Blitz spirit’, a phrase that’s come to mean togetherness, communion in a crisis, solidarity. Like all great myths, the story is a lie.

In the thirties, slum housing spread through industrialised areas – Lambeth, Stepney, Deptford, Bermondsey – often at the behest of Herbert Morrison, then chair of London County Council, more interested by reputation in gerrymandering than provision. (George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, chronicles time spent in spikes around such boroughs.) When the lack of medicine or sanitation there affected only the inhabitants, authorities seemed quite indifferent, but once preparations were underway for German air raids, government – including Morrison, now tasked with overseeing the process – ruled against widespread communal shelters, preferring individualised domestic ones in hopes infection and disease would be contained among the poor. Inner city evacuees were treated, on occasion, accordingly: Campbell Stephen, Independent Labour MP for Glasgow Camlachie, is cited in Travis Crosby’s history of evacuation bemoaning the case of 150 mothers and children sent to the Highlands, housed bedless in an empty village hall so as not to spread germs. Coupled with the slow return of Londoners who found bombings implausible in the Twilight War of 1939-40, this may be why evacuation efforts were half-hearted: in spring 1941, writes Richard Overy in The Bombing War, there were fewer evacuees than when conflict began.

Victims of the attacks which followed were overwhelmingly blue-collar. Luftwaffe strikes, aiming to knock out factories and construction, targeted industrial boroughs like those named above, terraced streets packed with overpopulated housing. Such houses by and large had no gardens to accommodate Anderson shelters, and vast numbers were obliterated. People made homeless in the Blitz, over a million in all, came mainly from these areas – where only eight percent of middle class Barnes was destroyed, writes Overy, one building in five was flattened in industrial West Ham. While civilian deaths in air raids have been used to reify the Nazis’ evil, the truth is government policy and pre-war urban conditions make it hard to see how any aerial bombardment could have ended differently.

Ministers’ opposition to shared refuge meant in effect the privatisation of provision. While the city’s poor filled ramshackle and scarce communal shelters, built frequently on open ground according to Andrew Sinclair’s War Like a Wasp with only modest reinforcement, reliant otherwise on cellars if fortunate enough to have them, its upper classes survived in luxury – history might have looked quite different, in fact, had they not done. In his book 1940: Myth and Reality, former civil servant Clive Ponting names the heirs of the Rothschild banking clan alongside future Liberal leaders Jeremy Thorpe and Shirley Williams among an estimated 17,000 children sent abroad by wealthy parents during the war, and the diary of journalist Charles Patrick Graves echoes the grotesque scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang where Eva Braun parties through Russian bombings, revealing the Savoy Hotel to have been home during attacks to Cabinet members, celebrities and servants of the press. (The Savoy boasted its own opulent bunker, replete with beds, food service and nurses on hand; the hospitality industry was made exempt from wartime rationing.) Far from the universalising retreats of shared cultural memory, tube stations lay under lock and key at the beginning of the Blitz, festooned in at least one case with barbed wire and guarded by police.

At Bethnal Green underground station, a wall-mounted plaque commemorates ‘the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War’, in which 173 people ‘lost their lives on the evening of Wednesday 3rd March 1943 descending these steps to Bethnal Green underground air raid shelter’. The final words of the inscription are a lie: no air raid shelter existed on the site, only a set of platforms used to that end against their state administrators’ will. Authorities declined for fifty years to add the plaque, as well they might: a report issued clandestinely in the aftermath of the catastrophe, whose victims (over a third of them children) were more than twice as many as those of the Blitz’s most destructive bomb, stated defence officials – unhappy from the start for stations to be occupied during attacks – opted against installing barriers to prevent stampedes, ignoring residents’ complaints the entrance to the tunnels was too narrow, meaning that when a mother and child tripped on the stairs, a macabre snowball of 300 people formed, just less than two thirds asphyxiating.

‘I am devoutly thankful’, Home Secretary John Anderson had told the House of Commons in June 1940, ‘that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters.’ It was Anderson, working with Herbert Morrison, who arranged provisions for air raid defence, and after whom familiar curved bomb shelters were named. The two had long agreed tube stations were best left off-limits, civilians being unable in Anderson’s words ‘to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground’ – his implication being, as Andrew Martin states in his Passenger’s History of the Tube, that a subterranean working class ‘might never come out again’, occupying London’s tunnels in revolt, refusing to resume vital war duties on the surface while held under Luftwaffe assault. If this fear seems paranoid, evoking as it does the cannibal Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it was clearly a concern earnest enough that ministers preferred the loss of tens of thousands in the labour force, incinerated with their homes and factories, to the thought of an inhabitable underground.

The catacomb scenario never took shape of course, but it was only in November 1940, two months after the first bombs had hit home, that Morrison u-turned, allowing Londoners inside. The Communist Party of Great Britain (supporters often meeting at Conway Hall, home to Europe’s oldest freethought organisation and headquarters today to the National Secular Society) had pressured for inclusive sheltering before the war, some of its members having seen blitzkrieg‘s effect on industry first hand during the Spanish Civil War, in several ways a dress rehearsal for hostilities to come. What changed Morrison’s mind, or rather, forced his hand, was a mixture of public outcry and disorder, spearheaded in either case by the CPGB and far left at large. From mid-September, riots took place at Liverpool Street Station, Warren Street, Goodge Street, Highgate, tube entrances forced upon by crowds overflowing from packed public shelters. Estimates of numbers inside stations by October vary, but are higher consistently than 100,000; these at the time were criminal occupations, not the state-sponsored all-in-it-together sleepovers posterity suggests.

Leftist dissent did germinate to some degree below the ground, if nothing like as much as government had feared. The month use of the tube tunnels was first permitted, Londoners from dozens of them – mainly communists and CPGB members – formed an Underground Station and Shelterers’ Committee. In his war diary Living Through the Blitz, journalist and naturalist Tom Harrisson describes the committee’s struggling against police incursions, removing occupants on the pretext of health and safety inspection; if indeed they really were performing these, the Bethnal Green disaster makes the need for them admittedly quite clear in hindsight, but improvements to the underground stations’ conditions seem far more often to have been negotiated by inhabitants. Even the Times, in December 1940, expressed support for shelterers’ complaints.

Nor was the CPGB dormant elsewhere. Around the time of the tube station riots on September 15, the party’s MP for Stepney Phil Piratin (elected having rallied the counter-fascist force at Cable Street) led a 70-strong party from his area to the Savoy during an air raid, offering those in charge the choice to let them in or shut the doors with aircraft fast approaching: staging, in effect, an especially polite occupation. Similar tactics had been tried days earlier, 200 CPGB members occupying the Mayfair (the Dorchester soon followed suit), and the next day a picket took place in St. Pancras, demanding a local factory open its hangar-sized bomb shelter for public use. What followed was the closest to an all-out red scare Britain seems to have seen: the CPGB’s journals, the Daily Worker among them, were banned from publication, its meetings and premises investigated, but while momentum wasn’t sustained beyond the Blitz on the scale it had formed, the party’s membership sharply increased over that period – reaching, according to A.J. Davies To Build a New Jerusalem, 60,000 in 1943.

have seen real communism. So have we all, whenever we set eyes on photographs of shelterers in tunnels, basking in their established, patriotic glow. The communism which occasioned those tunnels’ use, the real Blitz spirit, has been forgotten – it merits recollection. Certainly it had its limitations, and was far from communism’s only real form, but nor is it less real than any of the others. While our frequent impulse is to ask first why British communism never took hold, we might do better to ask after those marginal-yet-central ways in which it did take hold, shaping 1940s public life in ways popular reminiscence sometimes masks. ‘We must give them reforms’, Tory Quentin Hogg is known to have said in 1943, prefiguring the postwar creation of the welfare state, ‘or they will give us revolution.’