BERNADETTE HYLAND recommends an exhibition on the importance of arts and education to the work of the Communist Party of Great Britain
British Communism’s Culture Wars
People’s History Museum, Manchester
THIS year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution which spawned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920 and in this well-written and presented exhibition the story of culture in the party is explored.
From the 1920s to its demise in 1991 the CPGB played an important role in many aspects of culture and education in British society and its influence was at its height in 1945.
Then, it had 40,000 members, two MPs, over 200 councillors, a national newspaper the Daily Worker and many members in the trade union movement.
Unlike many political parties, even today, the CPGB put a strong emphasis on political education, offering working-class people an opportunity to better themselves and become politically aware through taking part in everything from socialist choirs to summer educational schools.
Out of this came a whole tier of working-class intellectuals like Eddie Frow — curiously not mentioned in this exhibition — who went on to become key players in communist and trade union politics.
Today, as we witness the rise of young people getting involved in left politics, the exhibition reminds us of how seriously the CPGB took young people and the new post-war pop culture, with the Young Communist League’s newspaper Challenge carrying an exclusive interview with the Beatles in December 1963.
I loved the photo from the 1960s of Eddie Marsden, communist candidate in Openshaw, east Manchester, and his youth brigade who campaigned for representation on the local television station.
Who were these trendy young people? It would have energised the exhibition to have had more information about them.
Political events such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 led to many people leaving the party and the demise of much of its progressive image.
By the 1980s society was changing, particularly with the rise of the feminist, gay liberation and anti-racist movements and the influence of the CPGB waned. The party dissolved in 1991.
While British Communism’s Cultural Wars gives you a taste of why people did join the CPGB, perhaps too much emphasis is put on the party’s intelligentsia and not enough on explaining why so many people were attracted to a message of worldwide revolution — and why some of them are still politically active today.
Runs until August 28, suggested donation £3, details: phm.org.uk