BOOK REVIEW / Two men who saw red: 'Harry Pollitt' - Kevin Morgan: Manchester University Press, 40 pounds; 'Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in Stalinism' - John Callaghan: Lawrence & Wishart, 19.99 pounds

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COMMUNISM is now so dead and discredited in most parts of the world that it is hard to recall that it was once regarded by many free, intelligent, well-informed and honorable people in the West as the only hope for humanity. Why? The question is as interesting as

the still unsolved mystery of Eastern Communism's unpredicted cardiac arrest.

The issues are complex. Nevertheless, biography is a help: and these two studies of Britain's best-known Communists offer a good deal of local illumination. Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt reflected in their backgrounds and approaches the twin facets of the Communist appeal - to the proletarian and to the intellectual. Pollitt, a former shop steward, led the Communist Party of Great Britain as its general secretary (with one short interlude) from 1929 to 1956; Dutt was the British Party's chief theologian from the 1920s until the 1960s, editing its key theoretical journal, Labour Monthly, for 50 years. Both men gave inspiration to thousands of adherents. These two excellent, scholarly and thoughtful books scrutinise the forces that shaped them, and provide fascinating insights into the workings of the CPGB in its proudest years.

To some extent, Pollitt and Dutt were a double act - the one offering working-class authenticity, the other sinews of analysis. But Pollitt was always the more considerable political figure. He was also the more attractive, with a vivid personality that belied the stereotypical image of the Communist as an ice-cold manipulator. Morgan's study of him is one of the best Labour movement biographies I have ever read. Admirably succinct, tightly written and politically sensitive, it deftly sorts out the historical wheat from the Marxian chaff. Biographies of working-class heroes are hard to write: unlike Bloomsbury aesthetes, people who leave school at 12 do not usually leave trails of diaries and letters. To some extent, Pollitt was an exception: Morgan has made use of a treasure trove of letters, generally written in a sturdy, cheeky vernacular, which enables him to paint a convincing portrait of Pollitt as a warm, vital, angry and charismatic tribune, without ignoring his self-deceptions.

Pollitt was born into Lancashire poverty in 1890. His father was a drunkard, his mother a fierce matriarch who worked her fingers to the bone and instilled in her son a lifelong hatred of her oppressors. Harry was an autodidact in the best Edwardian tradition: a graduate of trade union meetings, socialist rallies and picket lines. By the Communist Party's foundation in 1920, he was already a battle- hardened militant. He was never much interested in Marxian theory, and was hazy about whether the Communist Party existed to make the trade unions a revolutionary force, or the other way round. But (like most Communists of his generation) he was unswervingly clear that the tide of history was towards a bloody civil war, and that it was the job of true socialists to prepare for it. It was as a practical man of common sense that Pollitt was talent- spotted by the Comintern, and elevated to general secretary - in effect Stalin's instrument in Britain. He was, suggests Morgan, an unlikely agent of dictatorship; for a start he had a sense of humour. As his letters attest, he felt deeply about the working men and women he championed, but he was frequently ruthless and cynical. He was also a renowned diplomat and negotiator. When he was not 'cooing to the Independent Labour Party like a sucking-dove', he was often sucking up to Labour politicians, such as the gullible Sir Stafford Cripps. But he, too, was a gullible tool. After his former girlfriend disappeared in Moscow during the Great Terror, he made such vigorous representations on her behalf as to jeopardise his own position; yet when these failed, he did not draw the obvious conclusion that his Soviet masters were a bunch of paranoid murderers, but closed his mind to the subject, and never criticised the purges publicly or privately.

Pollitt's value to the Soviet Union lay partly in his rootedness. He was, as Dutt wryly put it, 'as English as a Lancashire rose or an oak', a part of the labour movement mainstream. He was an ardent supporter of links with the Labour Party, especially in the heady years of the would-be Popular Front following the Comintern's call in 1935 for a united stand against fascism. His efforts probably contributed to the mood on the Left that made Churchill's 1940 'Popular Front' coalition possible. By then, however, Pollitt was in the doghouse as far as Moscow was concerned, for temporarily refusing to toe the line on opposing the war. He almost immediately recanted. But it is fair to regard this wartime wobble

as evidence that he was more than just a programmed robot.

It is hard to say the same of Rajani Palme Dutt, whose life story - skilfully told by Professor Callaghan - reinforces the impression of him as the aesthetic emissary of a foreign inquisition. Dutt's revolutionary fervour seems to have begun as a reaction to racial prejudice. Though born in Cambridge, he was the son of an immigrant Indian doctor. His mother, however, was from a good Swedish family; his relations in the next generation included two Scandinavian Prime Ministers, Olaf Palme of Sweden and Sulo Woulijoki of Finland. Rajani owed much to a British establishment education, obtaining (after a period of imprisonment for conscientious objection and expulsion from the university) a brilliant First in classics at Oxford. Perceiving the world at the end of the First World War to be 'rotten-ripe for radical change', he was drawn by a system that substituted order for chaos. Here we enter dark realms of psychopathology: why should an intensely rational man opt for a mental straitjacket? How could a trained philosopher declare that 'there is only one correct answer for every specific situation', an answer discoverable by 'the right method'?

One factor was undoubtedly his wife, the mysterious Salme Murrick, who deserves a biography of her own. A veteran of Tsarist exile and of the Finnish civil war, Salme was an Estonian Bolshevik who had petitioned Lenin in 1920 to be 'sent to where the struggle was toughest'. Lenin obliged by despatching her to Britain to help found the Communist Party. Almost immediately not only Dutt, but also Pollitt, fell under her spell - she became a constant source of advice and admonition to both men, the oracle with a direct line to Kremlin thinking. Before setting out, Salme had been given 'four large diamonds': Callaghan speculates that these helped provide the capital for Labour Monthly.

In 1924, Rajani and Salme departed on a self-imposed exile to the Continent that lasted most of 12 years - ostensibly on health grounds, but more probably to be closer to the Comintern bureaucracy. It was in this period that Dutt established himself as the most ingenious and prolific interpreter of the Soviet gospel in the English-speaking world. Today, he is one of the least readable: indeed, the remarkable thing is that he was ever read at all, so stilted is his style and so obviously derived from Soviet sources. Unlike Pollitt, Dutt had no difficulty in arguing one proposition one day and the opposite the next. Like O'Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Rasimov in Darkness at Noon, he saw no objective reality, but only ends that justified any conceivable means.

Such an approach made the truth impossible to accept, even when it became inescapable. Neither Pollitt nor Dutt ever came to terms with Stalin's villainy, but Pollitt had the good sense to die in 1960, while the evidence was still disputable. Dutt lived into the 1970s, pooh-poohing the Sino-Soviet split (although he was an expert on the Far East) and accusing Khrushchev of 'spitefulness' in launching his revisionist attacks on the old era.

Yet - and here is the irony contained within these two books - though one may scorn such self-delusions, one cannot dismiss the phenomenon of which they were part: an important and influential British culture which, for all its folly on big issues, was profoundly moral in its outlook. If the global evil that came out of international Communism evokes horror, it is a curious fact that such accounts of earnest endeavour, selfless comradeship and misdirected purpose arouse in the reader not revulsion, but wonderment, grudging respect, for at least part of the time, and unease.

(Photograph omitted)