Obituary: Douglas Hyde

Douglas Hyde's Cold War bestseller I Believed told of an idiosyncratic personal odyssey, from Methodism through Communism to Roman Catholicism. Climaxing sensationally with Hyde's rejection of the Kremlin for the Vatican, this cautionary tale of 1951 brought instant fame and the endorsement of Cold Warriors from Joe McCarthy downwards.

The unwritten sequel was even more instructive, however, for Hyde was to abandon the role of professional anti- Communist through an unquenched desire for social justice that neither church, still less the likes of McCarthy, could accommodate. Disillusioned by increasing papal conservatism, he ended his life no longer a practising Catholic but renewed once more in his socialist faith.

Hyde's story began in a comfortable nonconformist Bristol home, his proverbial Liberal father having known Lloyd George in his heyday. Drawn at first towards the Methodist ministry, Hyde came to find its stifling provincial mores incompatible with his own burgeoning social millenarianism. Far more expansive and stimulating were the orators who came to speak on Bristol Downs, from Indian nationalists who engendered a lifelong internationalism, to militant Welsh miners like Lewis Jones, inflamed by the recent General Strike. It was through Jones that Hyde was introduced to the Communist Party, which he joined in 1928 at the age of 17.

There can have been few more earnest recruits. Leaving his theological studies behind him, Hyde immersed himself in the canon of Marxism-Leninism in which he later became an accomplished tutor. It was the central claim of I Believed that this Leninist outlook allowed no matter what ruse or stratagem as best served the party cause. Undercover work in the ILP or Labour Party thus came as naturally to Hyde as the harnessing of liberal or progressive opinion to some party-led campaign or other. Not once did Hyde deny the tireless idealism of campaigns like that for Republican Spain, later recalled as "not only the most memorable and personally satisfying but the best part of my life".

Always, however, at the back of his own mind was a sense of revolutionary purpose that went beyond the immediate common task. That combination, of revolutionary ardour with Leninist realpolitik, no doubt explains the intensity of Hyde's revulsion on concluding by 1948 that the final emancipatory goals of Communism had all but been lost sight of. The Stalinist clampdown in Eastern Europe provided the grimmest of catalysts but the malaise went both deeper and further back than that.

At the time of his resignation, Hyde was news editor of the Daily Worker. He had joined the paper in 1940 and then overseen its preparations for illegal publication during an 18-month government ban in 1941-42. On the lifting of the ban, Hyde joined the remarkable editorial team which, in defiance of its limited journalistic experience, had the presumption to take on Britain's press barons and briefly raised the Worker's circulation to some 120,000. It was a period in which the paper enjoyed a wide sympathy and tacit support among its Fleet Street rivals.

Hyde recalled one particular alarming episode when an elaborate network of covert sympathisers, from the Daily Mail, Daily Express and beyond, found themselves trapped with him in a lift after an air-raid disturbed their nocturnal deliberations. Such risks of exposure were afterwards avoided, but it was a mark of Hyde's total dependability that he could always be entrusted with such delicate responsibilities. No Communist, as Harry Pollitt would later ruefully remark, could have been further from any suspicion of dereliction.

Hyde's very public defection was thus inevitably taken by former comrades as a betrayal. For some that breach would never be healed, but others proved less unrelenting. Perhaps, with the shocks to Communist self-belief that began in 1956, the criticisms of a Douglas Hyde were less plausibly dismissed as those of a mere renegade.

Hyde himself, moreover, was by no means a convert to the right. He never accepted the grosser logic of McCarthyism and pointedly omitted in I Believed to name names like those of that Fleet Street lift's fellow-occupants. Spending much of his time in the Third World, initially as a lecturer and roving foreign correspondent, Hyde was as surely roused by the oppression and human suffering he encountered as he had been in his Communist youth.

The early campaigner for the American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (in the 1920s), and "class war prisoners", now devoted much of the 1960s to campaigns for the release of political internees, even to the point of sharing their plight. Releases in the Philippines and Sri Lanka came as a palpable reward, while the militant spirit of liberation theology offered an irresistible synthesis of all that had burned brightest in Hyde's successive faiths. None perhaps was more qualified than he for the period's abortive "Christian-Marxist dialogue"; and none more disaffected as the papacy turned against its militant priests and preached instead a deadening gospel of quiescence.

"I haven't lived two lives," Hyde wrote shortly before his death. "There has been a continuum which is the most meaningful thing to me." One expression of that continuum was his lifelong passion for William Morris. On breaking with Communism, it was Morris's utopianism and love of beauty that Hyde set against the expediency and cultural blight of Stalinism. Like Morris, he was drawn to the medieval, and his own great love of plainsong and Gothic architecture played a major part in his attraction to Catholicism.

But there was another side to Morris too, of comradeship and struggle, that Hyde came to believe had been more fully realised in the Communist Party. "Fellowship is life," Morris had written, and nowhere had Hyde found such fellowship as among his former party comrades. Beyond that was what Hyde called Morris's sense of moral outrage, an outrage briefly dimmed perhaps on Hyde's first embrace of Catholicism but ultimately proving inextinguishable.

Douglas Hyde's final years were ones of failing health borne with fortitude. More gods than one had failed him, but his courage and optimism never wavered.

Catholicism in the United Kingdom in the 1940s and 1950s was aggressively self-confident, writes Bruce Kent. Converts were there to be harvested in plenty and the more prestigious they were the better.

From that perspective Douglas Hyde's conversion was a triumph. From out of the ranks of Communist darkness came one whom our grace and truth had at last touched. His I Believed became a Catholic textbook.

In the 1950s he came to lecture at our college for would-be priests. He was hero- worshipped. A modest, unpretentious man, he was never happy on pedestals. Soon we became friends.

It was clear that Douggie's passion was social and economic justice rather than religious orthodoxy. Justice had inspired him as a Communist and it inspired him equally as a Catholic Christian.

It was because he could not swallow the political selectivity of the present Pope, who has so often treated those supposed to be on the Left so harshly, that Douggie moved away from official Catholicism. On his last hospital admission form he listed himself as an "agnostic Christian".

He was never agnostic or indifferent about injury done to others. His courage in spending, voluntarily, two and a half years in Asian prisons working for the release of political detainees was astonishing. Thousands owe their freedom today to the unpublicised work which he undertook, at real risk to his own life.

The hundreds of Christmas and birthday cards balancing on his Wimbledon mantelpiece every year were witness to his many friendships world-wide. Many came from ex-prisoners. Indeed Amnesty International owes its foundation (in 1961) in part to his example.

Literature, music, the wonders of his garden and the iniquities of our government were favourite themes for a man who knew how to speak clearly and to the point. Always his humour bubbled over and his eyes sparkled. Illnesses were brushed aside.

It was a delight to be with him a few years ago at a summer garden party for his birthday. His old comrades respected the way he had followed the star of his own conscience and were there in plenty. Phil Piratin, once one of only two Communist MPs, was at his side when it came to cutting the cake.

Douggie Hyde was an inspiration and one who really did love his neighbour as himself. A prophet as well no doubt, but one who knew how to laugh.

Douglas Arnold Hyde, journalist and political campaigner: born Worthing, Sussex 8 April 1911; married (three sons, one daughter); died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 19 September 1996.

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