Classical scholars in the CPGB

The third intellectual strand in British socialism was the thought of Marx and Engels that underlays revolutionary Communism; Marx had himselfbeen a more than competent classicist, whose ideas drew to an extent, hitherto inadequately acknowledged, on the Chartist Bronterre O’Brien’s detailed study of ancient slavery.33 The Communist Party of Great Britain was founded in 1920. Inspired by the Russian revolution, the four major Marxist political groups which combined to form it were the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF).34 Although the CPGB never became a mass party like its equivalents in France or Italy, it exerted an influence out of proportion to its size, partly because there were always links between its members and those of the mainstream Labour Party. At the time of the General Strike in 1926, the CPGB had about 10,000 members. Its first MP, William Gallacher, was elected by the miners of West Fife in Scotland in 1931. Although by 1936 the leaders were divided over support for Joseph Stalin and reports of his purges, the situation in Spain to an extent diverted the membership’s attention. British Communists were crucial in the creation of the International Brigades which went to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

While the Fascists gained power in both Germany and Italy, the membership of the CPGB steadily increased. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and Churchill announced that Britons and Russians were now close allies, party membership soared to 56,000. At the end of the war, two communists were elected to parliament in the General Election. This was the historic moment at which the CPGB enjoyed its greatest popularity.

During the party’s first two and a half decades, it was joined by many leading intellectuals. Christopher Hill has argued that English Literature was their dominant original interest.35 But the British Marxist intellectual tradition was founded just as much on literature in Latin and Greek: Eric Hobsbawm regards the Classicists as ‘the most flourishing group’ amongst the CPGB intellectuals.36 The earliest of the classical scholars who were members of the CPGB was Benjamin Farrington. He graduated in Classics from University College, Cork, and then moved to Trinity College, Dublin, to take another degree in Middle English. As Atkinson has pointed out, Farrington would have been in Dublin in 1914, when the new Provost of TCD, the renowned historian of ancient Greece J.P. Mahaffy, banned a meeting of the Trinity College Gaelic Society because one of the speakers was to be an opponent of recruitment, Patrick Pearse.37 Mahaffy later wrote that he had loathed Farrington; there was no love lost between the high-handed Provost and his left-leaning undergraduate.38

Farrington’s political views were shaped by the plight of the working class in Ireland, which came to a head in the Dublin ‘lock-out’ of 1913, a traumatic industrial dispute between factory owners and thousands of slum-dwelling Dubliners fighting for the right to form trade unions. Farrington was affected by the speeches of James Connolly, a Scottish Marxist of Irish descent. His radicalism received an academic focus when, in 1915-1917, including the period of the 1916 Easter Rising, he was reading for his Master’s degree in English from University College, completing his thesis in 1917 on Shelley’s translation from the Greek.39 After lecturing in Classics at Queen’s University, Belfast, he moved to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he studied the racist and nationalist legacies of European imperialism at first hand. In four articles he wrote for the Afrikaans newspaper De Burger between 15th and 24th September 1920, he tried to foster Afrikaner support for Sinn Fein and the Republican wing of the new Dublin-based national government.40

But Farrington’s interest in Marxism, opposition to racism and an increasing distrust of both the Boer cause and the de Valera administration in Ireland, soon led him to give up active participation in politics. He preferred working on what Marxists call ‘the intellectual plane’ to rewrite the world, including the ancient world, from a materialist and labour-focussed perspective. He was promoted to the Chair of Latin in 1929, but left Cape Town in 1935 as the first steps towards institutionalised Apartheid were taken. He worked at the University of Bristol for a year before becoming Professor at University College, Swansea, in the heart of the Welsh industrial and mining region, where he remained for 21 years.

Farrington achieved a high profile in the UK and Ireland, his major academic contribution being to the history and philosophy of ancient science, expressed in a series of pioneering if controversial books. The Civilization of Greece and Rome (1938) was an important attempt to make ancient history available to working people beyond the Academy. Farrington’s lively, lucid materialist analyses of the relationship between the ancient economy and ideas were often derided by mainstream classical scholars, but they were (and still are) widely read by the more open-minded among them. His commitment to Communist ideals, born in the chaos leading up to the Easter Uprising, was lifelong. He taught on socialist summer schools and to working men’s educational societies. His pamphlet The

Challenge of Socialism resulted from a series of lectures he delivered at weekend schools in Dublin in August 1946.41 In England, some of the younger members of the CPGB in the 1930s only later went on to become prominent academic classicists. Frank William Walbank (1909-2008) was born in Bingley, West Yorkshire. He received his classical education at Bradford Grammar School and Peterhouse, Cambridge, and from 1951 to 1977 was Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. His name is inseparable from that of Polybius, on whose Histories he wrote the definitive commentary, published in three volumes in 1957, 1967 and 1979. He became increasingly sympathetic to the cause of the working class in the 1920s; along with his politically active wife he joined the CPGB in 1934. Yet the implicit Marxist element in his views of history and historiography has never been properly investigated.42 The Marxism is more explicit in the case of Geoffrey de Ste. Croix (1910-2000). He had been trained in Classics at Clifton College, a fee-paying private school in Bristol, but left school at 16 and did not go straight to university, training instead as a lawyer. During the 1930s he practised in London and was a member of the CPGB and the Labour Party; unlike Walbank, he was one of many who left in 1939 after the Nazi-Soviet pact. It was not until he was released from the RAF in which he had served during the war, that he entered London University to study Classics; he then pursued a brilliant academic career, took up a position at New College, Oxford, in 1963, and wrote his two ‘classics’ of Ancient History from a Marxist analytical perspective, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972) and The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981). His two youthful periods of exposure to classical education therefore preceded and followed his period of intense exposure to Marxist ideas as a lawyer and CPGB member in the 1930s.

Robert Browning (not related to the famous poet), born in 1914, was de Ste. Croix’s junior by four years. Although he never achieved the same fame (or notoriety), his books were and still are widely read, usually by scholars who have no idea that he was a lifelong idealistic Communist Party member. Brought up in Glasgow during the terrible poverty on Clydeside in the 1920s and 1930s, he studied Humanities at Glasgow University, and may have joined the CPGB at that time. He was certainly a member soon after he arrived at Balliol College, Oxford in 1935. There he won almost every available prize and scholarship for his performances in Latin and Greek, even as he immersed himself in CPGB activities and Marxist theories of history. He spent most of his working life at London University, first at UCL until 1965 and thereafter until 1981 as Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck College. He was still lecturing at the CPGB headquarters on Marxism and History in the mid-1980s, when Edith Hall attended.

The fifth 1930s CPGB classicist was George Derwent Thomson (1903-1987), who studied Classics at King’s College, Cambridge but then moved to the National University of Ireland (Galway), where he was swiftly promoted to the professorship. In western Ireland in the 1920s he became radicalised by contact with the Gaelic-speaking population, newly liberated from British imperialism. He learned to speak their ancient language, translating works by Plato

(1929), Aeschylus (1933) and Euripides into it (1932). His first scholarly commentary, published in 1932, was on the favourite ancient play of radicals since the 18th century, the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound. By the time he moved back to a lectureship at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1934, he was an ardent socialist, and he joined the CPGB in 1936, when he also accepted the chair of Greek at Birmingham University. An industrial city with a large automobile industry, Birmingham offered him many opportunities to teach working-class men as well as full-time university students.43

Thomson was intellectually restless and enjoyed controversy. By the early 1950s he had come into conflict with the leadership and ideological programme of the CPGB. He became increasingly interested in China and Maoism. In the intervening period, from 1936 onwards, he produced a stream of publications which were informally blacklisted at Oxford, but widely read outside the Classics establishment in Britain, and indeed were on the syllabus of many departments of Anthropology and Sociology as well as the reading lists circulated by workers’ educational organisations. In 1938 he published his impressive two-volume commentary on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which still needs to be consulted by any scholar working on that text. But the work of classical scholarship with which he will always be primarily associated was his 1941 Aeschylus & Athens, a Marxist anthropological study of early Greek tragedy, published by the press most closely associated with the CPGB, Lawrence & Wishart. In 1949 he followed this with The Prehistoric Aegean, and in 1954 with The First Philosophers, making a ‘trilogy’ of Marxist interpretations of ancient Greek civilisation from the Bronze Age to Periclean Athens. Generally derided in British, classical circles, Aeschylus and Athens nevertheless became well-known internationally, being translated into Czech, Modern Greek, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and German.

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