Sunday, 23 March 2008

Ransome the Socialist

When I have had occasion to dip my toe into this subject on Tarboard and elsewhere, it has generally caused sparks to fly. People seem far from comfortable talking about the subject and have tended, prompted by Ransome's own remarks (principally to Special Branch!), to cling to the conclusion that he had no real politics at all.

I understand the concern. The Ransome books most of us love – Swallows and Amazons or Old Peter's Russian Tales – are not political. People of all political persuasions and none can and do delight in Ransome's storytelling and sparkling prose. Through the Swallows and Amazons books in particular we feel we come to know Ransome and, also through the books, we become part of an inclusive community of readers. Yes, there's the odd row about rigging and life-jackets but, for the most part, wholesome outside pursuits unite people. Politics has a tendency to do rather the opposite. Many artists who depend on selling their cultural production to people of all politics have a tendency to be rather reticent about their views. And, from the 1930s onwards, a strong political perspective could be a serious disadvantage for the professional artist: while Britain never went in for McCarthy-style witch-hunts, it is no coincidence that some of Britain's finest composers (for example) could get nothing on radio, when the political persuasions of the likes of Alan Bush and Rutland Boughton were public knowledge.

For all that, I think there is incontrovertible evidence that Ransome was, for at least part of his life, a socialist. And there is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that part or all of those views stayed with him for the rest of his life.

That Ransome (for 'a week or two') took the Clarion – a socialist newspaper – is mentioned, in his Autobiography, almost like an after-thought. As if it were something that any student might do, as much to impress some girls as it was to plan the revolution. This was 1901, when taking the Clarion was a minority pursuit indeed! (The Labour Representation Committee was but one year old, the Labour Party not yet born). Reading Blatchford's Britain for the British (not to mention Morris' News from Nowhere were all radical acts, showing an interest in (if not necessarily a support for) a socialist politics which, at that time, was almost entirely non-parliamentary. Ransome was a great enthusiast for William Morris – the great 'anarcho-communist'. But these girls who lent him Blatchford's book (after spotting Ransome's copy of News from Nowhere on his lab desk) were not just any old student radicals. As Ransome himself recalls, 'Zelda Kahn was in close touch with the group of Russian revolutionaries who were living in exile in London' while a student in Leeds. An odd coincidence indeed. Ransome is a little coy about this incident, suggesting that in 1901 he would have been amazed if anyone had suggested he was going to become involved in politics. In fact Britain for the British was published in 1902 (by which time Ransome had left college) so it is likely the book was Merrie England. The interesting point being that Ransome was clearly aware of Blatchford's later book, so had evidently not given up all interest in the Clarion movement after that one incident. When you add into the mix that, as a child, Ransome was taught to skate by no other than Kropotkin, the Russian left-wing anarchist, and that he came from a household where politics was a matter of constant discussion (and disagreement) it is hard to believe that Ransome arrived in London as a publisher's office-boy quite the political ingĂ©nue he professed to be.

In London, Ransome busily befriended the Bohemians. Bohemian London was a furiously political place and many of Ransome's friends and acquaintances were very active on the left. In his autobiography he mentions meeting the Fabian Hubert Bland (with whom he is not impressed) and his (more left-wing) wife, Edith Nesbit, of whose children's writing Ransome was a fan. Nesbit also wrote a book of socialist anthems/poetry. Ransome's close colleagues were Fabian Society members, such as Cecil Chesteron (who joined in 1901 so was already a member when he met Ransome). At the same time as he worked with Ransome, he wrote for Alfred Orage (a left-wing proponent of avant-garde art) strongly arguing the case for 'guild socialism' for the New Age journal. While it is interesting that Ransome is not recalled as one of the many notable contributors to that journal it is hardly credible that in all their teas and discussions politics was not a common thread, nor that the shared admiration for William Morris did not lead to a good deal of agreement on modern politics. As New Age took a very strong line against 'the Russian autocracy', it seems very likely that Ransome will have had some knowledge and interest and partiality relating to Russian politics by the time he left England as well.

Before going to Russia, Ransome's political connections – numerous as they are – all appear to be of an artistic, cultural, non-parliamentary kind. Though there are many links with Fabians (the moderate, 'intellectual' wing of the nascent Labour Party) there is nothing to suggest he had any political ambition, nor any particular involvement with the birth of a political movement. The Clarion, 'New Age', 'guild', 'religion of socialism' wing of the movement was interested in art, in how art could produce a promise of the 'golden age' to come. They often focused on an imagined commonwealth in the past – often rural and pastoral in character – and modelled their notions of the future on that. Hence a great interest in folk culture – tales and songs – in the countryside, in rural pursuits, in a kind of pre-industrial, pre-capitalist picture that might form the basis of a post-capitalist, socialist future. It was often rather utopian. Some of Ransome's later friends were already rather contemptuous of it, considering it (as Lenin did) an 'infantile disorder'. The Fabians associated with 'New Age' were consciously engaging in a sectarian attack on the Fabian mainstream of 'scientific socialism'.

Later, Ransome has one or two more clear links with parliamentary socialists. He befriends Molly Hamilton in 1917. Ransome does not explain how the acquaintance comes about. She was a giant of the Labour movement (and also, interestingly, enormously interested in children's literature, sometimes writing the children's columns for socialist papers in the early 1920s). Molly Hamilton and Ransome remain friends throughout their lives, encouraging each others' writing (it is thanks to Molly Hamilton that we don't learn what happened to Jim Brading until as late as we do in We Didn't Mean to go to sea'!). When Ransome goes to see George Lansbury in 1919 (after his ordeal at the hands of Special Branch) we hear (in the Autobiography) that this is their second meeting. Ransome recounts the incident as though Lansbury would be the obvious person to see. Later, in the 1930s when he became Labour leader, he would have been. But in 1919, Lansbury was a far-left anti-war former MP who had lost his seat in the 1918 General Election. Only seven years before he had been on hunger strike in prison (because of his support for the Suffragette movement). He didn't get back into parliament until 1922, and was still a thorn in the side of the Labour Party leadership right through the 1920s (setting up 'Lansbury's Labour Weekly' to be a radical, socialist alternative to the 'tame' and 'conservative' Labour Herald). Why did Ransome think it necessary to seek out George Lansbury in 1919 – who was then not even a local councillor – tell him 'what had happened' and what he 'planned to do'? When had they met previously? Last time Ransome had been in England, Lansbury would have been one of the most notable parliamentarians of the left, but a vocally anti-war one and therefore one marginalised and demonised outside the ranks of left-wing pacifists. More digging will be necessary to find an answer to this puzzle. But it is certainly not the natural, obvious act that it appears in the pages of the Autobiography. Imagine, for a moment, a British journalist unfairly being charged with being 'pro-Iraqi' in his reporting of the recent Iraq War. Rageh Omah, say. It would be an odd act indeed were he, after being arrested, grilled by special branch and threatened at the Foreign Office, to go and seek out George Galloway for an audience.

And of course, much of what Ransome was writing was very radical in character. While there have been suggestions in recent years that Ransome was a British spy, and he had to write like this to maintain his close contact with the leading Bolsheviks, this doesn't seem to stand up to very close scrutiny. Ransome was critical of the Bolsheviks when he wanted to be. His journalism had a profound effect on sympathies in the UK (and was circulated in the USA too) and the Communist-front 'Hands off Russia' made great use of Ransome's work to raise awareness of the post-revolutionary famine in Russia, and to galvanise opposition to the wars of intervention. Ransome was perfectly happy to be 'used' thus, politically, as opposing intervention was the clear, stated aim of his work. Whatever information the British may have got from Ransome would have to be valuable indeed were it to be worth the negative propaganda impact of the articles.

Of course, it stands up no better to scrutiny to suggest Ransome was a Soviet agent. After all, his articles were so furiously pro-Bolshevik at times that it could hardly be suggested he was under cover! His own stated account that he was an honest broker, occasionally working as a go-between or courier for either side in order to get what he needed seems the most easily-supported answer to the riddle. He had an SIS designation (S76) but there is nothing to suggest that he was an agent. Either the designation was attached to him to identify information received (he never made any secret of providing information) or perhaps there was some attempt to 'entrap' him. After all, the Foreign Office 'threat' to Ransome, in 1919, that they could make things hard for him with the left, were they to reveal that he had provided them with information was not a casual one. In Ransome they had an eloquent, likeable, man whom they believed to be of the far left, if not a communist. The fear that he might choose a career in politics in England, though it seems ridiculous to modern-day Ransome enthusiasts, may have seemed a frightening prospect to some in the the British establishment in those early years after the war.

Ransome, in his Autobiography, writes one of the most moving accounts of the Stalinist purges I've ever read, made more moving because of his personal relationships with the men who died their unnatural deaths. There is an uncomprehending despair to the narrative – that people he liked and respected played their own parts in this brutality. But he never rescinded from the view he took, as early as 1917, that:

“...these men who have made the Soviet Government in Russia, if they must fail, will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them. Even if they fail, they will none the less have written a page of history more daring than any other which I can remember in the story of the human race. They are writing it amid showers of mud from all the meaner spirits in their country, in yours' [the USA] and in my own. But when the thing is over, and their enemies have triumphed, the mud will vanish like black magic at noon, and that page will be as white as the snows of Russia, and the writing on it as bright as the gold domes that I used to see glittering in the sun when I looked from my windows in Petrograd.And when in after years men read that page they will judge your country and mine, your race and mine, by the, help, or hindrance they gave to the writing of it.”

Though much of the Autobiography is given to Russia, Arthur and Evgenia did not talk about it a great deal once home. Clues to Ransome's politics are less clear once he gives up political journalism. We must take what clues there are from his letters, his books (the most controversial source!) and from the recollections of others.

Two strands of Ransome's later Marxian philosophy can be identified reasonably uncontroversially: a strong anti-imperialism and a belief that all capital is produced by somebody's labour, and then enjoyed by somebody else (capitalists!) The first of these strands should be no surprise. While some casual readers have suggested there's an imperialism in Ransome's books (lots of references to 'natives' and people naming and claiming bits of land for their own) such an analysis is way off the mark. In fact almost all the discoveries of the books include finding people have been there before (whether it's the Amazons, the charcoal burners, the Mastadon, Jacky, the Gaels, etc.) from whom there is a great deal to learn, and victories can only be achieved through co-operation. More to the point, a book like Missee Lee is almost incomprehensible unless approached with an anti-imperialist mindset. This protection racket – with the occasional beheading – is a way of life we are encouraged to feel deserves to be protected: we do not want the gunboats to come and break up the Three Islands, and we rather want Miss Lee to stay, even though it means she'll never get back to Cambridge. In case anyone thinks this is circumstantial, take John Berry's entertaining recollection of a meeting with Ransome in the 1960s. Ransome was entirely behind 'mainland China' and opposed NATO's support for 'Formosa', and felt this way so strongly that he eventually lifted Berry from his seat by his lapels! A passionate anti-imperialist display by a 74 year old!

On the second point, one source is a rather sad letter from Ransome to his daughter. Talking about Ivy's income, he writes 'the accident of possessing what is called capital allows her to take a little bit off the earnings of quite a number of people whom she has never seen. That may seem to you to be a little unfair to them, but as things are arranged it cannot be helped, and I don't think you need worry about it, though I hope you will not forget it altogether.' (Signalling From Mars p187) As well as the basic Marxist 'labour theory of value', the phrases 'as things are arranged' and 'I hope you will not forget it altogether' imply a political view over and above the philosophy. I have elsewhere suggested examples of this philosophy in the the Swallows and Amazons books themselves (notably in Coot Club, Pigeon Post and Great Northern?) but they are nothing but suggestions, and I'm hoping not to draw too much fire all at once!

Of course, if my analysis is correct and Ransome remained some manner of socialist throughout his life, it raises as many questions as it answers. Why cut down his journalism and finish all public political comment? Is it just pleasure at having got back on track and to writing the stories he always wanted to write? Was the embarrassment at some past events (his removal along with the Bolshevik mission from Sweden, or his arrest) such that he would rather leave that part of his life far behind? Or is there more to be found in that part of his, or Evgenia's, life which he preferred people not to investigate?


gwja said...

I believe many readers find it hard to see even a reformed left wind socialit in a man who wrote with such senstivity and insight into the feelings of childred. For example in Swallowdale when Peter wreacked swallow, Captain Flint showed gread delicacy in restoring his confidence as a salor. Flint is one of numerous protective adult figures which can pop up anywhere from Crab Island to Holland. To me these adults represent the author himself, seeking to guard his own creations. Meanwhle Ransome had given up his overtly political writing becase while he wasn't affraid of making enemies, his deeply protective nature reciled at the idea of not being able to protect his friends. Perhaps this is as close as we will ever get to the exact truth of tht matter, but I am very glad Ramsone's second carreer was a sucessful and joyous one.

Anonymous said...

gwja wrote 'I believe many readers find it hard to see even a reformed left wind socialit in a man who wrote with such senstivity and insight into the feelings of childred.'
Why would left-wing beliefs exempt you from having insight and sensitivity towards children?


Duncan Hall said...

I guess this is where my point about politics being divisive comes in! As a socialist myself, I don't have any difficulty in seeing socialists as having sensitivity and insight!

I agree that Captain Flint is mostly the presence of Ransome himself in the books. And not really an idealised form (after all he is often rather rash! As is the Mrs. Barrable, who could be seen as a surrogate Flint in Coot Club!) I don't think there's anything overtly political in the books, so I don't think it's surprising that Captain Flint doesn't say, 'chin up, John, read the Communist Manifesto and it'll put things in perspective!'

Adam Q said...

Interesting analysis and not too far distant from my own feelings about Ransome. Ransome grew up in a leftist household and his early adult time in Bohemian London seem to have nurtured those political sympathies.
He undoubtedly was a strong supporter of the Bolsheviks of the early days of the Revolution. He knew them personally which breeds sympathy. It is pretty obvious that he agreed with their aims, if not all their methods.
The question of what happened to those political feelings after he and Evgenia returned to England is more complex. My thought is that he decided deliberately to hide his beliefs, perhaps to protect himself and Evgenia from too close an interest by British or Soviet authorities, especially after the Soviet purges started. Finally, I suspect that he probably became somewhat more "conservative" as he aged, many people do.

Duncan Hall said...

Just an interesting extra on George Lansbury (something I'd heard years ago but forgotten) - it has been said that the King persuaded Ramsay MacDonald not to give Lansbury a cabinet position in the first Labour government because he had 'shaken hands' with the 'murderers' of the Romanovs (i.e. the Bolshevik leaders). Further adding to the surprise that he should have been the obvious Labour figure Ransome would seek out in 1919.

Dominic Rivron said...

It's interesting to wonder how the people he met and the events he experienced in Russia found their way into the Swallows and Amazons stories, if they did. A lot is said about the possible use of people and places he knew in the Lake District while he was writing them - "safe territory" perhaps. Why not people from other periods in his life - particularly such an obviously traumatic period as his time spent in Russia?

I have recently been thinking about possible political allusions in the books and have posted an article on my own blog about it.