A Humorous Perspective

A Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford Alfred A. Knopf; 320 pages; $10

WHEN JESSICA MITFORD was a young teenager in London, her governess used to drag her to Hyde Park on Sundays. She would often wander over to where the soap-box orators held forth. One day, she heard someone sing the Internationale, and misunderstood the words. Instead of "the final conflict," Mitford thought the song referred to the class struggle as "the fine old conflict."

In many ways, the anecdote is typical of Mitford's attitude toward her life of leftwing activities, and it is no accident that she chose the phrase for the title of her new book. In A Fine Old Conflict, Mitford treats her long alliance with the Communist Party U S A (CPUSA) with a combination of irreverence and affection, a combination that is remarkably honest and endearing.

Mitford's intention in writing these memoirs, she says, was to exorcise the ghost of the Red Menace credo, and to provide an alternative to what she calls the "I-was-duped" school of ex-party members. But the result is far less weighty, and a lot more readable, than a heavy tome on the activities of the CPUSA might be.

If any one else had written it, A Fine Old Conflict could have been a disaster: maudlin, perhaps, or strident. But Mitford brings a unique background to her memoir. The daughter of a pair of eccentric British peers and the sister of two of England's most prominent fascists, Mitford has some hilarious stories about what happened when members of her family met up with members of her party. For instance, the members of the San Francisco cell were just as awed by Jessica's sister as any other American would have been. Fortunately, Mitford finds the contrast between her upperclass background and her proletarian aims as funny as the reader, and as a result her memoirs never drift entirely into dry political discussion.

There is some serious stuff here, of course; Mitford's involvement in the party was pretty complete, and she has a great deal to say about what the party was doing during the '40s and '50s. The picture she draws is radically different from the Communist conspiracy view: to insiders, the party was much less rigid and totalitarian than the rest of America believed, and Mitford's descriptions--from her slightly off-beat perspective--of party meetings and activities imbues the CPUSA with a human touch.

At the end of her memoirs, Mitford appends a mimeographed guide to left usage" she wrote in the late '40's, a takeoff on both her sister Nancy's "Guide to Upper Class Usage" and the C.P.'s stylemxfhetoric. Just as the upper class says "How do you do" instead of "pleased to meet you," the CPUSA would say "The correctness of that policy will be tested in the crucible of struggle" instead of "time will tell whether that plan was O.K. She is loyal to the party's goals, and believes in its integrity, out she misses few chances to poke a little fun. This is for her "the fine old conflict"; she has none of the uncompromising, unhumorous rigidity which most of us have come to associate with the C.P. line.


During the '50s, the C.P. went underground, forced to retreat in the face of the House Un-American Activities Committee. It is hard, now, to understand the kind of fear that the committee inspired; Mitford describes the terror of the blacklist, and the sense that the FBI followed suspected party members everywhere. It has all been told before, of course, but rarely from such an honest, individual stance. Mitford has a way of engaging--and holding--the reader's sympathy, and the HUAC loses any legitimacy it might have held in the face of her good-humored description of its witchhunting.

But the C.P. was not completely inactive during those years. Mitford describes her work with the Civil Rights Congress, a group that had a large share of S.P. members, but was one of the most active civil rights groups of the time. It is hard to remember, now, what it felt like to be one of a very few whites working to end discrimination in an era when laws like restrictive housing zones were considered legitimate; it is to the C.P.'s credit that it recognized the exploitation of Blacks long before recognized the exploitation of blacks long before the so-called liberals who spent their energy hunting down communists did.

But Mitford--unlike, say, Lillian Hellman--does not bother with name-calling or invective. She simply states what the C.P. did, and what it felt like to be constantly under FBI and HUAC observation; individual party members become much more sympathetic characters through her witty description of both their heroism and their flaws.

In a few cases, of course, Mitford's concentration on individuals replaces deeper political analysis, as she skims rapidly over inter-party politics and changes in the party line. But there are many books already on such heavy topics; Mitford's intention was to show what it felt like to be a member of the CPUSA during the '40s and '50s, not to describe the party's full operation.

Mitford does not go into the details of her departure from the party, which was prompted by the 1958 revelations about Stalin's purges, because she does not want to undermine the validity of the years she spent with the C.P. By 1958, she says simply she felt the party had become stagnant through having been forced underground; more effective work for the cause could be done through outside radical movements. She and her husband, a radical labor lawyer, had no regrets about the time they spent with the party--in a way, she writes, "the Party experience proved to have been a kind of adult Project Head Start that enabled us to function better than we otherwise might have in the new endeavors we now pursued." Mitford went on to publish an impressive series of books, including one that exposed the corruption of the American undertaking business, and another widely-praised work on the prison system (she went to jail for a spell as part of her research), and to get involved in the anti-war movement in the '60s.

The real reason to read A Fine Old Conflict, in the end, has less to do with an interest in the nature of the Communist Party than with Mitford herself. There are few people who can be so consistently witty about something they feel deeply about, and simultaneously so insightful. Such people should be treasured, always.

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