HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
At present Tom Wintringham is an historical footnote in several standard histories of Britain covering the first half of the last century. My aim is to elevate him to the main text as a unique English revolutionary, perhaps the last. His papers, now available for study in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, show that his place in history is merited for four reasons:
1) He was the only significant Marxist military expert of his time. His books and pamphlets defined a Marxist way to revolution adapted to the reality of Britain and the world in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In 1926 he was one of the Communist planners of the General Strike, the last time a revolution was feasible in Britain, for which he served a prison sentence for "sedition". (He had joined the C.P.G.B. in 1923, one of its few bourgeois recruits at that time, and remained in the Party until 1938). In the 1930s he argued in his books The Coming World War and Mutiny that an essential war against fascism should lead to a revolution in Britain because Britain was becoming a fascist state. He argued that in any modern war the anti-Fascists, that is the Communist-led skilled working class of civilians in munitions factories and soldiers and sailors in action, held revolutionary power in their hands. In the 1940s he turned his attention to guerrilla war against the occupying Nazis in Europe and Japanese in the Far East. He saw guerrilla war as a "people's war" for freedom and socialism and in the short term history proved him right.
2) He was one of the pioneers of the International Brigades that fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War between 1936-1938. Arguably, though it is not possible to prove, the actual idea for an "international legion" came from Wintringham. He was the first commander of the British Battalion in conflict, at the bloody Battle of Jarama in February 1937. Here in the first two days fighting the British lost 150 men, one third of their fatalities in the entire war. Wintringham was wounded at Jarama but survived this and also near fatal typhoid to return to the Battalion in the summer of 1937. Once again he was wounded and this time repatriated. His autobiographical account English Captain is considered one of the few classics of the war written in English. His war poetry too was published.
In Spain Wintringham had an affair with an American journalist Kitty Bowler, whom he later married. She was condemned unjustly as a Trotskyite spy and Wintringham was expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 for refusing to leave her. His Spanish experience, however, had already disillusioned him about the C.P.G.B.'s subservience to Moscow and this became a key issue in his revolutionary development.
3) He inspired the formation of the Home Guard. In particular he led the campaign in the summer of 1940 to make it an effective fighting force, through his many articles in the Picture Post and Daily Mirror such as Arm the Citizens and The Home Guard Can Fight and his best selling book on guerrilla war New Ways of War. This was dubbed a do-it-yourself guide to killing people and fitted the desperate do-or-die spirit of the time. In particular he founded the Osterley Park Training School in Irregular Warfare where over 5,000 soldiers from the Regular Army as well as Local Defence Volunteers were taught the rudiments of street-fighting and guerrilla warfare. Despite his undoubted patriotism Wintringham's nickname was still "the Red Revolutionary" and he was eased out of his post by the War Office which was suspicious of his politics.
4) Wintringham was "the last English revolutionary". Since 1935 when he wrote a seminal essay Who is for Liberty? for the Communist run Left Review, which he edited, Wintringham argued for an English revolution based on our revolutionary heritage and the politics of the popular front. He disliked increasingly the subservience of the C.P.G.B. (Communist Party of Great Britain) to the Comintern, in effect to Russian foreign policy, and he became vitriolic when the Party stayed out of World War Two after Stalin's peace pact with Hitler in the summer of 1939.
Wintringham became one of a group dubbed by George Orwell as "revolutionary patriots". His experience in Spain had taught him that if people were going to die for their country it had to be a country worth dying for, and this meant a socialist Britain: so Wintringham campaigned for a Marxist state while playing a leading part in the "people's war" to resist Fascism. Had the Tory Government under Prime Minister Chamberlain made a deal with Hitler the "revolutionary patriots" might well have instigated revolt. As it was Wintringham dubbed the Tory Establishment as Nazi sympathisers or "Fifth Columnists" and wrote that they should be chucked out of office.
The arrival of Churchill placed him in a quandary; he recognised that Churchill was the only possible war-time leader but hated what he stood for. Moreover, he did not accept the political truce during the war. With Sir Richard Acland he founded the Common Wealth party that challenged the coalition government at by-elections and put forward a quasi-revolutionary policy of common ownership and vital democracy. This amounted to people's socialism (as opposed to state control) with frequent elections. Wintringham himself nearly won a sensational by-election in Edinburgh in 1943, falling short of victory by a few hundred votes.
Common Wealth was the most radical opposition party during the war and Wintringham kept up his revolutionary zeal afterwards by advocating what became in the 1970s and 80s Euro communism, "communism with a human face".
Tom Wintringham's motto was "a people's war for a people's peace". It was this combination of revolutionary warfare with revolutionary politics, based on the British experience, that made Wintringham certainly a unique English revolutionary and arguably the last of his breed.
© April 2004 Hugh Purcell
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