In February, while our party was participating in a delegation to China for the 27th Wanshou Forum (a regular international gathering discussing the building of humanity’s shared future), it was a pleasure to be able to take time out and meet with our party’s honorary president, Comrade Isabel Crook, and two of her sons, Michael and Carl, while we were in Beijing.
At the age of 103, Isabel can certainly be said to have lived a life in service to the struggle for socialism.
Born into a Canadian missionary family living and working in China, she met her husband David, a British communist working in China, in the years before the outbreak of the second world war, when China’s communist movement had yet to achieve power and found the People’s Republic.
Stories from the front line
We listened with delight as Isabel’s son Michael regaled us with anecdotes and stories of the revolutionary life of his parents, and the world-changing events in which both played their part.
These included stories about David’s daring years as a Comintern (Communist International) agent, when he worked undercover amongst the Trotskyites and anarchists of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish civil war.
Apparently he was so successful in this role that, in 1938, the Comintern asked him to do the same in Shanghai, China, where Trotskyite cells were working in opposition to the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Humorously, we were told, a biographer of George Orwell had contacted the family in recent years to let them know that, according to his research, the intelligence-gathering on Britain’s feted anticommunist author and state informer that David Crook had carried out in Madrid was not, they thought, quite as damaging to Orwell as previous researchers had stated.
Apparently, the historian in question had assumed that this would be something the Crook family would be relieved to hear.
After the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941, Isabel and David came to Britain, heeding the call of the communist parties in the countries allied against Germany to join in the war effort against fascism.
Having enrolled at the London School of Economics, Isabel planned to return to China with David after the war in order to complete a dissertation on the subject of the nationalist Guomingdang-led land reforms, but found that the rapidly advancing communist-led reforms in the expanding red bases of rural China called for an alteration in her focus of study.
Helping to build socialism in China
Intending to compare the nationalist land reform with the communist, Isabel and her husband found themselves in the thick of the Chinese communists’ efforts to redistribute land and wealth, educate the peasantry in the practice of democracy and Leninist organisation, and raise the productive capacity of the countryside.
The results of their research on the communist party’s work were published as Ten Mile Inn – Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.
This book will remain forever a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to understand the ways by which the Communist Party of China gained the trust and respect of China’s peasants and rural labourers, urging and helping them to pull themselves out of the social and economic habits and practices of feudalism, and how that trust and respect became the basis of the support that carried the revolution to victory.
As Michael explained, Isabel’s dissertation was never submitted to LSE, because her talents and David’s were requested by the new China of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to help set up Beijing’s new Foreign Languages Institute, on the campus on which she still lives today.
After Michael referred to the fact that several high-ranking officials in the CPC were never quite able to let go of their suspicions that his father was a Trotskyite infiltrator (having met him when he was posing as a Trotskyite in Shanghai), the conversation turned to the years of the Cultural Revolution and to Isabel’s experiences and attitude towards it.
‘Revolution is not a tea party’
Having been persecuted and incarcerated under suspicion of being a foreign agent, some may be surprised to find that Isabel’s attitude to the Cultural Revolution has always remained positive.
Even though their accusers had clearly been wrong to believe that she and her husband were working against the Chinese struggle for socialism, she has always maintained that their actions were motivated by genuine revolutionary zeal.
This zeal may have been misplaced, but considering such an error from a communist perspective requires one to appreciate that actions carried out in such circumstances should be treated entirely differently from cases where individuals use false accusations to persecute others because of personal dislike, historical enmities. or as an underhand way of defeating them politically.
In fact, Isabel’s view is that she believed in the Cultural Revolution during the years in which it was carried out, and she has never had cause to condemn it in the years following its official end in 1976. David was jailed for six years, but her own punishment, she said, was even quite enjoyable for her, and she found the political re-education involved had been a genuinely valuable opportunity to study and learn.
The fact that her husband had worked for the Comintern, and therefore may have had KGB credentials on his record following the break in relations between China and Khrushchev’s revisionist USSR; that he had worked for RAF intelligence in the Pacific theatre during the second world war; and, of course, his previous impersonating of Trotskyites – these were things that Isabel and her sons agreed would have provided ample basis for the couple to be considered as possible hostile actors, and so she had accepted that the suspicions against them were to a certain extent understandable.
With this in mind, it was interesting to hear how some of those who accused Isabel, who still live and work on the campus of what was formerly known as the Foreign Languages Institute (now the Beijing Foreign Studies university), see her ‘almost every day’ and have in several cases become, in the years since, close family friends.
To be able to listen to the reminiscences and thoughts of a comrade like Isabel, with her years of experience of participation in the international communist movement, was certainly a very valuable experience for those of us who had the privilege of meeting her.
We also took time to discuss the state of the movement in Britain, and considered the question of how, at the opportune stage, an international movement worthy of the name might be rebuilt.
Many hurdles lie in the way of such a task being completed, but it is to be hoped that the CPC’s hosting of ever more frequent international events such as the Wanshou Forum, including more combinations of communist parties from different countries, is a positive step towards this end.