Isabel Crook: a long life of devotion and service to the Chinese people

Living in China for almost all of her 107 years, Isabel devoted her considerable energies to serving the people – and to the international cause of socialist revolution.

Our party’s honorary president since 2012, Isabel Crook was a living connection with the best revolutionary internationalist traditions of the Third International and the Chinese Revolution.

All in our party are mourning the death on 20 August 2023 of our comrade Isabel Crook at the grand old age of 107. We extend our deepest condolences to her son Michael, and all her family and comrades – in China, Canada, England and throughout the world – while with them we also celebrate a meaningful productive and revolutionary life, well lived.

When we celebrated her 100th birthday, we noted that Comrade Isabel was an outstanding communist and a veteran proletarian revolutionary. She was both a friend to the Chinese people and a staunch soldier of the Chinese Revolution.

Isabel Brown was born on 15 December 1915 in China’s Sichuan province, the daughter of Canadian missionaries, and grew up in China.

From anthropologist to communist

In the 1930s, she went to Canada to continue her education, and obtained a master’s degree in 1938. She returned to Sichuan and went to the village of Xinglong to conduct anthropological research work.

Her obituary by Yuan Yang in the Financial Times tells us that: “Immediately after graduation in 1939, she returned to southwestern China and carried out research in a village near Chongqing, the provisional capital where the Kuomintang government had retreated after the Japanese invasion. There, she studied 1,500 households as part of a rural reconstruction project funded by the National christian Council of China …

“Crook chronicled intimate moments of village life, from the responses of citizens to the state’s attempts to reform marriage and legalise divorce, to their efforts to avoid conscription. Crook later published their observations as a book: Prosperity’s Predicament: Identity, Reform and Resistance in Rural Wartime China.” (Isabel Crook, anthropologist and chronicler of China’s communist revolution, 1915-2023, 26 August 2023)

In Xinglong, she met David Crook, the man who was to become her lifelong companion until his death in 2000 at the age of 90. Speaking of Xinglong many decades later, Isabel said: “I love the place, mainly because I met a real communist here (referring to David), who helped me to know the society and the significance of the Chinese Revolution.”

In 1938, David was recruited to work directly for the Communist International and was sent to do important revolutionary work in Shanghai. Returning to London, David and Isabel were married in 1942, and Isabel, too, became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Isabel was active as a party member, organising her fellow workers in the factory where she worked in the Finsbury Park area of north London.

After the war, she and David opposed the revisionist trends that were beginning to emerge in the party – for example, the tendency to downplay organising at the place of work in favour of a primarily electoral strategy.

Documenting China’s land reform

In 1947, the Crooks returned to China. Armed with a letter of introduction from the CPGB to the Communist Party of China (CPC), they evaded the blockade imposed by the reactionary Kuomintang government to reach the communist-led liberated areas of north China.

They settled in the village of Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), and in one year completed their initial book reporting on land reform being undertaken by peasants under the CPC’s leadership. The Crooks not only engaged in research and writing, they shared the lives of the local people and joined fully in revolutionary work and political study together with CPC comrades.

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.

They wrote Ten Mile Inn partly in the hope that it might also help the people of other poor countries such as India to make revolution – and it has, in fact, become a handbook of experience and technique for agricultural workers struggling to bring socialist organisation to their own countries.

A life in service to the Chinese and world revolutions

David and Isabel had intended to stay in China for one year. However, CPC leaders asked them to stay on. They did so, and China remained their home for the rest of their lives.

They became teachers at the Nanhaishan Foreign Affairs School in June 1948 and, together with their colleagues and students, entered Beijing with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when the city was liberated. When the People’s Liberation Army entered Beijing in 1949, the Crooks witnessed the joy of the masses greeting its arrival. “It is the most joyful [moment],” Isabel recalled, “I think I’ve ever watched.”

Once in Beijing, they helped establish what became the Beijing Foreign Studies university, on whose campus Isabel lived the rest of her life. China Daily informs us that:

“She helped compile China’s first English language textbooks for college students and was instrumental in English discipline building, reform and teachers’ development. As an anthropologist and sociologist with communist ideals, she wrote books recording China’s revolutionary undertakings and presented to the world a real and vivid picture of the country.”

Isabel and David Crook were both imprisoned for a time during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, being wrongly suspected of espionage, but Isabel never held a grudge about this. In the five years he was held in prison, David spent his time learning to read and write Chinese, comparing Chinese and English translations of Marxist texts to figure out the meaning of Chinese characters. Isabel was held for three years but insisted she should be sent to the countryside to be re-educated through labour.

Naturally she could not be refused, and she relished the experience, saying that she learned much from being posted to the countryside during this time and repeating Chairman Mao’s dictum that “Revolution is not a tea party”. The Crooks were released in 1973 and completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. In 2019, Isabel was presented in person by President Xi Jinping with the Chinese Friendship medal, described as “the top honour for foreigners”.

Comrade Isabel lived a long and fruitful life – an impressive 107 years – as a communist, student and much beloved teacher. Her importance is summarised by the Financial Times obituary: “Crook documented the waning of the Kuomintang regime and the rise of the Communist party through the lives of villagers in rural China. The writer was a rare bridge between the west and China, with a longer lived experience of the country than most of its leaders.” (Yuan Yang, op cit)

There is no greater honour and no higher cause than fighting for the liberation of mankind.

Having joined the CPGB-ML, Comrade Isabel was unanimously elected as its honorary president at our sixth (2012) party congress.

Until her last breath, Isabel was proud to be a Communist party member and had full confidence in humanity’s bright communist future.

Red Salute to Comrade Isabel Crook!