Socialists and Mobility in Twentieth-Century Britain: Images and Experiences In the Life Histories of British Communists

Kevin Morgan. Social History. Volume 36, Issue 2. May 2011.

Writing in the 1980s, Hartmut Kaelble identified two ‘quite separate’ accounts of social mobility as having developed almost independently of each other. One was the ‘historians’ history’, focusing on the nineteenth century and processes of urbanization and industrialization. The other was the ‘sociologists’ history’ of the twentieth century, focusing on occupational change, educational opportunity and ‘achievement motivation’. Different research agendas, Kaelble argued, were paralleled by distinct research methods reflecting the different source materials on which the literatures had depended. Though a synthesis had hitherto proved elusive, Kaelble held that historians and sociologists were concerned with the ‘same basic questions’ and had much to learn from each other. Kaelble’s own work, in providing a long, synoptic view of mobility, provided just such a bridge between different time periods and academic disciplines. The account presented here, which by contrast is on a ‘micro’ scale, seeks to problematize the measurements of achievement which in accounts like Kaelble’s were implicitly assumed. Through the life-history testimonies of those experiencing movements around and across the so-called ‘collar line’, its central contention is of the essentially contested character of mobility as a discourse of social betterment.

Mobility and Ideology

Though departing from Kaelble’s approach in this and many other respects, the account presented here shares his basic premise that the two literatures he identified had much in common. Centrally, this was a normative, even ideological conception of mobility as an attribute of economic dynamism and social modernization. If sociologists’ accounts, as Geoff Payne commented, dwelt ‘almost exclusively on mobility as vertical occupational movements’, an aspirational ideal was also implicit in Kaelble’s antinomies: of ‘dead ends’ counterposed with ‘social ascent’; ‘enforced restlessness’ with ‘the purposeful use of occupational chances’; and the ‘rise of meritocratic mentalities and social values’ with the persistence of ‘a non-meritocratic mentality’. Stephen Thernstrom’s pioneering work on Boston similarly described upward and downward mobility as ‘climbing’ and ‘skidding’, with connotations respectively of purposiveness and loss of control. At once an ideology and a teleology, mobility represented a sort of absolute value and talisman of modernity: one in which ‘economic and social success’ and the ‘opening … to all talents’ of ‘the lower-middle and middle class’ were described interchangeably. Even sceptics employed similar definitions, while noting the limited extent of ‘exchange’ mobility beyond that occurring through changes in the nature of a particular society. Mobility, or its relative absence, could therefore provide a source of critique as well as self-congratulation: a debate reignited in Britain by the problematic record in this respect of the Blair-Brown governments. Even so, with their normative connotations of an ‘open’ and achievement-orientated society, mobility studies were a quintessential product of the golden age of welfare capitalism.

Also common to both literatures was a quantitative method of analysis. A classic historian’s account, like Thernstrom’s, depended on the range and comprehensiveness of ‘mobility measurements’ of an exclusively quantitative order. A classic sociologist’s account, like Glass’s Social Mobility in Britain, employed survey methods to the similar ends, merely neglecting what Thernstrom called the subject’s ‘time dimension’. Kaelble, moving in the ‘no-man’s-land’ between the two schools, sought to measure inter-class mobility at a long-term, structural level by equating it with countable quantum leaps of an abstract and somewhat arbitrary character. These, he argued, were more reliable than ‘striking but … usually untypical’ qualitative data and allowed the identification of broader social patterns comparatively and over time. Even within its own terms, gender and the sexual division of labour were often disregarded in this view and intergenerational mobility defined solely in relation to the male breadwinner. In Kaelble’s presentation, ‘horizontal’ distinctions of occupation were also subordinated to general indicators of social class. Thernstrom, like others since, did subdivide his categories to allow for ‘interstratum’ mobility. The metaphor of a ‘ladder’ between them, and the centrality of what Thernstrom called ‘the big leap’ across the ‘collar line’, nevertheless remained intact. Though he was also alert to the significance of race and ethnicity, these, like the impact of the inter-war depression, appeared in Thernstrom’s work as distorting variables. Here, if anywhere, the ‘social’ in social history served as a reductionist synonym for class, while paradoxically seeking to tabulate its diminishing significance through charting the increase in career movements across class boundaries.

The problem with this approach was its triple incongruity of method, definition and agency. The incongruity of method was that mobility was conceived as a register of individual shifts of status or occupation which was nevertheless described and interpreted almost exclusively at the level of the aggregate. The incongruity of definition was that mobility was conceptualized as a process taking place over time which nevertheless tended to be registered in a static and almost ahistorical way, with fluctuations due to ‘events’ like wars and economic crises acknowledged, if at all, only as distortions or anomalies in respect of these trends. The issues were widely recognized; in particular, Andrew Miles’s work on pre-1914 England was sensitive to the ‘historical blindness’ with which quantitative analysis had often been deployed and sought to supplement these tools with extensive autobiographical materials. Addressing what he called ‘a disciplinary stand-off’, Miles proposed a ‘cross-fertilization of evidence and method’ to extract the historical study of mobility from the ‘double-bind’ of the sociologists’ presentism. The challenge, however, eluded easy synthesis. If mixing methods can sometimes imply a sort of quantitative corroboration of basically qualitative narratives, Miles, conversely, used autobiographies as a source of illustration and documentation, but without either the categories or results of his quantitative analysis appearing significantly affected by the reading of more personal accounts. Statistical analysis is certainly strengthened by revealing how real life histories are represented behind its impersonal screen. The more fundamental issue was nevertheless left largely unaddressed: of how ‘achievement’ in ‘achievement orientated’ societies might be understood by different groups or individuals in diverse or conflicting ways that changed over time.

The failure to recognize mobility as a narrative of career movement, and not as its mere descriptor, was thus the third and most basic incongruity of mobility studies. Despite the appearance of quantitative precision, Jürgen Kocka observed that even historians had discovered little as to how mobility was actually experienced, and posited the collar line as an ‘underlying assumption’ that was not actually demonstrated or investigated. Though implicitly it signified an independent volitional quality, the status of mobility was restricted to movements conforming to fixed external criteria of perceived economic rationality. Though John Goldthorpe intriguingly raised the possibility of ‘other types of subjectively significant mobility’ than class mobility, the point does not appear to have been developed. The relegation of ‘experience’ to a secondary level of analysis is in this respect more than just an issue of detail; for if, as Kocka acknowledged, it was almost impossible to establish what was experienced as improvement and gain, and what as threat or loss, then derivations of status connoting ‘upward’ or ‘downward’ mobility themselves appear as somewhat arbitrary, or at very least demand more rigorous explanation.

‘What constitutes the well-being of a man?’ Carlyle asked in an early onslaught on the statistician, and the same logic informed some telling contributions to the later ‘standard of living’ debate. In respect of mobility, moreover, there was the further dimension of the indeterminacy over time of this idea of well-being; for where notions of status and achievement diverged from the conventions of mobility studies, one reason, paradoxically, was the mobility of expectation itself. This, indeed, was a fourth incongruity: for while mobility figured as a discourse of opportunity, its scales of achievement were fixed by inherited differences categorized by class. Ironically, it was predicated on the fixity of one’s social station as a point of reference, so that failure and achievement had no common value, but were defined in unequal terms of innate but not immutable social advantage. In this lay its profoundly ideological character, at once improving, incrementalist and conservative. The logic of a more open society was that other points of reference existed than one’s parents. The ethic of a more egalitarian one was that shared points of reference should have the greater weight. The practice of a divided society, in which opportunities were defined and circumscribed by social origin, was that seeming mobility might fail to satisfy still higher expectations, derived from shared sources or merely different ones.

The present article is less concerned with these constructions of mobility than with their assumed political implications. Even so, if the latter were more complex and contradictory than is often imagined, the issue goes beyond assumed patterns of cause and effect to raise questions about the discourse of mobility itself. In many accounts it is axiomatic that mobility functioned as a de-radicalizing influence through the ‘mongrelization’ of class values, overcoming of ‘personal frustration’ and engendering of feelings of ‘social harmony’. Class-rooted values, however, could also be adapted to new environments, and renewed personal frustration expressed in overt social antagonism.

In respect of these class identities, particularly in the sharply articulated form of working-class activism, the historians’ and sociologists’ centuries pose rather different issues. For the historians, the whole notion of class formation was predicated upon, as it sought to describe, an immense social and geographical movement, intergenerational if not within the individual ‘career’, whose symbols were the factory and the new industrial city. Where mobility still contributed in some sense to the first and second dimensions of the classical class-formation narrative—those of ‘economic’ class and ‘social’ class—it was sometimes also linked with a third and culminating stage of ‘class in action’. Consistent with his normative usages, Kaelble dismissed the notion that this demographic and occupational upheaval was itself characterized by mobility. Rather, it was in the subsequent epochs of organized capitalism and post-industrialism that he postulated real, significant and verifiable increases in mobility as achievement. The underlying assumption was of class formation achieved and then unravelled; for if class, as Patrick Joyce put it, was postponed to the twentieth century, then so necessarily was mobility as a shorthand for ‘upward’ movements out of class. It was this disintegrative dynamic that was portrayed as a de-radicalizing influence. The marxist tradition, in Goldthorpe’s words, ‘explicitly recognized social mobility, apart from that involved in “proletarianization”, as inimical to the process of class formation’. Revisionist social democracy also described the ‘mobility factor’ as tending to soften class consciousness. Already, during the Second World War, G. D. H. Cole ascribed the lack of a democratic political leadership to ‘the increasing extent to which ability was being drained out of the social classes which were conscious of economic grievance, and transferred to administrative or technical positions within the established order’:

Left in the ranks of the manual workers, they would have sought to express themselves by means of political or trade union leadership: given technical or administrative status, they found self-expression in their jobs, and for the most part saw no reason for taking any part in politics.

Radicalization from this perspective, like the supply of labour movement activists, depended on the negative force of blocked mobility: exactly as was sometimes linked with the great European revolutions. Through the class-dissolving discourse of opportunity and the ‘missing frontier’, mobility in this sense also figured prominently in discussions of American exceptionalism.

A concept so freighted with ideological assumptions appears difficult to use in less prescriptive ways, and has figured relatively little in recent historical scholarship. The present article, however, identifies mobility, in its broadest sense of notionally upward movement across class or occupational boundaries, as a significant and neglected factor in the radicalization of left-wing political activists in mid-twentieth-century Britain. ‘Labour mobility’, though potentially offsetting or diluting established class identities, was also corrosive of the local or sectional fragmentation that has sometimes been presented as a counterweight to a homogenizing class dynamic. Indeed, because ‘stages’ of class formation occurred not sequentially but concurrently and interdependently, new sectors and locations of employment emerging as others declined, these tendencies were rarely mutually exclusive, at a collective or even at an individual level. Mobility, social or spatial, could mean the transmission of values and codes of practice; an exposure to commonalities of experience going beyond a smaller group identity; a receptivity to larger frameworks seemingly explaining these; or just the significance for some of the anchorage which labour identities and forms of association provided. Movements across occupational and class boundaries, like those across national or cultural ones, shaped identities and commitments, and can hardly be described otherwise than as mobility. By recognizing connections with political radicalism, key assumptions of the dominant mobility narrative are nevertheless sharply brought into question.

Intimations of alternative possibilities were never lacking. Mannheim in his Ideology and Utopia described vertical mobility as the ‘decisive’ factor in the shaking of traditional thought-forms, which might, according to circumstance, have either a radicalizing or atomizing effect. Lipset and Bendix’s landmark mobility text Social Mobility in Industrial Society specifically postulated that ‘success’ need not always mean ‘satisfaction’, but could engender ‘yet higher aspirations and a formulated hatred for one’s social position’. The possibility of disjunctures between different roles and identities was thus registered as an issue of ‘status discrepancy’, albeit with the reductionist implication of a sort of hierarchical dysfunctionality. Anthony Crosland in 1956 commented on ‘the persistence in Britain, despite all the social and economic improvements of the last two decades … of so much resentment, so many unofficial strikes, so many touchy, prickly, indignant and frustrated citizens in politics and industry’. This, at least, the mobility literature did not satisfactorily explain. ‘Success’ and ‘achievement’ were not usually provided with cautionary quotation marks, and through the positing of higher but not different aspirations the ladder metaphor remained intact. An ‘”iron law of mobility” or, at least, of mobility aspirations’ was still held to be inimical to political prickliness.

British Communists as Micro Study

And yet, Crosland noted, some of the most militant sections of the British Labour Party could be found in places like the industrial boom town of Coventry or the ‘middle-class’ resort of Margate, just as white-collar and civil-service unions had some of the most highly politicized trade-union activists. This phenomenon, characterized by Crosland as that of a ‘suspicious, militant, class-conscious Leftism’, is approached here using a wider programme of interviews with British communists. Despite some obvious political differences, the communists were recognizably a sibling variant of this wider phenomenon, as Cole among others recognized, and there was considerable movement from one party to the other. That both parties also had a similar chronological membership trajectory peaking in the middle years of the century has important implications for the mobility narrative. Images of British communism, including a substantial academic literature, have been heavily weighted towards declining staple industries, the inter-war depression and the hunger marches. Inverse correlations of mobility and radicalization were explicitly indicated in Newton’s pioneering Sociology of British Communism, where occupational and geographical immobility in engineering and coal mining was held both to have encouraged communist activism and to have ‘contained’ it because ‘the escape routes of geographical mobility and vertical and horizontal social mobility were closed’. Despite such claims, it was in the English south and midlands that the communists enjoyed their most striking and durable membership gains.

They did so, moreover, precisely in those ‘last two decades’ of recovery, full employment and relative mobility to which Crosland referred. Already, by the late 1930s, the CPGB’s (Communist Party of Great Britain) London district provided 40 per cent of the party’s total membership, while new party districts were set up across the south and midlands; and the Young Communist League (YCL) in London had a membership sixty times that of South Wales and the textile districts combined. At the 1945 election, when Labour made its breakthrough in cities like Oxford and St Albans, communists obtained their highest ever English parliamentary vote in the Conservative dormitory constituency of Hornsey. Historiographically, the inter-war ‘dawn of affluence’ has been seen as offsetting the impact of the slump, contributing to the failure of extremism and prefiguring the post-war ‘affluent worker’. Potential radicalism, however, was not just ‘contained’ by such a process but decanted, and the left in Britain achieved its greatest numerical and electoral strength in a period of relative fluidity and egalitarianism. Though the reasons for this were complex and multifaceted, prosopographical analysis of British communists suggests that social and geographical mobility, coinciding with the rising cultural and political influence of the labour movement, was a significant factor in radicalization.

Most communist recruits were industrial workers and the mobility issues they raise concern so-called ‘horizontal’ or interstratum mobility. The focus of the present article, however, is on mobility in its classical sense of movement across the collar line. What is surprising here is not that ‘sociological’ practitioners overlooked the historians’ history, but that they failed to take full measure of the sociological literature simultaneously being devoted to the salariat or ‘white-collar worker’. Paradoxically, while the concept of mobility-as-ladder continued to be deployed as if largely self-evident, the condition of those on its higher rungs was being characterized in terms ranging from Lockwood’s ‘status ambiguity’ and Mills’s ‘status panic’ to Braverman’s downright proletarianization. By 1958, when Lockwood’s standard sociological treatment of the ‘black-coated worker’ appeared, it was commonly accepted that the increase in the number of such positions had been accompanied by a ‘definite fall’ in their prestige and desirability. Upholders of the mobility narrative stressed the simultaneous creation of still more prestigious positions, and the filling of the less prestigious ones by women workers for whom they might still be regarded as a form of ‘promotion’. The relationship of mobility with opportunity and enhanced status nevertheless became entangled. Even Kaelble acknowledged a ‘certain devaluation of upward mobility’, and Miles and Vincent allude to issues regarding the ‘quality’ of mobility achieved. But in the collection of essays in which they do so, its treatment remains peripheral.

This ‘intermediate’ clerical and lower professional group has in general received far less historiographical attention than sometimes numerically smaller groups of manual workers. Nevertheless, important themes were suggested by pioneers in the field. Geoffrey Crossick noted the presence among early British socialists of white-collar workers who felt ‘socially trapped’ within increasingly impersonal and bureaucratized work environments. Geoffrey Anderson, instead of postponing class to the twentieth century, pre-dated petty-bourgeois status anxieties to the nineteenth. These interpretations were consistent with sociological studies describing the blocked mobility of ‘socially aspiring individuals’ as drawing them into activist roles as trade unionists. While to some extent confirming such findings, work on British communists suggests that the perceived worth and standing of work performed was as important as issues like the scale of work environment. Socialist activism was not only a response to certain forms of managerial authority; it expressed a strong, often explicit evaluation of different types of work. Not just ‘ambiguity’ but active contestation could reflect both intergenerational values, for example of masculinity or solidarity, and the exposure to the wider cultural influences of a more open society. It is the neglected issue of values which the present article seeks to bring to the study of mobility.

The micro perspective adopted here is one recommended by Miles and Vincent as a means of recognizing the significance of the individual career history. One must be careful, on the other hand, of suggesting that communists can represent political radicalism ‘irrespective of time, place or ideology’. On the contrary, the potential strength of such a study lies in the recognition of specificity. Through their recruitment from a variety of social milieux, and their role in the articulation of interests and aspirations arising within these milieux, communists were linked to a distinct constituency of labour movement activists at a particular moment—Crosland’s ‘last two decades’—in a particular country’s history. Through their life-history testimonies, questions are opened up whose settled character quantitative analysis has too easily taken for granted. Although mobility, for example, has usually been registered in relation to a parent’s position on the mobility ladder, less attempt has been made to demonstrate that feelings of frustration or fulfilment in one’s work situation were actually articulated in this way. Most accounts did also recognize the importance of ‘career’ mobility; and David Vincent, seeking to nuance mobility research with a sensitivity to its ‘qualifications’, made telling use of the life-history materials compiled for Paul Thompson’s Edwardians project. The present article, however, focuses more directly on the construction of the individual career history, and on how changes commonly conceptualized as mobility were defined and redefined in terms of shifting values and agendas. Prosopographical research, writes Mike Savage, allows a more dynamic view of class and other social relationships, not as ‘macro-social constraints’ but ‘working biographically through the individual’. Working biographically through these activists offers insight into alternative value-systems with which conventional ascriptions of status and achievement, and hence the alchemistic properties of mobility itself, not infrequently came into collision.

The constructed and partisan nature of mobility itself is thus exposed. In one aspect, the labour movement provided an organizational vehicle for mobility, while culturally and politically expressing a clear and explicit aspiration to both individual and collective self-betterment. At the same time, socialism provided a compelling critique of the standard criteria of improvement on which both popular and academic discourses of mobility were founded. In America, Werner Sombart observed, not the fact but the promise of opportunity most hindered socialism’s advance. Hope, Gibbon wrote of the Roman slave’s glimpse of freedom, is the ‘best comfort of our imperfect condition’, perhaps the best security against revolt. Frustrated hope, or hopes unequally fulfilled, may have a very different effect. Self-betterment, more perhaps than freedom for the slave, was also indeterminate and subject to different readings. In respect of elites, notably intellectual elites, competing measures of status and achievement are routinely allowed; Sombart, for example, noted how in Britain politics provided an alternative career to money-making. Socialism, by analogy, was the discourse of such alternatives of a somewhat wider social constituency. It both encouraged and thrived upon an alternative valuation of different work situations, and anticipated a social order in which this scheme of values would find fulfilment. Education in its broadest sense was central. ‘If you can get into books,’ said one communist interviewee, ‘you’re bound to get on in our sense of the word—not in other people’s sense of the word.’ Different ideas of ‘getting on’ are central to the argument here.

One further consideration is particularly relevant to the theme of radicalization. Historians attentive to career mobility have always recognized that career-long upward movements could nevertheless include periods of unsettlement and occupational uncertainty. Typically, this was the case with employments experienced in youth and early adulthood which failed to satisfy values and aspirations deriving from both formal and informal education. In the case of British communists, it was precisely at this stage of their lives that durable political commitments were most often established. In his essay on generations, Mannheim observed more widely that it was in one’s late teens that there crystallized a distinct individual world-view of potentially formative significance. If this is so, then a postulate of ‘occupational maturity’ registered at the age of thirty-five, whatever its validity in other respects, promises little insight into such a process.

No serious attempt at quantification is made here. Moreover, snapshot depictions of the CPGB’s membership cannot by their very nature register the significance of transitional employment categories. Nevertheless, the indications are clear enough. At the 1937 party congress, of those described as employed, 45 per cent were classified as ‘clerical or professional’. Moreover, nearly half of the 501 delegates were aged thirty or less; and though no further breakdown of the figures is available, the dominance of traditional working-class occupations within the party’s earliest cohorts suggests that the proportion of white-collar employments among the younger delegates was greater still. Communists of this type are the focus of the present study. From around a hundred interviews conducted as part of the CPGB Biographical Project at the University of Manchester, the ten featured here comprise individuals born between 1912 and 1927 who joined the party (or the YCL) between 1931 and 1943 and in each case experienced what by standard indices was intergenerational mobility. Typically they rejected conventional assumptions about mobility while upholding a counter-narrative of mobility through service which was buttressed by—and helped explain the attraction of—the Soviet experience (see section III). Notions of educational and cultural achievement were central to this socialist counter-narrative (section IV) and to the sense of frustration and dislocation that was felt with many white-collar employments (section V). Instead of an assumed process of dissociation from working-class values, radicalization could represent the introduction into white-collar environments of forms of collective organization that included leadership roles which themselves provided scope for the alternative of mobility through service (section VI). There is no getting away from Kaelble’s insistence on the untypicality of such testimonies. On the other hand, and employing Kaelble’s own categories, it was precisely in this period of achieved mobility, not that of its earlier frustration, that both the Labour Party and the trade unions enjoyed peaks of membership and/or electoral support. At least the micro analysis presented here is consistent with this bigger picture.

An ‘Essentially Contested Concept’?

David Crew in his study of Bochum took issue with presentations of working-class ‘traditionalism’ as an impediment to a ‘modern’ or Anglo-American view of mobility. Most workers, Crew insisted

did not define ‘success’ as the ability to escape the working class but rather the capacity to gain and hold onto the more secure and better paid positions within it. And since the worker (or his children) did not necessarily have to leave the working class to count himself successful, individual ambition did not have to preclude or weaken a shared sense of collective identity with other workers.

Such attitudes were perhaps especially characteristic of the German case, in which the ‘economic, social, psychological and political’ significance of the collar line was greater than in Britain. Nevertheless, against those identifying ‘cultural’ factors as a drag on mobility, Crew’s study reminds us that mobility is also a cultural construct, representing career movements in terms of particular values and normative conceptions. The identification of achievement with a ‘capitalist-individualist’ ethos, as James A. Henretta has argued, implied the rejection of mutualist alternatives to these value-structures, whether family, class or community-based. The affirmation of mutualist values, in its turn, could appear as the virtual refusal of mobility in its dominant reading.

Such caveats are particularly relevant to the communist parties which, in breaking from social democracy, advanced a veritable cult of the worker. In the countries of northern Europe, this became focused on the biography and persona of the party leader, in Britain’s case Harry Pollitt. A Lancashire ‘half-timer’ who left school at twelve, Pollitt produced an ‘exemplary’ party life affirming strong identification with his class of origin, ‘from which nothing will ever separate me’. His father, a blacksmith’s striker, had given different advice: ‘I’ve done enough slogging my guts out for nowt. … Tha get thy feet under t’ table.’ Pollitt nevertheless described how he followed his own course as a highly skilled craftsman whose personal bearing and stated political values sought to validate the dignity, social worth and capacity for leadership of the manual worker. Conversely, Pollitt scorned labour leaders who forgot their own class and aped the manners, dress and ‘spurious culture’ of another. Deliberately or tendentially, the inversion of conventional valuations of upbringing or education if anything legitimized downward mobility. Middle-class converts moved to working-class suburbs or occupations: perhaps to get ‘closer to the masses’, like a Russian narodnik or a university settlement worker, or perhaps as what one described as ‘get[ting] out of one class skin and into another’. During the CPGB’s Cold War turn ‘to the factories’, the refusal of bourgeois notions of ‘success’ was in some cases categorical.

In the periods of its greatest sustained membership growth, on the other hand, the CPGB avoided the extremes of proletarianism. In particular, with the adoption of a softer ‘popular front’ approach in the mid-1930s, it enjoyed its first significant enrolment from white-collar sectors and in social terms came to resemble the older ‘reformist’ organizations from which it drew many of its recruits. According to an influential line of argument, communism’s political degeneration internationally even represented a capitulation to petty-bourgeois values, as notably witnessed by Orwell in Spain. However, if a notion of self-improvement was central to the communists’ political identity, it involved neither depreciation of the manual worker nor idealization of the desk job as the vehicle of self-improvement. Rather, as the novelist and critic Alec Brown put it in The Fate of the Middle Classes (1935), meaning and achievement were identified with the development of self and the shaping of one’s environment to express rather than frustrate this development. An aspiration to knowledge, culture and social service, as purportedly encapsulated in the USSR, gave rise to a positive conception of individual as well as collective achievement, and roles and occupations were differentiated according to these ambitions. These were not, however, identical with the values of employers or mobility theorists. In terms of Raymond Aron’s categories, the ‘expert’ and the ‘artist’ were esteemed by communists, if sometimes ambivalently, the ‘scribe’—’the clerical staff of public or private administrations’—hardly at all. Politically speaking, it ran deep within marxism that the petty bourgeoisie, ‘whether by birth, occupation or outlook’, served as the tools of reaction. Fascism provided seeming confirmation of this, but it also gave still greater urgency to a socialist alternative that would at last ‘give full scope to all the useful trained and technical abilities within the middle class in the gigantic tasks of social reconstruction’.

In this crucial matter of social utility, changing images of Soviet Russia counted for much. For Pollitt, born in 1890 and a supporter of the Russian revolution from the start, its achievements were the proof of the ‘genius, creative ability and constructive capacity of the working class’—of ‘lads’, he said, ‘like me’. Increasingly by the 1930s, however, the claim of mobility was no less to be found in the Sovietized image of socialism. Already, in the 1920s, prominent British visitors began to salute the opening up of education and its demonstration of the workers’ capacity once they secured ‘equality of opportunity’. A potent influence to similar effect was the Fabian-communist account of the Webbs, Soviet Communism (1935), which described the ‘remaking’ of man through the rising cultural level of an entire people. The communist Pat Sloan, picking up this theme, entitled the relevant chapters of his Soviet Democracy (1937) ‘Equality of opportunity’ and ‘Education for citizenship’. The fellow-traveller Hewlett Johnson, in his best-selling Socialist Sixth of the World (1939), entitled his ‘New horizons’ and ‘The open gateway’. All three books were widely circulated in Britain through the Left Book Club (LBC). In the USSR itself, variations on the ‘log cabin to White House theme’ were enormously popular.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, who cites them, has even proposed a sort of americanization of stalinism, whose legitimation depended on the ‘commonsense’ assumption of individual mobility aspirations and the sponsoring of ‘upward social mobility’ by the regime. Perhaps this underlines the danger of projecting and universalizing ‘commonsense’ assumptions rooted in particular political cultures. What matters here is that the communist idea of mobility, at least as disseminated in Britain, was freighted with distinctive normative associations linked with the idea of citizenship. The object, Johnson wrote, was not, ‘Work hard and get on’, but a socialist ideal of ‘comradely service’. The German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, in yet another LBC selection, described equality of opportunity as the hallmark of the new classless society, while depicting mobility as fundamentally an intellectual progression—the making of ‘peasant and proletarian intellectuals’—and a universal aspiration of the Soviet people. From a ‘low’, illiterate type of society, Soviet communism was conceived as a massive improving project in which individual and collective aspirations were reconciled through the notion of service. A wartime tribute put it succinctly: ‘Birth and privilege count for nothing in the USSR. Initiative and ability count for everything.’ Success did not mean ‘money amassed at the expense of others’, or the wielding of personal power. ‘Success is reckoned as ability to help the people.’

For some young people between the wars, amid the contraction of traditional career paths and general uncertainty about employment prospects, the idea of such a society exercised a powerful attraction, precisely as the elusiveness of such opportunities provided a focus for local discontents. As the promotion of basic literacy encouraged a demand for greater educational opportunities, with which more rewarding and purposeful life chances were clearly associated, it is with the denial of such opportunities that the emergence of these discontents can first of all be identified.

Education and the Mobility of Expectations

The association of education with white-collar discontents is a familiar theme in the American literature. C. Wright Mills thus described the ‘educational elevator’ as integral to the promise of American democracy, but noted how the excess of qualifications over jobs requiring them could lure some to the political extremes. In Britain, at first sight, there should have been no such cause of dissatisfaction. Between the wars, proportionately fewer younger people attended university than in any other European country. Whatever the intentions of the 1918 Education Act, access to secondary education was also rationed, in practice according to social class. Though some communist interviewees mentioned encouragement received at school, stories were more often told of cruelty, racism, the humiliation of ‘school money’, and a general lack of opportunity or expectation. One response was a reaffirmation of working-class identities such as Crew found in Bochum. Not all parents objected to their children’s withdrawal from school, and a ‘strong traditional commitment to occupational heredity’ could represent a realistic assessment of the opportunities actually available to them.

Education, however, was more than a matter of schooling. The English, Ross McKibbin writes, were a people of the book, still more so of the press. Released from capped funding in 1919, public libraries provided one alternative form of educational provision, more dependent on individual initiative but less circumscribed by social barriers. Mass-circulation literature, fitfully moved by reforming, even radical impulses, provided another. Victor Gollancz and the LBC provided one example of such impulses; Penguin Books, epitome of the ‘book revolution’ of the 1930s, another. Stimulated by the printed word, mobility took the form that Vincent describes as ‘a more mobile personality’, with mobile expectations that exacerbated the sense of exclusion from formal educational structures. New aspirations were generated by wider sources of knowledge, desire and cultural value, and careers marked by intergenerational ‘mobility’ did not preclude a sense of blockage.

The story can be traced across the generations. In his Men in the Pits (1948) Ferdynand Zweig wrote of a process of ‘negative selection’ through which the ‘best types’ of young worker escaped the coal industry, not least through the success of popular education. ‘You can be sure’, Zweig wrote, ‘that the sons of the best-educated miners will not become miners.’ There was nevertheless a paradox here, for these ‘best-educated’ parents were precisely the type of ‘earnest’ or ‘bookish’ worker universally regarded as providing the sinews of collective organization; Zweig’s examples were mostly Labour figures, but they might equally have been communists. Here was a mobility of parental expectation, deriving from a labourist culture of self-improvement of which the communists were potentially second- or third-generation beneficiaries. Informed by quite specific cultural values, improvement was to be realized in ways deemed consistent with these values, and frustrated even by ‘promotion’ that was not.

Encouraged in their education by their father, a Walthamstow cabinetmaker, the siblings George and Dorothy Barnard, born respectively in 1915 and 1925, not only attended grammar school but proceeded to Cambridge and distinguished academic careers. Simultaneously, however, their father was a ‘very strong trade unionist’ said to have refused promotion to foreman ‘because he didn’t want to leave the ranks’. That it was the Barnards’ father, unusually, who showed a greater interest than their mother in education may perhaps be linked with the same labour movement values. For those whose expectations were met or exceeded in this way, their very untypicality could mean a sense of social dislocation which, paradoxically, was conducive to the reaffirmation of inherited values and forms of association. Communist recruits at the older universities thus included significant numbers of grammar-school entrants from relatively humble backgrounds, whose isolation within the Oxbridge college system proved an important stimulus to recruitment into the social ‘normality’ of student communism.

That these most mobile of school-leavers were disproportionately attracted to communism indicates that more was involved than status discrepancy and educational aspiration as the dream of an undifferentiated ’embourgeoisement’. Nevertheless, it was the exclusion from grammar school or university that left a mark on rather more of the Barnards’ contemporaries. Charlie Hall was born in the Durham coalfield in 1914, the son of a socialist sheet-metal worker, Bill Hall, who—in a case of mobility through victimization that was not unusual for activists—became a Co-operative insurance salesman after the 1926 General Strike. A CPGB foundation member, Bill Hall was passionately committed to education in the broader sense and introduced his children to a wide range of radical literature. When Charlie, against all expectations, failed his scholarship exam, both parents and teachers interpreted this as a further act of discrimination. Attending commercial school in Newcastle, he made it across the collar line; ‘but it didn’t’, he recalled, ‘replace what would have been a grammar school education.’

James Friell had a strong sense of the different ways of getting on. Born in Glasgow in 1912, Friell was the second oldest of seven children of second-generation Irish migrants. His mother was a staunch Catholic, hardworking, devoted to her children. His father, however, was a ‘dead loss’, drifting from insurance work into casual jobs and eventual unemployment, so that Friell on a party questionnaire described his origin as ‘unemployed class’. Growing up in a crowded ‘but and ben’, he was no stranger to material hardship, but evoked his educational deprivation more feelingly. His elder brother went to university, and Friell himself gained a scholarship to a Catholic college with his mother’s fervent support. Friell’s father, however, ‘put his foot down: one son going off to university was enough, he didn’t want two of them—let him get out and earn’. Leaving school with outstanding reports, Friell took up work in a local lawyer’s office.

Though there were no immediate politicizing influences around his home, Friell exemplified an Indian summer of autodidacticism, encouraged by wider social supports and flourishing in the period between the achievement of mass literacy and the provision of a genuine mass education:

Luckily, practically all of us were very bookish. I can remember my first visit to the public library and I think the public library is the best institution this country’s ever had. I got any education I got from the public library, and any culture from the public library. You read Jack London, you read Galsworthy, you read Shaw. I remember getting essays at school some time … when I was about thirteen, and the teacher said … ‘Where did you get that from, James?’ … I said, ‘H. G. Wells’.

Friell ‘got into books’ and subsequently became a successful newspaper cartoonist, moving into a literary-political milieu somewhere between Fleet Street and Bloomsbury. Doubtless the sense that there was no single way of ‘getting on’ drew on that experience: sensitivity to mobility means recognizing that interviews recorded decades later cannot, without risk of yet further incongruity, be regarded as a static representation of its experience. Even so, if Friell was exposed on the one hand to Wellsian fantasies of the future like Men Like Gods, and on the other to the numbing petty-bourgeois realities of novels like Kipps, it is not hard to imagine the sense of malaise in which he began sending featurettes to local newspapers as a sort of escape route. The fact of his joining the communist party provides contemporary corroboration.

Others referred in similar terms to libraries and librarians, often explicitly counterposed to the class and gender barriers of the schoolroom or the absence or inequity of such opportunities within the home environment. Florence Keyworth was one of three children born into a respectable Sheffield household in 1919. Her father, a railway clerk of modest means, exhibited the classic traits of status anxiety in a predominantly working-class environment:

We didn’t think of ourselves as working class. My father used to set off for work every day wearing a bowler hat and a stiff collar; so we were not working class, and there was a certain snobbishness.

Though indifferent to books themselves, through this snobbishness or aspirationalism Keyworth’s mother, in particular, was determined on her sons going to university. ‘Look at the big lad still going to school,’ observed one neighbour, whose notions of status owed little to middle exemplars. Both boys made good, but the same ambition was not extended to their sister: ‘I was a girl, so, you know, girls didn’t go to university.’

Until recently these were neglected themes in a mobility literature preoccupied with male career patterns. As already noted, the performance by women of lower status jobs was even set aside as a form of ‘promotion’. Quite apart from their tendentious character, such approaches suggest the inability of conventional frameworks to accommodate the transformation of expectations as notions of one’s social or sexual station came under challenge. Guided by traditional female career patterns, Keyworth’s parents were doing their best for her by their own lights in supporting her through secondary school. Like Friell, however, her horizons were expanded by the local public library, itself part of the intergenerational legacy of a labour movement by this time exercising unbroken municipal authority:

Another good thing the Sheffield council did, they had … a wonderful central library which was new in my day and I used to spend hours in this place. It was there that I began reading, very voraciously actually. … Shaw and Russell I remember particularly.

Here a post-war spirit of reform, channelled through a pioneering Labour authority, displaced the niggardly civic philistinism which, as in the case of Keyworth’s parents, had seen in books and libraries ‘little … to do with “getting on”‘. With Keyworth, as with Friell, one must recognize how recollections were shaped by later influences, in this case second-wave feminism. It is also true that female communist recruits were even less ‘typical’ of a wider population than male communists: that they include only two of the ten individuals discussed here mirrors their representation within the party itself. Nevertheless, mobility of personality and of personal expectations was clearly an issue of much wider potential significance, and can equally be traced in recollections of the workplace and career paths.

Promotion and Frustration: Experiences of White-Collar Work

Like Hall at technical school, Friell at the lawyer’s office was taking his first step on the mobility ladder. As he returned each night to his ‘deadbeat’ dad and dependent siblings, the ideology of the beckoning career nevertheless failed to work its magic. Certainly he recalled little sense of work as opportunity, but on the contrary felt trapped, disorientated, ‘buggered’. ‘You couldn’t ask your parents’ advice because they had no knowledge of the world. My mother thought it’d be nice to get a job in a bank because they start at ten and finish at three!’ Friell’s, however, was the mobile personality of a more intercommunicative, less deferential society. Miles suggests that the ubiquitous invocation of origins and parenthood in autobiographies shows how achievements were consciously or subconsciously ‘indexed’ by reference to intergenerational criteria. Analogous reminders of national or ethnic origin, for example of the Irish diaspora or the emancipated African-American, suggest that the remembrance of origins could equally sustain collective identities rooted in a consciousness of past or continuing oppression. Certainly in its social aspects, the sense of origins as a source of values, location and identity need not imply that these were also the yardstick by which to measure success. Friell’s father was anything but such a yardstick.

There were eight people there, and you’re not some village labourer or something—you can see what it’s all about. You can read the papers, you can read books. What used to strike me was the way you went to the cinema and they’d put out bloody newsreels of the debutantes’ parties, of the gay young things in London having a lark. You’d always newsreels on the twelfth of July of these buggers. They gave you all this, and you sat there with your arse out of your trousers and you’d paid your thruppence and after some Tom Mix or something they gave you a quarter of an hour of this crap. Bloody marvellous!

As Friell secured an art-school place before taking the well-trodden path to London, it was his sense of injustice at ‘the most cruel and callous age one could imagine’ which provided the stable point of reference.

Removed from the political culture and leadership roles of organized labour, but without achieving the status of the professional worker, circumscribed mobility could provide the sharpest sense of grievance. Born in Middlesbrough in 1916, Dave Marshall’s frustration in work extended over a quarter of a century. In 1935 he had joined a thriving, predominantly Jewish YCL section providing a channel for cultural and political energies frustrated in the world of work. ‘In those days’, another recruit recalled:

you were up against an economic brick wall, I don’t think I can describe the sense of frustration. In the YCL there were people who would have gone up to Oxford or Cambridge, very clever people, and … the parents thought it was marvellous if they got a clerking job in Dorman Long’s.

Again, mobility of expectation is clear. Marshall’s mother was a former domestic servant and ‘red-hot Labour’ supporter, and his father a goods guard and trade unionist. Both had left school early and hankered for a better education for their children.

You know they say your parents always fuck you up, it’s all bollocks isn’t it, because all they wanted was for us to get an indoor job with a pension …

Though Marshall gained a scholarship, formal education again figured less in his recollections than Middlesbrough’s Carnegie Library, where he became ‘besotted’ with poetry and adventure literature. ‘Completely bookish’, he dreamt of university but found a job instead at the local labour exchange. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he recalled. ‘It was a place of horror’:

I hated the civil service. I was in it until I was forty-six, couldn’t get out. … The number of unemployed was dreadful, and of course, they were introducing the Means Test. It was terrible … and really I couldn’t take that, because life didn’t match what I’d read, all my readings had bugger all to do with day-to-day living. … I was wretched, and I hated the work. …We were an intake of several young people, against the old codgers who’d been there for years … and some of them were absolute bastards with these blokes, ordering them about.

Temporary escape took a dramatic form. In 1936, at the age of twenty, Marshall was one of the first Britons to join the International Brigade and was wounded in the defence of Madrid. Returning to his desk, he enrolled for extra-mural classes and wrote plays for the local Unity Theatre group before finally breaking free in 1962, when he moved to London to work as a joiner in Joan Greenwood’s Theatre Workshop. Twenty years later he attended a reunion of Middlesbrough YCLers who had all in some way achieved a higher or simply different scale of mobility.

Citing Wells’s Kipps, McKibbin observes that the lower grades of clerical and distributive work were not only ‘socially marginal’ but also deeply alienated from their work. By the criteria of usefulness and self-worth, much of the salariat ranked near the bottom of the occupational status hierarchy, an evaluation reinforced by the mid-twentieth-century ascendancy of the labour movement. In the words of the Fabians’ fraternal delegate to the 1936 YCL congress, ‘clerical youth’ was not only subjected to the pressures of mechanization and ‘blind alley job occupations’, but also ‘brought up never to have any initiative or authority and never to have any confidence in themselves’. This cannot be separated, however, from the culture or rationale of different employment situations. Born in Leeds in 1920 and beginning work as a clerk in a local soap works, Geoff Hodgson was ‘very much exposed to the factory’, including older socialist workmates who persuaded him that school learning was ‘bunkum’. Moving to the City Housing Department in 1937, Hodgson continued to occupy a junior position but came to identify strongly with the ‘very positive, progressive atmosphere’ he encountered there:

It was a progressive environment in many ways because people were involved in the wonderful developments in housing in Leeds: getting down the slums … and building almost revolutionary housing developments like Quarry Hill flats.

Discernible here is a radical variation on the theme of ‘borrowed’ prestige, whether borrowed from the status of company or customer, in conventional manifestations, or from a sense of social meaning and purpose, in more radical ones. The clearest example of the phenomenon, as we shall see, was employment for communist or other labour movement bodies. However, it also brought an individual or collective sense of worth to a range of other employments, and to the expert, scribe and artist one might add a further category of mentors, physical and spiritual, encompassing the welfare professions and enjoying a prestige of social purpose which exercised a strong career attraction for communists.

If prestige could be borrowed, so too could a lack of worth or dignity. Marshall’s employment in the labour exchange was one example. Others felt the stigma of commercialism. Having taken up a clerical position on a local evening paper, with the wartime call-up of male colleagues Florence Keyworth transferred to an editorial position. While she certainly experienced this as promotion and the fulfilment of an ambition, she also described her dismay at the work’s ‘sleazy’ character:

One of the things I was expected to do was to write articles to go with full-page advertisements for furniture and clothes and so on, and I hated that. It was like advertising copy really.

Literacy, the library and a democratic political culture again made for mobility of judgement. On the evidence of the Manchester project, the outstanding literary influence on communists of this generation was Bernard Shaw. In particular, Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, originally published in 1928, reprinted as the first Pelican and read in this edition by Keyworth, provided a rationalist primer for a generation whose iconoclasm extended both to gender inequalities and a culture of advertisement which it denounced with Shavian zest.

There was no shortage of such writers that one could read in cheap editions. Born in south London in 1912, Stan Robertson actually did produce advertising copy for his first employer. Robertson’s father, a compositor and father of the chapel, had wanted him to follow in his own footsteps, but this time it was his mother who ‘put her foot down’ against a factory apprenticeship. Grammar school, on the other hand, was for those who could afford it or ‘the occasional genius’. Stan therefore began work at a local electrical goods manufacturer and jumped at the opportunity to take responsibility for commercial publicity until falling in with a bookish communist in the office. Taking up socialist authors—’everything of Shaw I could lay my hands on’—Bloomsbury novels, the Old Vic theatre and trips to the British Museum, all of this could not but leave its traces when Stan attended a first course on advertising techniques. ‘English trousers filled with English air for Englishmen’ was his concluding assignment, declaimed to the rapture of his fellow-students. ‘The seat that rules the office rocks the world.’ The source was a whimsical campaign for pneumatic ‘small-clothes’ in Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay (1923). Perhaps he also registered Huxley’s dismissal of such employments as ‘dull and cretinizing’, for he departed his job in resentment at his employer’s arbitrary paternalism. Antic Hay might again have supplied the model; but Robertson, unlike both Huxley and his hero, lacked a well-heeled father and independent income to fall back on. Unemployment and the humiliation of door-to-door salesmanship followed. By the time he got into the Fircroft working men’s college in Birmingham some years later, he was already a communist.

The Movement as Career

‘Harry, get thy feet under t’ table like J. H. Thomas and that crowd. They’ve found out which side their bread’s buttered on.’ The irony was that Pollitt himself clocked up nearly thirty years as a full-time party functionary and suggestions were not lacking that he too knew how to keep his bread nicely buttered. Already Michels had written of how labour movement functionaries like Thomas seemed each to have effected their own personal social revolution. That the communist party also provided a form of career mobility was likened by the French historian Annie Kriegel to ‘the upward movement of the elite in a mobile society’, while Brigitte Studer in her work on Switzerland has suggested that not just factory workers but also white-collar and even marginalized professional workers could experience such employment as a form of social ascent.

That ostensibly horizontal or downward movements can be described in this way merely confirms that no single scale of values can accommodate so contested a phenomenon. Irrespective of the roles assumed within them, communist parties provided an outlet for thwarted cultural and educational ambitions. Hierarchically organized though they were, within these parties conventional status distinctions were to some extent neutralized, attenuated, even inverted. For an East London scholarship boy like Stanley Forman, the YCL meant the chance to attend lectures by nationally renowned intellectuals and mix with them as ‘comrades’. For Charlie Hall, when his father uprooted to Essex, it meant the possibility of employment in the literary-political environment of the CPGB’s Workers’ Bookshop. These were distinctly metropolitan experiences, with the ‘Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School’ in Clerkenwell a sort of meeting place between Bloomsbury and London’s East End. But in Sheffield, conversely, communist miners impressed Florence Keyworth with a level of knowledge and understanding unparalleled by those on her parents’ ostensibly higher rung of the social ladder.

Within this party environment, individual ambitions could be realized without precluding a sense of collective identity, indeed through what some historians have delineated as a stalinist project of ‘work on the self’. By the late 1930s, the wages and security of a communist worker may not have compared so favourably with other available occupations. Status, on the contrary, was derived from the rejection of conventional emoluments as both a mark of distinction and a guarantee that one had not left the working class. The cult of the prisoner and the remarkable number of young Britons who fought in Spain attest to the potency of these ideas. More prosaically, Friell recalled how drawing a ‘bus driver’s wage’ on the Daily Worker earned not the scorn but the respect of Fleet Street colleagues. Joining him on the Worker after a spell as a temporary civil servant, Keyworth underlined how its less constrictive roles contributed to the fulfilment of personal aspirations:

because if I’d stayed in journalism … [and] gone back to my old job in Sheffield, women in those days were not allowed to do any really serious journalism, unless they were very very outstanding or in special circumstances. You were expected to write about fashions and cooking and all the rest of it, and I knew I didn’t want to do that.

This was not just a question of ascent: one of Keyworth’s female colleagues found on leaving the Worker that the same restrictive practices prevailed even on The Times. Within the alternative value-system of the left, politically responsible employment thus involved accruals of status which were especially conspicuous in the case of women activists who were otherwise denied it. Keyworth, for example, recalled vividly her embarrassment on being invited into mining homes and finding that she was accepted by miners as a ‘distinguished personage’, as representing the party paper, while their own womenfolk were expected to carry on in more supportive domestic roles.

Attitudes to party officials were nevertheless more complex than the simple idea of promotion conveys. Ambivalence about bureaucracy remained, partly deriving from syndicalist ideas of the primacy of production over parasitical secondary occupations. Politically, this primary role was performed by the activist or mass worker, and within the bureaucratized environment of the early communist party there was no more stinging epithet than party ‘clerk’ or ‘office boy’. Pollitt, ironically, achieved a sort of kudos when in 1939-41 he was ‘sacked’ as general secretary for his independent-mindedness, self-consciously evoking the image of the time-served worker unbeholden to any employer. Until the anglicization of nomenclature in the 1940s, area and district functionaries were usually described as ‘organizer’, not as ‘secretary’; their task was not ‘the clerical work of maintaining records’, but to ‘initiate activities’ and ‘build up organization’, as if the operatives of the revolution. Into the 1950s and beyond, employment in the party apparatus could mean the reconciliation of personal values and work experience, in which exiguous wages took the place of chronic insecurity as a mark of commitment. Eventually, however, diminishing confidence in the agency of the party was reflected in its functionaries’ declining prestige. Membership stagnation meant relentless financial pressure which corroded the sense of a higher purpose, while more fruitful and even more purposive openings could now be found in industry or the professions. Jimmy Oates, born in 1927, was a fervent YCLer who, after working in a shipyard, found himself demoralized as a YCL full-timer by having to raise his own wages through humiliating expedients like a football sweep. Like many communists, providing a membership density some ten times that of the population as a whole, he found in the post-war teaching profession the more ‘worthwhile’ and ‘useful’ job for which he had hankered.

Like others too, Oates’s political energies became channelled into his trade union. Communists and other left-wingers had a strong presence within clerical, technical and professional workers’ unions, notably including the teaching unions. Nationally prominent examples include figures like the white-collar workers’ leader Clive Jenkins and the teachers’ union president Max Morris. Of the individuals discussed here, only Friell and Keyworth, whose employment allowed direct expression of their commitments, were not active in this way. Marshall and Hodgson were active at branch or district level of their unions, while Forman was a sometime paid organizer for the Civil Servants’ Union. Hymie Frankel, another recruit from the Jewish East End, held organizers’ positions in both the National Union of Bank Employees, whose executive was dominated by undercover communists, and the Association of Professional Scientists. In the USA, where there was also disproportionate communist influence within white-collar unions, Mills ascribed it to the petty-bourgeois mentality of the party itself. Published at the height of McCarthyism, the statement is impossible to reconcile with Mills’s wider characterization of a sector comprising ‘new little Machiavellians’ who sold smiles and personalities while repressing all hint of resentment.

Conflicting images suggest instead the possibility at once of the radicalization of a minority and a wider acceptance of conventional tenets of improvement. In respect of white-collar unions the distinction between radicalized leading cadre and conservative or instrumental membership—’40,000 Conservatives run by half-a-dozen Clive Jenkinses’—has repeatedly been made. Stanley Forman conceded that the Civil Servants’ Union was ‘one of those … where all the communists were in the head office and the membership had hardly heard of socialism’. Rather than a stronger or better articulated version of a general class or occupational outlook, attitudes of a self-consciously political minority may have been distinctive, not just in degree, but in basic character. When the ‘poetic blacksmith’ Alfred Williams published his classic of alienation, Life in a Railway Factory, some wondered how far his ‘superior’ sensibilities really represented those of his workmates. ‘Those who have what might be called the creative type of mind … are apt to imagine that all other minds are similarly restless’, Henry Ford argued in similar vein. One must at least allow such a possibility in the case of those whose restlessness took political forms. Charlie Hall described the ‘leading elements’ of his father’s generation as ‘worker-intellectuals’ who in later years would have been ‘creamed off’ by the universities. To the extent that this creaming off coincided with a decline in work and community-based activist cultures, the deradicalizing effect of mobility is apparently confirmed; not, however, through ‘mongrelization’, but through the removal of an activist layer whose talents and frustrations were crucial to the viability of oppositional movements.

No claim is therefore made for the typicality of the communists and those who in this respect resembled them. Rather, as class formation and its unravelling come to be understood as project as much as process, the significance of radical minorities in formulating such a project can be reaffirmed without having to assume their perfectly representative character. Sombart would have described this as the ‘genetic’ (or ‘dynamic’) method, identifying formative roles and influences which the ‘statistical’ method failed to register. As Cole again put it, there were ‘politically minded individuals everywhere’, in the unions most of all, even if confined to a ‘small minority’. Whether in his own or others’ work, Sombart’s example of the Jewish role in the development of modern commerce is suggestive of the dangers of such a method. On the other hand, while a traditional quantitative study like Bain’s Growth of White-Collar Unionism shows little appreciation of the role of minorities in implanting or sustaining trade unionism, victimizing employers did not make the same mistake; nor indeed did the security services, or the union recruiters whose first requirement was a contact in the workplace. As analysts of trade unionism challenge the literature’s ‘structural determinist bias’ with a new sensitivity to values and career histories, movements of the atypical can be integrated into the study of wider social processes. Noting the absence in Britain of any viable concept of the Mittelstand or classes moyennes, Crossick and Haupt observed how small proprietors were all the more easily assimilated into the idea of a ‘larger middle class’. On the other hand, because in Britain (like the USA) boundaries between workers and salariat were more fluid than in a country like Germany, the possibility could also be entertained, as in the rhetoric of proletarianization, of their assimilation into a larger working class. Rather than seeing these as alternative meta-narratives, or reducing them to a series of structural determinants, these may again be seen as normative and political choices involving conflicting notions of mobility.

Communism, like the wider labour movement, was therefore a vehicle for a form of mobility that was at once self-conscious and yet could be explicitly contrasted with more conventional destinations. Hymie Frankel and Stanley Forman, both from Stepney and born within three years of each other, offered strikingly similar reflections:

What would I have been without the Communist Party? A tuppenny-ha’penny teacher somewhere. But I’ve written two books and I’ve done, without false modesty, very good trade union work. I’m proud of that. (Frankel).

Only God knows what I might have become had I not found the party … I would have been a predictable, lower-middle-class Jewish bloke, perhaps running a little department in Marks & Spencer, or perhaps getting a little certificate in teaching primitive things. (Forman).

Not every communist shared this valuation of the tuppenny-ha’penny teacher. What was common to most of them, however, was the sense of self-worth and the ranking of occupational prestige according to its commensurateness with the culture of self- as well as collective betterment they identified with communism. ‘The party … made me into the person I was,’ Hodgson put it, more strongly than usual, but otherwise not untypically. ‘I owe my life to the party, I’m sure about that. I owe my existence to the party.’

Reflection: Mobility and Radicalization

Writing in 1950, Cole noted that ‘[i]n modern fluid societies … it is commoner now than ever before … not only for the family to be made up of varying class elements, but also for individuals to shift from class to class on their way through life’. The following year, the Labour Party in Britain achieved its highest ever popular vote. The year after that it attained its highest individual membership, a figure, like the CPGB’s, three times or more than that achieved at the height of the slump. Of course, there was no simple explanation for this. Viewed in a wider perspective, it is nevertheless striking that fluidity, whatever its effects on more solidaristic cultures, seems if anything to have encouraged the radical forms of engagement on which oppositional movements have crucially depended.

It is in this sense that mobility emerges as a significant factor in the radicalization of British communists. In a complex society, achievement and success were defined in diverse, often conflicting ways deriving from multiple points of reference. In a pluralist society, these points of reference included competing discourses of opportunity and social value that were articulated in political terms. In a changing society, aspiration was not something merely fulfilled or denied, but could be continuously recalibrated through unsettlements of culture, experience and association. Few would find such statements controversial. Nevertheless, they are impossible to reconcile with a single, ideological conception of mobility typically measured according to fixed temporal reference points. Mobility scholars were right to note that advancement along this scale did not always produce satisfaction. What they did not adequately recognize was that dissatisfaction did not simply represent strivings up a single hierarchy, and that the experience of mobility itself could prove conducive to radicalism through the exposure to different conceptions of status and social worth. Left-wing parties and the labour movement provided opportunities for ‘achievement’, whether within or beyond the workplace, as well as reflecting a sense of blockage and frustration that was consistent with mobility—in its conventional sense—as well as with its absence. Miles and Vincent make the point that it is not mobility for its own sake that invites investigation, but its wider social and political implications. It is for this reason that mobility in a broader sense, as the pursuit and perceived attainment of human betterment, provides a key to the better understanding of groups like the British communists, just as they provide a possible key to the better understanding of mobility itself.