A Moon Book Review: Fred Copeman - Reason in Revolt

The Author. 

This is the first Moon book review, and in true Moon style it is long out of print and very hard to get hold of due to being recommended by, occasional moonblogsfromsyb contributor, Paul Mason in the Guardian on 16 July. On that day you could get a second-hand copy for a few pounds, but it was soon unavailable, and now one or two are available for £20-30.

Sadly, you are not very likely to find it in Brexit Blighty's public libraries in this new age of austerity, but if you can get your hands on a copy, I would very much recommend it.

It is the memoir of a man born into a Suffolk workhouse and into a world of everyday violence.  He managed to gain a decent education and a way out by joining the Navy. He then fell into a life of political activism after he was forced out of the Navy for being one of the leaders of the Invergordon Mutiny

The catalyst for the strike/mutiny was the 25% pay cut imposed by the National Government - a coalition of Conservatives, Liberals and National Labour, a party formed from a split in the Labour party.

Once out of the Navy he did become an active member of the Communist Party and got involved with the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, organising pickets and demonstrations in London and was sent to jail twice. Then he volunteered for the Spanish Civil War and ended up becoming the Commander of the British Battalion. The political shenanigans that undermined the Republican cause in Spain, especially from the Russian-backed Communist Party, sowed the seeds of his disillusionment with The Party. This was noticed when he returned to Blighty, and he was sent on a trip to Russia in the hope that it would "re-educate" him, but it had the opposite effect. The Nazi-Soviet pact and a fist fight with a Party official he thought was trying to set him up were the final nails in the coffin of his association. By the time he came to write this biography in 1947, he made his views on Communism clear in the opening paragraph, reproduced here, along with the following extracts thanks to the wonder that is Microsoft's Office Lens:

"I feel myself forced to write this book for two compelling reasons. The first is that I can no longer avoid facing the fact that a political and ideological edifice which has been dear to me, and for which I, with thousands of others, have made great sacrifices, is built on feet of clay. Millions still look to Communism to answer the age-old strivings of the human race to a mode of life which ensures complete sufficiency for all, coupled with all the freedoms of the individual necessary to his happiness. It has failed to answer those strivings, and must always fail, for it to me is the very negation of freedom."

He was not everybody's cup of tea, and he regularly states that he was far from perfect himself.  He was born into an environment where violence was commonplace and when in Spain he was not averse to using his physical strength to get his way, with a belief that the end justified the means. He was said to be popular with most of his command, especially his fellow working class volunteers, but he did have a class and personality clash with Jason Gurney, a sculptor from Chelsea, who had this to say about him in his Civil War memoir:

"Fred Copeman, that great bull of a man, clearly visualized himself as a divinely-appointed leader by virtue of his immense strength - he had been a heavy-weight boxer in the Navy - although he was almost illiterate....he was more or less insane, giving completely inconsequential orders to everybody in sight, and offering to bash their faces in if they did not comply......He later wrote a book which is a farrago of nonsense and self-aggrandisement."

Although he did concede that he was brave stating he "was completely without physical fear and seemed almost entirely indifferent to physical injury".

His social views are also of his time, though more progressive than most. Here is an extract on life in the Navy, which also highlights his ability to say a great deal with few words:

"I stood beside him dressed in my brand new duck suit, obviously not knowing which end of the ship was front or back and attracted a lot of attention from the men. At first I put this down to my duck suit and inexperience. But this would not be an honest account if I did not at least allude to the ever-present problem set by life aboard ship. Every new intake of boys is eagerly looked at by many of the old sailors and the attractive ones carefully picked out. A sailor will often look after the boy he chooses almost as carefully as an old woman sees to her husband's needs, keeping him clean, caring for his clothes and doing everything for him. The percentage of corrupt or perverted-minded men is no higher in the Navy than anywhere else ; perhaps it is even smaller, but long months of life without feminine companionship may become intolerable for men who are physically very fit. The only solution of the problem is, first, honesty between friends, enabling them to get the better of their feelings, and, secondly, a proper standard of morality among officers, who can go far towards keeping a ship decent, if they choose."

And also on the Women volunteers fighting on the front:

"New units were now arriving at the front, and with these additions another problem arose—women. Among the Spanish volunteers it was the custom to accept girls, who actually took part in the fighting. Although in the heat of battle every rifle counts, inevitably during the lull problems arose. These girls started to drift out of the Spanish units and made their way to the French Battalion. Then three of them drifted into our sector. It was some days before either Jock or I got to know of their arrival, and then only because of the inevitable fight between two of our own men. It would be unfair to assume that these girls joined for any other purpose than serving the cause, but in spite of their sincerity, their presence in the line meant that complications were bound to arise. In the end, however, the common sense of the lads got the upper hand, and they were barred."

A Troublesome Woman

However, as Paul Mason pointed out, it is a book that is very relevant to today, as there are many parallels between the 30s and the Teenies - coalition government, recovery from a laissez-faire financial crises, austerity, a Tory party/media happy to appease xenophobia and disengage with the rest of Europe and form/support policies based on myth, a divided Labour party and a bloody and complex Civil War involving volunteers and multiple foreign powers, and most prominently Russia.

He also details attempts by the Communist party to gain as much control of the Trade Union Movement by any means necessary. Making use of procedure and rules to control committees in order to get round the will of the more traditional Labour rank and file members and undermine the Labour party leadership. This has parallels with Militant in the 80s and some see the same with Momentum today, but to me it is very similar only in reverse, as it is the establishment wing of the Labour party using procedure, rules and committees to block the will of the membership and undermine the Leadership.

In the 30s the Labour party was also in a state similar to today, only worse; it had split, had a hated former leader in Ramsey MacDonald and in 1931 it won just 52 seats with 30.6% of the vote. But one of the most remarkable parts of the book is on the visit of the Labour leader Clement Attlee and Ellen Wilkinson to Copeman's battalion in Spain:

"At about nine o'clock at night, as darkness was falling, the square at Mondijal was lined by the members of the British 16th and 50th and the American Washington and Lincoln battalions—some twelve to fifteen hundred men. Those in the rear were holding lighted torches. Clem Attlee and Ellen spoke from a cart, in simple, kind language, of the things that the British Labour Party were trying to do. The response was terrific. Carried away by the enthusiasm of the speeches, I asked Clem whether he would allow the battalion to be called after him, and he immediately agreed, declaring himself more than honoured. He was to meet considerable opposition on his return to England from the Tory Government over this incident. The lads were delighted when they read his reply in the English papers, some weeks later. "

The nearest comparison today would be if Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott visited Kobanî, where there are at least a handful of western volunteers and Women fighters fighting for the establishment of "a society based on principles of direct democracy, gender equality, and sustainability", but with very little support in their fight against the Fascist Deash from the outside world.

Although the Spanish Civil war was just as barbaric and dangerous as Syria today, such a trip would never be considered, but if it could happen it no doubt would "meet considerable opposition" as the Labour leader has in general from the establishment.

Attlee was  a leader who was also very disparaged and underestimated by the establishment and from within his own party. Aneurin Bevan called him an "arch-mediocrity"

Winston Churchill said he "is a very modest man. Indeed he has a lot to be modest about", but this was presumably said before his landslide defeat to the Attlee led Labour party in 1945.

Hopefully, it will not require World War Three for the UK to have some form of progressive government. The whole of the Labour party and especially the establishment wing,  just has to realise that what Brexit Blighty needs is not just another minority Labour government and that there is not a lot of point being the secondary party in a dysfunctional two-party state.

Fred Copeman came to believe in the need to work with those you have "more in common" with from his experience during the War. He played a "significant role in organising civilian protection against German air-raids in London"

This included giving lectures to the Royal Household and he ended up being awarded an OBE. 

He also converted to Roman Catholicism and became involved in the Moral Re-Armament movement. After the War he continued his involvement with the Trade Union movement and became a Labour Councillor in Lewisham. He married Kitty in 1938 and they had four children. He died in 1983.

Trending on The Moon

Moonblogsfromsyb