The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham by Hugh Purcell with Phyll Smith: Book Review

Red Lester 

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This biography is an account of the life of a man who now seems to have been forgotten but who lived an eventful and varied life in the first part of the twentieth century. I first came across Tom Wintringham as the inspiration for the character of Spud Wilson in the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Wintringham was the original of this character, a believer in and teacher of ‘ungentlemanly warfare’, but this was just one aspect of this man; a World War 1 veteran, early member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), co-founder of Left Review, International Brigade member, author of anthologised poetry, Picture Post journalist, guerrilla warfare tutor and founder of the Common Wealth political party.  It is a portrait of a man who seemed not to have fitted in. Having been thought to be a bourgeois when a member of the Communist Party, once he had been expelled from the party, he was suspected by the establishment because he had never officially renounced his political loyalties.

His rebellious nature showed itself from his time in the Royal Flying Corps when he was charged with mutiny. This period of his life was also significant because he got to know and admire many soldiers from far less privileged backgrounds than his own, which led him to read the works of Marx and Engels and embrace the Marxist political beliefs he held for the rest of his life. During his service in the First World War he also became fascinated by military strategy, an area of expertise that he was to use in the International Brigade and at the Guerrilla Warfare School at Osterley Park where he taught many Home Guard members in 1940.

This is an updated version of a 2004 book of the same name. It has been enlarged by material from once secret MI5 files held at the National Archive and secondary research by Phyll Smith who has gathered together details of many books in which Wintringham is mentioned. The MI5 files reveal that as a visitor to Russia in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution and a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Tom Wintringham was definitely considered a security risk. In fact he was prosecuted for and found guilty of sedition along with other leading members of the CPGB. He was offered the choice of leaving the Party or six months in prison and chose to be jailed.

In the early thirties, Wintringham began writing pamphlets on military theory for the CPGB. Then, after co-founding the Left Review, a journal of Marxist literary theory sponsored by the Communist Party, Wintringham became the military correspondent for the Daily Worker. He then decided to go to Spain to fight with the Republicans. This appears to have been a formative period of his life. He wrote two of his best known works ‘English Captain’ and ‘New Ways of War’, taught and became an acknowledged expert in guerrilla warfare and met the woman who would become his second wife, Kitty Bowler. This meeting also led to his eventual expulsion from the Communist Party when he refused to give her up although she was suspected by the Party hierarchy of being a Trotskyist spy.

Once back in England, Wintringham became a journalist for Picture Post, and gave some talks on the BBC. On the outbreak of war, the authors point out that for possibly the first time in his life, his views matched those of the British people. He called himself a revolutionary patriot, and argued that for the masses to be prepared to die for the defence of their country, their country should be worth dying for. This mood led to a quarter of a million men volunteering to join the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) within one day of a call being made in 1940. Once again his view of the nature of this force disagreed with that of the establishment; he wanted a guerrilla army, rather than a special constabulary armed with shotguns.

Despite the popularity of his view and the success of his course at Osterley Park (5,000 men were trained in three months), Wintringham was felt to be a threat. Because of his Communist background, there were suspicions about what an irregular army trained as guerrillas might do. There were still suspicions that a government overthrow might be planned. Therefore, Wintringham was marginalised, and although Home Guard training still took place, its content was greatly toned down. Tom resigned as an instructor and did not even apply to join the Home Guard himself.

Wintringham’s next venture was as a co-founder of Common Wealth, a socialist party which rejected Labour’s state-based socialism and advocated a cooperative approach. This existed as a political party from 1942-1946, and Tom stood as a candidate for the party in a by-election narrowly losing to the Conservative candidate. After the end of the war, he had hopes of leading a volunteer peacekeeping force in Palestine, which came to nothing; perhaps his Communist history counted against him. Wintringham died at the early age of 51 in 1949. Considering his high profile only a few years before, this was barely mentioned in the press.

The authors do an excellent job of representing Tom Wintringham as a man unfairly forgotten since his death. He was not infallible; in retrospect, his views on the Soviet Union and Stalin seem extremely naïve. Also he was an inveterate womaniser, and in that way completely dissimilar to the Puritans of the seventeenth century he so admired. He may at times have struggled to reconcile his loyalty to the Communist party with his innate English nonconformism, but he remained true to his belief that action needed to be taken to bring about a Marxist revolution.

The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham, 1898-1949 by Hugh Purcell with Phyll Smith. Enlarged, revised and updated edition. Sussex Academic Press, 2012

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