Tom Wintringham: Revolutionary Patriot: Hugh Purcell Tells the Story of the Man Who Inspired the Home Guard, Taught It Guerrilla Warfare and Paid a Price for His Political Beliefs
Purcell, Hugh, History Today
IN THE SUMMER OF 1940, after the Low Countries and France had surrendered in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg and the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk, Britons awaited their fate, sure that Hitler would order an invasion across the Channel. Prime Minister Winston Churchill roused the nation with BBC broadcasts of stirring defiance that were listened to by two out of every three adults. He was followed on the airwaves by the writer J.B. Priestley, whose homely Yorkshire voice extolling the British way of life was listened to by one out of three adults. Then there was Tom Wintringham with his huge readership of several million from weekly articles in the Picture Post and Daily Mirror; his BBC talks, his columns in Tribune and the New Statesman and his popular books New Ways of War and Armies of Freemen that together sold well over 100,000 copies in a few months. If Churchill's patriotic oratory called to mind an aged Henry V and Priestley was compared to that 'honester and true-hearted man Falstatt", then Wintringham's persona was his hero, the Leveller John Lilburne. He called the nation to arms with his slogan in the Daily Mirror 'An Aroused People, An Angry People, An Armed People', and, in New Ways of War, he pledged an equal sacrifice for a better Britain:
Knowing that science and the riches of the earth make possible an abundance of material things for all, and trusting our fellows and ourselves to achieve that abundance after we have won, we are willing to throw everything we now possess into the common lot, to win this fight. We will allow no personal considerations of rights, privileges, property, income, family or friendship to stand in our way. Whatever the future may hold we will continue our war for liberty.
Few people today know of Tom Wintringham (1898-1949), though he does exist as a footnote in standard British histories of the first half of the twentieth century. He is mentioned first as one of the Communist leaders imprisoned for 'sedition' before the General Strike of 1926. Then he is identified, and rightly so, as a pioneer of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and the commander of the British Battalion in the blood-drenched Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
Histories of the Second World War call him the 'the inspirer' of the Home Guard in 1940 and finally the 'co-founder of Common Wealth', the political party that won over 100,000 votes in the 1945 General Election.
Now he is about to receive his proper due. In the newly published Dictionary of National Biography he makes his entry as 'a uniquely English revolutionary' and in my own biography I call him 'the last English revolutionary'. I hope this will elevate him from a footnote to the main text of British history. He was a remarkable man of ideas; the foremost Marxist expert on warfare, a published poet, a brilliant propagandist and the author of one of the few works of literature to come out of the Spanish Civil war in English, English Captain. He was also a man of action who believed that few things in life could be achieved unless you were prepared to fight for them. This he did, as revolutionary, soldier and politician. Above all, and despite an absent-minded professorial air, he had the rare skill of inventing organisations that worked: 'people's armies', a political party, a national daily newspaper the Daily Worker (which he set up in 1930). That unstable summer of 1940, when invasion, surrender and resistance seemed a likely scenario, was his own 'finest hour'.
In October 1937 Wintringham had been invalided home from Spain. Though still a Marxist he was disillusioned with the British Communist Party (CPGB) because of its subservience to Stalin's foreign policy. in June 1938 he was expelled from the Party for refusing to leave his lover whom he later married, the American journalist Kitty Bowler. She had been found guilty in Spain of being a Trotskyite spy, a travesty of the truth but a familiar verdict at the height of Stalin's reign of terror. …