I was sad to hear of the death of Ruth Frow. She and her husband Eddie were celebrated Manchester figures. Their obsession with labour history and collecting books led them to found the Working Class Movement Library, an astonishing achievement and a wonderful resource. The library was originally kept in every room of their house in King's Road and was extraordinary to visit. Even their bedroom was filled with bookshelves, with their bed sitting in the middle of the floor. The only spare wall space was taken up with a frame, veiled against sunlight, containing a rare silk scarf depicting the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, originally sold for the relief of the victims. Spanish Civil War banners hung over the bannisters. When age caught up with them, Salford City Council offered to maintain the collection just as the Frows wanted; open to the public rather than buried in a university library.
I used to take adult education students there on annual visits and once did some work myself amongst their papers. Ruth and Eddie were unceasingly kind, patient and helpful, and were even willing to share a frugal lunch. And, as the Guardian obituary makes clear, they were members of the Communist Party. They were members through the Stalin years, through the invasion of Hungary, through the crushing of the Prague Spring; loyal members. At this point Oliver Kamm would be reaching for his worst epithets and calling them the moral equivalent of fascists. Yes, they were "fellow travellers" with Stalinism, yet these bookish people were a million miles away from the horror of the gulags and their hatred of oppression was palpable.
What this says to me is that, though totalitarian theory is an immensely useful tool for analysing types of regimes, ideologies and movements, it does not tell you much about the people who become involved unless you look at the aims and ideals that the movement purports to advance.
I can assure you that I would not have been comfortable in the company of fascists. Fascism celebrates violence, hatred and racism. Fascists also like to practice all three. Communists like Ruth and Eddie thought they were a part of a movement that would bring peace, justice and harmony; one that would end violence, hatred and racism. It is a big difference. They mistook the declaratory purpose for the reality and either blinded themselves to that reality or saw it as an aberration that could be reformed and the ideal restored. This didn't make them bad people. Others set out not only to apologise for Stalinism but to also falsify reality in full knowledge of their deceit and dishonesty. They are the villains of the piece. They are the ones that Orwell coruscates in Homage to Catalonia.
Orwell is back in fashion these days, and rightly so. However, when I read Animal Farm I do not read a book that is anti-revolution or anti-socialist. It is a bitter book about socialism betrayed. The one moment of happiness allowed to the animals is the moment of success when the humans are overthrown and they take over the farm. The tragedy is in the way they lose their freedom once more. Central to the book is the fortitude and dedication of Boxer. The exploitation of his loyalty and his continuing faith do not make him any the less admirable. He is a noble figure and that very nobility makes the cynical brutality of his betrayal even more tear-jerkingly poignant. Before we pass judgement we need to know the difference between horses and pigs.
Whatever their political commitment, the Frows have left a wonderful legacy; a place where people can go and read a collection of more than two centuries of books, pamphlets and journalism. You can read of the victories and defeats, but also of the errors, follies and tragedies, of the movement for working class emancipation. Visit if you can and support it.