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Edward Upward: The Rotten Elements

This is is the second book in Upward’s The Spiral Ascent trilogy and continues the story of Alan and Elsie Sebrill a few years after the first one. When it was first published this book was subtitled A Novel of Fact because one of its aims was to give an historically accurate picture of policies and attitudes in the British Communist Party during the late 1940s. The phrase rotten elements was sometimes used in the party to refer to members who deviated seriously from the correct party line.

The previous novel ended as World War II was starting. This one starts some time after the end of the war. Elsie and Alan are happily married with two children, a boy and a girl. Both are committed members of the Communist Party and Elsie is the branch secretary of the local party. However, there is a problem. Both – but Elsie in particular – feel that the Party is deviating from the correct Marxist-Leninist line. This issue, and its ramifications, will be the key theme of this novel.

The second theme is Alan’s poetry. Upward struggled with his poetry, not least because he considered himself first and foremost a poet rather than a novelist. However, little of his poetry was ever published. Alan has the same problem. He wants to write poetry, be a poet, but firstly he finds it difficult to reconcile his poetical impulses with his commitment to the Party and its views. Secondly, he does not really have time to devote to poetry. As a father of two children, with a full-time job as a teacher and a committed Communist, there is little time to spare. Moreover, he feels that any time spent on poetry is detracting from his commitment to the Party and its cause.

Alan and Elsie raise the issue of the Party in Britain deviating from the true Marxist-Leninist path. There are several doctrinal issues here but two are key. Lenin had always maintained that true communism could only be obtained by the violent overthrow of capitalism, imperialism and the bourgeois state. The British party clearly seems to be deviating from this view. Related to this is the attitude to the Labour Party (which, at the time this novel takes place, was the governing party in Britain). The view of the Sebrills is that the Labour party is a bourgeois, imperialist party and must be overthrown to bring about true revolution. The British Communist Party line seems to be that it is merely one stage on the way to communism and that the party can collaborate with it, if it and they are moving to a more socialist system.

Initially, they discuss the issue with a man who is known to be a good theoretician for the party. He essentially puts them down and tells them to follow the party line. He also tells them to wait for a book called Britain’s Way Forward by Jimmy McNarney, a party member. The book does come out and they are convinced that it is a betrayal of Lenin’s ideals. Elsie, as branch secretary, refuses to sell the book in her branch. Much of the rest of the book is about the consequences of her decision and the views of the Sebrills.

Initially, someone is sent down from Head Office to question the decision. There is a discussion within the branch and, to their surprise, most people, even those they thought might support them, oppose them. I thought she was splitting hairs. It was an exercise in scholasticism. And she seemed to have forgotten that Marxism is above all a method – not a body of unalterable doctrine, comments one party member on Elsie’s speech. Things change when the Australian Communist Party publishes an article in its magazine condemning the British Communist Party for revisionism and essentially agreeing with the Sebrills’ take. Others then take their side.

However, the central party are not going to take kindly to opposition from the rank and file and they react strongly and firmly. We know the result for the Upwards and it is the same for the Sebrills.

Towards the end, Alan is spending more time on his poetry and even has an interesting discussion with a party member on the role of literature in communism and in forwarding the revolution.

There is one final theme. What is the right, Communist way to bring up children. A lot of it is, of course, common sense and applies to communists and non-communists. However, the Sebrills do discuss issues of morality and teaching children to follow the communist way.

Much of the discussion about communism seems to us arcane and/or irrelevant. As people in the book admit, a violent revolution in Britain did not seem likely then and still does not. Moreover, some of the arguments do seem like splitting hairs. Upward and his wife were and remained committed communists, even if, at the end of the book, after the death of Stalin, Alan starts questioning, for the first time, what happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. However, we know now, as many people did then, that communism and the Communist Party were and are virtually irrelevant to domestic British politics.

Despite this, I still find it very interesting that we have a novel, which reads well, does not cover the usual topics of novels, such as love and romance, the learning curve of the hero, finding oneself and so on, and deals with topics which however irrelevant and arcane, are still interesting to read about.

Copies of this book and the other two books in the trilogy can be obtained in epub/azw/mobi/pdf format from this site.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Heinemann