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The Truth about the Redgraves and the 60s Left

Ronald Radosh

There is no better précis of how the Left thinks about the world, and acts on it, than the British journalist Nick Cohen’s article appearing in the new issue of Standpoint. Cohen writes a candid appraisal of what left-wing politics did to the mind and life of the late actor Corin Redgrave, brother of the more famous Vanessa, who like her brother, is a lifetime member of a small fanatic Trotskyist sect, the Workers Revolutionary Party, led by a man named Gerry Healy. The group was so fanatic that it accused Trotsky’s American followers of having been responsible for his murder in Mexico, ignoring all the evidence that it was an NKVD operation orchestrated by Joseph Stalin.

As Cohen notes, all the Redgraves are good actors. Vanessa could, while she denounced Israel and praised Palestinian terrorists, at the same time appear on American television as a Jewish concentration camp victim in a Holocaust drama. I used to say, when people asked for my position on the blacklist of the 1950s, that I despise Vanessa Redgrave’s politics, but would go at a minute’s notice to see her perform in a Broadway play. I praised her acting ability, and her prowess as an actor did not make me pay an ounce of attention to her political harangues.

This, of course, is not how the British media (so similar to the American media in this regard) dealt with her brother’s politics after his recent death. All the usual sources praised Redgrave as a man who fought “injustice and oppression,” and who tried “to make a better world.” That is certainly the case, if by a better world one means the regimented police states so favored by Marxist-Leninist regimes, to which Redgrave devoted his life.

As Cohen reveals, the truth is that both Vanessa and Corin “spent their adult lives serving a repellent totalitarian party led by a rapist and a friend not of ‘human rights’ and ‘justice’, as Radio 4 pretended, but of dictatorship and terror.” Cohen paints a picture of the paranoia that surrounded the Trotskyist party’s headquarters in Clapham, and the leader’s admonition that all members “had to cut off all ties with everyone except the chosen few.”

Cohen cites the reality told by Corin’s first wife, Deirdre, who had the presence of mind to divorce the actor and raise her children in a normal fashion, rather than submit to the entreaties of the party militants. As Cohen puts it, she said that her husband was “wasting his time and being taken for a fool.” But Corin Redgrave, like Vanessa, seemed incapable of leaving what in essence was a cult. As Cohen perceptively writes:

The marriage broke up because no cult can tolerate a member with a wife on the outside gently pointing out that he is wasting his time and being taken for a fool. Healy knew that the more you invest in a political or religious cause, the harder it is to break from it. He ensured that his members would find it hard to break with him by working them close to exhaustion. The BBC and many others wondered why Redgrave disappeared from the stage for much of his career. Self-censorship prevented them from explaining that he was in thrall to a despot who would not allow him the space to flourish. One WRP member, Kate Blakeney, described the process. She spent so much time and money supporting the party that she could not afford to feed her own children. “We were too busy, always busy, and could hope only to catch a few hours’ sleep.” One day Healy asked to meet her in his London flat. She went hoping to convince him to give her and her comrades in Oxford a respite from his demands: “[He] opened the door for me. He had been drinking. Something was all wrong. I pushed by his large body, sat down in the chair and started to make my report. Healy came towards me, was hovering over me. He was not listening to a word I was saying. He wanted only one thing from me, my sexual submission. For a moment, I just stared at him: fat, ugly, red-faced. Something inside of me snapped. I, my husband, my children, my comrades had sacrificed so much, had worked so hard for this…animal.”

This scene invokes the memory of the account offered in the searing memoir written by a young Iranian American, Said Sayrafiezadeh, When Skateboards Will Be Free. In his book, Sayrafiezadeh, a wonderful writer, tells a similar story of how her mother lived only for one thing, serving the Socialist Workers Party, as she was forced to move from home to home, without money or a job, devoting each minute of her day and many of her nights to handing out party newspapers and pamphlets, or putting up traveling comrades. When her little son was molested by one of them, the party leaders informed her that “this is what capitalism does to some people,” and she should merely forget the incident.

The publisher describes Said Sayrafiezadeh’sbook accurately:

With a profound gift for capturing the absurd in life, and a deadpan wisdom that comes from surviving a surreal childhood in the Socialist Workers Party, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh has crafted an unsentimental, funny, heartbreaking memoir.

Saïd’s Iranian-born father and American Jewish mother had one thing in common: their unshakable conviction that the workers’ revolution was coming. Separated since their son was nine months old, they each pursued a dream of the perfect socialist society. Pinballing with his mother between makeshift Pittsburgh apartments, falling asleep at party meetings, longing for the luxuries he’s taught to despise, Said waits for the revolution that never, ever arrives. “Soon,” his mother assures him, while his long-absent father quixotically runs as a socialist candidate for president in an Iran about to fall under the ayatollahs. Then comes the hostage crisis. The uproar that follows is the first time Saïd hears the word “Iran” in school. There he is suddenly forced to confront the combustible stew of his identity: as an American, an Iranian, a Jew, a socialist… and a middle-school kid who loves football and video games.

One must, of course, put up with everything to serve the leader — considered the most dedicated of the comrades. Cohen writes that “the Great Leader exercised his droit de seigneur over many of his women followers. Twenty-six accused him of ‘cruel and systematic debauchery’ as the party fell apart in the mid-1980s. One of them was the daughter of two of Healy’s oldest friends. She told how he had rewarded her parents’ loyalty by sleeping with her and beating her. She had been hurt so often she was close to being a cripple.” Anything for the revolution, as the comrades used to say. One thinks immediately of the Soviet NKVD-KGB chief, Lavrenti Beria, whose hobby was molesting the youngest of girls, provided for him by a fleet of agents. If the Soviet apparatchiks had such perks, Healey must have thought, why not the British counterparts?

It should not be a surprise to learn from Cohen that as the recent past emerged, “Healy took money from Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In return for funding from Arab dictators, the WRP led the charge of the far-Left into the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the far-Right and, as seriously, agreed to spy on Iraqi dissidents living in London and hand over their details to the Baathist state without a thought of what could happen to their families back in Iraq. Even after the scandals about the rapes and links to Saddam broke, the Redgraves stuck with Healy, as did Ken Livingstone,” the former Mayor of London.

Except for the demented few like Vanessa Redgrave and the dwindling group of true believers, to whom no facts stand in the way of accepting the revolutionary myth, the rest of the liberal community has moved on, away from Communist era politics. This is the case except in one regard, and Cohen puts his finger on it. The old ideology still remains “in the bloodstream of the wider Left — the propensity for Jew-baiting and conspiracy theory, the shrieking dogmatism, and, beyond all that, the self-censorship, which stops a broadcaster legally obliged to be objective dealing plainly with news that reflects badly on its class and kind.”

After all, in the media spokesmen’s eyes — so many of whom were part of the ’60s generation — Corin and Vanessa Redgrave represented their pure ideals, and hence must be defended even after their passing, even if what they did and lived for was hideous. To do the opposite would be to condemn their own youthful illusions — illusions few are prepared to thoroughly give up.