Class Consciousness

Class Consciousness

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford explores the contradictions of a social revolutionary possessed of an aristocrat’s sense of the wrong and right kind of people.


I once heard a novelist tell a story about a fellow he knew in college (this would have been in the early 1970s) who openly admitted that his parents were Communists. Asked what this meant in the course of their daily lives, the young man answered, without a trace of irony, “It means that when we sit down to dinner the maid eats with us.”

In the 1989 introduction to the reissue of her 1960 memoir Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford recalls this of its composition: “I was staying with my mother at Inch Kenneth, her remote Hebridean island, in the summer of 1959.” There are no figures on how many authors of memoirs about their Communist political awakening had mothers who owned remote islands, Hebridean or otherwise–but probably not many. We shouldn’t forget that Mitford’s first plan was to donate her share of the island to the British Communist Party, nor that for many years she and her second husband, the lawyer Robert Treuhaft, lived in ordinary middle-class comfort in Oakland, California. Nor should we fall for the dreary, doctrinaire notion that the moneyed and privileged are inherently incapable of having a social conscience. (How many protests, strikes and candidacies have been rescued by infusions of cash from the simpatico rich?)

But can we also admit that Mitford’s sense of her position lacks a certain irony? Had the maid been invited to join the family for a meal during Mitford’s upper-class English upbringing, you get the feeling Mitford would have seen it not as a nod in the direction of the classless society but, to borrow one of her favorite adjectives, as the most extraorder thing.

The communications that make up the new doorstop Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, as well as Mitford’s two-volume autobiography, Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict (1977), seem to exist in a double bubble of privilege and ideology. Mitford’s account of her and her siblings’ upbringing–the girls were taught to read but, educationally, were otherwise on their own; their mother was close to a caricature of the oblivious society matron; their father was every bit the tyrant that Mitford’s sister Nancy captured in her novel The Pursuit of Love–suggests the Glass family as rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, the latter’s sense of absurdity is outweighed by what Mary McCarthy described as the closed-circuit mentality of the former. With their secret languages and endless nicknames (Muv, Farve, Boud, Hen) with endless variations, the Mitfords come off as the privileged center of one of those closed circuits. A family friend once said to Mitford, “It has always seemed to me that your family regards the rest of the world, and everything that happens in it, as a huge joke put on for their benefit.”

There is evidence in Decca of the benefit Mitford brought others with the bombshell impact of her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In a 1964 letter to Treuhaft, Mitford writes of a message she received from Bobby Kennedy, who had been charged with picking out a coffin for his murdered brother. Offered a choice between one for $900 and one for $2,000, RFK chose the former, telling Mitford that had he not read her book he would have felt obligated to get the more expensive choice as the last gesture he could make for his brother. You read that and know that if Mitford’s muckraking was able to reach Bobby Kennedy in his awful circumstance, she must have done the same for people who were less in shock and had considerably fewer resources than the Kennedys.

But that judgment of the detached, superior Mitford sense of amusement is dead on. When you read through Decca and the two autobiographies, it’s impossible to ignore that Mitford’s detachment functioned as both naïveté and snobbishness.

Rebel she may have fancied herself, but she kept an aristocrat’s sense of the wrong and right kind of people. “Offhand,” she writes in a 1959 letter, “I don’t agree with the starting point of your criticisms (that one can’t generalize about classes of people–I’ve always thought one could; the Dutch, for instance, are as depressingly clean as one is always told they are; the Southern French, as warmly filthy; Southern U.S., faintly squalid etc. etc. and the Petit Bourgeoisie, as Lenin so truly said, vacillating).” So much for those people. This sort of thing rears its head in Decca with dependable regularity. A guest at the home of her friends Virginia and Clifford Durr is described as “a French man of the greasy type.” At least there is the consolation that the house is run by “large, competent Blacks.” When Virginia Durr takes Mitford to the 1940 Democratic Convention, she describes a meeting of the Resolutions Committee: “More or less anyone can speak before it & there were a number of rather boring ones about insurance companies, & the status of Indians etc.” And this is not the only bit of dismissiveness to roll off Mitford’s silver-forked tongue.

A January 1941 letter brings a reference to a friend of the Durrs, “rather a dull girl called Ladybird Johnson,” reflecting a lifetime of disdain for the Johnsons in particular and for white Southerners in general. A 1959 letter declares that you can tell that Germans, like Southerners, are bad by “the backs of their necks (which were classic: huge, red and beefy).” A 1965 letter to Virginia Durr recalls “the days when [LBJ] and Ladybird used to slop around your garden with their outlandish manners and accents”–and that to a Southern friend. The view down Mitford’s nose does not allow for an acknowledgment of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, nor for an inkling of why Ralph Ellison called LBJ “the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes.”

But that acknowledgment would have required more nuance than an either/or thinker like Mitford was capable of. It also would have impinged on Mitford’s fantasy of the role she and her fellow Communists played in the civil rights saga. This is not to deny her any part. As a member of the American Communist Party, Mitford worked for an East Bay group called the Civil Rights Congress. The group monitored police brutality cases in Oakland, used white members to front for blacks buying homes in white neighborhoods and was involved with local and national cases, particularly the case of a local man, Jerry Newson, who had been framed for murder. But throughout A Fine Old Conflict and in Decca, Mitford clings to the notion that the Communists were the only people fighting for civil rights. “Isn’t it an extraordinary advance from a few short years ago,” she writes of the student civil rights movement, “when nobody would lift a finger except us reds?” Even if that were true–and it requires editor Peter Sussman’s dismissing the efforts of both the NAACP and the ACLU to assert it–it deprives blacks of any agency on their own behalf. Of course, you can note the influence and contribution of people like Stanley Levinson–and the way J. Edgar Hoover used Levinson’s presence in the movement to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.–and the inevitable intersections that occurred between the CPUSA and people working for civil rights. But to conclude that “nobody would lift a finger except us reds” is fantasy. It ignores, for instance, A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And it requires Sussman’s seconding of Robert Treuhaft’s ridiculous implication that the middle-class NAACP didn’t concern itself with poorer blacks, and trivializing its accomplishments as “some notable successes” in overturning discriminating laws. Brown v. Board of Education, anyone? Are we to seriously believe only the black middle-class was affected by that ruling?

It’s been said, not very convincingly, that Mitford’s Communism was an act of rebellion against her family’s privilege, and specifically against the fascism embraced by her sisters Unity (who put a bullet in her head when England declared war on Germany, botched the act and lingered on until 1948) and Diana (who married the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and was, with him, imprisoned briefly in England during World War II). It’s clear Mitford took no pleasure in her lifelong estrangement from Diana (through their sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, she sent a message of condolence on Mosley’s death), and again and again she expresses pain over Unity’s self-inflicted incapacitation. Of course Mitford was reacting against her family’s embrace of fascism, but to assume that’s all she was doing, to assume the development of anyone’s political consciousness is simply an act of rebellion, seems a juvenile reduction of political awareness to shopworn Freudianism.

It has also been said, more convincingly than Mitford allowed, that her Communism was the other side of the coin of her sisters’ fascism. She wasn’t a nutter, like those two sisters. But she did share something of their blind faith. Caroline Blackwood wrote of a 1980s interview with Diana (Lady Mosley), “She was so beguiling that she made one forget that she had spent her life yearning for a Europe united by a repressive Fascist leadership.” The breezy casualness of Decca and the autobiographies invites you to overlook that Mitford spent much of her life excusing and falsifying the repressiveness of the ideology she espoused.

Sussman quotes Treuhaft as saying, “When Decca makes up her mind, she never changes it.” They find this admirable. Both Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict were written about twenty years after the events they describe. And in both Mitford clings to what history has proved nonsense. Just as in her view Communists were the only ones to stand up for civil rights, so they were the only ones to fight fascism. Apparently neither Homage to Catalonia nor the Hitler-Stalin pact penetrated her consciousness. In 1960 Mitford is still approvingly quoting her first husband, Esmond Romilly, as saying that Winston Churchill (his uncle) was interested in fighting Germany and Italy only because of the threat they posed to British imperialism. Even forty-six years ago, who was damn fool enough to think that the British Communist Party did more than Churchill to fight fascism? Which is not to deny the role Communists played in the history of opposition to fascism. But to paint Communism as the sole opponent is another of Mitford’s self-aggrandizing delusions.

Most devastatingly for Mitford’s reputation, Decca appeared in the same month as the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, an event on which she was unwaveringly appalling. In A Fine Old Conflict Mitford recounts a 1955 trip she and Treuhaft took to Hungary, where they puzzle over a waiter asking them to smuggle out a letter to his brother in America. “But why?” wonder these red Candides. “Is there some problem about mailing letters out?” And, good soldiers that they are, they decide the waiter is probably a counterrevolutionary spy and decline. Mitford nevertheless records the incident in a piece she writes for People’s World (surprise! it’s cut). A year after the trip, and a few weeks after the Soviets crush the Hungarian uprising, Mitford writes to her mother-in-law expressing support for the invasion–which even the CPUSA had condemned. “I fear that the bloodshed and disruption would have been far worse if [Soviet troops] hadn’t come in” and “I think they had no alternative [emphasis added] but to try and restore order and to preserve a socialist system in Hungary against what looks like a fascist coup.”

Twenty-one years later, in A Fine Old Conflict, after it was known that thousands were killed in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary by the Soviets, after the Hungarian invasion inspired mass defections from Western Communist parties, Mitford is still taking this same line. Only this time, miraculously, she’s able to summon support from friends of her mother-in-law, Holocaust survivors and anti-Communists who welcomed the Soviets because they prevented a return to an anti-Semitic fascist state. Sure, there were “legitimate grievances against Stalinist repression,” but they were being manipulated by the CIA and by counterrevolutionaries. As for the Hungarians the State Department brought into the United States? Obviously, “grasping neo-Fascist types.” But even if some were, what about the jubilant faces of the gun-bearing rebels we see in the photo on the cover of Michael Korda’s new memoir, Journey to a Revolution, radiating, as Greil Marcus wrote of the young Parisians of May 1968, “joy in discovering for what drama one’s setting is the setting”? What of the thousands of Hungarians who fled the country? Were they all neo-Fascists? What about the Czechs twelve years later? Or the Eastern Europeans twenty-one years after that? Of them, there is not a word to be found in Decca. Nor is there any mention of the Hungarian dead except by implication in Mitford’s claim that what she so Decca-delicately calls the “intervention” prevented further bloodshed. Twelve Days, Victor Sebestyen’s new history of the uprising, recounts this joke going around Hungary in the fall of ’56: “The Russians say they have come as our friends. Imagine if they said they were our enemies.”

It was not Hungary that caused Mitford to leave the party, nor Khrushchev’s revelations earlier in 1956 about Stalin’s crimes. It was, as Sussman writes approvingly, “not primarily over some issue of high principle but because it had become dull…boring. Rather like London’s debutante circuit.”

And that, as well as anything, sums up the sense of entitlement, the “dedicated alienation from truth,” in Robert Warshow’s phrase, that is the essence of Mitford’s political consciousness. It is not to ignore or excuse the hounding both she and Treuhaft suffered at the hands of HUAC thugs–they were spied upon, had their passports confiscated, were driven from jobs. Mitford’s wryness about that, the way she treats those spying on her as ludicrous, is for the most part admirably lacking in self-pity. (She regards the funeral industry representatives she debates with the same withering amusement, an attitude that, as much as the facts she had to hand, probably rallied the public to her side.)

And no one should discount the terrible losses Mitford suffered: two children, an infant girl born to her and Romilly, and later her and Treuhaft’s 10-year-old son, Nicholas, who was killed by a bus. In World War II she lost not only Romilly but her brother Tom and, in a sense, most of her family. She was understandably estranged from Unity and Diana, and after running away with Romilly she never saw her father again. There’s no doubt that she suffered for sticking to her principles.

But if, as Sussman quotes Mitford as saying, “The whole point of letters is to reveal the writer & her various opinions & let the chips fall where they may,” then Decca has to be judged on those principles–not by Mitford’s tenacity in sticking to them but by what she chose to ignore by doing so. And it’s not just the quality (or lack) of thought that is trivializing here; it’s the language, the twee tone (“Darling Dinkydonk”) that feels as much like heavy lifting as the forced heartiness does (Mitford never laughs; she roars). It’s the vision of culture as entirely utilitarian, subservient to the struggle (Paul Robeson’s performance as Othello is about the only cultural reference here, apart from confessions of a fondness for pop songs and an admiration for Lolita). It’s not the length of Decca that’s exhausting; it’s that voice, affecting lightness and straining for political dedication, and failing miserably on both counts. “I don’t strive for ‘substance, depth & scope’ as you put it,” Mitford writes to one correspondent. Here’s the proof.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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