With Breast Expanded. Brian Behan. A Contemporary Review.
With Breast Expanded. Brian Behan. MacGibbon 1964.
“For my own part. I had always contested the right of any party to control my actions and to force me to carry out decisions with which I did not agree. I believed then as I do now that a man must finally be true to his own conscience and follow the dictates of his own experience. The greatest of saints and humanists can founder and do terrible harm once they relinquish this right. My whole life has been a search for an organisation that would bring happiness to humanity, only to find that all organisations become an end in themselves, thriving on, and perpetuating, human misery and backwardness. As far I’m concerned, any organisation of more than one person (except one man and one woman) is suspect.” Brian Behan. With Breast Expanded. Page 42.
“Brendan and Brian did not share the same views, especially when the question of politics or nationalism arose. Brendan on his deathbed (presumably in jest) asked Cathal Goulding (Behan’s half-brother following a relationship between Stephen Behan and Goulding’s mother), then the Chief of Staff of the IRA, to ‘have that bastard Brian shot—we’ve had all sorts in our family, but never a traitor!’” Brendan Behan Wikipedia.
One of the best books ever written about the left is With Breast Expanded. It is a memoir, not a political tract. But many of the things we talk about today, about parties, about ‘democratic centralism’ and – above all – authority – come up in what was an extraordinary life.
The author, Brian Behan (1926 – 2002) was the brother of Brendan, who has an entry in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and whose play, the Quaere Fellow remains seared in many people’s minds. Their family, raised in the Dublin slums and, then, council estates, of the 1930s and 40s, was left-wing, republican, and trade unionist. They were closely linked to the, pre- and post independence, IRA. His mother was a friend of Micheal Collins. The brothers (there was another, the songwriter, Dominic) were part of a circle of exceptionally talented working class and bohemian radicals. There was also a sister, Carmen.
Brendan was actively involved in the IRA from the age of 16. For his self-appointed attempt to blow up Liverpool Docks in 1939 Brendan served time in the Suffolk youth penal institution, Hollesley Bay. He wrote about this sentence in Borstal Boy.
Brian recalls in With Breast Expanded, “It still warms my heart to remember the long letters Brendan wrote me from Bostral when I was in Malin. (Page 202) Malin, the Artane Industrial School, was where petty thieving led Brian to spend his teens. Run by the Christian Brothers, “where the rule of the boot and the fist still predominates”, it was a physically and sexually abusive institution. Its control methods “would have put Stalin to shame.” (Page 27)
After Malin there was the Army Construction Corps, labouring, a job creation scheme (the ‘Turf camps’), Brian developed as a left-wing and trade union activist. Some accounts put him already as an anarcho-syndicalist. But With Breast Expanded he says that he was a Communist and met up with left-wing IRA men, influenced by Marxism. This “put me in violent opposition to nine-nine-point-nine per cent of my fellow men. Since a child I had known that the bosses were our enemy. And to me, my enemy’s enemy must be my friends. It never entered my head they might just be peas in a pod.”(Page 37)
Exported to to England.
Facing long-term unemployment and continuous trouble with the Irish authorities Brian left for England. “For hundreds of years prime cattle and mature men have been Ireland’s chief export to England.”(Page 95) The meat of With Breast Expanded is the account of his experiences on building sites, and as rank and file trade union activist. Hard manual labour, hard digs, and hard men, surrounded him. But Brian found the time, and the energy, to become politically active in the Communist Party of Great Britain. During a landmark strike on the Festival of Britain site, they were selling 180 Daily Workers a day and “defended every last action of Joe Stalin’s.”(Page 134)
During a campaign against the post-war ban on May Day marches Brain found himself sentenced to two months in Brixton Prison. Discharged the CP were waiting for him to take bring him to a public meeting on Korea, “At that precise moment I would sooner have shown my arse, or anything else for that matter, but a public meeting was not my idea of the best way to spend my first day of freedom.”(Page 124) held out in the open the defence of North Korea only attracted the “anger of the toilers”.
Brian’s account of the CPGB remains instructive. He felt real anger (which leaps from the page into your gut) about life in the Soviet bloc. The Soviet Embassy in London lavished food and free fags on the ‘labour movement’ guests at their regular beanos and did they same to those who visited their lands. In Moscow the city centre was like Hyde Park. But in the outskirts, “were slums, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Dublin. Worse still, I found building workers toiling away under the threat of armed guards. I was told the guards were there to prevent sabotage. But it also seemed also a magnificently handy way to discourage agitation.”(Page 128) A trip as part of delegation to China showed the same divisions, “”in one you ate old paptoa leaves, in the other you wined and dined till your guts ached.”(Ibid)
Behan, as a rank-and-file building workers’ leader, ended up elected to National Executive Committee of the Communist Party, “selected by the top, and blessed by the sheep down below, would be a better description.”(Page 131)
The Communist Party was stuck in the doldrums. The contrast, well known to everybody on the (British) left, between influence in the trade unions and irrelevance in the ballot box clearly rankled with Behan, who described the former as the result of the reward of dedicated “fanatics”. The theory that the latter dismal results – he had got around 181 votes in an election – show the “mathematical average of loonies in each area of Britain” is appealing. (Page 146) If this is true the number of the mentally challenged has a much greater variety of electoral choices today, from UKIP further onwards, and has grown in size.
Hungary and After.
Deeper issues were at stake. Behan instinctively revolted at the lack of workers’ rights in Russia, and at accusations that Communists fiddled votes in the E.T.U. Discontent came to a boil over the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He stood up for Edith Bone – a Hungarian born British Communist. The rebels released her. Nobody had heard of her for seven years. As Francis Beckett puts it, she was “tortured, half-starved, tormented by arthritis, her guts ravaged by the prison food, ragged and barefoot.” (1) An attempt to publicly condemn Bone’s imprisonment was lost – 31 to 1 on the National Executive. This was not the end of it. “..the Hungarian Revolution turned me upside down.”(Page 151) He wavered from supporting the revolution, but finally was driven to leave the Party. “It may have made little or no difference, but I would be a much happier person today it I’d fought harder for people who were resisting the guns and tanks of state capitalism.”(Page 151)
Behan did not desert the building sites, and battled – with further time in gaol – in the great South Bank strike of 1959. Left politics still loomed large in his life. Outside prison and outside the CP, he resolved to join one of the “fanatical little groups who waited to net the stranded fish. They were latter-day Communists hoping and praying for a return of a Trotskyite Russia. They rattled his old bones with all the fervour of black with-doctors. Each little sect claimed that it was the inheritor of the revealed truth.”(Page 169)
Healy and After.
To be exact he joined the group that later became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, at the time known as the Club before it became known as the Socialist Labour League. (2) With Breast Expanded describes its leader, Gerry Healy, as follows, “He as a small man, made revolutionary by his failure to make a fortune selling floor-polish door to door.” (Page 169) A dispute, which Behan puts down to his proposal to put the Party’s printing press under workers’ control and others link to his hostility to Healy’s proposal to ‘enter’ (merge into) the Labour Party, soon erupted. (3) It was not long before Behan, and his friends, were expelled.
That is as may be, but this rings true. Healy shouting at a meeting, “I want all you comrades to appreciate that M.I.5 have now developed a new device which they simply point towards a window and pick up the sound vibrations that bounces off it.” “I ask all comrades to speak with their backs to the window, and if possible direct your sound waves to the floor.” “..as one man, lecturers, trade unionists and working women turned their chairs away from the window and commenced looking to the ground. One man, a psychoanalyst in a big London hospital, was bent double, his waves smashing into the wood blocks.””(Pages 170 – 171)
Behan briefly worked with London based anarchists and syndicalists, including some of the historic Spanish exiles. He had only a brief encounter with the latter. Of the former, and thinking of the Wobblies he describes them (and himself) as “the leavings of the great movement that rolled across the American prairie organising lumberjacks, wheat men and cotton pickers. Any resemblance between us and them was purely coincidental.”(Page 183) Behan noted the self-regard of one “conceited wretch” who brought a tape recorder to keep intact his meeting speech – and his alone – for posterity. Yet these were not the anarchists in fashion in the late 50s and early 60s, as CND and the Committee of 100 rose. He was spared the high-minded, but even more narcissistic, pacifist anarchists recently brought to the screen in the recent Ginger and Rosa (2012).
It is not the intention to write a précis of With Breast Expanded, though the memoir is so good that a horde of further anecdotes and incisive words come to mind. Behan, if not always likable, is lovable. He is all the better for this final citation, about his brother Brendan – amongst many, less complementary thoughts, “When, in my ignorance, I sneered at homosexuals, he turned on me like a tiger and told me to keep my dirty ignorant thoughts to myself.”(Page 201) We could equally note that he, despite admiration for his formidable mother Kathleen, never exactly caught the importance of feminism,. His wife, Celia, appears on in a side-role. The book’s epigraph is not designed to win friends in that quarter. Brian’s further career (he died in 2002 at 75 years old) as a lecturer, writer and a playwright, was impressive. He never did find the organisation that would take decisions he never disagreed with, or indeed, any party at all. Perhaps we are all better off for that.
Thanks to JM for information on the Dublin Left.
(1) Page 134. The Enemy Within, The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party, Francis Beckett. 1995. Beckett offers an excellent account of the effect of the Hungarian Revolution on the British Communist Party.
(2) “Then, in 1958, Brian Behan obtained work as a labourer on McAlpines South Bank site. Whoever took him on very quickly learned their mistake, a very costly mistake. Behan was fired and, despite the fact that there were a number of inexperienced and unorganised workers on the site, the shop stewards committee – which was led by Hugh Cassidy and was both experienced and resolute – called a strike. The whole organisational weight of the Club was thrown behind the dispute. Special issues of The Newsletter were produced and strike bulletins and leaflets rolled off the press. For the first time since the general strike of 1926, middle class revolutionaries joined the workers on the picket line. Brian Behan’s brother Brendan (the playwright) appeared dispensing ten bob notes and not a few pints of Guinness. The police were much in evidence, arrests were made and, after one fracas, Brian Behan was arrested and given three months in Shepton Mallet prison.” Jim Higgins. 1956 and All That (1993)
(3) “Politically, Behan could offer no serious alternative to Healy’s opportunism, his call for the proclamation of a revolutionary party by a few hundred militants being foolishly ultra-leftist. But, contrary to Healyite mythology, Behan was not so sectarian that he denied the need for fraction work in the Labour Party. Nor was he incapable of making some correct criticisms of Healy’s unprincipled political manoeuvring. ‘The zig-zags of policy from “right” to “left” and back again’, Behan wrote, ‘result from the opportunist considerations of a small clique …. Those who opposed the turn to open work a year ago were denounced as reformists and capitulators to the right wing, but now the leadership are fighting to return to the old form of work in the Labour Party.”
“It was on the organisational question – the concentration of power in Healy’s hands – that Behan’s attack really hit home. Not only did Healy hold the posts of SLL general secretary, IC secretary and, in practice, League treasurer and print shop manager, Behan pointed out, but he hired and fired full-timers and purchased expensive equipment, all without prior consultation with the League’s elected bodies. Behan also opposed as grossly undemocratic Healy’s control of the organisation’s assets, the SLL’s press being jointly owned by Healy, the Banda brothers and Bob Shaw. Behan described it as ‘farcical that even if the whole conference should decide on a change of policy, four people could frustrate the will of the conference by simply splitting and walking away with the assets’. He proposed to place all the League’s property under the control of the membership.” Bob Pitt. The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy. Chapter 5.