As a political thinker and politician, John Strachey (1901-1963) strove to alter and modernize British society for 40 years. For him, modernization meant Marxism. Before and after the Second World War, Strachey was the most elegant thinker on the left end of Britain's political spectrum.
Judging from his family background, one would not expect that Evelyn John St. Loe Strachey would become one of Britain's most prominent socialists. He was born in Guildford, Surrey on October 21, 1901. His father was John St. Loe Strachey, the longtime publisher and editor of the conservative periodical, Spectator. An ancestor, Sir Henry Strachey, had been secretary to Robert Clive in India. On the other hand, there was St. Loe's cousin, Lytton Strachey, the liberal biographer and critic, who was a member of the Bloomsbury circle.
While editorials in St. Loe's Spectator rationalized the British conservative and imperial position to readers throughout the empire and in the United States—St. Loe was a friend of U. S. president, Theodore Roosevelt. He was also a bit of an iconoclast. Detesting socialism and tariff reform, he urged Spectator readers to vote liberal in the 1906 elections. According to his wife, St. Loe was leaning toward the left at the time of his death.
John Strachey was the third child of St. Loe and Amy Strachey. He dutifully followed the family tradition and studied at Oxford (Magdalen College, where he was known, formally, as Evelyn) and took up the Conservative cause. He even served a term as editor of the conservative Oxford Fortnightly Review, something of an apprenticeship before taking the reins of the Spectator from his father. At Oxford, Strachey also participated in the Magdalen College Dramatic Society as an actor and playwright. He portrayed Napoleon in Shaw's The Man of Destiny.
Turned to Socialism
However, Strachey's life did not proceed down the foreordained path. The dawning of Strachey's political turn leftward occurred on a trip he made to Vienna in 1922. He was struck by the dire post-war situation. He proposed a number of articles for the Spectator, dealing with topics such as "The Land Settlers Movement" and socialist and communist Hungarian exiles.
The break with family political tradition came the following year when Strachey joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He had met and been influenced by the noted Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who subscribed to the view that Britain should be transformed into a democratic socialist state through evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) means. Despite this shift, he still maintained his ties to the Spectator. Strachey contributed articles and reviews that earned him more than £400 a year. In 1926, he was named editor of the ILP's Socialist Review. That year, also, Strachey managed to get himself arrested (along with 19 other members of the strike emergency committee) during the general strike of miners. Afterward, he was asked to co-edit the union journal, The Miner.
Besides his interests in politics, economics, and labor relations, Strachey managed to maintain close ties to the aesthetic world (he was friends with Cecil Beaton and Stephan Tennant among others). In 1925, he made a series of BBC radio broadcasts with C. E. M. Joad, in which the two men discussed philosophy. The transcript of these broadcasts were later published as After Dinner Philosophy.
Strachey was associated with one of the most controversial men of twentieth-century British politics—Oswald Mosley. Like Strachey, Mosley began his political life as a Conservative (he was a Member of Parliament at the age of 22). He quit the party, however, and joined Labour in 1924. For the next eight years, Mosley was to play a complex role in his younger colleague's political development. While Mosley looked more and more to the United States as the model for a new capitalism, Strachey's articles and reviews revealed a genuine Marxist tendency. Yet both considered Labour as their natural political base.
Three events stood out in Strachey's life over the next two years. The first was the death of his father in 1927, which represented a final cutting of ties to Conservatism (though he inherited his father's Spectator shares). The second was a trip to Russia he made with his sister in 1928. By invitation, Strachey, still editor of The Miner, inspected the mines of the Don River basin. Out of this trip came a pamphlet titled Workers Control in the Russian Mining Industry, in which Strachey concluded that Soviet miners were better off than their British counterparts. He also lauded the Soviet medical system. While the trip certainly did not convert Strachey to Communism, it helped solidify his Marxism.
In 1928, Strachey followed in Mosley's footsteps and traveled to the United States. There he met and fell in love with Esther Murphy, a wealthy heiress and sister of Gerald Murphy, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. It has been postulated by biographer Hugh Thomas that Strachey was enthralled with the international bohemian scene. Strachey and Esther Murphy were married on April 24, 1929. Oswald Mosley was his best man.
Elected to House of Commons
A little over a month after his marriage, on May 30, 1929, Strachey stood for election to parliament as the Labour Party candidate for the Aston/Birmingham district. This was Britain's first election with universal adult suffrage. Strachey and the Labour Party emerged victorious. He had to fend off rumors that he was a foreigner, but managed to win by a plurality of more than 1500 votes. Oswald Mosley was elected M.P. from Smethwick. Overall, Labour captured 8,370,417 votes, or 37.1 percent of the total, and 287 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives had 260 seats. Thus Labour was able to form its second government, with Ramsey McDonald as prime minister. Strachey relinquished his editorial positions at the Socialist Review and The Miner. He was appointed a parliamentary private secretary to Mosley, who had been named chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and coordinator of the government's unemployment policy.
Strachey made his first speech in the House of Commons on November 5, 1929, dealing with relations with Russia. He argued for increasing trade with the Soviet Union to £40 million rather than cutting off trade relations altogether. A brief trip to the United States (now in the early months of the Great Depression) left Strachey pessimistic about the ability of capitalism to insure employment. In February 1930, he made another speech in Commons concerning Russian trade and in March and April he spoke on the government's mining bill.
Like Strachey, Mosley had little respect for the older Labourites who dominated the government, especially his immediate superiors, J.H. Thomas and Sir Horace Wilson. As Mosley became more antagonistic to old-line Labourites, Strachey felt his loyalties pulling him in both directions. Things came to a head when the Labour cabinet rejected Mosley's Keynesian economic memorandum. Mosley promptly resigned his position. Strachey tried to straddle both sides of the fence in this dispute, but more and more his sympathies were with Mosley. He backed his friend at the party meeting and also enjoyed the support of the Aston Labour Party, thus sustaining a good relationship with his constituency.
In the summer of 1930, Strachey made another trip to the Soviet Union. During a three-week stay, he visited a dam construction site, an engineering plant, a coal mining area (in which it was noted that safety equipment was below British standards), a farm machinery factory, and three collective farms. Strachey was impressed by some of what he saw. Yet he was far from believing in paradise. The central idea which he took away from this trip, was that of the Soviet Union as a market for British goods.
Writer and Lecturer
When Mosley's proposals were defeated in a Labour caucus later that year, he drew up a radical manifesto calling for a planned economy, which Strachey signed. It was the beginning of the end of his affiliation with Labour, though he remained an active M.P. In early 1931, following a rebuff of the radical Labourites by the party, Mosley decided to form a new political party, which he called the New Party. Strachey resigned from Labour and joined his friend, becoming the New Party's intellectual mainspring.
Strachey did not remain very long in the New Party. He quickly saw that the workers were antithetical to it and that Mosley, after a trip to Italy, was turning toward fascism. This was happening at a time when Strachey was turning toward communism. In the general election of 1931, Strachey lost his seat to the Conservative candidate. Thereafter, he devoted himself to writing and lecturing until the Second World War. He was deemed one of the left's most eloquent interpreters. During this period he wrote The Coming Struggle for Power (1931), The Menace of Fascism (1932), The Nature of the Capitalist Crisis (1935), The Theory and Practice of Socialism (1936) and What Are We to Do? (1938). In late 1931, Strachey divorced his wife and married Celia Simpson, whom he had known for many years.
He returned to the United States in December 1934 for a lecture tour. While on tour, Strachey was arrested in Chicago for advocating the overthrow of capitalism. He immediately gained publicity. After several deportation hearings, the U.S. government dropped its case against him.
In 1936, Strachey formed the Left Book Club with Victor Gollancz, and Harold Laski. The purpose of this organization was to disseminate leftist literature to counteract the growing fascist menace in Britain and abroad. At this time Strachey was also chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Anti-Fascist Activities. The Left Book Club was an immediate success and gave rise to the Left Book News (which became the Left News. ) Strachey's own The Theory and Practice of Socialism was a Left Book Club selection. However the radical Left Book Club was forever at odds with the Labour Party. Many critics claim that it actually created a wedge in the Left.
By 1939, Strachey had grown disenchanted with the Soviet version of communism. He broke with the Soviet government when war was declared. Strachey served during the war as an air raid warden, public relations officer, radio commentator, and Royal Air Force wing commander. He also managed to publish A Programme for Progress in 1940. The following year Strachey wrote a war novel, James (later retitled The Frontiers ), that was not published until 1952. Ironically the fight against fascism spelled doom for the Left Book Club, as loyalty for the Churchill-led coalition government was the order of the day. Strachey began to moderate his views when the Labour Party approached him about standing for election as their candidate in Dundee. This he did in 1945.
Minister of Food
The June 1945 general election swept Labour back into power with 393 seats in the House of Commons; Strachey was among those elected. The new prime minister was Clement Attlee, who appointed Strachey the undersecretary for air. He held this post until May 1946, whereupon he became minister of food. During these years Britain was experiencing economic hardships as a result of the war, and Strachey was forced to introduce the rationing of bread. He took this matter to heart, even touring London to see how the rationing was affecting citizens. Other shortages led to much criticism of his policies by the Conservatives.
The most controversial of these policies was Strachey's drive to expand and mechanize the growing of groundnuts (peanuts) in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). This proved to be a disaster, with Strachey taking the brunt of the blame from his enemies. However, despite this he was reelected as a member from Dundee in the 1950 general election. Atlee, however, had decided to replace Strachey at the Food Ministry and make him secretary of state for war. His tenure there was marked by attacks from the press, which tried to link him with atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs. In 1951, Attlee called for another election. Strachey held onto his Dundee seat but Labour had lost its slim majority. He was relieved of his position.
Strachey remained in Parliament through successive Conservative governments publishing Contemporary Capitalism (1956), The End of Empire (1959), and On the Prevention of War (1962). In 1957, he suffered a heart attack, and never fully recovered. He died in London on July 15, 1963, following back surgery.
Further Reading on John Strachey
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1997.
Thomas, Hugh, John Strachey Harper and Row, 1973.
Times of London, March 19, 1990; July 23, 1990; August 2, 1993; July 22, 1994.