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WILLIAM ASH (1917-2014) lived a full revolutionary life, one that combined direct action and careful study.
Born in the US, after serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish civil war, he continued his fight against fascism by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in WWII, during which time he was captured, imprisoned and escaped.
An effective Marxist street organiser in the Britain of the 1950s, he later joined the BBC before being booted out for being too obviously a “red.”
As an author, Ash was determined and prodigious in his output, with numerous works of fiction, autobiography and analysis to his name.
Heroes in the Evening Mist— a title lifted from a poem credited to Mao Tse-Tung — has been published some four years after his death and in many ways is a fitting summary both of his life and his literary output.
Set in the fictional south-east Asian state of Malia, its male protagonist is Colin Frere — quite possibly a very loosely transposed autobiographical one — who arrives in the country for personal and political reasons.
As a journalist, Frere has been commissioned to cover the socialist insurgency against the Western-backed puppet regime.
Yet he is also retracing the steps taken by his older brother, martyred in a recent earlier anti-colonial battle against the British army of occupation.
As a novel, Ash’s work successfully describes both a war against imperialism and one that justifies a personal loss and the need for redemption.
The former is much the more prominent theme, with Ash adept at recounting scenes of conflict and of the ideological debates within “the Party” as it prepares to wrest power in the name of the peasants and the working class from the compradors.
Frere joins the revolutionaries after a staged kidnap and quickly becomes a useful communications cadre in explaining the movement to a wider global audience.
Ash’s description of the leftists’ defence of their jungle encampment and subsequent capture of the capital and thence the whole country is a vivid account of astute tactics and personal sacrifice.
The novel is at its best in articulating the subsequent struggles to deliver socialism in a country where the unyielding opposition of the capitalist states is causing chaos and the rise of personal ambitions.
For some, the somewhat stilted dialogue between Frere and his Malian wife Leela, a former freedom fighter and now a senior Party official, and other comrades, might hinder enjoyment of the book.
But these earnest exchanges are at the heart of the book’s value. Compressing and clarifying the issues that all socialist countries have faced since the creation of the Soviet Union, they make for fascinating reading.
Ash is much weaker on the personal front. His descriptions of Frere’s warming relationship with Leela are frankly cringeworthy and suggest an uneasiness with the individual aspects of the wider class struggle.
Even so, this is a very practical and realist socialist novel that underscores the enormous sacrifices, achievements and failings of actually existing socialist societies to date.
It is also a call to redouble the efforts against the capitalist enemy and build on the struggles of comrades who have gone before us.
Published by Workable Books, £9.99.
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