Why Hobsbawm remained a Communist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 18 14:39:30 MDT 2002

New Statesman, September 16, 2002

The day when heaven was falling; Eric Hobsbawm saw the October revolution
as the central reference point of the political universe. In this exclusive
extract from his memoirs, he explains why, even when the crimes of Stalin
were exposed, he could not bring himself to break with the Communist Party

Eric Hobsbawm

I am among the relatively few inhabitants of the world outside what used to
be the USSR who have actually seen Stalin in the flesh. Admittedly, he was
no longer alive but in a glass case in the great mausoleum in Moscow's Red
Square: a small man who seemed even smaller than he actually was (about 5ft
3ins), by contrast with the awe-inspiring aura of autocratic power that
surrounded him even in death. Unlike Lenin, who is still on view, Stalin
was displayed only from his death in 1953 until 1961. When I saw him in
December 1954, he still towered over his country and the world communist
movement. As yet he had no effective successor, although Nikita Khrushchev,
who inaugurated 'destalinisation' not many months later, was already
occupying the post of general secretary and getting ready to elbow his
rivals aside. However, we knew nothing of what was happening behind the
scenes in Moscow.

'We' were four members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist
Party invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences during the Christmas
vacation of 1954-55: Christopher Hill, already well known as a historian of
the English revolution; the Byzantinist Robert Browning; myself; and the
freelance scholar Leslie (A L) Morton, whose People's History of England
enjoyed the official imprimatur of the Soviet authorities. Two of us knew
Russian - Hill, who had spent a year in the USSR in the mid-1930s and had
friends there, and the apparently almost accentless Browning. Nevertheless,
the USSR was not then a place given to informal communication with
foreigners. Outside buildings, our feet were barely allowed to touch the

As intellectual VIPs, we were treated to more culture than most visiting
foreigners, as well as to an embarrassing share of products and privileges
in a visibly impoverished country. We would, for instance, be whisked
straight off the famous Red Arrow Moscow-Leningrad overnight train, to a
matinee children's performance of Swan Lake at the Kirov, where we were
installed in the director's box. After the performance, the prima ballerina
- I think it was Alla Shelest - was brought straight from the stage, still
sweating, to be presented to us, four foreigners of no particular
importance who found themselves momentarily in the location of power.

Almost half a century later, I still feel a sense of curious shame at the
memory of her curtsy to us, as the children of Leningrad prepared to go
home and the (overwhelmingly Jewish) musicians filed out of the orchestra
pit. It was not a good advertisement for communism. But of Russia and
Russian life we saw little except the middle-aged women, presumably war
widows, hauling stones and clearing rubble from the wintry streets.

What is more, even the intellectual's basic resource, 'looking it up', was
not available. There were no telephone directories, no maps, no public
timetables, no basic means of everyday reference. One was struck by the
sheer impracticality of a society in which an almost paranoiac fear of
espionage turned the information needed for everyday life into a state
secret. In short, there was not much to be learned about Russia by visiting
it in 1954 that could not have been learned outside.

Still, there was something. There was the evident arbitrariness and
unpredictability of its arrangements. There was the astonishing achievement
of the Moscow metro, built in the iron era of the 1930s under one of the
legendary 'hard men' of Stalinism, Lazar Kaganovich; a dream of a future
city of palaces for a hungry and pauperised present, but a modern
underground which worked - and, I am told, still does - like clockwork.
There was the basic difference between the Russians who took decisions and
the ones who did not - as we joked among ourselves, they could be
recognised by their hair. The ones who took action had hair that stood up
on their heads, or had fallen out with the effort; the ones who didn't
could be recognised by the lankness above their foreheads. There was the
extraordinary spectacle of an intellectual society barely a generation from
the ancient peasantry. I recall the New Year's Eve party at the scientists'
club in Moscow. Between the usual toasts to peace and friendship, someone
suggested a contest in remembering proverbs - not just any old saws, but
proverbs or phrases about sharp things, such as 'a stitch in time saves
nine' (needles) or 'burying the hatchet'. The joint resources of Britain
were soon exhausted, but the Russian contestants, all of them established
research scientists, went on confronting each other with village wisdom
about knives, axes, sickles and sharp or cutting implements until the
contest had to be stopped. That, after all, was what they brought with them
from the illiterate villages in which so many of them had been born.

Yet we met hardly anyone there like ourselves. Unlike the 'people's
democracies' and 'really existing socialisms' of the rest of Europe, where
communists came from persecution to power at the end of the war, in the
USSR we found ourselves in a country long governed by the Communist Party,
in which having a career implied being a member of that Party, or at least
conforming to its requirements and official statements. Probably some we
met were convinced as well as loyal communists, but theirs was an
inward-looking Soviet conviction rather than an ecumenical one. We would
probably have had more in common with some we asked to meet but who were
'unfortunately prevented from coming to Moscow by problems of health',
'temporarily absent in Gorki' or not yet returned from the camps. But among
those we did meet, it was much easier to sense what the 'great patriotic
war' meant to them, privately and emotionally, than what communism meant.
At all events I am certain that, standing by the Finland Station in the
marvellous winter light of that miraculous city I shall never get used to
calling St Petersburg, what we thought about the October revolution was not
the same as what our guides from the Leningrad branch of the Academy of
Sciences thought.

I returned from Moscow politically unchanged if depressed, and without any
desire to go there again. I did return but only fleetingly, in 1970 for a
world historical congress, and in the last years of the USSR for brief
tourist excursions from Helsinki, where I spent several summers at a UN
research institute.

The trip to the USSR in 1953-54 was my first contact with the countries of
what was later called 'really existing socialism': my visit to the 1947
World Youth Festival in Prague occurred before the Party had taken full
power in the new 'people's democracies'. Indeed, in Czechoslovakia it had
just emerged, with 40 per cent, as by far the largest party in a genuine
multiparty general election. I made direct contact with the other socialist
countries only after the 20th congress of the Soviet CP which inaugurated
the global crisis of the communist movement.

There are two 'ten days that shook the world' in the history of the
revolutionary movement of the 20th century: the days of the October
revolution, described in John Reed's book of that title, and the 20th
congress (14-25 February 1956). I cannot think of any comparable events in
the history of any major ideological or political movement. To put it in
the simplest terms, the October revolution created a world communist
movement: the 20th congress destroyed it.

The world communist movement had been constructed, on Leninist lines, as a
single disciplined army dedicated to the transformation of the world under
a centralised command situated in the only state where 'the proletariat'
had taken power. It became a movement of global significance only because
it was linked to the USSR, which became the country that tore the guts out
of Nazi Germany and emerged from the war as a superpower. The victory of
the cause in other countries, and the liberation of the colonial and
semi-colonial world, depended on the USSR's support and on its sometimes
reluctant, but real, protection. Whatever its weaknesses, its very
existence proved that socialism was more than a dream. And the passionate
anti-communism of the cold war crusaders, who saw communists exclusively as
agents of Moscow, welded those communists more firmly to the USSR.

Throughout the world, communist parties absorbed or eliminated other brands
of social revolutionaries. Though the Communist Universal Church gave rise
to one set after another of schismatics and heretics, none of the rebel
groups it shed, expelled or killed had ever succeeded in establishing
itself more than locally as a rival, until Tito did so in 1948 - but then,
unlike any of the others, he was already head of a revolutionary state. The
joint strength of the three rival Trotskyite groups in Britain, it has been
estimated, was fewer than 100 persons as 1956 began. Since 1933, the CP had
virtually cornered Marxist theory, largely through the Soviets' zeal for
the distribution of the works of the 'classics'. It had become increasingly
clear that, for Marxists, 'the Party' - wherever they lived, and with all
their possible reservations - was the only game in town. The great French
classicist J P Vernant, a communist before the war, broke with the Party
when he defied its line by immediately joining the Gaullist resistance. But
he rejoined the Party after the war, because he remained a revolutionary.
Where else could he go?

The late Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, but in his heart a
frustrated political leader, said to me, when I first met him at the peak
of the communist crisis of 1956-57: 'Whatever you do, don't leave the
Communist Party. I let myself be expelled in 1932 and have regretted it
ever since.' Unlike me, he never reconciled himself to the truth that his
political significance rested entirely on his being a writer. After all, it
was the business of communists to change the world, not merely to interpret.

Why did Khrushchev's uncompromising denunciation of Stalin destroy the
global solidarity of communists with Moscow? After all, destalinisation had
been advancing steadily for more than two years, even though other
Communist Parties resented the Soviet habit of suddenly, and without
previous information, confronting them with the need to justify some
unexpected reversal of policy. (In 1955, Khrushchev's reconciliation with
Tito particularly exasperated comrades who, seven years earlier, had been
forced to hail his excommunication from the True Church.) Indeed, until
Khrushchev's speech was leaked to a wider public, the 20th congress looked
simply like another, admittedly rather larger, step away from the Stalin era.

We must distinguish here between its impact on the leadership of Communist
Parties, especially those who already governed states, and on the communist
rank and file. Both had accepted the mandatory obligations of 'democratic
centralism', which had quietly dropped what measure of democracy it might
originally have contained. And all of them, except perhaps the Chinese CP,
accepted Moscow as the commander of the disciplined army of world communism
in the global cold war. Both shared the extraordinary, genuine and unforced
admiration for Stalin as the leader and embodiment of the cause; both
unquestionably felt grief and personal loss at his death in 1953.

While this was natural enough for the rank and file, for whom he was a
remote image of poor people's triumph and liberation - 'the fellow with the
big moustache' who might still come one day to get rid of the rich once and
for all - it was undoubtedly shared by hard-bitten leaders such as Palmiro
Togliatti, who knew the terrible dictator at close quarters, and even by
his victims. Molotov remained loyal to him for 33 years after his death,
though in his last paranoiac years Stalin had forced him to divorce his
wife, had her arrested, interrogated and exiled, and was plainly preparing
Molotov himself for a show trial. Ana Pauker, of the Comintern and Romania,
wept when she heard of Stalin's death, even though she had not liked him,
had indeed been afraid of him, and was at the time being prepared to be
thrown to the wolves as an alleged bourgeois nationalist, an agent of
President Truman and Zionism. ('Don't cry,' said her interrogator. 'If
Stalin were still alive you'd be dead.') No wonder that Khrushchev's
impassioned attack on his record, and on the 'cult of personality', sent
shock waves through the international communist movement.

On the other hand, much as their leaders admired Stalin and accepted the
'guiding role' of the Soviet Party, Communist Parties, in or out of power,
were neither 'monolithic', in the Stalinist phrase, nor simple executive
agents of Soviet policy. And since at least 1947 they had been told by
Moscow to do things, often politically prejudicial, which they would never
have done themselves. While Stalin lived, and the Moscow leadership and
power remained 'monolithic', that was the end of it. Destalinisation
reopened closed options, especially as the men in the Kremlin patently
lacked the old authority, and still faced strong opposition from the old
Stalinists. Moscow was (briefly) no longer under monolithic rule. The
cracks in the region under Soviet control could now open. Within a few
months of the 20th congress they did so, visibly, in Poland and Hungary.
And this in turn aggravated the crises within the non-governmental
Communist Parties.

What disturbed the mass of their members was that the ruthless denunciation
of Stalin's misdeeds came not from 'the bourgeois press', whose stories, if
read at all, could be rejected a priori as slanders and lies, but from
Moscow itself. It was impossible not to take notice of it, but also
impossible to know what loyal believers should make of it. Even those who
had strong suspicions, amounting to moral certainty, for years before
Khrushchev spoke, were shocked at the extent of Stalin's murders of
communists. (The Khrushchev report said nothing about the others.)

Nevertheless, at the start of 1956 no leadership of any non-state Communist
Party seriously thought that destalinisation implied a fundamental revision
of its role, objectives and history. Nor did the leaders expect major
troubles from their members, who had resisted the propaganda of the cold
warriors for ten years. Yet probably because of their very confidence, this
time they failed to carry a substantial part of the membership with them.

Why? Because we had not been told the truth about something that had to
affect the very nature of a communist's belief. Moreover, we could see that
the leaders would have preferred us not to know the truth - they concealed
it until Khrushchev's off-the-record speech had been leaked to the
non-communist press - and they manifestly wanted to bring any discussion
about it to a close as soon as possible. When the crisis broke out in
Poland and Hungary the leaders went on concealing what our own journalists
reported. One could understand why as Party organisers they might find this
convenient, but it was neither Marxism nor genuine politics. When the
familiar call to unswerving loyalty failed, their immediate instinct was to
blame the unfortunate vacillations of those well-known elements of
instability and weakness, petty-bourgeois intellectuals.

When the leadership re-established itself in 1957, after fending off an
outburst of open opposition without precedent, the British Communist Party
had lost a quarter of its members, a third of the staff of its newspaper,
the Daily Worker, and probably the bulk of what remained of the generation
of communist intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s. It also lost several of
its leading trade unionists, though it rapidly regained its industrial
influence, which reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It is difficult to reconstruct not only the mood but the memory of that
traumatic year, rising, through a succession of lesser crises, to the
Soviet army's reconquest of Hungary, and then stumbling and wrestling to an
exhausted defeat through months of doomed and feverish argument. Arnold
Wesker's play Chicken Soup with Barley, about a Jewish working-class family
struggling with its communist faith, gives a good idea of what has been
called 'the pain of losing it and the pain of clinging to it'. Even after
practically half a century, my throat contracts as I recall the almost
intolerable tensions under which we lived month after month, the unending
moments of decision about what to say and do on which our future lives
seemed to depend, the friends now clinging together or facing one another
bitterly as adversaries, the sense of lurching, unwillingly but
irreversibly, down the scree towards the fatal rock face. And this while
all of us, except a handful of full-time Party workers, had to go on, as
though nothing much had happened, with lives and jobs outside which
temporarily seemed unwanted distractions from the enormous thing that
dominated our days and nights.

1956 was a dramatic year in British politics, but in the memory of those
who were then communists, everything else has faded. We mobilised against
the Eden government over the Suez crisis, but Suez did not keep us from
sleeping. For more than a year, British communists lived on the edge of the
political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.

Unlike most of my friends in the Historians' Group, I remained in the CP.
Yet my situation as a man cut loose from his political moorings was not
substantially different from theirs, and I maintained my relations with
them, though the Party asked me not to. The Party chose not to expel me,
but that was its choice, not mine. Party membership no longer meant to me
what it had since 1933. In practice, I recycled myself from militant to
sympathiser to fellow-traveller or, to put it another way, from effective
membership of the British CP to spiritual membership of the Italian CP,
which fitted my ideas of communism rather better.

In any case, our individual political activities no longer mattered much.
We had influence as teachers, as scholars, as political writers or, at
best, 'public intellectuals', and for this - at least in Britain - our
membership of party or organisation was irrelevant. If we had influence
among the left-wing young, it was because our left-wing past and our
present Marxism or commitment to radical scholarship gave us what is today
called 'street cred', because we wrote about important matters and because
they liked what we wrote.

So why did I remain in the Party, albeit as a dissident? I think two things
explain it. First, I came into communism as a central European in the
collapsing Weimar Republic. And I came into it when being a communist meant
not simply fighting fascism but the world revolution. I belong to the
tail-end of the first generation of communists, for whom the October
revolution was the central point of reference in the political universe. No
intellectual brought up in Britain could become a communist with the same
sense as a central European 'in the day when heaven was falling/The hour
when earth's foundations fled' because, with all its problems, this was
simply not the situation in the Britain of the 1930s.

Politically, having joined a Communist Party in 1936, I belong to the era
of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front. It continues to determine my
strategic thinking in politics to this day. But emotionally, as one
converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to a generation
tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world
revolution , and of its original home, the October revolution, however
sceptical or critical of the USSR. For someone who joined the movement
where I came from and when I did, it was quite simply more difficult to
break with the Party than for those who came later and from elsewhere.

But the second reason was pride. Losing the handicap of Party membership
would improve my career prospects, not least in the USA. It would have been
easy to slip out quietly. But I could prove myself to myself by succeeding
as a known communist - whatever 'success' meant - in spite of that
handicap, and in the middle of the cold war. I do not defend this form of
egoism, but neither can I deny its force. So I stayed.

Louis Proyect

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