Book Review-Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century-David Caute Verso, pp. 352, £20
David Caute’s new book is a well-written and deeply researched account of the widespread British Secret Service’s covert surveillance of British writers and intellectuals in the last century. Caute’s work on official documents held at the National Archives shows the massive surveillance of anybody deemed a threat to National security. MI5 opened Letters, tapped phones, private homes were bugged, and hundreds of people were under constant surveillance by Special Branch agents.
Those watched included journalists, academics, scientists, filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and, in some cases, the ordinary public. Caute lists more than 200 victims, but the figures will be much higher as more files are released to the National Archives.
MI5 spied on such prominent figures as Arthur Ransome, Paul Robeson, J.B. Priestley, Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jacob Bronowski, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Kingsley Martin, Michael Redgrave, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Losey, Michael Foot and Harriet Harman.
So wide-ranging was the surveillance that even Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan who was sympathetic to the Russian revolution, was investigated. According to writer Alan Judd, she was never a Communist, but “she got herself to Russia, lived in the Kremlin and sculpted busts of Soviet leaders, including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Dzerzhinsky and Lenin himself. She subsequently had a relationship with the pro-communist Charlie Chaplin and survived attempted rape by Mussolini. She travelled the world broadcasting anti-British views and was monitored by MI5 until they concluded that she was neither a spy nor a security threat but merely ‘extraordinarily indiscreet’ and had a passion for international mischief-making’. She was later reconciled with her cousin, spent time at Chartwell during the second world war and converted to Catholicism.”
MI5 was set up in 1909 and was tasked to look into “activities designed to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, violent or industrial means”. MI5 came into its own during the first world war. Its use of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) against perceived revolutionaries, pacifists, democratic socialists, and anti-war activists. Members of the Independent Labour Party, such as Fenner Brockwaycame in for special scrutiny.
MI5’s task became especially acute when in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution occurred, which threatened to escalate into a worldwide revolution. The spectre of the socialist revolution haunts the secret service even today.
As Caute shows in his book, most people investigated and labelled subversive were no such thing. One such figure mentioned by Caute is the writer Arthur Ransome who, although was sympathetic to the Russian revolution and interviewed both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was never a revolutionary as this quote from his book Six Weeks in Russia shows, “I should have liked to explain what was the appeal of the revolution to men like Colonel Robins and myself, both of us men far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries. Of course, no one who was able, as we were able, to watch the men of the revolution at close quarters could believe for a moment that they were the merely paid agents of the very power which, more than all the others, represented the stronghold they had set out to destroy. We knew the injustice being done to these men to urge us in their defence. But there was more to it than that. There was a feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution.”
In the post-war period, Caute’s book shows that the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) took up a large part of MI5’s spying activity. All its leading cadre and large numbers of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group) were under constant surveillance. Caute believes the CPGB was not revolutionary and harboured no plans to overthrow capitalism.
According to the Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League, who opposed Stalinism from the left, they were “a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; a coterie of well-meaning university Dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow.
Caute’s study of the Communist Party Historians Group highlights a historian’s difficulty in using and writing about these documents. It is not just a question of saying how and why people were spied upon, but any study must place the spy’s actions in the social and political context of the time. As Madeleine Davis writes:
“The release of MI5 files on Thompson and Hilton added to those of prominent party intellectuals already available, provides a fresh set of primary sources for and a renewed opportunity to consider these issues in their context, while the Thompson material has extra significance given the continued embargo on his papers.14 These files present problems as sources for historians interested in the human subjects of surveillance rather than its techniques and policy contexts. The secret, partial and incomplete nature of the material, retention or redaction of documents, and the difficulty in many cases of cross-checking against other sources limits their usefulness.
Although some triangulation is possible against the CPGB’s archive, awareness among prominent communists of extensive surveillance provoked counter-measures, including selective record keeping. It reinforced a culture of secrecy and mistrust. Thus while the volume of MI5 personal files now available has started to generate a significant literature drawing on both sets of primary sources, 15 investigation of the motives of those involved in the 1956 crisis needs also to draw on a substantial specialist secondary literature. Especially relevant is work emerging from the ‘biographical turn’ in communist historiography and work that examines both the CPGB’s cultural analysis and the party’s internal culture to illuminate the complex and contradictory reality of Zhdanovism’s implementation and contestation in the British party.”
In the Chapter, The BBC Toes the Line Caute shows that MI5’s vetting of BBC staff was well-known, but the spy agency’s surveillance of independent television was not so much. In 1969, MI5 agents were particularly interested in Granada TV’s World In Action. Although not a Trotskyist, one of the high-profile journalists, John Pilger, had a large dossier on him. MI5 concluded that there was “no evidence of a conspiracy” at the programme and reported that any interest from the Communist Party of Great Britain had “diminished.” As one file claims. “Communists are less influential than Trotskyists, who, however, are too disunited to be able to execute a joint plan.”
Caute’s view of Trotskyism neatly dovetails that of MI5. Although a significant amount of time was spent by MI5 infiltrating many Psuedo left groups claiming to be Trotskyists, Caute, like MI5, thought the Trotskyist movement to be disunited. Perhaps this explains Caute’s ideologically light-minded attitude towards state penetration of the Trotskyist movement and certainly accounts for its lack of coverage in his book.
In March 2000, an article appeared on the WSWS.ORG called Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. Caute does not mention anything about this grave matter. As the article’s author David North explains: “A former agent for the British Security Service (known as MI5) has alleged in a sworn statement that the agency received reports from a high-level spy inside the Workers Revolutionary Party during the late 1960s. The ex-agent, David Shayler, is currently living in exile in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution for his exposure of state secrets. In his February 18 affidavit, Shayler asserts that the spy provided MI5 with reports of financial support given by John Lennon to the WRP. Shayler recounts that he was shown portions of an MI5 file relating to the agency’s surveillance of Lennon, whose socialist and anti-imperialist sentiments angered the British ruling class. The affidavit states that the material “concerned Lennon’s support for the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyist organisation. According to the file, a source in the WRP had reported that Lennon gave tens of thousands of pounds sterling to the WRP in the late 1960s and also provided some funds to the Irish Republican Army at around the same time.”
If David Caute has any information, he must publicise it. As North points out, all those committed to democratic rights in Britain and internationally must call for the identification of the MI5 agent inside the SLL/WRP. This is important not only to expose the individual (or individuals) involved but to educate a new generation of socialists about the dangers posed by state infiltration and provocation.
The Good Old Cause – Communist Intellectuals and the English Radical Tradition-By David Morgan-Issue Number 45 in the Occasional Publications series of the SHS- Cost: £4.00
David Morgan’s The Good Old Cause is part of the Socialist History Society’s Occasional Publications series. The title “The Good Old Cause” has been used before. The great historian of the seventeenth century Christopher Hill produced a collection of political writings from the seventeenth century that was published in 1949. More recent use of the term was Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991, published in 1992.
All these titles are referencing the phrase whose origins stem from the sentiment espoused by veterans of Cromwell’s New Model Army and other supporters of the English Republic like John Milton. The Good Old Cause was the name given, retrospectively, by the soldiers of the New Model Army, to the complex cause that motivated their fight on behalf of the Parliament of England.
For such a little book, Morgan manages to cram an awful lot of work into it. Morgan examines the work of a group of very important Communist Party historians and some others who were outside the formal group. Like many of their generation, these intellectuals were drawn to left-wing politics in the early part of the twentieth century.
The historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s played an important and dare I say leading role in the study of British and World history throughout the 20th century. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery there used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study”. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”.
Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name a few were all moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and of course the Russian revolution. “For some, the group was, if not exactly a way of life, then at least a small cause, as well as a minor way of structuring leisure. For most it was also friendship,” said Eric Hobsbawm.
Again given the brevity of the book Morgan attempts to examine the work of people like Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Margot Heinemann, Arnold Kettle, Raymond Williams, E P Thompson, and Victor Kiernan.
As Morgan correctly points out, there were of course not just “Communist intellectuals”, in the CP writing about history, a significant number of workers were drawn into their circle.
Morgan does not dwell too much on the output of the historians on their chosen historical field but their attitude to the use of literature as a way of understanding the past. In some ways, the use of literature to help explain complicated historical events was groundbreaking. However, even today, there is a hostility amongst many in academia to the use of literature to understand history or historical events.
The historian who perhaps was most open to the idea of using poetry, literature etc. to understand the past was Christopher Hill. Certainly in later life Hill made use of varied literary forms of poetry, fiction, plays, sermons, diaries, and letters. Also in later life Hill started to use the genre of “history from below” adopted by the Communist Party. While this type of historical study does retain some uses, I am inclined to agree with Ann Talbot’s evaluation of this type of historical enquiry when she wrote: “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr.
There is a positive side to this type of history that introduces to the wider working class figures from history that they would under normal circumstances not get to meet. The Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) wrote about figures such as Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, William Blake, Shelley and William Morris. A modern working class will not be able to make a revolution without a study of these figures and others. It must also learn about previous struggles such as the Peasants’ Revolt, groups such as the Levellers and Diggers of the English revolution. It must have an intimate knowledge of its revolutionary figures such as the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and the Leveller pamphleteers.
Morgan also mentions “popular dreams and myths of a Utopian past” which are also important in helping the working class to understand that it is a revolutionary class.
Hill’s work is important in that it sought under tremendous difficulties to answer important questions such as why were the radicals such as the Levellers etc. were defeated. Hill was one of the few historians who understood the difficulty these revolutionaries faced when mounting a revolution as Hill says “I think it is right to say that the revolution was not planned. One of the things that should be made more of is that no one in England in the 1640s knew they were taking part in a revolution. American and French revolutionaries could look back to England, the Russian revolutionaries had an ideology of revolution based on English and French experience, but no one in England could draw on such experiences. The very word revolution emerges in its modern sense in the 1640s. So that the English revolutionaries are fumbling all the time, they have not got a Rousseau or a Marx to guide them. The examples of the Netherlands and the French Huguenots were discussed in the 17th century as religious or nationalist revolts. The only text they could look to was the bible, but of course, the bible says such different things that you can get any theory out of it so that it proved unsatisfactory. One of my arguments in my new book is that it was the experience of its uselessness as an agreed guide to action in the 1640s and 1650s that led to its dethroning from its position of absolute authority. That was a major problem for the English revolutionaries; they had no theory to start from.
My difference with Morgan is that while a study of these figures is important, that does not mean that there is an unbroken thread of radical struggle that workers can tap into. The working class must take a critical approach to all historical phenomena. This radicalism does not replace the need for a conscious revolutionary party along the lines of the Bolsheviks to take power.
One question Morgan does not ask is how to characterise these historians. Ann Talbot asks of Hill but could be said of other CP historians “What any serious reader interested in history or politics wants to know is when we read Hill’s books are we reading the work of an apologist for the Stalinist bureaucracy or of someone who was genuinely struggling to make a Marxist analysis of an aspect of English history? It has to be said that this is a complex question”.
Despite many caveats, this is an important little book, and it is hoped many workers interested in the past put it into their library.
 “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
 John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause an interview with Christopher Hill- From International Socialism 2 : 56, Autumn 1992, pp. 125–34.Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages, cloth.
“We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in a struggle against the exploiters.”
“We see no more in common between a Mrs Fawcett [the leading light of the women’s rights movement in the late 19th century] and a laundress than we see between [the banker] Rothschild and one of his employees. In short, for us, there is only the working-class movement.”
“We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. ‘Never glad confident morning again.'” This is not a recantation but an adjustment.”
Time Will Tell by Yvonne Kapp is an ordinary memoir by an extraordinary woman. She is best known for her excellent biography of Eleanor Marx (1855–1898). Published in two volumes in 1972 and 1976. The Verso publication is issued in one volume as part of its Marx 200 series. Verso also published Kapp’s memoir.
Kapp’s memoir was published very late in the day by Verso. It has joined a veritable cottage industry of memoirs of members or former members of the Communist Party of Britain. One of the more well known was Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World Of British Communism.
Raphael Samuel’s book consists of three separate articles reprinted from the New Left Review written in the mid-1980s. His primary purpose for writing the book remains unclear, although it is common for political activists to put down in writing their understanding of events that have played a crucial role in their political development. Written amidst a bitter faction fight inside the British Communist Party for political control, the book does almost nothing to further our understanding of Stalinism. The book is part autobiographical, part “social history” and part “history from below”. It is almost hybrid. Most of the book takes the form of a polemic about Samuel’s life inside the British Communist Party. Given the political nature of his subject, the book is remarkably free of political analysis. He also has selective amnesia towards the betrayals of the Communist Party both in the USSR and Britain.
Samuel had a very romantic view of his time in the CP and tended to see his party through rose-tinted spectacles. Its betrayals are glossed over. He says nothing of the Show Trials that were responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of old Bolsheviks. The countless betrayals of the working class by Stalinism remain untouched. Samuel, it should be said took the death of Stalin hard. He cried when it was announced and wore a black armband.
Eric Hobsbawm, who like Kapp, stayed in the CP until the end was not too polite about Communist Party memoirs saying that some authors exhibited a “twilight zone of memory”.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Kapp’s biography of Marx’s youngest daughter rescued her from historical obscurity. The biography should be on the reading list of any young socialist today. Although overshadowed by her famous father, the book restores her place amongst the leading socialists of her day. It is hard not to agree with Eric Hobsbawm who said the book was “one of the few unquestionable masterpieces of twentieth-century biography.”
Like many of her generation, Kapp’s life (1903–1999) spanned nearly a century of struggle. She witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and took part in many of the great struggles of the 20th century.
Kapp joined the CP in 1935 on the way back from the USSR. Recruited by its then General Secretary Harry Pollitt. Despite being in her thirties, it would seem that Kapp was blissfully unaware of the Stalinist nature of the party she was joining. It might be added that she stayed in this state of mind until she died in 1999. Kapp joined at the same time as an increasing number of other middle-class people were joining.
Kapp led a bohemian life. She did not undertake formal education and moved from one job to another. According to one writer Kapp had until meeting Pollitt no fixed ambitions and had no political awareness. Kapp admitted that she had no sudden blinding light on the road to Damascus that awakened her political consciousness.
According to Ellen Leopold, “her life story becomes a picaresque chronicle of progressive movement activities leavened by often amusing tales of encounters with colleagues, friends, and lovers. At one moment, she is traipsing across town shouting “Arms for Spain.” The next she is marching to prevent Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (members of the British Union of Fascists that Mosley founded) from entering the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Whitechapel in London’s East End. Or she is organising a fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall where Paul Robeson comes to sing for refugees from the Spanish Civil War”.
It is doubtful that her twenty years in the CP would have prepared her for the cataclysmic events that happened in 1956. In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime Stalin. Kruschev’s “secret speech” was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.
Khrushchev’s speech was typical of a man who was implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats were in agreement was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said “We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. The ideological fight was carried on successfully … Here Stalin played a positive role.”
Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of what social forces he was inadvertently unleashing with his speech. Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin and unleash terror on the working class.
The fact that Kapp brackets her house purchase in 1956 with the significant political events of the same “traumatic year”—the Hungarian uprising, Suez, and Krushchev’s speech to the Communist Party Congress said a lot about her miseducation inside the CP.
In her memoir Kapp makes light of the event saying “We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. ‘Never glad confident morning again.'” This is not a recantation but an adjustment”.
This adjustment did not mean leaving the party but ignited a passion for the study of the past. Kapp conceived the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx while translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Paul and Laura Lafargue.
Kapp was politically aware enough to see that writing about specific events of the 20th century such as Stalinism, bourgeoise nationalism to name but two was not possible under the control of the Communist Party leadership. It was only in a study of the past she could escape for a time its dominance. Kapp said “I have said that the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx arose from my translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Laura and Paul Lafargue. Eleanor flits in and out of the pages of these three volumes most tantalisingly. Every reference to her evoked an interesting personality who aroused my curiosity. I wished I knew more about her, but when I enquired I found there existed no biography of her”.
To her credit, she did not mimic Josef Stalin’s attitude to the study of Marx’s family. Stalin upon looking at the file on Marx’s son minuted the file “Unimportant, keep in the archives,”
Another subject that was taboo inside the CP was the question of Leon Trotsky or the leading Trotskyist party of her day Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League. Unsurprisingly Kapp does not mention anything on the CP’s hostility to Trotskyism. In her article, Lynne Segal recounts Sheila Rowbotham although not a Stalinist describing the animosity the radical and Stalinist milieu had against the Trotskyist of the SLL she writes “Nevertheless, on moving to Dalston, East London, in 1964, she joined the Hackney Young Socialists the year Harold Wilsonʼs Labour government assumed power, heightening hopes for social reforms and cultural change. There she encountered, in continued action replay, the venomous sectarian combat between differing Trotskyist factions working as ʻentristsʼ inside the Labour Party. ʻUnited Front, yes; Popular Front, noʼ, the member from Militant explained when she joined, warning her against his enemies from Gerry Healyʼs Socialist Labour League: ʻI blinked, trying to concentrate. It would be easy to get this the wrong way round, and his tone suggested the consequences could be direʼ.
Scrutinising the battle of dissenting certainties, she was quickly an expert on the ritual differences between rival Trotskyist sects, admiring their tenacity (always angry, acerbic, alert for betrayal), even while appalled by their arrogance and dogmatism (which served primarily to drive away any working-class youth they managed to recruit). It was the beginning of a permanent aversion to vanguardism, a conviction that it was not the most effective, least of all the most creative, way of winning people for progressive ends while sowing the seeds of potential intimidation or abuse. Several short satirical efforts at illustrating this over the years would culminate in her inﬂuential critique of Leninism in 1979, in Beyond the Fragments, with its call for solidarity between differing campaigning movements, creating immediate but the short-lived impact, in by then already harsher times.” 
The unprincipled attacks on the SLL did not deter Healy and the SLL. It did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist Party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP. They were able to double their efforts through the journal Labour Review and the weekly Newsletter to wage a political-theoretical offensive, leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959.
Kapp correctly places Eleanor Marx within her own time and was criticised by the feminists of her day and today refused to place Marx as a leading feminist thinker or activist. Kapp correctly states that Eleanor Marx believed that the fundamental social division was class, not race or gender.
Kapp was writing her biography at a time when inequality amongst women was growing very fast. Another more disgusting phenomena were the unbridled ambitions of various layers of the upper-middle class women who were seeking to leverage past or present abuses, to advance their selfish interests.
The project took Kapp ten years to complete. Kapp said it “drew in one way or another upon my whole accumulated experience.” The book is all the more extraordinary since according to Hobsbawm, she ‘never passed so much as a single examination, even at school.’
To conclude, given the enormous struggles witnessed by Yvonne Kapp, you would think that a writer with her literary gifts would have given the reader a deep insight and understanding of the “Long Twentieth Century. It is blatantly not the case with this memoir. Any young socialist looking for insight into political problems of the 20th century should look elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone interested in the early socialist movement should read her masterpiece biography of Eleanor Marx.
 Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages,
 Formations of feminism Political memoirs of the Left (II) Lynne Sega
History Today Continues its Love Affair with Eric Hobsbawm
Jesus Casquete’s recent article in the May edition of History’s Today continues the magazines love affair with Eric Hobsbawm. Given the stature of Hobsbawm, there is nothing wrong in examing a historian that made a significant contribution to the study of history.
However, like many articles before there are substantial problems with the content of this article. It is written from the standpoint of airbrushing any criticism of Hobsbawm’s Stalinism from left to be more precise from an orthodox Marxist viewpoint. There are several issues worth examining in this article. Casquetes is correct that Hobsbawm was obedient to the “guidelines established by Moscow”. This is a very strange formulation, almost casual and non-descript. Hobsbawm was not just obedient, he agreed with the political line that came from Moscow and implemented it when he was a member of the British Communist Party. It is not hard to figure; he was after all a Stalinist to his dying day.
Casquete is also correct to praise Hobsbawm’s “literary quality”, and Judt’s description of him as “master of English prose” is very accurate. The problem occurred for Hobbawm when he wrote anything that took place in the 20th Century and especially on the Russian Revolution.
As the Marxist writer David North states “his writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: “The terrible paradox of the Soviet era,” Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, “is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others.”North said that it would have been no great loss if Hobsbawm had stuck to writing history before the 20th Century.
The subject of the rise of Fascism is a legitimate topic. My two issues of concern are that the article airbrushes from the historical record Stalinism’s part in the coming to power of the Fascists. The other concern is the consistent airbrushing out the history of the opposition to both Stalinism and Fascism by Leon Trotsky. Whether you agree with Trotsky or not the readers of history Today should be allowed to make up their mind. Trotsky was not just some innocent bystander and wrote extraordinarily perceptive articles as this one shows.
What is Fascism? The name originated in Italy. Were all the forms of counter-revolutionary dictatorship fascist or not (That is to say, prior to the advent of Fascism in Italy)?. The former dictatorship in Spain of Primo de Rivera, 1923-30, is called a fascist dictatorship by the Comintern. Is this correct or not? We believe that it is incorrect. The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a “self-made” man arising from this movement.
To conclude it must be said that Casquete’s last remarks on Hobsbawm are a little generous. He continues the political line that Hobsbawm was a willing dupe of Stalinism’s “Poisonous legacy”. This is not only wrong but gives a false picture as to what Hobsbawm represented.
 FAascism What it is Extracts from a letter to an English comrade, November 15 1931;printed in The Militant, January 16, 1932-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm#p1
Englishmen with Swords by Charles Montagu Slater, Merlin Radical Fiction, (1950)
Montagu Slater was a minor figure inside the British Communist Party. Outside the party, he had limited success as a playwright and poet.He was born into a working-class family in 1902 who went on to win a prestigious scholarship to Oxford. Like many of his generation, he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.
It was an unfortunate time to join the British Communist Party because by 1927 it was already exhibiting signs of political degeneration and slavishly sided with Joseph Stalin’s struggle against Leon Trotsky. Slater very quickly sided with the revisionist Stalinist theory of building Socialism in One Country in opposition to Leon Trotsky’s orthodox Marxist position of permanent revolution.
The CPGB slavishly followed the Soviet party’s line. When anybody stepped outline such as in the case of Maurice Dobbs who wrote for a journal that had “Trotskyists” writing for it, he was forced into a humiliating retreat.
According to John McIlroy “by 1933 G.A.Hutt was denouncing accounts of the development of Marxism which failed to privilege Stalin by an invocation of Stalin’s letter, declaring: ‘There is no true Marxism today that is not Leninist. Lenin developed and extended the work of Marx and Engels and Lenin’s unchallenged successor in the field of both theory and practice is Stalin’. A new orthodoxy, a new canon and new controls over party intellectuals were in place: in late 1933 the requirement that books written by CPGB members were to be submitted for approval by the party leaders was formalised”. 
Any assessment of Slater’s literary work should take into consideration his Stalinist politics. His craven adherence to Stalinism paved the way for him in the 1930s to become founder and then editor of the journal ‘Left Review’ in October 1934. Left Review from the beginning was an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky.
As Brian Pearce writes “right from the very first number, Left Review revealed where its basic allegiance lay, with a poem by Louis Aragon glorifying the speed-up in a Soviet tractor-works. And in the number for February 1935 Tom Wintringham, one of the co-editors, launched a violent attack on Max Eastman’s book Artists in Uniform, which had shaken illusions among some left-wing intellectuals about the position of literature and the writer in the Soviet Union. A characteristic jolly-them-along phrase in Wintringham’s article ran: ‘Not a few bureaucratic absurdities have happened at times during the Soviet Revolution. And as soon as the party has been able to be quite clear on what it is all about – they go.’ (Wintringham was himself expelled from the Communist Party only a few years later, for keeping company with the daughter of an alleged Trotskyist.)
Pearce continues “In November 1937 the publisher Frederick Warburg revealed in a letter to the New Statesman that Left Review had refused an advertisement for The Case of Leon Trotsky, published by his firm. This book was the report of the examination of Trotsky, regarding the statements affecting him made in the trials, carried out by an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey. The new liberalism of Left Review did not include giving a show to the other side. Editor Randall Swingler explained on behalf of the journal, in the next issue of the New Statesman, that “there is a line at which criticism ends and destructive attacks begin, and we regret that this line separates us both from Dr Goebbels and Leon Trotsky”. 
Slater, who died at a very early age of 54, stayed true to his Stalinist ideas. Despite being linked with the new Reasoner wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party’ s attack on Trotskyism. He backed the party’s reformist “British Road to Socialism”. When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, Slater called it a counter-revolution. He died in 1956 still retaining his party membership.
Englishmen with Swords
As was said before any assessment of Slater’ss literary achievements should within the context of his politics. Englishmen with Swords is a piece of historical fiction which centres on the years 1647-1649, these years being the highpoint of the English Bourgeois revolution. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but significant real-life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot.
As much as I can tell, the storyline remains faithful to actual events. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be seen as a complement to academic historical research.
Slater does bring Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost because revisionist historians reluctance to research figures such as Mabbott and others. Revisionists attempt to replace “history from below” genre with history from above has done much damage.
Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according to Graham Stevenson “the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period”. He was significantly linked to radical groups such as the Levellers during his publication of the Moderate newsbook.Describing his time with the Moderate Mabbott said: “I have laid down my former title of ‘Moderate Intelligencer’ and do go by another, ‘The Moderate'”. The Moderate espoused republican views. It fully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.
Mabbott’ss link to the Levellers has been questioned by Frances Henderson who said “Mabbott’s reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers”.
Henderson’s view have in turn been challenged by Pattrick Ludolph “Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.
Patrick’s views on Slater’s book is worth quoting “I have read it, but I could not tell you much more about its background than what is already on the dust jacket. It is from Gilbert Mabbott (which you know because you commented here, but I thought I would say for others out there) and makes use of several original documents from the Civil War. However, Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him.
He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on. The irony is not lost on me. It has been a while since I looked at it; I seem to recall that Slater was a little confused about some things, but I do not remember what. Come to think of it, I probably should have done a post on this, but I read it before I started blogging”.
To conclude, it is difficult to say how good this book is. As Chris Hopkins says “Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: ‘The Classical Form of the Historical Novel’, ‘The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre’. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself” 
 The Establishment of Intellectual Orthodoxy and the Stalinization of British Communism 1928-1933 John McIlroy Past & Present, No. 192 (Aug., 2006), pp. 187-226 Brian Pearce-Some Lessons from History:The Left Review, 1934–1938(November 1959)From The Newsletter, 7 November 1959.Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg. Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction-Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University
Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956 (2008) David Parker-Lawrence & Wishart.
Review: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans-Little Brown-2019
Eric Hobsbawm-A Life in History-Richard J. Evans in conversation with Martin Jacques and Donald Sassoon
Review of ‘The Lost World Of British Communism’, Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99
Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian (Socialist History Occasional Publications) Pamphlet – 2 Nov 2015- Malcolm Chase, Willie Thompson, and David Parker
This pamphlet is the product of the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. The title was a Historian, Teacher and Critic. This review is made up of four parts. Part one looks at Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History; part two examines Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works, the third part Hobsbawm, History and Politics and finally Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Pseudo Left.
The pamphlet Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian aims to celebrate and assess the life’s work of the historian. It does indeed celebrate his life, but the assessment it makes whitewashes his politics.The pamphlet correctly portrays Hobsbawm as an exceptionally gifted historian. He had an excellent aptitude for writing in an accessible manner while retaining a robust academic rigour. However, If he had concentrated on writing before the 19th century, then I would not have much problem in recommending his work. However his work on the 20th century especially the Russian Revolution was severely hampered by his near Jesuit defence of both the Stalinist British Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party.
Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History
Malcolm Chase’s article sets the tone for the rest of the pamphlet. He begins the whitewash of Hobsbawm’s politics, especially his defence of the Communist Party. His amnesia regarding the many betrayals of the party is breathtaking and offers only limited criticism at the end of his essay.
From Chase’s essay, you would not have guessed that Hobsbawm adopted a genre (Labour History) which was a combination of both his party’s support for the Popular Front and more importantly the Annales school of history. This Annales school combined Front Popular front politics profoundly influenced Hobsbawm and most of the historians that formed the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).
When Hobsbawm started to tackle Labour history he had already drawn very pessimistic conclusions from the post-war defeats suffered by the working class which his party along with the trade union and Labour Party leadership had organised. It was not wrong for Hobsbawm to examine Labour history, but his refusal to expose the betrayals of the working class by the leadership of that class was.
A perfect expression of Hobsbawm’s pessimism was his article The Forward March of Labour Halted. Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in this Marx Memorial Lecture of1978. According to the Marxist writer, Chris Marsden “Hobsbawm began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy has failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time. Hobsbawm’s The lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC”.
Hobsbawm played lip service for the need for a revolutionary Marxist Party that would combat the reformist leadership of the working class. Hobsbawm, in this quote below, believes that all a party should aim for is to stop the working from drifting into reformism.”A higher degree of political consciousness, a special effort, is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into mere reformism … a conscious socialist movement, and notably a communist party, provide such a special factor. If the working class attached itself to such a movement at the crucial phase of its development when it forms such attachments, it would have some built-in guarantee against the drift into reformism. However, if, as in the British case, it attaches itself to a movement largely formed in the pre-Marxist mould, it will not. The loyalty and theoretical inertia which it derives from its spontaneous experience will maintain its traditional attachments, and – unless quite extraordinary catastrophes occur, and even then by no means lightly or rapidly – it will stay with them” .
While examining the history of the British Labour movement, Hobsbawm discounted the possibility of a Marxist Party being established in the working class. As Norah Carlin suggests “Hobsbawm became so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable? .In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration.
Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926″. As was said, previous Hobsbawm had a near Jesuit ability to avoid upsetting both the Labour and Stalinist bureaucracy when writing about the working class. Despite this handicap, it would be wrong to say that all Hobsbawm writing on the Labour movement was worthless. To his credit, Hobsbawm wrote about Labour History with the same academic rigour as any of his other subjects. He believed historians should “consolidate the new territories won by the committed.’In many ways, his new writing was as groundbreaking as was the former Communist party historian E P Thompson. As Norah Carlin put it “his studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians”.
Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works
Willie Thompson’s essay concentrates on Hobsbawm’s four core writings The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). He also examines Hobsbawm as both historian and activist.Hobsbawm understood in embarking on such a wide-ranging study that he was, in fact, writing three separate books but was, in essence, writing a history of the 19th century. Hobsbawm’s first book of the Tetralogy The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 while maintaining a very high academic standard was written for a broad audience. Like in the first essay Thompson largely absolves Hobsbawm from any blame regarding Stalinism’s betrayals. When commenting on the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s murderous regime, he manages to lump together right-wing commentators with those he calls the “anti-communist left”.
In another point, he glosses over the crimes of Stalin by saying that their exposure proved that the Communist Party could reform itself from its worst excesses. Which was Hobsbawm’s position also?Hobsbawm subsequent later life as a historian and activist was shaped by his early political experiences. This worldview was dominated by the rejection of the working class as a revolutionary force and his anti-Trotskyism.
Especially crucial in shaping his outlook were the political events in Germany that he witnessed as a child. Joining the Communist Party as a direct result of the threat of Fascism, Hobsbawm stood on the right of his party and drew extremely pessimistic conclusions from the rise of Fascism. He says “Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed”.
This is quite a statement. Instead of the nationalism of the Nazis, Hobsbawm adopted the nationalism of the Stalinists. Hobsbawm joined the CP in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit a vast betrayal by allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led later on to the Russian Marxist and opponent of Stalin, Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.
Hobsbawm parrotted the party line on the victory of Hitler by saying “In Germany, there was not any alternative left,” he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. This was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the increase of the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life, it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.
Age of Extremes
The Age of Extremes was dangerous territory for Hobsbawm. His previous three volumes were to a much lesser extent coloured by his politics. In the fourth volume, they were very much to the fore.While Hobsbawm did not write extensively on the Russian revolution in this book, he did in a later book called On history. The Russian revolution was the dangerous territory of for Hobsbawm. It is well-known that Communist Party historians avoided like the plague writing on the Russian revolution. For the simple reason that his party leadership would have frowned upon it. With the threat of expulsion a real possibility. Hobsbawm knew that when he finally wrote on the subject, he would have to lie about it. One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history. More specifically, the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill, which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.
According to A Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”.Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out, I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992.
Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn’t a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I have written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. However, as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about some things about which it is reasonable not to be silent – things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it is a one-off biographical question. It was not out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I am not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things, and I have done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and fruitful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.
According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900″ .
Hobsbawm and the Labour Party.
It does not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm’s writing on Labour history brought him closer to the Labour Party. He was made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives. However, he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.”
In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a major theoretical architect of the right-wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the “Eurocommunist” wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging Labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways, laid the basis for Labours future development? “If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party”.
Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden, which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.”Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today of which Hobsbawm was a frequent writer for laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union” .
Historian and activist
To begin this part of Thompson’s essay, he uses a quote from Isaac Deutscher in which he regrets being expelled from the Polish Communist Party and advises Hobsbawm not to leave the party.The fact that Deutscher was expelled from the party for “exaggerating the danger of Nazism and … spreading panic in the Communist ranks.” Moreover, Deutscher opposed the Stalinist line that Nazism and Social Democracy were “not antipodes but twins.” largely passes Thompson by. Hobsbawm never undertook any systematic work opposing the party line. This sleight of hand by Thompson is a hallmark of his political writing.
When Hobsbawm made issue mild criticism of the party’s line on Hungary, he immediately backed down and accepted his punishment. Never to combine his history writing with opposition to the party’s line.This went for all the historians who were part of the Communist Party Historians Group. As Ann Talbot points out “There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions” .
Hobsbawm, History and Politics
David Parker has written extensively on the Communist movement. His essay Hobsbawm, History and Politics is an expansion of his concluding remarks from the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. Parker is correct to say that this pamphlet is only a small start to what must be a massive project. Recently Oxford University Press released a collection of essays in an attempt to evaluate Hobsbawm’s place in history.Parker justifies Hobsbawm’s decision to stay inside the Communist Party. The fact that all writers closely associated with SHS have primarily whitewashed Hobsbawm’s Stalinism is staggering.
Another comment equally startling is Parker’s opinion that Hobsbawm was instrumental in developing New Labour. A comment that seemed genuine as it was stupid. As if this was some great achievement. Hobsbawm was indeed motivated by the struggle for humanity to better itself, but Parker continues the SHS’s attempt to whitewash history will not bring that about.
Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Pseudo Left.
Although not a subject tackled in the SHS pamphlet, Hobsbawm relationship with the Pseudo left is critical in understanding, his history and his politics. It should be the starting point for any understanding of Hobsbawm’s place in history.Firstly a point of clarification. The term Pseudo Left comes from the Marxist David North who characterises these groups in this way “the pseudo-left denotes political parties, organisations and theoretical/ideological tendencies which utilise populist slogans and democratic phrases to promote the socioeconomic interests of privileged and affluent strata of the middle class”.
He continues. The pseudo-left is anti-Marxist. It rejects historical materialism, embracing instead various forms of subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism associated with existentialism, the Frankfurt School and contemporary postmodernism.The second paragraph is crucial to understanding their relationship with Eric Hobsbawm. None of the writings of these groups came from the standpoint of classical Marxism when examining Hobsbawm place in history.
A cursory look at a number of the titles of articles on Hobsbawm by these radicals shows this. Neil Davidson, who is a member of the State Capitalist Socialist Workers Party, wrote an article: Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation. He states “Now that his life is over and his body of work complete, it is only fair to Hobsbawm that his critical admirers take time to assess his output as a whole, free from the demands of instant assessment required by obituaries. I am confident, however, that relatively little of his serious historical output is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged; most of is a lasting contribution, not only to the culture of the left but far beyond it. Moreover, can those critics of the right who endlessly demanded that he recant the views which informed his entire life and work point to any historians with their beliefs who entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree?” .
Davidson follows a well-worn path where Hobsbawm’s history is largely divorced from his Politics. This amounts to a political amnesty from an organisation that professes itself to be Trotskyist.Hobsbawm himself did not hide his political orientation which became more pronounced towards the end of his life. In his Guardian article in 2005” I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war – and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed” . His place in history is secure. How does admiration for a man that helped restore capitalism into the former Soviet Union not colour one’s history writing?
As the Marxist writer David North said “Hobsbawm is not merely blind to all this. His writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: “The terrible paradox of the Soviet era,” Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, “is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others.”
What Hobsbawm really should have written is that “the Stalin experienced by the Soviet people and the Stalin as he was deceitfully portrayed by the British Communist Party were not quite the same thing”. Instead, unfortunately, Hobsbawm compromises himself as a historian by engaging in shabby pro-Stalinist apologetics, and thereby exposing what has been the tragic paradox of his own intellectual life” .
There is no denying that Hobsbawm was a hugely significant historian. His work is read all around the world and for anyone wanting to understand the world we live in they are very useful. However, a proper assessment of his politics and history is overdue. The starting point of this assessment must be an examination of the extent his politics clouded his judgement, especially on such a crucial subject as the Russian Revolution.