Eric Hobsbawm, Martin Amis and Stalinism


The long 20th century and some personal reflections on Marxist historical questions triggered by Perry Anderson’s lucid Guardian review of the autobiography of the Stalinist, Eric Hobsbawm

Bob Gould

Perry Anderson’s review of Eric Hobsbawm’s memoir is an intelligent and very important piece, constrained by the obligatory courtesies that prevail among English academics (which to some extent reflect the ordinary courtesies normal some of the time between human beings). Perry Anderson is much kinder to Hobsbawm than the old Stalinist deserves, politically speaking. But then, I look at it from a different standpoint, based on a different life experience.

As a precocious young political activist from a leftist, Irish Catholic, labour movement family in the quiescent 1950s, I entered a labour movement with long and deep traditions, the proletarian left wing of which was dominated by Stalinism, with a smallish, working-class Trotskyist opposition to Stalinism.

I was caught up in the great split in that labour movement between the left and the right-wing Catholic Action Groupers. I was in the orbit of the powerful, overwhelmingly proletarian Stalinist left wing of that movement for a couple of years as a precocious, autodidact, only-child adolescent.

My political encounter with Stalinism took place in a fairly open-eyed way. I had read books like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia while still at school (it was a Christian Brothers school), and I already knew something of the history of Stalinism, but this was the time of the relative thaw immediately after Stalin’s death, and the communists that I encountered in the Sydney University Labor Club, when I was an evening student, impressed me as serious and dedicated people and they drew me in, with some resistance on my part, to the orbit of a high-Stalinist proletarian political culture focussed mainly on left-wing trade unionism, a number of features of which I found very attractive. I tended in adolescence to identify with the working class. In my family tradition, identification with the working class was important, culturally.

After a year or two of getting acclimatised to the very potent political culture in this small, vigorous proletarian world of Australian Stalinism, enormous overseas events blew me out of the Stalinist orbit.

The next big turning points in my political life were the 20th Congress of the CPSU, at which Khrushchev delivered his secret report denouncing the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet invasion that crushed the Hungarian revolution against Stalinism later in 1956.

These events had an enormous impact on me, and, along with experiences in the labour movement, propelled me into the orbit of the Trotskyist opposition led by Nick Origlass, which became my proletarian university, so to speak. This part of my life is covered in different ways in Denis Freney’s autobiography, A Map of Days, and in Hall Greenland’s important biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot.

A group of us in the orbit of the CPA used to go to the Sydney Domain on Sundays, the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park corner, to listen to the Stalinist speakers. Going to the Domain on Sundays, in those years before Sunday entertainment, to listen to the colourful Stalinist speakers like Rupert Lockwood, Stan Moran, Ray Clarke, Bill White and others, was a real ritual. When I got my Special Branch file a couple of years ago, a large part of it was made up of the terse statement: “Seen in the government Domain,” repeated for 357 Sundays. Special Branch carefully monitored the Domain. In those days, the Domain was free. These days, as the antiwar coalition found recently, it costs $15,000 to hire it for a Saturday. Some things were better then.

One day at the Domain we encountered a skinny, red-faced 15 year-old Big Brother Movement, East London migrant to Australia who had been in the orbit of Gerry Healy’s outfit in London from the age of 13 in the Steatham Young Socialists. He heckled the Stalinist speakers effectively and ferociously about the 20th Congress, captured our interest and introduced us to the literature of the world Trotskyist movement at precisely the time when Healy, Peter Fryer and others were producing The Newsletter and Labour Review, and that was my introduction to the exciting and life-defining intellectual turmoil, in the British communist movement in particular, at that important moment.

The young Healyite also introduced myself, Denis Freney and others to Nick Origlass, so he was responsible both for our literary re-education with his overseas Trotskyist literature and our physical introduction to the universe of the Left Opposition.

When Hobsbawm was hanging on, along with his ex-Trotskyist associate Monty Johnstone, as the resident intellectuals in the British CP, a large number — the overwhelming majority of the historians, who were some of the greatest historical minds of the 20th century — were fighting their way out of British Stalinism.

The two towering figures in that community of British historians were E.P. Thompson and the man who eventually became the master of Baliol College at Oxford, Christopher Hill.

There were a number of lesser figures, but nevertheless very important, such as Brian Pearce and Raphael Samuel. It’s hard to convey now the great excitement that a few of us in this far-flung, rather proletarian former British colonial settler state, with its big Stalinist movement, from which we split rather reluctantly because we respected the workers in it, got from the little airmailed copies of The Newsletter and Fryer and Healy’s Labour Review.

Brian Pearce used to write a column in The Newsletter, called Constant Reader, which left the much more technically proficient newspapers of the current sects for dead, particularly because of its serious engagement with all the literature of that period, pertaining to the communist, socialist and labour movements.

Who could imagine Green Left Weekly now, in Australia, taking such a serious approach to the literature of Marxism and the workers’ movement, as Brian Pearce did? Just have a look at the GLW website with that angle in mind.

Down the track, I was fascinated by the way, for instance, that Gerry Healy, who was nobody’s fool intellectually, despite his authoritarian and sectarian bent, used to base much of his intellectual training of his troops on Christopher Hill’s God’s Englishmen and The World Turned Upside Down, because of Healy’s conception that what he was trying to create in Britain was a kind of Roundhead New Model Army, like Cromwell’s.

What serious working-class or socialist intellectual can resist the sweeping and useful nature of E.P. Thompson’s work about the history of the working class and the development of Marxist ideas? Thompson wrote the definitive book on the development of the labour movement, The Making of the English Working Class. Then he produced the critical demolition of the intellectual construction of the obfuscating determinist Stalinist Althusser, in an impressive essay, The Poverty of Theory. (His orary illustration should be an obligatory decoration in the office of every academic in the arts and social sciences).

Thompson’s written encounter with Perry Anderson and others during the split in the early 1960s in the New Left Review reveals much about the intellectual origins of the new New Left. By far the best book about E.P. Thompson is the little volume by Bryan D. Palmer, The Making of E.P. Thompson, Marxism, Humanism and History, published by New Hogtown Press, Toronto, 1981.

I’m particularly keen, for obvious reasons, on a lesser figure in that historical constellation, Brian Pearce, who I have never met. I keep seeing his name on important translations of socialist books from a number of angles and his historical essays, some of which are collected in the book published by New Park and reprinted by Pluto, on the history of British Communism. Some of these essays have been of critical importance all my adult life to matters of strategy in the labour movements of Britain and Australia, which have common histories and problems.

Pearce’s historical essays are of considerable importance right now to the dispute between me on the one hand and the DSP on the other.

In the history of the 20th century, many historians who broke from Stalinism in 1956 have been much more interesting and practically useful to me than the elegant Stalinist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, much praised by the bourgeoisie, who stayed in the British Stalinist movement to the end, and then became a vigorous, vocal, public intellectual supporter of the dramatic shift to the right in the British labour movement.

History is a one of my burning interests, an interest that with the ebbs and flows of ideology in the bourgeois world is a bit unfashionable, even — dare I say it — among people who think they’re Marxists. Books are weapons in the class struggle, particularly some historical books. When the little bunch of us in the Sydney labour movement who broke from Stalinism joined the Trotskyists, we campaigned with all kinds of little books until they fell apart. I remember, vividly, talking my way into the down-at-heel headquarters of the reactionary Congress for Cultural Freedom because I’d heard they were giving away copies of Krushchev’s secret speech for free, and I managed to persuade them to give me a number of whole boxes of the New Leader versions of the secret speech. I must have given away 500 copies of the Khrushchev Secret Speech (obtained free from the reactionaries) to Stalinists at meetings and events.

They came to resent this impudent runt of a Trotskyist youth who confronted them with the uncronfontable. I haven’t really lost that agitational habit, ever, in a rather long life of political activity.

When an old comrade of mine, cum occasional factional opponent, Roger Barnes, died in 1994 I was moved by what Rod Webb said in his eulogy in the crematorium when he recalled Bob Gould with Roger Barnes, kind of in his wake, bouncing fearlessly into meetings of Stalinist workers again, and again and again in those early days. It was a strange thing for which to be mentioned in someone else’s eulogy, but I’m rather proud of it.

Intellectually, I’m much more hostile to Hobsbawm than Perry Anderson is. The historians who I revere, and have used as weapons at different times, left the British CP when Hobsbawm hung on in it to defend Stalinism. No sob-story about his Central European youth impresses me much in this respect.

One of the documents I used to sell, which used to fall to bits on people, was the important and stark little oblong book produced by Healy and New Park around the time of the 22nd CPSU Congress, with all the pictures across the top and bottom of the martyred Bolshevik leaders. The long 20th century — long because a brutal US imperialism stands now astride the world without any state rivals — was never the bland, benign place of Hobsbawm’s historical writing.

The 20th century was a war from the first shot of the imperialist war in 1914 through the great upsurge of the Russian Revolution, through the black night of Stalinism — midnight in the century, as Victor Serge called it — (fortuitously, I was born in 1937), and working-class and socialist politics and ideological battles.

I don’t present the warlike aspect of the 20th century in this way, as some Marxist sectarians do, to avoid serious investigation and discussion, and our great teacher in this respect is Lenin. A warlike standpoint requires maximum discussion, serious argument and intelligent investigation, but it helps to have a pretty clear idea of who your friends and enemies are.

Over the past few months, the bourgeois press, particularly the bourgeois journals of opinion, have been having a field day with a curious book by the English novelist Martin Amis, Koba the Dread.

They have used this book, in combination with the dramatic political and cultural renegacy from the left of Christopher Hitchens, an old associate of Amis, to facilitate the shift of a number of intellectuals to the right. Any Marxist or socialist who hasn’t noticed a certain shift to the right in the political culture would have to be isolated in the upper Amazon or hiding in an igloo on the Arctic icecap.

There have been similar renegacies from the left in Australia, the most notable being that of Keith Windschuttle, an old political associate of mine from the 1960s. I’ve attempted to seriously address the question of the crisis of socialist ideology and renegacy from the socialist project in my long piece, Deconstructing the 1960s: An Open Letter to Keith and Liz Windschuttle.

I’ve just read Amis’s book, and I find his general political outlook quite opposite to mine. He’s a conscious and deliberate opponent of the socialist project. On the other hand my objective is quite different. I want to help reforge and redevelop the socialist project in the conditions that now prevail.

Nevertheless, Amis’s book is of some interest. He’s hostile to Lenin for all the usual reasons. He asserts that Stalinism came out of Leninism, a proposition that I reject. For me, Lenin was the most interesting and important political thinker of any age, and the human drama of his attempt to thwart the development of Stalinism despite his stroke seems is one of the great human dramas of the 20th century.

I’m not persuaded at all by Amis’s anticommunist hostility to Lenin, or that of the repulsive former KGB historian, the late Dmitry Volgokonov on whom Amis relies extensively (Volgokonov, who had privileged access to KGB and state archives, wrote biographies of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky. He was actually quite fond of Stalin, rather hostile to Trotsky and viciously hostile to Lenin from a Russian nationalist standpoint).

Most of Amis’s book is a rather well-written and bitter account of Stalin’s crimes, drawn with a number of allusions from many memoirs of the Gulag and from the important and useful work of Robert Conquest, who despite his reactionary political views has stood the test of time as probably the best historian of the crimes of Stalinism. Conquest’s high figures of the number of victims have been confirmed.

In a summary way, despite his anti-socialist purpose, Amis serves to remind us of the awful experience of Stalinism. When I broke with the Stalinist movement in the 1950s, I did so reluctantly because the excellent human characteristics of the working-class and middle-class Stalinists of my acquaintance attracted me. But I came to the conclusion that their high-Stalinist political culture, to which they were committed as if to a religion, was a fraud and a lie.

For the subsequent 40 years or so I held, and to some extent still hold, the Trotskyist deformed-workers-state analysis of Stalinism. But I’ve come to the view that that formula understated the criminal features of Stalinism. Over a long political life I’ve collected well over 200 books of memoirs by socialists, communists, Trotskyists and Stalinists who survived Stalin’s camps.

I have the deep interest in the history of the persecuted and courageous socialist opponents of Stalinism that some people of Jewish background have in the details of the holocaust. I’ve also, over the years, soaked myself in the literature, including novels, of the experience of political life in socialist and communist movements. Moments of intellectual excitement in my life have included the first time I read Deutscher’s books about Trotsky, and Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and his powerful novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

The literature about the history of the socialist movement and the development of Stalinism up to and including its eventual collapse has been one of my lifelong preoccupations. It has interlocked with and part of a broader interest in the history of the whole workers movement in my own country Australia, in Ireland, in Britain, in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Being professionally a bookseller with a largish, mainly secondhand and remainder bookshop for many years has enabled me to combine these wide personal interests with keeping a significant part of this important literature accessible to others, in my shop, and as Peter Boyle is wont to point out in his venomous way, my bookshop and “gossip centre”, as he puts it, has over 30 years acquainted a number of generations of leftists with a lot of this material.

The overthrow of the Stalinist monolith and the partial opening of the Soviet archives has made an enormous amount of previously buried incidents and events accessible to the working class and intelligentsia of the world, and for the last 10 or 12 years I’ve widened my knowledge of many of these questions by consulting the many new books that have come out of this archival material and been published in English. These are the circumstances that have made it possible for Amis to publish his new book.

Despite the anti-socialist intent of Amis’s book, it’s brutally necessary for revolutionary socialists to acquaint themselves in the most detailed way with the brutal history of Stalinism in the 20th century to enable us to construct a socialism in which those things can’t happen again.

When one considers the two books that I’m discussing, Hobsbawm’s po-faced, self-serving memoir and Amis’s vitriolic of exploration of Stalinism from his right-wing point of view, Hobsbawm’s book is actually the more pernicious and less useful of the two. Hobsbawm skates over the lessons of Stalinism. He still keeps many of the Stalinist secrets, which is an extraordinary thing for a historian to do, considering the vast documentary evidence about Stalinism that has now come out of the archives.

Hobsbawm apologises for Stalinism, defends it, and then moves on in a seamless way to his eloquent defence of the shift of the British labour movement to the right. What a humbug!

At least Amis’s explicitly anti-communist book, the anti-communism of which socialists can put aside, contains some previously not so accessible material about Stalinism. It provides quite a bit of interesting material about the history of Stalinism that has previously been inaccessible to the general reader, and from that point of view is of some use to the serious socialist reader.

In the next period of my life — another major defining moment, the 1960s — some of the agitation and ideological confrontation of the previous period paid off, so to speak. The turbulent Australian agitation against the Vietnam War, of which I was one of the main initiators, contributed ultimately to the total changing of the landscape of the political left in Australia and I’ll describe and discuss that in relation to Hobsbawm’s memoir and Amis’s book, in another post.


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