'I've come to the conclusion that revolution is something you can't make It's a happening rather than a planned operation and attempts to force it don't quite work out'
Eric Hobsbawm’s death provoked violently contradictory reactions in the media. In one camp, the BBC, the Guardian, The Times and others proclaimed him the greatest historian of our time. In the other, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail dismissed him as a propagandist who distorted the historical facts to suit his own ideology. In both cases much more attention was devoted to him than is normally given to historians, or indeed to writers of any kind. Clearly his extreme left-wing views contributed at least as much to his fame as the merits of his books.
When I first met him in the late 1960s, Hobsbawm was already a fashionable and much admired figure among academics and intellectuals. He and his warm-hearted and witty wife Marlene lived in a comfortable family house in Hampstead, enjoying a quintessentially middle-class existence. Eric smoked a pipe and liked his slippers to be laid out for him when he got home.
I became friendly with them, particularly with Marlene, through my then husband John Gross, who had met Eric at King’s College, Cambridge, where John had been an English lecturer and Eric a Fellow.
The Hobsbawms were exceptionally generous hosts, giving many lunch and dinner parties for their mostly left-leaning friends. We were frequently invited to these jolly and stimulating gatherings. John, however, would often find reasons not to accompany me: he was totally out of sympathy with Eric’s politics and felt uneasy about too much socialising with someone who persisted in supporting the murderous Soviet regime. I, on the other hand, was politically very ignorant and anyway shared the generally accepted view that friendship and politics should be kept apart.
But as I read more about Communism, I gradually came to think that John was right. So our socialising with the Hobsbawms more or less ceased — though we remained on friendly terms.
My 1985 interview with Eric, for the magazine Time and Tide, came about at the suggestion of Alexander Chancellor, who was then its editor. Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers, an intolerable state of affairs for all leftists. Eric had, two years earlier, written an article suggesting that the only way to get rid of her was for the Labour Party to form a common front with the Social Democrats and the Liberals. This proposition caused a great stir, infuriating figures on the far Left such as Tony Benn, who regarded it as a betrayal of principle. Eric had been much in the news ever since.
We met in the canteen of Birkbeck College, London — where he was then Professor Emeritus — our conversation taking place amid the clatter of trays and coffee cups. Eric could not have been more friendly.
Would I discover how he justified his continuing adherence to one of the world’s most oppressive and brutal regimes?
When did you first become a Communist, and why?
I became one in 1931 or so, when I was about 14. Being brought up in Central Europe — in Austria until 1931, and then in Berlin — made me a revolutionary. One had to do something fairly dramatic, so I became left-wing (partly because I was Jewish — if I hadn’t been, I might well have became a Nazi under those circumstances), and all the dramatic left-wing organisations in Austria and Germany were Marxist. I didn’t actually know much about Marx until one of my schoolmasters in Berlin said, “You’re a Communist, you don’t know anything, you’d better read this damned stuff,” and pointed me in the direction of the school library.
What about your parents — what sort of attitude did they have?
My mother died quite early, when I was 14 — I think she would have been a liberal of some kind, keen on things like European integration and H.G. Wells and stuff like that. I don’t remember my father having any particular politics — he had died not long before. My Viennese family would, if anything, have been liberals. I also had family in England, who were of course refugees from Russia or Poland by origin; they lived in modest circumstances and some had strong Labour Party sympathies. But I didn’t know them until I came to England permanently in 1933.
What about your schooling when you came to England — did it make any difference that you were already a fully-fledged Communist?
I went to Marylebone Grammar School, which unfortunately no longer exists. As for Communism, in Germany I had belonged to a curious little organisation for schoolchildren called the Sozialistischer Schülerbund, which was a dependency of the German Communist Party. There was nothing like that in London, although I used to go and sell anti-war pamphlets which I picked up at the Communist Party (CP) bookshop in King Street. As far as I could see, Britain was in every respect way behind Germany. The kind of conversations which were familiar to 15-year-old schoolboys in Berlin — about politics, about literature, about sex — didn’t take place in English schools. I was a bit bored and I spent a great deal of my time reading. Then I turned out to be rather good at history, and I got a scholarship to Cambridge, to King’s.
Were you very politically active as an undergraduate?
Yes, in CP politics and socialist clubs, not in the ordinary Cambridge Union politics. I was also active in undergraduate journalism, and eventually ended up editing Granta.
At that time, did you already want to become an academic — and were you particularly drawn to labour history?
I became an academic because I did well enough in my examinations to get a research grant, and by then I had decided that I didn’t have the temperament to be a journalist or a political organiser, which otherwise one would naturally be quite keen to be. I was interested in Third World history, as we would say today — imperialism, as we said in those days — and I had a travel grant to go and do research in French North Africa. But for a variety of reasons, because of the war and because I got married, I wasn’t able to go out there, and I turned to labour history instead.
What did you do in the war? Were you called up?
I was in the army, first in a Royal Engineers unit and then in the Education Corps, but I did nothing of any particular interest.
What was your attitude to the war during the period 1939 to 1941, after the Nazi-Soviet pact?
Oh, like most people I was absolutely loyal to the party line. Recent work has in fact shown that party policy in this period made virtually no difference at all, that if anything party membership increased.
But didn’t you feel any kind of conflict about being an English soldier?
Yes, I did. From the time the war started to hot up, one became rather unhappy about it. It was perfectly clear, for one thing, that the official party line was absolutely useless. Moreover, none of us really quite believed it, you see. We all believed that it was really an anti-fascist war — I mean it could hardly be denied, it was impossible to claim that both sides were equally at fault or equally bad. So far as I am aware none of the Communist parties, certainly not the British party, ever tried to act up to what was the official line, namely that it was an imperialist war, which would have involved a policy of revolutionary defeatism. That doesn’t mean that those of us who were devoted Communists at the time weren’t primarily loyal to the international cause.
Do you still regard yourself as a devoted Communist?
There is no equivalent movement today. In the 1930s and 1940s it was a single homogenous thing: if you were a Marxist you were de facto overwhelmingly likely to belong to a Communist party, and that Communist party was quite certain to be loyal to the Soviet Union, so the whole thing went together. But since 1956 it has been going in different directions. So the situation is no longer the same.
Were you shocked in 1956 when Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin?
Yes, everybody was shocked. As far as I know most Communists in most countries lived for several months in the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Because the truth is, even if you were quite sceptical, as I was by that time, I think, about what was going on in the Soviet Union, the sheer amount that came out was something which I think very few people had realised, and it’s no use saying that it had all been available. I’m pretty certain that even a lot of people in the Soviet Union didn’t realise what had been going on. But I was shocked about a lot of other things too. In one way the shock in 1956 was twice as strong because, thanks to the Cold War and McCarthy and the dramatic anti-red atmosphere, a lot of people had for several years as it were put away serious queries about the Soviet Union and had been welded into loyalty towards the old cause simply because it was so clear that the baddies were on the other side, you see. And so it wasn’t until there was a tremendous crack on the Communist side that people were prepared to come out with doubts that they had had for a long time.
Didn’t you feel at any point that you might leave the party or that you had been committed to the wrong ideology?
No, not at all. Think of yourself, if you’d belonged to my age group. What other political choices would you have made during the Thirties and Forties? I don’t think anybody would have made any other choice. If you look back at my contemporaries, say, in Cambridge, if they had any kind of political consciousness the odds were that they were very left-wing. I think one of the things that has always made me suspect Harold Wilson is that he belonged to the same generation and was a Liberal until he kind of vaguely moved into the Labour Party.
But still, one can change one’s mind.
One can change one’s mind, yes, but on the other hand most of us fortunately were not in a position to have anything to reproach ourselves with. What we had done, what we did in our political activity in this country, was not something to be ashamed of. That we happened to be associated with people who had a lot to be ashamed of is another question. In fact we were people who, without any hope of getting any advantages at all, had devoted ourselves to a great cause.
Didn’t you feel, though, that the cause itself wasn’t working when put into practice?
Yes, that became increasingly clear. Actually, you see, I wasn’t particularly surprised since right from the beginning — I may have been too sophisticated a boy at the time — I never believed in this workers’ paradise business, and it seemed quite clear that it was tough luck for Communism that it had first come into power in an extremely backward and difficult country like Russia, in which things were bound to look rather different. If you had read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry or Ilf and Petrov, for instance, you realised that all the stuff about shining-eyed people on tractors was rather unreal. So it wasn’t a great surprise to find that in some respects these guys were inefficient and barbarian and did all sorts of wrong things. I think the disillusion came when one saw that (a) the other countries which had become socialist weren’t allowed to go their own way, and (b) that the prospect of the global replacement of capitalism seemed to recede. And after 1956 it became perfectly possible to be critical of things.
I remember once having a rather loud evening with Arthur Koestler who, like so many ex-reds, got very hung up on the Communist record. One reason I’m not an ex-red is that I don’t like the way so many ex-reds get hung up on it. And Koestler kept on attacking me — why didn’t you do this or that? Why didn’t you criticise the Hungarian invasion? Well, actually I did criticise it in public, you see. So it was perfectly possible to be a Communist and to criticise things you didn’t like.
What do you think it means to be a Marxist today?
I think Marx was right to see insuperable contradictions in capitalism. But the questions Marx raised about how capitalist society is going to be transformed are now much more open, given the transformations in social structure. Politically I share many beliefs not only with Marxists but with almost everybody who is on the Left. “Marxist” itself doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when I began. It has become a label for being either a revolutionary or a socialist or on the extreme Left. I think one should be against the rich and for the poor because the rich can look after themselves and the poor can’t. To this extent I believe the socially managed society which we call socialism is a society which must, as far as possible, be in the interests of ordinary people.
Yes, but ordinary people in this country, at any rate in the last two elections, rejected it. How are you going to achieve socialism if it is against the wishes of the majority of workers in this country?
It’s going to be very difficult until people are convinced, and it’s up to the Labour Party to put forward a case that persuades them. In 1983, Labour, which had been publicly committing suicide for years, virtually had no programme.
But surely it had a rather distinct programme?
We can disagree about that. But anyway, I don’t actually believe that people vote for programmes. They vote for perspectives, they vote for hopes or against fears. I don’t believe that most of the people who voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1945 knew exactly what their programme was.
I agree, but don’t you think it was precisely because of fears that people didn’t vote for Labour in 1983 — vague fears about the kind of future which Militant Tendency or Arthur Scargill seemed to represent, fears about intolerance and repression?
Well, it’s a question of what at any given moment you fear most. Right now I particularly fear repression and intolerance and the revival of jingo demagogy and know — nothingism and intellectual barbarism from Thatcher and her followers. Those people are far more dangerous than anything that Militant can produce. Name any revolution which has ever been produced by Trotskyists.
There aren’t any. The point is that they attract a kind of permanent extreme element on the fringe which in certain circumstances is quite a good influence and in others quite the reverse.
But in Communist countries revolutions have led to repression anyway.
Then do you still believe — presumably you once did — in the proletarian revolution?
I certainly did, though since becoming a historian — and a historian who has studied Lenin — I have come to the conclusion that revolution is actually a thing you can’t make. It’s a happening rather than a planned operation, and any attempt to force the pace doesn’t quite work out.
But didn’t Marx more or less predict that capitalism would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that this would eventually lead to a spontaneous revolution? This hasn’t actually happened, and on the whole people are better off than they have ever been. Could it not be that a much better society will gradually emerge from capitalism?
That is a possibility. There’s no question that in material terms people are in most cases far better off than they were, say, a century ago. They’re better off because of the enormous increase in the powers of production. About relative inequality I’m by no means certain — there are ups and downs. At the moment the rich are getting notoriously richer; in the United States for instance all groups are losing ground compared to the top 20 per cent, and this is clearly also true in Britain.
But aren’t the poor in Marxist countries even worse off?
Not necessarily. It’s true that most East European states are distinctly worse off than most Western European states, but I would have thought that the Balkans are passing through an all-time golden age in their history. OK, if you compare Hungary and Austria, people in both countries are better off in material terms than they have ever been in their history, and the Austrians are considerably better off than the Hungarians. OK, if you look at certain other aspects, Hungarians today have a much more interesting cultural life.
Maybe, but isn’t a lot of that culture at odds with the prevailing socialist regime?
I’m not against that. On the contrary, you won’t get any culture if you assume that it is all essentially publicity releases for the regime. This applies everywhere, both under capitalism and under socialism. And if we are talking about civilised standards in general, the Soviet Union has in fact immeasurably improved. In the 1930s and ’40s, you could have said that if you wanted barbarism in the most literal sense, that is where you got it. If you look at the present, the regimes which kill and torture are not the Marxist regimes but some of the other ones.
Isn’t there barbarism on both sides?
No. If you actually look at the extent to which, say, the Polish regime has managed to control and solve the Solidarity thing, I doubt whether more than 30 people were actually killed during those two years. I’m the last person to justify this, because I thought Solidarity a great thing — I believe that one of the weaknesses of socialist regimes is precisely that they don’t allow scope for labour movement. But to talk about this in the same terms as about Chile or Argentina is simply not using words in a reasonable way.
It’s not saying much, but the fact is that people in a place like Poland can now criticise the regime, if necessary in public, and what they risk is not a hell of a lot more than what they would in a Western country.
I would have thought they risk a great deal more and Poland, anyway, is rather special. But let’s get back to English politics. Tell me about giving advice to Neil Kinnock and being his guru.
I’ve never advised Kinnock, never been his guru. I’ve only met him twice, once when I did an interview with him for Marxism Today and once when he took the chair at a Fabian Society meeting.
But what about your articles?
Look, it’s nice for a retired professor who writes about politics to find what he writes about being widely discussed, but some of my articles have also been widely criticised.
Do you mind criticism from the Left that you are advocating a broad front with the SDP-Liberal Alliance?
Sure I mind. Naturally I’m on the side of these guys, even though I don’t think their policies are particularly helpful.
But if you’re locked into an electoral arrangement with the Alliance in order to defeat Thatcherism, how will you get back to socialism? Surely David Owen’s views are nearer in certain respects to the Conservatives than they are to the Left of the Labour Party.
I’ve never appealed for a pact with the Alliance. The idea that I did has now been repeated so often in the press that it has come to have an independent existence, just like the stuff about being Kinnock’s guru. I simply said what is obviously true, that as long as the opposition to Thatcher is divided 50-50, it is that much harder to defeat her, and sooner or later we will have to come to terms with this. What interests me much more is how, in a broader sense, we can get back to socialism, which I believe is not by isolating the working class within a small sectional movement, but once again making it the centre of a broad progressive coalition. This does not necessarily have anything to do with whether you are for or against Owen — I’m personally rather against him. Historically speaking, a broad coalition is as likely to strengthen the Left as the Right. There are quite good reasons for believing that it would get socialism out of its isolated corner, as well as keeping it in contact with a lot of people who are not blue-collar workers but who are just as interested in having a different kind of society.
Do you see nothing that can be said in favour of Mrs Thatcher? Not even the fact that she is a woman?
Nothing. I’m actually a believer in sex equality, and consequently I’m prepared to judge a woman prime minister in exactly the same way that I would a man prime minister. The one marginal thing I could say for Mrs Thatcher is that she is so jingoistic and racialist, so much a kind of Kipling imperialist, that she has actually cut the ground from underneath the National Front and the real fascists.
Apart from that, she is waging the class war from above, not merely trying to divide the rich from the poor but trying to break up the solidarity of the working class, which used to be so enormous, and which you could still see during the miners’ strike. It’s the middle class for whom she is waging the class war. For them it’s a matter of fear and resentment against the working class. Aristocrats don’t mind one way or the other. It’s the goddam middle class which is scared of the workers and will try to kick them in the balls.
As a middle-class person, I don’t feel that to be true. Nor do I observe it around me.
Oh yes, who are all these ultra-right ideologists at the moment? They are middle-class boys, they are grammar school boys who have made it, like Norman Tebbit, who regard the fact that they have made it themselves as proof that everything is OK and that therefore guys who haven’t made it are not worth bothering about. You see, to this extent my generation was better. As far as I can see, guys like Roger Scruton have come up the same way as guys like myself — they went to grammar schools, got scholarships, and are quite smart.
One last question. What in your view would be an ideal future for Britain?
I would like in some ways a society which preserves what has been good in the past. Paradoxically I believe that the Left, socialists, are better at preserving this than the centre and the Right, because the one thing which destroys everything is the unrestricted development of capitalism. If you want to find what is traditionally good about Germany, for example, you are much more likely to find it in Jena than in Frankfurt. Being now a great deal older than I was when I started, I have, if you like, less apocalyptic and millennial hopes for the future. I should be happy in a country in which it was impossible to be rich or successful without being ashamed that people who are less well-off than you or stupider than you or didn’t have your chances were being dropped down the drain and forgotten.
But that’s very mild — it sounds like an SDP view of the future. Even Conservatives couldn’t actually disagree with it.
Then the question is: how do you set about achieving it effectively? I believe it is only likely to be achieved through parties and movements which build on the classical socialist and working-class tradition in this country.