History and the Left

Jonathan Haslam

  • The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War by E.H. Carr, edited by Tamara Deutscher
    Macmillan, 111 pp, £17.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 333 36952 1
  • The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis by Harvey Kaye
    Polity, 316 pp, £22.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 7456 0015 8
  • Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour by Eric Hobsbawm
    Weidenfeld, 369 pp, £15.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 297 78509 5
  • The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill. Vol. I: Writing and Revolution in 17th-Century England
    Harvester, 340 pp, £28.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0565 9

In 1977 E.H. Carr completed his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia. He had embarked on an intellectual day excursion but found himself on a major expedition through a dark continent of knowledge. He had originally intended – as far back as 1944 – to spend no more than three years in the field. It turned out to be thirty-three. After such an achievement, after such exertions, any ordinary human being might have felt that enough was enough, and faded into a well-deserved retirement, tending roses at home in Barton, pottering about Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, a living legend spied by earnest young undergraduates. But Carr had a voracious appetite for hard work. Occasionally in his twilight years he would lament the passing of time; he would worry about the fate of those aged fellows whose minds had failed before their bodies expired; he would interrogate the bewildered optician about the reasons for his failing eyesight (old age!) and bemoan his inability to work as much as before. ‘Well, how many hours did you work?’ I once ventured, hoping for direct insight into his working day. ‘Oh, all the time’ came the laconic response. Conversation with Carr was never particularly easy. His need for a nap after lunch and his inability to work at all after dinner scarcely seemed to hold up production. There was, however, one real obstacle he had to confront by the early Seventies: many of his sources were inaccessible – usually at the newspaper library in Colindale, North London, and, as everyone knows who has had to trek out there on windswept winter mornings, flask and sandwiches in hand, this is no place for an old man. Carr was, as he acknowledged, ‘extremely lucky in having the help of Tamara Deutscher’ in completing the History. This help also became essential to the work which followed – The Twilight of Comintern 1930-35 – and to the project which remained sadly incomplete when he died in November 1982: a history of the Comintern’s demise, from 1935 to 1943 (which gives the lie to the assertion that he deliberately avoided work on the late Thirties).

The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War was to have formed part of the larger work, the remains of which (including the effects of Stalin’s terror on the Comintern) will eventually find their way into print. But when Carr began to falter as cancer fastened its grip in 1981, Tamara Deutscher suggested that, instead of abandoning the entire project, he should concentrate on turning the Spanish act into a small drama of its own. These were unhappy days. Carr was hospitalised for longer periods than before, subjected to intensive radiotherapy. He suddenly looked his age: an intellectual Hercules made mortal. What was so remarkable was the resolute tenacity with which he clung to life – and work (by now synonymous). The same resolution was unfortunately also evident in negative form: he refused to return home, preferring life in an unhappy succession of old people’s homes, a kind of self-imposed exile, physically debilitated but with all his wits about him, obstinately asserting his independence to the very end.

This fixity of purpose has always been evident in his work; it is equally evident in the volume on the Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, a topic plagued by partisan pleading and political polemic. Carr takes the story from 1935, with the implementation of the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy and the election of a Popular Front Government in Spain in February 1936. The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) was then small, weak, inexperienced, poorly led, and scarred by the Caesarian section which had brought it into the world under the sanguine supervision of the Comintern’s surgeons and manipulative midwives. After such a traumatic birth, it was not to be expected that the premature and sickly offspring would cope effectively with the rough-and-tumble of Spanish political life. Before long a series of ‘nannies’ was despatched from Moscow: first, the hapless Humbert-Droz, Bukharin’s Swiss disciple, exiled from his own party for heresy; secondly, the dour baker from Paris, the organiser of the French Communist Party (PCF), Jacques Duclos, who played the role of the district nurse on infrequent and hurried house-calls; thirdly, the Italian-born Argentinian, Vitto-rio Codovilla, whose dogmatism ill-prepared the adolescent party for the realities of power. As Carr so ably demonstrates, the PCE subsequently shot to power almost entirely as a result of propulsion totally beyond its own control, and, even in its position of preeminence, continued under Comintern tutelage with the arrival of that adroit and unscrupulous political tactician, the Italian Communist leader and Comintern secretary, Palmiro Togliatti, in July 1937.

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