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.

What drove the PCE to the forefront was a series of events beginning with the uprising launched by the Spanish military under Generals Mola and Franco in conjunction with the forces of the Right and with Italian (and soon also German) backing in July 1936. Initially, it seemed that the rebellion would be speedily suppressed. The PCE made no effort to enlist Soviet aid. But when disaster followed disaster, pressure to intervene began to make itself felt in Moscow. The pressure came not only from Madrid but also from the PCF in Paris. If the Popular Front in Spain were overthrown, it was only to be expected that its French counterpart, elected to power that May, would follow suit. The polarisation of French opinion which had given rise to the election of the Blum Government also precipitated the factory occupations of June 1936 and led the Centre and the Right to fear a revolution from below: the very same set of circumstances which provoked the uprising in Spain that July.

Stalin was at first unresponsive to the call for aid. He was largely preoccupied with the liquidation of the opposition which had been welling up during the previous two years on both foreign and domestic issues and which, although still leaderless and more a matter of privately expressed discontent than public political action, appeared to threaten his dominance. In June the adoption of the new and liberal Soviet constitution had highlighted the gulf separating the theory of socialist democracy from the practice of dictatorial rule. In July-August former supporters of Trotsky began to link the failure of the Comintern to support revolution in France and Spain with the increasing bourgeoisification of Soviet society. In public, Stalin remained silent. In private, he moved to dispose of all actual and potential opposition. The Spanish events thus became inextricably entangled in Stalin’s struggle to restore his unquestioned supremacy.

It was Stalin’s practice to defeat the opposition by removing his opponents, subsequently adopting the substance of their programme to clear away the bases of their support. To some extent this is what happened in relation to Spain, though factors other than the issue of revolutionary internationalism also played a part. The most important element was geopolitical. The pact signed with France in May 1935 provided for mutual assistance in the event of attack from Germany. This was Moscow’s guarantee that Hitler would not move east. But the fall of the Popular Front in France, consequent upon its collapse in Spain, would throw the Franco-Soviet alliance into jeopardy. Raison d’ état thus dictated Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War and although the Russians faced immense logistical problems – their navy was barely worthy of the name – and faced growing hostility from Britain and even France, the Soviet regime sent munitions and men to buttress the faltering Republic. In these terms, attempts at revolution in Spain were seen as not merely unhelpful but also treasonable, for they distracted from the primary goal of defending the Republic against the threat from the subversive Right.

Carr’s attitude to these events is interesting. At the time he had only just left the Foreign Office, where he had been one of the most trenchant advocates of Germany’s appeasement. His political position was somewhat confused. In some respects he stood to the right. In other respects he stood to the left. In respect of Spain he advocated non-intervention, which placed him squarely on the right, and he subjected to withering condemnation the Left’s emotive campaign for aid to the Republic. The Carr who wrote on Spain over four decades later was a different man. Unlike the majority of people who drift from left to right as they age, Carr moved in the opposite direction. This change is more easily dated than satisfactorily explained. He underwent an intellectual crisis in 1939, when the policy of appeasement proved bankrupt, and shifted to a liberal-socialist position on domestic affairs and a pro-Soviet stance on foreign affairs. In October 1944 he began working on his History. This caused him to immerse himself in and, as a result, absorb much of Lenin’s political thought. Consequently, he found himself alienated from the Cold War climate which prevailed after 1945. The isolation which resulted, almost as much chosen as imposed from without, threw him into the company of Tamara Deutscher’s husband, Isaac.

In a fascinating ‘personal memoir’, which prefaces The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, Tamara Deutscher describes the relationship that developed:

At first sight their personal amity might seem puzzling: on the one side, a self-educated former member of the Polish Communist Party – a Marxist by conviction, Jewish by origin – who was a refugee from Hitler and Stalin stranded in London; and, on the other side, an English historian who was an unmistakable product of Cambridge, a former member of the Foreign Office, schooled in a diplomatic service famous as a bastion of British traditionalism. But they were both under attack (if an attack veiled by formal respect), and both were debarred from academic posts. They were also both engaged in the study of the Soviet Union – albeit from two quite different angles: one a historian of institutions and policies, increasingly under Marxist influence; the other an unrepentant Marxist, analysing movements and ideas, surveying a society in turmoil torn by ideological battles. The ‘enigma’ of that friendship, and of the personality of Carr himself, becomes perhaps less perplexing once one understands the degree to which Carr was in the British tradition and yet was not quite of it; the extent to which he was an intellectual expatriate from the world of diplomacy, a rebel against his own tradition criticising it – as it were – from within.

Carr’s History certainly betrays Marxist influences, though not consistently so; they are most evident in the later volumes (from the mid-Fifties) when Deutscher’s harsh criticisms made their greatest impact. Yet Carr never identified himself as a Marxist. In this he stood in the shadow of the judgments he had reached in the early Thirties, when composing his opinionated biography of Marx. Here he argued: ‘The pseudo-Marxist is a pathetic figure. He knows that Marxism is moonshine; but he still nourishes the hope of finding in it a gleam to follow.’ Nearly half a century later he was less dogmatic:

Am I a Marxist? People sometimes ask, and – unlike jesting Pilate – stay for an answer which they do not get. I believe that Marx, Darwin and Freud were very great thinkers who had new and deep insights, and fundamentally altered for succeeding generations the way in which we look at the world. But this does not mean that every word written by them must be taken as gospel, or that they anticipated everything that has either been discovered or thought in their respective fields. Marx’s analysis of the rise and fall of western bourgeois capitalism, and the insight which he achieved into the workings of the whole historical process, represent an enormous advance in knowledge, unparalleled in the modern world. He professed to dislike Utopias. Of course he had his Utopia – he could not do without one – the vision of a united western proletariat conquering and replacing the bourgeoisie as the bourgeoisie had once conquered and replaced the landed feudal aristocracy, and of a classless society which, since all oppression was class oppression, would be free from oppression and compulsion by capitalist employers or by the state. But I fear he nourished the illusion that this vision was scientifically verifiable. He had just a glimpse – no more – of the potential emergence of Asia, but did not allow it to affect his picture. Lenin went a little further in this respect, but not much. We can now, I think, go a bit further still. But this does not help me to define my Utopia. I suppose I should call it ‘socialist’, and am to this extent Marxist. But Marx did not define the content of socialism except in a few Utopian phrases; and nor can I. Whatever its content, however, I cannot see the western proletariat, the progeny of western bourgeois capitalism, as the bearer of world revolution in its next stage, and in this respect I suppose I am not a Marxist.

As Isaac Deutscher pointed out, ‘it is very difficult or perhaps impossible for him to get out of his skin, theoretically and ideologically. He is steeped in ... English empiricism and rationalism, his mind is very far from what to him is abstract dialectical speculation, and so he cannot really break down the barrier between his own way of thinking and Marxism.

This judgment might well be applied to some of those Mr Kaye treats in his book, The British Marxist Historians (Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton). But Dobb would not normally pass as a historian; and Hobsbawm is not really British in terms of upbringing, as Kaye himself indicates. Furthermore, Hill and Thompson both seem more ‘British’ than ‘Marxist’ in method. And the whole notion of ‘Marxist’ historians seems problematic. Surely a Marxist is one who engages in the class struggle, not one who studies it? Marx insisted on the need to change the world rather than interpret it. Kaye appears over-eager to demonstrate that these ‘British Marxist Historians’ have made a significant contribution to the development of Marxist thought; for they have conceived of class in more subtle terms than the more dogmatic, ‘structuralist’ Marxists will allow. Without taking sides in this arcane debate, it is worth pointing out that there is often a fine line between rendering a concept more sophisticated and fundamentally revising it. When Marx refused to treat the peasantry as a class and when Professor Hilton has consistently construed them in this sense, is it really fair to Marx – or indeed to Hilton – to call the professor a Marxist? The epithet ‘Marxist’ has long been applied purely subjectively, as an accolade or a term of abuse. And does it really matter whether Hilton is a Marxist? Will this determine whether his books are read? To my knowledge all the historians elected by Kaye have long been read by every grade of socialist and liberal. The label on the bottle matters little when the contents are of a superior vintage. Are we perhaps witnessing one of those endless disputes which once plagued the New Left Review (Poulantzas’s reply to Laclau’s reply to ...) and which have made contemporary Marxism so arid and almost as mystifying as Medieval metaphysics?

What is so striking, and rewarding, about Hill, Thompson, Hobsbawm and Hilton is that through the medium of Marxism the Continental European intellectual tradition, with its emphasis on theory and on viewing events in their totality, macrocosm before microcosm, has taken partial and uncertain foothold in the minds of British historians steeped in a very different tradition. The resultant synthesis has produced some highly stimulating works of history. The Marxist input into the nonconformist tradition of British historiography, already enriched by émigrés from Central and Eastern Europe, has in this sense been the unintended offspring of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. All four of the historians were at one time (Hobsbawm still is) members of the British Communist Party. Carr, too, was exposed to Marxist influence as a result of the October Revolution, though, as we have seen, in a rather different way and to rather different effect. Hill, Hilton, Hobsbawm and Thompson have all focused theirs energies on researching and writing history ‘from below’, the history of the common people and not their rulers. With the exception, perhaps, of Hill, who spreads a broader canvas within a narrower time frame, these men have largely left political history to their more conservative colleagues. Hill’s approach is epitomised in the following comments from Writing and Revolution in 17th-century England: ‘Not all historians, unfortunately, read literary criticism (and I fear some do not even read English literature). If they did, they would realise that there was a revolution in English literature as well as in science, even if they cannot persuade themselves that there were revolutions in politics, economics and society. Those who concentrate on Parliamentary debates, state papers and the correspondence of the gentry, fail to notice what is going on elsewhere.’ Carr, on the other hand, was pre-eminently a political historian; he wrote history ‘from above’. Admittedly, his critics have yet to write the history of Soviet Russia ‘from below’: indeed, some of them have yet to research and write any Soviet history at all. Carr was in any case incapable of a different approach. Most of his readers will recall his treatment of the Bolshevik revolution in the initial volumes of the History, with its evident disdain for anyone much below the immediate structure of power. This was something he acknowledged, though only obliquely. In reply to Deutscher’s fierce assault on his approach, Carr admitted that Deutscher was ‘probably right in thinking that my background predisposes me to overemphasise the statesman at the expense of the revolutionary ... We can none of us wholly emancipate ourselves from our own past.’

In his work on the Comintern Carr always resisted drifting into the domain of social history. When, in 1981, he was pressed to consider the conditions of the Spanish peasant, he backed away behind doubts about the reliability of the sources. ‘How does one document this?’, he would ask rhetorically. There is no point in looking to The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War for the kind of history to be found in Hobsbawm’s latest work, Worlds of Labour – which is almost entirely history ‘from below’ in the best sense of the term. Nevertheless Carr’s The Comintern is not simply a history ‘from above’, for his interpretation is Orwellian and implicitly more critical of Soviet policy than one would have expected.

The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War is the first monograph on this subject since Cattell’s pioneering study of Communism and the Spanish Civil War, published in the mid-Fifties. The massive volumes on the Civil War produced by Hugh Thomas and Burnett Bolloten in the Sixties left most Soviet sources untapped because neither could read Russian. Since that time a good deal of secondary literature based on Soviet archival material has appeared in the Soviet Union, filling in gaps and clarifying much that was formerly obscure. Basing himself largely on these sources, together with materials from the Italian Communist Party archive published in Togliatti’s works, which he sifted with amazing rapidity and his customary rigour, Carr deftly weaved his way through the tortuous complexities of the Russo-Spanish tangle. The result is a very small, compact and lucid text. Carr does not identify explicitly with any party; to the extent that he does, it is with the non-Communist Left. The bias is, as ever, difficult to trace. But when, for example, he says that ‘the spontaneous revolutionary ardour, ill-organised and ill-coordinated though it was, which animated the republican armies in the first autumn and winter of the war, gave place to a dour defensive struggle to avert disaster, which discouraged any visionary hopes or ambitions for the future,’ the barely-suppressed note of regret suggests that Carr the romantic was still struggling to get out. Such expressions, when they occur in his work, are always firmly encased in the solid cement of historical inevitability: he had little time for counter-factual history.

At the end of the book, referring to Soviet intervention in Spain as the first major projection of the USSR’s power overseas, Carr comments: ‘All this, in the later stages of the war, seemed to have less and less to do with communism; and in this sense it represented a subordination of communist principles to considerations of a policy which merely used communists to achieve its ends. It was a system which found wider application in Eastern Europe after the liquidation of Comintern and the end of the Second World War.’ This is a fascinating indication of the course Carr would have followed in writing the history of the international Communist movement up to Stalin’s death. The loss of that unique blend of talent, experience and knowledge which Carr represented is reason for regret. He ranks with the greatest historians, and at that level the ideological labels scarcely seem to matter.