Eric Hobsbawm

  • The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel
    Verso, 244 pp, £19.99, November 2006, ISBN 1 84467 103 8
  • Communists and British Society 1920-91 by Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn
    Rivers Oram, 356 pp, £16.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 1 85489 145 7
  • Bolshevism and the British Left, Part One: Labour Legends and Russian Gold by Kevin Morgan
    Lawrence and Wishart, 320 pp, £18.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 905007 25 7

Lenin’s ‘vanguard party’ of Marxist cadres, disciplined and ideally full-time, his ‘professional revolutionaries’, was the most formidable political invention of the 20th century. Its impact on the history of that century was extraordinary. Some thirty years after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, parties of this type ruled over one third of the world’s population. By dint of following the Leninist model, small groups were able to punch far above their weight, while in the right historical circumstances, their structure afforded them enormous potential for expansion and, indeed, state-building. Even in unfavourable conditions, such as those that prevailed in Britain, their impact was out of proportion to their size.

How modest the numbers were is often forgotten. When Tsarism fell in 1917 Bolshevik membership in Russia was estimated at ten thousand, of whom three thousand were in the capital. (In 1914 the St Petersburg membership had been barely five hundred.) In November 1940, less than four years before it took power in Belgrade, the Yugoslav Communist Party had six thousand members; at its lowest point, in 1932, it had counted barely two hundred. How strong the Vietnam Communist Party was when it began to consider an insurrection for independence in 1941 is anyone’s guess, but even after the proclamation of its Democratic Republic in 1945 it had no more than twenty thousand members.

Who were they, the members of such parties? What, if anything, distinguished them from those who did not join? How different were their expectations and attitudes? Until the fall of the Berlin Wall these questions were asked and answered chiefly by impassioned anti-Communists, many of them breast-beating former devotees of the God That Failed. With some notable exceptions – Annie Kriegel was one – they wrote works of condemnation, warning and fear rather than understanding and analysis, sometimes based on theories about deviancy and totalitarian personality that are best forgotten. Even for the generation, largely of long-time loyal Communists, who left the parties in and after 1956 and remained firmly on the political left, rejecting Stalinism was more urgent than reflecting on their unique political experience. In the most readable of the retrospects, Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism, which is full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past, Communism is seen as ‘a doomed, flawed but noble faith’. But Samuel did not write his now reissued book until the 1980s, and then as an unhappy commentary on the disintegration of the Party he had left behind thirty years earlier.

In fact, the disintegration of the movement has made possible the current flood of memoir, autobiography and prosopographical research. It is largely the work of former or surviving Party members in the non-Communist world, a disproportionately articulate sample of humanity, on the basis of the gigantic accumulation of biographical source material in the now accessible Russian CP and, to a lesser extent, Western intelligence archives. Since they are about a movement which has, for practical purposes, ceased to exist in its traditional form, at least in Europe, they are mostly free from the temptations of agitprop and self-justifying polemic, though not of the acid of academic controversy. They probably constitute the rare phenomenon of an obituary literature written from the grave.

British studies in this field are particularly well developed, thanks to the numerous published volumes of British Communist biography and autobiography, to exceptionally comprehensive research and to the interest of established works of reference, such as the DNB and the invaluable Dictionary of Labour Biography. The Lost World of British Communism is the most attractive of the books on life and memory, a (characteristically uncompleted) memorial to its author’s questioning and passionate intellect. Communists and British Society 1920-91, dedicated to the memory of Samuel, is the most ambitious and informative. It is based on Kevin Morgan’s extensive Manchester project on British Communist biography, with its data on 4500 individuals, and on the work of an enthusiastic but by no means always unanimous group of researchers who have been active in this field in recent years. Morgan, who seems to have been single-handedly responsible for most of the 175 interviews that form the core of the book, covers some of the same ground, mainly for the 1920s, in his own erudite and revisionist Labour Legends and Russian Gold (the first of a three-volume study to be entitled Bolshevism and the British Left), which may also be read with profit by those interested in current debates about the funding of the Labour Party.

In some respects the British CP, whose claim to historic significance is modest, was similar to other CPs. Its members were overwhelmingly drawn from the pre-existing cultural milieus of the left, liberal, labour, socialist or (in the case of immigrant Eastern Jews or Irish) from those generally sympathetic to rebels. (The Italian Communist leadership of the generation of 1943-45, which came to the CP from entirely non-political or even conformist backgrounds through active resistance to the German occupation and Mussolini’s Social Republic, is exceptional: it has been described with wonderful skill in Rossana Rossanda’s recent autobiography La ragazza del secolo scorso.) Like other parties, the British CP in its heyday was disproportionately young. Like them, it lived long enough for the young it recruited at successive historical moments – and with different motivations – to grow older, marry and engender a second generation of Party members, or more likely post-Party members. As a party of full-time activists, though passionately committed to gender equality, it provided far less scope for women than the mass social-democratic parties – this was generally true of Communist parties – and had a smaller membership among women than they did. Like other working-class parties, it never succeeded in finding a stable balance between local and workplace activism. Like others, it attracted passionate readers and self-educators and, being Marxist, intellectuals.

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