Despite everything I admire Eric Hobsbawm, my grandfather was his Communist Party mentor so I feel I owe a certain family loyalty, and he is always worth reading except when it comes to his excuse-making for the Soviet tyranny. Today’s story of how he is asking to see his MI5 files is being treated as a bit of a joke.
Martin Kettle says in the Guardian
Hobsbawm is 91 and a Companion of Honour, an award given to only 45 Britons for outstanding achievements and whose motto is “In Action Faithful and in Honour Clear”. He has been told by MI5 he is not entitled to see the file, for which he applied under the Data Protection Act.
Ministers face the potentially embarrassing task of having to explain to parliament why Hobsbawm, who joined the now defunct British Communist party in 1936 and is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading Marxist historians, is worthy of receiving such an exclusive distinction from the Queen but is not trusted to see his own security file.
I’ll leave it to Tories to say why supporting the Soviet Union wasn’t funny. But Stalin wasn’t the only tyrant communists supported. During the Hitler-Stalin pact they had to argue that British imperialism rather than German fascism was the real enemy. The echoes of our own day when so many on the liberal-left go along with Islamo-fascists are chilling and fascinating. (Not everyone on the Left, thank God, as this fine piece by Peter Tatchell demonstrates.)
Now obviously files from the mid-20th century should be released but as my account of the period from What’s Left? shows, they may not make comfortable reading.
On 23 AUGUST 1939, Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. This shocking fact was the greatest trauma socialists of my grandfather’s generation had to confront. The communists had been the most ferocious enemies of fascism. They had formed popular fronts and organized volunteers to fight against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Their record as Nazi Germany’s most implacable enemy allowed anti-fascist leftists to ignore Stalin’s crimes and excoriate Britain and France for failing to stand beside him in the struggle against Hitler.
When Britain and France finally inched towards doing what they wanted by telling Hitler that an invasion of Poland would mean war, Kremlinologists noticed that the Soviet Union was toning down its condemnations of Hitler. The diplomatic traffic between Berlin and Moscow increased through the summer of 1939, and diplomats started to reflect on an incredible thought: perhaps the communists and the fascists were preparing to form an alliance. The idea of the far left and the far right cooperating was unthinkable to the bulk of the Left in Britain and around the world. Whatever else they said about the communists, they were sure that they were the fascists’ staunchest opponents and the doughtiest fighters in the struggle against Hitler and Mussolini. So the communists appeared, until on 23 August Stalin stood on his head and the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany agreed to leave each other in peace and carve up Poland, Finland and the Baltic states between them.
‘All isms are wasms,’ quipped a Foreign Office wag, which wasn’t true as fascism and communism had merged into a united totalitarian front against democracy. Nevertheless, for two years all the Russians did love the Prussians – on pain of death. The liner of the émigré Auden docked in New York and he described in ‘September 1, 1939’ how he sat in a bar, and saw ‘the clever hopes expire/ of a low dishonest decade’. It felt that way to many on the Left. The Red–Brown alliance was one of those moments when everything people think they know turns out to be a lie. A moment of choice had come: did they support a war against fascism or go along with the communists and, by extension, Hitler?
FOR A FEW days, it looked as if even Harry Pollitt, the leader of the British Communist Party, would choose to oppose Hitler and Stalin. He was volcanic with rage. Despite everything, it is impossible to dislike him and his fury brought out his best side. Pollitt preferred plain, forceful English to the prefabricated slogans of most of his comrades. Rarer still, he had a self-deprecating sense of humour. (He told how once when he was in Wandsworth Prison a professional burglar said to him, ‘serves you bloody well right, you’ve no respect for private property’.) He was a genuine working-class communist rather than a half-educated fanatic, who, like my grandfather, grew up in the slums of the North West. When Chamberlain flew to Munich, Pollitt asked his fellow citizens ‘can we not see that our turn will come unless we make a stand now?’ Hitler invaded Poland on 3 September 1939, and Britain made a stand by declaring war on Germany. At that instant, Moscow demanded that Pollitt oppose a war against ‘the Fascist beast’ he had been condemning for years.
It was too much, he told the Communist Party’s Central Committee. ‘I do not envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week go from one political conviction to another…I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership.’
If he’d been in Moscow, they would have shot him. As it was, he didn’t have the strength of character to hold out for long against the herd and agreed to toe the party line. Walter Ulbricht, the worthless leader of the German Communist Party, explained what the new communist programme would be when and saved his skin by recanting on Radio Moscow a few days after the Hitler–Stalin pact. Nazi Germany, which had sent so many of his comrades to concentration camps, was no longer as bad as he had previously thought, he told the listeners. Britain was now ‘the most reactionary force in the world’.
WHEN THE Second World War began, Britain faced a hot war against Nazi Germany and its supporters, and a cold war against the communist Soviet Union and its supporters. On Moscow’s orders, British communists tried to rally as many people as possible from the wider left to the new cause of going along with Hitler. The story of how they did it is one of the murkiest and least remembered of the war years.
The Communist Party drew up ‘the People’s Convention’ and organized a national movement against the wartime coalition government to go along with it. The convention was a typical communist front organization. It drew in naïve recruits with campaigns for higher living standards and better bomb shelters that no reasonable person could oppose. Once they signed up, only the politically astute would notice that the need to fight Nazi Germany was never mentioned. The communists instructed their fellow travellers that the ‘real enemy’ was Churchill and his Labour colleagues in the wartime coalition Cabinet. It was against them that the public meetings, propaganda, strikes and demonstrations were directed as the communists and their allies pushed their support for Stalin’s alliance with Hitler as far as they dared.
As with the Cambodian genocide, it is worth looking at the backgrounds of those who blew the whistle and said that the Communist Party was trying to do Hitler’s work for him. The loudest blast came from the publisher Victor Gollancz, a prim former schoolteacher who allowed the Left Book Club to become home for defenders of the Soviet terror in the Thirties. By 1940, he had had enough. Gollancz and Harold Laski, whom Margaret and Mohamed Makiya heard lecture at Liverpool University, went wild. Along with George Orwell they published a furious book, Betrayal of the Left, which demolished the communists and their sympathizers as effectively as Guilty Men demolished the appeasers.
‘Can anyone,’ asked Gollancz,
carry self-delusion to the point of being able to read through the file of the Daily Worker [the Communist Party newspaper] and still believe that the motive was any other than to weaken the will to resist? When, at the same time, you tell people that this is an unjust war, fought for no purpose but to increase the profits of the rich: when you jeer at any comment about the morale and heroism of the public and call it ‘sunshine talk’; what possible purpose can you have but to stir up hatred of the government and hatred of the war, with the object of undermining the country’s determination to stand up to Hitler?
Gollancz had an embarrassment of evidence to substantiate his attack. At the height of the Blitz on 7 September 1940, for example, a story in the Daily Worker read
CHEER BOYS CHEER
The blacker the news the more cheerful the Prime Minister…Why worry boys? Only 1075 civilians have been killed and only 800 out of our 13,000,000 houses have been destroyed…The realities behind the Churchill blarney are the prospects of more bombs and less [sic] sirens.
On the 20 September the Daily Worker said, ‘never has the press been so degraded… every newspaper has discovered a blessed word – endurance. Twenty-pound-a-week star writers pay their tribute to the “courage and endurance” of the masses…Strangely enough, they meet only big, strong, calm, quiet, grim and patriotic members of the working class. What the ordinary man is saying never reaches them.’ On 18 October 1940, it claimed that ‘Britain’s Hitlers’ were already ‘over here’ and in the Cabinet. ‘The working class knows it, and is not going to be duped…into slackening the struggle of the people against the enemies of the people.’
Strikes and propaganda campaigns followed. Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams, the two most respected left-wing intellectuals of my youth, accepted the accommodation with Nazism and produced a pamphlet that defended the Soviet invasion of Finland which the Hitler–Stalin pact had authorized. Hobsbawm and Williams claimed that far from engaging in an imperial land grab, Stalin was protecting Russia from an invasion by British imperialists. I’ve read it twice to be sure, but nowhere do Hobsbawm and Williams explain how a Britain which was on her knees and couldn’t defend her cities was in a position to march on Moscow. Williams blithely admitted later that he and Hobsbawm were just obeying the party’s orders. ‘We were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words.’
Many people on the Left who weren’t convinced communists went along with the deception. Vicars, trade unionists and celebrities signed the People’s Convention and prepared through public meetings and propaganda campaigns for a great rally at the Royal Hotel in Bloomsbury in January 1941, a time when Britain had no chance of winning the war and a fair chance of losing it.
Michael Redgrave, father of Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, and one of the few genuine stars the British film industry produced, was among them. He signed up because the convention seemed ‘a good socialist document’ written by people whose hearts were in the right place. He began to have doubts, but they were assuaged by the creepy figure of D. N. Pritt, KC, MP – a Wykehamist barrister who was on the wrong side of every great question of the mid-twentieth century. Despite everything, it is impossible to like him. Pritt was a type that is too common today: the two-faced civil liberties lawyer. In his time, he was Chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Bentham Committee for Poor Litigants: no one seemed more dedicated to holding the British state to the highest moral standards. But while fighting for justice at home, he excused and encouraged the worst injustice abroad. In 1937 he defended Stalin’s show trials and concluded after one mockery of justice which might have pleased Saddam Hussein that the ‘case was genuine and the trial fair’. If he and his fellow QC, Dudley Collard, had a criticism of the amazing admissions of guilt from former Bolsheviks accused of plotting with Adolf Hitler and Leon Trotsky to sabotage the Soviet Union, it was that their confessions were bogus. Not bogus because they had been tortured from them, but bogus because the real object of the devious defendants was to confess so that they could ‘shield conspirators within the [Soviet] Union’ who were still working for Hitler and Trotsky. Pritt recommended that Stalin must therefore redouble his efforts to find and exterminate the saboteurs who were still at large.
When Michael Redgrave’s friends tried to warn him off, Pritt intervened. His chauffeur picked up Redgrave and drove him to Pritt’s mansion near Reading. After dinner was served on Imperial porcelain from the tsarist era, they walked around the stream-bordered garden. Pritt comforted Redgrave by saying that Hewlett Johnson, the Dean of Canterbury, and other respectable men and women backed the convention. The poor actor knew nothing about politics. If he had he would have known that Johnson had told the readers of the Left Book Club that: ‘The vast moral achievements of the Soviet Union are in no small measure due to the removal of fear . . . Nothing strikes the visitor more forcibly than the absence of fear.’
Reassured, Redgrave left Pritt and his collection of fine tsarist china ‘in a sort of daydream’ and returned to London to be the star attraction at the convention’s dinner dance at the Royal Hotel.
It was quite an event. The rally attracted 2,234 delegates who allegedly represented 1.2 million trade unionists and political activists. Their number included serving soldiers as well as actors and deans, and the organizers claimed to have issued 632,000 pamphlets and 1,336,000 leaflets.
Harry Pollitt told the delegates that this was a ‘gathering of those in deadly seriousness . . . who want to see the victory of the people of this country over its real enemies in the Churchill government and the policy it is pursuing at the present moment’. Everyone else agreed that Britain should sue for peace with Hitler because Churchill and the Labour Party were as bad as Nazi Germany. The Indian nationalist Krishna Menon, who went on to play a leading part in the struggle for independence, summed up the consensus when he said: ‘There is no use in asking whether you would choose British imperialism or Nazism, it is like asking a fish if he wants to be fried in margarine or butter. He doesn’t want to be fried at all!’
The Nazis were delighted, naturally, and their propaganda stations heaped praise on the convention. George Orwell looked on and wrote that ‘the so-called People’s Convention cannot conceivably win power in England, but it may spread enough defeatism to help Hitler very greatly at some critical moment’.
The newspapers agreed and savaged Michael Redgrave. For a while, it seemed as if every face he passed in the street was against him, as it does when the pack comes after you. The BBC banned him from the airwaves, along with twelve other celebrities who had signed the convention. Laurence Olivier and E. M. Forster rallied to their support. Forty Labour MPs circulated a letter against the ban, and Ralph Vaughan Williams withdrew permission for the BBC to broadcast his latest work.
The row blew over because the BBC’s charge that Michael Redgrave was opposed to the war effort was ridiculous on a personal level – he tried to volunteer for the Navy and went on to make a string of patriotic war films from The Way to the Stars to The Dam Busters.
Precisely because he wasn’t a supporter of Hitler or Stalin, Redgrave’s motives and those of people like him remain interesting. It is platitudinous to say that communism and fascism were substitute religions whose adherents would adopt any tactic as long as their prophets assured them that it would bring the Promised Land closer to view, because it doesn’t fully explain what made people communists in the first place, and why the likes of Michael Redgrave were their fellow travellers.
THE ‘heroic’ years of the Left show that you should never underestimate the effect of parochialism on small minds that can’t get beyond a hatred of injustice in their own countries. There was much more to hate in the Britain of 1940 with its poverty and imperial conquests than the Britain of today, and a good deal of what the supporters of the convention said was true. Many from the old gang of the Thirties were still in power in 1940 and 1941. In Churchill’s mind the Second World War was as much a war to defend the British Empire as defeat Nazi Germany. Londoners didn’t always show grim determination during the Blitz and they had no guarantee that they wouldn’t face mass unemployment again when the war was over. What the vicars, trade unionists and celebrities couldn’t understand was that the democratic system offered the chance of rectifying these evils. Then (and with far less justification now) political hatred moved from a rational complaint to an irresistible obsession that left the afflicted unable to fight against abuses in their own country while recognizing that there were greater abuses of power which they must defend the best of their country’s democratic beliefs against. While the Battle of Britain raged and the cities burned, they found themselves on the far right simply by carrying on as they had done before.
A continental philosophical tradition that was very popular with the post-modern theorists held that violent prejudice flowed from irrational hatreds of the alien ‘Other’. The Blitz contradicted it by showing that there was a leftish mentality that couldn’t bring itself to hate ‘the Other’ when the Other’s bombs were exploding in the street.
THE AFFAIR was quickly hushed up. Within six months, everyone involved in the demands of the People’s Convention for strikes against the war effort wanted to forget what had happened. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and British communists and their sympathizers instantly became passionate supporters of the Churchill government and the war effort. They airbrushed from their memories the time when they were on Hitler’s side. The Churchill government had wanted to censor or arrest everyone associated with the People’s Convention in January. By June, it was relying on the Soviet Union to take the full force of Hitler’s armies. It was no longer politic to embarrass Stalin’s British allies by raking up old muck, particularly as the Communist Party was now instructing the workers in Britain’s factories to forget about strikes and work themselves to the bone.
George Orwell lacked their delicacy, and today the People’s Convention is remembered only because of the controversies about his life and work. During the war, Orwell and his friends played a parlour game of guessing who would collaborate if Britain was invaded. (You can still play it today.) In March 1949, with the Second World War over and the Cold War beginning, he had a visit from Celia Kirwan, an old flame who was working for the Labour government Orwell supported. She was a member of the Information Research Bureau set up by Ernie Bevin, who by then was Labour’s Foreign Secretary. Kirwan wanted to recruit democratic socialists, the only people who had consistently opposed communism throughout the Thirties and Forties. Orwell warned her she must be careful not to hire Stalin’s sympathizers inadvertently and gave her names he had come up with in his party game. Most of the names on ‘Orwell’s list’ were of thinkers who had said they supported Stalin, and one turned out to be a Soviet spy: Peter Smollett, an official in the Ministry of Information who had almost prevented the publication of Animal Farm. Other names Orwell either put a question mark against or dismissed as too undisciplined to be a truly committed communist. In the latter category was Michael Redgrave because of his support for the People’s Convention which had served the interests of Hitler and Stalin. Orwell died in 1950 and therefore missed the commotion the discovery of his list would cause. Every time it resurfaces, the story is the same. Orwell is an informer. The revelation that he had grassed on potential communists was in the words of one recent book ‘a body blow’ from which ‘his reputation as a left wing icon may never recover…As the Daily Telegraph noted: “To some it was as if Winston Smith had willingly cooperated with the Thought Police in 1984”.’
In his study of Orwell, Christopher Hitchens gently argues that ‘to be blacklisted is to be denied employment for political reasons unconnected with job-performance’. Stalin was laying waste to Eastern Europe in the late Forties, and the performance of Foreign Office employees charged with opposing him was likely to be affected if they were Stalin’s supporters. It seems a straightforward point, yet nothing can stem the flow of accusations against Orwell. Over fifty years later in a letter to the Guardian, Corin Redgrave honourably defended his father’s memory from the recurrent bad publicity Orwell’s list brought, but then painted on a gloss. The People’s Convention was not ‘overtly a pacifist or even an anti-war document,’ he wrote. It merely ‘addressed a very widespread suspicion of the government’s intentions, and an even more widespread resentment at the lack of provision that had been made for the protection of people in the Blitz’.
That was not the whole truth, as the record of the speeches made at the convention shows, and the widespread belief that his list proved that Orwell was a nark reveals that a consoling myth from the Thirties lives on. The perennial daydream is that the Left is a happy family that includes the totalitarian left among its members. The totalitarian left may be a little wild on occasion, like an unruly teenager, but it is still a member of the family whose dirty laundry must never be washed in public. As with other passionate adolescents, the totalitarian left may at times appear preferable to the cautious and pragmatic old fuddy-duddies who win elections: more honest, more dedicated, more idealistic, more truly left. The survival of the myth of the family of the Left shows that a simple point is still being missed: the totalitarian left isn’t a part of the family of the democratic left, but the enemy of the democratic left because it doesn’t believe in democracy.
Orwell never asked to be a left-wing icon, or any other kind of icon for that matter. He had known there was no family of the Left ever since the communists attempted to murder him when he went to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. At the time Orwell passed his list to the Foreign Office, Stalin was slaughtering social democrats and Trotskyists across the newly conquered Eastern Europe. The killings didn’t stop with distant relatives. Rather famously, Stalin and Mao devoted considerable energy to slaughtering communists. No one – not Hitler, Mussolini or the CIA – killed as many communists as communists did. If the Left of the Forties was a family, it was a family with Fred and Rose West in charge.
The communists and their allies dropped their support for Hitler only because he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Even after that, many intellectual pacifists refused to confront Nazism. John Middleton Murry, the distinguished critic and editor of Peace News, clung to the view that ‘a Hitlerian Europe would not be quite so terrible as most people believe it would be’. Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth exposed the horrors of the First World War, lacked the moral imagination to confront the horrors of the Second. She dismissed the first reports of Hitler’s gas chambers as ‘fantastic’. When in 1945 she could deny them no longer, she complained that the British authorities were using them as a publicity stunt ‘partly, at least to divert attention from the havoc produced in German cities by Allied obliteration bombing’.
It was for the best that the Nazis did not invade Britain and install a collaborationist government, and not only for the usual reasons. If they had, not every liberal-left reputation from the Thirties would have survived.