Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Inadequate lives

"He was born in 1917.  I can't believe he's still alive."

Those were the words I uttered (or something close to that) when I loaned a comrade of mine a copy of Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution on Saturday evening.  Hobsbawm died the following day.  A similar thing happened in the middle of last month when I went onto Wikipedia to check if Santiago Carrillo, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, was still alive and kicking.  It transpired that Signor Carrillo was indeed breathing the warm air of the Iberian Peninsula, yet within a week of me finding that out he would be dead.  I would not be superstitious in the slightest, however if you are ninetysomething ex-Stalinist and you are reading this I imagine you will be keeping your fingers crossed that I won't be performing any Google searches in the next few days in order to discover the present state of your health.

Eric Hobsbawm and Santiago Carrillo were men of the same era - the era of the Comintern, anti-fascism and the popular front.  Indeed, although I am unsure as to whether their paths ever managed to actually cross, it is remarkable just how closely linked these lives were.  Both men were born around the same time at the beginning of the last century (Carrillo in 1915, Hobsbawm in 1917).  Both had experience of confronting fascism in the 1930s (Carrillo in Spain, Hobsbawm in Germany).  The victory of fascism in both nations led the two to seek safety abroad (Carrillo in the USSR, Hobsbawm in the UK).  Both remained active in their respective Communist Parties in the decades that followed.  Both suffered something of a crisis of faith due to the actions of the Red Army (Carrillo during the Prague Spring in 1968, Hobsbawm with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956).  By the 1970s both had embraced the turn to Eurocommunism.  By the late eighties and early nineties both men had effectively accepted that their entire life struggle had been a failure.

It is not a simple tale.  These were complex individuals - too complex to be lavished with sickening praise or merely dismissed as apologists for totalitarianism.  Take Carrillo for example.  As leader of the PCE he played a major role in easing the tensions in Spain following the death of Franco and helped the country on it's transition to democracy.  In 1977 he wrote Eurocommunism and the State, Eurocommunism's seminal text which helped to edge western European CPs closer to social democracy (although they did not admit it at the time) and also acted as an ideological two-finger salute to Brezhnev and his chums in Moscow.  Perhaps his finest moment came in 1981 when gunmen under the control of botched coup leader Antonio Tejero burst into the Spanish parliament and ordered all of the deputies to lie on the floor.  Carrillo responded to their demands by remaining in his seat and coolly lighting a cigarette.  Yet for all of this the spectre of the Paracuellos massacres and other Civil War atrocities hangs over Carrillo, as does the fact that he remained a loyal Communist Party member before, during and for quite some time following the reign of Joseph Stalin.

Similar issues arise when we glance over the life of Eric Hobsbawm.  He was undoubtedly a fantastic writer and one of the great historians of the 20th century.  His quartet of books on the history of our world from the French Revolution to the end of the Cold War are texts that I shall never tire of reading.  He wrote about jazz, about bandits and he penned what is possibly my favourite autobiography, Interesting Times.  But despite all of this Hobsbawm remained a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain right up to it's dissolution in 1991.  In interviews he never seemed to be able to give a precise answer as to why he did not leave the party.  He claimed that he did not know, or did not want to know, about the crimes of Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s.  How, I wonder, must he have felt when he learned that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had led to the Soviets handing over to Hitler many German Communists - the very people he had been active with in Berlin fighting the Nazis - as a gesture of goodwill to the National Socialist regime?  By the fifties though he was prepared to term the uprisings in Poland and Hungary "revolts of workers and intellectuals against bureaucracies and pseudo-communist political systems."  After the events of 1956 Hobsbawm stated that he was no longer a party-liner, no longer a militant, no longer a true communist at heart.  Nevertheless, in spite of all of this, he remained a CPGBer right up to the death.  

Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the party he had been loyal to for so long, Eric Hobsbawm appeared on Radio 4's long-running series Desert Island Discs.  When the presenter Sue Lawley asked him if the deaths of millions of people would have been worth it had it resulted in the creation of a socialist utopia he replied, "yes".  When pushed further on the issue about the deaths of so many people Hobsbawm replied with shocking bluntness that he saw no difference between those that had perished under Stalinism and those that had died in the Second World War - "dead is dead" as he put it.  The silence that followed this crude assertion suggests this was an answer that left Ms Lawley more than a little stunned (by the way, I would encourage you to listen to this programme on the BBC website as not only is the discussion on Hobsbawm's personal politics quite interesting but the selection of music ranging from Schubert to Billie Holiday serves to make ghastly statements like this a little more bearable).

Brecht once wrote that we should not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.  Some may think it unfair to describe the lives of Eric Hobsbawm and Santiago Carrillo as inadequate.  There is, however, a strong case to be made for it.  For all of Hobsbawm's great writing and for all of Carrillo's good work in the era of the transition to democracy the fact remains that it took until their later years for them to realise that they were ultimately on the wrong side of history.  And even after they realised that, they still could not fully disown many of the horrific events which had taken place in the colossal disaster that they had played a role in.  Now they are both gone.  They are legend, they are history.  But dead is dead, as a great historian once said.  Their mistakes of the 20th century must never be repeated by the left of the 21st century.


Geoffrey Davis said...

Inadequate is far too kind a word to describe Hobsbawm (sorry but I know nothing about SC). You were closer to the truth when you said you couldn’t just dismiss him as an ‘apologist for totalitarianism’. That’s exactly how I would describe him. For me he’s worse than a holocaust denier. EH didn’t deny the fact the USSR killed millions. He was comfortable with it. No number of fantastic history books can disassociate him from that.

Johnny Guitar said...

I think it a tad over-the-top to say he was "worse" than a Holocaust denier. In The Age of Extremes he describes the Stalinist terror as a period of "unprecedented inhumanity" and that "it does not much matter whether we opt for a 'conservative' estimate nearer to ten than to twenty millions or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification." In this sense he is far from being a figure as nauseating as Ludo Martens or Harpal Brar (men who you could rightly label as the left-wing equivalents of David Irving). Add to that the fact that in the fifties he was already describing places like the pro-Moscow regimes in Poland and Hungary as "pseudo-communist political systems" and you are left with what was a fairly unusual western communist from this period - one who was neither a loyal party parrot nor one of those that tore up his party card. So, a complex character who cannot just be written off simply as a goodie or a baddie, though I am sure many will be only too happy to do so.