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16 September 2002

On the brink of death, she cried: “Long live Stalin“

By Eric Hobsbawm

The Leninist “vanguard party” combined discipline, business efficiency, utter emotional identification and a sense of total dedication. Let me illustrate. In 1941, our comrade Freddie was pinned down by a fallen beam, in a fire set off by the only enemy bomb that hit Cambridge during the Second World War. My friend Teddy Prager told in his memoirs how he tried to free her: “My feet, she screamed, it’s burning my feet, and I kept chopping at the beam, but nothing moved. Poor Freddie . . . It’s no good, she was now crying, I’m done for. And then, as I wept with desperation and smoke, too exhausted to lift the axe any longer, she cried out: Long live the Party, long live Stalin . . . Long live Stalin, she cried out, and Goodbye boys, goodbye Teddy.”

Freddie did not die, though her legs were amputated below the knees. It would not then have struck any of us as surprising that the last words of a dying Party member should be for the Party, for Stalin and for the comrades. The Party was what our life was about. We gave it all we had. In return, we got from it the certainty of our victory and the experience of fraternity.

The Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first or, more precisely, the only real claim on our lives. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow “the line” it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it, although we made heroic efforts to convince ourselves of its “correctness” in order to “defend it”. For, unlike fascism, which demanded automatic abdication and service to the leader’s will, the Party – even at the peak of Stalin’s absolutism – rested its authority, at least in theory, on the power to convince of reason and “scientific socialism”. After all, it was supposed to be based on a “Marxist analysis of the situation”, which every communist was meant to learn how to make. “The line”, however predetermined and unchangeable, had to be justified in terms of such an analysis, and, except where circumstances made this physically impossible, “discussed” and approved at all levels of the Party. In Communist Parties outside power, where members were not too scared to pursue the left-wing tradition of argument, the leadership had to repeat its case for the official line until there was no doubt about what we were expected to vote for. After the vote, “democratic centralism” required that argument should give way to unanimous action.

We did what it ordered us to do. In countries such as Britain it did not order us to do anything very dramatic. But whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed. After all, most Soviet and Comintern cadres in the period of Stalin’s terror, who knew what might await them, followed the order to return to Moscow. If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so. After 1933 the German Party in exile ordered Margaret Mynatt (later the inspiration behind the English-language Collected Works of Marx and Engels) to go to England from Paris. Without a moment’s hesitation she abandoned the love of her life (or so she later told me) and went. She never saw him (or was it a her?) again.

To have a serious relationship with someone who was not in the Party or prepared to join (or rejoin) it was unthinkable. I confess that the moment when I recognised that I could envisage a real relationship with someone who was not a potential recruit to the Party, was the moment I recognised that I was no longer a communist in the full sense of my youth.

It is easy in retrospect to describe how we felt and what we did as Party members half a century ago, but much harder to explain it. I cannot recreate the person I was. The landscape of those times lies buried under the debris of world history. Even the image of the hopes we had for human life has been overlaid by the goods, services, prospects and personal options available today to the majority of people in the west. Marx and Engels wisely refrained from describing what communist society would be like. But most of what little they said about the nature of individual life under it now seems to have been achieved without communism. It is the result of that social production of potentially almost unlimited plenty, and that miraculous technological progress, which they expected in some undetermined future, but is taken for granted today. We thought that only revolution could give the world a future. The old world was in any case doomed.

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