NS Essay - The day when heaven was falling

Eric Hobsbawm saw the October revolution as the central reference point of the political universe. I

I am among the relatively few inhabitants of the world outside what used to be the USSR who have actually seen Stalin in the flesh. Admittedly, he was no longer alive but in a glass case in the great mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square: a small man who seemed even smaller than he actually was (about 5ft 3ins), by contrast with the awe-inspiring aura of autocratic power that surrounded him even in death. Unlike Lenin, who is still on view, Stalin was displayed only from his death in 1953 until 1961. When I saw him in December 1954, he still towered over his country and the world communist movement. As yet he had no effective successor, although Nikita Khrushchev, who inaugurated "destalinisation" not many months later, was already occupying the post of general secretary and getting ready to elbow his rivals aside. However, we knew nothing of what was happening behind the scenes in Moscow.

"We" were four members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences during the Christmas vacation of 1954-55: Christopher Hill, already well known as a historian of the English revolution; the Byzantinist Robert Browning; myself; and the freelance scholar Leslie (A L) Morton, whose People's History of England enjoyed the official imprimatur of the Soviet authorities.

Two of us knew Russian - Hill, who had spent a year in the USSR in the mid-1930s and had friends there, and the apparently almost accentless Browning. Nevertheless, the USSR was not then a place given to informal communication with foreigners. Outside buildings, our feet were barely allowed to touch the ground.

As intellectual VIPs, we were treated to more culture than most visiting foreigners, as well as to an embarrassing share of products and privileges in a visibly impoverished country. We would, for instance, be whisked straight off the famous Red Arrow Moscow-Leningrad overnight train, to a matinee children's performance of Swan Lake at the Kirov, where we were installed in the director's box. After the performance, the prima ballerina - I think it was Alla Shelest - was brought straight from the stage, still sweating, to be presented to us, four foreigners of no particular importance who found themselves momentarily in the location of power.

Almost half a century later, I still feel a sense of curious shame at the memory of her curtsy to us, as the children of Leningrad prepared to go home and the (overwhelmingly Jewish) musicians filed out of the orchestra pit. It was not a good advertisement for communism. But of Russia and Russian life we saw little except the middle-aged women, presumably war widows, hauling stones and clearing rubble from the wintry streets.

What is more, even the intellectual's basic resource, "looking it up", was not available. There were no telephone directories, no maps, no public timetables, no basic means of everyday reference. One was struck by the sheer impracticality of a society in which an almost paranoiac fear of espionage turned the information needed for everyday life into a state secret. In short, there was not much to be learned about Russia by visiting it in 1954 that could not have been learned outside.

Still, there was something. There was the evident arbitrariness and unpredictability of its arrangements. There was the astonishing achievement of the Moscow metro, built in the iron era of the 1930s under one of the legendary "hard men" of Stalinism, Lazar Kaganovich; a dream of a future city of palaces for a hungry and pauperised present, but a modern underground which worked - and, I am told, still does - like clockwork. There was the basic difference between the Russians who took decisions and the ones who did not - as we joked among ourselves, they could be recognised by their hair. The ones who took action had hair that stood up on their heads, or had fallen out with the effort; the ones who didn't could be recognised by the lankness above their foreheads. There was the extraordinary spectacle of an intellectual society barely a generation from the ancient peasantry. I recall the New Year's Eve party at the scientists' club in Moscow. Between the usual toasts to peace and friendship, someone suggested a contest in remembering proverbs - not just any old saws, but proverbs or phrases about sharp things, such as "a stitch in time saves nine" (needles) or "burying the hatchet". The joint resources of Britain were soon exhausted, but the Russian contestants, all of them established research scientists, went on confronting each other with village wisdom about knives, axes, sickles and sharp or cutting implements until the contest had to be stopped. That, after all, was what they brought with them from the illiterate villages in which so many of them had been born.

Yet we met hardly anyone there like ourselves. Unlike the "people's democracies" and "really existing socialisms" of the rest of Europe, where communists came from persecution to power at the end of the war, in the USSR we found ourselves in a country long governed by the Communist Party, in which having a career implied being a member of that Party, or at least conforming to its requirements and official statements. Probably some we met were convinced as well as loyal communists, but theirs was an inward-looking Soviet conviction rather than an ecumenical one. We would probably have had more in common with some we asked to meet but who were "unfortunately prevented from coming to Moscow by problems of health", "temporarily absent in Gorki" or not yet returned from the camps. But among those we did meet, it was much easier to sense what the "great patriotic war" meant to them, privately and emotionally, than what communism meant. At all events I am certain that, standing by the Finland Station in the marvellous winter light of that miraculous city I shall never get used to calling St Petersburg, what we thought about the October revolution was not the same as what our guides from the Leningrad branch of the Academy of Sciences thought.

I returned from Moscow politically unchanged if depressed, and without any desire to go there again. I did return but only fleetingly, in 1970 for a world historical congress, and in the last years of the USSR for brief tourist excursions from Helsinki, where I spent several summers at a UN research institute.

The trip to the USSR in 1953-54 was my first contact with the countries of what was later called "really existing socialism": my visit to the 1947 World Youth Festival in Prague occurred before the Party had taken full power in the new "people's democracies". Indeed, in Czechoslovakia it had just emerged, with 40 per cent, as by far the largest party in a genuine multiparty general election. I made direct contact with the other socialist countries only after the 20th congress of the Soviet CP which inaugurated the global crisis of the communist movement.

There are two "ten days that shook the world" in the history of the revolutionary movement of the 20th century: the days of the October revolution, described in John Reed's book of that title, and the 20th congress (14-25 February 1956). I cannot think of any comparable events in the history of any major ideological or political movement. To put it in the simplest terms, the October revolution created a world communist movement: the 20th congress destroyed it.

The world communist movement had been constructed, on Leninist lines, as a single disciplined army dedicated to the transformation of the world under a centralised command situated in the only state where "the proletariat" had taken power. It became a movement of global significance only because it was linked to the USSR, which became the country that tore the guts out of Nazi Germany and emerged from the war as a superpower. The victory of the cause in other countries, and the liberation of the colonial and semi-colonial world, depended on the USSR's support and on its sometimes reluctant, but real, protection. Whatever its weaknesses, its very existence proved that socialism was more than a dream. And the passionate anti-communism of the cold war crusaders, who saw communists exclusively as agents of Moscow, welded those communists more firmly to the USSR.

Throughout the world, communist parties absorbed or eliminated other brands of social revolutionaries. Though the Communist Universal Church gave rise to one set after another of schismatics and heretics, none of the rebel groups it shed, expelled or killed had ever succeeded in establishing itself more than locally as a rival, until Tito did so in 1948 - but then, unlike any of the others, he was already head of a revolutionary state. The joint strength of the three rival Trotskyite groups in Britain, it has been estimated, was fewer than 100 persons as 1956 began. Since 1933, the CP had virtually cornered Marxist theory, largely through the Soviets' zeal for the distribution of the works of the "classics". It had become increasingly clear that, for Marxists, "the Party" - wherever they lived, and with all their possible reservations - was the only game in town. The great French classicist J P Vernant, a communist before the war, broke with the Party when he defied its line by immediately joining the Gaullist resistance. But he rejoined the Party after the war, because he remained a revolutionary. Where else could he go?

The late Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, but in his heart a frustrated political leader, said to me, when I first met him at the peak of the communist crisis of 1956-57: "Whatever you do, don't leave the Communist Party. I let myself be expelled in 1932 and have regretted it ever since." Unlike me, he never reconciled himself to the truth that his political significance rested entirely on his being a writer. After all, it was the business of communists to change the world, not merely to interpret.

Why did Khrushchev's uncompromising denunciation of Stalin destroy the global solidarity of communists with Moscow? After all, destalinisation had been advancing steadily for more than two years, even though other Communist Parties resented the Soviet habit of suddenly, and without previous information, confronting them with the need to justify some unexpected reversal of policy. (In 1955, Khrushchev's reconciliation with Tito particularly exasperated comrades who, seven years earlier, had been forced to hail his excommunication from the True Church.) Indeed, until Khrushchev's speech was leaked to a wider public, the 20th congress looked simply like another, admittedly rather larger, step away from the Stalin era.

We must distinguish here between its impact on the leadership of Communist Parties, especially those who already governed states, and on the communist rank and file. Both had accepted the mandatory obligations of "democratic centralism", which had quietly dropped what measure of democracy it might originally have contained. And all of them, except perhaps the Chinese CP, accepted Moscow as the commander of the disciplined army of world communism in the global cold war. Both shared the extraordinary, genuine and unforced admiration for Stalin as the leader and embodiment of the cause; both unquestionably felt grief and personal loss at his death in 1953.

While this was natural enough for the rank and file, for whom he was a remote image of poor people's triumph and liberation - "the fellow with the big moustache" who might still come one day to get rid of the rich once and for all - it was undoubtedly shared by hard-bitten leaders such as Palmiro Togliatti, who knew the terrible dictator at close quarters, and even by his victims. Molotov remained loyal to him for 33 years after his death, though in his last paranoiac years Stalin had forced him to divorce his wife, had her arrested, interrogated and exiled, and was plainly preparing Molotov himself for a show trial. Ana Pauker, of the Comintern and Romania, wept when she heard of Stalin's death, even though she had not liked him, had indeed been afraid of him, and was at the time being prepared to be thrown to the wolves as an alleged bourgeois nationalist, an agent of President Truman and Zionism. ("Don't cry," said her interrogator. "If Stalin were still alive you'd be dead.") No wonder that Khrushchev's impassioned attack on his record, and on the "cult of personality", sent shock waves through the international communist movement.

On the other hand, much as their leaders admired Stalin and accepted the "guiding role" of the Soviet Party, Communist Parties, in or out of power, were neither "monolithic", in the Stalinist phrase, nor simple executive agents of Soviet policy. And since at least 1947 they had been told by Moscow to do things, often politically prejudicial, which they would never have done themselves. While Stalin lived, and the Moscow leadership and power remained "monolithic", that was the end of it. Destalinisation reopened closed options, especially as the men in the Kremlin patently lacked the old authority, and still faced strong opposition from the old Stalinists. Moscow was (briefly) no longer under monolithic rule. The cracks in the region under Soviet control could now open. Within a few months of the 20th congress they did so, visibly, in Poland and Hungary. And this in turn aggravated the crises within the non-governmental Communist Parties.

What disturbed the mass of their members was that the ruthless denunciation of Stalin's misdeeds came not from "the bourgeois press", whose stories, if read at all, could be rejected a priori as slanders and lies, but from Moscow itself. It was impossible not to take notice of it, but also impossible to know what loyal believers should make of it. Even those who had strong suspicions, amounting to moral certainty, for years before Khrushchev spoke, were shocked at the extent of Stalin's murders of communists. (The Khrushchev report said nothing about the others.)

Nevertheless, at the start of 1956 no leadership of any non-state Communist Party seriously thought that destalinisation implied a fundamental revision of its role, objectives and history. Nor did the leaders expect major troubles from their members, who had resisted the propaganda of the cold warriors for ten years. Yet probably because of their very confidence, this time they failed to carry a substantial part of the membership with them.

Why? Because we had not been told the truth about something that had to affect the very nature of a communist's belief. Moreover, we could see that the leaders would have preferred us not to know the truth - they concealed it until Khrushchev's off-the-record speech had been leaked to the non-communist press - and they manifestly wanted to bring any discussion about it to a close as soon as possible. When the crisis broke out in Poland and Hungary the leaders went on concealing what our own journalists reported. One could understand why as Party organisers they might find this convenient, but it was neither Marxism nor genuine politics. When the familiar call to unswerving loyalty failed, their immediate instinct was to blame the unfortunate vacillations of those well-known elements of instability and weakness, petty-bourgeois intellectuals.

When the leadership re-established itself in 1957, after fending off an outburst of open opposition without precedent, the British Communist Party had lost a quarter of its members, a third of the staff of its newspaper, the Daily Worker, and probably the bulk of what remained of the generation of communist intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s. It also lost several of its leading trade unionists, though it rapidly regained its industrial influence, which reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It is difficult to reconstruct not only the mood but the memory of that traumatic year, rising, through a succession of lesser crises, to the Soviet army's reconquest of Hungary, and then stumbling and wrestling to an exhausted defeat through months of doomed and feverish argument. Arnold Wesker's play Chicken Soup with Barley, about a Jewish working-class family struggling with its communist faith, gives a good idea of what has been called "the pain of losing it and the pain of clinging to it". Even after practically half a century, my throat contracts as I recall the almost intolerable tensions under which we lived month after month, the unending moments of decision about what to say and do on which our future lives seemed to depend, the friends now clinging together or facing one another bitterly as adversaries, the sense of lurching, unwillingly but irreversibly, down the scree towards the fatal rock face. And this while all of us, except a handful of full-time Party workers, had to go on, as though nothing much had happened, with lives and jobs outside which temporarily seemed unwanted distractions from the enormous thing that dominated our days and nights.

1956 was a dramatic year in British politics, but in the memory of those who were then communists, everything else has faded. We mobilised against the Eden government over the Suez crisis, but Suez did not keep us from sleeping. For more than a year, British communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.

Unlike most of my friends in the Historians' Group, I remained in the CP. Yet my situation as a man cut loose from his political moorings was not substantially different from theirs, and I maintained my relations with them, though the Party asked me not to. The Party chose not to expel me, but that was its choice, not mine. Party membership no longer meant to me what it had since 1933. In practice, I recycled myself from militant to sympathiser to fellow-traveller or, to put it another way, from effective membership of the British CP to spiritual membership of the Italian CP, which fitted my ideas of communism rather better.

In any case, our individual political activities no longer mattered much. We had influence as teachers, as scholars, as political writers or, at best, "public intellectuals", and for this - at least in Britain - our membership of party or organisation was irrelevant. If we had influence among the left-wing young, it was because our left-wing past and our present Marxism or commitment to radical scholarship gave us what is today called "street cred", because we wrote about important matters and because they liked what we wrote.

So why did I remain in the Party, albeit as a dissident? I think two things explain it. First, I came into communism as a central European in the collapsing Weimar Republic. And I came into it when being a communist meant not simply fighting fascism but the world revolution. I belong to the tail-end of the first generation of communists, for whom the October revolution was the central point of reference in the political universe. No intellectual brought up in Britain could become a communist with the same sense as a central European "in the day when heaven was falling/The hour when earth's foundations fled" because, with all its problems, this was simply not the situation in the Britain of the 1930s.

Politically, having joined a Communist Party in 1936, I belong to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front. It continues to determine my strategic thinking in politics to this day. But emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to a generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution , and of its original home, the October revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR. For someone who joined the movement where I came from and when I did, it was quite simply more difficult to break with the Party than for those who came later and from elsewhere.

But the second reason was pride. Losing the handicap of Party membership would improve my career prospects, not least in the USA. It would have been easy to slip out quietly. But I could prove myself to myself by succeeding as a known communist - whatever "success" meant - in spite of that handicap, and in the middle of the cold war. I do not defend this form of egoism, but neither can I deny its force. So I stayed.

Eric Hobsbawm will be speaking at the Purcell Room on London's South Bank on 16 October, 7.30pm. Box office: 020 7960 4203

(c) Eric Hobsbawm

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Bush and Blair, on a wing and a prayer