Bob Gould, 2003

Christopher Hill
Marxist historian

Source: Marxmail, February 27, March 9, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The death of Christopher Hill is a turning point for those, like me, whose initial political experience was during the upheaval in the Stalinist movement in 1956. In fact, only those who were, like me, very young at the time, are by and large still left of the generation affected by those events.

The Communist Party Historians’ Group in Britain, of which Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Brian Pearce and others were important members, spearheaded the struggle for an accounting with Stalinism in Britain. The three I’ve named, and almost all the other members of the CP Historians’ Group, left the Stalinist movement at that time.

The only one of significance who remained in the CP was Eric Hobsbawm, who is now treated with reverence by the British bourgeoisie because he went on to vigorously support the shift to the right in the British labour movement, combining a nostalgia for Stalinism with support for right-wing politics in the workers’ movement.

E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill were a different kettle of fish to Hobsbawm. They both participated vigorously in the early discussions of the New Left, and their major Marxist historical work took place after their break with Stalinism.

I feel many Marxists with an interest in history owe an enormous debt to Christopher Hill, and his books are both informative and pleasurable.

Gerry Healy, who despite his bad political features was nobody’s fool in some others, used Christopher Hill’s book about Cromwell, God’s Englishman, as a kind of textbook about the idea of a fighting political organisation.

Thompson and Christopher Hill had in common an omnivorous interest in the social, religious and political sects, groupings and currents that were part of the English revolution of the 17th century, which produced the fertile intellectual environment that prefigured the development of the modern labour movement in Britain.

Both E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill were fascinated by the traces they found of the Muggletonians, the mystical dissenting sect of which the artist and poet William Blake was an adherent, that had so many common features with many small modern Marxist groups. Christopher Hill’s book, The Muggletonians, is of enormous interest.

Reading anything written by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill is never a waste of time, and quite often a source of excitement and pleasure. They were two of ours, so to speak, unlike the keeper of the Stalinist secrets, Hobsbawm, who became a latter-day right-winger in the British workers’ movement.

Dancing on the grave. A predictable right-wing journalist’s beat-up

Marxmail, March 9, 2003

The right-wing journalist’s shock-horror story attempting to impute dishonourable behaviour to Christopher Hill is predictable given the right-wing state of public culture in the English-speaking world at the moment.

The idea that Hill was mainly a Soviet secret agent is completely fanciful, for the obvious reason that he was a public member of the Communist Party. His early book on the English Revolution, published in 1940, was published by the CP publisher Lawrence and Wishart, and he made no secret of his Marxist views.

It’s possible that he may have used whatever information came his way during his period in military employ during World War II in the interests of the socialist movement as he saw it at the time, and in support of the Soviet Union, but it’s highly unlikely that a public figure like Hill was engaged primarily in secret work. It also must be remembered the Soviet Union was Britain’s military ally during most of that war.

It’s dangerously ahistorical, however, to move from the correct assertion that Hill was not a Soviet spy to the proposition that there was little secret work on behalf of the Soviet Union within the state apparatuses of the US, Britain, Australia and other countries. There was a lot of such activity, and it has been substantially documented.

Martin Spellman is just wrong about the facts when he ridicules the scale of such secret activity. It was well-known for instance, that the OSS, the wartime predecessor of the CIA deliberately recruited a number of communists for work with the resistance movements in Europe on the sensible grounds that they were experts in necessarily clandestine political activity. All of that is well documented, and what’s the point of denying it?

The point of the accusation against Christopher Hill is that it’s a right-wing falsification, not that Soviet secret activity didn’t exist.

The same applies to the question of secret members. The CP in Australia has had entry activity in the Labor Party at different times, and it’s well documented in a number of books and memoirs, including most recently David McKnight’s new book published by Frank Cass.

As Shane Mage points out, D.N. Pritt in particular was an absolutely loyal Stalinist and his ostensible British Labour Party membership was incidental to his vile role as a major publicist for the Moscow Trials, which rate as the biggest political frame-up of the 20th century. Pritt used his lawyer’s prestige at the British bar to sell the Moscow frame-up trials as if they were a proper, legal process.

I’m rather flabbergasted at Spellman’s lack of knowledge of these questions. It’s a commentary on the way important political and historical events recede and are forgotten, and historical revisionism takes hold.

The real tragedy of the Soviet overseas intelligence networks was the way the considerable heroism of a number of the “great illegals” such as Teodor Maly, the Hungarian ex-priest and Arnold Deutsch, who recruited Kim Philby, etc, got caught up in the meat grinder of Stalinism and also how the efficient organisms of the Soviet secret services were pressed into service to destroy the revolutionary prospects of the Spanish Revolution by murdering a number of the leaders and militants of the POUM and the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, thereby crushing the most significant and promising forces in the Spanish labour movement. The Soviet secret agencies played an important role in the defeat of the Spanish revolution.

Their participation in Spain and the Moscow Trials produced a protracted crisis in the Soviet intelligence agencies. Some of the agents broke with Stalin, like Ignace Reiss, who joined the Trotskyists and was murdered by the Stalinist apparatus very shortly afterwards. Reiss’s widow wrote a book, published by Oxford University Press, Our Own People, which is a moving and informative insight into the history of the Soviet intelligence forces.

Alexander Orlov and Walter Krivitsky fled to the US, where Krivitsky was also murdered, and Orlov survived because he blackmailed Stalin, threatening that unless his family was left alone he would expose a number of Stalin’s secrets. Orlov’s blackmail succeeded and Stalin left him alone. It was only after Stalin’s death that Orlov’s account was published.

Hundreds of the most talented and courageous Soviet intelligence agents were murdered in the purges, including Maly and Deutsch. The courageous Soviet spy, Leopold Trepper, the leader of the spy ring against Hitler in Western Europe, recounts a number of these events in his autobiography, The Great Game.

Krivitsky’s and Orlov’s books are of great interest on these questions. Another recent book of some value is the Mitrokhin Archive (Penguin, 1999). There is a considerable literature on these historical events, which is of great significance to people seriously interested in the history of the socialist and communist movements, and it’s absurd and politically unsound of Martin Spellman to attempt to sweep all this under the carpet, presumably with some misguided idea of protecting the socialist movement.

After World War II, the courageous leader of the underground Comintern network of anti-Nazi agents, Ernst Wolweber, a successful saboteur of Nazi shipping, became one of the leaders of the East German government. He was, however, purged for being too liberal towards the East German workers who revolted against Stalinism in 1953.

A figure in the Comintern whose activities proceeded on the interface between propaganda and secret work for the Soviet Union was the ingenious revolutionary figure Willi Muenzberg, who as a youth had been a kind of protege of Lenin. He, too, broke with Stalinism in the late 1930s and was murdered by Stalinist agents as a refugee trying to escape from Hitler in the chaotic conditions of southern France in 1940.

A book of great interest on the question of communists, partisan movements and secret intelligence, is E.P. Thompson’s moving and informative memoir of his brother, Frank Thompson, the British communist who was dropped into Yugoslavia and ordered to march into Bulgaria in a madcap scheme jointly managed by the British military authorities in London and the Stalinist leadership in Moscow.

Despite grave misgivings about this scheme, the loyal and disciplined Thompson carried it out and was killed by the Nazis, along with his Bulgarian comrades. In the postwar period he was maligned by British intelligence as a communist spy and by the Stalinists in Eastern Europe as a British agent. Knowledge of these complicated events was one of the many cumulative things that led the British communist historians, including Hill and E.P. and Dorothy Thompson to revolt against Stalinism after Khruschev’s secret speech.

When Khrushchev made his speech, the crisis it precipitated in the international communist movement was fuelled by many incidents similar to the Thompson affair, the disappearance of British communists such as Rose Cohen into the Gulag, and many other things that had produced misgivings among communists.

My deep-rooted aversion to Eric Hobsbawm is based particularly on the fact that as a trained historian he did not participate in the attempted historical settlement of accounts with Stalinism that other communist historians pursued after 1956. He chose instead to keep the Stalinists’ secrets, as did James Klugmann.

As a bookseller, it strikes me forcibly that if the problem of the modern high cost of books could be overcome by international editions, now is about the right time for some of these titles to be reprinted cheaply so that people like Martin Spellman might, even at this late stage, be startled out of their complacency about Stalinism, as many of us were after 1956.

Which brings me to the question of Ed George and Stalinism. When George published his long piece about Stalinism a couple of months ago I was puzzled about the context. It wasn’t fully apparent to me where he was coming from and I’ve refrained from commenting until now because sometimes it’s smart to hold your fire until you get more information and the issues become clearer.

In George’s long and complex piece on Stalinism, he concentrates on the structural features of Stalinism and he says it was only a relatively short-lived phenomenon, concluded by the late 1940s or the early 1950s.

He concentrated almost entirely on the structural aspect of Stalinism and hardly touched on its subjective political and cultural character. It seems to me, now, from his comments on the historiography of Hill and Thompson that it’s structural aspects that dominate Ed George’s thinking in general, and he doesn’t give much weight to other factors.

I agree with the recent contributor to this list who, defending Hill and Thompson, equated their historical approach to that of Marx, and said he’d stick with them and Marx.

Establishing an accurate historical framework is extremely important, but the subjective activity of people and the ideological framework of that activity are also of critical importance. Studying the world and changing it go hand in hand. Different versions of structuralism are very powerful in historical study and teaching in universities at the moment, and parallel with that there is a substantial conservative historical critique of the Hill-Thompson approach to the history of capitalism, which rejects their stress on explosive revolutionary moments and tends to say they exaggerated the ideological ferment associated with the revolutionary processes in the development of capitalism.

George asserts that the development of capitalism was a more muted, longer, organic, dispersed structural process. I’m more persuaded by the Hill-Thompson version of the events. The great virtue of Hill and Thompson, in my reading, is their wonderful exploration of the interplay between the ideological activity, expressed through religion among other things, with the social forces at work.

I find Ed George’s defence of Louis Althusser against E.P. Thompson’s attack of considerable interest in this context. With his own structuralist approach it’s little wonder that Ed George is so irritated by Thompson’s magnificent and devastating polemic, The Poverty of Theory.

The first time I read The Poverty of Theory, by the time I reached Thompson’ s amusing and entirely appropriate sketches of what he called “Althusser’s Marxist orrery” I laughed almost to the point of tears at the devastating nature of Thompson’s critique and its political importance. Ed George and I are in obvious disagreement here. To each their own.

For his own pessimistic, essentially anti-socialist purposes, Eric Hobsbawm tried to shorten the 20th century. For his part, Ed George tries to shorten the period of the existence of Stalinism to the absolute minimum. This is ahistorical. The largest state on earth, China, is still dominated by a Stalinist political machine, combined in a thoroughly anti-socialist way with a restorationist, boisterous, developing and accumulating capitalist economic structure.

Even structurally, Stalinism still persisted far longer than Ed George recognises, and persists even now, with state power, for instance in China, North Korea and Vietnam. It’s also worth noting that the mass communist party that still has, subjectively, an explicitly Stalinist political culture, the CP(M) has administered the Indian state of West Bengal for more than 20 years in an essentially Social Democratic way (with some progressive features) and has similarly held parliamentary government in Kerala for lesser periods.

Anyone who doubts the subjectively Stalinist political culture of the CP(M) should read the novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, for which the octogenarian Stalinist leader EMS Namboorimpad tried to sue her for libel in an Indian court.

In the sphere that is, in a sense, of most immediate concern to socialist activists, the sphere of subjective belief and activity, and political organisation in the workers’ and national movements of many countries, Stalinism persisted, and still persists, as a very potent force much longer than Ed George admits.

In the working class movements, and the national struggles of most countries, in the latter part of the 20th century, anti-Stalinist left-wing opposition movements developed, in most cases initially small and beleaguered in relation to the larger Stalinist movements. Initially these anti-Stalinist socialist movements had to fight very hard to even survive. Stalinism eventually came to grief, largely through its own internal contradictions, and partly through the stubborn activities of anti-Stalinist organisations and individuals.

Even after the beginnings of the disintegration of Stalinism that began in the 1950s, the subjective political culture of the Stalinist political movement in the left wing of the working class persisted powerfully in most countries. In my own experience it was gradually undermined over time by objective developments, but the subjective agitation of anti-Stalinist Marxists was also a major factor. In a sense, we dismantled Stalinism in the labour movements of most countries, brick by human brick. That process is still not completed in the labour movement of many countries.

This is a different question to the fine human characteristics of many individual Stalinists. Anyone who has been active in the labour movement of any country who doesn’t know some Stalinists who they respect and work with, probably lives on a small island or at the top of a tree. Right now, we are all involved in the tumultuous mass movement against Bush’s imperialist war and this requires the maximum united activity, including anti-Stalinist and Stalinist socialists.

A curious situation often exists between old Stalinists of the better sort and many Trotskyists of the sanest sort that a grudging solidarity has developed between individuals who have fought each other very hard in many circumstances. They have united against a common enemy or common menace, such as Bush’s imminent imperialist war on the Iraqi masses, many times and developed some familiarity, understanding and even respect.

As a well-known Trotskyist bookseller, in recent years on a number of occasions I’ve had the experience of old Stalinist opponents selling me their books as they too frail to read them, or even giving them to me because they well know that “that bastard Bob Gould” will carefully put them up on the shelves in his large range of material on the history of the communist and socialist movement, so I have quite a lot of Stalin sitting alongside my Trotsky.

Some of these old Stalinists have in their own way a considerable respect for the history of the movement, as they understand it, and they quite sensibly realise that I’ll keep the old controversies alive.

The battle between Stalinism and Trotskyism and Stalinism and anti-Stalinism in the workers’ movement dominated much of the 20th century, in battles in which many people gave or lost their lives, and it’s not useful to any of us to blend this conflict blandly into some facilely perceived evolutionary structural process.

Ed George and I clearly have a big difference about this. The bodies of the Italian Trotskyist Blasco, the Vietnamese Trotskyist Ta Tu Thau, the hundreds of thousands of opposition communists and socialists who perished in Stalinist camps are still a bit too warm for me to view the evolution of Stalinism in the way Ed George does.