Lockerbie: the quest for truth

Lockerbie: the quest for truth

This article, by Jim Swire, was published in the Summer 2014 edition of Perspectives, it is republished here in light of recent interest in the case.

Jim Swire lost his daughter Flora in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie some 25 years ago. Despite the conviction of the Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in a Scottish court trial held in the Netherlands, the campaign for the truth of what really happened goes on.

“On a huge Hill cragged and steep TRUTH stands, and he that would reach her about must, and about must go.” John Donne, 1572–1631.

The shock of last November’s helicopter crash in Glasgow must have reminded many of the horror that descended upon the little town of Lockerbie way back in late December 1988, and there is a strong link between them. In Glasgow passers-by and those involved but surviving gave us a vivid picture of the willingness of ordinary people in Scotland to help each other. Likewise the people of Lockerbie, in spite of the shock and loss in their own community showed us relatives the tenderness and love of those drawn together by a common tragedy.

Yet in the case of Lockerbie it was our Scottish investigating police, later compounded by our Scottish Crown Office, who kept concealed in their files till 2011(1), after the court verdict had been reached, that before the loading of the plane that fell upon Lockerbie that night, Heathrow had been broken into close by to where the bags were to be loaded for the flight 16 hours later, and that despite warnings of increased risk to American aircraft, no effort had been made to discover the intruder or his motive.

But greater powers than Scotland’s were also involved. We did not listen carefully enough to what some were warning us about in the wider world.

Nelson Mandela had cautioned us that in a trial “No one country should be complainant, prosecutor and judge”, yet Scotland was handed all three roles.

The trial started in May 2000, but long before that we had received disquieting information that there might be improper political pressures to undermine our search for truth. Early in 1990 our group had been called to the US embassy in London to hear the findings of a US Presidential inquiry into Lockerbie. In a gap in the proceedings in a quiet aside to one of us a US official said “Your Government and ours know exactly what happened but they’re never going to tell”.

Another blow was added in 1993, two years after the issue of indictments against the two Libyans, through the memoirs of the late Lady Thatcher who had supported the USAF bombing of Libya in 1986. She wrote of it: “It turned out to be a more decisive blow against Libyan sponsored terrorism than I could ever have imagined … the much-vaunted Libyan counter attack did not and could not take place”. Which nation then was responsible for Lockerbie?

Any nation wielding great power, such as our American cousins do, will sometimes attract revenge as it carves its way among other nations. Lockerbie, like so many other outrages, was a revenge attack, upon an American aircraft.

Two possible origins for revenge are particularly relevant:

1) The bombing of Tripoli by the USAF in 1986 with the active support of our Prime Minister, the late Lady Thatcher.

2) The destruction of Iran Air flight 655 in the Gulf five months before Lockerbie, by a rocket fired from the USS Vincennes. This tragedy was coupled to spectacular mismanagement by America of Iran’s ensuing lust for revenge.

So close has been the “special relationship” between America and our country that hatreds elicited by one may be seen as the responsibility of both.

Yet it is always the prime responsibility of a sovereign State to protect its own citizens from harm.

Evidence assembled for and only partly used in the court case has leaked out into the public domain, and been seized upon by amateur but truth-hungry relatives. It looks to us now as though the prosecution of the Libyan Megrahi should never have been undertaken.

Worse, far worse, the revenge attack that ended 270 innocent lives in the skies above Lockerbie and on the ground below had been predicted and was preventable.

I think of my daughter Flora pressing eagerly down those long Heathrow corridors that evening on her way to see her American boyfriend for Christmas, and submitting readily to the routine security checks, when as we now know, despite advance warnings of increased terrorist risks to American flights, the airport had decided to take no action to investigate the break-in. I conjure up a lurking terrorist resting and unmolested on airside and listening to the eager footsteps and chatter of his unsuspecting victims. This remains a source of fury and fuels our campaign 25 years later. Surely under these circumstances the suspension of outgoing flights until the break-in had been fully investigated was as elementary as it was mandatory? Heathrow’s nightwatchman who had found the break-in, had worked at the airport for 17 years and called it the worst security breach he had seen. Yet no public inquiry was called nor sanctions placed upon the airport for its lethargy. Flora too sought truth; she hated hypocrisy.

A brief summary of the trial indicates the importance of the break-in.


Lockerbie was clearly a revenge attack; the court had to decide who was getting revenge for what.

The prosecution case was that Megrahi of Libya had sent the bomb unaccompanied on a circuitous route via Frankfurt to Heathrow. There was no proof as to how the bomb might have been smuggled aboard in Malta, but obviously such a route required the use of a long-running timer in the bomb if it was to survive the lengthy journey and explode after leaving Heathrow. According to the prosecution a small fragment of timer circuit board labelled “PT35b” was found in the bombed wreckage and “in all respects” matched one corner of timer circuit boards in possession of the Libyan regime. These timers would have enabled the bomb to be set, even from Malta, to explode over mid Atlantic. The origin of the bomb from Malta was also supported by the remains of Maltese-originated clothing allegedly bought in Malta by Megrahi, and found in the same police evidence bag as “PT35b”. The defence wanted to show that a Syrian group – the PFLPGC – acting as mercenaries for Iran, had made and supplied a very different type of bomb. This type of bomb had been used “successfully” by the group several times before Lockerbie, to destroy or damage aircraft in flight. They contained an air pressure sensitive switch which kept them inactive at ground level, but if put aboard an aircraft, they would sense the ear-popping drop in pressure after the plane had been climbing for about seven minutes, and then start a simple non-adjustable timer running of a type unique to the PFLP-GC in Damascus but incapable of running for more than roughly half an hour before exploding the charge. These bombs were therefore unalterably locked following take-off to seven plus about 30 minutes before they would explode, but by the same token such a bomb could only have been put aboard at the airport of origin of the flight (Heathrow), since if put aboard an incoming flight when fully armed, they would have exploded before reaching Heathrow.

The Lockerbie flight had lasted 38 minutes after leaving Heathrow.

The case revolved round which type of bomb had been used, and the significance of the Maltese clothing.

The court did hear that the baggage handler at Heathrow (John Bedford), when he returned from a tea break to the container he had been loading for the Pan Am Lockerbie flight, saw a suitcase which he had not loaded and which was now on the floor of the container close to the very corner of that container which would fit against the fuselage skin of the aircraft. The court was kept unaware of the break-in, nor did it learn where the extra suitcase might have come from.

Had the information about the break-in been shared with the defence before the trial, this surely would have aroused “reasonable doubt” about the device having arrived from Frankfurt, particularly since Bedford saw that mysterious case well before the Frankfurt flight had even landed. He did not remove nor reposition it and the container was then filled up with the bags from Frankfurt on top of the bags which Bedford had seen.

Both sides accepted that the bomb they favoured had contained approximately 400–450 grams of Semtex, just capable of being crammed into a tape recorder, but very puny for the task of destroying a robust 747. To be certain of total destruction a terrorist would have needed to ensure that his device was close to the vulnerable fuselage skin of the aircraft. That could only be achieved at Heathrow. Analysis of baggage surrounding the actual point of explosion showed how abruptly the force of such an explosion was damped down by neighbouring bags and their mostly soft contents. The position of the bomb relative to the fuselage skin was crucial.

The man from whom the clothing had been bought in Malta was called Tony Gauchi. He and his brother Paul were in line to receive substantial payments from the US Justice Department through their “Rewards for Justice” programme provided their evidence led to the conviction of Megrahi/Fahima. The Zeist court had failed to review the contents of a Scottish policeman’s diary showing the extent to which the Gauchi brothers were aware of this potential reward before giving evidence in the court: this also denied the court full knowledge of whether the identification by Mr Gauchi of Mr Megrahi as the buyer of the clothing conformed to the standards of Scottish Criminal law. Serious distortion of evidence of the dates of the clothes being bought was necessary to avoid concluding that it had in fact been bought on a day when Megrahi was known not to have been in Malta.


Sometimes I think that we relatives have been incredibly slow to realise that there might be real world reasons for reaching a verdict which was convenient to the political needs of a country rather than to the needs of truth and justice. Within four days of the issue of the Libyan indictments Iranian-backed groups started to release American hostages: President Bush had campaigned for office on getting those hostages back.

But there have also been rich rewards for us since the trial in encountering those who have realised the deception too.

The first person I met afterwards was Professor Robert Black QC, emeritus professor of Scots law at Edinburgh. Not only was he one of Scotland’s leading legal brains, but he had also taken a central role in the devising and setting up of the special neutral country trial at Zeist, it was clear at once that he did not believe that the proceedings had justified the verdict. His own concept had been subverted to become a monumental miscarriage of justice: a disgrace to the very system to which his life had been devoted. It seemed we were not after all the only people to find the verdict incomprehensible. He cannot know the relief that the knowledge that far more erudite people than us, the lay and obsessed relatives, felt excluded from the truth by that verdict.

Soon to follow were the findings of the UN special observer to the trial, Professor Hans Koechler of Vienna, who also found the proceedings fatally flawed. So many others, have studied the evidence since and their ranks continually expand, bless them all. Two of the most significant have been women. Solicitor Gareth Peirce at once drew our attention to the disastrous series of miscarriages of justice following events in Northern Ireland, and the similarities with the forensic provision for Zeist. She also injected us with the unshakeable knowledge that we do indeed have an absolute right to the truth over these dreadful murders. Her early article about Lockerbie was eye opening2 .

Then came an academic from Bradford, Davina Miller. She had been researching America’s “choice of enemies” in the Middle East, but came across the Lockerbie material. The title of her article “Who knows about this?” reflects her astonishment that the trial had blamed Megrahi and his country. By 2011 she was also able to reference an amazing series of mainly US intelligence documents which showed an inexplicable sudden switch from probing Iran’s known role, to acceptance that it was to be laid at Colonel Gaddafi’s door.

No one yet knows how the above-mentioned circuit board fragment (“PT35b”) came to be found in that Scottish police evidence bag. Astonishingly it has now emerged that the metallic plating on the fragment simply does not match that on the Libyan-owned timers. It was plated by a process which the makers of the Swiss timers Libya owned had not even installed in their factory before 1988. The forensic expert advising the prosecution had written in a note to his examination of that fragment that he had realised the discrepancy in the plating, yet he told the court in evidence that the fragment and the Libyan boards were “similar in all respects.”

The trials relating to the Guildford four and the Birmingham six were similarly bedevilled by distortion or suppression of forensic evidence and convicted the innocent. Similarly at Hillsborough, distortion and suppression of truth by the police blamed the innocent bystanders.

Early on the morning of the day in 2012 when the book Megrahi: you are my jury was published, revealing as it did that the fragment “PT35b” simply could never have been part of one of the Libyan owned timers because of the plating anomaly, Downing Street released a claim that the book was “an insult to the relatives”. The author of the book tells me that there was no legitimate way that Downing Street could have had access to the file of the book in advance – indeed I had only been allowed to read it myself through the night before launch, in a personally handed-over copy. What is the secret that still drives our State to seek to protect the now clearly false story told in the court?

What if our State were to acquiesce in the perversion of our justice systems to suit the needs of the aspiring president of another State? What was the real origin of the fragment “PT35b”?, how did it enter that Scottish police evidence bag?

From Lady Thatcher’s day, when Lord Parkinson went to ask her cabinet on our behalf for an inquiry and returned with a metaphorical black eye from a blow from a handbag, we have been repeatedly refused any inquiry in either England or Scotland, always under the rubric of the wonderful criminal investigation and trial. What is it that our States know but still hide from us, the relatives? No recent catastrophe of such proportions has ever been denied an inquiry for twenty-five years.

The opacity of governments and the adherence to falsehood are deeply worrying. What sort of society have we become that we host gigantic intelligence systems spying even on our own innocent citizens, and yet when prevention fails, and some of those innocent citizens are murdered, deny transparency and objective re-examination of the facts to those of their citizens most devastated by that failure?

Dr Jim Swire has campaigned tirelessly for the truth to be revealed about the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 onto Lockerbie.

This article was written before the decision of relatives of some of the Lockerbie victims to launch a request for a further appeal against the Megrahi verdict to the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission.


1. Ex Chief Constable Patrick Shearer: letter to Dr Jim Swire, 2 April 2012.
2. Gareth Peirce, London Review of Books, “The framing of Al Megrahi”.
3. Davina Miller, Taylor & Francis Online Defense & Security Analysis, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2011.

The Historian as Historical Subject

The Historian as Historical Subject

A review of Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (London: Little, Brown, 2019)


There have been several studies of the work of the British Marxist Historians, but Richard Evans’ epic biography of Eric Hobsbawm is the first to explore the life of any of these figures in any detail. It is in that respect closer to Jonathan Haslam’s book on E. H. Carr, The Vices of Integrity than to Bryan Palmer’s study, E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions. Evans does of course discusses Hobsbawm’s writings, but his focus here is more on how they came to be written and published, rather than an assessment of their content.

It might, of course, be asked whether we require a biography at all. Hobsbawm’s last publication of all-new material was, after all, his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times. Yet, as Evans points out, one of the peculiarities of that book is precisely how little the reader learns about the author’s inner life. He quotes one of Hobsbawm’s editors, Stuart Proffit, to the effect that the first draft had been ‘a rewriting of Age of Extremes from the personal perspective’; but this was still true of the version which appeared in print. In a sense then, the books have to be read together to get a rounded picture of their subject: Hobsbawm’s for his Times and Evans’ for his Life.

Although Evans’ recreation of that life is not an ‘authorised’ biography, he was given access to Hobsbawm’s personal papers (now at the University of Warwick) and draws on an extraordinary range of unpublished material, including his diaries. These are especially important in revealing hitherto unsuspected aspects of Hobsbawm’s personality and the range of his interests. His use of metaphors drawn from the natural world, which suffuse his four-volume history of capitalism, become less surprising as a literary device when we read passages such as one written in his late teens during a tour of the West Country, which Evans describes as conveying ‘an almost ecstatic feeling of communing with nature’. In political terms, however, perhaps the most important new source which Evans deploys are the MI5 reports on Hobsbawm’s activities which begin in 1942 during his wartime service in the British army and end with his visit to Cuba in 1962.

Figures subject to the attention of the security services for political reasons do not often become what the final chapter of Evans’ book calls a ‘National Treasure’, unless it is preceded by extensive recantation. It may be worth reflecting momentarily on just how extraordinary it was for Hobsbawm, a self-proclaimed Marxist, to have attained this status, one consummated by his receipt of the Companion of Honour in 1998. Furthermore, unlike the majority of his contemporaries in the Communist Party Historian’s Group, Hobsbawm retained his membership of the CPGB throughout his adult life until the organisation finally collapsed in 1991 after the fall of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia. These may well be credentials which help to achieve popularity in areas of the Global South such as Brazil, where he achieved his greatest book sales, or which are compatible with receiving prizes and honorary degrees across Europe; they are not usually to be found in members of a group that includes David Attenborough and Olivia Coleman.

One explanation might be that Hobsbawm was subject to a classic British Establishment strategy of neutralisation by incorporation. If this is so, then it is one which was adopted only after he entered his eighth decade since, as Evans details, Hobsbawm had one major book (The Rise of the Wage-Worker) turned down for publication in the mid-1950s and was routinely rejected or ‘overlooked’ for a professorial post until 1970, eight years after the appearance of The Age of Revolution, a book which had very quickly achieved classic status. Neither his opinions nor did his willingness to publicly express them underwent any particular change, even as his fame and popularity in his adopted country grew.

The publication of Age of Extremes in 1994 saw him receive perhaps the ultimate sign of acceptance: an appearance on Desert Island Discs–but as Evans’ recounts, even on this occasion, presenter Sue Lawley made no reference to his work and spent virtually the entire programme questioning Hobsbawm on his politics and particularly his support for the Soviet Union, a type of interrogation to which no other interviewee had been subjected in the programme’s (at that point) 53-year-old history. This relatively trivial but revealing episode indicates that Hobsbawm’s position in the Firmament of National Treasures remained provisional, at least in some eyes. Indeed, his refusal to play the role of ex-Communist penitent seeking to atone for the sins of his youth continued to enrage right-wing critics like Alfred Sherman even after his death. I will return to the subject below; but for now, how has Evans approached his task?


There has been a fad in recent years for biographers to affect an unwarranted intimacy with their subjects: Gareth Stedman Jones’ references to ‘Karl’ throughout his book on Marx, Greatness and Illusion, is perhaps the most egregious example. Where author and subject did know each other, as is the case here, the former may legitimately refer to the latter in first name terms, but his degree of personal familiarity with ‘Eric’ does not prevent Evans from achieving the degree of detachment necessary to provide a balanced account. According to his own testimony, although he knew Hobsbawm for a number of years, they were not particularly close–Evan’s confesses to being too much ‘in awe’ of him for a deeper friendship to develop–but in any case their acquaintance does not appear to have influenced Evans’ judgements.

More important than these personal contacts, perhaps, is the existence of a degree of creative tension between the biographer and his subject, particularly when both share the same social role, in this case of historians with well-defined political positions. Where methodologies are similar and beliefs shared, the absence of such a tension can point toward hagiography; where methodologies are mutually incomprehensible and beliefs antipodal, the excess of tension tends toward the hatchet-job. Neither of these extremes is present here.

The main area where the work of the two men has converged is over the subject of history itself, in Evans’ case three books (In Defence of History, Altered Pasts and Cosmopolitan Islanders), and in Hobsbawm’s a collection of essays (On History); what links them is, among other things, an (in my view) entirely justifiable hostility to postmodernism. In most other respects, the scope of their work as historians could certainly not have been more different. Hobsbawm was famously polymath, his areas of interest stretching from micro-studies of highly specialised areas (some of his own invention) like ‘social banditry’ and ‘primitive rebellion’ through to the global history of capitalism, and the works which constitute the latter, perhaps his greatest achievement, are works of synthesis. Evans’ work, on the other hand, has been mainly focussed on various aspects of the history of modern Germany, and is firmly rooted in his archival research, although more recently he has ventured into Hobsbawm’s territory with The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914.

However, the most obvious difference between the two men, as historians, is that Hobsbawm was a Marxist and Evans is not. How significant is this? Evans writes: ‘Throughout his career as an historian, Eric was pulled one way by his Communist and, more broadly, his Marxist commitment, and another by his respect for the facts, the documentary record and the findings and arguments of other historians whose work he acknowledged and respected.’ Most of Evans’ assertions about Hobsbawm’s approach to history are defensible, but this one is not. I think there are two issues here.

The first is that there is a necessary commonality between Marxist and non-Marxist historians. Both must have the same ‘respect for the facts’ in order to be taken seriously at all, and I know of no occasions where Hobsbawm was ‘pulled’ into misrepresenting or omitting facts in order to defend a thesis. Interpretations are obviously different: I am also a Marxist, but disagree with Hobsbawm’s claim in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ that the British working class began numerically to shrink from the 1950s. That ‘factual’ disagreement however rests on a prior theoretical difference about how one defines the working class and consequently who gets included in the category. And this type of procedure is necessary for all historians regardless of their doctrinal denomination.

In any case, it is not true that being a Marxist necessarily involves holding a version of events which are completely at odds with other interpretations. As Evans points out, the chapter order in each of the ‘Age of’ volumes is structured by the base/superstructure metaphor, all four beginning with developments in the economy and ending with those in culture and science. But within that overarching presentational structure many of Hobsbawm’s judgements would be shared by non-Marxist colleagues. Is, for example, Evan’s discussion of the rise of fascism in Germany in The Coming of the Third Reich really incompatible with or in contradiction to Hobsbawm’s inevitably more compressed account in Age of Extremes?

One reason why it is not may be that many aspects of Marxism have long since been absorbed by non-Marxist historians. As Hobsbawm himself wrote in 1983, ‘Marxism has so transformed the mainstream of history that today it is impossible to tell whether a particular work has been written by a Marxist or a non-Marxist, unless the author advertises his or her ideological position’ (‘Marx and History’). Even the more intelligent right-wing intellectuals are aware of this. Hugh Trevor-Roper, with whom Hobsbawm first clashed during the 1950s over the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, reviewed On History in terms which were extraordinarily positive about the influence of Marxism on historical methodology. ‘In the end’, writes Evans, ‘Trevor-Roper thought that, which, “as a contribution to historical philosophy”, might “continue, revised and modified, to enrich out studies”.’

The second issue is the relationship between what Evans calls Hobsbawm’s ‘Communist and, more broadly, his Marxist commitment’. Rather than being interlocked, as this suggests, I think Trevor-Roper was closer to the truth in thinking that, as Evans puts it, ‘Eric’s Communism could and should be separated from his Marxism’. Thanks to Evans’ work, we can now see for the first time the extent of Hobsbawm’s alienation from the party to which he nevertheless remained committed for so long. Much of this new information is thanks to the MI5 recordings of meetings and phone calls which Evans deploys to particularly good effect. After being a loyal member of the CPGB for 20 years, the events and revelations of 1956 brought him into conflict with its leadership and structures, as much over the question of internal democracy as the actions of the USSR, to the extent that Party officials wanted him to resign like Thompson or Hill. But Hobsbawm seems to have been influenced both by Isaac Deutscher’s advice that he should let the leadership try to expel him rather than leave of his own accord, and by his own unwillingness to join the ranks of ‘ex-Communists’. Evans sums up Hobsbawm’s dilemma thus: ‘On the one hand he was wedded at a very deep emotional level to the idea of belonging to the Communist movement, but on the other hand he was absolutely not willing to submit to the discipline the Party demanded. His refusal to toe the line led to considerable frustration in the Party leadership, who knew his value but hated his lack of discipline.’ It is not clear to me how someone who rejected the most basic forms of discipline and who actively sought to persuade people not to join the CPGB, as he did with Donald Sassoon in 1971 (‘You’re going to spend all your time fighting against Stalinists’), can be considered a party member in any other than in the formal sense of possessing a membership card. In fact, Hobsbawm’s attachment to ‘Communism’ seems to have had two main sources.

One was his admiration the role played by the USSR, first in defeating fascism and then acting as a counterweight to US imperialism. This did not mean that he regarded the USSR as a model for socialism, although perhaps he only felt able to voice the extent of his objections once the regime had collapsed. Evans refers to an interview with Hobsbawm conducted by Paul Barker for the Independent on Sunday soon after of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here, he says of the Soviet Union (in a passage not quoted by Evans) that it ‘obviously wasn’t a workers’ state…nobody in the Soviet Union ever believed it was a workers’ state, and the workers knew it wasn’t a workers’ state’. Hobsbawm never explained his position on the nature of the USSR in positive terms, but it is clear that his residual support for it was based on what it did rather than what it was.

The other source was Hobsbawm’s enduring belief in the efficacy of the Popular Front as a universally applicable strategy for the left. In a way this is understandable. He had been in Germany until months before the Nazi seizure of power and saw the disastrous consequences of the ultra-left ‘class against class’ policy in which the KPD refused to unite with the supposedly ‘social fascist’ SPD. Conversely, he had also been in Paris during the celebrations following the election of the Popular Front Government in 1936–one of the few episodes recounted in Interesting Times when Hobsbawm conveys to the reader his own personal sense of excitement and possibility, and one to which Evans rightly devotes considerable space. But the Popular Front strategy of the Communist Parties allying with forces to their right (and where they had the opportunity, violently repressing those to their left) was, in its own way also disastrous, equally unable to resist fascism in France and Spain: it is only by a sleight-of-hand in which the USSR’s wartime alliance with the USA and the UK is also treated as a species of Popular Front that it can be said to have ‘succeeded’. Yet it remained the centrepiece of Hobsbawm’s political thinking until the end, forming the basis of his arguments for reaching out to the Labour right and the Liberals in the debates which followed the publication of ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ in 1978.

So, when Evans argues that the real difference between him and Hobsbawm lay in their respective political positions, I remain unconvinced. ‘I have always been a social democrat in my political convictions’, he writes: ‘I could never accept the fundamental premises of Communism, least of all after seeing at close quarters what they produced in the grim, grey and joyless dictatorship of Communist East Germany when I got to know it during the researches I carried out for my doctorate in the early 1970s.’ Leaving aside the question of whether East Germany or any of the other Stalinist regimes could be seriously described as ‘Communist’ (Marx himself observed on at least two occasion in the 1850s that we do not judge either individuals or social systems on the basis of their self-evaluations), it is not clear that Hobsbawm’s domestic political perspectives were, in practice, very different from Evans’. Indeed, Evans notes this himself in the ‘Conclusion’, where he writes that ‘in terms of practical politics, [Hobsbawm] was always closer to the British Labour Party, even after he transferred his loyalties from the British to the Italian Communist Party. He was never a Stalinist and his belief that the Left needed to acknowledge the crimes and errors of Stalinism was a central feature of his ideological break with the Party in 1956.’


Is it possible for someone with such moderate left politics to be a Marxist in their historical work? Some of Hobsbawm’s more sectarian critics have doubted it. Evans cites an essay by the Scottish historian James D. Young, who accused Hobsbawm, among other things, of condescension towards the more anarchic popular movements, a stance supposedly indicative of both his authoritarianism and admiration of the establishments of both the UK and USSR. Young’s ravings need not detain us, but there is the ghost of a serious point in his claims.
Part of the understanding which Hobsbawm reached with the leadership of the CPGB was that his historical work would not deal with the twentieth century–in other words the period from the Russian Revolution. Consequently, as he writes in Interesting Times: ‘I myself became essentially a nineteenth-century historian, because I soon discovered…that, given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic’. He maintained this stance until the fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the CPGB released him from any obligation to remain silent. The consequence was that for most of his life there was a disconnect between his historical work and his interventions in contemporary politics. The former focussed on periods dominated by the various forms of the bourgeois revolution and in which international working-class revolution became a realistic possibility only towards the very end; the latter attempts to influence the left in a situation where he was sceptical about the future of revolution, at least outside of the Global South.

Although the last collection of Hobsbawm’s essays to be published during his lifetime was called How to Change the World, his work as a Marxist historian was always far more concerned with How the World Changed. And this may explain the extent to which Hobsbawm ended up as a recipient of the Companion of Honour – not because he ‘sold out’, but because his Marxism was entirely directed towards explaining the past while his essentially reformist positions about the present were not a threat to the system, particularly once the Cold War had come to an end.


I noted at the beginning of this review that, in so far as Evans is concerned with Hobsbawm’s works, it is mainly in relation to their composition, publication and reception, rather than the arguments they contain. He largely refrains from making assessments, except occasionally relaying what critics have said and perhaps indicating his agreement or otherwise. There are points, however, where Evans is unnecessarily critical of his subject. Towards the end of the book Evans refers to Hobsbawm’s three major ‘blind spots’ concerning Africa, modernism and the history of women. Certainly, the first is mainly absent from his work and his treatment of the third inadequate, but Hobsbawm’s discussion of Modernism in Age of Extremes and Behind the Times actually displays his strengths as a Marxist historian, in that he discusses that tradition within the material context of modernity and traces its failings to an inability to respond adequately to developments in communicative and productive technology.

Nevertheless, Evan’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of one of the great historians of the twentieth century. The occasional contradictions which it contains are perhaps unavoidable when dealing with such a contradictory subject. At one point Evans quotes Hobsbawm contemplating the ‘obsolescence’ of his work, although conceding that ‘only the future can decide’. Indeed: but as long as his books are read it is probably safe to say that Evans’ monumental history of their author will be read alongside them.

“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” – book review

“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” – book review

Reviewed by David Purdy.

“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” by Mike Makin-Waite, published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, £18. Available here.

Mike Makin-Waite seconded the motion to dissolve the Communist Party of Great Britain as a delegate to its final Congress in 1991. He was then active in the CPGB’s successor organisation, Democratic Left, and remains involved in networks concerned with the history of the left. In this book, he offers a fresh and unflinching overview of the history of communism from its roots in the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the demise of the international communist movement and the emergence of a global capitalist system from which the “spectre” of communism has been banished. His central concern is the troubled relationship between communism and democracy.

Those of us who still aspire to replace neo-liberal capitalism by a fairer, greener, happier, more democratic and less divided world cannot avoid looking backward if we are to move forward. For one thing, whenever even modest proposals are mooted to re-regulate markets, increase spending on public services or make the tax system less regressive, our opponents are quick to invoke the ghosts of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. More importantly, as the author notes (p 4), the eclipse of communism has impoverished the Western imagination, undermining belief in the very “possibility of ever shaping the world in line with the democratically agreed outcomes of reasoned consideration, with the aim of meeting human needs.”

Now, almost thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a good time to take stock of the strengths, achievements, illusions, follies and crimes of communism. The financial crash of 2007-8 triggered a deep slump and decade-long slowdown from which the world has barely recovered and which has shaken public confidence in global capitalism and neo-liberal policies. Yet the left has made scant progress in articulating and winning support for a credible alternative. On both sides of the Atlantic, populist leaders and movements have emerged to challenge political elites, but more from the illiberal, nationalist right than the liberal, cosmopolitan left, whose commitment to open borders holds little appeal for the victims of global economic restructuring. As yet, there is little sign of the intellectual renewal, political realignment and institutional reform that history suggests are the pre-requisites for resolving an organic crisis of capitalism.

Compare the past decade with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ten years after the Wall Street crash of 1929, the world was at war for the second time in a generation. But ideas and plans for a managed and socialised form of capitalism had gained traction among the intelligentsia and were about to be put to the test in running a war economy. Similarly, the formation of anti-fascist popular fronts in the late 1930s and of resistance movements during the war prefigured the national-popular governments that presided over progressive social settlements after the war.

The short communist century 1917-89

Given the appalling human rights record of the USSR and the quasi-military character of the Leninist vanguard party, one might suppose that a book about communism and democracy would be rather short. But democracy is a complex, shifting and contested concept. According to classical Marxism, liberal or “bourgeois” democracy is an instrument of class rule that serves to protect private property and to preserve the capitalist system. To create a social democracy, capitalists and landlords would have to be expropriated. In countries with parliamentary systems and universal suffrage, it might be possible to achieve this goal with a sufficiently emphatic electoral mandate, though even in this case force might be needed to quell a “slaveholders’ revolt”. Elsewhere, the first priority of socialists was to establish democratic institutions.

Under the impact of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, the international socialist movement split into two hostile camps, henceforth known as social democrats and communists, the former committed to electoral-legislative politics within the framework of liberal democracy, the latter dedicated to defending the Soviet Union and promoting world revolution. Yet while the two sides disagreed about the strategy for achieving socialism, both still aimed to break the power of the propertied classes by taking the principal means of production into public ownership. Once this was done and the government had decided on its policy priorities, a system of central planning would replace the “invisible” hand of the market as the primary mechanism of economic co-ordination, allocating resources among the various branches of production and distributing the social product among the members of society.

The advent of socialism, or “lower” stage of communism, would, it was believed, usher in a superior, more ample form of democracy, encompassing civil society as well as the state and putting the satisfaction of human needs above the pursuit of private profit. Major advances were confidently expected to ensue: inequalities of income, wealth and status would decline; the periodic crises to which capitalism was incorrigibly prone would disappear; and rapid progress would be made towards the material abundance required to sustain the “higher” stage of communism. En route, socialist citizens would acquire both the ability and the desire to participate in the management of productive units and community organisations, as well as enjoying social entitlements over and above the political rights and civil liberties that marked the limit of citizenship status in the “bourgeois” democracies, at any rate prior to the development of welfare states after 1945.

Makin-Waite describes this prospectus as “the promise of modernity”. In the first part of the book, he traces its genesis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the second, he explains why the promise failed to materialise. At the heart of his account is the Soviet experience. Having seized power hoping to bring about a socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks found themselves driven, step-by-step, to launch an industrial revolution, with an authoritarian one-party state presiding over a bureaucratic command economy.

This is a familiar story. It is, nevertheless, worth retelling. The author’s decision to focus on the relationship between communism and democracy provides a strong narrative thread through the twists and turns of communist history, highlighting, in particular, the various periods and episodes when communists came to appreciate that liberal democracy is a historic achievement to be cherished, nurtured and defended: the pre-war popular fronts and wartime resistance movements; the Prague Spring of 1968 and the military coup against Chile’s Popular Unity government in 1973 – searing experiences both, which sparked the rise and shaped the politics of Eurocommunism in the 1970s; and Gorbachev’s efforts in the 1980s to bring the Cold War to an end while seeking to promote perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) in the USSR.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony


Presiding over the argument is the stoical, yet resolute spirit of Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), who briefly became its leader before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini. Gramsci was primarily a theorist of defeat. In his Prison Notebooks, he sought to explain why the Russian revolution had not, as the Bolsheviks confidently anticipated at the time, sparked off similar revolutions in the West. How had the ruling classes in the heartlands of capitalism managed to see off the communist threat? Why the contrast between the collapse of Tsarist autocracy and the resilience of “bourgeois” democracy?

In seeking answers to these questions, Gramsci was obliged to rethink Marxist theory and communist strategy. In particular, invoking the familiar distinction between the use of coercion and government by consent, he gave a whole new meaning to the concept of hegemony, the Greek word for leadership or supremacy. His argument, in a nutshell, was that while the state’s legal monopoly of the means of violence is always a factor in any situation, by far the most effective and least risky way for rulers to secure the allegiance, or least compliance, of their subordinates is not to beat or cow them into submission, but to win their hearts and minds. Thus, in the advanced capitalist democracies, winning and retaining power, whether to preserve the status quo or to pursue a radical alternative, depend primarily on providing the moral and intellectual leadership required to resolve, or at least cope with, society’s main problems.

Coping with a post-communist world

The third part of the book, “Routes for Radicals”, surveys the vestiges of the communist movement in China, North Korea, Cuba and South Africa, together with the various intellectual and political trends which have emerged since the 1990s and which retain some affinity, however loose, with the communist tradition. These include efforts to combine perspectives and themes from Marxist and ecological thought into a new red-green synthesis; the renewal of the left in Latin America (which now seems to have stalled); the anti-globalisation and anti-austerity movements in Europe and North America; the work of the so-called “New Communists” such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek; the formation of new parties of the left such as Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain; and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in the British Labour Party.

The most intellectually innovative and impressive of these post-communist initiatives is the red-green dialogue, a serious attempt to rethink the relationship between capitalism, society and nature. It is, however, still a work in progress and has made little impact on organised politics. The other developments surveyed offer little more than old ideas in new guises. The “New Communists”, for example, reject democratic norms and see contemporary struggles for emancipation as struggles against (liberal) democracy. Thus, Zizek (quoted on p 258) declares that, “… what today prevents radical questioning of capitalism is precisely the belief in democratic forms of struggle against capitalism.” It is unclear whether Zizek really means this or is simply being provocative. He claims to be an unreconstructed Leninist, but this may be a pose. Either way, his apparent disdain for representative government is shared by those advocates of direct democracy who repudiate the state-centred politics of the traditional left in favour of direct action in “local spaces.” Of course, “propaganda of the deed” is an old anarchist enthusiasm and can be a potent form of protest as long as it remains non-violent. But action on the “horizontal” plane of politics can never change the world unless it links up with action on the “vertical” plane as part of a hegemonic project aimed at transforming the state.

Can the communist-shaped hole in our politics be filled by forming a new party or breathing fresh vigour and purpose into an old one? It depends what we hope and expect to achieve by such endeavours. There is no harm in dreaming of a post-capitalist world or in speculating about what it might look like. Dreaming revitalises the brain and utopian thought feeds into ongoing debate about what kind of life is best for humans and what kind of society would best sustain it. But we should bear in mind that the word “utopia”, coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, is a play on the Greek words eu (good or well), ou (no or not) and topos (place). Thus, utopia is a good, but non-existent place. It lies outside time and space: “somewhere over the rainbow”, in the words of the song. Political projects, on the other hand, are time-bound and operate in a resistant medium. Political actors must always reckon with natural limits, structural bias, institutional inertia, vested interests and the actions of their opponents, not to mention irreducible uncertainty about the future.

The neo-liberal revolution and the demise of communism have, between them, driven the possibility of a post-capitalist world over the edge of political space into the realms of utopian space. But while neo-liberal ideas and policies have reached every corner of the world, their impact has not been uniform and there are still different types of capitalism in different countries: China is governed by a strong authoritarian state; Sweden remains a high-tax, high public spending state; Germany retains its social market economy; Britain’s capital city still hosts the world’s largest financial and trading hub; and so on. Equally, just as globalisation has not eliminated institutional and cultural variety from the world, so there is no reason to suppose that the neo-liberal form of capitalism will be the last and every reason to do what we can to replace it by a better form, not just by working for regime change at the national level, but by heading off the current slide into international anarchy and rebuilding a rules-based global order.

Understanding Tom Nairn

Understanding Tom Nairn

by Davie Laing

Tom Nairn, thinker and writer on globalisation and nationalism, is the subject of a critical essay by journalist Neal Ascherson in a new pamphlet published by Democratic Left Scotland.

Ascherson regards Nairn as “by far Scotland’s pre-eminent political intellectual”, though he is at pains to stress that Nairn is as much a devoted European as a Scot.

It is appropriate to add (and Ascherson spends a weighty part of his essay discussing this) that Nairn is perhaps best known as the prophetic author of The Break-Up of Britain (1977).

The end result of Ascherson’s attention is a dazzling distillation of Nairn’s evolving thought; it may serve for years to come as an essential primer for those concerned with the related issues of globalisation and renascent nationalisms of Scotland and other small nations yearning to breathe free. (I should perhaps add that in a discomfiting number of cases the nationalism is more pathological than progressive.)

There is not the space here to rehearse in detail Ascherson’s masterly account of Nairn’s originally dissenting minority, but eventually influential, writings as to why globalisation has resulted less in a bland sameness of cultures and policies, as was predicted by the likes of Francis Fukuyama, but rather a spirit of popular resistance.

This resistance has the potential, in the case of “Anglo-Britain” (Ascherson’s words), to shake the foundations of “Ukania”, Nairn’s coinage for the UK’s Ruritanian constitutional arrangements, and to replace them with regimes animated by the letter and spirit of popular sovereignty as opposed to parliamentary absolutism.

Should such a happy outcome come to pass much credit will be due, Ascherson stresses, to the vigorous campaigning of the likes of Anthony Barnett and friends at Open Democracy. Scottish exemplars include CommonSpace and many others.

Though readers who visit the world of Ascherson and Nairn in pursuit of a direct route from the break-up of “Ukania” to a socialist future will meet with disappointment, they may well find more than ample consolation in Ascherson’s brief but succinct tour of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, Italian communist militant and intellectual, best known for his development of the concept of hegemonic rule.

In this passage we learn of Nairn’s devotion to Gramsci and his strategy of the “long haul” on the road to socialist change. This will require the assembling in civil society of alternative hegemonic majorities and a new common sense that is translatable into popular power, in the process of which the Scottish nation and the national interest will be radically redefined. From such a perspective there remains much to be done.

But we have reasons to be cheerful, for it is arguable that the forces of hegemonic potential are already in the process of formation, firstly in the astonishing explosion of some 40 years of Scottish literary and artistic talent – though its political potential, in my view, remains under-analysed (Robert Crawford’s splendid Scotland’s Books (2007) being a partial exception).

Mention should also be made of the revisionist health of Scottish historiography with pioneering work on Scotland and empire and women’s studies. Secondly, no discussion of potential hegemonics would be adequate without mention of 2014, the annus mirabilis which Ascherson has written about with such passion and insight as a participant observer.

This phenomenon has altered the direction of Scottish history – I predict with some confidence, permanently.

The spirit and letters of Tom Nairn have animated the Yes movement, making the reading of this pamphlet essential. But no need to take the word of this interested party when Professor Paul James, a former colleague of Nairn’s in Australia, has written: “I expected a casual read only to find that I simply could not put it down. Neal gets Tom.”

This article first appeared in CommonSpace.

Tom Nairn: “Painting Nationalism Red”? by Neal Ascherson is a 32pp A5 pamphlet and illustrated by Alexander Moffat’s oil portrait of Nairn. It is priced at £4.00 with a discount of 10% for orders of 10 or more.

Copies can be obtained by contacting:
Democratic Left Scotland, 9 MacAulay Street, Dundee DD3 6JT
Telephone 07826 488492
Email stuartfairweather[at]ymail[dot]com

This article was corrected on 13.02.18 to place quotation marks around the title of the publication.

The October Revolution 100 Years on

The October Revolution 100 Years on

Stephen Whitefield in conversation with David Priestland

Stephen Whitefield: David, I really look forward to our conversation about October 1917 in Russia and its contemporary significance, which I am certain will be of great interest to all readers of Perspectives. You have written extensively about Soviet history and then, essentially, on modern world history. I remember long and fascinating discussions with you about all your work. Starting with your thesis and first book about Stalinism in the 1930s – Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-War Russia (2007) – I was struck by how important it was to you to understand Stalinism by taking its often contradictory ideological claims and justifications seriously. You then moved on to write a comparative history of the communist movement – The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) – and from there to write another very broad comparative book – Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (2012) – about the ways in which these “castes”, as you call them, configure political alliances with each configuration containing contradictions which lead eventually to its collapse. You are now, I think, working on a book about the history of neo-liberalism. So, let me start by asking what, if anything, unites this body of work? Is it perhaps an underlying commitment to the importance of ideas and ideologies in shaping political arrangements? And do you face a lot of opposition to that perspective from other historians or from social scientists?

David Priestland: I too look forward to the conversation, and it’s good to have the opportunity to discuss the significance of 1917 in greater length than has been common in the media. Yes, as you say, how have ideological systems, very broadly defined, been understood by people who were not political theorists or even that interested in political ideas? When it comes to communism, polarised positions have often developed – communists have either been seen as cynics and pragmatists, or “true believers” whose dogmatic imposition of Marxist-Leninist ideas led to the Gulag. However, in my book on Stalinism in the 1930s, I tried to show how an apparently monolithic Marxism-Leninism included different views of how authority was to be exercised, and what sort of officials were to be in control, and especially one that emphasised mass mobilisation, and another that championed a more elitist, technocratic vision. I also argued that the Stalinist Terror of 1936–38 can be better understood in the context of conflicts between these two ideological positions.


This book was largely concerned with communist elites, but my next book, on global communism, tried to show how communist ideas affected a much broader range of people, and that forced me to examine how communism was related to other political ideas, such as nationalism and “neo-traditional” paternalistic views of politics. The project also encouraged me to think about how communist ideas were received among different social groups in very diverse societies across the world – from German intellectuals to Chinese peasants – and I became interested in combining the history of ideas with more sociological and ethnographic approaches. That was what led me to write an extended historical essay on social groups and “ethoses”, Merchant, Soldier, Sage – using the word “caste” in the way it was used by ancient thinkers to refer to social groups with their own moral systems and ways of life, or “dharmas” (as opposed to the way it is used in India today, to mean exclusive hereditary groups arranged hierarchically). So yes, I’d agree that all of the books are linked by an interest in the role of ideas in politics, and the need to examine the varieties and contradictions of ideological systems. But I have become more interested in how these ideas interact with other social and cultural forces in history, and today.

As to the reception of my work: I haven’t actually had much hostility from either academic or non-specialist critics. I had a couple of negative reviews of The Red Flag in the press from a Cold War liberal, anti-communist perspective when the book came out in 2009, but I think the ways I’ve tried to place communism in a historical context, hopefully avoiding Cold War polemics, have become more acceptable over time, and the book has been more widely read and translated than my other books. I was anxious about Merchant, Soldier, Sage, because it was much bolder in making generalisations than is the norm for a book of history, but the academics who reviewed it were generally positive. However, I suspect that the book’s interdisciplinary approach appeals to some more than others – I see myself as a historian of ideas, but I am not producing detailed analyses of political thinkers as many intellectual historians do; and I am more of a cultural historian than a social historian using social science methodologies, though I suspect many cultural historians would think I had an excessively social scientific liking for abstraction and generalisation.

SW: Well, can I ask how you might apply your arguments about the role of ideas and ideology to the October Revolution? There is an aspect of this question which perhaps you might clarify at the start. My understanding of your position is that we might be better off thinking about intellectual currents rather than individual commitments. What I mean by that is that “leading thinkers” of the Revolution have a variety of more or less coherent ways to explain why, for whom and how the Revolution was produced and would develop, all plausibly Marxist, but that they couldn’t coherently hold all positions at the same time. In that frame, we can perhaps make a bit more sense of how Lenin could be someone who thought the state could be abolished and administration taken in turn, and in short order someone who thought that experts and a long period of development were necessary. As I understand your position, you think that these apparently contradictory positions were evident for most of the Soviet period, regularly surfacing but never resolved. A bit like the seemingly endless reconfigurations of Merchant, Soldier and Sage. Some might think of these about-turns in Lenin’s stances – and many others – as appropriate expedience and flexibility over tactics to reach an agreed goal, others that it is evidence just of opportunism and that the ideology was actually of no meaning. How do you think about the role of Marxist ideology in the Revolution and indeed throughout the Soviet period given these apparent contradictions?

DP: The Russian Revolution, like all major social revolutions, involved a challenge to state and other forms of authority staged by a coalition of opponents, and following that a struggle between the revolutionariesto reconstitute a new state and social hierarchies. As much of the recent scholarship on 1917 shows, the “Russian Revolution” was made up of multiple revolutions across the Russian empire, including peasant revolts against landlords, often inspired by anarchistic ideas of local autonomy, and nationalist rebellions of ethnic minorities against imperial rule – as well as the urban revolution that comes to mind when we think of “1917”. And in the cities, too, we can see a whole range of revolutionary movements and ideas – from vanguardist Marxism to radical feminism, from cultural avant-gardism to worker council participatory democracy. Some of those different strains survived for a time within Bolshevism – one of the most radical Marxist groups – but over time, as the Bolsheviks fought the civil war and built their new state, Bolshevism narrowed and became more authoritarian, and radicals were marginalised. Even so, I have argued that we need to avoid common assumptions that Marxism-Leninism was monolithic, or that we can see it as either a programme of egalitarian modernisation as used to be popular, or as a utopian totalitarian project that would inevitably result in terror, as is more normal now. Rather there were always tensions within the ideology, and one of the main divisions was over the question – how can economic developmental goals be achieved, while at the same time fulfilling the socially egalitarian promises of the revolution?


As you say, Bolsheviks could find rather different answers to those questions within Marx’s very ambiguous ideological legacy – including a revolutionary challenge to social hierarchies and inequalities, as well as visions of a scientifically planned economy, which implied some form of technocratic hierarchy. And as I argue, it is possible to identify a very limited number of strategies, which were repeatedly tried in various forms in the history of communism. Among the most historically significant were: a technocratic one, with expert elites in control, which promised a solution to economic underdevelopment; one based on revolutionary mass mobilisation, which could be justified according to a more radical Marxist vision and which appealed to the “experts” in political mobilisation – the party officials and “activists”; and finally a “pragmatic” one, in which elements of the market were tolerated as a way of overcoming the problems of state centralisation and planning, and was popular among peasants and some technocratic interests. We can find all three strategies in Lenin’s own thinking in and after 1917, though broadly speaking we can say he moved from a more radical mobilising one, to a more technocratic, statist one during the civil war, towards a pragmatic one at the end of his life (seen in his New Economic Policy of 1921). And these strategies survived the Leninist period not only because they could be justified ideologically, but because each offered different, but incomplete and flawed, solutions to the problems facing Bolshevik regimes.

Each strategy was also advocated by particular interests, and as you say, in some ways this looks like the Merchant, Soldier, Sage model of history – that is a series of struggles between different ideological visions, each associated with particular social groups and their cultures or ethoses. Though I would argue that Soviet systems empower a limited set of groups and ethoses – and specifically two forms of “sage”, the expert technocrat, and the mobilising party official; each absorbed some elements of a “worker” collectivist culture, but probably rather more aspects of a “soldier” culture, including military-style mobilisation and more conventional military hierarchies. And of course, in some communist systems, including the USSR, militaries themselves had a great deal of political and economic, as well as cultural influence.

SW: I read your long and very positive review in the Financial Times recently of Yuri Slezkine’s book House of Government, in which he portrays the Bolsheviks as a kind of millenarian sect inspired by a belief that “full Communism” really would be the fruit of the Revolution – and that the viciousness of Communist rule was the result both of a sense of justification to take harsh action in pursuit of this goal, but also a kind of response to the difficulties in explaining to themselves why Communism was failing to materialise. It must be because of enemies within and without. The issue is important to my mind because if the Communist movement is just a sort of weird form of millenarianism, in which a country – Russia – is captured in a moment of state collapse and war by a gang of violent extremists who used force to hold power for generations, we can hardly find much in retrospect to inspire in it. The Communist movement rather seems like some odd late 19th Century cult. But you seem to take a much more multifaceted view of the Revolution and its aftermath. So, what would you say are the contemporary resonances of October 1917 that make thinking about it interesting today?

DP: Yes, the book, which is a study of a group of second-tier Bolshevik officials who lived in a large famous apartment block near the Kremlin, “The House of Government”, is the most persuasive defence I have read of the view that the Bolsheviks can be compared to a millenarian sect inspired by apocalyptic traditions in the Abrahamic religions – that is they believed that the communist utopia was about to arrive, and they were engaged in the violent, apocalyptic struggle with the forces of evil which would inevitably precede it. However, as I argued in the review, while I am happy to accept that there are important Christian millenarian aspects to the language and even thinking of some Bolsheviks in some periods – which Slezkine identifies very interestingly – I do not agree that we can see the Bolshevik party as essentially, or even primarily, a millenarian sect. There are many other elements to Bolshevism – I would stress the commitment to a rather technocratic vision of modernity, as well as to much more conventional socialist ideas of equality. And while periods like the Terror did see the use of millenarian language to justify the persecution of “enemies of the people”, these episodes, while destructive, were short-lived. Another issue that needs to explained by defenders of the “millenarian” thesis, is why we see a similar form of good versus evil “class struggle” in episodes such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which do not have obvious roots in Abrahamic religions. A convincing use of the model would need to explain these cases too.


The “millenarianism” or “political religion” argument was popular among some Cold War critics of communism to discredit the Bolsheviks as an irrational or fanatical movement (which, to be fair to him, Slezkine does not do); and this was used to counter the argument among some on the left that 1917 was an inspiring story of rational modernisation. My view is that neither position helps us understand the Bolsheviks: they were neither crazy fanatics, nor rational pragmatists, but were operating within a particular ideological context. But if we take this careful contextual view and avoid politicised judgements about the Bolsheviks’ “rationality” and “irrationality”, why, as you rightly ask, should we be interested in 1917 today at all? Is it just of interest to historians? I’d have a couple of responses to that. Firstly, it’s crucial to understand what 1917 was and how it was interpreted if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century. If we accept simple interpretations devoid of context – whether that Bolshevism was a fanatical movement which duped millions, or indeed a virtuous movement that was betrayed by a few leaders or destroyed by American imperialism – it is difficult to understand the many strands of the tradition of 1917, and why they appealed to so many different people and social groups. And secondly, thinking about 1917 can help us to understand the thinking of radicals, as well as the problems facing any social reformers, in the poorer parts of the world. It’s often difficult for us in the West to understand the appeal of 1917, because it had greatest resonance in agrarian societies that were not only economically unequal but highly stratified culturally. For many on the left in the 20th century, these systems, dominated by landowning or military elites, could only be changed through radical, even violent action. Today, some of the sharpest of those inequalities have gone – sometimes as a result of communist rule, as is the case with the expropriation of land and its distribution to peasants. But sharp and entrenched inequalities remain in much of the world, and that fuels anger and calls for radical change – even if that social discontent often provides more fuel for radical right than radical left movements, most notably in the Middle East.

SW: I wonder if that gets the whole picture. There are probably lots of reasons why there is interest in the UK in October 1917 and much of it is likely fatuous. Anything 100 years on seems to provoke a flurry of articles. Perhaps the Revolution has become so anodised by the collapse of the Soviet Union that it can now be dealt with as pure nostalgia. But could there be more to its contemporary resonances than that? I don’t mean that Marxism is resurgent – am I wrong? But rather that we see more in 1917 than an uprising in a pre-modern agrarian society. Other parallels may be more striking. I think about Theda Skocpol’s work on states and revolutions. In Russia, there was a state that was so captured by powerful interests that it had no capacity or autonomy to act even in the ruling class’s longer term interests. It arguably failed to deal with issues of social mobility leaving many of its most educated and capable citizens entirely alienated from government and authority, and angry. Persistent failures to reform interacted with other crises – especially war of course. For Skocpol, it wasn’t so much the agrarian character of Russian society that explained its revolution, as the failure of the state to deal with the tidal wave of demands – in particular the international challenges – that Russia faced. Is this perhaps not more why October 1917 is of contemporary interest? Not just nostalgia but a sense now not yet of revolutionary possibilities but of a weak and failing social and political order unable to deal with the most obvious social problems? Into which vacuum who knows who might walk, especially given the failure and collapse of neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the Crash?

DP: Yes, I would agree that 1917 has become much more of an inspiration for the radical left in the West than it has been for some time – arguably since the 1970s. A good example is the writer China Mieville’s sympathetic account of the revolution which has had a good reception from many critics and is selling well, something I doubt would have happened ten years ago. And a rather more politically neutral, contextualised account of the legacy of 1917 I wrote for the New York Times this year did not get the Cold War anti-communist response The Red Flag got from some quarters – except from the popular right-wing shock-jock conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones.


But I think we need to ask what this interest in 1917 means – what is it about 1917 that is valued? And do the understandings of “1917” that inspired the left in much of the twentieth century explain the interest today? Anger at the domination of the state and the economy by elites who seem to be wedded to a failed, selfish neo-liberalism is a crucial element, and as you say there are certainly resonances today, especially in the United States, where so many aspects of political life, including the electoral process, have been corrupted by corporate money. But looking back at the history of communism, I’m sceptical that this is enough for a revival of 1917-style leftist politics. I mentioned agrarian societies not because I think peasants are essential participants in revolutions, but because these societies had an important precondition of radical left-wing politics – the convergence of cultural alienation between elites and the mass of the population, and socio-economic conflict. Pre-industrial, agrarian societies, often run by landed aristocracies, were not only unequal in socio-economic terms, but had very sharp cultural divisions between elites and ordinary people – they lived in very different ways, and even sometimes spoke different languages. So when Russian revolutionaries tried to mobilise ordinary people against the “bourgeois” (“burzhui”), they could combine socio-economic resentment with a sense of cultural alienation. So the common distinction made in the contemporary debate between something called “identity politics” and some “purer” form of Marxist socio-economic left-wing politics, is unhelpful. The revolutionaries of 1917 benefited from the merging of the “socio-economic” with the cultural, and this also helps to explain the power of “1917” in the colonial and post-colonial global South after World War II, where they could exploit a huge cultural distance between ordinary people and foreign or collaborating elites.

If we contrast these situations with the West today, it is much more difficult for a radical left to link socio-economic with cultural divisions in society, because other forms of identity compete with class identity. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011–12 did try to do that, by mobilising a “99%” against a plutocratic “1%”, but cultural divisions often cut across socio-economic conflicts, because of the importance of educational, ethnic, generational and other differences. So debt-laden university-educated groups may feel culturally alienated from the blingy plutocratic elite embodied by Trump and Putin, but do they believe that the T-shirt-wearing Mark Zuckerberg – in many ways a more powerful plutocrat – is equally worthy of their hostility? And poorly paid blue-collar British workers may not have much in common socio-economically with the tweed-wearing stockbroker Nigel Farage, but they can unite along culturally nationalist lines against an educated cosmopolitan elite.

I am not saying that it’s impossible to create alliances of groups disadvantaged by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic issues, mobilising them against economic elites behind a programme of equality, and that is something the left clearly has to do if it is going to succeed politically. Nor am I saying that they cannot use some elements of the very diverse legacy of 1917 to do so. Indeed, the meaning of “1917” has changed over time and can do so again – for instance the shift from the industrial proletarian revolution of Petrograd during World War I to the peasant guerrilla war in China or Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s was a major transformation in the image of communism and the legacy of 1917. But in my view it would take an even greater polarisation of western politics on economic issues than has occurred so far for that to happen. It’s telling, I think, that the most important politically significant movement that still takes the revolutionary legacy of 1917 seriously (as opposed to the legacy of the vanguard party as in China), is the Maoist Naxalite guerrilla insurgency in central India, which is focused around the issue of land rights and the rigid caste divisions that exist in India.

SW: I think I agree with you about how fractures over culture between left and right and their social bases make building political majorities very difficult. But let me ask one final question. Revolutions, and whatever we will call fascist seizures of power, happen in times of crisis and there is perhaps an ever more palpable sense that conventional politics is unable to resolve the most pressing problems facing the world. Another crash and who knows what kinds of alliances will emerge. Now, we clearly see some countries in which an alliance of conservative, xenophobic and illiberal forces that present some elements of pro-working class welfarism – often emphasising traditional family gender roles to be sure – against the failures of cosmopolitan neo-liberalism have won power and even absolute majorities. I think about Hungary and to a lesser degree Poland. Bannon-style Trumpism is a similar project perhaps. Even Theresa May gestured at that agenda in her Downing Street and other speeches, though has done nothing beyond her inconsistent rhetoric. Yet, there are significant political opportunities in that political space that I fear. On the left, to state the obvious, we have Corbyn and Sanders, in many countries Green parties, parties of the left in Southern Europe – and in Scotland of course, the Democratic Left. These attempt to build majorities for left, liberal, generally internationalist (even if anti-EU and against aspects of globalisation), and environmentalist policies. One difference between 1917 and now is that, to my mind, the left has almost everywhere fully embraced democracy and liberalism. The old mainstream of centre-left and centre-right is in retreat in many places, though I would not say it is yet finished. But politics may be simplifying and polarising. It is often more angry. So in the likely battles to come, when the current order actually has to change – as I suppose I think it does – which way will the world turn? Or I am just revealing my own millenarian tendencies?

DP: I agree that the period we live in is deeply worrying, and it is difficult to imagine a good way out of this, because we are not only living through an economic crisis, the loss of faith in a dominant ideology – market liberalism – we are also without any coherent and practical alternatives to the current unstable system. For any attempt to resolve the environmental problems that plague us, or to achieve a degree of national and international equality requires international co-ordination and social compromises that are very difficult to achieve, especially at a time of low growth. And that ideological vacuum brings a crisis of confidence among politicians, experts and elites more generally, which in turn fuels mistrust of governments, and leads to simple solutions which claim to protect people against further declines In their economic or status position, from nostalgic nationalism to the magical neo-liberalism of some of the Brexiters or American Republicans (more deregulation will make people work harder and revive the country).


Of course, these ideological and economic crises happen regularly in history – the last was in the 1970s – and many at the time were deeply pessimistic. But this seems to me to be a worse situation than that – at least there were neo-liberal alternatives, for good or ill. The 1930s parallel is closer – then again an international system founded on global finance and liberal ideology collapsed, and the result was sharp political polarisation between left and right. And then, as now, the right was better able to forge alliances than was the left. But it was possible to see a Keynesian alternative, albeit underdeveloped and imperfect. The 1917 example in Europe is less encouraging: the collapse of the old aristocratic and imperial world after World War I led to violent conflict between left and right, which resolved itself in a highly unstable liberal order, and laid the foundations for the crises of the 1930s.

But ultimately compromises of some sort did emerge – even if that happened after destructive conflict – so a historical perspective should not encourage pessimism. I do not think fascism is round the corner, and awareness of the past does change behaviour in a way designed to learn from the past. As you say, the left is much more committed to liberal ideas of democracy than it was in 1917. But one lesson we seem stubbornly unwilling to learn is more relevant to the 1920s and 1930s than to Russia in 1917: that unfettered markets are highly dangerous for economic and political stability, let alone environmental sustainability.

David Priestland is Professor of Modern History and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  His book, The Red Flag. Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, Penguin Press) combined a comparative approach with a broadly narrative structure, and was shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Prize for the best history book of 2010.  He has subsequently published Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, Penguin) in 2012 and is now working on a book on the history of neo-liberalism.
Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics and a Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. His first book, Industrial Power and the Soviet State (Oxford University Press, 1993) won the Ed. A Hewitt prize for the best book on the political economy of Communist and post-Communist systems.  He has more recently published (with Robert Rohrschneider) The Strain of Representation: How Parties Represent Diverse Voters in Western and Eastern Europe (OUP 2012) and is now working on a study of the impact of globalisation in the stances of parties and voters on the left and the right. 

Getting on with the day job – DLS AGM 2017

Getting on with the day job – DLS AGM 2017

This is the contribution by Maggie Chapman to the DLS AGM on the 14th October, in Portobello. Maggie is a member of Democratic Left’s National Council, and Co-Convener of the Scottish Green Party.

“We chose the title for this AGM discussion as a provocation: “get on with the day job” has been the rhetorical battering ram used by Ruth Davidson (and others) to hit the SNP for talking about independence. Her intent is quite clear: she wants the threat of the break up of the British Imperial State removed so that the exploitation of Scotland’s natural and human resources can continue unabated, Scotland’s people can continue to be subjected to the brutal discipline of austerity and the removal of social security.

But, the way in which she puts the proposition, by necessity, is depoliticising. She is happy to talk about how the Scottish Government has problems in education, but her solutions remain unspoken. And of course, the record of her own party in England, investing in vanity projects like free schools, rather than any real attempts to transform the prospects of school students, suggests she has nothing to contribute in this area. She is quick to criticise in broad terms but does not present solutions. Rather, she is appealing to a constituency who are clearly threatened by the energetic and exciting politics ushered in by the referendum.

The brilliance of the Ruth Davidson approach is that it draws on one of the core tactics of neoliberalism: it forecloses political possibility. As Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative!”. The aim is very definitely to put politics back in its box. For Conservatives, and for those terrified by this prospect, putting politics back into its box is vital and we need to recognise that those people who voted Tory were strongly guided by this motivation.

What arose in the 2014 referendum in Scotland was a belief that it didn’t have to be like this: that another Scotland was, indeed possible. And all of us here today are determined to see this a reality. But we have perhaps lost a bit of the momentum since 2014. And we’ve not always been helped by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish National Party’s instinct is to conform to the dominant politics of the day, so our job is to create the dominant politics that we want. We can see them on either side of this: before July, they wanted to cut Air Passenger Duty and hurt puppies – remember the tail docking vote – these are the kinds of things that Tories love doing, perhaps especially if they are Dalmatians.

However, since the summer, and us choosing to do an event with this title, the SNP have made a clear jump to the left, as we can see with the programme of government – even if some of this is still only at the level of consultation. It includes a Scottish Investment Bank which is a long-term green policy, nationalising Scotrail, creating a State-owned energy company and a wide range of other proposals that Greens and others in the radical Yes movement have been calling for.

This is a good thing, and is clearly a political response to the depoliticising intent of ‘getting on with the day job’.

And I think we can identify three agents that have enabled, and perhaps catalyse this shift; three agents that have functioned together and separately to create a dynamic that has moved Scottish politics into a much more positive space than it was in before the summer.

Firstly, we have Political parties, perhaps especially the Greens – the existence of Greens as a parliamentary force has been essential in pulling both Labour and the SNP to the left. The election of Caroline Lucas in 2010 brought a fresh perspective to radical politics where the left in the Labour party had been associated with older figures like Tony Benn. The experience of Labour activists and candidates in England being outflanked on the left consistently by Greens played a very significant role in popularising the sort of politics articulated by Jeremy Corbyn. Greens in the Scottish parliament have played a different role, but the electoral system here makes the threat to the SNP much more substantial. And the parliamentary arithmetic means that the SNP often rely on Greens, particularly since the polarisation around independence meant that the Tories couldn’t do deals with them so easily any more.

Secondly, there is Corbyn. Having popularised a form of progressive politics, Greens have seen it taken up by the new leadership of the Labour party whose ability to appeal to the Scottish electorate was reinvigorated between 2015 and 2017. The Labour manifesto with its full blooded call for removal of the market from areas such as transport and energy had an appeal in a way that a centrist SNP manifesto did not. The SNP has responded to this with a move into this territory.

Thirdly, the yes movement itself. The yes movement, having thrown off the shackles imposed by the official Yes Campaign (that it be a marketing and voter contact operation) became a lively and energetic manifestation of new politics. Where the Yes Scotland proposition that things would just be better if Scotland ran its own affairs was overshadowed and eclipsed by the more ideological character of the RIC. I want to draw an analogy here from a military context – I don’t mean this to imply that an armed struggle is appropriate in this context, however. In the Zimbabwean liberation struggle – the Chimurenga – there were two principle liberation forces – the Chinese backed ZANLA and the Soviet-backed ZIPRA. Where ZANLA understood that the conflict was asymmetrical, ZIPRA sought to match the Rhodesian armed forces for firepower. Whereas ZANLA used the advantages offered by their integration with local populations to much more effectively bleed the Rhodesian forces dry.

Over the past 30 years, the left has sought to engage its ideological opponents on territory that favoured the right. The Independence Movement is the first time in a long time that we’ve engaged them on territory that favours us. This, of course, created a set of lessons that have been learnt by the SNP, by the Corbyn campaign, and even in the US by the Sanders campaign, all to much greater effect than would previously have been possible.

There’s been a deep trauma for political parties as we re-enter an age of political ideology – the world really is struggling to be born. So, the question now for us is – how can we be handmaidens of that new world. It didn’t look like we were being very successful in this before the summer. But things change!

So far we’ve mobilised a movement around the proposition that “Another Scotland is Possible”. That movement has been energised by policy positions, but there’s a fundamental question about the changes that will be required to the structure of society and the economy.

We have to ask ourselves what the prefigurative steps are that we need to take to get to that ‘another world’. Things like the Tredegar Medical Aid Society – prefigure the NHS. How do we prefigure the changes we need in housing, governance, in our communities? How do we build the movements to make those real?

There’s a question about where we take these techniques next. We need to understand how we respond to the political realities of the day, how we respond to the crisis within in the British state that is being accelerated by Brexit

Given that we’ve been very successful in achieving our policy objectives up to now, we need to identify how we relate the prefigurative demands are, and how we get those adopted.

We need to have a plan for what happens if the deep crisis of capitalism plunges not into another spate of difficulties but goes into a terminal decline. Especially if that terminal decline is very rapid, as it may well be.

That’s the day job we need to be getting on with. And we will set about it with relish.”

AGM Discussion: Getting on with the day job – an agenda for radical Scotland

Join Democratic Left Scotland for our AGM discussion on Saturday the 14th October in Portobello Library.

Speakers include Justin Kenrick, from Acton Porty on the opportunities and limits to community action, Jonathon Shafi from Conter, on policies for a radical Scotland and Scottish Green Party co-convener Maggie Chapman on how we can build movements for change.

Eventbrite - Getting on with the day job - an agenda for radical Scotland