Eric Hobsbawm and the Cambridge Communists


This week I’ve been reading and watching two accounts, each of which focuses on the left at Cambridge University in the 1930s: Richard Evans’ biography of Eric Hobsbawm, and Trevor Nunn’s film Red Joan.

Evans’ book ranges beyond 1939 (its subject only died in 2012), but it is striking how much of his book is about Hobsbawm’s early life and influences rather than his writing. For nearly 200 pages of the book, Hobsbawm is at Cambridge – as an undergraduate, research student and fellow. Evans devotes what feels like a smaller number of pages to Hobsbawm’s entire body of published work.

As for Red Joan, this takes the real-life story of Melita Norwood who passed on atomic secrets to the Soviets and makes the story comprehensible to a British audience by ignoring her radical family, and pretending she was politicised at university. It swaps her real alma mater (Southampton) for a fictional time at Cambridge. Joan is radicalised there in 1936-9 due to a sexual intrigue with a foreign Jewish Communist and future Comintern spy, “Leo Galich”.

Red Joan is a case study in how badly served this generation of students activists is by its appearance in popular culture. The spies are all Jews and foreigners, or innocent Brits pulled along by them – which gets the relationships almost exactly the wrong way round. It misses the self-consciousness the students felt at their isolation from working-class communities – or the determined efforts they made to break down the walls separating gown from town.

Even Evans isn’t the corrective he should be. His account is detailed, full of keen judgments and sharp turns of phrase. He is especially good at translating Hobsbawm’s youthful diaries and poems from the German. But Evans defers to Hobsbawm’s own memoir, Interesting Times, which insists that while Hobsbawm would quite happily have spied for the Soviet Union if he had been asked, he never was: “We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it and most of us – certainly I – would have taken it on ourselves, if asked.”

I didn’t find this sufficient when I read Hobsbawm’s book 20 years ago. Nor is it entirely plausible when you read Evans’ account – which follows Hobsbawm’s closely.

There is another reason why I am interested in Cambridge. At one point in the history of the Communist International, its full-timers were organising strikes and protests. Or, at least, movement scaffolding: unions and parties and newspapers and radio stations. And there is another stage in the Comintern’s history when its full-timers – often the same people as before, just older – are running agents, gathering intelligence, etc. The latter work inevitably trained in its participants and their close companions, in habits of deceit, double-talking etc. If the politics of the early 1920s tended to idealism, a belief in the essential goodness of people and the immanence of change; then the politics of the late 1930s tended to shade off into cynicism, a belief in big-power rivalry rather than people.

It is true that there was little direct contact: the spies were on average 5-6 years older than Hobsbawm and in student politics that is a lifetime. However, the Socialist Club through which the CP operated was open to both graduates and undergraduates. Burgess for example left Cambridge in summer 1935 – just a year before Hobsbawm “went up”.

There were three routes via which Hobsbawm was in close proximity – friends of friends, you might say – with the spies. First, he was a student at Kings, where the lecturers included Maurice Dobb, who was credited by Kim Philby with having recruited him to covert work. In his memoir, Hobsbawm refers to Dobb’s prodigious influence on his own work, both prior to studying at Cambridge, and after he had left: he very pointedly writes nothing about any contacts he had with Dobb during the period when the two men ate and studied within yards of each other: Evans takes this absence at face value.

Second, Hobsbawm was a friend of James Klugmann, who had like Burgess left Cambridge in 1935; in Klugmann’s case to become Secretary of the World Student Association (WSA). Klugmann is named in numerous accounts as a recruiter of spies. (He also worked for the British Special Operations Executive during the war). As Evans notes, Hobsbawm knew Klugmann well and and helped him by doing translation work for the WSA but that is seemingly all.

Third, Hobsbawm was a member of the Apostles, a left-wing /gay / Cambridge counterpart to Oxford’s Bullingdon club. The group was intended to be small – a dining club of 12 people. When Hobswbawm joined in 1939 the other members included Leo Long (accused by Blunt in 1964 of being another Soviet Spy) as well as three of the five Cambridge spies (Bunt, Burgess and Cairncross). That three out of twelve members were Soviet spies and five out of twelve of them Communists is, it seems to me, quite a high proportion, and enough in itself to cast doubt on Hobsbawm’s blithe insistence (repeated by Evans) that, “I don’t believe the tone of the society was particularly red”.

Then you look at what the Apostles were debating – in November 1939 – ‘One big lie or many little lies?’ This was two months after the war had begun. By then, four of them were working in British intelligence (the three Soviet double agents plus Long). As well as the obvious British/Russian dual loyalties – two of those four (Philby and Burgess) were also pretending to have discarded Communism for fascism, as their cover for joining the secret state. Lies had become their stock in trade. So what did they say aboout lies, in their private discussions?

Evans tells us: “Eric responded to the question ‘One Big Lie or Many Little Lies?’ by coming down on the side of One Big Lie, but only one more meeting was held on 25 November 1939 before the war intervened…” From this I infer that Evans has read the society’s minute book. If there is more than just the title of the discussion – if there are notes of who spoke or the content of the speeches – I wish he had told us what they say.

What happens to all these various scraps when you add them together? If the question you are asking is “Was Hobsbawm a Soviet spy?” – then they don’t amount to anything much at all. He knew, worked repeatedly with and socialised actively with spies; he was not one himself.

But if the question you are asking is “What legacy did these times leave on Hobsbawm’s Marxism?”, there’s a good case to be made that this was unlike the “Marxism” that most people encounter when they read Marx or meet Marxists today. And unlike the Marxism even of John Saville, E. P. Thompson – and Hobsawm’s other temporary allies in the inner party struggle in 1956. It was a view of life in which the self-activity millions of people had been shoved noticeably to the side.

Hobsbawm was part of a Communist milieu at Cambridge running into several hundred people. He was undoubtedly far better read (at least in Marxism) than most of the other students. He certainly had a wider international experience than almost anyone else. He had, after all, been involved in student work in Berlin in 1932-3, as well as on the left before coming up to uni.

Evans depicts Hobsbawm as getting bored of student life, or certainly Communist student life, and swapping the CP for the university-wide paper Granta, into whose offices he walked in his first term asking for a writing job. This is plausible, no doubt it fits with the archives (although that might cause us to reflect on what sort of documents make it into the records, and which don’t). The account suits the drift of Evan’s narrative which is to convert Hobsbawm into a good Labour leftist, fallen unhappily among Bolsheviks.

That account doesn’t sit especially well however with either the many passages of Evans’ book in which Hobsbawm volunteers for clandestine war-time work for the party. Nor with the insistence with which Hobsbawm’s boasts of having been one of just three people on the Communist Party’s Cambridge Secretariat. If he was passed over for opportunities, then it is not because of a lack of willingness or visibility on his part.

The question which is worth asking is this – why didn’t Hobsbawm become a spy? Watching Trevor Nunn’s film, you find yourself impelled to the conclusion that really he should have done. For whoever wrote the screenplay of Red Joan appears to have just assumed that if British students volunteered to spy for the USSR, then they did because they were deluded, because they fell under the spell of foreigners for whom more was at stake – the loss of relatives, say, at the hands of the fascists. It follows that the apparatus of the spy machine was all a network of Germans, Russians, etc. And, if there was a real-life “Leo Galich” anywhere in Cambridge (a veteran political activist who had lived in a country taken over by fascists) – it was Hobsbawm.

Whereas what we know about the Cambridge spy ring is that in the end those who took part were all Brits: Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross. They were radicalised by the experiences of the 1930s, by British society, by class and by a rejection of the arrogance that privilege imposes on its holders – that was more than enough for them.

I have already alluded to the way in which both Philby and Burgess bluffed their way into the Foreign Service, part of which involved posing as new recruits to the British far right. Both found it easy to pass in this milieu, where they were undistinguishable in either ideological or class terms from the people around them. Burgess’s father had been a Commander in the Royal Navy. When his son joined the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship, it seemed as if the previous five years he’d spent arguing for Communism steamed off him like water after a warm bath.

It was even easier for Philby, whose father had been a diplomat before him, and stood for election in 1939 on the ticket of the pro-Nazi British Peoples Party.

The recruiters at the Foreign Office were keen to allow the penitents their chance to serve. As Brits, or, more specifically, upper middle class former public schoolboys – they could talk their way into espionage roles in a way Eric Hobsbawm never could have done.

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