Eric Hobsbawm is someone I have a great deal of time and respect for, even if I would disagree with his role in the Communist Party of Great Britain and his links to the crowd centred round Marxism Today. He has consistently sought to apply Marxism in a creative way not only in his historical writings, but also in modern politics. So I was very interested to see in today’s Guardian Hobsbawm discuss his own hero, an Austrian named Franz Marek (link to Google translate’s version of his wikipedia entry). Hobsbawm’s obituary notice in the November 1979 edition of Marxism Today can be found here.
Marek was a Communist; he joined the Party in Vienna in 1934 and was active in anti-Nazi resistance activity both in his homeland, where he headed the CP’s underground apparatus, and in France during the War, where he headed the PCF’s resistance organisation for foreigners. He worked among the Germans, and was caught and sentenced to death. He survived only because the Nazis fled the approaching Allied armies. He was an activist, a theoretician and author of several books, a senior member of the Communist Party of Austria and editor of its theoretical journal. He embraced Eurocommunism, and, following arguments over 1968, he ended up outside the Party, and subsequently edited an independent Marxist journal. He kept up links with other Eurocommunists, with the PCI sending a representative to his funeral.
This is a life which much to admire. Marek was born into great poverty, and it was his experience of the reality of exploitation of working people that shaped his politics. As Hobsbawm notes in the Guardian,
The Comintern had given him his first new jacket and trousers, for the childhood of education-hungry Galician Jews without money did not run to such luxuries. For the next 12 years he lived on false papers.
This was, therefore, the politics of experience. As with millions of others it was the cruel reality of the capitalist system and the oppressive ideologies of reactionary nationalism that Marek to embrace socialism. And Marek clearly understood the nature of the enemy he was facing. It was an enemy that had to be confronted at every level, with the proper mixture of theory and action. It was not an enemy that could be reasoned with. Without the ability to mobilise tens of millions politically, industrially, and militarily, the USSR would never have been able to inflict the decisive defeats upon Nazism. But Nazism was only the most extreme method of defence adopted by capitalism – part of a continuum with reactionary nationalism and imperialism, as well as less harmful forms of denying the class nature of society. That is a lesson we can never forget. Reading about Marek and his experiences brought to mind an example closer to home. In 1992, The Workers’ Party reprinted György Lukács What is Orthodox Marxism? with a dedication to its leading member and former Belfast City Councillor, the recently deceased Jim ‘Solo’ Sullivan. The dedication pointed out that it was his experience of exploitation and oppression in a deeply-divided Belfast that had led Sullivan to socialist politics. His life story may have been very different than that of Marek, but the factors shaping their consciousness, and their belief in the necessity to link the right theory and with the right action at the proper time were fundamentally the same.
Too many people today judging the actions of people like Marek forget these realities. This is a point that Hobsbawm himself often makes when critics from the right and left attack him for his adherence to the Soviet Union. As we survey the wreckage of European Communism two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems to me indisputable, however, that Marek himself (and Hobsbawm) may have forgotten some of these lessons. Hobsbawm’s Guardian piece cites Gorbachev and the current president of Italy as the last survivors of the Eurocommunist tradition. Hardly inspiring, especially when we remember the role of many of those connected to Marxism Today in providing intellectual cover for Tony Blair’s abandonment of the basic traditions of the British labour movement. What all these people have in common (with the exception of Gorbachev who doesn’t really fit in my view) is the fact that they downgraded the centrality and inevitability of class struggle, and the primacy of politics, in favour of forms of cultural struggle. This is what lay at the heart of the Eurocommunist (mis)interpretation of Gramsci, where the concept of hegemony was deliberately twisted so as to justify a retreat from traditional forms of political and industrial struggle.
The result? The mass Communist Parties that led the Resistance in France and Italy and that were a major fact of life in each place are but a memory. The PCI no longer exists; there are no Communist MPs in the Italian Parliament. The French CP, meanwhile, has shrunk to less than 2% in the last Presidential election. Of course, we can point to the experience of the former socialist countries and elsewhere to show that those parties that didn’t abandon class politics for Eurocommunism are often doing much worse. But the two strongest CPs in western Europe – the Portugese and the Greek – remain vital parts of the political and general life of their working classes precisely because they have remained true to their principles and to unashamed class politics. This has given them the correct perspective and the confidence to meet the challenges posed by the fall of the USSR without wilting under the impact the way their Eurocommunist equivalents did. In Ireland, The Workers’ Party has severely struggled, but those who abandoned it inspired by the formation of the Italian Democratic Left have proven unable to maintain a separate existence, and the same is true of those who followed the blind alley of British Eurocommunism.
No western European Communist or Workers’ Parties could have altered the outcome of what happened in the eastern bloc states. However, their responses to those events, and the direction of their own politics, were in their own hands. It is only those who held tight to class politics and to the class analysis of the power structures of capitalist society that are providing opposition twenty years on. The Eurocommunists have shown themselves to have repeated the mistakes of the past as far back as Bernstein. When you downplay class politics, you surrender your political soul. Marek, in failing to remember the realities of power, allowed himself to be blinded to the fundamental realities of class struggle, at home and abroad. That is why, admire Marek though I do, I feel Hobsbawm has picked the wrong hero.