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July 23, 2004


Nick Cohen

Dear Oliver,
I can't find the exact reference, but somewhere in Interesting Times Hobsbawm says that on his first and only visit to Stalin's Soviet Union he was 'surprised' by how few intellectuals he came across in Moscow.
If you wanted intellectuals, you should have gone to Siberia.
Ho hum. I shouldn't be too harsh. My grandfather was his party commissar.
I must therefore end with a
Fraternally yours,


It might be worth adding as a footnote that Raymond Williams left the Communist Party during World War II, as he began to see the extent of Stalinist repression, and also objecting to the party's political screening of his fiancé. It is perfectly obvious that Williams articulated his objections to Hobsbawn, making the latter’s continued party adherence even more reprehensible.

Paul Anderson

The pamphlet Hobsbawm and Williams wrote against intervention in Finland, War on the USSR?, wasn't 'lost in the alarums and excursions of the century': I have a copy sitting in front of me as I write.

But it isn't too surprising that Hobsbawm didn't go out of his way to dig it up before writing his autobiography. It is a straight Comintern-line defeatist rant. The following quotations give the essence of the argument, such as it is:

'The British people find themselves to-day on the verge of a war with Socialist Russia. Every day the facts become clearer: the Government is sending arms and “volunteers” to Finland; Allied armies are massing in the Near East; the Sunday Times suggests that we bomb Baku; the whole Press joins in a terrific barrage of abuse of the Soviet Union. The truth is rapidly laid bare; the British Government seems to be contemplating a full scale war against the Soviet Union . . .

'But dare the imperialists start a full-scale war against the Soviet Union while they are still confronted by a rival as powerful as Germany? The prospect is not one of their own choosing but the situation in which they find themselves is driving them into such a war of necessity . . .

'With no chance of starving Germany of food or war materials and no front on which to achieve military victory, Britain and France cannot win this war . . .

'As in the last war, the war in the Near East will serve two roles. The formation of a new thrust against Germany and the opening of a capitalist offensive against Russia. . .

'We must rally the students and working people of Britain behind the slogan: NO VOLUNTEERS FOR FINLAND -- HANDS OFF RUSSIA!'

If anyone wants a copy, email and I'll send a PDF.


"Readers thus voted for Professor Hobsbawm not for his scholarly works of 19th-century history, but for his serial attempts in the past decade to exculpate a lifetime’s commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain."

I think you are being slightly disengenous in repect to peoples voting motives. Whatever strict criteria Prospect expects, Hobsbawn is one of the few "old skool", heavyweight interllectuals on the origional list and appears to have been selected by default. If someone like Hobsbawn rates so highly it is only, perhaps, in respect of the current absence of any longstanding giants on the intellectual circuit - especially in light of the recent deaths of both Bernard Williams and Stuart Hampshire.

Furthermore, History is littered with people with odious political commitments whom also make seminal contributions to their field (Wagner or Heidegger would be key examples).

I'm not sure I would like to go to dinner with either but I am not adverse to recognising their respective contributions.

PS "Robert Conquest" - is that a real historians name? Sounds like a Chris Morris construction.

George Lee

Mahagonny--Here is some info on Robert Conquest:

It is possible that he hasn't heard of you either.


Sorry - I don't read The Times or Prospect, so any chance of telling us who the other four *cough* intellectuals were who made the top five?

Sorry to be cynical about these matters but I can't help feeling that a lot of the chattering classes who make up the broadsheet comments section of the broadsheets in 2004 would have been fellow travellers of the CP in the thirties and forties - its just what you guys and gals in the chattering classes, the self designated intellectuals, like to do. Swimming with the intellectual tide of the time, however putrid the water.

The irony is that one of the first groups of people who saw through the Soviet experiment were not the intellectuals of the day but a group of working class men and women who recognised the anti-working class nature of the Bolsheviks whilst the intellectuals were still fluttering their eye lashes eastwards.


Oliver Kamm

The five were, in order, Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer, Amartya Sen, Hobsbawm and Jonathan Miller.


Not forgetting, of course, the Frankfurt School whom laid out their anti-Bolshevik credentials from the outset.


Wow a guest list where Germaine Greer is only the second most obnoxious person there! I can't fault the choice of Dawkins and Sen though.


Greer was in the top five? Well, I'm not into all this intellectual business but it was brilliant watching her kicking Andrew Neil's arse the other night on the telly.

Do they need a volunteer to serve the drinks?

Paul Anderson

Contrary to impossiblist1904, there were plenty of left-wingers apart from the SPGB who were critics of the Bolshevik revolution from the start. And contrary to mahogannay, the Frankfurt School is wholly besides the point: it didn't exist in 1917, and in any case its members were by no means consistently critical of the Soviet Union. But you can count in most of the Second International parties, including Labour in Britain. Arthur Henderson even invited Kerensky to address a Labour Party conference in 1918, at which the latter argued strongly (if not persuasively) for the western left to support military intervention to kill off Lenin's anti-democratic regime.


I have to qualify my remarks, Paul. I was arguing that the SPGB were one of the first political groups to criticise the Bolshevik and the November Revolution from a Marxian perspective.

I think that the groups and individuals that you would put forward were not arguing from that Marxian framework.

Of course Henderson and Kerensky had other things in common - including their support for participation of their respective countries in the first world slaughter.



Impossibilist's post refered (a) to the "thirties and forties" and (b) to the malleablilty of left-wing "interllectuals" in regards to what better "swims with" the current social trend. I.e. the question of whether to back Stalinism or "new-leftism" is purely expedient. I disagreed that the (highly influential) Frankfurt current could be identified with such expediency.

I'm unaware of any substantial "inconsistencies" on the part of the key Frankfurt players in this respect - especially as regards Adorno - whom now unquestionalbly defines their theoretical legacy.

Tim Worstall

Having Sen explain to Hobsbawm how democracy, free press and free markets abolish famine would be interesting to listen to.


'Having Sen explain to Hobsbawm how democracy, free press and free markets abolish famine would be interesting to listen to.'

Yes, given that such an 'explanation' could presumably take place only at the crossroads of sophistry and magic.

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