Reuben Falber was born of Polish parents in London in 1914.
His childhood was marked by poverty and he left school at the age of fourteen. The rise of fascism, Hitler, Mosley and the growing threat of war led to a serious and lasting interest in politics, specifically in communism which he saw as offering an alternative in society ‘which had no solution to poverty and war’.
He joined the Communist Party shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and played an active role in a variety of ways, including writing articles for the Daily Worker, Morning Star and Marxism Today. In 1968 he rose to the position of assistant general secretary and, in recent revelations, admitted responsibility for ‘laundering’ large sums of money from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
I interviewed him in 1991. He died in 2006.
Mr Falber, your wife has accompanied you to this interview. Do you involve her in all areas of public life?
My wife involves herself in political life and activity of her own volition. If she wants to take part in any form of political activity she does so. It’s entirely her decision.
Would you say she is complementary to you in public life?
Not complimentary, no. Although we broadly agree with each other in our political opinions and in what kind of activities we should undertake, we are independent people who according to our inclinations and abilities make our contribution to the causes to which we have devoted our live.
May I ask the most brutally frank question before we proceed further? Do you not feel that your life has been wasted? The idol you served turned out to have feet made of something worse than clay.
No, I don’t think my life has been wasted. Subjectively, I’ve enjoyed it. If I had my life all over again I would like to do the same, to devote my life to something which I believed was good for humanity of which I am a part. Whatever may be the present circumstances, I believe that people like me over the last fifty or sixty years have helped create a body of opinion in this country and internationally which is bound at some stage to bear fruit. We have held up not only the banner of socialism, but we have never submitted to Thatcherism. From the moment Thatcher was elected it was the communists in Britain who argued that Thatcherism was a phenomenon which differed in many important respects from traditional conservatism, and that it was necessary for the left to understand this, and to adjust their policies, their propaganda and argument accordingly. I therefore think that the change which has taken place in public opinion in this country in the last few years is in part attributable to the work which people like us have done.
How do you think Mrs Thatcher deviated from traditional conservatism?
She was able to strike a popular chord. She was able to associate herself with people who wanted to improve their life at a time when there was a serious economic recession, not as bad as the present one, but nevertheless a serious economic situation in Britain which was having its impact on people’s living standards. It was affecting the delivery of the social services, the provisions of the welfare state, and Mrs Thatcher was able to use to her advantage the dissatisfaction people felt. Her success resulted from her ability to recognize the changes in the outlook of the populace and the aspirations of a new and emerging generation of younger people.
Do you think that communism has failed? I know there will be people who say it has never been tried, but the Soviet Union had more than two generations to try it and they could not get it to work.
You ought to look at the works of one of the people whom you interviewed in Singular Encounters, John Kenneth Galbraith, who in an article in the Observer a year or two ago made the point very tellingly that in the earlier years of the Soviet Union it did work. They transformed a very backward country into a highly industrialized one; about ninety per cent of the people had been illiterate and under communism they became literate and highly educated. The Soviet Union had, and probably still has, more qualified people than any other country. For whatever good it did the people, they won the race to get into space. And therefore it did succeed to a certain extent. Where it failed was in its ability to turn these things into what the people wanted, in the shops and on the table. The bureaucracy which it had to create in order to establish a developed modern industrial state was unable to deal with personal needs. In other words, it was a system which working in terms of doing big things, but for ordinary people life is not full of big things.
What do you think was the real cause of the failure? Was it intractable human nature – greed and self-concern?
I don’t think you can attribute it entirely to that. There was an attitude created among the population that if you wanted to improve life it had to be by collective effort; the kind of attitude which I think is developed to some extent in this country, where people are willing to pay higher taxes in order to get a better health service, a better education, clean up the environment and so on. That feeling was very strong in the Soviet Union and when I read the press reports from Moscow over the past few weeks I have a feeling that Yeltsin is going to run against that in his efforts to privatize everything.
In theory the working classes in different European nations were to rise up in a sort of rolling wave of revolution. Why did it never happen?
The working class didn’t want it. Obviously. At the end of the First World War, with the exception of a few idealists or adventures, the over-whelming majority of the working people did not regard revolution, in the sense of an armed struggle, as a way forward, and Frederick Engels, as far back as 1891 or ’92, in an introduction to a new edition of one of Marx’s works, argued very strongly that the armed insurrections he and Marx had written about in the mid nineteenth century were no longer on, and for two reasons. Firstly, because in Europe working people were beginning to see the use of the ballot box and the right to organize as the way forward. Secondly, Engels pointed out that the revolutions of 1848 had taken place in cities built very different from the cities which existed in 1890. He spoke of Hausmann, who had re-built Paris, Budapest and the other European cities with broad avenues along which big guns could be deployed, and he argued that after 1848 revolution had not a cat’s chance in hell. The concept of revolution therefore died in the nineteenth century. It did revive at the end of the First World War when you had unique circumstances – Russian and other European societies were collapsing – but apart from that brief period armed insurrection has never been on.
Do you think it is still an option for the future?
What is so puzzling is why the ideal should have failed. The first generation of revolutionaries were really, even heroically, self-sacrificing and committed. How did it all go wrong after that?
If I had the answer to that question I’d be one of the heroes of the left. It’s a question on which the left has been arguing for many years and there is no simple answer to it. It’s easy to say it went wrong because of what Stalin did. But you have to ask, was it inevitable that Stalin should have acted in the way that he did? I don’t think it was. One of the answers is of course that the first successful working-class revolution took place in the most backward country in Europe, the working class being small, even a minute, percentage of a population overwhelmingly peasant, illiterate, unorganized in every respect, as you can gather if you read any of the classic Russian novels. It was Lloyd George who said round about 1920 that capitalists were lucky that the revolution had taken place in Russia and not in Germany. The Germans would have made a much better job of it, and I think there is something in that. Lenin anticipated that revolution in the West would come to the aid of the Russian revolutionaries; he never really thought that the Russians could hang on to what they had gained in the revolution unless there were revolutions in the West to back them up. Well, these revolutions either didn’t take place or when, as in Germany and Hungary, they did take place, they failed.
When did you begin to suspect that all was not well? For example, did you believe the reports about Khatyn Wood where the Soviets slaughtered 5,000 Poles?
No. I didn’t believe the reports.
You still don’t believe them?
Probably I have to believe, but you must remember at the time when the reports were first published we were at war. The Soviets had their backs to the wall; they were the ones who were fighting Hitler, more than we were, and we saw them in a certain light because of what they were and what they were doing. We regarded these reports as coming from enemy sources hostile to the Soviet Union. The objective was to undermine sympathy in this country for the Soviet Union and particularly to undermine the military cooperation between Britain and the Soviet Union in the opening of the Second Front. That was how we looked on things at that particular time, and in the light of subsequent events, I think we were wrong. I ought, with other communists, to have believed the report. A lot of things I didn’t believe at the time I later found – I have to say, unfortunately to be true.
Given the theory of communism and the brotherhood of man why was anti-Semitism so common? After all, the usual explanation offered for anti-Semitism is that Christians regard the Jews as collectively responsible for the death of Christ, but the Soviet Union was atheistic?
I think that anti-Semitism, like any form of racial prejudice, is very deep seated, and it can’t be legislated away. Anti-Semitism, in countries like Russia, is part of religion and one of the big mistakes the communists made in the Soviet Union and in other countries was in believing that by education itself they could eliminate religious belief. We also failed to understand this.
We…you mean, the British Communist Party?
I mean people like me also failed to understand the strength of the hold that religion has on people. Also you can ban religious education in the school, but nevertheless, religion, taught in the home, is carried on from generation to generation, and in Russia, Poland, Hungary and Rumania, anti-Semitism is very deep seated. It’s existed for two, three hundred years or more, and you can’t eliminate it by legislation or simply by improving education. For years the Soviet authorities fought against it, maybe with some measures of success, I don’t really know…but when popular support became a little more difficult for the Soviet leadership, some of them at any rate succumbed to the temptation of not resisting anti-Semitism, of letting it go on; that’s a slippery road.
Can one be a dedicated communist, and still be a believer in God at the same time?
I don’t see why not. Communism is a concept of the kind of society that we want to live in. There are many people who avow that Jesus Christ was a communist; there have certainly been many Christians who were communists. A classic example of course was the Dean of Canterbury in this country. I also remember people coming back from Italy in the years immediately after the war saying they had been to villages where the leader of the local Communist Party was the local priest who would gather the semi-literate population together and read to them out of the party paper. So I don’t think there is any conflict between being a Christian – or a Moslem or a Jew for that matter – and being a communist.
Would you consider yourself anti-religious?
No, I think being anti-religious is rather childish. When I was young, and first became converted to communist ideas, atheism went with it, but I soon realized it was rather foolish and irrelevant to the main question.
Are you a believer now?
As you get older, doesn’t it worry you not to believe in anything, in an afterlife?
You believe that your life will end when it ends on this earth?
And that’s the end of the story?
Did it ever occur to the British Communist Party that the huge, sprawling, and virtually ungovernable Soviet Union might not be the appropriate model for a nation with a quite different history and tradition?
Oh yes, it occurred to us. I can’t speak for the communists of the 1920s and the early 1930s, but certainly from the time I joined the Communist Party in 1936 the talk of the kind of society we wanted to establish was something very different from the Soviet model. I recall a book called Britain without Capitalists, and the outline there of the way in which the industries would be run didn’t correspond with the way things were being done in the Soviet Union, for the simple reason that the Soviets had started with virtually nothing in the way of industry, and we were starting with a highly developed technological society. Also, the social conditions were different. In 1951 we produced a programme, The British Road to Socialism, which quite clearly stated that it was possible to establish a socialist society in Britain by the democratic process of securing a parliamentary majority. It would be based on socialist principles and would begin to introduce legislation which would socialize society, and that was entirely different from anything that existed in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe or China.
Just how ignorant were British communists of what was really happening in the Soviet Union? Germans often explain that they did not know about the Nazi death camps, but it is quite hard to believe. In the same way there is always the suspicion that the communists were quite content to take Lenin’s view that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
German people lived in the country where these things were taking place. There were German people – I don’t know how many – employed in or around the concentration camps and certainly hundreds of thousands living in the neighbourhoods of the camps. The British communists did not visit or live in the gulag. I’ve been to the Soviet Union half a dozen times; I’ve been to all the other countries in Eastern Europe which were under Marxist leadership, and what I saw was what they showed me. I never had the opportunity of seeing anything else. Understandably they didn’t show me the bad sides of society.
But can you honestly say that you didn’t have any suspicion of what was going on, even if you didn’t see it.
We didn’t believe it was going on to that extent. I’ll tell you a little story which was told by a man who had been the Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow in the period just after Stalin died. There was a British communist who had gone to work in the Soviet Union in some technical capacity, and he had been jailed and sent to the camp. After Stalin died he was released and all the British communists who were working in Moscow, as journalists, translators, and so on, organized a party for him; and all of them, including the communist who had been jailed, regarded his jailing as just a mistake, that somehow there had been a miscarriage of justice. And the man who was explaining this, a man called Dennis Ogden, an academic, an extremely intelligent and able man, told us that what they didn’t realize was that the injustices, the jailings, the camps, the executions, weren’t just a collection of mistakes, but had become almost a system of government.
Do you believe the end justifies the means?
The way the question would have been posed in my younger days would have been: D you believe that the killing of few hundred people in Russia in November 1917 was justified by the victory of the revolution, and I would have said yes. But if you ask me, do I believe that all we now know can be justified, the answer is categorically no, because that is completely in conflict with what we wanted. The means became an end.
What was the British Communist Party’s attitude towards the show trials of the 1930s? They could not have been ignorant of just how many of those who had actually led the revolution were now disgraced and dead. Did no one wonder why or enquire?
I was not then in the leadership of the British Communist Party, but I, along with other members of the Communist Party, accepted the Soviets’ version of events, that they were spies and traitors. In that, of course, we were terribly wrong.
Do you ever think in retrospect that you really were naïve?
We were naïve in some respects. You see, we saw the Soviet Union as the first country where the revolution succeeded. It was a country where a workers’ state was established, where the capitalists were no longer in power, and it was our. I think we were right to look at it in that way, but that of course clouded our judgement. Because we had this attitude, everything the Soviet Union did was right, and every criticism that was made of the Soviet Union was regarded as coming from people who had no love for the country, who wanted to undermine support for it in Britain. And therefore we rejected what was true; we wouldn’t believe it.
Do you think now with hindsight that various British governments were right to distrust and resist the Soviet Union? You presumably would not have wanted imposed on us what the Communist Party imposed on the Russian people.
The Soviet Union could never have imposed anything on Britain. Our society is the outcome of the relationship between political groupings, opinions, and so on. I don’t think that British governments in resisting the Soviet Union were resisting an attempt to impose upon Britain the society which existed in the Soviet Union. It was the spread of left-wing ideas of any description that they wanted to prevent. You must remember that Nye Bevan was branded as if he were a communist; he was hated by the capitalist class, by the right-wing press in this country, and by the Tory Party, as much as they hated Willie Gallagher who was a communist MP.
When at the end of the war the government sent back thousands of Cossacks who were promptly murdered by the Soviet authorities, did the Communist Party of Great Britain know about it?
And when you did know?
Well, a lot of nasty things happened at the end of the war, and this was one of them. When we began to know what was happening, we expressed our opinions. After the Khrushchev speech at the 20th Congress in 1956, when it was quite clear what had been happening, we began to speak out; initially in private discussions with leading people in the Soviet Communist Party, and then later in public.
When you look back would you have done things differently?
Of course. You must understand the context in which these events took place. If there hadn’t been a cold war after 1945, if Churchill hadn’t made his famous Fulton speech, then international relations would have been very different. We would not have felt the same urgency about defending the Soviet Union as a part of the fight to prevent a third world war. In a different context we would have been able to take a very different attitude towards international relations and also towards events in the Soviet Union. We would not have seen reports of Cossacks being sent back as part and parcel of a campaign of hostility to the Soviet Union; we would have been more objective.
Where do you feel that the real allegiance of communists lay? I mean, in practice. There was (and I suppose still is) the suspicion that communists are not to be trusted because they may betray their fellow citizens in the interests of some larger international ideal.
I think the allegiance of British communists is to the British people. I’ve always thought that. I don’t think there is a larger international ideal which could lead to the betrayal of Britain.
Some of course did just that: Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt. They must have been responsible for the deaths of many of our agents. Did you feel that anyone who resisted the Soviet Union deserved what they got?
Spying is a dirty business. I also think it’s a rather useless business. From the little I’ve read about what spies do, it seems to me that they spend their time collecting information which is either freely available or else useless once they’ve got it. It’s an activity which I think no communist in this country should ever have had anything to do with. Maclean and Philby were never members of the British Communist Party. The one person involved in espionage who was a prominent member of the Communist Party was the late David Springhall and he was expelled from the Communist Party because he had broken what was really a cardinal principle.
Would you in the fervour of youth ever have contemplated spying for the Soviet Union?
It’s a very hypothetical question. I don’t think anybody would have approached me – I could never have been any use to them – therefore it’s very easy for me to say that I wouldn’t have done it. My way of working for solidarity with the Soviet Union was to try to persuade people that the kind of society which existed there represented the future. That was the way I looked at things in my youth; the idea of spying never entered my head.
Do you think it is ever possible to coerce people into doing what is good for them? It seems it is only really possible to coerce people into doing things that are good for someone else…all oligarchies do that.
I don’t think people can or should be coerced into doing anything. People have to be convinced that they need to do certain things to their own advantage. It’s only on the basis of conviction and people understanding the path that has to be taken in order to improve their lives that we’ll ever get any change.
Did you ever think that ‘truth is what serves the party’?
No. What I thought was that the party represented truth.
You still believe that?
Well, there isn’t a party now. I think that the kind of ideals which I still hold are the best ideals. Things are true or not true – that’s obvious in real life, but in the language we’re using truth as a bit of an abstraction, and saying that truth is what served the party, which I now know is wrong, is as good as saying that it’s all right to lie, which I’ve always believed was wrong. I’ve said things which were untrue; I argued that the people who were executed were traitors, but I believed it at the time. I never deliberately said anything which was untrue because I thought it would help to convince people.
Did you ever wrestle with your ideals or doubt that you were on the right path?
Oh yes, notably in 1956, after the publication of Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress. Any communist who didn’t wrestle in his mind was a peculiar person. After all we had for years been saying that all these things that the capitalist press had published about the Soviet Union were a pack of lies; the labour camps didn’t exist, people were guilty, they were spies, enemies and wreckers. And then Khrushchev came along and said, not so. The whole basis of our belief was called into question. The conclusion we arrived at after a great deal of heart searching was that whatever had happened, capitalism was still an evil, and there should be a fight to end the capitalist system and establish a socialist society. We did not see the Labour Party as the force to do this, because its leadership accepted capitalism, and simply wanted to make some cosmetic improvements. A communist party was therefore necessary and our ideals were necessary.
Communist parties all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have transformed themselves into various sorts of nationalist and socialist groups, but can leopards really change their spots?
We’ll have to wait and see. Judging from some reports of events in Eastern Europe where it seems that people have overnight become transformed from communists to enthusiastic privatizationists, one might easily say they have changed their spots. The bad spots are certainly there.
How do you think the West can be most helpful at present in trying to get some sort of stability into the Commonwealth of Independent States?
I honestly can’t answer that question. It’s easy to say we should give and trade, but they have to solve the problem themselves. They have to find a way of organizing their society to accord with the history and traditions of their country, with the resources available to them, and I think that they are best left alone.
It begins to look as if the problem of ethnic minorities is quite intractable – as much in the West as in the East, I’m thinking of the Slovenes and the Serbs, and the Turks and the Kurds. Do you think the communist ideal of internationalism might be transformed into some sort of federalist ideal to combat that?
Federalism is not in conflict with internationalism, but whether federalism will work in the CIS remains to be seen. Federalism in Yugoslavia worked while Tito was alive; he was able to win wide respect and impose his authority. But whether it can now work where there are such longstanding historical antagonisms as in Yugoslavia, or in parts of the Soviet Union, especially the Asian parts, is another matter.
Are you hopeful?
Hopeful but sceptical. It can only work if a basis of common interests is secured. It ought to be possible, but it is very difficult to achieve, as Yugoslavia shows. Even in Tito’s time the more advanced parts of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia had to give up more than they wanted to in order to help the more backward parts of Yugoslavia – Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia – and this created dissatisfaction and conflict which broke down the federal idea. It’s very difficult to create genuine federation between societies at very different levels. If you take the concept of a federal Britain, that is a Britain with a Scottish parliament, an English parliament, a Welsh parliament and so on, that would bring problems, but the problems would be nothing compared with what we’ve seen in Europe. That is because the economic, social and cultural levels and differences in Britain, though important, are not all that great, whereas in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union they are very extensive.
China is still a bastion of communism, but do you think it will be able to prosper in the long run without transforming itself into a capitalist economy? So far it does not seem to have been possible anywhere else.
I think they’re trying to convert their economy, and have been trying to do this over a number of years, but again they are meeting with a lot of resistance from Chinese people. Anyone who forecasts what’s going to happen in China is really going out on a limb.
It is sometimes argued that ‘market economies’ are natural in the sense that taking what you have to sell to market and asking who wants to buy it is what always has happened. Do you think that’s true?
There always has to be a market economy because it’s only through the market that you can discover what people want and whether people are satisfied with what they’re being offered. But there is a difference between having an economy which provides for that, and a market economy in the Thatcherite sense. The market economy has to be regulated and there are a number of services and goods which should not be supplied through the free market…the telephone, energy, postal services, transport, health service, all these things should be basically collective services.
I can understand this applying to health care, but when you talk about transport, telecommunications, energy, you would surely be using public funds to subsidize something which is basically inefficient.
Your statement is basically incorrect, based on a completely false assumption. I don’t believe that telephones, gas, electricity or water are better for being privatized. Look at the pollution in the water supply. What’s being done about it by the privatized companies? Virtually nothing at all, because if they spend any money it’s at the expense of profits. I would extend my argument by saying that the great problem faced, not only in this country but on a universal scale, is that of the pollution of the environment in the interests of profit. I know it was polluted in the Soviet Union and the other Eastern European countries in the interests of the profit of particular enterprises; but we also know that in this country industry pays very little heed to the long-term effects. We will never be able to solve the environmental problem while the economies of the advanced world are based on private enterprise with private profit and not the common good as the objective. If ever Marxist ideas were needed, it’s today. The three great problems we face are the environment, the north-south divide, and the appalling poverty in the Third World which is worsened if not caused by capitalism. The great social problems in our own country, the homelessness, the appalling mess in our cities, the growth of crime, all these things are a consequence of the drive for profit.
I remember Khrushchev saying that when communism had triumphed they would have to preserve Switzerland because a free market would be the only way of knowing what anything was really worth. How else would one decide?
I don’t remember Khrushchev saying that. I’ll take your word for it. When it comes to consumer goods, a market is the way in which things are measured against each other. You decide whether you want to spend your money on buying a new cassette recorder or going out for dinner. But I don’t really see that has any relevance to the way in which society is organized. There’s no free market in electricity, in gas, in water – it’s all nonsense. One of the consequences of deregulation of the busses is that free bus passes for pensioners are going to be a thing of the past. Bus passes are vital to pensioners – my wife and I know this and would be virtually housebound without them.
Is corruption not one of the great problems of any all-embracing totalitarian regime? If there’s only one source for everything, even necessities, don’t those who control the source become intolerably powerful?
Corruption is a problem of every regime. In this country we don’t have control of sources, and yet we have extraordinary corruption. Look at the corruption in our police force and in local government. I don’t speak of corruption in central government only because it doesn’t come out so much, but I would be surprised if it doesn’t exist to a very considerable extent. I don’t think that the corruption in Eastern European countries and in the Soviet Union was greater than in this country; it just took different forms.
If reports are true, then before the latest putsch in Russia, billions of Communist Party funds were smuggled to Switzerland. That couldn’t happen here surely?
Well, Maxwell was able to pinch three hundred million pounds’ worth out of the Daily Mirror pension funds.
Yes, but he was one individual.
But it happened. If you are talking about corruption, look at the extent of it at the BBC, Maxwell enterprises, the Guinness scandal.
I suspect that one of the things non-communists now dislike so much about communism is its thirst for ideological correctness, because it seems to mean that no matter what a situation is in reality it must be made to appear appropriate, or it has been in the past. Did you never feel that having to pretend was counterproductive – literally millions of people starved but it was pretended that they did not.
Before 1917 people did starve in Russia, and after the Revolution, in the circumstances of war, there was a famine and millions starved. It was very brutal, but then they did succeed in establishing a society in which people are reasonably fed. I am very cautious in what I say about conditions in the Soviet Union, because I know I’ve always been shown what people wanted me to see. But I would say that over recent years people had enough food; it was difficult to get at times, and the quality was often poor. It’s much more difficult now to get food in what used to be the Soviet Union – you’ve only got to read the press reports to see the extent to which people are suffering.
In your letter to me you were rather dismissive about the lives of some of the contributors to Singular Encounters. Don’t you feel that they might see the cause which you have pursued as an even less attractive idea?
Lord White would have done, wouldn’t he? The man who praised Hitler, as reported on the front page of the Guardian recently. He is all that I think is hateful in capitalist society, a man who is ruthless, concerned with noting but his own wealth, his own power, and contemptuous – not just of people who disagree with him but contemptuous of working people, those who have made his millions.
You suggest that some of the interviewees had led rather useless lives. What constitutes a rather useless life in your view?
A life that’s devoted to hedonism, to self-indulgence, having no concern for society as a whole, with a readiness to enjoy the fruits of life and one’s own well-being at the expense of other people. A kind of selfishness I think it is, which stands out in one or two of the people you interviewed; White is a particular example. There are other people with whom I disagree, such as Lord Alexander who is a Thatcherite, but I wouldn’t say he’s led a useless life. He’s a highly intelligent man who has devoted his career to the law and now to banking. But he’s in a different category from somebody like White.
Left-wing propaganda has always made a great deal of the iniquity of imperialism, and rightly so, but what was Eastern Europe until recently if not part of a Soviet empire?
Relations between the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries were very different from those between Britain and its colonies (which isn’t to say that I think those relations were right). The relations between Britain and its colonies were based upon their conquest by armed force – and this applied not only to Britain but to France, Belgium and Spain. The relations between the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries emerged from a war in which the Soviet Union liberated those countries from fascism. It should then of course have left them to get on with their own business, running their own countries. The reason why they didn’t do that was their fear that these countries would be the base for a future attack on the Soviet Union. It was the cold war which was responsible for this; indeed many of the questions you pose really arise from the consequences of the cold war.
Do you have any sympathy at all with the Zionists?
None. It’s never attracted me. I am Jewish but I have never felt any emotional attraction to Israel. This is my country. I was born here, I was educated here, I want to go on living here.
How do you view the problems in what used to be Palestine?
The Palestinians have the right to a state of their own, and the two-state proposition, that the Palestinians stay on the West Bank and Gaza, is realistically the only thing that can be argued for in the present circumstances. If that objective were realized, there would be a problem of how to deal with the Jewish communities which have been established on the West Bank. That has to be faced by both sides essentially, but it should not be posed as an argument against justice for the Palestinians.
You say apropos of the payments which were made by the CPSU to the Communist Party in Britain, that you have ‘no regrets’. So you ever have any doubts about the morality of receiving those payments?
No. You see, we regarded ourselves as part of a world communist movement in which we helped each other. Parties like the Soviet party had resources which were not available to others, so they helped other communist parties and we were in the position of being the beneficiaries. We were helped by the Soviet Union just as we did things to help people in Spain, struggling against Franco. When we were hard up ourselves, desperate for money, we went round collecting money, food, all sorts of things, to send to Spain to help the Spanish people. This was part of our international solidarity.
Were you accountable for this money? Did you have to fulfil certain conditions in order to receive payments?
No. For example, in 1978 I was in Moscow on business for the Communist Party, and the head of the international department of the Communist Party, Boris Ponamarev, sent a message saying he wanted a discussion with me. I went to the headquarters of the Communist Party, and Ponamarev launched an attack on the Morning Star. He was unhappy about some articles which were critical of a number of things in the Soviet Union…I can’t recall the particular incidents but they were probably the arrest and imprisonment of dissident. Ponamarev blew his top about this. I told him that we didn’t censor the paper, that the editor of the paper wrote what he thought, and it so happened that what had been written did correspond with the views of the British Communist Party. That would have been about February 1978, and shortly after that I received a payment. There was therefore no connection between payment or non-payment and what we said. They didn’t like what we said, but they didn’t think that they could buy us.
What did you use this money for?
All sorts of things. The amount we received was rather small, and a lot of it was used to help some people who had worked for us as full-time officials in the early days of the Communist Party and had very little in the way of pension rights, for example. We also used it to maintain our headquarters, finance some of our propaganda materials…the sort of day-to-day activities of the party. The largest sum of money I ever received was £100,000, a lot of which was used for the maintenance of the Morning Star, the Daily Worker as it was originally. I never kept a count of the total received over the years, but I doubt if it was more than a million pounds, and don’t forget, we’re talking of twenty-odd years. A million pounds is not a large sum of money when you think of the money that’s being used for propaganda today.
You were, you said, much disturbed by the way people deserted the party in droves after the invasion of Hungary and revelations about the persecution of Jews. Were you not just as disturbed about the invasion and persecution? How was it you were able to keep the faith?
Well, this was the time when we did our intellectual wrestling.
If I may take this matter a little further? After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 you said that you asked for the Russian subsidies to be reduced. This was because the invasion of Czechoslovakia was so unpopular here and partly membership fell off. One could understand why you might have felt you had to refuse and further money, but just reducing the amounts seems an odd response. Why did you not refuse it altogether?
We were receiving what was quite a substantial sum of money. To go from that to nothing at all would have created a financial crisis; therefore we thought we’d take things in stages.
You say that what you received was ‘peanuts’ compared to what the Tories had from John Latsis, whom you describe as ‘a friend of the Greek Colonels’. I would have thought you would want to dissociate yourself from this sort of activity altogether rather than to fall back on the idea: ‘Well they did it, so why shouldn’t we?’
Well, why not? I see nothing particularly wrong in helping each other; no more wrong for them to help each other than for us to help each other. But in the unlikely event of someone like Maxwell ever coming along and offering us a large sum of money, we would have turned it down.
Would you really?
Yes, because we would not have regarded somebody like that as being a friend of ours, and not just because of what we know now. In my book, Maxwell’s always been a villain. You know what the Board of Trade wrote about him in the Pergamon report.
The party was involved in many of the industrial disputes of the 1960s and 1970s. What was the object, was it just disruption? You surely could not have hoped to foment a revolution?
We were involved in these disputes because one of the jobs of the Communist Party was to help the working class defend its interests. We therefore backed the miners in their struggle against the Heath government; we backed the shipyard workers in the Upper Clyde in the defence of their jobs and conditions against the predecessors of British Leyland and Rover. That’s been the major part of the work of the Communist Party throughout its existence – the defence of the conditions of the working class.
Recent access to secret-police files in East Germany (according to a report of the Independent of 10 February) has revealed determined attempts to destroy marriages, to undermine careers, and to turn children against their parents. How can that sort of activity promote socialism?
It doesn’t. I think that society should provide the wherewithal for people to enjoy life and to live their lives as they want to, to live peacefully, to get married if they want to, to enter into other gender relationships if they want to – people should have all these rights, and none of that is in conflict with our idea of society.
What do you think happens next? Is there a way forward for the party?
Politics are dominated by the two big parties with the liberals hanging on, and all of them maintaining basically the present form of society. I think that the people who want something different have got to find a way of organizing themselves and creating a programme and policy which has credibility as the genuine alternative way of running our affairs.
When you look back on your life, do you have any regrets at all?
No. If I had my life again, I would like to do what I’ve done.
Did you ever feel that you have hurt anybody in trying to achieve your aims?
I’m sure I have unwittingly hurt people. And if I have hurt people, I would not argue that it was necessary, or that it furthered my cause.