This conversation between Robert Lister and Henry Stead took place outside the British Library on October 27th 2016. It is the first podcast from the Conversations on Communism series.
HS. ‘One of the most dismal prejudices to be encountered in Anglo-America has been its worsening failure to imagine how decent people could choose to be communist in the 1930s.’ So that was said by Miller. I don’t know. Oh, Karl Miller, in 2012, after the death of Hobsbawm, I think. You reacted to it as if you’d actually read that before.
HS. What do you make of that?
RL. Well, I think it’s absolutely true. There is that piece by Walbank when he was writing his statement to the police for harbouring Hans Baur, who had escaped injured from the Spanish Civil War, where he put, ‘any help which I have given to Hans Baur was given out of purely humanitarian motives because I believed that the saving of a man’s life should come before technical considerations.’ And, it’s fair to say that when he sheltered Baur, his wife was pregnant, she’d previously had two miscarriages and she was under strict medical care in order to have a chance of the baby surviving, which she indeed did. But, within his household, which was under a lot of pressure, didn’t have any space, he kept for a year this man, who wasn’t terribly pleasant and whom he didn’t terribly like, because he felt that it was the right thing to do. And, if you follow his trajectory through the 1930s, he travelled to Germany in 1931, 33 and 35. He travelled to Spain in 34, he saw the Nazis coming to power. He will have seen poor responses to that from conventional political parties. He will have seen Spain being supported by Spain and Italy… It seems to me that there’s lots of evidence that he was a human being caring about human beings, and that The Communist Party in the 1930s was the way of doing that.
HS. Robert Lister and I are sitting outside in the cold outside The British Library in this kind of circular arena with strange stones on it [Planets by Anthony Gormley]. With – who is that? – Isaac Newton bending over. It’s the Paolozzi statue, just to our left. But it’s not too cold. If you hear noises that are redolent of the outdoor world then that’s because we’re outside. Robert, you’ve kindly come… And, you didn’t know this, but you are going to be the first interviewee in this new project of ours called Conversations on Communism. I’ve launched into this strange little introductory thing without any sort of premise. But I just wanted to ask you, first of all — all we know about you is your name and that you’re interested in this man called Frank Walbank — Who are you? And, who is Frank Walbank?
RL. Well, I am a Classicist by original training. I’ve then been working in The City, full-time for a period, and now I do part-time work in The City. And I’m doing a PhD on Polybius, the Greek historian and interconnectedly with Frank Walbank who was his great commentator. Now, there are some links that I’ve discovered accidentally that bind me to this a bit more. One is I went to the same school as Frank Walbank which was Bradford Grammar School. Secondly, he was a Communist, as I believe my father was in the 1930s. And thirdly, Walbank travelled a lot in Europe in the 1930s, which I think for a Yorkshireman was quite rare, and my father did similar things, though he didn’t talk about them terribly much. So, the more I investigate, the more links I accidentally have. Walbank was born in 1909, went to Bradford Grammar School. All on scholarships. He then went to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read classics. He then got a job for eighteen months as a schoolteacher in Manchester. And then he got a job at the university of Liverpool where he stayed for the rest of his employed academic life. He then retired to Cambridge in 1977 and he lived to be 98, dying in Cambridge. And he wrote a three-volume commentary on Polybius between 1944 and 1979 and his life’s work was basically on Polybius and the Hellenistic world.
HS. Thank you for that concise run-down. I wonder if I can extract one more from you. What about Polybius? Who the hell’s this guy?
RL. Polybius was born around 200BCE. He was born in a city called Megalopolis which is in Arcadia, which is in the Peloponnese. His father was probably the most important person in a thing called the Achaean League which was an aggregation of different city states who formed together to create a political and military grouping. Polybius himself got eventually to be number two in that grouping and so he was an important political figure within the Peloponnese. Sadly, when the Romans started the third Macedonian War, and we’re talking 169BCE, the Achaean League wasn’t quite sure whether to support the Romans or not.
Polybius said that they should keep neutral. By the time they decided not to be neutral, the Romans didn’t need their help, and having won, defeated the Macedonians at the battle of Pidnar. They took Greek hostages to Rome, or to Italy, rather, one of whom was Polybius. So he spent from 167 to 150 in Rome as a hostage. He then was released in 150, travelled… We know a few things about him. But the main thing that he did was that he wrote originally a thirty book, eventually a forty book, history explaining why Rome was, in effect, fated, to become the conquerors of the world.
HS. I think it might be Dennis Healey again who said that (he joined the Communist Party when he was a student at Oxford), he said about the Cambridge Communists that they somehow wanted to please the Russians. And many of them ended up spying for the Russians. But, the Oxford lot tended just to, kind of, be in it, you know, they would say, for the cause, broadly defined. But what, how does Walbank fit into that? Does he fit in uncomplicatedly with the other Cambridge communists?
RL. No. He seems wholly separate from them. He went to a talk which is marked in his diary given by Maurice Dobb, who was the great Cambridge recruiter. But, he seems totally separate from that King’s College crowd. The Apostles, that sort of crowd. You know, he seems to me to be… Well, he describes himself as having grown up within a radical, liberal family, in Bingley. At school he was a very strong supporter of the miners in the general strike. He did start travelling and he attributes his left shift to his travels within Germany in 31, 33 and 35. And I would say that he was a conviction communist. Certainly although he was at Cambridge he went as a grammar school scholarship boy, not a public school — whatever we’re going to call them — sort of an “elite lefty”. I think he’s a man who believed that communism was a solution to Nazism, oppression and support of the workers after the Labour Party had split with the national government. In 1932 he won a travelling scholarship to Greece and he had to write when he came back a piece explaining what he’d done. And there’s a very strong paragraph within it complaining about the way that Greeks and Italians who emigrated to America for economic reasons were damaging the working class in America by reducing wages. Now that seems to me interesting in two ways. One is that he writes it in a piece explaining how he spent his travelling scholarship, but also it’s very, very strongly worded about class in 1932 which is before he joined the party. But it shows to me where his conviction was, which was possibly unfashionably early.
HS. I’m getting a sense here that you’re quite keen on historical parallelism, not only between Walbank and Polybius but yourself with Walbank and perhaps even your self with Polybius, I don’t know! But, what about the parallels, if we just, sort of dig down a little deeper, have you found in the work that Walbank did on Polybius, have you found traces of contemporary political history or contemporary military history that, kind of, tighten up that parallel?
RL. I’ll start by saying that it has been said that no classical author is as closely reflected by his or her commentator as Polybius is by Walbank. It is fair to say that when Walbank started writing about Polybius there was really very little interest in him and he, with his commentary and his papers on him, has dominated the English-speaking world, at least, on Polybius. Now, I believe that the creature that we see reflected through Walbank is a reflection of himself. And I believe that in the following ways. I mentioned earlier the Hans Baur affair. Walbank was found guilty in 1939 of failing to record with the authorities that he had an alien living with him. And the consequence of this was that he was asked to leave the Home Guard. He did interview for Bletchley Park and was declined even though the main recruiter for Bletchley Park was a man called Sir Frank Adcock who had been rather a mentor of Walbank at Cambridge. And he spent the war as a fire-watcher in Liverpool. Polybius, having been removed to Rome, was, despite being a politician and being a soldier, was deprived of both of those occupations whilst in Rome. My belief is that where Polybius glamorises his relation with the Scipio family in Rome in his history, and uses his exile to write history, I think that Walbank similarly glamorises his war-time activities in Liverpool and writes a commentary on Polybius. And I believe the two are reasonable equated.
Some people don’t believe this, it’s fair to say. But I think that there is a reasonable amount of evidence that being excluded from the Second World War in the way that Walbank was is very odd because people like Hobsbawm and Dobb were not. And, there is quite a lot of evidence subsequently that people like, for example, Maurice Bowra or Steven Runciman, expressed either hostility towards those who’d been successful in the war or lamented their own lack of involvement in the war. I think that Walbank sees glamour in being a remote scholar working at history as a means of escape from the world but he doesn’t regard it as a response to trauma. We therefore have read Polybius as a man who is happy ensconced in his library and don’t say, “isn’t it odd that a man who has been defeated an exiled decides to spend his life writing a history explaining why the Romans were fated to conquer him.” Now I think a consequence is also that because we are all historians, and because we all would have loved to have known the Scipios we are, in effect, drawn into that, thinking that nobody could have lived a better life than to have seen Rome at that time in its history and moved amongst the elite.
HS. So you think that there might actually be detectable cracks in this narrative façade? Because actually how can you be sitting there talking about how you were defeated in a positive light? So, are there elements of fault lines, I guess, to use I think an eighties scholarly term which I think is still popular in the narrative. Have you detected those?
RL. There is a wonderful, wonderful moment when Polybius goes to see Cato the Elder, and he’s trying, basically…
HS. Polybius does? Okay.
RL. Yes. Basically Polybius tries every year, we don’t know how often, to get the hostages from Greece released and returned to Greece. And it has to be debated by the senate. And one of the reasons that I believe his stay in Rome is so much more traumatic than people think is because they had no idea if they would ever go back. There were a thousand of them taken. In 150, 17 years after they’d gone there, they were allowed to go home. And of the thousand, 700 had died in Italy. So, every year, more of them would die, and they wouldn’t know whether they could go home. In 150, the senate decides that they can go home. Polybius goes to see Cato the Elder and says, “Now we’re allowed to go home, can we have our old honours back?” And Cato says to him, “You are like Odysseus returning to Polyphemus’s cave for his hat and scarf.” A lot of people read that as though that’s a bit of banter. To me it’s actually a very aggressive thing. ‘You’re lucky to go away’. Now I believe that through the Histories there are uses by Polybius of himself as Odysseus, and I think that that is a fault line, partly because Odysseus gets home, but as soon as he gets home he has to leave again, and he has to go to the outer parts of the world until he finds somebody who doesn’t know what an oar is.
HS. What an oar is?
RL. Yes. He’s got to carry his oar with him and as soon as he finds somebody who says, “What’s that?”, he knows he reached the outpost of civilisation. He can plant his oar in a tribute to Poseidon and then go back home. Now, I believe one of the points about the world as Polybius sees it is that it is, for the first time, whole when the Romans conquer it. All the historians beforehand have written piecemeal histories but as Rome conquered first Sicily then Greece then Asia, the world became one. It became whole, and they conquered the whole of it. But there are still, every so often he talks about bits of the world that are unknown and in a very famous bit he says that, now that Greeks have been deprived of all their political and military opportunities, the only thing they can do is go to the ends of the earth and explore. So, I believe that he has, within the figure of Odysseus, this conflicted person who needs to go home, but actually when he goes home, there is another part of the world that he can go to that’s not actually ruled by the Romans, where he could be a figure of some importance. And I view that as a conflict between him wanting the world to be whole and him wanting there to be a place beyond that world that he can visit. Now, I’m exploring this at the moment, so it’s not a completed thought, but that is one fault line.
HS. And then, I guess, you can jump from that into Frank Walbank’s world and see some parallels about the Soviet experiment. Have you gone there?
RL. I haven’t gone there yet.
HS. Or is that a bridge too far?
RL. It might be a bridge too far. I am still struck by a few things with Walbank. I still don’t really understand why he was treated so savagely during the war. He, in 1946, writes a letter to try and get an address to which he can send articles that he writes to the Soviet Academy, and there are only four events mentioned in his diaries during the Second World War. V-E Day, V-J Day, the Liberation of Paris and Germany invades Russia. So, I think he has an interest in Russia that goes beyond his statement that, post the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he lost interest. Having said that, his daughter said that, you know, he just felt totally disillusioned by that, never did any politics every again afterwards, and that really was the end. But I think that he had an involvement, he also had an involvement with the friends of Albania, which I haven’t got to the bottom of, but I just don’t know if that’s too far. But, he’s definitely a Marxist Historian.
HS. And when you look at this book, I’m presuming, is it one, this commentary…
RL. Three volumes.
HS. Three volumes, okay. Three books. And they look, I imagine they were published in the seventies?
RL. The first one was 57, the second one, I think, is 67and the third is 79.
HS. Okay. So this is a life’s work, isn’t it?
RL. There is a joke in that Polybius says that Rome conquered the world in under 53 years, and there is a joke, that’s not absolutely accurate, that it took Walbank longer than that to write his commentary. But it was a total life’s work. And, I mean, Polybius lived to be 80. Walbank lived to be 98. He was very, very productive through a very long life. All basically on Polybius or things associated with Polybius.
HS. Okay. Where I’m going with this I suppose is that these books presumably look entirely innocuous like just any other, kind of, you know, boring, I’m doing quotation marks there, boring books about boring, boring Roman history. So, to introduce this biographical element and this political, kind of, radical political element must come as a surprise to many people who maybe studied that at university. How have you found the reception of your ideas in the academy?
RL. Well, that is, I mean, that is a very, very interesting point because, as you say, they would sit very handsomely along Gomme on Thucydides. Dry volumes. His first set of papers is simply called Collected Papers, and so you’re absolutely right that, you know, where Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, who was born two months after Walbank, writes a book called The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, you would not expect this from taking Walbank’s books from the shelves.
John Henderson wrote two pieces on Walbank. One on the publication history of Polybius which had a very strong biographical element to it, and he followed that up with another piece on Walbank’s life based very much on Walbank’s memoir. So there was introduced very late, a biographical element into Walbank scholarship. I’m not terribly sure how my ideas are being received because I think that what I’m trying to do is not to take Walbank at face value. Whereas Henderson does I think take him at face value. And so I think that there are these fault lines and readings, personal readings of Polybius, which I don’t think Henderson goes into. I think he does read him as a straight 1930s communist who viewed dialectical materialism as the way to write history. The interesting things to me in the commentaries are that Walbank hates philosophy and he hates religion and he can’t conceal that in the commentaries. But otherwise actually they are really quite dry commentaries.
HS. This is good. And I want to know, you mentioned that your father, you believe, was a communist in the 1930s. Could you tell me why you hedged that with this ‘believe’?
RL. Okay. Well…
HS. And you don’t mind if I smoke do you…?
RL. I don’t mind at all, no.
HS. Do you want one?
RL. No, thank you. No. Though my father could always make me take up smoking. Okay. My father was old to be my father. So he’s actually four years younger than Walbank. Born in 1914. He got married quite late at the age of 44 and he had this tendency to suggest that marriage had rather ruined his life, i.e. before he got married he was an adventurous, interesting man and after he got married his wife made his life rather too attractive and he became dull and tedious. Which, you know, is not unfair. And he always spoke of how he would get a map out and get one of his colleagues at work to stick a pin in it and that was where he would go on holiday, basically travelling and then walking, normally to France. And my mother said that when she married him, all his work colleagues called him Joe, after Stalin, because he had been a communist. So, those are the reasons why I think him quite similar to Walbank. He was a working class chap. He left school at fourteen. He did university at the University of Leeds part time whilst working and he then did a doctorate whilst working.
HS. What did he work as?
RL. He was a chemist in the dying industry. Wool dying. In Yorkshire. Textiles. And he also, actually, was in a reserved occupation because he designed flamethrowers through the war. So, again, quite similar to Walbank.
HS. I hope those worlds never met.
RL. No, quite! Exactly! So I suppose I’m only sceptical because I didn’t see it in him. But of course it was a part of his life before I was born, and it’s an oral tradition, saying that he was a communist, which I can’t actually verify. But, it’s totally plausible.
HS. Well, that is fascinating, Robert, and I wish you a lot of good luck and a lot of good days in the library to continue this study, which I’m sure will be fascinating. And I’m hoping, yeah, you’re going to look to publish, I hope. Well, first of all get the PhD. I think people are going to be fascinated by this. I certainly am. So, yeah, thank you so much for speaking with me.
RL. Thank you.