Those not keen on regurgitation might want to skip Terry Eagleton’s hagiography of Eric Hobsbawm, and its appreciation of the supposed glories of Marxism. But if readers feel like experiencing gastrointestinal upset, then they can allow their eyes to linger over Eagleton’s celebration of the “indomitable” Hobsbawm, who “remains broadly committed to the Marxist camp” (much to the delight of Eagleton), whose “analysis” of Marxism leads Eagleton to conclude that “History itself is speaking here, in its wry, all-seeing, dispassionate wisdom,” who allegedly states his arguments “with such honesty and equipoise,” and who, Eagleton believes, ought to be praised for his cheerleading for Marxism especially because he “has reached an age at which most of us would be happy to be able to raise ourselves from our armchairs without the aid of three nurses and a hoist, let alone carry out historical research.”
Nauseated yet? If not, read over Eagleton’s star-struck fandom regarding Marxism’s legacy–as Eagleton puts it, anyway:
‘If one thinker left a major indelible mark on the 20th century,’ Hobsbawm remarks, ‘it was [Marx].’ Seventy years after Marx’s death, for better or for worse, one third of humanity lived under political regimes inspired by his thought. Well over 20 per cent still do. Socialism has been described as the greatest reform movement in human history. Few intellectuals have changed the world in such practical ways. That is usually the preserve of statesmen, scientists and generals, not of philosophers and political theorists. Freud may have changed lives, but hardly governments. ‘The only individually identifiable thinkers who have achieved comparable status,’ Hobsbawm writes, ‘are the founders of the great religions in the past, and with the possible exception of Muhammad none has triumphed on a comparable scale with such rapidity.’ Yet very few, as Hobsbawm points out, would have predicted such celebrity for this poverty-stricken, carbuncle-ridden Jewish exile, a man who once observed that nobody had ever written so much about money and had so little.
Note the “for better or for worse” bit, as though there can really be any debate that Marxism’s impact–with all of the poverty, environmental damage, intellectual and artistic atrophy, loss of freedom, and massive human rights abuses and butchery brought about by Marxism and its natural consequences–might not have been “for worse.” Note as well the following shameless attempt to make excuses for Marxism’s manifest failures:
. . . Socialism in the 20th century turned out to be most necessary where it was least possible: in socially devastated, politically benighted, economically backward regions of the globe where no Marxist thinker before Stalin had ever dreamed that it could take root. Or at least, take root without massive assistance from more well-heeled nations. In such dismal conditions, the socialist project is almost bound to turn into a monstrous parody of itself. All the same, the idea that Marxism leads inevitably to such monstrosities, as Hobsbawm observes, ‘has about as much justification as the thesis that all Christianity must logically and necessarily always lead to papal absolutism, or all Darwinism to the glorification of free capitalist competition’. (He does not consider the possibility of Darwinism leading to a kind of papal absolutism, which some might see as a reasonable description of Richard Dawkins.)
The mind reels. Even if we accept the absurd and convenient argument that socialism was only “most necessary where it was least possible,” such an observation would be sufficient to show the intellectually bankrupt nature of Marxism and socialism. Of course, Eagleton offers us this “argument” as a way of excusing Marxism for its unerring capacity to bring poverty and misery wherever it is instituted. Marxism failed, you see, because it was only tried “in socially devastated, politically benighted, economically backward regions of the globe where no Marxist thinker before Stalin had ever dreamed that it could take root.” Really? Does Eagleton mean that it wasn’t tried in Europe–either through elections, or through outright Soviet imposition–where Marxist thinkers (including Marx himself) fervently hoped and firmly believed that it could and would take root?
Equally absurd is Eagleton’s and Hobsbawm’s dismissal of “the idea that Marxism leads inevitably to such monstrosities.” It’s not an idea. It’s plain historical fact. The Soviet Union was a monstrosity, as was the imposition of Marxism-Leninism in Eastern Europe, in Africa, and in Latin American countries. In China, it was a monstrosity until Chinese leaders wised up and adopted authoritarian capitalism, which is not pure capitalism by any stretch of the imagination, and which still features human rights abuses on an appalling scale, not to mention a very low per capita income and general poverty for all but the exceedingly few, but is leaps and bounds better than what was offered under the deranged leadership of Mao Zedong. That Marxism led directly to these monstrosities is a closed historical question for all but the likes of Eagleton and Hobsbawm, who (I am trying to be kind here) are so open-minded that their brains have fallen out.
About the best that could be said of Marx and Engels is that they were more democratic than their intellectual successors would be; emphasizing the “proletariat” in the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and being anti-Blanquists. But they should have known that their successors would emphasize the “dictatorship,” and would disregard the democratic sentiments of others as they grew impatient with Marxism’s inability to fulfill the historic mission Marx predicted for it. Marx and Engels should have known that their successors would conclude that if Marxism were not freely adopted by others, it could and should be imposed by force.
It is worth noting the many critiques that have been issued concerning Hobsbawm; critiques that while harsh, are exceedingly well-deserved, and ought to be considered as one contemplates Hobsbawm’s latest effort to muddy the waters when it comes to cataloging the crimes attributable to Marxism. Oliver Kamm is rightfully damning:
Hobsbawm concedes that greater knowledge of Stalinist Russia would not have dissuaded its partisans, but maintains irrelevantly: “Of course we did not, and could not, envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet peoples.” Perhaps not the scale, but certainly the character of Stalin’s repression was well known to readers of such esoteric material as the AmericanSaturday Evening Post, which published the memoirs of the Soviet defector and former intelligence officer Walter Krivitsky in 1939. It took an intellectual not to see it.
HOBSBAWM has rarely missed an opportunity even after communism’s demise to obfuscate its record. “One might also claim,” he proffers demurely in The Age of Extremes (1994), “that in the Bolshevik Party constructed by Lenin, orthodoxy and intolerance were to some extent implanted not as values in themselves but for pragmatic reasons.” The notion that Lenin — of whom Bertrand Russell remarked after meeting him, “His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold” — was not merely pragmatically intolerant but congenitally bloodthirsty is too unsophisticated a thesis to merit Hobsbawm’s consideration.
Moving to more recent panegyric, Hobsbawm remarks in On History (1997): “Fragile as the communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989.” He means the 27 Soviet divisions, 6,300 tanks and 400,000 troops sent into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to snuff out political reform.
Michael Gove, from October, 2008:
. . . can we please have an end to fawning interviews with the unrepentant Moscow-liner Eric Hobsbawm? He is not, as the BBC argued this week, perhaps our greatest living historian. He’s an apologist for totalitarianism and when I think of the millions who were killed and tortured in Marxism’s name, from the Polish officers shot in Katyn forest to those brave dissidents who endured the gulag, I am convinced that only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to.
Good God, I actually find myself agreeing completely with Brad DeLong, who in a book review written in 1995 offered the following apt observation on Hobsbawm:
The past decade has seen good news along a number of important dimensions: The environment is in better shape: the clean-up of the first world continues; the clean-up of the ex-Communist world has begun; and the third world is more aware of environmental degradation. Progress has been made in creating the international climate to guard against ozone depletion and global warming. Nuclear war is much less likely. China and India, more than one-third the human race, had their best economic growth decades in the 1980s.
In addition, many of the Communist régimes that ruled more than half the human race have fallen. Awful tyrannies have passed into history. Hundreds of millions have a chance for a more normal life–not spending six hours a day waiting in some commodity distribution line, not being spied on by one out of every ten of their eighbors, not seeing one out of every fifteen neighbors killed by the state’s bullet, labor camp, or political famine.
Good news on the environment, on the danger of nuclear war, on Asian and Latin American (albeit not African) development, on the spread of democracy, and on the end of tyrannies have been the major developments of the past decade. If you were optimistic about the human future before the mid-1980s, you should be ecstatic today.
Yet Eric Hobsbawm is much gloomier than he was a decade ago.
There is no doubt that his gloominess is due to the end of European Communism. This is not to say that Hobsbawm still worships the post-1917 pre-1991 Soviet Union. The days are gone when he saw directives from Moscow as the logos of History speaking through the Party. He no longer judges “heroic” communists’ obedience to Stalin’s instructions to undermine Britain’s World War II effort against Hitler (before June 22, 1941, that is), or claims “my International right or wrong.”
Yet traces remain of the Eric Hobsbawm who was once a fanatic acolyte of the despotically-governed world religion of Communism. Judgments made then remain unexamined, or unsuccessfully reexamined, parts of the structure of his thought. It is as if a star–belief in the world religion of Communism–died, but light emitted before its death continues to reflect off planets and moons. The remains of Hobsbawm’s commitment to the religion of World Communism get in the way of his judgment, and twist his vision.
On planet Hobsbawm, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster, and the Revolutions of 1989 a defeat for humanity. On planet Hobsbawm, Stalin planned multi-party democracies and mixed economies for Eastern Europe after World War II, and reconsidered only after the United States launched the Cold War. On planet Hobsbawm, Hungarian–collectivized–agriculture is more productive than modern French agriculture.
Perhaps worst of all, on planet Hobsbawm modern democracy is not a good thing: elections are “contests in fiscal perjury” among voters with “no qualifications to express an opinion,” that create governments that work only when they “did not have to do much governing.” If there is a good word about really existing democracy–as a check upon official paranoia, as way of ensuring that people can lead a quiet life, or as a way of ascertaining the public interest–I missed it.
Why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why can’t we have better historians of Marxism? (This is perhaps the first time that I do not seek to imitate DeLong in jest.)
Hobsbawm began to enjoy the benefits of Western democracy as soon as he reached England, with a scholarship to King’s College followed by a teaching appointment at Birkbeck College in London. He makes clear his passionate identification with the Soviet Union, even his sympathy for the Cambridge spies (“One minor spin-off from 1930′s Communism,” he pooh poohs), but his prose glides over most of the horrific events in the history of communism, including the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which he disposes of with one mention as “the line-change of the autumn of 1939.” Hobsbawm writes that his love of jazz (a subject he coyly refers to as a passion, but with no real explication) “replaced first love,” because he was “ashamed” of his physical appearance. But communism was his only real love. He was struck by Stalin’s execrable “Short History,” “which made Marxism so irresistible.” Perhaps embedded in that “love” was a self-hatred that found revenge in supporting one of the most bestial murder machines in history.
ONE CAN LEARN almost nothing about the history of communism from Hobsbawm’s “Interesting Times”–nothing about the show trials, the torture and execution of millions, the Communist betrayal of Spain. Hobsbawm’s stunted, euphemistic language reveals more than he intends. Communists are always good, and anti-Communists are “dreadful,” “hysterical,” “ill-tempered.” Opposition to communism is, in Hobsbawm’s words, “espionage mania” (though he acknowledges Soviet espionage existed, he seems not to disapprove of it). He admits that the Soviet Union “was a monstrous all-embracing bureaucracy”–only to add immediately: “The new society they were building was not a bad society…good people doing an honest day’s work . . . no class distinctions.”
Hobsbawm’s prose is always at a distance from reality. He writes of “the hecatombs of the Stalin era,” not torture chambers and concentration camps. An old Hungarian Communist, Tibor Szamuely, “claimed to have had the usual spell in a camp during the dictator’s final lunacies.” Note “claimed,” as if it’s probably not true; note “lunacies,” which is another glideover.
The Doctors’ Plot show trials had “an anti-Semitic tinge.” Hobsbawm writes of Stalin as “a terrible old man.” Does this mean he was nicer when he was young or middle-aged? That he got grouchy? In the USSR, Hobsbawm writes, there was “almost paranoiac fear of espionage.” Get that “almost.” He writes that he stayed in the party because of the “titanic achievements [of the USSR] and still with the unlimited potential of socialism”–an unconsciously apt phrase, considering the fate of the Titanic. The attacks of September 11 led America to decide “implausibly” on a life-and-death struggle, but they were in truth “certainly no cause for alarm for the globe’s only superpower. . . . Public mouths flooded the western world with froth as hacks searched for words about the unsayable and unfortunately found them.” Who is the real threat? “The enemies of reason . . . the heirs of fascism . . . who sit in the governments of India, Israel, and Italy.”
And of course, there is David Pryce-Jones’s marvelous take on Hobsbawm (original essay found here), which always causes my jaw to drop in disbelief over what it reveals about the man Eagleton so unashamedly idolizes:
The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, has been to certify the inevitable triumph of Communism. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end–long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach. He loves to describe himself as a professional historian, but someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth, is nothing of the kind, neither a historian nor professional.
It becomes quite a good joke that Communism collapsed under him, proving in the living world that the beliefs and ideas in his head were empty illusions, and all the Marxist and Soviet rhetoric just claptrap. This Hobsbawn cannot understand, never mind accept. His best-known book, Age of Extremes, published as recently as 1994, still attempts to whitewash Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering, glossing with fundamental dishonesty over such integral features as enforced famine through collectivization and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and omitting all mention of the massacre at Katyn, the terrifying secret police apparatus of Beria, and the Gulag. At the same time, Hobsbawm depicts the United States “unfortunately” as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. Presenting him with a prestigious prize for this farrago, the left-wing historian Sir Keith Thomas said, “For pure intelligence applied to history, Eric Hobsbawm has no equal.” Another left-winger, the journalist Neal Ascherson, held that “No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source.” So much for Robert Conquest, Sir Kenneth Dover, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Bernard Lewis, and other genuine scholars.
A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstanding example of the type. The overriding question is: how was someone with his capacity able to deceive himself so completely about reality and take his stand alongside the commissar signing death warrants?
Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, (1) conveys the same point, only rather more deviously. On the very last page, it is true, he is “prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea” though for no very obvious reason (except as a cheap shot) he concludes the sentence by cramming in the comment that Herzl’s Zionism was also not a good idea. Note that slippery use of “Comintern” as a substitute for Communism itself. The concession, such as it is, is anyhow vitiated by an earlier passage when he attacks America and its allies, bizarrely spelled out as India, Israel, and Italy, and referred to as rich and the heirs of fascism. In this passage he predicts, “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism” (Which leaves Americans as barbarians.) By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains “the central point of reference in the political universe” and “the dream of the October revolution” is still vivid inside him. He cannot bring himself to refer to Leningrad as St. Petersburg. Learning nothing, he has forgotten nothing.
Writing on Eagleton’s mash note to Hobsbawm and Marxism, Paul Cella says that Eagleton’s essay “shines with a palpable warmth.” No, it doesn’t. Rather, it misleads with a palpable malice; a malice shown to facts, to the intelligence of readers, to history, and to all of those who suffered at the hands of the Marxist cause. Paul also agrees with Eagleton’s statement that “Marxism been back on the agenda, placed there, ironically enough, by an ailing capitalism.” The fact is that capitalism, whatever its faults, is the best economic system out there, the one with the greatest track record when it comes to giving people more prosperity, more freedom, and a better quality of life. Yes, we had the Great Recession, but we have had worse in the past (like the Great Depression, for example), and the worst of the Great Recession is over. The reason that Marxism is “back on the agenda,” has nothing to do with any misguided conception of “an ailing capitalism.” Rather, it has plenty to do with what David Pryce-Jones made clear in the title of his article; people like Eric Hobsbawm (and Terry Eagleton, for that matter) made a career of “lying to the credulous.” And when it comes to the credulous, there is one born every minute. (Paul is not credulous when it comes to Marxism, but alas, too many others are.)
Want to read an outstanding history of Marxism written by an outstanding historian and philosopher? Read Kolakowski. Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm are too wrapped up in the perceived glories of Marxism to be able to give us an actual history of the topic; a history that should be filled to the brim with accounts of crimes, blunders, and pure savagery on the part of those unaccountably lionized by Eagleton, Hobsbawm, and their ilk.