I’ve just come across the cover of Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, to be published in January 2011. This is going to be an absolute treat – worth celebrating the new year already.
Looking forward to Hobsbawm’s obscene rationalizations as well.
On the BBC2’s Late Show in 1994, while being interviewed about the fall of the Berlin Wall, five years earlier, he defended ‘what had to be done’. Interviewer Michael Ignatieff asked: ‘What (your view) comes down to is that, had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15-20million people might have been justified?’
Hobsbawm’s unhesitating answer was a single word: ‘Yes.’ That monstrous response seems to have been forgotten in recent times as the BBC fawns and flatters the aged academic, who has been described as a historian who ‘refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name’. On Radio 3 and 4, and even on the BBC World Service, Hobsbawm continues to be wheeled out as either ‘one of Britain’s most respected’ or ‘one of our most distinguished’ historians.
See also Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999), especially pages 10-11.
Well, first let’s put it in its immediate context in the interview (which, I might add comes not from a reliable source, so it is mere conjecture that this is what actually took place):
IGNATIEFF: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?
HOBSBAWM: This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible…I don’t actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, ‘Probably not.’
HOBSBAWM: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.
IGNATIEFF: 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?
(End of quotation)
I neither condone nor condemn Hobsbawm’s statement. But the context (and even this context lacks the follow-up, which I haven’t been able to locate) at least makes it clear that his response is hardly ‘monstrous’. What is genuinely monstrous is the hypocrisy – and I’m not suggesting that this applies to yourself, since I know nothing about you or your views – of a modern-day observer whose comfortable moralising is propped up by a global capitalist machine which is a form of systemic violence. In other words, one can quite easily judge those apparent ‘extremists’ of the past – of whom communists are the most notorious – from the standpoint of a present historical situation which is supposedly peaceful and enlightenedly neutral, whereas in fact the present is equally as dubious and psychotic as the past.
Obviously, this is clearly not to say that I endorse the Stalinist terror – that would be ridiculous. But nor do I presume to sit on my hypocritical high horse and condemn men as courageous and intelligent as Hobsbawm. If there’s one thing you can say for him, he is not a hypocrite and he is not self-exculpating. To write off an oeuvre as rich in detail and as powerful in argument as Hobsbawm’s because of one single (conjectured) comment would be a foolish thing indeed.
Why justify Eric Hobsbawm at all? Why dignify his unspeakable moral obtuseness? Leave it to an academic to rationalize the terrifying Marxist nightmare (hardly a dream). The Marxist dream was not worth the death of one (1) solitary person, let alone untold millions.
Is lack of repentance = authenticity or courage? I don’t think so. I’m simply self-justification. There’s too much personal investment at stake for Hobsbawm to admit not just that he is wrong, but unspeakably wrong.
A “treat” to read Hobsbawm indeed. Delightful, I bet.
And how many untold millions has capitalism murdered either directly or indirectly? You don’t seem to wax quite so indignant on that score.
Frankly, there’s not much I can say in response to such uncritical, dogmatic self-righteousness.
You confuse me with Milton Friedman.
Capitalism grinds the faces of the poor (Isaiah 3:15). It alienates workers from the products of their labor. Its Manifest Destiny creates wars of empire and masks its motives in national self-righteousness. And so it goes.
But I’m not the one defending the gulag and the killing fields.
[…] latest book is reviewed here. For a pretty critical take on Hobsbawm, see here. For more positive assessments of the man, see here and […]
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