The Left After Communism

Sorry, a moral felon can't be a good historian.

The Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm has been the subject of a lot of fatuous eulogies since his death a few weeks ago. Ron Radosh asks whether an intellectual – a man of ideas -- who dedicated his whole life to the defense of the most murderous regime on human record, and to lying in defense of that regime – can be a good historian. The question, if put right, is self-answering. Yet even worthy conservatives like Niall Ferguson apparently get it wrong. Hobsbawm may have been a brilliant writer and an intelligent man. Yet he was morally defective, and that particular flaw is fatal to a historian since in the end the reader must trust his judgments and depend on his integrity and respect for the truth. Here is a review I wrote more than a decade ago of Hobsbawm’s “history” of the 20th century, which is little more than a Stalinist political tract, written after the fact when an honest man would know better. 


Have compassion, my child; love those who have it, but fly from the pious believers. Nothing is more dangerous than their company, their humble pride. They must either dominate or destroy...


Workers of the world...forgive me

Graffiti on a Karl Marx statue
Moscow, August 1991

The monuments have fallen now and the faces are changed. In the graveyards the martyrs have been rehabilitated and everywhere the names have been restored. The Soviet Union, once hailed by progressives everywhere as a sixth of mankind on the road to the future, no longer exists. Leningrad is St. Petersburg again. The radical project to change the world is stalled, having left behind a world in ruin. In a revolutionary eyeblink, a bloody lifetime has passed into history; only vacancies memorialize a catastrophe whose human sum can never be reckoned.

In the climactic hours of the Communist fall, someone --- Boris Yeltsin perhaps --- remarked that it was a pity Marxists had not triumphed in a smaller country because “we would not have had to kill so many people to demonstrate that utopia does not work.” What more is there to say? If Communism’s final hour had truly spelled the end of the utopian fantasies that have blighted the modern era, nothing at all. If mankind were really capable of closing the book on this long, sorry episode of human folly and evil, then its painful memory could finally be laid to rest. Only historians would need to trouble their thoughts with its destructive illusions and appalling achievements. But, in fact, these millennial dreams of a brave new world are with us still, and it is increasingly obvious that the most crucial lessons of this history have not been learned. This applies most of all to those whose complicity in its calamities were most profound -- the progressive intelligentsia of the democratic West.

Emblematic of this failure was the appearance in 1995 of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, a history of the epoch from the outbreak of the First World War to the end of the Communist empire, a period which Hobsbawm refers to as the “short twentieth century.”  The Age of Extremes is actually the conclusion to a tetralogy that one American reviewer called a “summa historiae of the modern age,”[1] and which others have showered with similar accolades since the first volume appeared decades ago. This final installment was awarded Canada’s most coveted literary prize and appeared to reviews which canonized its author’s perspective as definitive for the age. A major assessment in the New York Times by Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann, for example, hailed Hobsbawm’s achievement as “magisterial.”[2] This adjective was lifted from the jacket blurb by a Rockefeller Foundation executive who wrote: “Hobsbawm’s magisterial treatment of the short twentieth century, will be the definitive fin-de-siecle work.” Liberal foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead echoed this praise, calling the Hobsbawm’s work “a magnificent achievement of a very rare and remarkable kind.”[3] The economist Robert Heilbroner concurred: “I know of no other account that sheds as much light on what is now behind us, and thereby casts so much illumination on our possible futures.” The historian Eugene Genovese, reviewing it for The New Republic was equally  impressed:

We shall soon be flooded with books that seek to explain this blood-drenched century, but I doubt that we shall get a more penetrating and politically valuable one than Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes.[4]

These encomiums reveal how embedded in the liberal culture the illusions of the socialist paradigm remain, even after the catastrophes they have produced. Eric Hobsbawm was a member of the British Communist Party for most of his life, and is an unrepentant (if inevitably chastened) Marxist still -- a passionate reviler of democratic capitalism, a believer in thrall to the socialist myth. Indeed, for all Hobsbawm’s attention in his work to the details of industrial, scientific and cultural developments, his treatise is little more than an ideological tract whose gravamen is the continuing viability of the socialist faith. Even if “progressives” were wrong, they were right. The practical disasters of socialism should not be taken as a refutation of the socialist idea and its utopian premise. The tragedies produced by socialist revolutionaries are not reasons to abandon the quest for “social justice,” by which Hobsbawm means a society based on equality of outcomes and a social plan. In his own words: “The failure of Soviet socialism does not reflect on the possibility of other kinds of socialism.”[5]

Extravagantly praised by progressive intellectuals for its historical wisdom, The Age of Extremes  is little more than a 600-page apologia for the discredited Left, an advocate’s brief for the very project that produced the world of misery under review. Nor is Hobsbawm’s defense of the socialist idea against the evidence of its bloodstained reality at all original. It repeats, in fact, an argument first developed by Leon Trotsky in the years of his exile, after his fall from grace. It was Trotsky’s view that Marxism failed because it had been inserted into a hostile environment. It was the cultural and economic backwardness of Russian society that thwarted the best laid plans of the socialist dreamers and produced the distorted result. Following Trotsky’s argument (but without acknowledging its source) Hobsbawm treats the Soviet revolution as a forced experiment under unfavorable conditions and thus no test of the ideas that lay behind it and guided its unhappy results.

In his review of Hobsbawm’s book, Stanley Hoffmann repeats this faulty reasoning: “Marx was right....socialism could only work in developed countries...” But, of course, Marx was wrong. If not, why did socialism fail in East Germany, which had been the industrial heart of the German Reich until Marxists took charge and ruined its economic base? Neither Hoffmann nor Hobsbawm even attempt to explain this. Their easy presumption that “Marx was right” about developed countries is illuminating, since no developed country has ever instituted a Marxist “solution.”

During the final years of the Soviet empire, prominent economists like John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson touted the “success” of Marxist economies and their “convergence” with those of the West. Now that the dismal failure of socialist economics has been revealed, these intellectuals want to forget that they ever suggested it was competitive in the first place. According to Hobsbawn, the idea that the Soviet system in its backward setting was a competitor to the industrial West was a weapon in the hands of its enemies and only seemed plausible because of capitalism’s weakness during the era of the First World War and the Great Depression. Ever protective of his radical constituency, Hobsbawm fails to mention the role that Party intellectuals like himself played in fostering this destructive illusion.

During the Cold War that followed, an era Hobsbawm calls the “Golden Age,” capitalist economies defied Marxist predictions about increasing misery and social crisis for reasons he is unable to explain. During this era, the industrial democracies of the West were able to permanently surpass the weaker Soviet system, which could not overcome its underdevelopment. Characteristically, it never occurs to Hobsbawm that Marxism itself might be responsible for this failure.

Like other radicals, Hobsbawm writes as though the real world failures of socialist theory have no implications for the socialist critique of capitalism itself. This assumption is the basis for the survival of the socialist faith. It underlies the really destructive contribution of Hobsbawm’s work and the left-wing culture his work reflects. As with other intellectuals of the post-Communist left, Hobsbawm’s agenda is to suspend disbelief in the socialist future while preserving and extending the indictment of liberal society that the socialist premise makes possible. In other words his their agenda is to continue the very assault with which Hobsbawm began his political career and which led to the epic tragedies that followed.

Nothing is more indicative of the ideological passion that inspires Hobsbawm’s opus, than the way in which it approaches the Marxist decline. The twenty-year period from 1973 to 1991 -- that is, from the Cold War detente to the Soviet collapse -- is described in a section called “The Landslide,” as though the collapse was caused by a force of nature. Even more revealingly, “Landslide” is a term Hobsbawm intends to apply to both sides in the Cold War and both social systems, as though it reflected a global collapse. The twenty years covered in this section of Hobsbawm’s text witnessed the destruction of the largest and most oppressive empire in recorded history and the spread of democratic government and market economics around the globe. But through Hobsbawm’s Marxist lens the historic victory of freedom appears as a general social disintegration affecting both sides of the ideological divide. The final section of the The Age of Extremes opens with the following judgment: “The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.”[6]

The triumph of western freedom offers Hobsbawm -- in his own life one of its privileged beneficiaries -- little comfort or relief. It is a response wholly typical of “progressive” intellectuals in the West. In the vacuum created by the great global collapse, the socialist historian sees only “a renaissance of barbarism” -- in his own zone of democratic freedom, as well as the post-Communist East. This idea that socialism’s collapse must mean a resurgence of barbarism is an ideological reflex, exposing the illusions of the past. It was at the end of World War I, that the German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, summoned the European Left to risk everything in its battles to overthrow the social order of the democratic West, because the choice, as she put it in a famous slogan, was “socialism or barbarism.”

The apocalyptic alternative is endemic to the revolutionary equation. It precludes piecemeal adjustments or reforms. The apocalyptic choice justifies in advance the crimes that revolutionaries intend to commit (because, of course, History requires them to do so). Eric Hobsbawm is still a prisoner of his reactionary faith. Capitalism remains, in his perversely unshaken ideological perspective, a doomed system, unable to solve its fundamental “crises” except by a revolutionary act of will.

In Hobsbawm’s ideological treatise, capitalism functions throughout the narrative as a force of evil, the diablo ex machina of all its tragic turns. In this Manichaean vision, it is democratic America, not its totalitarian adversary that appears responsible for the fifty years’ Cold War. Even the conclusion of the conflict -- the Soviet collapse and the Red Army’s withdrawal from Eastern Europe -- must be seen by the progressive ideologue as no victory for the capitalist West (“We need not take this crusaders’ version of the 1980s seriously,”[7] he writes, dismissing the idea) but as a triumph made possible by the totalitarian enemy himself.

Thus, along with other leftists, Hobsbawm attributes the end of the Cold War to the wise policies of the last dicator in the Kremlin, who “recognized the sinister absurdity of the nuclear arms race” and approached his antagonists in the West with a proposal to end it: “That is why the world owes so enormous a debt to Mikhail Gorbachev, who not only took this initiative but succeeded, single-handed, in convincing the US government and others in the West that he meant what he said.”[8] Gorbachev was able to achieve this near miraculous resolution of the Cold War conflict, according to Hobsbawm, only because the White House -- normally a center of war-mongering paranoia -- was occupied by a simpleton who somehow remained immune from its malign influences:

However, let us not underestimate the contribution of President Reagan whose simple-minded idealism broke through the unusually dense screen of ideologists, fanatics, careerists, desperadoes and professional warriors around him to let himself be convinced.[9]

The Cold War is now over and this kind of intellectual rant, although still prevalent in “progressive” circles,  is no longer consequential for America’s survival. But left-wing paranoia continues to unleash dangerous toxins into the political air., pouring .

In describing the Cold War’s denouement, Hobsbawm also fails to notice how the forces underlying the Soviet collapse and the western triumph reflected an economic reality of momentous consequence. This was the capacity of a society based on private markets to unleash the power of new technologies and transform the world. (And the inability of its state-managed rival to accommodate, let alone innovate in the new technological age). In a 400-page volume that devotes whole chapters to developments in science and industry in the pre-electronic era, Hobsbawm mentions the digital computer in only a single isolated sentence. There is not one reference to Ed Cray, Bill Gates, Jim Clark, Michael Milken or the other Rockefellers of the new industrial revolution or -- except negatively -- to its economic and social implications. Hobsbawm ignores, even denies, the liberating potential of the information age, as he does the Reagan boom -- the greatest peacetime expansion in history -- which helped to launch it. Instead, his portrait of America’s economy in the prosperous Eighties is one of unrelieved foreboding and gloom. Like a modern day Luddite, who has learned nothing from two hundred years of industrial innovation, Hobsbawm receives the news of technological progress as a social threat. In Hobsbawm’s doom-ridden scenario, technological progress means only the prospect that jobs will be eliminated -- forever:

The Crisis Decades [1973 to the present] began to shed labor at a spectacular rate, even in plainly expanding industries....The number of workers diminished, relatively, absolutely and, in any case, rapidly. The rising unemployment of these decades was not merely cyclical but structural. The jobs lost in bad times would not come back when times improved: they would never come back.[10]

As Hobsbawm, the Marxist reactionary, returns to the myths of his radical youth, he imagines the capitalist past conjured in those myths to be recurring eternally in its present: “In the 1980s and early 1990s the capitalist world found itself once again staggering under the burdens of the inter-war years, which the Golden Age appeared to have removed: mass unemployment, severe cyclical slumps, the ever-more spectacular confrontation of homeless beggars and luxurious plenty,...” To this structural dislocation Hobsbawm attributes a “growing culture of hate” and a general social breakdown (including an alleged epidemic of “mass murders”) which cloud the American future.[11] In other words, Marx’s predictions were right.

But only in the fantasy life of an unreconstructed member of the faith. During the decades of the Cold War, the engines of capitalist progress, in fact, revolutionized the lives of ordinary working people on a scale previously inconceivable. Hobsbawm’s “landslide” in the West coincided with economic developments that ushered in the greatest social transformation in human history -- the first time in five thousand years that more than a tiny percentage of the population of any society attained some degree of material well-being. It was this dazzling prospect of American progress in the era that stretched from Eisenhower to Reagan that lay at the heart of the demoralization and collapse of socialism’s empire, whose own populations had been condemned to permanent poverty by Marx’s crackpot ideas. Over the course of these allegedly somber decades, the consumption of goods and services by the average American family actually doubled. Less than 10 percent of Americans went to college in 1950, but by 1996 the figure was almost 60 percent. By that time, the poorest fifth of the population consumed more than the middle fifth had in 1955.[12] None of this uplifting reality -- a liberation of the dispossessed that no socialist ever accomplished  -- is allowed to enter Hobsbawm’s negative landscape.

The Age of Extremes, which has been so greedily embraced by the intellectual culture, is really an elaborate defense of the two destructive arguments in whose name the political left has caused so much suffering in the 20th Century -- the alleged evil of capitalist society and the illusory promise of the socialist future. Of course, in the wake of the Soviet disaster, the hope of this socialist future is now only tenuously put forward by sophisticated radicals like Hobsbawm. It is the negative assault on capitalism that preoccupies them.

But the two arguments cannot really be separated, since the nihilistic rejection of the present order is predicated on the dream of a redemptive solution. In the closing passage of Hobsbawm’s text the two ideas find themselves linked in a manner that is as intellectually extreme as any manifesto by Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx:

The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the human environment, that is to say, the material foundations of human life....We have reached a point of historic crisis....If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say the alternative to a changed society is darkness.

Capitalist darkness or socialist light. Like the Bourbons of the 19th Century, the 20th Century reactionaries of the Left have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Socialism is still the name of their desire.


[1]    Joseph F. Keppler, Seattle Times, April 16,1995

[2]   The New York Times, February 19, 1955

[3]    The Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1955

[4]   Eugene D. Genovese, “The Squandered Century, The New Republic, April 17, 1995

[5]   Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, Pantheon, NY 1965, p.498

[6]   Hobsbawm, op. cit., p.403

[7]   Hobsbawm, op. cit., p.249

[8]   Ibid.

[9]   Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 250

[10]   Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 413

[11]    Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 416

[12]   Fareed Zakaria, “Paris Is Burning,” (a review of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, in The New Prepublic, January 22, 1996.

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