• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Downhill All the Way

Despite this emphasis on long-term economic trends and broad secular patterns (a feature of all Hobsbawm’s writing), The Age of Extremes is also his most personal book; indeed the mood oscillates between a rather formal interpretative perspective and a close, almost private, commentary. He says that he has studied the twentieth century by “watching and listening,” and we believe him.3 The inflation after World War I is caught in the image of his Austrian grandfather cashing in his matured insurance policy and finding himself with just enough money for a drink at his favorite café, while Hobsbawm’s own aesthetic distaste at the urban blight of the Sixties is contrasted with childhood memories of “the great architectural monuments of the liberal bourgeoisie” of Vienna. When he writes that he believes the fall of colonial empires did not seem imminent in 1939, this is based on personal recollection; he and others in a school for young Communists from Britain and the colonies did not expect it at the time.

For evidence of social change in Palermo, unemployment in Sao Paulo, or the risks of introducing capitalism in China he can draw on conversations with Sicilian bandits, Brazilian labor organizers, and Chinese Communist bureaucrats (it is not for nothing that in his entry in Who’s Who he gives as his recreation “travel”). As a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, he knew Alan Turing, the ill-fated inventor of the computer, while his Communist connections allow him to draw on the private testimony of the (Communist) mayor of Bologna concerning the favorable conditions for an emerging agro-industrial economy in the Emilia-Romagna region.4

There is also a disarming directness and honesty about Hobsbawm’s account of his personal experience of the century.5 He includes himself among the “attentive and unquestioning multitudes” who listened to Castro rambling for hours on end; he reminds us that the “left tradition” has preferred not to acknowledge the support that fascism, once in power, could count on from formerly socialist and Communist workers; and he recounts the innocent shock of a (London-based) British Communist organizer at discovering the comparative affluence of Coventry workers: “Do you realize that up there the comrades have cars?”

He himself was sometimes wrong and says so, and on more than one occasion he expresses his admiration for professional journalists who saw things that he, the Marxist scholar, missed. The prophecy forty years ago, by a China correspondent for the Times of London, that by the twenty-first century communism would have disappeared everywhere except China, where it would have been transformed into the national ideology, shocked Hobsbawm at the time, as he admits; but today it sounds distinctly plausible. Toward the end of the book, musing on the dilemmas of our own time, he concedes that Marx, too, was wrong: mankind does not always “set itself only such problems as it can solve.”

If the virtues of this book derive from its engaged and personal quality, so do its defects—or rather its defect, for there is really only one, though it takes many forms. Because this is a story of Hobsbawm’s own lifetime—a lifetime devoted since youth, as he recently reminded us on BBC Radio, to a single cause—he is understandably inclined to see the main outlines and conflicts of the era much as he saw them when they were unfolding. In particular, the categories right/left, fascist/Communist, progressive and reactionary seem to be very firmly set, and pretty much as they first presented themselves to Hobsbawm in the Thirties. Thus he readily acknowledges the tragic errors of Communist strategy, or the curiously similar public aesthetic preferences of fascist and Communist leaders, and even the sheer awfulness of communism as a system. But it does not for a moment occur to him to reconsider the conventional polarities of the time and treat fascism and communism as more than just occasional and paradoxical allies.

This seems to me a missed opportunity. For Hobsbawm, the Spanish Civil War and the alliances and allegiances it helped shape remain “the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and appealing as it did in 1936.” But for just that reason the Spanish Civil War, and more generally the circumstantial divisions of the Thirties, are now an obstacle to a radical rethinking of the illusions to which they gave rise.

Thus Hobsbawm not only does not discuss the use to which the Spanish conflict was put by Stalin, who settled local and international scores under the guise of supporting an anti-fascist war; he also neglects to consider the way in which the whole experience of “anti-fascist unity” helped forge a new image for international communism following the military, economic, and strategic disasters of its first two decades. If we are to understand the twentieth century this radical refashioning of communism (which was repeated in a minor key after 1943) needs to be appreciated. Instead the pattern of Communist thought and practice is described here much as it was understood and presented at the time, even down to the language and categories used, so that the phenomenon of Bolshevism is accorded no critical analytical attention except on its own restricted terms.

Hobsbawm is thus quite explicit in treating the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent Communist regime as “a programme for transforming backward countries into advanced ones,” a line of reasoning that was once widespread among “revisionists” and other sympathetic critics of the left in their attempts to explain the way Lenin’s revolution had become Stalin’s autocracy. But he does not consider whether it was not also and above all the first and greatest of the “third world” coups d’état that he describes so well elsewhere, in which revolutionary modernizers capture the capital city and forcibly seize power in an archaic society. The distinction may seem minor, but it is crucial. By excluding the Bolshevik revolution from the category of mere “coups” and by insisting throughout that it was a revolution made possible by the “masses,” Hobsbawm preserves the sui generis quality of the Communist experience, and thereby cleaves to an interpretation of our century which seems increasingly inadequate now that that experience is behind us.

In a similar way, Hobsbawm’s treatment of fascism misses the chance to consider the extent to which Hitler’s war amounted, de facto, to a major European revolution, transforming Central and Eastern Europe and preparing the way for the “socialist” regimes of the postwar years which built upon the radical change Hitler had brought about—notably the destruction of the intelligentsia and urban middle class of the region, first through the murder of the Jews and then as a result of the postwar expulsion of Germans from the liberated Slav lands. Because he is concerned to play down any “revolutionary” qualities in fascism, Hobsbawm’s treatment of World War II is thus uncharacteristically conventional, neglecting the irony inherent in the process whereby Hitler prepared the way for Stalin. This, too, seems to me a consequence of continuing to see the world the way it seemed at the time, when both ideologically and militarily fascism and communism were in total conflict, and Stalin represented the “left wing” of the victorious forces of the Enlightenment.

The results of this approach are most obvious, however, in Hobsbawm’s treatment of Eastern Europe—or rather his nontreatment of it; “real socialism” in the lands between Germany and Russia merits just six pages in a book nearly six hundred pages long, with the infamous show trials of the Fifties accorded less than a paragraph. In his mildly revisionist account of the origins of the cold war Hobsbawm suggests that it was only after the Americans had pressured Communists out of office in France and Italy (in May 1947), and threatened intervention if the 1948 election in Italy went the “wrong” way, that “the USSR followed suit by eliminating the non-communists from their multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ which were henceforth re-classified as ‘dictatorships of the proletariat.’ ” Until then, in his words, “where Moscow controlled its client regimes and communist movements, these were specifically committed to not building states on the model of the USSR, but mixed economies under multi-party parliamentary democracies…”

The precise allocation of responsibility for the cold war may be a subject for debate, but the timing and purpose of the Communist strategy within Eastern Europe is surely unambiguous. Whatever Stalin and his followers had in mind in 1945 for the “friendly” regimes of the region, it was certainly not “multi-party democracies” in any intelligible sense of the word. The construction of “geographically-contiguous replica regimes” (as the political scientist Kenneth Jowitt put it) was under way well before the Italian elections of April 1948. The most obvious instances are Romania (where Andrei Vyshinsky arrived in February 1945 to dictate who could and who could not join the “coalition” government) and Bulgaria (where Nikola Petkov, leader of the Agrarian Party, was arrested in June 1947 and executed three months later following a disgraceful show trial).

In Czechoslovakia and Hungary the situation was more confused, at least until 1947, although in the Hungarian case Communist intimidation of the popular Smallholder Party forced its representatives to withdraw from the Parliament in 1946. Even in Czechoslovakia, where the local Communists had strong popular support and had obtained 38 percent of the votes cast in the 1946 elections, their electoral backing was falling away sharply during 1947. In response the Communists used their influence in the police and in the interior ministry to slander and discredit their opponents (notably the Slovak Democratic and Czech National Socialist parties) and, in February 1948—two months before the Italian elections of that year—they took power in a political coup.6

In Poland there were no illusions about a “multi-party democracy.” In the postwar cabinet of 1945 fourteen of the twenty-two members had been in the Communists’ Committee of National Liberation (the “Lublin” Committee) designated in July 1944 by the Soviet forces to administer liberated Poland. The results of a referendum of July 1946, following a violent campaign in which the government harrassed and intimidated non-Communist activists, were cynically rigged, as were the January 1947 general elections: Peasant Party spokesmen were kept off the radio and their supporters arrested by the thousands; their electoral lists were disqualified and accusations of espionage were made in Parliament and elsewhere to discredit their leadership. Even so, the ballot boxes had to be stuffed to prevent a Communist defeat. The result provoked international protest, to no avail. In October 1947 Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, the Peasant Party chief, fled abroad in fear for his life. Here as elsewhere these tactics had resulted by early 1949 in what was effectively a one-party state, with non-Communist parties licensed only as allies or obedient vassals, their leaders in exile, in prison, or dead. To suggest that this process was instituted only as a direct consequence of American intervention in the domestic affairs of its Western partners, and not until then, is simply wrong.

That so meticulous a historian as Eric Hobsbawm should make such an odd mistake cannot, as he might say, be an accident. The difficulty seems to be that, like Marx, he is not much interested in these little nations. To refer to the years 1950–1974 as a “Golden Age” cannot help but sound ironic to someone from, say, Prague. And it takes a degree of uncharacteristic insouciance to write thus: “What happened to Warsaw in 1944 was the penalty of premature city risings: they have only one shot in their magazine, though a big one.” As a proposition about urban revolt it is of course broadly true, but as an account of what happened in Poland when the Red Army waited for the Nazis to destroy the Polish Resistance before crossing the Vistula it is historically disingenuous, to say the least.

But like another famous British historian of the left, Hobsbawm seems to find something mildly annoying about “the lands between.”7 How else shall we account for his justification of the Bolshevik model as the only alternative in 1917 to “the disintegration which was the fate of the other archaic and defeated empires, namely Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Unlike these, the Bolshevik Revolution preserved most of the multinational territorial unity of the old Tsarist state at least for another seventy-four years.” That this is no casual remark is made clear later in his book when he describes the disintegration of the USSR as leaving an “international void between Trieste and Vladivostok” for the first time since the mid-eighteenth century.

For residents of that “void,” the history of the twentieth century looks rather different. But then they are perforce “nationalists,” and nationalism (like religion) is a rather neglected subject in this book. Even from a purely analytical point of view this seems a mistake; whatever one thinks of national sentiment (and Hobsbawm accords it very little sympathy, here as in his other works), its place in the history of our time surely merits more than dismissive remarks about the “collective egoism” of Slovenes, Croats, Czechs, and their ilk. National self-determination may be a silly and “emotional” reaction to problems which it cannot address, as Hobsbawm puts it; but to say this is to risk missing something fundamental about our times. Without a fuller understanding of faiths of all sorts—secular and religious alike—the historian of the twentieth century is placed under a serious and self-imposed handicap. 8

The problem of faith brings us back to the Thirties, and Hobsbawm’s own relationship to his material. While he labors under no illusions about the former Soviet Union, he is reluctant to concede that it had no redeeming features (including that of maintaining or imposing stability upon the map of Europe). He thus insists that it had at least the virtue of bequeathing the idea of economic planning to the West, thereby ironically saving capitalism by simultaneously threatening its existence and furnishing it with the means for its survival. But it was not Gosplan that lay behind the enthusiasm for planning among young radicals of the Thirties and that culminated in the mixed economies of postwar Western Europe.9 What Hobsbawm neglects to note is that many of the postwar planners got their ideas not from Moscow but from Rome (or, in the French case, Vichy): it was often fascist, not Communist planning which appealed to the technocrats who took over in the Forties. Admiration for Soviet Five Year Plans, on the other hand, was most widespread among intellectuals—the Fabians, André Gide, and others, including left-wing students of Hobsbawm’s own generation. Here, too, the history of our times falls too easily victim to private memory.

The desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience seems, finally, to lie behind a rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror. In his summary of the case for breakneck industrialization he draws upon the analogy with a war economy:

As in a war economy…targets for production can, and indeed often must, be set without considering cost and cost-effectiveness, the test being whether they can be met and when. As in all such life-or-death efforts, the most effective method of fulfilling targets and meeting deadlines is giving urgent orders which produce all-out rushes.

To which one might reply that there wasn’t a war on and anyway the “life” at stake was that of the Bolshevik regime, while the “death” was that of millions of human beings. On the subject of these human losses Hobsbawm rightly says that there can be “no justification”; but one longs for a fuller and more historically and humanly sensitive description of the whole tragedy. Here, by contrast, is Hobsbawm’s own trenchant comment on optimistic and well-meaning nineteenth-century apologies for the New

Poor Law of 1834:

I daresay the Poor Law reformers honestly believed that paupers were morally improved by the separation of wives and husbands in the workhouse;…So far as the victims of these views were concerned, the results were as bad as—perhaps worse than—if they had been achieved by deliberate cruelty: inhuman, impersonal, callous degradation of the spirit of men and women and the destruction of their dignity. Perhaps this was historically inevitable and even necessary. But the victim suffered—suffering is not a privilege of well-informed persons. And any historian who cannot appreciate this is not worth reading.10

The fact that the Soviet Union purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause, is what mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation. Others might say it just made them worse.11 In any case, the end of communism was a source of much happiness for many millions of people, even if that happiness has been diluted by the difficulties that followed, and it rather calls into question Eric Hobsbawm’s conclusion that “the old century has not ended well.” One is tempted, after all, to ask, “For whom?” The somber, almost apocalyptic tone of the final section of the book obscures the fact that the Eighties were also a decade of liberation for many, and not only in Eastern Europe. It is certainly true, as Hobsbawm says on more than one occasion, that no one any longer seems to have any solutions to offer to the world’s problems, that we are tapping our way through a global fog, that we live in a world where “the past…has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings…no longer represent the landscape through which we move.” But it is not self-evident that confident large-scale solutions of the sort we have lost were ever such a good thing—on balance they did a lot more harm than good.

In 1968 I was a member of an attentive and admiring student audience whom Eric Hobsbawm was addressing on the theme, as I recall, of the limits of student radicalism. I remember very well his conclusion, since it ran so counter to the mood of the hour. Sometimes, he reminded us, the point is not to change the world but to interpret it. But in order to interpret the world one has also to have a certain empathy with the ways in which it has changed. His latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited. If it is not up to his very best work it should be recalled just how demanding a standard he has set.

But there are one or two crucial changes that have taken place in the world—the death of communism, for instance, or the related loss of faith in History and the therapeutic functions of the state about which the author is not always well pleased. That is a pity, since it shapes and sometimes misshapes his account in ways that may lessen its impact upon those who most need to read and learn from it. And I missed, in his version of the twentieth century, the ruthlessly questioning eye which has made him so indispensable a guide to the nineteenth. In a striking apologia pro vita sua, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that historians are “the professional remembrancers of what their fellow-citizens wish to forget.” It is a demanding and unforgiving injunction.

  1. 3

    Given the advantages of such firsthand sources, and in view of the large body of available material, it does seem a pity that Hobsbawm has not drawn more on the recorded memories and experiences of other voyagers through the century.

  2. 4

    Asked by one of Europe’s largest firms whether Bologna would like to be chosen as the site for a major factory, the mayor politely declined the opportunity. As he explained to Hobsbawm, the mixed economy of his region was doing nicely, and did not need to introduce into its midst the industrial problems of major cities like Milan or Turin.

  3. 5

    Though with no reference to his own professional trajectory, where he paid a significant price for his political affiliation, at least in the early years.

  4. 6

    In the memoirs of former Hungarian and Czech Communists as well as their opponents it is clear that from the moment the Germans were ousted the local Communists intended to defeat and discredit their domestic political enemies: by falsifying ballots, by political and legal intimidation, by the exploitation of their Soviet protection. That they could also count on a real, albeit rapidly diminishing, fund of popular support should not obscure this. See, e.g., Eugen Loebl, My Mind on Trial (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Béla Szász, Volunteers for the Gallows: Anatomy of a Show-Trial (Norton, 1971); Josephine Langer, Une Saison à Bratislava (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Stephen Kertesz, Between Russia and the West: Hungary and the Illusions of Peacemaking 1945–1947 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1986). The Czech National Socialists had no relation to the German variety, except to the extent that both could indirectly trace their origins to ethnic divisions within the labor movement in late-nineteenth-century Bohemia.

  5. 7

    Writing in 1941, G.D.H. Cole thought that indefensible sovereign states in Eastern Europe had no future and that it would be better if a victorious postwar Soviet Union simply absorbed Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans. G.D.H. Cole, Europe, Russia and the Future, quoted in Serban Voinea, “Satéllisation et libération,” Revue socialiste (March 1957), p. 226.

  6. 8

    Among secular faiths should be included the ideological myths that have moved intellectuals in our century, without which many of the worst features of the “descent into barbarism” cannot be properly explained. On these Hobsbawm has curiously little to say.

  7. 9

    Nor were these as universally “planned” as Hobsbawm sometimes implies. There were many variations on the planning theme after 1945, ranging from nationalization without planning (in Great Britain) to selective planning with some nationalization (France) to coordinated economic strategy with neither formal planning nor nationalization (West Germany). Although he gives Maynard Keynes due credit for having undermined the plausibility of non-interventionary laissez-faire economic theory, the relationship between Keynesian economics, wartime social planning, and postwar economic practice is not much discussed in this book.

  8. 10

    E.J. Hobsbawm, “History and the ‘Dark Satanic Mills,’ ” in Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (Basic Books, 1964), p. 118. The same cool interpretive distance is maintained in Hobsbawm’s treatment of fascist terror, too, and contrasts with his powerful image of our century as a time of crime and folly. What seems to be missing is more first-hand description, to offset the distancing impact of large-scale analyses.

  9. 11

    Contrast the reflections of the Polish writer Alexander Wat: “The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people.” Alexander Wat, My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual (University of California Press, 1990), p. 173.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print