Created 8/15/1997
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Thoughts on After the Fall, and on Eric Hobsbawm

Professor Jeffrey Weintraub

Dear Jeff:

Thanks for your suggestion that Eric Hobsbawm would be a good person for the Journal of Economic Perspectives to commission to write an article about the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. But I think he just will not do.

As you recommended, I went and looked at Hobsbawm's contributions to After the Fall--and at the rest of the book.

I found the book as a whole kind of horrifying. For a long time I had been telling my conservative friends that the non-Soviet left truly do value individual liberty and political democracy: that their occasional defenses of "really existing socialism" were largely sheer cussedness; and that they--like everyone else--would be overjoyed to see the end of the East Bloc, given that its regimes (and those that it sponsored) have been among the worst tyrannies of human history, and even at their best were in comparative perspective pretty lousy as social mechanisms for generating human happiness.

Yet not so: They still think the East Bloc was a better form of human society, in some ways, than the industrial democracies.

When I compare the west to the east, all I can see is the replacement of private ownership of the means of production by "ownership" (in the sense of rights to control, and also rights to appropriate surplus) by coalitions of functionaries in a single overlapping bureaucratic hierarchy--a hierarchy that professed an ideology that had less connection than usual to what was actually going on in its society. (And, indeed, the radical disjunction between the claims of the ideology and social reality played a big role in its fall.)

Yet this replacement of a capitalist mode of production by a bureaucratic-despotic mode of production was, in the minds of the contributors to After the Fall, a more-than-fair trade for the elimination of voting, political parties, free speech, freedom of the press, liberty of the citizen--even when you also threw into the bargain the fact that the bureaucratic despotisms occasionally killed their own citizens by the millions or tens of millions.

I ended the book thinking that if only Charlemagne had called himself a Communist, had renamed his missi dominici "messengers of the people" and his counts "commanders of the local self-defense forces," and had talked about how the feudal mode of production did not allow bourgeois exploitation because it had no private ownership--only private usufruct. That if Charlemagne had taken such an ideological tack, then the overwhelming bulk of the authors in After the Fall would all shed sincere and bitter tears at the replacement of the Carolingian Empire by modern European democracies...

Hobsbawm seemed to me at least to fall into this pattern. He seemed overwhelmed by sadness that the Soviet Union no longer existed, and unable to focus on the fact that possibilities for human liberation were now open. At times he sounded like de Maistre: that however bad the Soviet Union was, any revolution would be likely to produce something worse. (And revolutions do--sometimes--produce something worse, but sometimes--1567, 1648, 1688, 1776, and 1793--something considerably better.)

Even worse, I found my reaction to his piece, "Goodbye to All That," very similar to my reaction to The Age of Extremes. I found myself thinkingas I read "Goodbye" of Max Weber's injunction, in "Science as a Profession," that a social scientist has a duty to be especially sure to present those historical facts that are inconvenient for his own preferred interpretation. And I found myself wondering at the absence of "inconvenient" yet relevant facts--and wondering whether Hobsbawm has learned from Hindess and Hirst that the wie es eigentlich gewesen business is no business for a militant to be in, and hence is throwing as much of certain parts of history as he can down the memory hole.

For example:

Now I wouldn't expect Hobsbawm to mention all of the facts inconvenient to his interpretation--if he talked (even in asides) about brutal Russian/German domination over other nationalities before WWI, of how social democracy (as opposed to fascist repression) was an unusual expression of fear of Communism, of how the NICs' glass is three-quarters full, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, of Stalin's ambiguous relationship with Hitler before June 22, 1941, of the--very real--hopes for third world revolution and a new international economic order in the 1970s, of Stalin's hopes for Asian revolution once he recognized Mao's success, of the Czechoslovak coup, and of the start of the Korean War--if he talked about all of those he would have no space left for his main argument.

But surely some of these facts, inconvenient for his interpretation as they may be, deserve at least a brief mention? As it is, I don't know what to make of the odd combination of apologetics for Stalin crossed with de Maistre crossed with a longing for pre-WWI Vienna.

I think I learn a lot from Hobsbawm's silences in "Goodbye to All That" about the burden of despair he suffers under as he looks back on his own political choices over this century, but I think I learn little about history as it actually happened.

Please tell me if I am wrong.


Robin Blackburn, ed., After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso, 1991); pp. 115-125 are Eric Hobsbawm's "Goodbye to All That," pp. 315-325 are his "Out of the Ashes."


Created 8/14/1997
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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
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