Professor Jeffrey Weintraub email@example.com
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.
- "...never any reality in this Western image of a Soviet Union poised to overrun or nuke the 'free world at a moment's notice" (p. 115) seems to call out for a sentence that mentions the 1948 Czechoslovak coup, the 1950 invasion of South Korea, and a large amount of 1960s and 1970s rhetoric mostly from Castro and Mao (but also from Brezhnev and his acolytes) about the dawning of a new era of global revolution.
- "...from the early 1920s onwards the USSR's policy was no longer designed to achieve world revolution" (p. 116) seems to me to be simply wrong: a reading of today's failure back into the past. After the mid-1920s thte USSR's policy was to build up its own strength and not to try to provoke a premature world revolution, yes. But if you had asked Stalin in the 1930s if he believed in the eventual worldwide triumph of Communism, he would have said "yes." If you had asked himhow worldwide communist victory was to be achieved, he would have said (and believed) that strains between the imperialist powers would bring on another massively destructive war between them, that communism would then pick up the pieces, and that the rise of Mussolini and Hitler (as the bourgeoisies of the "have not" imperalist powers hungered for a military rematch) was a profoundly hopeful sign. If you had asked Stalin in the early 1950s, he would have said (and believed) that WWII had allowed a great step forward in Europe, but that the bourgeoisie was still very strong, and that the weak link lay in Asia--Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and the likely expansion of Asian communism south to Thailand, Malaya, and Indonesia.
- "If Communist power did not look like expanding much except in small Latin American countries and, nominally, African states of little international significance..." (p. 117) seems to me to significantly understate Brezhnev's, Castro's--and at the time I am sure Hobsbawm's--hopes for what would be accomplished by the end of decolonization: it's reading the present into the past.
- "But for the sacrifices of the USSR and its peoples" (p. 118) calls for at least a mention of ways in which Stalin made western (and Russian) resistance to fascism weaker than it would otherwise have been: shooting your own people during the Spanish civil war, the purge of Tukhachevsky and the rest of the Red Army officer corps, the dispositions of the Red Army on June 22, 1941 that led to three million prisoners being taken in two months, and the Comintern's "revolutionary defeatism" between the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Nazi invasion of Russia--to work for the overthrow of the Churchill government and its replacement by one of peace-loving anti-imperialists was not terribly constructive. There would also be space for the Comintern's pre-1935 fight against "social fascism": the fatal (for the German communist party) belief that communists should work with nazis to destroy Germany's Weimar republic.
- "Chinese socialism, whose economic reforms succeeded spectacularly... but at the cost of worsening social conditions" (p. 121) makes me wonder just why Hobsbawm thinks social conditions were so good during the Cultural Revolution.
- "The so-called Newly Industrializing Countries, or NICs, in spite of striking advances, still average only between a quarter and a third of the OECD's average per capita GDP" (pp. 121-2) calls out for a note that the NICs today have per capita GDPs at least equal to those of the OECD average in the late 1940s.
- "All that made Western democracy worth living for its people...was the result of fear. Fear of the poor, and the larest and best-organized block of ciizens in industrialized states--the workers; fear of an alternative that really existed and could really spread, notably in the form of Soviet Communism. Fear of the system's own instability" (p. 122) seems to call out for an admission that the usual reaction to fear of Communism is repression: Pinochet, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Greece's colonels. The post-WWII victory of social democracy in Western Europe is not easily explained as an effect of the presence of Stalin's tanks in Germany and Austria: it would have been easier to explain a shift right (toward McCarthyism and resurgent fascism) than the shift toward social democracy which took place in the American empire.
- "Central and Easern Europe are relapsing into... nationalist rivalries and conflicts... [which] posed no major headaches before 1914" (p. 124) simply left me speechless. Czechs did not quarrel with Slovaks, Bosnians did not quarrel with Croats, Poles did not quarrel with Lithuanians back before WWI because they all had much, much bigger problems to worry about: the Russians headed by Nicholas II; the Germans and Magyars headed by Franz Josef. Maybe some of the survivors of the Bosnian War think that unbroken German domination from Vienna would have been better, but few Poles or Lithuanians would agree.
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."
|Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans, #3880|
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax