Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Very Old Folk by H. P. Lovecraft
It was a flaming sunset or late afternoon in the tiny provincial town of Pompelo, at the foot of the Pyrenees in Hispania Citerior. The year must have been in the late republic, for the province was still ruled by a senatorial proconsul instead of a prætorian legate of Augustus, and the day was the first before the Kalends of November. The hills rose scarlet and gold to the north of the little town, and the westering sun shone ruddily and mystically on the crude new stone and plaster buildings of the dusty forum and the wooden walls of the circus some distance to the east. Groups of citizens -broad-browed Roman colonists and coarse-haired Romanised natives, together with obvious hybrids of the two strains, alike clad in cheap woollen togas -and sprinklings of helmeted legionaries and coarse-mantled, black-bearded tribesmen of the circumambient Vascones -all thronged the few paved streets and forum; moved by some vague and ill-defined uneasiness.
I myself had just alighted from a litter, which the Illyrian bearers seemed to have brought in some haste from Calagurris, across the Iberus to the southward. It appeared that I was a provincial quæstor named L. Cælius Rufus, and that I had been summoned by the proconsul, P. Scribonius Libo, who had come from Tarraco some days before. The soldiers were the fifth cohort of the XIIth legion, under the military tribune Sex. Asellius; and the legatus of the whole region, Cn. Balbutius, had also come from Calagurris, where the permanent station was.
The cause of the conference was a horror that brooded on the hills. All the townsfolk were frightened, and had begged the presence of a cohort from Calagurris. It was the Terrible Season of the autumn, and the wild people in the mountains were preparing for the frightful ceremonies which only rumour told of in the towns. They were the very old folk who dwelt higher up in the hills and spoke a choppy language which the Vascones could not understand. One seldom saw them; but a few times a year they sent down little yellow, squint-eyed messengers (who looked like Scythians) to trade with the merchants by means of gestures, and every spring and autumn they held the infamous rites on the peaks, their howlings and altar-fires throwing terror into the villages. Always the same -the night before the Kalends of Maius and the night before the Kalends of November. Townsfolk would disappear just before these nights, and would never be heard of again. And there were whispers that the native shepherds and farmers were not ill-disposed toward the very old folk -that more than one thatched hut was vacant before midnight on the two hideous Sabbaths.
This year the horror was very great, for the people knew that the wrath of the very old folk was upon Pompelo. Three months previously five of the little squint-eyed traders had come down from the hills, and in a market brawl three of them had been killed. The remaining two had gone back wordlessly to their mountains -and this autumn not a single villager had disappeared. There was menace in this immunity. It was not like the very old folk to spare their victims at the Sabbath. It was too good to be normal, and the villagers were afraid.
For many nights there had been a hollow drumming on the hills, and at last the ædile Tib. Annæus Stilpo (half native in blood) had sent to Balbutius at Calagurris for a cohort to stamp out the Sabbath on the terrible night. Balbutius had carelessly refused, on the ground that the villagers' fears were empty, and that the loathsome rites of hill folk were of no concern to the Roman People unless our own citizens were menaced.
I, however, who seemed to be a close friend of Balbutius, had disagreed with him; averring that I had studied deeply in the black forbidden lore, and that I believed the very old folk capable of visiting almost any nameless doom upon the town, which after all was a Roman settlement and contained a great number of our citizens. The complaining ædile's own mother Helvia was a pure Roman, the daughter of M. Helvius Cinna, who had come over with Scipio's army. Accordingly I had sent a slave -a nimble little Greek called Antipater -to the proconsul with letters, and Scribonius had heeded my plea and ordered Balbutius to send his fifth cohort, under Asellius, to Pompelo; entering the hills at dusk on the eve of November's Kalends and stamping out whatever nameless orgies he might find -bringing such prisoners as he might take to Tarraco for the next proprætor's court. Balbutius, however, had protested, so that more correspondence had ensued. I had written so much to the proconsul that he had become gravely interested, and had resolved to make a personal inquiry into the horror.
He had at length proceeded to Pompelo with his lictors and attendants; there hearing enough rumours to be greatly impressed and disturbed, and standing firmly by his order for the Sabbath's extirpation. Desirous of conferring with one who had studied the subject, he ordered me to accompany Asellius' cohort -and Balbutius had also come along to press his adverse advice, for he honestly believed that drastic military action would stir up a dangerous sentiment of unrest amongst the Vascones both tribal and settled.
So here we all were in the mystic sunset of the autumn hills -old Scribonius Libo in his toga prætexta, the golden light glancing on his shiny bald head and wrinkled hawk face, Balbutius with his gleaming helmet and breastplate, blue-shaven lips compressed in conscientiously dogged opposition, young Asellius with his polished greaves and superior sneer, and the curious throng of townsfolk, legionaries, tribesmen, peasants, lictors, slaves, and attendants. I myself seemed to wear a common toga, and to have no especially distinguishing characteristic. And everywhere horror brooded. The town and country folk scarcely dared speak aloud, and the men of Libo's entourage, who had been there nearly a week, seemed to have caught something of the nameless dread. Old Scribonius himself looked very grave, and the sharp voices of us later comers seemed to hold something of curious inappropriateness, as in a place of death or the temple of some mystic God.
We entered the prætorium and held grave converse. Balbutius pressed his objections, and was sustained by Asellius, who appeared to hold all the natives in extreme contempt while at the same time deeming it inadvisable to excite them. Both soldiers maintained that we could better afford to antagonise the minority of colonists and civilised natives by inaction, than to antagonise a probable majority of tribesmen and cottagers by stamping out the dread rites.
I, on the other hand, renewed my demand for action, and offered to accompany the cohort on any expedition it might undertake. I pointed out that the barbarous Vascones were at best turbulent and uncertain, so that skirmishes with them were inevitable sooner or later whichever course we might take; that they had not in the past proved dangerous adversaries to our legions, and that it would ill become the representatives of the Roman People to suffer barbarians to interfere with a course which the justice and prestige of the Republic demanded. That, on the other hand, the successful administration of a province depended primarily upon the safety and good-will of the civilized element in whose hands the local machinery of commerce and prosperity reposed, and in whose veins a large mixture of our own Italian blood coursed. These, though in numbers they might form a minority, were the stable element whose constancy might be relied on, and whose cooperation would most firmly bind the province to the Imperium of the Senate and the Roman People.
It was at once a duty and an advantage to afford them the protection due to Roman citizens; even (and here I shot a sarcastic look at Balbutius and Asellius) at the expense of a little trouble and activity, and of a slight interruption of the draught-playing and cock-fighting at the camp in Calagurris. That the danger to the town and inhabitants of Pompelo was a real one, I could not from my studies doubt. I had read many scrolls out of Syria and Ægyptus, and the cryptic towns of Etruria, and had talked at length with the bloodthirsty priest of Diana Aricina in his temple in the woods bordering Lacus Nemorensis.
There were shocking dooms that might be called out of the hills on the Sabbaths; dooms which ought not to exist within the territories of the Roman People; and to permit orgies of the kind known to prevail at Sabbaths would be but little in consonance with the customs of those whose forefathers, A. Postumius being consul, had executed so many Roman citizens for the practice of the Bacchanalia -a matter kept ever in memory by the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, graven upon bronze and set open to every eye.
Checked in time, before the progress of the rites might evoke anything with which the iron of a Roman pilum might not be able to deal, the Sabbath would not be too much for the powers of a single cohort. Only participants need be apprehended, and the sparing of a great number of mere spectators would considerably lessen the resentment which any of the sympathising country folk might feel. In short, both principle and policy demanded stern action; and I could not doubt but that Publius Scribonius, bearing in mind the dignity and obligations of the Roman People, would adhere to his plan of despatching the cohort, me accompanying, despite such objections as Balbutius and Asellius -speaking indeed more like provincials than Romans -might see fit to offer and multiply.
The slanting sun was now very low, and the whole hushed town seemed draped in an unreal and malign glamour. Then P. Scribonius the proconsul signified his approval of my words, and stationed me with the cohort in the provisional capacity of a centurio primipilus; Balbutius and Asellius assenting, the former with better grace than the latter. As twilight fell on the wild autumnal slopes, a measured, hideous beating of strange drums floated down from afar in terrible rhythm. Some few of the legionarii showed timidity, but sharp commands brought them into line, and the whole cohort was soon drawn up on the open plain east of the circus. Libo himself, as well as Balbutius, insisted on accompanying the cohort; but great difficulty was suffered in getting a native guide to point out the paths up the mountain. Finally a young man named Vercellius, the son of pure Roman parents, agreed to take us at least past the foothills.
We began to march in the new dusk, with the thin silver sickle of a young moon trembling over the woods on our left. That which disquieted us most was the fact that the Sabbath was to be held at all. Reports of the coming cohort must have reached the hills, and even the lack of a final decision could not make the rumour less alarming -yet there were the sinister drums as of yore, as if the celebrants had some peculiar reason to be indifferent whether or not the forces of the Roman People marched against them. The sound grew louder as we entered a rising gap in the hills, steep wooded banks enclosing us narrowly on either side, and displaying curiously fantastic tree-trunks in the light of our bobbing torches.
All were afoot save Libo, Balbutius, Asellius, two or three of the centuriones, and myself, and at length the way became so steep and narrow that those who had horses were forced to leave them; a squad of ten men being left to guard them, though robber bands were not likely to be abroad on such a night of terror. Once in a while it seemed as though we detected a skulking form in the woods nearby, and after a half-hour's climb the steepness and narrowness of the way made the advance of so great a body of men - over 300, all told - exceedingly cumbrous and difficult. Then with utter and horrifying suddenness we heard a frightful sound from below. It was from the tethered horses - they had screamed, not neighed, but screamed... and there was no light down there, nor the sound of any human thing, to show why they had done so. At the same moment bonfires blazed out on all the peaks ahead, so that terror seemed to lurk equally well before and behind us.
Looking for the youth Vercellius, our guide, we found only a crumpled heap weltering in a pool of blood. In his hand was a short sword snatched from the belt of D. Vibulanus, a subcenturio, and on his face was such a look of terror that the stoutest veterans turned pale at the sight. He had killed himself when the horses screamed... He, who had been born and lived all his life in that region, and knew what men whispered about the hills. All the torches now began to dim, and the cries of frightened legionaries mingled with the unceasing screams of the tethered horses. The air grew perceptibly colder, more suddenly so than is usual at November's brink, and seemed stirred by terrible undulations which I could not help connecting with the beating of huge wings.
The whole cohort now remained at a standstill, and as the torches faded I watched what I thought were fantastic shadows outlined in the sky by the spectral luminosity of the Via Lactea as it flowed through Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus. Then suddenly all the stars were blotted from the sky - even bright Deneb and Vega ahead, and the lone Altair and Fomalhaut behind us. And as the torches died out altogether, there remained above the stricken and shrieking cohort only the noxious and horrible altar-flames on the towering peaks; hellish and red, and now silhouetting the mad, leaping, and colossal forms of such nameless beasts as had never a Phrygian priest or Campanian grandam whispered of in the wildest of furtive tales.
And above the nighted screaming of men and horses that dæmonic drumming rose to louder pitch, whilst an ice-cold wind of shocking sentience and deliberateness swept down from those forbidden heights and coiled about each man separately, till all the cohort was struggling and screaming in the dark, as if acting out the fate of Laocoön and his sons. Only old Scribonius Libo seemed resigned. He uttered words amidst the screaming, and they echo still in my ears. "Malitia vetus - malitia vetus est ... venit ... tandem venit ..."1
And then I waked. It was the most vivid dream in years, drawing upon wells of the subconscious long untouched and forgotten. Of the fate of that cohort no record exists, but the town at least was saved - for encyclopædias tell of the survival of Pompelo to this day, under the modern Spanish name of Pompelona...
Yrs for Gothick Supremacy -
C . IVLIVS . VERVS . MAXIMINVS
* * *
"The Very Old Folk" is a short story by American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. It is reportedly a recording of a dream, where the main protagonist is a Roman military official in Hispania. The countryside is, every year, ravaged by terrible hill people who kidnap citizens and perform cruel rituals at a Sabath. The narrator wishes to lead a military expedition to crush these hill folk, as a feeling of approaching evil has enveloped the countryside, due to a riot between the citizens and the hill people. These hill folk came to trade, yet some of these are killed and later, no disappearances occur before the time of the Sabath. The incursion is guided by a local-born son of Roman parents. As the Romans approach the seat of the Sabath rituals, something terrible attacks them and in an instant, horrible things come to pass:
"He had killed himself when the horses screamed... He, who had been born and lived all his life in that region, and knew what men whispered about the hills. All the torches now began to dim, and the cries of frightened legionaries mingled with the unceasing screams of the tethered horses. The air grew perceptibly colder, more suddenly so than is usual at November's brink, and seemed stirred by terrible undulations which I could not help connecting with the beating of huge wings."
The story ends with the narrator waking up, offering one final word of mystery:
"Of the fate of that cohort no record exists, but the town at least was saved - for encyclopædias tell of the survival of Pompelo to this day, under the modern Spanish name of Pompelona..." .
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Was Hobsbawm a Marxist?
Written by Alan Woods Friday, 19 October 2012
News of the death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1st October was marked by an unprecedented outburst of flattery and adulation in the bourgeois media.
For the past few weeks, the flood of obsequious obituaries exceeded all bounds. He was described variously as “the most widely read, influential and respected British intellectual and historian from the Marxist tradition”; “Britain's most distinguished Marxist historian”, and even “one of the leading historians of the 20th century”.
Those on the Left who have been taken in by this deafening chorus should think carefully about the words attributed to the German Marxist August Bebel: “What has old Bebel done wrong, that they should praise me?” The question should be asked: why should the Establishment make such a fuss about a dead Marxist historian?
Long before his death this British historian was the darling of the bourgeoisie. Already in 2002, Hobsbawm was described by right wing Tory magazine The Spectator as “arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain's, but the world's.” Giorgio Napolitano, the current President of Italy and former CP leader, sent his greetings to Hobsbawm's 95th birthday, along with former Brazilian president Lula.
It is unthinkable that the bourgeoisie should write in such glowing terms about somebody who really defended the ideas of Marxism. It is sufficient to call to mind the campaign of spiteful and vindictive abuse that even the most respectable bourgeois “academics” have poured on the heads of Lenin and Trotsky long after their death to realise this.
The solution to this paradox is not hard to find. The fact is that Eric Hobsbawm ceased to be a Marxist many years ago, if he ever had been one. He had long since abandoned all pretence to stand for socialism and had accepted capitalism as an established fact of life that one might regret but could never hope to replace.
The establishment would never fawn before a real Marxist but is very eager to promote the image of man who long ago became “respectable” from their point of view. For the ruling class people like Hobsbawm are always useful as “tame Marxists” for whom the words socialism and revolution go no further than a comfortable armchair and warm carpet slippers.
Such people are useful precisely because they threaten nothing and nobody. The only people who they may frighten are the kind of retired old ladies and gentlemen who read the Daily Mail and look anxiously for Communists under their beds every night before retiring.
The ruling class, which is not so impressionable and has an acute sense of smell in such matters, instantly recognised in this ex-communist, an invaluable ally in the struggle against Marxism and Communism. It is high time we stripped this particular saint of his halo and asked: who was Eric Hobsbawm and what did he represent?
Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His parents were from the Jewish middle class. His father was a British tradesman called Leopold Obstbaum. The name Hobsbawm seems to have been the result of an error of the registry office. His father died when he was twelve, and his mother died two years later.
After he had been orphaned Eric lived for a time with an uncle in Berlin. These were stormy times. The Wall Street collapse of 1929 ushered in the Depression in central Europe, with mass unemployment, and an intensification of the class struggle. In Germany this was the stormy period that preceded Hitler's rise to power.
In his autobiography, published when he was 85, Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world.” In 1931 at the age of 14 he joined the Communist Party, or, to be precise, its school student organization, the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Association of Socialist Pupils).
At that time it was logical that many Jewish people, menaced by fascism and anti-Semitism, should be sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union. That he looked to the Russian Revolution for a way out was, of course, to his credit. But what the young Eric thought was “communism” was in reality a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of communism. It was this to which he dedicated himself for the rest of his life.
The Stalinists played a disastrous role in the rise of Hitler. The German labour movement was the strongest in the world, yet in the moment of truth, Hitler boasted that he had come to power “without breaking a window”. The reason was that the working class was paralysed by a criminal split between the Social Democratic and Communist workers. The result of this was the most catastrophic defeat of the German working class.
Trotsky explained tirelessly that the united front was the only means of smashing Hitler and preparing the way for the victory of the working class. But the Stalinists rejected this proposal out of hand. They devoted the most of their energy on fighting the social democrats as the “main enemy”.
The leaders of the German CP incited Communist workers to beat up Socialist workers and break up their meetings, even going to the extreme of inciting the school children to attack the children of Social Democrats ('Beat the little Zoergiebels in the schools and the playgrounds).
As a direct result of this criminal policy, in 1933 the Nazis came to power. But the young Eric would have an uncritical attitude to Stalinism, which he wrongly saw as the continuation of the traditions of the October Revolution. At a time when Europe and the USA were wracked by mass unemployment, the first Five Year Plans were registering impressive successes.
As a very young man, Hobsbawm would probably never have heard of Trotsky. He would scarcely have been conscious of the disastrous policies of the German CP, and still less would he have been aware of the criminal role that Stalin and the Moscow bureaucracy played in the German catastrophe.
Hobsbawm as a historian
Shortly after Hitler came to power, Eric left Berlin for the safety of London. In 1935 he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where the Communist Party had many sympathisers. These were the years when the notorious spy ring of Philby, Burgess and MacLean were recruited by Moscow. At King's College Eric became involved in the activities of the university's Communist Party branch.
The British Communist Party had in its ranks many talented intellectuals: people like the historians Christopher Hill, George Thomson and E.P. Thompson, the classicist Benjamin Farringdon, the artist Anthony Blunt, the poet Christopher Caudwell, the famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane and many others. They were attracted by the ideals of October and the impressive economic and cultural advances of the Soviet Union.
Having obtained a PhD from Cambridge, Hobsbawm was appointed as history lecturer at Birkbeck College in London in 1947. He was lucky to secure this post just before the Berlin crisis of 1948 produced an intensification of the Cold War. He published his first book in 1948. His first major work, Primitive Rebels, in 1959, about southern European bandits, was published under the pseudonym Francis Newton.
In all, Hobsbawm wrote more than thirty books and it is this that earned him his reputation and his high standing on the Left. This reputation is not altogether underserved. Here was a man who wrote history, not in terms of kings, queens and statesmen, but on the economic and social forces that in the last instance are the motive forces of history. This is to his credit and explains his high standing in left circles internationally.
However, it must be said that his books are of uneven quality and interest. In his later works we see a marked decline. Even in his best works, however, there are blemishes. As is the case with many of the Stalinist historians, his version of history tends to overstate the economic element and to present it as a direct causal factor of the historical process – something that Marx and Engels repeatedly warned against.
Rather than a Marxist, Hobsbawm was a product of the English school of empiricism, with both its strong and its weak sides. The empiricist school is characterised by an extensive use of facts and figures. That is its strength. It is probable that the wealth of facts and figures in his books was largely responsible for his success in the Latin countries, where there was not the same rigorous tradition of presenting facts and figures in scholarly works. Not for nothing did Marx characterise Britain as “the country of statistics.”
To cite just one example, Hobsbawm provided statistical support for Marx's view that the industrial revolution was at the expense of working-class living standards; a view that contradicted the prevailing line of bourgeois academics who claimed that industrialisation improved living standards. To that extent, one can say that his work was influenced by Marxism, and made a useful contribution, at least in the early period.
But the weakness of even his best works is also quite typical of the British school of history and of the British intellectual tradition. This lacks the broad sweep and dynamism that comes from a profound grasp of dialectics. The same mechanical, undialectical method was a common feature of many of the old Stalinist historians, giving the impression of a gradual uninterrupted process, and totally lacking in any revolutionary spirit. Here the economic factors are stressed, while the class struggle is presented in an academic way, as seen from the outside, not by a participant but as a passive observer, which Hobsbawm was, and remained all his life.
At least in his earliest works he was an observer that is on the side of the revolutionaries. In his last works, however, he was a purveyor of a most pernicious kind of scepticism. This former Stalinist ended his life a respectable member of the Establishment who was explicitly hostile to revolution in all its manifestations.
A process of degeneration
Hobsbawm started his career working on the 19th century. His best-known works were those that deal with that period, such as The Age of Revolutions (1962) and Age of Capital (1975) and Labouring Men. These have become text books for all left-leaning history lecturers. They created his reputation, and if he had ceased writing after that, his reputation would have been, at least in part, deserved.
These early books provide a reasonable introduction to the development of capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. They have certainly acted as an introduction to a materialist understanding of the development of 19th century capitalism to several generations of history students, and to that extent, we can recommend them. But thereafter it was downhill all the way.
A decade later when The Age of Empire (1987) was released it was the height of the Thatcher period. Though he still occasionally pays lip service to Lenin’s ideas, this book is characterised by scepticism, pessimism and cynicism. In other words, it is an accurate expression of someone who is in the process of breaking with socialism but does not yet wish to admit it.
His later writings have no value whatsoever, either as works of history, politics or even as literature. In particular his book The Age of Extremes (1994) which purports to cover the eight decades from WWI to the collapse of the USSR, which naturally was welcomed in the bourgeois press, is utterly worthless. It is badly written and completely lacking in serious analysis of any of the great subjects it mentions.
What is striking about The Age of Extremes is not just what is said but what is not said. It is, in fact, a collection of anecdotes embellished with superficial judgements of the most philistine kind. In a word, it belongs to the kind of gossip history that Hobsbawm in his youth despised.
The very title is sufficient to understand its essential meaning, which is the philistine view that all “extremes” are bad. We shall see later on where this outlook landed Hobsbawm at the end of his life. For the time being, we will confine ourselves to a criticism of Hobsbawm as a historian.
For instance, in The Age of Extremes he attempts to explain the victory of Hitler. But it is impossible to understand the reason why the mighty German labour movement was paralysed in the face of Nazism unless we explain the disastrous role of the leadership of both the Social Democracy and, above all, the Stalinists who deliberately split the working class. On this subject, however, the Red Professor skates very carefully:
“The strengthening of the radical Right was reinforced, at least during the worst period of the Slump, by the spectacular setbacks for the revolutionary Left. So far from initiating another round of social revolution, as the Communist International had expected, the Depression reduced the international communist movement outside the USSR to a state of unprecedented feebleness. This was admittedly due in some measure to the suicidal policy of the Comintern, which not only grossly underestimated the danger of National Socialism in Germany, but pursued a policy of sectarian isolation that seems quite incredible in retrospect, by deciding that its main enemy was the organized mass labour movement of social-democratic and labour parties (described as 'social-fascist').” (Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes - The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, pp. 104-5)
With these few lines, which appear almost as a footnote or an afterthought, Hobsbawm seeks to dismiss the role of the Communist Party in handing victory to the Nazis. It was not the Depression that “reduced the international communist movement outside the USSR to a state of unprecedented feebleness,” but the criminal ultra-left line of the Comintern, which was in turn dictated by Stalin as part of his struggle against “Trotskyism” in Russia.
He provides no explanation for the Stalinist theory of “social fascism” or the “Third Period”. He says only that this “seems quite incredible in retrospect” and that it “in some measure” was responsible for the defeat of the German workers. This is dishonest in the extreme. In effect, Hobsbawm is trying to play down the disastrous role of Stalinism in Germany, which was the central reason (not just “in some measure”) for the victory of Hitler. This little “lapse” is not an isolated case. There are similar “lapses” on every page.
As for his final book, which appeared in 2011 under the modest title, How to Change the World, the less said the better.
Hobsbawm and Spain
In his book Age of Extremes Hobsbawm defended the Stalinist view of the Spanish revolution and the popular front in France, not to mention the resistance movements in Greece and Italy. A very clear case of Hobsbawm’s Stalinist distortion of history is his treatment of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Attacking Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, he writes:
“Today it is possible to see the civil war, Spain's contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the 20th, in its historical context. It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern - a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach's powerful film Land and Freedom (1995). The only choice was between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose anti-fascism. ” - (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007, The Guardian)
This is both a historical distortion and a complete abandonment of Marxism. Here we can let him answer himself. In The Age of Revolution, written at a time when his writings still bore some kind of vague resemblance to Marxism, we read the following:
“Time and again we shall see moderate middle-class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates' aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left-wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance – mass mobilization – shift to the left – split-among-moderates-and-shift-to-the-right – until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed in the nineteenth century we increasingly find (most notably in Germany) that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.” (E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, pp.84-5.)
How well Hobsbawm wrote in 1962! How well he understood the inner dynamics of revolutions that occurred in the long-distant past! But how do we square this accurate analysis with what he wrote later about the revolution in Spain, which he reduces to a simple choice between fascism and support for the bourgeois liberal Republicans?
Not only Marx but especially Lenin explained many times that after 1848 the bourgeois liberals always played a treacherous role and betrayed the revolution, out of fear of the proletariat. They had nothing but contempt for the petty bourgeois “progressives”, who they regarded at best as unreliable allies and at worst as traitors to the revolutionary cause.
Lenin continuously attacked the Russian bourgeois liberals for their treachery and cowardice. He demanded a complete break with them as a prior condition for the success of the Revolution. And here Lenin was referring, not to the socialist revolution, but to the bourgeois-democratic revolution itself.
Let us remind ourselves that the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia were accomplished, not by alliance with the bourgeois liberals, but against them. The October Revolution was carried out by the only genuinely revolutionary forces in Russia: the workers and poor peasants. It was not the Bolsheviks but the Mensheviks who advocated alliances with the bourgeois liberals. The policy of the Stalinists in Spain in the 1930s was merely a malicious caricature of Menshevism.
The victory of Franco in Spain was not a foregone conclusion. The Spanish workers could undoubtedly have smashed the fascists - as they succeeded in doing in Catalonia – and set about the task of transforming society on one condition – that the workers' leaders would have had a revolutionary policy.
The prior condition for victory in Spain was that the conduct of the war be taken out of the hands of treacherous bourgeois politicians and that the resources of Spain – the land, the factories, the banks – be taken over by the workers and peasants. The masses would have to be armed in defence of their social conquest and the leadership of the struggle would have to be in the hands of the known and trusted representatives of the workers' cause.
Let us compare what happened in Spain to the Russian Civil War, when Soviet Russia was invaded by 21 foreign armies of intervention. The Bolsheviks did not even have an army. Yet they fought back and defeated the White armies and their foreign allies. Trotsky organised the Red Army practically from nothing.
At one point the area controlled by the Bolsheviks was no greater than the old Muscovite state. The position seemed hopeless. But the Bolsheviks combined military policy with revolutionary measures and internationalist propaganda. The workers and peasants fought like tigers because they knew they were fighting for their social emancipation. This and this alone, guaranteed the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.
In reality the bourgeois liberal ministers preferred to hand Spain over bound and gagged to the fascists than allow the workers and peasants to take over the running of society. The unwillingness and complete incapacity of the Republicans to fight the fascists was revealed from the very beginning. The Republican leaders refused to arm the workers, who were demanding them. They even tried to suppress news of the fascist coup.
The question is how victory was to be achieved. Trotsky answered in this way:
“You are right in fighting Franco. We must exterminate the fascists, but not in order to have the same Spain as before the civil war, because Franco issued from this Spain. We must exterminate the foundations of Franco, the social foundations of Franco, which is the social system of capitalism.” (Spanish Revolution 1931-39, p.255)
Stalin and Spain
The most pernicious role was played by the leaders of the “Communist” Party, who took their orders from Moscow. The leaders of the Spanish Communist Party became the most fervent defenders of capitalist “law and order”. Under the slogan “first win the war, then make the revolution”, they systematically sabotaged all independent movement of the workers and peasants.
Their excuse was the need to maintain unity with the bourgeois Republicans in the Popular Front. But in reality, the Popular Front was a fiction. The bulk of the Spanish bourgeoisie had fled to Franco on the outbreak of the Civil War. In uniting with the Republicans the Stalinists were uniting, not with the bourgeoisie but only with its shadow.
The only social force which remained to fight against fascism was the workers and peasants. What were they supposed to be fighting for? For the “Republic”? But the capitalist Republic had failed to solve any one of the basic problems of the workers and peasants. Not for nothing did the fascists demagogically use the slogan: “Que te da a comer la Republica?” (“What does the Republic give you to eat?”)
This is not the place to provide a detailed account of how the Stalinists helped the bourgeoisie to smash the revolution in Catalonia and rebuild the old capitalist state. Suffice it to say that this counterrevolutionary act, far from strengthening the Republic, fatally undermined it and handed victory to the fascists.
Stalin was terrified of the possibility of a victorious workers' revolution in Spain. The example of a healthy workers' democracy in Spain would have exercised a powerful effect on the Russian workers, who were growing restive under the impositions of the bureaucratic totalitarian regime.
It is no accident that Stalin unleashed the infamous purge trials precisely at this time. Having abandoned Lenin's revolutionary internationalist policy, which based the defence of the Soviet Union fundamentally upon the support of the world working class and the victory of socialism internationally, the Russian bureaucracy attempted to get the support of the “good”, “democratic”, capitalist states (Britain and France) against Hitler. At one stage, they even supported “good” Italian fascism against the “bad” Germany variety!
The victory of Hitler in 1933 was the result of a mistaken policy, but in Spain Stalin deliberately strangled the revolution. In so doing, he also guaranteed the defeat of the Spanish Republic and the victory of Franco. This is how Hobsbawm deals with this:
“The conflict between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organisation, between social revolution and winning a war, remains real in the Spanish civil war, even if we suppose that the USSR and the Communist Party wanted the war to end in revolution and that the parts of the economy socialised by the anarchists (ie handed over to local workers' control) worked well enough. Wars, however flexible the chains of command, cannot be fought, or war economies run, in a libertarian fashion. The Spanish civil war could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007, The Guardian)
This is casuistry of the basest sort. Hobsbawm juxtaposes two things as though they were mutually incompatible: either carry out the revolution or win the civil war. But the fact of the matter is that in the end they did neither. By destroying the revolution, the Stalinists and their bourgeois allies in the Popular Front also undermined the morale of the Spanish workers and peasants and thus prepared the ground for the military victory of the fascists.
“The government of victory”
The main cutting-edge of the counter-revolution in Catalonia was provided by the “Communist” Party. The old capitalist state machine in Catalonia had been destroyed by the workers in July 1936. The Stalinists of the PSUC now helped the Catalan bourgeois nationalists to rebuild their power base. In order to do this, the anarchist and POUMist workers must be crushed. The Stalinists assumed the main responsibility for this hangman's task.
On the role of the Stalinists in Spain, Hobsbawm writes simply that “its pros and cons continue to be discussed in the political and historical literature”. But the crimes of the GPU in Spain were known and documented at the times by George Orwell at the time in his eye-witness account Homage to Catalonia. This fact explains Hobsbawm’s vitriolic attitude to Orwell, whom he refers to contemptuously as “an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair”.
The Spanish Civil War exposed Stalin’s determination to liquidate every Left tendency that was not under his control. What has the Red Professor to say about this?
“In short, what was and remains at issue in these debates is what divided Marx and Bakunin. Polemics about the dissident Marxist Poum are irrelevant here and, given that party's small size and marginal role in the civil war, barely significant. They belong to the history of ideological struggles within the international communist movement or, if one prefers, of Stalin's ruthless war against Trotskyism with which his agents (wrongly) identified it.” (War of Ideas, 17 February 2007)
Hobsbawm wishes to draw a discrete veil over the activities of the Stalinists in Spain, and in particular their liquidation of the POUM, a left wing party whose leader Andreu Nin had once been an ally of Trotsky. Nin was kidnapped by Stalin’s GPU, brutally tortured and murdered. The same fate awaited many other Poumists, anarchists and others who were not prepared to follow blindly the dictates of Moscow.
The defeat of the Barcelona proletariat unleashed an orgy of counter-revolution. The Stalinists began to round up anarchists and POUMists and to disarm the workers. The workers' committees and collectives were destroyed. The POUM was made illegal, under the lying pretext that it had plotted with Franco. Nin and other leaders were brutally tortured and murdered by Stalin's agents in Spain.
Largo Caballero, the left Socialist leader, who attempted to stand up to the Stalinists, was replaced with the right-wing Socialist Juan Negrin, described by Hugh Thomas as “a man of the grande bourgeoisie, a defender of private property, even of capitalism.” (The Spanish Civil War, p. 667). The Stalinists described the Negrin government as “the government of victory”. In reality it was the government of defeat.
The Stalinists had helped reconstruct the capitalist state and deliver the army to the control of the old officer caste. Having used them to do the dirty work, the latter now proceeded to kick the “Communists” to one side and carry out a coup d'etat behind the lines. Generals Casado and Miaja (still with a CP card in his pocket) conspired with Negrin to illegalise the “Communist” Party and attempt to do a deal with Franco.
Casado offered to arrest and hand over to Franco many CP and other workers’ leaders. La Pasionaria and other Stalinist leaders had to flee to France, leaving the ordinary CP members to their fate. All this is passed over in silence by Hobsbawm.
The policies of class collaboration that Hobsbawm presents as the only way to secure victory over fascism in fact prepared the way for a crushing defeat. The fascists took a terrible revenge on the workers. Up to one million people were killed in the civil war itself. Thousands more were murdered in the immediate aftermath of defeat. The Spanish working class paid an appalling price for the false policies, cowardice and outright betrayal of its leaders, in particular, the Communist Party. This is what Hobsbawm attempted to justify right to the end of his life.
In the Age of Extremes he defends the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy. He writes that the alliance of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt “would have been impossible without a certain slackening of hostilities and mutual suspicions between the champions and the adversaries of the October revolution.” Therefore, the Spanish Revolution had to be sacrificed on the altar of the “anti-fascist alliance”. According to this twisted Stalinist logic the defeat of the Spanish Revolution was a price well worth paying to consolidate the alliance between the USSR and the European “democracies”, thus paving the way for a “democracy of a new type”:
“The Spanish Civil War made this [“slackening of hostilities” between the USSR and the western “democracies”] a great deal easier. Even anti-revolutionary governments could not forget that the Spanish government, under a Liberal president and prime minister, had complete constitutional and moral legitimacy when it appealed for aid against its insurgent generals. Even those democratic statesmen who betrayed it, out of fear for their own skins, had a bad conscience (!). Both the Spanish government and, more to the point, the communists who were increasingly influential in its affairs, insisted that social revolution was not their object, and indeed, visibly did what they could to control and reverse it to the horror of revolutionary enthusiasts. Revolution, both insisted, was not the issue: the defence of democracy was.”
This is false from start to finish. The defeat of the Spanish working class actually removed the last remaining barrier to the Second World War. The so called alliance of the Western democracies with the USSR was always a fiction. As a matter of fact, Britain in particular was all the time encouraging Hitler in his aggressive foreign policy in the hope that he would attack the Soviet Union.
That is the real meaning of Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement”. Only at the 11th hour, when they realised that Hitler would attack France, did the gentlemen in London change their stance. The idea that the likes of Chamberlin and Churchill had a guilty conscience because they facilitated Franco’s victory is simply laughable. Their calculations were never based on sentimental or moral considerations but only on the interests of British imperialism.
Even when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, a significant section of the British ruling class had the idea of allowing Germany and Russia to exhaust themselves and then intervene to smash both of them. That is the real reason why Churchill, supposedly the ally of the USSR, continuously prevented the opening of a second front in France. The only reason he finally agreed to the invasion of France in 1944 was because of the spectacular advance of the Red Army, which threatened to reach the English Channel.
Hobsbawm’s Break with Stalinism
In 1956 Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Stalinism at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. This fell like a bombshell on those who, like Hobsbawm, had slavishly defended Stalinism for years.
Although he formally broke with Stalinism, Hobsbawm persisted in justifying his Stalinist past, covering his tracks right to the end. In one of his last books, ironically entitled How to change the world, this is what he writes about Stalin’s notorious Purge Trials:
“It is impossible to understand the reluctance of men and women on the left to criticise, or even often to admit to themselves, what was happening in the USSR in those years, or the isolation of the USSR's critics on the left, without this sense that in the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were, in a profound sense, fighting for the same cause. Not to mention the more obvious fact that, in the conditions of the 1930s, what Stalin did was a Russian problem, however shocking, whereas what Hitler did was a threat everywhere.” (How to change the world, p. 268)
The infamous Moscow Trials were nothing more than a one-sided civil war waged by Stalin against the Bolshevik Party. In order to consolidate his bureaucratic totalitarian regime, Stalin was compelled to exterminate all of Lenin’s comrades. Like any other common criminal he did not want any witnesses who could testify against him.
These monstrous show trials were constructed on the basis of confessions extracted by blackmail, torture and beatings. The charges against the accused were so patently false that many people at the time had doubts about their veracity. Moreover, they were comprehensively exposed as a gigantic fraud by the Dewey Commission.
Prominent British Stalinists like Campbell and Pritt wrote whole books, attempting to show that the Moscow trials were completely legal and fair. Taking its cue from Moscow, the Daily Worker carried a heading in big letters: “Shoot the reptiles!” They described the accused in the vilest terms: “They are ‘a festering, cankering sore’ and we echo fervently the workers’ verdict: Shoot the reptiles!” (Daily Worker, 24 August 1936)
Of all this our friend has absolutely nothing to say. His sole concern is not to denounce these monstrosities, which can only be compared to the murderous activities of the Spanish Inquisition, but only to justify the complicity of people like Hobsbawm, Pritt and Campbell who were prepared to support each and every crime of Stalin.
Nowadays, when everybody is well aware of Stalin’s crimes, Hobsbawm can no longer defend them. But he is eager to provide excuses for his past behaviour. It was all right to support the Purge Trials “because of the need to fight fascism.” About the pamphlet that he wrote together with Raymond Williams defending the Hitler-Stalin Pact, once more, he has nothing to say. Presumably, that too was part of the “struggle against fascism”!
Khrushchev’s revelations immediately provoked revolutionary ferment in Eastern Europe, which led to mass protests in Poland and a working class uprising in Hungary. In October 1956, the Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks. This provoked a serious crisis in Communist Parties, including in Britain where many people resigned in protest.
Hobsbawm later claimed that he denounced the Russian invasion of Hungary and wrote to the CP newspaper to protest. This is at best only a half-truth. This is what he actually wrote in the letter he published on 9 November 1956 in the Daily Worker:
“All Socialists ought to be able to understand that a Mindszenty Hungary [Mindszenty was the Catholic cardinal in Budapest], which would probably have become a base for counter-revolution and intervention, would be a grave and acute danger for the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Rumania which border upon it.
“If we had been in the position of the Soviet Government, we should have intervened; if we had been in the position of the Yugoslav Government, we should have approved of the intervention”.
Hobsbawm then goes on to cover his backside – he describes the crushing of the Hungarian people as a ‘tragic necessity’:
“While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.
“This should be said by the British Communist Party publicly if the British people are to have any confidence in our sincerity and judgement; and if they have not, how can we expect them to follow our lead?
“And if they don’t follow our lead, how can we hope to help the cause of the existing Socialist states on which we know that Socialism in the world, and in Britain, largely depends?”
This cannot be presented as a “denunciation” of anything, but a cowardly way of facing all ways at the same time. Such a dishonest attitude was absolutely characteristic of Hobsbawm from start to finish.
While many CP members tore up their cards in disgust, he continued as a member of the British Communist Party until shortly before it was dissolved in 1991. In an article in World News, 26 January 1957, replying to the Assistant Secretary of the Communist Party, George Matthews, he wrote:
“We have presented the facts wrongly, or failed to face them, and unfortunately, though we have kidded few other people, we have kidded ourselves. I don’t mean primarily the facts revealed at the Twentieth Congress and others of the kind. Many of us had strong suspicions about them, amounting to moral certainty, for years before Khrushchev spoke, and I am amazed Comrade Matthews had none. There were overwhelming reasons at the time for keeping quiet, and we were right in doing so. No, the facts we really failed to face are those about Britain, our tasks and our mistakes”.
Hobsbawm’s break with Stalinism might have been a step forward if it had meant a return to the genuine traditions of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. But instead of going back to Lenin, Hobsbawm and the other advocates of so-called Eurocommunism, decided to ditch Leninism altogether. The more independent the European CPs grew from Moscow, the more dependent did they become on their national bourgeoisie.
This was a development that Trotsky had predicted in his 1928 pamphlet Critique of the Draft Programme of the Communist International, where he warned that the adoption of the “theory” of Socialism in One Country would end up with the national-reformist degeneration of the parties in the Communist International. With a delay of some years, this was exactly what happened. The Italian, French and Spanish CPs removed themselves from control by Moscow, but in so doing they abandoned any pretence of following the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Hobsbawm became a leading light of the Eurocommunist faction in the CPGB that began to crystallise after 1968, when the CPGB criticised the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But he did so from the standpoint of narrow nationalism. He wanted the British Party to have control over its own affairs, free from the meddling of Moscow. In the same way, the Italian, French and Spanish Party leaders were demanding the same thing.
In Britain, the theoretical journal of the CPGB Marxism Today became the factional organ of the revisionist tendency. In September 1978 it published Hobsbawm’s speech “The British Working Class One Hundred Years after Marx” in which, he claimed that the working class was inevitably losing its central role in society, and that left-wing parties could no longer base themselves on this class. This was precisely in a period of growing trade union militancy, when Britain was the scene of mass strikes that shook the ruling class, and members of the Communist Party had a leading role in them.
Marxism Today. July 1979Marxism Today. July 1979Hobsbawm chose this moment to deliver a Marx Memorial Lecture, later published as The Forward March of Labour Halted? He began to question the central role of the working class in the socialist revolution. This has since become a rallying call for every petty bourgeois and revisionist tendency, both inside and outside the labour movement. The former paper of the CPGB, the Morning Star, carried an obituary on 5 October in which we read the following:
“Writing at the time when the trade union movement was at the peak of its strength - and the left highly influential within it - Hobsbawm argued that the manual working class was in numerical decline and that the character of its politics was inherently economistic, trapped within the bounds of self-interested wage bargaining, and that consequently the left had to look in future to broader alliances and social movements.
“This lecture became an iconic text for that wing within the Communist Party that sought to steer it away from class politics and to challenge key elements of Marxism.”
These revisionist ideas did not drop from the clouds. After decades of opportunist politics, and with the enormous pressures of capitalism in the long post-war upswing, the process of nationalist and reformist degeneration of the Communist Parties was completed. They became just like any other reformist organisation. Breaking from Moscow, they felt increasingly under the pressure of their own capitalist class and bourgeois public opinion. This was the real meaning of so-called Eurocommunism.
Hobsbawm drew all the wrong conclusions from the coup in Chile in 1973. For him the lesson was not that Allende had failed to mobilise and arm the working class to crush the counterrevolution, but, on the contrary, that Allende had tried to go too far and too fast. Instead, he backed the reformist line of the Italian CP, the line of the “historic compromise”, that is, the line of class collaboration.
In the '60s and '70s he developed links with the right wing of the Italian Communist Party which advocated a break with the Soviet Union. Hobsbawm was always an admirer of the Italian Communist Party. Of all the Eurocommunist parties, the PCI was the most degenerate and right wing. He became a close friend of Giorgio Napolitano, who since the seventies was the leader of the right wing of the PCI. He was the most reformist of reformists, a man who was so trusted by the Italian bourgeoisie that they made him President of the Republic.
In 1977 he staged a long interview with Giorgio Napolitano, then international secretary of the Italian Party (PCI) and one of the leaders of the Eurocomunist wing. Later he published it in the form of a book, The Italian Road to Socialism, where Napolitano says the following:
“The only path that is realistically open to a socialist transformation in Italy and Western Europe – under peacetime conditions – lies through a struggle within the democratic process”.
The policy of “broad alliances” is a return to the policies of the Mensheviks, which was fiercely opposed by Lenin and resurrected by Stalin in the form of the popular front, which led to one defeat after another. The idea of gradual reform is indistinguishable from the position of Social Democracy. The idea that it is possible to reform capitalism gradually is contradicted by the whole history of the last 100 years. The result of this “realism” can be seen today: the once all-powerful PCI has been completely liquidated.
With the fall of Stalinism after 1989, this process of degeneration was further intensified. In Belgium, Britain and Norway, the Communist Party has virtually collapsed as a result. In Italy, the once powerful PCI was turned into a bourgeois party by its Eurocomunist leaders. In Britain the former Communist Party “theoretician” Eric Hobsbawm completely capitulated to capitalism and stood far to the right of the Labour Lefts.
Hobsbawm Moves Right
Hobsbawm’s literary decline proceeded in tandem with his political degeneration and is closely linked to it. But where did this degeneration come from? In order to answer this question, one must first understand the historical context in which these books were written.
The 1960s saw a wave of radicalisation, especially among the students, which must have affected Hobsbawm. The process was deepened in the 1970s, which began with the first worldwide slump since 1945. There followed a wave of revolutions and revolutionary ferment in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and France. Britain itself was swept by a wave of strikes. There can be no doubt that these events must have had a positive influence on Hobsbawm’s writings, and it cannot be an accident that his best books were published around this time.
In April and May in 1974, following the downfall of the Caetano dictatorship, millions of Portuguese workers came onto the streets in a revolutionary movement that swept all before it. The Communist Party supported General Spinola, who later tried to organize a right wing coup. This was only prevented by the movement of workers and soldiers from below.
In March 1975 The Times wrote an editorial with the title: “Capitalism is dead in Portugal”. And that ought to have been the case. At that time, the majority of the economy had been nationalized and power was, in practice, in the hands of the working class. But the whole thing was undone by the policies of the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties. The same thing happened in Spain.
The death of Franco in November 1975 was the signal for a tumultuous revolutionary period, with mass strikes and demonstrations. There were elements of dual power. The movement had a clearly anti-capitalist character. The Communist Party was in an extremely powerful position. It had in its ranks a big majority of the proletarian vanguard. But, as in the 1930s, the leadership had a class collaborationist policy.
In 1973, when the dictatorship was tottering, they had already signed the infamous “Democratic Junta”, a coalition together with liberals, former fascists and even some monarchist parties. The workers were ready for anything. But the PCE (Spanish Communist Party) put the brakes on. At its 1978 congress the Party formally abandoned Leninism, although, if the truth be told, this was just a formal recognition of the fact that the party had long ago abandoned any genuine revolutionary position.
This period was known as “the Transition” (allegedly from dictatorship to democracy), but it was in fact, the fraud of the century. The hated monarchy was retained and played a central role. The Civil Guard and other repressive bodies remained in being. Nobody was made responsible for the crimes and atrocities of the old regime. The murderers and torturers walked freely in the streets. The people of Spain were told to forget the one million who were killed in the Civil War. None of this was supposed to have happened.
In those years Italy too was shaken to its foundations by a huge wave of strikes. The situation was becoming more and more revolutionary. The PCI had a crushing domination of the workers movement. But Eurocommunist leaders like Berlinguer and Napolitano were advocating an “historic compromise” with the bourgeoisie and the Christian Democrats. As in Spain, this derailed and destroyed the movement. The problem, as in Spain in the 1930s, was fundamentally a problem of leadership. The “Communist” leaders played a key role in aborting revolution movements everywhere.
The red 1970s, which were filled with so much hope, finally gave way to the grey 1980s, a period of disillusionment, despondency and despair. This wave of disillusionment that ensued prepared the way for a period of semi-reaction which began in the early 1980’s. As a result, capitalism survived and the bourgeoisie gradually recovered its nerve and passed onto the offensive. Advanced workers were everywhere seized with a mood of scepticism and pessimism.
Hobsbawm’s writings reflect the general disillusionment with socialism that affected left-wing intellectuals at the time. As early as 1978 he was writing: “We have no clear perspective on how the crisis can lead to a socialist transformation and, to be honest, no real expectation that it will”. Here we have the distilled essence of the petty bourgeois intellectual who, incapable of swimming against the tide, deserts the revolutionary struggle and retreats behind a wall of pessimism.
Hobsbawm and the Liquidation of the Communist Party
Hobsbawm moved further and further to the right. In his later books any slight connection with Marxism that may have been present before has disappeared completely. The Age of Empire (1987) contains lots of interesting material but is thoroughly imbued with a sense that there is no alternative to capitalism – an idea that obsessed Hobsbawm’s mind right to the end and conditioned his political evolution. The logical conclusion was liquidationism.
In common with many Lefts and “communists”, Hobsbawm’s outlook was influenced by the long period of capitalist upswing that followed the Second World War. On the basis of globalisation, the argument was repeatedly put forward by the bourgeois, and particularly the petty-bourgeois apologists for capitalism, that in effect the nation state does not matter anymore.
The same argument was put forward by Kautsky in the period of the First World War (the so-called theory of “ultra-imperialism") when he argued in effect that the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism would gradually eliminate the contradictions of capitalism. There would be no more wars because the development of capitalism itself would render national states redundant. The same theory was advocated by Eric Hobsbawm, in common with every other revisionist.
This ex-Stalinist argued that the national state was just a transient period of human history which has now passed. Bourgeois economists have put forward the same argument throughout history. They try to abolish the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system merely by denying their existence. Yet precisely at this moment in time, when the world market has become the dominant force on the planet, national antagonisms have everywhere acquired a ferocious character and the national question, far from being abolished everywhere, has assumed a particularly intense and poisonous character.
Hobsbawm tried to present the movement towards free trade and globalisation as an inevitable and automatic process leaving out of account all the contradictions and countervailing tendencies. In fact, even the most superficial examination of history shows that periods of greater free trade (such as before the First World War) have alternated with periods of ferocious trade wars and protectionism (such as the 1930s), and that the bourgeoisie will resort to protectionism whenever its interests are threatened.
That remains just as true of the present epoch as it was when Marx or Lenin were alive. But Hobsbawm was no longer interested in defending Marxism. In the last decades of his life he separated himself more and more from Marxism, as if blinded by the successes of capitalism and market economics. His real attitude was shown by his statement that Communism was of “limited historical interest” compared to the gigantic success of the capitalist “mixed economy” from the mid-1950s to 1973, which he described as “the most profound revolution in society since the Stone Age”.
In October 1979 Hobsbawm joined the Editorial Board of Marxism Today, the CPGB’s theoretical journal. Together with Martin Jacques, he used the journal as a platform for Eurocommunist views in the party. These right wing revisionists wanted nothing less than the disbandment of the CPGB. As early as 1983, Martin Jacques “thought the CP was unreformable ... but stayed in because he needed Party funds to continue publishing Marxism Today”.
The British Communist Party has ended up in a complete fiasco, split into four tiny groups. The Spanish Communist Party, which could have taken power in 1976-77, is a shadow of its former self. The ideological bankruptcy of the CP was summed up by Chris Myant, international secretary of the CPGB, who stated that the October Revolution was “a mistake of historic proportions.”
Jacques was convinced that the Communist Party was finished. As a matter of fact, from a political point of view, it was finished a long time before. But it took the likes of Hobsbawm and Jacques to act as its official gravediggers. In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Eurocommunist-dominated leadership of the CPGB, led by Nina Temple, having expelled all who disagreed, decided to disband the Party altogether.
Did Stalinism come from Leninism?
Socialism, Hobsbawm argues, ultimately fell because, eventually, “[...] hardly anyone believed in the system or felt any loyalty to it, not even those who governed it.”
This is an “explanation that explains nothing”. This man who for decades defended Stalinism without blushing, now concludes that there must have been something wrong with the October Revolution from the very start. Thus, he joins the bourgeois bandwagon that ascribes all the crimes of Stalinism to some original sin of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.
While surreptitiously defending Stalin, Hobsbawm gives credence to the most disgusting slander invented by the bourgeois enemies of the October Revolution, namely, that the roots of Stalinism are to be found in Bolshevism, and that Leninism and Stalinism are essentially the same. The problem of this theory is that it is impossible to explain why Stalin, in order to consolidate the rule of the bureaucracy, had to exterminate all the Old Bolsheviks.
The truth is that Stalinism and Leninism are mutually exclusive. There is nothing in common between the regime of workers democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky and the totalitarian monstrosity that Stalin erected over the dead bones of the Bolshevik Party.
After the October Revolution, the young Soviet state was invaded by 21 armies of foreign intervention that plunged the country into a bloodbath. Even in the most democratic bourgeois republic, in time of war the workers will accept certain limitations on their rights. That was also the case in Russia during the Civil War.
The problem that confronted the Bolsheviks in 1917 was that they took power in conditions of extreme backwardness. It was this, and not any “original sin” of Leninist Bolshevism, which condemned the Russian Revolution to bureaucratic degeneration.
In The German Ideology (1846), Marx had already explained that in any society where poverty is general, all the old crap (“die ganze alte Scheisse”) revives. By that he meant inequality, oppression, bureaucracy, corruption and all the other evils of class society.
As early as 1920 Lenin honestly admitted that “ours is a workers state with bureaucratic deformations”. But these were relatively small deformations, and nothing like the monstrous regime later established by Stalin. Despite everything the working class enjoyed greater democratic rights than in any other country.
It was the great historical achievement of the Russian Revolution that it proved beyond doubt is that it is possible to run a vast economy like that of the USSR without private landlords, bankers and capitalists and to obtain excellent results. That was because it is clear that in the first few decades of a nationalized planned economy, the Soviet Union did get the most remarkable results. No such transformation has ever been seen in history as that which occurred in the USSR from 1917 to 1965.
After the death of Lenin, however, under conditions of frightful backwardness, the Russian Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration under Stalin, which eventually undermined the planned economy. This finally ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As early as 1936 Trotsky explained that the Russian bureaucracy would not be satisfied with their enormous privileges (which, however, they could not bequeath to their children) but would inevitably move towards the restoration of capitalism.
Trotsky pointed out that a nationalized planned economy needs democracy just as the human body requires oxygen. Without the democratic control of the working class a nationalized planned economy will inevitably be overwhelmed by bureaucracy, corruption and mismanagement. That is just what happened.
The ghastly caricature that Hobsbawm persisted in calling “socialism” right to the end of his life did colossal damage to the idea of socialism and communism in the eyes of the workers of the world. For decades Hobsbawm, who was never a genuine Marxist, justified Stalinist totalitarianism and denigrated those who fought for a return to Lenin’s policies (the “Trotskyists”).
Disgracefully, even in his last writings, he still refers to the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe as “real socialism” or “communist”. And since “socialism” and “communism” has failed, he can provide a “theoretical” justification for defending capitalism.
Such a transformation may appear contradictory. In reality, it is very simple. By the same logic, most of the former leaders of the “Communist” Party of the Soviet Union have quietly transformed themselves into capitalists and billionaires. Like the Red Professor, they have accomplished this transition with the same ease as a man passing from a second class to a first class compartment on a train. This remarkable ease is explained by the fact that they were never communists in the first place.
Theorist of New Labour
Although the British Communist Party was nowhere as strong as its Italian equivalent, the bourgeoisie was nevertheless delighted to learn of its dissolution. And a key role in this was played by Professor Hobsbawm. Not only did Hobsbawm actively participate in destroying the CPGB from within, he also actively collaborated with the right wing of the Labour Party in defeating the Left. That was even more valuable to the establishment.
Hobsbawm and Jacques wished to dissolve the CPGB into the “Left”, in particular the soft left around Neil Kinnock in the Labour Party. It is therefore no accident that when Hobsbawm died, right wing Labour leader Ed Miliband did not waste any time before joining in the chorus of flatterers.
According to Miliband Hobsbawm was:
“[...] an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family [...] But he was not simply an academic, he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society.
“He was also a lovely man, with whom I had some of the most stimulating and challenging conversations about politics and the world.”
In what way did Hobsbawm “recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s”? And what role did he play in the creation of New Labour? Like many on the Left in the 1980s Hobsbawm was plunged into pessimism. He had no confidence in the working class, or the perspective of socialism. These sceptical moods were reflected in his1982 article The State of the Left in Western Europe, which presents a bleak picture:
“... unlike the 1930s, the Left today can neither point to an alternative society immune to the crisis (as the USSR seemed to be) nor to any concrete policies which hold much promise for overcoming it in the short term (as Keynesian or similar policies seemed to promise then).”
As we have seen, Hobsbawm had by now completely written off the working class:
“The manual working class, core of traditional socialist labour parties, is today contracting and not expanding. […] It has been transformed, and to some extent divided, by the decades when its standard of living reached levels undreamed of even by the well-paid in 1939. It can no longer be assumed that all workers are on the way to recognising that their class situation must align them behind a socialist workers party, though there are still many millions who believe this.”
These ideas were music to their ears of the bourgeoisie and Labour’s right wing (which are basically the same thing). They immediately recognised in Professor Hobsbawm a most valuable ally. They provided a useful theoretical justification for Labour’s right wing, which was involved in a bitter struggle against the Left in the Labour Party. It is no accident that the press, particularly The Guardian, built him up at that time.
The ruling class had had a nasty shock when the Marxists succeeded in winning a sizeable influence in the Labour Party in the 1970s. They organized a split away of the right-wing, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in order to undermine Labour, and at the same time orchestrated a vast witch hunt against the Militant Tendency and the Labour Left, especially Tony Benn. Their chief agent in the campaign to defeat the Labour Left and push the Labour Party to the right was the arch-careerist Neil Kinnock.
Hobsbawm enthusiastically supported Neil Kinnock's struggle against the Labour Left headed by Tony Benn, and the Militant Tendency. For his part Kinnock spoke approvingly (and ironically) of Hobsbawm as “my favourite Marxist.” This was at the very time he was organising a witch-hunt against the Marxists in the Labour Party.
Obediently taking his cue from the establishment and the media, he took up the struggle against the Left with the zeal of a crusader, which caused a damaging split in Labour, demoralised its activists and lost support. As a result, despite the unpopularity of the Thatcher government, he succeeded in losing two general elections.
This loud-mouthed parvenu held the unenviable record of the longest-serving Leader of the Opposition in British political history to date, and the longest never to have become Prime Minister. Interviewed on Channel Four the day after Hobsbawm died, Kinnock, in his usual brash “boyo” style, bragged that he had used the arguments of this “Marxist” to combat “the Bennite Left and the Militant Tendency”, adding that when he mentioned this to Hobsbawm, “Eric thought it was a good idea.”
After the election defeat of 1983, Hobsbawm advocated an alliance with the traitors of the right-wing split-off from Labour – the SDP and their Liberal allies, presenting them as the “anti-Thatcher forces”. This Lib-Lab policy was the basis on which Blairism was founded. Blair himself believed that the Labour Party should never have been founded, and advocated closer links with the Liberals – a position still maintained by Labour’s right wing.
Hobsbawm’s rightward slide thus ended him right in the camp of Blairism and the right wing of the British Labour Party, for which he became an adviser and ideologue. He was Kinnock’s “favourite Marxist” for the very simple reason that he was not a Marxist at all. His only role was to provide the Labour right wing with “profound” arguments to justify their struggle against the Marxists in the Labour Party.
In order to justify his active support for New Labour, Hobsbawm said it was “better to have a Labour government than not.” Later on, when the name of Tony Blair stank so much that it was no longer possible for anyone remotely on the Left to defend him, Hobsbawm made a few feeble criticisms of him. This was an attempt to cover the tracks and make people forget that his right wing revisionist theories helped prepare the ground for the Third Way, New Labour, Tony Blair and all.
Some try to defend his capitulation to Blairism by pointing out that he was critical of the conduct of the “war on terrorism” and accused the United States of trying to “re-colonise” the world. That is not saying much, when the vast majority of people in Britain were opposed to the invasion of Iraq and cheap anti-Americanism is the most devalued of all currencies in the former Stalinist “Left”.
Labour’s right wing has every reason to be grateful to this man. But the Left has no reason whatsoever.
Crisis? What Crisis?
I have just read an interview with Eric Hobsbawm by Wlodek Goldkorn, in L'Espresso. Like most of his later writings, it is a collection of incoherent ramblings that are difficult to make head or tail of. But one or two sentences stand out in glorious Technicolor. Hobsbawm assures the readers of L'Espresso that there is no great cause for concern about the future of capitalism. This is how Goldkorn sums up the interview:
“The news of the death of capitalism is at least premature, the economic and social system that has dominated the world for hundreds of years is not even sick, just look at China to be convinced and see the future. In the East, the masses of peasants are entering into the world of waged labour, leaving the rural world and becoming proletarians. A new phenomenon has been born, unprecedented in history, state capitalism, where the old enlightened bourgeoisie, creative, even if predatory – such as Marx described in the Communist Manifesto – has been substituted by public institutions. In short, we are not seeing the apocalypse and no revolution is around the corner. Capitalism is simply changing its skin”.
Whenever he speaks about socialism, Professor Hobsbawm is plunged into the deepest pessimism. But when he speaks of the future prospects for capitalism, he immediately perks up and expresses his complete confidence in its future prospects. One would seek in vain in the editorials of the bourgeois press to find such optimism today. Indeed, the Italian journalist did not appear to be wholly convinced by the Professor’s hopeful diagnosis, and ventures to ask the latter whether there is a cure for a system, which, with due respect, is very clearly sick.
To the question, “Is there a cure?” the Professor replies:
“Yes, as long as you understand that the economy is not an end in itself, but affects humans [!]. It can be seen by looking at the progress of the crisis. According to the antiquated beliefs of the Left, the crisis is likely to produce revolutions. We have not seen this (except for some angry protests). And since we do not know what problems are going to arise, we cannot know what the solution will be.”
These statements resemble those of the Delphic Oracle. They sound mysterious and profound, but are totally lacking in any concrete content. Our attention is drawn to the fact that the economy is not an end in itself. When our Palaeolithic ancestors first made a stone axe, it seems that this was not a self-sufficient act but actually meant for some purpose. Such a wonderful discovery merits high recognition.
Pursuing this great discovery, the Professor now informs us that economic activity affects humans. This profound truth has a universal application, and can be shown to be true of every known aspect of human productive activity. It can be applied with confidence, not only to capitalism, but to every mode of production known to us, past present or future.
Someone might respectfully point out to Professor Hobsbawm that the capitalist system, as well as affecting humans, is well known to be based on production for profit. However, ignoring this well-known fact, the Red Professor continues his variations on the theme of economic activity “affecting humans”, from which he draws an interesting conclusion.
“It is not obvious that capitalism could function without institutions such as Welfare. Welfare is usually managed by the State. Therefore I think that state capitalism has a great future.”
Here again, the Professor returns to that spirit of optimism that always characterises his vision of capitalism. And if ordinary capitalism does not work, we can always have state capitalism instead. Precisely what this state capitalism consists of we are never told. But anyway, it has a wonderful future.
Hobsbawm claimed that state capitalism will replace the free market. This is his real perspective. There is no question of socialism. What is required is managed capitalism, regulated capitalism, well-mannered capitalism, and civilized capitalism – capitalism with a human face.
In this wonderful new Hobsbawmian world, the state will ensure that capitalism behaves itself. It will introduce the necessary rules and regulations to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness (“class struggle”) caused by excessive levels of inequality. The sun will shine. The era of universal happiness will dawn and humanity will live happy ever after.
Now since Professor Hobsbawm to the end of his life persisted in describing himself as a Marxist, we presume that he was aware of the Marxist theory of the state. Marx, Engels and Lenin explained that the state was an organ of coercion for the purpose of maintaining the rule of one class over the whole of society. There has never been, and there never can be, a state that exists in and for itself.
The idea that the state can be a neutral arbiter between the classes, an impartial organism standing above society, is a myth that is carefully cultivated by the ruling class in order to conceal the reality of its domination. This mystical idea of the state was swallowed by the Social Democratic reformists as an excuse for their abandonment of revolution. It was people like Kautsky and Bernstein who provided a theoretical cover for this capitulation.
Eric Hobsbawm is not even original in his revisionism. He merely regurgitated Bernstein’s reformist nonsense.One might say that there was apparently some justification for this idea before the First World War, when capitalism was still in an expanding phase. The economy was going forward, living standards were improving for many people, and the bourgeoisie could afford to give concessions and reforms. But that is not the case now.
Everywhere the bourgeoisie demands a reduction in living standards. They have plundered the state to save the private banks, and they are determined to pass the bill on to the workers and the middle class. The state is bankrupt in the most literal sense of the word. We are told repeatedly that there is no money for schools, hospitals, houses or pensions.
Far from standing for reforms, the Social Democrats are everywhere carrying out the cuts demanded by the bankers and capitalists. But this policy merely aggravates the crisis, creating conditions for a new collapse. The bourgeoisie and its tame economists have no idea how to get out of the crisis. The only thing they all agree upon is that there must be austerity for years, if not decades. And this is a finished recipe for an intensification of the class struggle.
Under these conditions, to imagine that the state, which is controlled by the bourgeoisie, can regulate the system and solve the crisis is worse than utopian. It is plain stupid. If you accept the existence of capitalism, then you must also accept the laws of capitalism. These laws are very simple.
If the economy is in private hands, it will depend upon private investment in order to function. But the capitalists will only invest if they can obtain what they consider to be an acceptable rate of profit. Therefore the duty of the state is to create favourable conditions for the bankers and capitalists to make the highest profits possible.
How is this to be done? By reducing what the capitalists see as unnecessary burdens and obstacles to making profit. The level of taxation on the rich must therefore not rise but fall to the lowest level. This means making the necessary adjustments (that is, reductions) in unnecessary items of state expenditure such as education, social housing, health and pensions.
That is why every government is slashing public spending on these things, and from a capitalist point of view that is absolutely correct and necessary. It is useless to complain about this. If we accept the capitalist system, it is pointless to protest about the consequences. The idea that we can have capitalism with a human face is approximately like asking a man-eating tiger to eat salad instead of flesh.
Socialism or Barbarism
“I wrote a while ago that we lived with the idea of two alternative ways: capitalism on the one side and socialism on the other. But this is a weird idea that Marx never had. Instead, he explained that this system, capitalism, would one day be overcome. If we look at the reality: the U.S., the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Japan, we can reach the conclusion that it is not a single and coherent system. There are many variants of capitalism.”
It is not the case that Marx only spoke of capitalism or socialism. Nor is it true that he simply envisaged a sudden leap “from here to there”. He wrote at some length in works such as Critique of the Gotha Programme that between capitalism and socialism there is a transitional period, a workers’ state or, to use the old expression, the dictatorship of the proletariat. He never used the phrase state capitalism for the very good reason that it is a confusing and unscientific formulation.
Marx and Engels did, however, deal with the tendency of the state to encroach on the economy under capitalism, a fact that indirectly shows the limitations of the capitalist market economy. The fact that today in every country the big banks are entirely dependent on state aid for their survival is a very dramatic indication that the capitalist system has indeed exhausted its potential and needs to be “overcome”, or to speak in plain English, overthrown and replaced with something better.
But our Eric does not want to overthrow anything. He has an altogether better idea. Since capitalism exists in a multiplicity of forms, one can presumably choose the best kind of capitalism, leaving aside bad, neo-liberal capitalism and selecting good, Keynesian, civilized capitalism instead. It is like an enormous smorgasbord, where one can pick the tastiest morsels, leaving the more unappetising items at the side of the plate.
It is a comforting picture. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the reality of the present situation. Everywhere the bourgeoisie is demanding deep cuts in public spending. Far from expanding and perfecting the welfare state, they are determined to abolish it altogether. The profound universal truth that “economics affects humans” cannot help us answer the question that was actually asked, which is whether there is a cure to the present crisis of capitalism.
Instead of telling us what the cure might be the Professor hastens to tell us what it is not. He rejects with the utmost disdain “the antiquated beliefs of the Left”, namely that the crisis is likely to produce revolutions. The man who wrote at such great length (and not at all badly) about revolutions in the past now assures us that there is no question of revolutions in the future. But since a revolution is only a fundamental change in society, in the mode of production and distribution and in the property relations that rest upon this, what he means is that, with capitalism, history has effectively come to a halt.
Why capitalism should be any different to other socio-economic systems that preceded it we do not know, and the Professor makes no attempt to enlighten us. His only logic is the following: since capitalism exists and has not yet been overthrown, it must continue to exist for the foreseeable future.
The fact that it is in crisis, that it is sinking and dragging society down with it, all this is a matter of supreme indifference to the Professor, although not to the millions of people who are suffering the consequences and acting accordingly. The real alternative before the human race is not between “bad” capitalism (“neo-liberalism”) and “good” capitalism (Keynesianism) but between socialism and barbarism, as Marx maintained.
The Happiness Principle
The Professor continues his lecture:
“Look at history. The USSR tried to suppress the private sector, and it was a resounding defeat. On the other hand, the attempt of the ultra-liberals also failed miserably. The question is not therefore what the mix of public with private will be, but what is the object of this mix. Or rather what the purpose of this is. And the purpose can not just be merely economic growth. It is not true that well-being is linked to the increase in the worldwide total output.”
We apologise to the reader for this incoherent gibberish. But, it is what the professor actually said. What then is the true purpose of the economy? The interviewer helpfully prods the old man in the right direction:
Q: “Is the purpose of the economy happiness?”
Here the profundity of the argument reaches its zenith (or should we say its nadir?) The purpose of the economy is - happiness! But we knew that a long time ago, when Jeremy Bentham, that arch-bourgeois philosopher who Marx heartily despised, invented his “happiness principle”.
Now, as a matter of fact, the capitalist system is already designed to produce happiness, and it succeeds very well in this objective. The bankers, landowners and capitalists are in general quite happy with the present system. They are getting fabulous profits even when the vast majority see their living standards slashed. It is also quite true that their happiness is in inverse proportion to that of the vast majority of the human race.
All this is not surprising since, as Marx explained, the happiness of one class is obtained at the cost of the misery of the majority. This is what leads to the class struggle, which Professor Hobsbawm once wrote so eloquently about, but which in his old age was just a vague memory.
It is regrettably a bit late to ask old Eric a question, but we would like to pose it all the same, for the benefit of those misguided souls who still believe that the deceased was some kind of Marxist. We ask how is it possible to bring about an economy based on the achievement of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (to quote old Jeremy Bentham), while leaving the land, the banks and the big monopolies in the hands of the one percent of the population?
No matter how you twist and turn, it is impossible to answer this question except in the negative. In other words, it is impossible to arrive at “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” unless the fundamental levers of economic power are taken out of the hands of the one percent and placed under the control and direction of the majority, the people who actually produce the wealth of society – the working class.
But here we immediately hit a problem. Since the ruling one percent are extremely happy with their situation, they are not at all anxious to change it and would be extremely unhappy if anybody suggested such a thing. Moreover, since this happy one percent happen to have in their hands the mass media, a lot of money and the state, one might imagine that they would use all this to protect their happiness against the unhappy majority.
This naturally brings us back to the starting point. Hobsbawm denies any possibility of revolution. Yet all history shows (even the books of the Professor himself) that no ruling class or caste has ever surrendered its power, wealth and privileges without a fight – and that usually means a fight with no holds barred.
Why should matters be any different now? Do we honestly think that the present day ruling class is any different to the rulers of France in 1789 or of Russia in 1917? Are they kinder, wiser, more democratic, more humane? Evidently that is what reformists like Hobsbawm believe. And they have the audacity to describe the Marxists as utopians!
Do We Need Economic Growth?
We have already quoted Hobsbawm’s words: “the purpose is not just economic growth. It is not true that well-being is linked to the increase in the worldwide total output.”
These words make absolutely no sense. They certainly have nothing in common with Marxism. When we talk about a nationalised planned economy we are not talking about “the worldwide total output” but only of the national economy, at least in the first place. For it is on this that well-being depends above all.
The bourgeois economists and politicians (and also the reformists) are always saying to the workers and the middle class: “Look, we cannot give you more schools, hospitals and pensions because there is a crisis. We must first pay off the deficit. We must all make sacrifices.” In such a situation, it is impossible to speak of well-being. On the contrary, we face years if not decades of cuts, austerity and falling living standards.
When Hobsbawm says that well-being does not depend on economic growth, Hobsbawm is just talking nonsense. That is precisely what it does depend on. Unless we are able to say how a high rate of economic growth can be achieved, how the wealth of society can be increased, we will have no alternative but to accept the logic of cuts and austerity that flows inevitably from the crisis of capitalism.
Why do we need to nationalise the means of production? It is not because we are vengeful towards the bourgeoisie. Nor is it for sentimental or dogmatic reasons. It is because the only cure for unemployment is an economy based on a rational plan that is not subordinate to the vested interests of a small group of profiteers.
Once the fundamental levers of the economy are in our hands, we can plan the economy as a harmonious and rational whole. We would begin by mobilising the unemployed in a crash plan to build houses, hospitals, schools and universities. We could set in motion all the unused productive potential, such that the wealth of society would flow more freely than ever before. Under such circumstances, the problem of deficits would disappear immediately.
That is a clear and coherent strategy and programme for getting out of the crisis. Here there is not an atom of utopianism. All this would easily be possible on the basis of the existing productive apparatus and technology. The problem is not that the productive base for progress does not exist. It exists and has been in existence for a long time. But it is paralysed by the outmoded straitjacket of private ownership and the nation state.
Yet for our Eric this was impossible utopianism. He, on the contrary, regarded himself as a supreme realist. What does his realistic recipe consist of? Let us quote his words: “We have a moral obligation to try to build a society with more equality. A country where there is more equity is probably a better country, but what the degree of equality a nation can stand is not at all clear.”
Here we find ourselves in the purest of pure Utopias. We are time travellers who have landed back in the ideal world of Robert Owen, Saint Simon and Fourier. Or rather (for we do not wish to do an injustice to those mighty thinkers), we have gone back two thousand years and find ourselves listening to the Sermon on the Mount.
In this peculiar world in the clouds, we are motivated, not by objective conditions like the crisis of capitalism, but by a “moral obligation”, which sounds more like Emmanuel Kant (the Categorical Imperative) than Karl Marx. Our task is not to fight for socialism (which is utopian) but to “build a society with more equality”. This society would “probably be better” (we are not quite sure). Nor are we quite sure precisely “how much equality society can stand” (one can have too much of a good thing...).
All this is as clear as mud. What is really astonishing is how any serious person can take this empty chatter about “morality” and “equality” for serious argument. Capitalism is unequal by its very nature. And morality does not come into it.
Let us now follow the Professor from Italy to Britain. In an interview with The Guardian published under the title: “Socialism has failed. Now capitalism is bankrupt. So what comes next?”, Hobsbawm is quoted as saying:
“Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in what amounts to a pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt. The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.” (The Guardian, 10 April 2009) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/10/financial-crisis-capitalism-socialism-alternatives
This is the comfortable position of a man who, standing (or rather lying supine) on the sidelines, issues a stern judgment on the human race. He is neither for capitalism nor socialism. He is above it all. He repeats the words of wisdom of King Solomon: “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”.
To juxtapose a mixed economy to capitalism is as ignorant as it is foolish. Every capitalist economy is “mixed”, in the sense that there is always a degree of state participation in economic life. There are certain sectors that are unprofitable and of no interest to private investors, but at the same time are necessary for the functioning of the economy as a whole. For example, the nationalization of the post office in Britain was carried out by the Conservatives in the 19th century.
The policy of the bourgeois and the reformists is: nationalize the losses and privatise the profits. Marxists, on the contrary, advocate the nationalization of the key points of economic life under democratic workers’ control and management. We will not nationalize small businesses and farms, however. That is not at all necessary, since they have no independent existence under capitalism but are dependent on the banks, monopolies, supermarkets etc.
Only by removing the latter from private ownership will it be possible to put an end to the nightmare of capitalist anarchy and begin to plan production on rational lines, for the benefit of the majority not the profits of the few.
The most serious problem for the Left is that it does not propose an alternative to decadent capitalism. And this is to a large extent because it is dominated by ex-Stalinists like Hobsbawm who have completely abandoned socialism, and whose most earnest wish is to ensure that the road to socialism is blocked to the young generation.
Everyone, you see, is “impotent” – everyone, that is, except for Professor Hobsbawm who has a profound understanding of everything under the sun and a bit more besides. In fact, the most impotent people are those heroes of the university seminar, who consider themselves to be above history, society, the class struggle and the human race in general, whereas in fact, they stand on an infinitely lower level.
We await with growing impatience his solution to the problems of suffering humanity. Tell us, O Professor, what is the answer? But, as with the oysters in the tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter, “answer came there none.”
Apologist for the Establishment
On May 11, 2006 Repubblica carried an interview with Hobsbawm on Giorgio Napolitano. The journalist,nrico Franceschini, begins by informing the Professor that his old friend Giorgio Napolitano had been elected President of the Republic. Hobsbawm is in ecstasy: “What wonderful news!” he exclaims over the phone from his London home in Hampstead. “My friend Giorgo, President! I’m happy for him, for his party and for Italy. It is an excellent choice.”
“I think it’s the best choice possible. Napolitano has a very positive image and will be a great president. He is much more than an ex-Communist, as you call him: he had a central role in the political affairs of his party, but he was also a political figure of high quality, appreciated by all for his role as Speaker of the House and Minister of the Interior. I would say that he represents the best tradition of Italy.”
The Professor never stopped to ask why the Italian establishment had decided to make this ex- “Communist” President of the Republic. The answer is not hard to see. This was in grateful recognition for services rendered to the bourgeoisie by Napolitano, the man who, along with other “Communist” leaders, had transformed the once powerful PCI into a bourgeois party – the Democratic Party (PD). In other words, Giorgio Napolitano, like Eric Hobsbawm, has become part of the establishment.
In 1998, in grateful recognition for services rendered, Eric Hobsbawm was made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in the 1998 New Year Honours. This was shortly after Tony Blair became Prime Minister and Blair himself must have been behind it.
One year before his death, this former “communist” set the final seal on his political degeneration by grovelling before the monarchy:
“Constitutional monarchy without executive power has proved a reliable framework for liberal-democratic regimes, such as in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Spain. It is likely to remain useful, if only because it removes politics from the succession problem. (Imagine having to choose any member of the present and past governments as president.) It won’t do any harm for a monarch to practise a religion, but there is no case for identifying a multi or non-religious country with a monarch who is the head of a single faith. Monarchy has ceased to be of relevance to most inhabitants of the Commonwealth. This is likely to become clear after the death of the present Queen.”
The same Hobsbawm who praised the Jacobins who cut off the head of Louis XVI now informs us that constitutional monarchy in general has “proved a reliable framework for liberal-democratic regimes” and “is likely to remain useful.” This little gem was contained in an article suitably entitled “God save the Queen” (Prospect, 23 March 2011)
Can one imagine a more disgusting example of bowing and scraping before the establishment – even in its most retrograde and reactionary manifestations?
In an interview published in La Stampa on 1st July 2012, Hobsbawm was asked:Are you still a communist? He replied as follows:
“Communism no longer exists. They are loyal to the hope of a revolution even though I do not think that will happen again. I do not know enough to be a communist. I’m a Marxist because I think that there will be no stability until capitalism turns into something unrecognizable from capitalism as we know it today.”
In an interview on BBC2 in early 2012, the Professor was asked by Jeremy Paxman whether capitalism was compatible with social justice. He replied: “it can be made to.” At the end of the interview he confessed that he was pessimistic, that he thought that no solution could be found, and that, consequently, we would face “a stormy period for the next 20-30 years.”
It may strike one as somewhat surprising that a man who spent the first half of his life writing books about the class struggle (in the 18th and 19th centuries that is) should spend the second half explaining how the class struggle is a thing of the past. It is even more surprising that he should come to such a conclusion precisely at a time when the class struggle is on the increase worldwide.
Everywhere we see the beginnings of resistance: general strikes, mass demonstrations, occupations, the indignados etc. But the worthy Professor could see nothing but a few “angry protests.” His attitude to revolution is strikingly revealed by his contempt for May 1968 in France. The Economist’s obituary writer noted with ill-concealed satisfaction: “The most famous modern manifestation of leftish fury, in Paris in May 1968, seemed to him a Club Med affair of spoiled middle-class kids[sic]”
In this one spiteful phrase we see not only the complete abandonment of any perspective for socialism, but absolute contempt for the revolutionary potential of the workers and youth. This organic mistrust in the masses was always a hallmark of Stalinism, even in the past when it still spoke of socialism and communism.
Karl Marx once wrote that the German poet Goethe, despite his achievements, still had the philistine’s tail hanging behind him. Despite all his protestations, Hobsbawm had the Stalinist tail hanging down behind him to the end of his days. Lack of confidence in the working class and a haughty contempt for the masses were always part of the bureaucratic psychology. But now, in the period of apostasy that followed the fall of the USSR, this has turned completely rotten.
When I was a child in Wales I grew up on the shores of the Atlantic. There were beautiful beaches with long stretches of golden sand. When one walked along these beaches at low tide, one could see all kinds of grotesque fauna, dead and dying fish. But the tide always came in again. The waves swept away all the old rubbish, and the cleansing waters brought with them oxygen and new life.
There is an analogy between the ocean tides and the class struggle. The latter also ebbs and flows for the obvious reason that the working class cannot always be in struggle. When the class struggle ebbs, it leaves behind traces of demoralisation. The minds of men and women are confused, gripped by moods of pessimism, scepticism and corrosive cynicism.
The tired old men and women who have abandoned any pretence of standing for socialism have become professional cynics whose only aim in life is to infect the young generation with their poisonous scepticism.They are to be found in the cafes in every capital city in Europe, weeping into their herbal tea as they moan about the alleged apathy of the youth while engaging in sentimental memories of the days when they were young and still believed in something.
This is the category of what I call the dead fish, and a dead fish begins to rot at the head. Eric Hobsbawm belonged to that category. Worse still, he tried to theorise his apostasy with all kinds of pretentious pseudo-Marxist arguments. He hid behind his reputation as a “Marxist” scholar to sow confusion and despair in the minds of the young. Whatever merit he may have had in the past as a writer was completely destroyed by this.
It was people like Hobsbawm who consistently defended Stalinism for decades. Then, when they finally abandoned ship, they immediately jumped onto the capitalist and reformist bandwagon, providing erudite reasons as to why socialism cannot work, and why it was impossible to overthrow capitalism, and therefore recommending that people should accept the inevitable and simply try to reform the system to make it a bit more palatable.
Hobsbawm finally concluded that the Russian Revolution was itself a ghastly mistake. As The Economist gloated in its obituary published on 5 October, “Communism collapsed ‘so completely’, he [Hobsbawm] wrote, ‘that it must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start.’”
In an obituary in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, the author reported a speech by Hobsbawm, after the fall of Berlin wall, in which he said, “Maybe in 1917 it would have been better not to take power.” That sums things up very neatly. And every bourgeois politician, corrupt reformist and counterrevolutionary academic in the world will shout in unison: Amen!
This is false from start to finish. What failed in the USSR was not socialism in any sense that would have been understood by Marx or Lenin. What failed was a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. But what is Hobsbawm’s alternative? Here it is:
“Is there still room for the greatest of all hopes, that of creating a world in which free men and women, emancipated from fear and material need, will live the good life together in a good society? Why not? The nineteenth century taught us that the desire for the perfect society is not satisfied by some predetermined design for living, Mormon, Owenite or whatever; and we may suspect that even if such a new design were to be the shape of the future, we would not know, or be able today to determine, what it would be. The function of the search for the perfect society is not to bring history to a stop, but to open out its unknown and unknowable possibilities to all men and women. In this sense the road to utopia, fortunately for the human race, is not blocked.” (The Guardian, 10 April 2009)
Reading these lines, we can think of a very good final epitaph for Hobsbawm:“From nothing, through nothing, to nothing.” This is the kind of empty gibberish that today passes for profundity in academic circles and among those on the Left who have forgotten how to think.
It is only necessary to compare this nonsense to the crystalline clarity of the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to see to what an abysmal level the post-modern intellectuals have sunk. One recalls the words of Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind: “By the little which can thus satisfy the needs of the human spirit we can measure the extent of its loss.”
There are many who have long ago abandoned the struggle for socialism. But there are many more who are coming to the conclusion that capitalism must be overthrown. To those who are too tired, cowardly or demoralised to do so, we only ask one thing: kindly get out of the way and allow us to continue the fight!
19th October 2012.