01 October 2012

An unrepentant communist. Why not?

There's some interesting commentary in the British and global news media today following the death of the historian Eric Hobsbawm. A longtime contributor to the London Review of Books as well as a revered writer, Hobsbawm wrote the Age of Revolution, Age of Industry, etc. books that you'll still often see in old-style pocket book size in used bookstores. In the Guardian, Niall Ferguson praised this series of books as "the best introduction to modern world history in the English language." Ferguson's tribute to Hobsbawm, whom he considered a friend, is noteworthy because Ferguson, a modern-day best-seller, is a neoliberal if not neocon thinker, while Hobsbawn, as every obituary observes, was a lifelong Marxist. Ferguson apparently can forgive communism, if not anti-imperialism -- but that's another story. He honors Hobsbawm as "an example of how civilised people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else." The two historians found much common ground despite Ferguson's disappointment in Hobsbawm's apparent lack of remorse for his espousal of communism during the Stalinist era (the older man died at 95) and a fundamental difference in sympathies. "[H]e sided with the workers and peasants," Ferguson writes, "while I side with the bourgeoisie."

What did Ferguson mean by that? What does it mean, in other words, to "side with the bourgeoisie" rather than with, if not against the "workers and peasants." There are two possibilities. In the more benign reading, Ferguson may mean to say that the bourgeoisie should not be seen as the oppressors of the workers and peasants, as someone like Hobsbawn presumably saw them, but as their benefactors. In this case, to "side with" the workers and peasants presumes an adversarial relationship that someone like Ferguson, to be generous, denies. The other reading would imply a choice of who should rule, with Ferguson favoring the bourgeoisie, Hobsbawm the workers and peasants. Either way, Ferguson would appear to believe that workers and/or peasants have no rightful veto on bourgeois action, while Hobsbawm presumably believed differently.

Timothy Snyder is a historian of 20th century Eastern Europe, and no more a fan of Stalin than Ferguson. Writing for CNN, Snyder asks the question that Ferguson steers away from: why did Hobsbawm never renounce Marxism despite all its historical failings. I might answer that Leninism, which did fail, is not the essence of Marxism, but to be fair, I don't know whether that was Hobsbawm's own opinion, and I have a feeling that the question wouldn't be raised had Hobsbawm ever clearly renounced Leninism. That leaves us with Snyder's speculations. He notes that Hobsbawm came of age at a time when young people believed that the world's choice was not between communism and "freedom," but between communism and fascism. He goes on to equate Hobsbawm's faith with Americans' faith in their own institutions and ideology.

Communism also offered, as perhaps no non-religious ideas do today, a sense of community. To belong to the Communist Party was to have a sense of conspiracy, a loyalty to friends who had suffered and would suffer more, and a collective sense that the struggle was not in vain, for a more glorious world could and would come. Like religion for Americans, who repeat that "things happen for a reason," communism offered a logic of pain and progress. Every arrest, every sentence to a concentration camp, every execution was not just a moment of horror, but further proof of capitalism's decadence and weakness....The story had a logic, but it also required an element of faith. The faith and the logic had to work together, and in a mind such as Hobsbawm's, one of the great minds of the 20th century, logic could keep faith in the shadows. But it was always present, and perhaps in the end it was dominant. Communists could be great historians (fascists could not), because communism provides history with a plot. But because communism in the 20th century was not just an idea but a political reality, its story slowly transformed from one of prophecy to one of retrospective editing.

By implicit analogy, Snyder seems to say that Marxists like Hobsbawm weren't the only ones retrospectively editing history. Snyder then goes on to state the obvious: Wrong as Marxism was, at least in its Leninist form, "it did embody certain virtues. There is something to be said, after all, for defending the weak, even today, especially today." That generous comment puts Ferguson's choice for the bourgeois rather than the workers and peasants in a different light. Objectively speaking, we can admit that the weak aren't always right, but despite the missionary hopes of people like Ferguson, or the dismissive estimates of people like Mitt Romney, the "weak" are probably still the majority on earth, if not in every country, and that has to count for something when we ask who was right or wrong in history.

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