Skip to comments.The Left After Communism - Marxism failed because it had been inserted into a hostile environment
Posted on 10/15/2012 4:07:06 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
The Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm has been the subject of a lot of fatuous eulogies since his death a few weeks ago. Ron Radosh asks whether an intellectual a man of ideas who dedicated his whole life to the defense of the most murderous regime on human record, and to lying in defense of that regime can be a good historian. The question, if put right, is self-answering. Yet even worthy conservatives like Niall Ferguson apparently get it wrong. Hobsbawm may have been a brilliant writer and an intelligent man. Yet he was morally defective, and that particular flaw is fatal to a historian since in the end the reader must trust his judgments and depend on his integrity and respect for the truth. Here is a review I wrote more than a decade ago of Hobsbawms history of the 20th century, which is little more than a Stalinist political tract, written after the fact when an honest man would know better.
THE LEFT AFTER COMMUNISM
"Have compassion, my child; love those who have it, but fly from the pious believers. Nothing is more dangerous than their company, their humble pride. They must either dominate or destroy " - Rousseau
"Workers of the world forgive me" - Graffiti on a Karl Marx statue Moscow, August 1991
The monuments have fallen now and the faces are changed. In the graveyards the martyrs have been rehabilitated and everywhere the names have been restored. The Soviet Union, once hailed by progressives everywhere as a sixth of mankind on the road to the future, no longer exists. Leningrad is St. Petersburg again. The radical project to change the world is stalled, having left behind a world in ruin. In a revolutionary eyeblink, a bloody lifetime has passed into history; only vacancies memorialize a catastrophe whose human sum can never be reckoned.
In the climactic hours of the Communist fall, someone Boris Yeltsin perhaps remarked that it was a pity Marxists had not triumphed in a smaller country because we would not have had to kill so many people to demonstrate that utopia does not work. What more is there to say? If Communisms final hour had truly spelled the end of the utopian fantasies that have blighted the modern era, nothing at all. If mankind were really capable of closing the book on this long, sorry episode of human folly and evil, then its painful memory could finally be laid to rest. Only historians would need to trouble their thoughts with its destructive illusions and appalling achievements. But, in fact, these millennial dreams of a brave new world are with us still, and it is increasingly obvious that the most crucial lessons of this history have not been learned. This applies most of all to those whose complicity in its calamities were most profound the progressive intelligentsia of the democratic West.
Emblematic of this failure was the appearance in 1995 of Eric Hobsbawms The Age of Extremes, a history of the epoch from the outbreak of the First World War to the end of the Communist empire, a period which Hobsbawm refers to as the short twentieth century. The Age of Extremes is actually the conclusion to a tetralogy that one American reviewer called a summa historiae of the modern age, and which others have showered with similar accolades since the first volume appeared decades ago. This final installment was awarded Canadas most coveted literary prize and appeared to reviews which canonized its authors perspective as definitive for the age. A major assessment in the New York Times by Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann, for example, hailed Hobsbawms achievement as magisterial. This adjective was lifted from the jacket blurb by a Rockefeller Foundation executive who wrote: Hobsbawms magisterial treatment of the short twentieth century, will be the definitive fin-de-siecle work. Liberal foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead echoed this praise, calling the Hobsbawms work a magnificent achievement of a very rare and remarkable kind. The economist Robert Heilbroner concurred: I know of no other account that sheds as much light on what is now behind us, and thereby casts so much illumination on our possible futures. The historian Eugene Genovese, reviewing it for The New Republic was equally impressed:
We shall soon be flooded with books that seek to explain this blood-drenched century, but I doubt that we shall get a more penetrating and politically valuable one than Eric Hobsbawms The Age of Extremes.
These encomiums reveal how embedded in the liberal culture the illusions of the socialist paradigm remain, even after the catastrophes they have produced. Eric Hobsbawm was a member of the British Communist Party for most of his life, and is an unrepentant (if inevitably chastened) Marxist still a passionate reviler of democratic capitalism, a believer in thrall to the socialist myth. Indeed, for all Hobsbawms attention in his work to the details of industrial, scientific and cultural developments, his treatise is little more than an ideological tract whose gravamen is the continuing viability of the socialist faith. Even if progressives were wrong, they were right. The practical disasters of socialism should not be taken as a refutation of the socialist idea and its utopian premise. The tragedies produced by socialist revolutionaries are not reasons to abandon the quest for social justice, by which Hobsbawm means a society based on equality of outcomes and a social plan. In his own words: The failure of Soviet socialism does not reflect on the possibility of other kinds of socialism.
Extravagantly praised by progressive intellectuals for its historical wisdom, The Age of Extremes is little more than a 600-page apologia for the discredited Left, an advocates brief for the very project that produced the world of misery under review. Nor is Hobsbawms defense of the socialist idea against the evidence of its bloodstained reality at all original. It repeats, in fact, an argument first developed by Leon Trotsky in the years of his exile, after his fall from grace. It was Trotskys view that Marxism failed because it had been inserted into a hostile environment. It was the cultural and economic backwardness of Russian society that thwarted the best laid plans of the socialist dreamers and produced the distorted result. Following Trotskys argument (but without acknowledging its source) Hobsbawm treats the Soviet revolution as a forced experiment under unfavorable conditions and thus no test of the ideas that lay behind it and guided its unhappy results.
In his review of Hobsbawms book, Stanley Hoffmann repeats this faulty reasoning: Marx was right .socialism could only work in developed countries But, of course, Marx was wrong. If not, why did socialism fail in East Germany, which had been the industrial heart of the German Reich until Marxists took charge and ruined its economic base? Neither Hoffmann nor Hobsbawm even attempt to explain this. Their easy presumption that Marx was right about developed countries is illuminating, since no developed country has ever instituted a Marxist solution.
During the final years of the Soviet empire, prominent economists like John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson touted the success of Marxist economies and their convergence with those of the West. Now that the dismal failure of socialist economics has been revealed, these intellectuals want to forget that they ever suggested it was competitive in the first place. According to Hobsbawn, the idea that the Soviet system in its backward setting was a competitor to the industrial West was a weapon in the hands of its enemies and only seemed plausible because of capitalisms weakness during the era of the First World War and the Great Depression. Ever protective of his radical constituency, Hobsbawm fails to mention the role that Party intellectuals like himself played in fostering this destructive illusion.
During the Cold War that followed, an era Hobsbawm calls the Golden Age, capitalist economies defied Marxist predictions about increasing misery and social crisis for reasons he is unable to explain. During this era, the industrial democracies of the West were able to permanently surpass the weaker Soviet system, which could not overcome its underdevelopment. Characteristically, it never occurs to Hobsbawm that Marxism itself might be responsible for this failure.
Like other radicals, Hobsbawm writes as though the real world failures of socialist theory have no implications for the socialist critique of capitalism itself. This assumption is the basis for the survival of the socialist faith. It underlies the really destructive contribution of Hobsbawms work and the left-wing culture his work reflects. As with other intellectuals of the post-Communist left, Hobsbawms agenda is to suspend disbelief in the socialist future while preserving and extending the indictment of liberal society that the socialist premise makes possible. In other words his their agenda is to continue the very assault with which Hobsbawm began his political career and which led to the epic tragedies that followed.
Nothing is more indicative of the ideological passion that inspires Hobsbawms opus, than the way in which it approaches the Marxist decline. The twenty-year period from 1973 to 1991 that is, from the Cold War detente to the Soviet collapse is described in a section called The Landslide, as though the collapse was caused by a force of nature. Even more revealingly, Landslide is a term Hobsbawm intends to apply to both sides in the Cold War and both social systems, as though it reflected a global collapse. The twenty years covered in this section of Hobsbawms text witnessed the destruction of the largest and most oppressive empire in recorded history and the spread of democratic government and market economics around the globe. But through Hobsbawms Marxist lens the historic victory of freedom appears as a general social disintegration affecting both sides of the ideological divide. The final section of the The Age of Extremes opens with the following judgment: The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.
The triumph of western freedom offers Hobsbawm in his own life one of its privileged beneficiaries little comfort or relief. It is a response wholly typical of progressive intellectuals in the West. In the vacuum created by the great global collapse, the socialist historian sees only a renaissance of barbarism in his own zone of democratic freedom, as well as the post-Communist East. This idea that socialisms collapse must mean a resurgence of barbarism is an ideological reflex, exposing the illusions of the past. It was at the end of World War I, that the German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, summoned the European Left to risk everything in its battles to overthrow the social order of the democratic West, because the choice, as she put it in a famous slogan, was socialism or barbarism.
The apocalyptic alternative is endemic to the revolutionary equation. It precludes piecemeal adjustments or reforms. The apocalyptic choice justifies in advance the crimes that revolutionaries intend to commit (because, of course, History requires them to do so). Eric Hobsbawm is still a prisoner of his reactionary faith. Capitalism remains, in his perversely unshaken ideological perspective, a doomed system, unable to solve its fundamental crises except by a revolutionary act of will.
In Hobsbawms ideological treatise, capitalism functions throughout the narrative as a force of evil, the diablo ex machina of all its tragic turns. In this Manichaean vision, it is democratic America, not its totalitarian adversary that appears responsible for the fifty years Cold War. Even the conclusion of the conflict the Soviet collapse and the Red Armys withdrawal from Eastern Europe must be seen by the progressive ideologue as no victory for the capitalist West (We need not take this crusaders version of the 1980s seriously, he writes, dismissing the idea) but as a triumph made possible by the totalitarian enemy himself.
Thus, along with other leftists, Hobsbawm attributes the end of the Cold War to the wise policies of the last dicator in the Kremlin, who recognized the sinister absurdity of the nuclear arms race and approached his antagonists in the West with a proposal to end it: That is why the world owes so enormous a debt to Mikhail Gorbachev, who not only took this initiative but succeeded, single-handed, in convincing the US government and others in the West that he meant what he said. Gorbachev was able to achieve this near miraculous resolution of the Cold War conflict, according to Hobsbawm, only because the White House normally a center of war-mongering paranoia was occupied by a simpleton who somehow remained immune from its malign influences:
However, let us not underestimate the contribution of President Reagan whose simple-minded idealism broke through the unusually dense screen of ideologists, fanatics, careerists, desperadoes and professional warriors around him to let himself be convinced.
The Cold War is now over and this kind of intellectual rant, although still prevalent in progressive circles, is no longer consequential for Americas survival. But left-wing paranoia continues to unleash dangerous toxins into the political air., pouring .
In describing the Cold Wars denouement, Hobsbawm also fails to notice how the forces underlying the Soviet collapse and the western triumph reflected an economic reality of momentous consequence. This was the capacity of a society based on private markets to unleash the power of new technologies and transform the world. (And the inability of its state-managed rival to accommodate, let alone innovate in the new technological age). In a 400-page volume that devotes whole chapters to developments in science and industry in the pre-electronic era, Hobsbawm mentions the digital computer in only a single isolated sentence. There is not one reference to Ed Cray, Bill Gates, Jim Clark, Michael Milken or the other Rockefellers of the new industrial revolution or except negatively to its economic and social implications. Hobsbawm ignores, even denies, the liberating potential of the information age, as he does the Reagan boom the greatest peacetime expansion in history which helped to launch it. Instead, his portrait of Americas economy in the prosperous Eighties is one of unrelieved foreboding and gloom. Like a modern day Luddite, who has learned nothing from two hundred years of industrial innovation, Hobsbawm receives the news of technological progress as a social threat. In Hobsbawms doom-ridden scenario, technological progress means only the prospect that jobs will be eliminated forever:
The Crisis Decades [1973 to the present] began to shed labor at a spectacular rate, even in plainly expanding industries .The number of workers diminished, relatively, absolutely and, in any case, rapidly. The rising unemployment of these decades was not merely cyclical but structural. The jobs lost in bad times would not come back when times improved: they would never come back.
As Hobsbawm, the Marxist reactionary, returns to the myths of his radical youth, he imagines the capitalist past conjured in those myths to be recurring eternally in its present: In the 1980s and early 1990s the capitalist world found itself once again staggering under the burdens of the inter-war years, which the Golden Age appeared to have removed: mass unemployment, severe cyclical slumps, the ever-more spectacular confrontation of homeless beggars and luxurious plenty, To this structural dislocation Hobsbawm attributes a growing culture of hate and a general social breakdown (including an alleged epidemic of mass murders) which cloud the American future. In other words, Marxs predictions were right.
But only in the fantasy life of an unreconstructed member of the faith. During the decades of the Cold War, the engines of capitalist progress, in fact, revolutionized the lives of ordinary working people on a scale previously inconceivable. Hobsbawms landslide in the West coincided with economic developments that ushered in the greatest social transformation in human history the first time in five thousand years that more than a tiny percentage of the population of any society attained some degree of material well-being. It was this dazzling prospect of American progress in the era that stretched from Eisenhower to Reagan that lay at the heart of the demoralization and collapse of socialisms empire, whose own populations had been condemned to permanent poverty by Marxs crackpot ideas. Over the course of these allegedly somber decades, the consumption of goods and services by the average American family actually doubled. Less than 10 percent of Americans went to college in 1950, but by 1996 the figure was almost 60 percent. By that time, the poorest fifth of the population consumed more than the middle fifth had in 1955. None of this uplifting reality a liberation of the dispossessed that no socialist ever accomplished is allowed to enter Hobsbawms negative landscape.
The Age of Extremes, which has been so greedily embraced by the intellectual culture, is really an elaborate defense of the two destructive arguments in whose name the political left has caused so much suffering in the 20th Century the alleged evil of capitalist society and the illusory promise of the socialist future. Of course, in the wake of the Soviet disaster, the hope of this socialist future is now only tenuously put forward by sophisticated radicals like Hobsbawm. It is the negative assault on capitalism that preoccupies them.
But the two arguments cannot really be separated, since the nihilistic rejection of the present order is predicated on the dream of a redemptive solution. In the closing passage of Hobsbawms text the two ideas find themselves linked in a manner that is as intellectually extreme as any manifesto by Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx:
The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the human environment, that is to say, the material foundations of human life .We have reached a point of historic crisis .If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say the alternative to a changed society is darkness.
Capitalist darkness or socialist light. Like the Bourbons of the 19th Century, the 20th Century reactionaries of the Left have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Socialism is still the name of their desire. Notes:
 Joseph F. Keppler, Seattle Times, April 16,1995
 The New York Times, February 19, 1955
 The Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1955
 Eugene D. Genovese, The Squandered Century, The New Republic, April 17, 1995
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, Pantheon, NY 1965, p.498
 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p.403
 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p.249
 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 250
 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 413
 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 416
 Fareed Zakaria, Paris Is Burning, (a review of Benjamin Barbers Jihad vs. McWorld, in The New Prepublic, January 22, 1996.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle...
"the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century" -Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the collapse of the Soviet Union...
"World democratic opinion has yet to realize the alarming implications of President Vladimir Putin's State of the Union speech on April 25, 2005, in which he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the 'greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.'
"'The Black Book of Communism,'; a scholarly accounting of communisms crimes, counts about 94 million murdered by the supposed champions of the common man (20 million for the Soviets alone), and some say that number is too low."
Forgetting the Evils of Communism: The amnesia bites a little deeper
By Jonah Goldberg, August 2008:
Did Communism Fake Its Own Death in 1991?
American Thinker ^ | January 16, 2010 | Jason McNew
In a  1984 book [New Lies for Old], ex-KGB Major Anatoliy Golitsyn predicted the liberalization of the Soviet Bloc and claimed that it would be a strategic deception. ..."
"Golitsyn's argument was that beginning in about 1960, the Soviet Union embarked on a strategy of massive long-range strategic deception which would span several decades and result in the destruction of Western capitalism and the erection of a communist world government."
"Golitsyn published his second book, The Perestroika Deception, after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. This book contained further analysis of the liberalization, in addition to previously classified memoranda submitted by Golitsyn to the CIA. The two books must be read together to get a complete picture of Golitsyn's thesis."
FReeper khelus provided the following links for reading/downloading both books in their entirety (free):
New Lies for Old:
The Perestroika Deception:
"the new leaders pledged to adhere to 'Marx, Lenin, Mao' thought .. for 'a long time to come'"
China: Communist Party goes modern (Asia Times)
The Tea Party = the Left’s “hostile environment.”
Any environment that Marxism is inserted into becomes a hostile environment.
If Russia were truly done with Communism and are now Capitalists, why would they still support Marxist dictatorships such as Venezuela, Cuba, other Marxist regimes throughout Latin America, the ChiComs and North Korea?
True believers never give up. They think that communism will work if done right. After the failure of the Soviet Union, all reasonable people should know that communism can’t work. But they keep trying. They change their name to “progressive” “democrat party” and keep pushing for their utopia where all have what they need and all give according to their means.
What an excellent article! To call such people as Hobsbaum a “historian” is an insult to historians, such as you cannot imagine. He was an ideologue.
From Plato, to More, to Marx, to Rousseau, to Dewey, leftism has never worked and never WILL work, because of its determination to deny the nature of man. It can be no surprise to anyone that the stellar lights of academia have never existed outside the bubbles of their comfortable lives and the universities. If dropped into a city with nothing but their wits, it wouldn’t take long to see them as the crazy people they truly are, muttering and talking to themselves.
This is not to deny, however, the brand of bigoted leftist who truly believes that they are superior to the “masses” and entitled to rule over them. These STILL believe in the mission of Margaret Sanger, and always will.
The denial of those who embrace leftism, is the denial of those fellow travelers who are responsible for, at least, 120 million dead across the planet. It is tyranny, and nothing else. It IS that barbarism that so many “intellectuals” lay at the free market’s door.
".........Their cynicism flows from the very perception they have of right and wrong. They do it for higher ends. They do it for the progressive faith. They do it because they see themselves as having the power to redeem the world from evil. It is that terrifyingly exalted ambition that fuels their spiritual arrogance and justifies their sordid and, if necessary, criminal means.
And that is why they hate conservatives. They hate you because you are killers of their dream. Because you are defenders of a Constitution that thwarts their cause. They hate you because your "reactionary" commitment to individual rights, to a single standard and to a neutral and limited state obstructs their progressive designs. They hate you because you are believers in property and its rights as the cornerstones of prosperity and human freedom; because you do not see the market economy as a mere instrument for acquiring personal wealth and political war chests, to be overcome in the end by bureaucratic schemes.
Conservatives who think progressives are misinformed idealists will forever be blind-sided by the malice of the left by the cynicism of those who pride themselves on principle, by the viciousness of those who champion sensitivity, by the intolerance of those who call themselves liberal, and by the ruthless disregard for the well-being of the downtrodden by those who preen themselves as social saints.
Conservatives are caught by surprise because they see progressives as merely misguided, when in fact they are fundamentally misdirected. They are the messianists of a religious faith. But it is a false faith and a self-serving religion. Since the redeemed future that justifies their existence and rationalizes their hypocrisy can never be realized, what really motivates progressives is a modern idolatry: their limitless passion for the continuance of Them." - "Hillary Clinton and the Third Way" - By David Horowitz, June 2000
I REGRET that it was only upon reading his obituary this month that I first learned of Nguyen Chi Thien. He was a courageous Vietnamese dissident who had spent nearly 30 years in prison for his opposition to communist repression, cruelty, and lies. Much of Nguyen's opposition was expressed in poetry, most famously "Flowers from Hell," a collection of poems he memorized behind bars, and only put down on paper after being released from prison in 1977.
The poems were published after he audaciously handed off the manuscript to British diplomats at their embassy in Hanoi, the AP obituary recalled. As he walked out of the embassy, "security agents were awaiting him, and he was promptly sent back to prison." He spent the next 12 years in Hoa Lo, the notorious Hanoi Hilton. While he was in captivity, "Flowers from Hell" was published; it earned the International Poetry Award in 1985. By the time he emigrated to the United States in 1995, his poems had achieved wide renown. His stanzas "became as familiar as songs," wrote Anh Do in The Los Angeles Times, and "continue to move the Vietnamese immigrant generation and their sons and daughters."
By coincidence, the same newspaper page that carried Nguyen's obituary also ran a much longer story about Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British historian who died on Oct. 1 of pneumonia at age 95. The two men could hardly have been less alike.
Thank you for posting Jeff Jacoby’s piece.
“Have compassion, my child; love those who have it, but fly from the pious believers. Nothing is more dangerous than their company, their humble pride. They must either dominate or destroy ” - Rousseau
Wow..... wonder to whom that statement currently applies?
NeoMarxism is now failing in the hostile environment of flyover America
That is why our greatest defense against the Chicoms is freedom. And we can only be free if we're not straddled w/ suffocating debt.
“If Russia were truly done with Communism and are now Capitalists, why would they still support Marxist dictatorships.....”
Because it costs them little and inconveniences the West. There’s also a lot of Soviet nostalgia among the Russian leadership.
You might also ask why Russia gives aid & comfort to the various Muslim entities in the Middle East & Central Asia, especially when it has a huge Muslim problem within its own borders. Answer - “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
There’s an excellent article at www.spectator.org about the never-ending political need for Moscow to blame external foes for Russia’s problems.
As for this article, the fact remains that there are to this day far more Marxists in the faculty lounges of American universities than there ever were in the now defunct Soviet Union.
The words brilliant, intelligent and communist cannot appear in the same sentence unless you’re writing satire.
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