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Necessary Murders

by Fergus Downie (January 2013)


The fawning necrologies to the recently departed historian Eric Hobsbawm are testament if any further evidence was needed to the hugely disproportionate influence of Marxist intellectuals in the soft culture of the BBC and mainstream media, Simon Schama and Tristram Hunt penning the kind of obsequious eulogies which are normally the stuff of satire outside the borders of People’s Republics. That both men are paid up members of the soft boiled left rather than its lunatic fringe simply emphasizes its cachet. Even if one isn’t a believer one can experience the vicarious thrills second hand, much like the revolutionary poseurs of 1848 who for Tocqueville presented the insipid spectacle of ‘men warming their hands on the ashes of their grandfather’s passions’. This is a life half lived, but in the absence of a viable socialist project, would-be men of action have to content themselves with nostalgia. Recreating Spanish Civil Wars of the mind in these circumstances has a ready appeal and through his sheer longevity (95 when he died) Hobsbawm provided a living connection with those historic ideological conflicts most likely to sustain the Left’s heroic self-image and his literary talents enabled him to rewrite their history. All this needless to say would not have been possible without a gushing audience. His sense of persecuted martyrdom notwithstanding, there is precious little evidence that Hobsbawm suffered for his beliefs and his ascension to the anti-establishment establishment looks to have been smooth enough. A personal chair in 1970 was followed by membership of the British Academy eight years later, and an ostentatiously spurned Knighthood in 1998, not to mention the consolations of great wealth generated by colossal royalties and the cash backed accolades he was showered with by the academic nomenclature – the Balzan prize alone weighing in at a cool one million Swiss francs. Hobsbawm’s output was prodigious right up until the end even if in later years it consisted of increasingly slovenly cuttings of articles and interviews unconvincingly forced into book titles. The New Century: Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism and How to Change the World are dreadful examples of this fading mental energy, and the numerous public interviews at which he dispensed pious sermons to assembled sycophants also gave ever decreasing returns – much like A J P Taylor in his twilight years he rambled into the absurd. Perhaps his lowest point was an appearance at the Hay Festival with Christopher Hitchens when he implied that the ambient grey squalor of life behind the iron curtain redeemed itself in the intimate friendships it threw individuals back on, before adding, as one must, that such deep relationships were less often forged in the shiny barbarism of the USA. A sense of intellectual decency might have provided some kind of check to this drivel, but in the massed ranks of Orwell’s 'snob Bolsheviks’ these achingly vacuous perorations were treated with bewildering seriousness.

At the time Hobsbawm was churning out his famous quartette, starting with the Age of Revolution in 1962 and ending with the acclaimed Age of Extremes in 1994 these stumbles were some way off, and this multi-volume odyssey is almost unanimously regarded as a tour de force, capable of drawing praise even from unfashionably right wing historians like Norman Stone and Niall Ferguson. Much of the attraction is a product of Hobsbawm’s much vaunted ‘range’ and omnivorous global interests. Part of the great wave of mitteleuropa which imbued British academic life with high German seriousness, he was repelled by what he saw as the provincialism and excessive empiricism of British academic history. He tackled big subjects and eschewed the ‘antiquarian archive grubbing’ which he saw as the domain of lesser mortals. Hobsbawm did very little primary source work but then who needs evidence when you have a doctrine? History was simply a stage upon which to project his cosmic Marxising dramas and to those who questioned his carelessness with the facts, one can easily imagine him replying as Hegel is reputed to have done to one of his students – ‘so much the worse for the facts’.

The necessary lie never quite made an appearance, but in most of his work dealing with twentieth century history you could here the beating of its wings. Even supposing he felt no conscious need to massage facts his Marxism had a distinctly parochialising effect, for if he opened up grand vistas he explored them with a pretty crude instrument. If Hobsbawm sparkled in the nineteenth century his treatment of most of the twentieth century was clunking and banal; his analysis of the origins of the First World War is Marxism of a very vulgar order, but even this pales in comparison with the intellectual dishonesty he showed when dealing with his Red Utopia.

For a supposedly panoramic view of the twentieth century, the Age of Extremes has some baffling omissions – the Katyn Forest massacre does not even make an appearance as a passing footnote, and it requires an act of will to overlook such an event when setting out to rewrite the history of the twentieth century as a parable. Few episodes better symbolize the moral bankruptcy of that low dishonest decade than those 20,000 Polish officers, murdered and dumped in mass graves, but as Hobsbawm well knew they were the inevitable casualties of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which as a loyal Communist he endorsed. Unsurprisingly, this collaboration between the Nazis and the Communists is an area where Hobsbawm’s eloquence repeatedly deserts him – although this was not so at the time when he wrote a todying article defending the USSR’s invasion of Finland and the carving up of Poland.

As for all communists the periods of the Popular Front and the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi jackboot are comforting touchstones (like so many patrician Marxists Hobsbawm evidently thought that his sterile creed could reap moral capital from the bravery of the Russian people; reading the Age of Extremes you could be forgiven for thinking that the ordinary Russian in uniform was fighting for another Five Year Plan) and few wish to recall the awkward facts that Hitler’s destruction of the Weimar Republic was aided by the KPD at every turn - the Communist and Nazi paramilitary wing even co-operating during the Berlin transport workers strike of 1932 - or that the workers state was supplying the Nazi war machine for almost two years.  It is not just his silence which condemns either, the Age of Extremes being shot through with some bizarre assertions which tarnish his claims as a serious historian. His outlandish suggestion that the Bolshevik revolution was ‘made by the masses’ makes claims that not even Lenin made, and what is one to make of this spurious attempt to portray the excesses of Stalinism as the necessary price of its successful defence against Nazi Germany?

It turned the USSR into a major industrial economy in a few years and one capable, as Tsarist Russia had not been, of surviving and winning a war against Germany. One must add that in few other regimes could or would the people have borne the unparalleled sacrifices of this war effort

As with the demotic credentials of the Bolsheviks (they received a quarter of votes in the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 even with the aid of rigged elections) not much forensic detail is necessary to establish holes in this argument. The notion that Russia’s industrial growth was particularly impressive during the 30s, and that it required such staggering human losses is easily contradicted by evidence available at the time. Even by the crudest indicators of giganticism favoured by central planners such as production of crude steel, the increases were no more than that achieved during Tsarist rule, and no more than might have been achieved under Bukharin’s proposals for a limited free market. The most that one can say is that it registered the same rate of growth as Germany with far less of the efficiency – in the absence of a rational pricing system it was inevitable that white elephants like Magnitogorsk, ‘the world’s greatest steel mill’, which used up more natural resources than it produced would abound. Characteristically, the civil engineer Palchinsky who pointed this out was shot. Moreover, how does one begin to even measure the voided economic and military potential of the missing millions with which Russia might have confronted Germany in 1941? The scale of the latter still has an ability to chill the blood – in 1937 as many as 700,000 men, women, and children were executed, and the 1937 census gave a grim existential twist to the saying that revolutions devour their children.1 Even after the first batch of statisticians had been shot, the census still revealed a population 18 million lower than had been forecast. Gosplan's bureaucrats were evidently too incompetent even to quantify their own murders but this did not unduly disillusion Hobsbawm whose throat clearing criticisms of Stalinism’s excesses remind one of Tariq Ramadan’s denunciations of terrorism in all their understated insincerity. Just occasionally, however, Hobsbawm met someone who asked an obvious question. Probed by the Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff on whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – to say nothing of  the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red Utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm replied unhesitatingly with a yes. One death is a tragedy a million clearly was a statistic.

The war nevertheless relieved many bad consciences but not before the Nazis had occupied most of Western Europe. To have been a communist before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was to be in objective terms a traitor2 – Hobsbawm complained self-righteously about it, but MI5 would have been negligent if they had not kept a file on him. Having noted his membership of the ‘legendary’ Cambridge Apostles, the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle noted, with a complete lack of irony that ‘as with so many other communists Hobsbawm volunteered for intelligence work’. This was, alas, for the USSR at least, not to be, and Hobsbawm passed the war in the company of ‘a very working class unit’ of engineers attempting to build some patently inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of East Anglia.

Nothing if not dismissive of the ‘upper class Englishman' Eric Blair’s slumming amongst the proles, Hobsbawm could nevertheless not deprive himself of de haut en bas grandeur in his dealings with the proletariat, once this Hegelian abstractions had assumed human form.

Hobsbawm noted with an air of anticlimax that they were not for the most part very clever, but nevertheless ‘very very good people’, which to his credit is at least more respectful than anything the Webbs might have come up with. Like so many Marxists his portrayals of the intimate and the human, particularly workers betrayed an awkwardness of touch which did not plague a writer like Orwell. They loved humanity but it was an impossibly abstract love – not for them the circle of intimate affections radiating outwards but a doctrinal one which held up an impossible standard for imperfect humankind.

The political dangers spawned by this idealism were apparent to Edmund Burke. He lived to see the Jacobins draw up an indictment against a whole people on the basis of abstract ideology, and can anyone not think of Trotsky’s famous denunciations against  ‘vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the "sacredness of human life"'  when reading these lines by Seymon Frank?

Sacrificing himself for an idea he does not hesitate to sacrifice other people for it. Among his contemporaries he sees either merely the victims of the world’s evil he dreams of eradicating or the perpetrators of that evil……This feeling of hatred for the enemies of the people form the actual concrete and psychological foundation of his life. Thus the great love of mankind gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction.

This is the self-defeating abyss of revolutionary morality, and as faith in the Red Utopia receded there has been an inevitable tendency for a free floating misanthropy to crowd out any residual idealism – hope in salvation is gone, but their still remains the dream of everlasting damnation. This is the misanthropic cull de sac in which the contemporary Left has become ensconced; its puerile anti-Americanism in itself a politely disguised form of loathing for the social inferiors who eat fast food and sate their plebian tastes on Hollywood mass culture. Asked the inevitable questions about Bush and the American occupation of Iraq Hobsbawm needed only to sniff that ‘the barbarians were in charge’ to draw the appropriate Pavlovian response. This is a very low bar but then the contemporary Left has actually had very little to say in recent years, which is no doubt why much of the vernacular is becoming ever more labored and postmodernised. Habermas, as Dalyrmple has noted, seems to be getting even more obscure in his dotage, an affliction which seems to proceed in tandem with an ascending vacuity of insight

Hobsbawm opted for prolonged silences, in which his supplicants could read profound meditations (I recommend Simon Schama’s  interview to those interested in turning silence into masked profundity), and if he had little to say he at least wrote it with some literary verve. For this at least we may offer some thanks.



[1] By a decree of April 1935 penalties for treason were extended to children aged 12 and above. The French Communist rag L’Humanite helpfully noted that children matured more quickly under socialism.

[2] As late as March 1940 planning was being undertaken for the bombing of Soviet oil fields.

The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.


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