A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse
What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.
At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be? For me, the person who has asked this most effectively is the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.
Already by the time of the French Revolution, Wallerstein notes, there was a single world market, and increasingly a single world political system as well, dominated by the huge colonial empires. As a result, the storming of the Bastille in Paris could well end up having effects on Denmark, or even Egypt, just as profound as on France itself—in some cases, even more so. Hence he speaks of the “world revolution of 1789,” followed by the “world revolution of 1848,” which saw revolutions break out almost simultaneously in fifty countries, from Wallachia to Brazil. In no case did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably, universal systems of primary education—were put in place pretty much everywhere. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism. The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.
A quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor”—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line.
Revolutions are thus planetary phenomena. But there is more. What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate. Before the French Revolution, the ideas that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called “the people” were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals who spend their time debating in cafés. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas. Before long, we had reached the situation we are in today: that it’s necessary to lay out the terms for anyone to even notice they are there. They’ve become common sense, the very grounds of political discussion.
Until 1968, most world revolutions really just introduced practical refinements: an expanded franchise, universal primary education, the welfare state. The world revolution of 1968, in contrast—whether it took the form it did in China, of a revolt by students and young cadres supporting Mao’s call for a Cultural Revolution; or in Berkeley and New York, where it marked an alliance of students, dropouts, and cultural rebels; or even in Paris, where it was an alliance of students and workers—was a rebellion against bureaucracy, conformity, or anything that fettered the human imagination, a project for the revolutionizing of not just political or economic life, but every aspect of human existence. As a result, in most cases, the rebels didn’t even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem.
It’s fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late sixties as an embarrassing failure. A case can be made for that view. It’s certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense—a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire; a hatred of bureaucracy; and suspicions about the role of government—was the political Right. Above all, the movements of the sixties allowed for the mass revival of free market doctrines that had largely been abandoned since the nineteenth century. It’s no coincidence that the same generation who, as teenagers, made the Cultural Revolution in China was the one who, as forty-year-olds, presided over the introduction of capitalism. Since the eighties, “freedom” has come to mean “the market,” and “the market” has come to be seen as identical with capitalism—even, ironically, in places like China, which had known sophisticated markets for thousands of years, but rarely anything that could be described as capitalism.
The ironies are endless. While the new free market ideology has framed itself above all as a rejection of bureaucracy, it has, in fact, been responsible for the first administrative system that has operated on a planetary scale, with its endless layering of public and private bureaucracies: the IMF, World Bank, WTO, trade organizations, financial institutions, transnational corporations, NGOs. This is precisely the system that has imposed free market orthodoxy, and opened the world to financial pillage, under the watchful aegis of American arms. It only made sense that the first attempt to recreate a global revolutionary movement, the Global Justice Movement that peaked between 1998 and 2003, was effectively a rebellion against the rule of that very planetary bureaucracy.
In retrospect, though, I think that later historians will conclude that the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper than we now imagine, and that the triumph of capitalist markets and their various planetary administrators and enforcers—which seemed so epochal and permanent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—was, in fact, far shallower.
I’ll take an obvious example. One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.
The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?
The thought first occurred to me when participating in the IMF actions in Washington, D.C., in 2002. Coming on the heels of 9/11, we were relatively few and ineffective, the number of police overwhelming. There was no sense that we could succeed in shutting down the meetings. Most of us left feeling vaguely depressed. It was only a few days later, when I talked to someone who had friends attending the meetings, that I learned we had in fact shut them down: the police had introduced such stringent security measures, canceling half the events, that most of the actual meetings had been carried out online. In other words, the government had decided it was more important for protesters to walk away feeling like failures than for the IMF meetings to take place. If you think about it, they afforded protesters extraordinary importance.
Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense?
It would explain a lot. In most of the world, the last thirty years has come to be known as the age of neoliberalism—one dominated by a revival of the long-since-abandoned nineteenth-century creed that held that free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing. Neoliberalism has always been wracked by a central paradox. It declares that economic imperatives are to take priority over all others. Politics itself is just a matter of creating the conditions for growing the economy by allowing the magic of the marketplace to do its work. All other hopes and dreams—of equality, of security—are to be sacrificed for the primary goal of economic productivity. But global economic performance over the last thirty years has been decidedly mediocre. With one or two spectacular exceptions (notably China, which significantly ignored most neoliberal prescriptions), growth rates have been far below what they were in the days of the old-fashioned, state-directed, welfare-state-oriented capitalism of the fifties, sixties, and even seventies. By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse.
If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
Debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.
How did they pull it off? The preemptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in “security systems” of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor” of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure deadweight.
In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically. Eliminating guaranteed life employment for precarious contracts doesn’t really create a more effective workforce, but it is extraordinarily effective in destroying unions and otherwise depoliticizing labor. The same can be said of endlessly increasing working hours. No one has much time for political activity if they’re working sixty-hour weeks.
It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.
Work It Out, Slow It Down
Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with utopian visions. Or even blueprints. They just need to be kept in their place. The theorist Michael Albert has worked out a detailed plan for how a modern economy could run without money on a democratic, participatory basis. I think this is an important achievement—not because I think that exact model could ever be instituted, in exactly the form in which he describes it, but because it makes it impossible to say that such a thing is inconceivable. Still, such models can be only thought experiments. We cannot really conceive of the problems that will arise when we start trying to build a free society. What now seem likely to be the thorniest problems might not be problems at all; others that never even occurred to us might prove devilishly difficult. There are innumerable X-factors.
The most obvious is technology. This is the reason it’s so absurd to imagine activists in Renaissance Italy coming up with a model for a stock exchange and factories—what happened was based on all sorts of technologies that they couldn’t have anticipated, but which in part only emerged because society began to move in the direction that it did. This might explain, for instance, why so many of the more compelling visions of an anarchist society have been produced by science fiction writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Starhawk, Kim Stanley Robinson). In fiction, you are at least admitting the technological aspect is guesswork.
Myself, I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves. What might a revolution in common sense actually look like? I don’t know, but I can think of any number of pieces of conventional wisdom that surely need challenging if we are to create any sort of viable free society. I’ve already explored one—the nature of money and debt—in some detail in a recent book. I even suggested a debt jubilee, a general cancellation, in part just to bring home that money is really just a human product, a set of promises, that by its nature can always be renegotiated.
Labor, similarly, should be renegotiated. Submitting oneself to labor discipline—supervision, control, even the self-control of the ambitious self-employed—does not make one a better person. In most really important ways, it probably makes one worse. To undergo it is a misfortune that at best is sometimes necessary. Yet it’s only when we reject the idea that such labor is virtuous in itself that we can start to ask what is virtuous about labor. To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others. A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.
What would remain is the kind of work only human beings will ever be able to do: those forms of caring and helping labor that are at the very center of the crisis that brought about Occupy Wall Street to begin with. What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.
It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.
Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes. Well, isn’t the obvious thing to address both problems simultaneously? Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also (since it’s not like everyone would just be sitting around in their newfound hours of freedom) begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be.
Occupy was surely right not to make demands, but if I were to have to formulate one, that would be it. After all, this would be an attack on the dominant ideology at its very strongest points. The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.
All this might still seem very distant. At the moment, the planet might seem poised more for a series of unprecedented catastrophes than for the kind of broad moral and political transformation that would open the way to such a world. But if we are going to have any chance of heading off those catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking. And as the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.
This article is an excerpt from The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, by David Graeber. Copyright © 2013 by David Graeber. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
On the morning of Wednesday October 10, 2012, around the time the Prime Minister was addressing the Conservative Party conference, a party of mourners left the chapel at Golders Green crematorium with the words of the “Internationale” ringing in their ears. The Communist anthem sounds more rousing in the original French, so that was the version used. In death as in life, Eric Hobsbawm was proclaiming his loyalty to the cause he had first espoused as a boy in Berlin in the years 1931-33.
Hobsbawm got a good send-off. Tributes were paid to him by Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History at Oxford, who knew him from his days at Birkbeck College, London; by Lady Kennedy, a Labour peer, better known as Helena Kennedy QC; and by his son, Andy. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, attended the service, as did Jon Snow, Simon Schama, Tariq Ali and Jonathan Miller. Recordings of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and of some jazz were also played.
In the days after his death at the grand old age of 95, Hobsbawm’s historical works, especially The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire 1874-1914, were newly acclaimed. Nor did all the praise come from the Left. Niall Ferguson described these books, together with The Age of Extremes 1914-1991, as “the best introduction to modern world history in the English language”, and added: “With his extraordinary erudition and quick wit, Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historical conversationalists I have ever known.”
If Hobsbawm had been an unrepentant fascist, instead of an unrepentant Communist, he would not have received such favourable coverage. Nor would Miliband and other members of the intelligentsia have made Hobsbawm’s funeral so crowded that there was standing room only. Nor, we can be sure, would Tony Blair have recommended that the great man be made a Companion of Honour: a distinction Hobsbawm accepted in 1998 (he justified doing so by saying how much it would have pleased his mother, who died in 1931).
Ferguson did recall how he hoped that Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times, published in 2002, “would contain some expression of remorse for his decision to remain a member of the Communist Party even after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes”. But as Perry Anderson, himself a distinguished man of the Left, pointed out in a long and careful account of that work in the London Review of Books, it contains “no discussion at all of the actual political history of the period”, and of Hobsbawm’s Marxism “virtually all we are told is that he read The Communist Manifesto at high school in Berlin”.
Hobsbawm’s death occurred as the Labour conference was getting under way in Manchester. Miliband at once paid tribute to him as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family”. But in his own speech, Miliband proceeded to embrace a quite different figure, Benjamin Disraeli, and to appropriate that great Conservative Prime Minister’s tradition of “One Nation” Toryism. This shameless act of political body-snatching made for excellent theatre: few people had imagined the Labour leader could be so audacious. But it also required Miliband to distance himself from his own father, the thoroughly left-wing academic Ralph Miliband, and from the north London Marxism of his youth. So the Labour leader admitted that his father “wouldn’t agree with many of the things I stand for. He would have loved the idea of ‘Red Ed’. But he would have been a little bit disappointed that it isn’t true.” This was an elegant and affectionate way of trying to free himself from the politics with which he grew up. For the Labour leader, this is a matter of political life and death: he cannot allow himself to be portrayed as an out-of-touch north London leftie with a sophisticated grasp of socialist theory and no idea how normal people live: hence his emphasis in his speech on his comprehensive schooling. Hobsbawm did not figure in that speech.
As well as the tributes to Hobsbawm since his death, there have been a number of indignant protests against him. Michael Burleigh, who is a member of Standpoint’s advisory board, wrote an angry piece in the Daily Telegraph which ended: “Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left. But the eminence that he and his fellow travellers have enjoyed also speaks to the bovine complacency with which, since Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives have allowed such dubious figures licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and our universities.”
“Bovine complacency” well describes the usual reaction in England to intellectuals who spend their time chipping away at the foundations of our society. In 1790, Edmund Burke warned the French, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, not to take seriously the revolutionary sentiments being expressed in some circles in London: “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
Burke was alarmed by the complacent attitude many in England took towards what was happening in Paris. The worst excesses of the French Revolution, including the September massacres, the execution of the king and queen, and the reign of terror, all lay in the future. But to the penetrating eye of Burke, an outsider and an Irishman, it was already clear in early 1790 that the overthrow of traditional authority had created terrible dangers. Thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, still saw nothing much to worry about.
We are seldom inclined to worry very much what intellectuals are doing, especially if they are of foreign origin. It is hard to imagine that such eccentric and impractical characters could ever cause trouble. At a later period, Marx and Engels were allowed to carry on their work in England pretty much undisturbed. Most of us just don’t think the kind of thing they were writing about is going to happen here. In 1978, Hobsbawm delivered his Marx Memorial Lecture, in which he actually reassured us that revolution was becoming less likely: “The forward march of labour and the labour movement, which Marx predicted, appears to have come to a halt in this country about 25 to 30 years ago.” In other words, the Attlee government of 1945-51 represented the high point of working-class pressure for change.
Hobsbawm provided the statistics needed to back this up. He pointed out that the proportion of non-agricultural manual workers in Britain was already almost 70 per cent in 1867, when the Second Reform Bill was passed. This was exceptionally high compared to other countries, and forced the ruling classes to find ways to gain working-class support. But this dominance did not last. In 1911 three-quarters of workers were manual, but that proportion had fallen to just over half in 1976, and Hobsbawm warned, correctly, that it was bound to fall further. In 2012 it is well under a third.
Marxism Today published Hobsbawm’s lecture in September 1978, under the title “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” By making the Left face the need to win support from beyond the rapidly diminishing ranks of the trade unions, Hobsbawm performed a notable service for those who understood that the party must also appeal to the middle classes or it would die. No wonder he was soon being described as Neil Kinnock’s “favourite Marxist”. This cannot be regarded as an intellectual distinction, but it did show how useful Hobsbawm had become to the Labour leadership. When one looks at this aspect of his activities, it is possible to argue that far from being dangerous, he had allowed himself to be coddled into becoming a minor pillar of the Establishment. Marxism Today ceased to be a Marxist publication and instead began to prepare the way for Blair, whose advisers later included at least two of the magazine’s contributors, Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbetter.
And yet there remain Hobsbawm’s repulsive views about the Soviet Union. He was challenged over and over again to explain how he could have stayed in the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Miriam Gross challenges him with quiet persistence in the interview which accompanies this piece. But Hobsbawm maintained to his dying day that despite the millions of murders to which it led, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a great cause to which he was right to remain loyal. In 1994, when Michael Ignatieff asked him whether, if “the radiant tomorrow” had actually been created in the Soviet Union, the death of 15 or 20 million people would have been justified, Hobsbawm replied: “Yes.” In 1995, when Sue Lawley put it to him on Desert Island Discs that “Marxist Leninism is a dead duck”, he replied: “I don’t think the cause has been defeated, but at least it will not be realised if at all in the way we thought it was going to be realised.”
Since Hobsbawm’s death, Nick Cohen has reminded us in his Spectator blog that at the start of the Second World War, Hobsbawm and his fellow Cambridge Communist Raymond Williams not only accepted the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but actually wrote a pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland, in which they claimed that “Stalin was protecting Finland from an invasion by British imperialists”. Oliver Kamm, in The Times, has described this as “an extraordinary failure of imagination” and an “act of intellectual prostitution in the service of totalitarianism”.
Robert Conquest, who has done more than any other Western writer to catalogue Soviet crimes, observed after reading Age of Extremes that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive reality denial” as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. Michael Gove, now the Education Secretary, assured the 2008 Conservative conference that “only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”.
Those tears remained unshed. Many intellectuals left the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956, in protest at the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Hobsbawm knew how bad things looked. He wrote a letter at this time in which he said of the CPGB’s line: “We tell [the public] that we do not give the USSR ‘uncritical support’, but when they ask us where we disagree with its policy all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.”
Ponomareva was the Soviet discus thrower who was arrested for allegedly stealing five hats from C & A in Oxford Street in 1956. The Soviet athletics team withdrew in protest from a meeting at White City: a decision the Daily Worker, organ of the CPGB, had the temerity to describe as “regrettable”.
Why the atrocious double standard? Why are most people so much more tolerant of support for Stalin than they would be of support for Hitler? I do not except myself from this stricture. Somehow Auschwitz strikes me as worse than the Russian camps, whose names are in any case not as familiar to me. Is it that we judge the Germans by a higher standard than the Russians — that we expect the former to be correct, albeit humourless, while incorrectness comes as no surprise in Russia? Martin Amis observes in his book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, that “it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany”. Amis reminds us of some of the most horrifying evidence amassed by Conquest about Stalin’s crimes, yet still black comedy keeps breaking through.
Perhaps we attribute higher and therefore more admirable ideals to the Communists than we do to the Nazis. In his essay “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, Kingsley Amis, who joined the Communist Party in 1941 and left it in 1956 because of Hungary, wrote: “The ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City, is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss.”
Hobsbawm said something similar in Interesting Times: “The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with indulgence and tenderness.”
These are the terms in which one might speak of an early love affair, with a woman who proved impossible to live with, but who still evokes fond memories. Hobsbawm prided himself on remaining faithful to his first political love. With obstinate vanity, he alluded to the sacrifices he had made on her behalf, including the slower promotion he obtained in the academic world. Others might do the obvious thing and renounce Communism, but he distinguished himself by his fidelity to a cause which no longer even existed in any viable form. Born in the year of the Russian Revolution, he also managed to outlive it and to become a kind of living history. For the Left, he had turned into an international treasure, while for the Right, although contaminated by his support for the Soviet Union, he was no longer a threat and could be treated as a pleasant reminder that the Communists lost the Cold War. My elder daughter’s history teacher has just recommended The Age of Extremes to her. I suppose this makes me an irresponsible father, but I hope she enjoys it.
Ireland and the presidential election… in China
By Neil Collins and Yu-Wen Chen
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
The Election that will take place in China tomorrow could have profound effects on Ireland’s prosperity, write Neil Collins and Yu-Wen Chen
TOMORROW an important election takes place abroad and, while the outcome is still unclear, it will have profound effects on Ireland’s prosperity and the prospects for world peace.
The new president’s attitude to free trade and the use of military force in places far from his capital are critical. Fortunately, in his recent visit to Ireland the likely victor spoke glowingly of the relations between his country and ours. Strangely, however, the election has hardly been covered by the overseas media.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will begin to undergo a leadership transition in the 18th party congress. Some members of the politburo, the most powerful institution in China, will retire. Among them is the current general secretary and president Hu Jinto. Hu is expected to be replaced by Xi Jinping, the current vice-president — yet another politician to have played hurling in Croke Park.
Xi is expected to become the new general secretary of the party at the congress, paving the way for him to become president in 2013. He will be taking over one of the most powerful jobs in the world but, unlike his American counterpart also being elected this week, we know very little about the dynamics of the election.
Predictably, it has featured photo opportunities abroad, trumpeting of policy successes at home, and relentless campaigning. Nevertheless, the process is opaque. Probably, the most important thing about it is that it is happening at all. When many other one-party, autocratic states have witnessed violent and unpredictable regime change, the people’s republic will see one set of leaders step aside gracefully after ruling for 10 years to allow the next generation to take over.
The history of China going back to imperial times has seldom seen such an orderly transition. Assuming the “mandate of heaven” has frequently been a gory business, but Xi Jinping and his generation of Chinese leaders have seen enough turmoil to value an orderly transition. While much is made of their status as “princelings”, the privileged offspring of former CCP champions, Xi and the others are also products of the Cultural Revolution, a time of anarchy and terror to match the French Revolution. Their parents were bullied, exiled, and even murdered in a period of political mayhem that still tutors their outlook.
Control is important so competition must be managed to give the appearance of “harmony”, the CCP’s mantra under Hu Jintao the outgoing top man. The harmony is deceptive. There is room for ambitious political figures to fight their way up the political ladder. Factional politics is rife in China. The party likes to stress that it has a collective leadership nowadays. But the essential meaning of that term is a balance of factions.
Ambitious individuals will have to ally with like-minded CCP members and appeal to powerful interests outside. Collective leadership implies infighting among factions, and hence policy decisions to some extent are made through collective efforts.
The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 and its early leaders were feted for their part in the nation’s war of independence. Like Ireland in the 1960s, new politicians have come to the fore who were not directly involved in the struggle for freedom. Their ideological grounding is less communist and more pragmatic than that of the founders of the state though, like our own politicians, they have to be deferential to the rhetoric of “the dead generations”.
Xi and his fellow leaders now have to appear both close to the people and competent at managing the government. Food safety, house prices, and job security must be watched carefully and blatant corruption tackled with public fervour.