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Friday, 5 October 2012

A Tragedy, Not a Statistic.


The reaction to Hobsbawm's death ranges from modest applause in the liberal press to the usual paranoid anti-Communist hysteria of rightist news outlets. The Daily Mail engaged in the usual prattle about Hobsbawm's years spent in the Communist Party even during the exposure of Stalin's crimes. Even though while young Eric was embedded in anti-Fascist politics Lord Rothermere (owner of the Mail) was shamelessly climbing into bed with Adolf Hitler. The Evening Standard even went as strange as to stress Hobsbawm's later associations with Tony Blair and Ed Miliband, as if the Labour Party had been infected by the nonagenarian Marxist even when the Party was sliding further and further to the Right. Then again, this shouldn't surprise anyone as foaming at the mouth McCarthyites have never been subtle! On the upside, if the old man's passing was met with unadulterated adulation from the mass-media we would have to ask ourselves if he was really any good at all. Some people you would never want nor expect praise from.

Fortunately some on the Right weren't so pettily obsessed with Hobsbawm's past to concede his work was worthy of praise. The right-wing historian Niall Ferguson wrote "Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empty with the 'little man' and a love of the telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era." Ferguson went on to note wisely "The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship." The historian recommends Hobsbawm's tetralogy to the reader - The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) - going as far as to call this body of work "the best introduction to modern world history in the English language." As much as this should give one good reason to read Hobsbawm, it reflects rather well on Ferguson.

I have nothing to add to the praise for Hobsbawm's historical writings, though I will recommend Terry Eagleton's review of his last book if you want to dip into the great man's work. This isn't to say that the right-wing hysterics penned nothing worth of reflection about Hobsbawm, as Ferguson demonstrates so well himself. According to Robert Conquest, Hobsbawm was asked by Michael Ignatieff in 1994 "What (your view) comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?" Apparently Hobsbawm's only response was "Yes." No doubt Conquest has his own reasons for emphasising this, I suspect Hobsbawm had much more to say than simply an emphatic endorsement of unimaginable slaughter. But we should for a moment consider the question in terms of the dialectical materialist conception of history. It's certain that the Stalinists of this world have viewed their actions in terms of a service to the Revolution and, ultimately, to historical progress in a certain guise.


If we take history to be a succession of exploitative modes of production with its present culmination in global capitalism, then we could well view history as an appalling and seemingly unending tale of horrifying bloodshed as well as a tale of progress. It was through the tremendous suffering of millions in past centuries that the material resources and conditions to build capitalism, and further advance its productive capacities, were refined and accumulated. The immense injustice and unfreedom of this process cannot be separated from the accumulative development of capitalism, which almost mirrors a natural organism. In turn this mode of exploitation propels itself forward, only to create the proper economic and political conditions for socialism to be built in its place. We find then that in its beginning socialism is inseparable from capitalism in the same sense that capitalism is to slavery and feudalism. The link is in the material conditions fostered by each system. This is roughly the Marxist view, if a tad hastily sketched out as only it can in so few words.

Furthermore, the birth of socialism is not immaculate rather it is born out of the squalor of the capitalist system. The socialist movement could be seen as a project redemptive of capitalism, a view taken by Communists in Beijing today, in that the ultimate collapse of the system in crisis and revolution would give way to a new egalitarian world where the endured inequalities would be undone. The temptation to posit the vindication of capitalism in the advent of socialism should be resisted. Not just because of capitalism with Asian values, but because if you take socialism as simply redemptive of the generations who were worked to death in capitalism then it's tempting to say "What does it matter if a few more go?" It's all too tempting to say that the ends justify the means. This is the reason that many attribute to wily Stalin the notorious line "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic." The big question dangling before us is: will all this misery be worth it if we build a better world? And that's a major debate to be had.

The more nuanced Marxist might concede that the socialist movement may be incapable of making up for the enormous suffering of what has gone on for far too long. Even if socialism cannot compensate for the injustices of capitalism it is the better system. By analogy, the reparations for slavery can and should be made, not because we can really make up for the harm done to Africa but because it's right to try and establish a much more just society. Similarly to the climate change deniers we can retort: even if climate change is a natural phenomenon not to be feared, we're right to reorientate our entire society because it would still be better than what we have. Socialism may be the best that we can do to attempt to make up for all the women and men shredded in the economic propellers of history. Though it may well be utopian to claim that it could do so in its entirety, it is not wrong to attempt at this task. We on the Left are not clutching at straws in a world of chaos in the midst of our own inexorable decline, rather we belong to a tragic tradition.

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