How is it possible to be a major historian and an apologist for communism? It may depend on the breadth of your horizons. Without tackling the question head-on, Eric Hobsbawm who died yesterday at the age of 95 explained himself in his own terms on this fundamental point in the introduction to Age of Extremes :The short twentieth Century 1914-1991 he called The Century: a Bird’s Eye View. His synthesis on this most terrible and most transforming of centuries that shaped us all is roughly as follows:
The October Revolution of 1917 exposed the weaknesses of the globalising world order that collapsed in 1914. The Great Depression in the West between the wars gave communism its chance to show what it could do. Democracy shrunk mainly to North America but an emergency anti-fascist alliance of former opponents saved democracy. “The victory over Hitler’s Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won by the Red Army”. The war was followed by brief Golden Age up to about 1970 which is hard to explain. But during the period the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was not alone in fearing that communism might outstrip capitalism. True, it was communism that collapsed first, but has capitalism fared much better? The Cold War (though not a term he adopted), kept the lid on a lot problems that are now bubbling up to the surface.
While the The Guardian carries encomia from a panel of historians, including the pro imperialist Niall Ferguson, the Telegraph prints a denunciation from the historian of terror Michael Burleigh:
Throughout, there was a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Asked by the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff on television whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – not to mention the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm muttered in the affirmative.
Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges, while being manifestly nonplussed by the democratic transformations of Central Europe since 1989-90.
The Times’ verdict (£) of this son of the Enlightenment l is “ a peerless historian who transcended ideology.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London