From 1994, celebrated historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm talks to Michael Ignatieff about his book Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century.
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HOBSBSAWM: We've all been engaged, for most of the 20th century,
in a sort of war of religion.
All of us.
We didn't believe in radiant tomorrows.
If you believe you are living in a world
which is crashing about your ears, your choice is a future or no future.
I am not the only person who ends the 20th century
with a feeling that things could have been different and better.
I think that very few people who end the 20th century
are not looking back with a certain amount of...
melancholy, and forward with a certain amount of unease.
Eric Hobsbawm is one of our most original historians.
His trilogy on the 19th century,
Age of Revolution, Age Of Capital and Age Of Empire,
has been acclaimed as one of the great achievements
of historical writing in recent decades.
Together with fellow Marxists E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill,
Hobsbawm's work changed the way we think about British history.
Now Eric Hobsbawm has turned for the first time to the 20th century
in his new book, Age Of Extremes The Short 20th Century,
published this week.
This is a history Eric Hobsbawm has not only written about, but lived.
He was born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution.
He's a Jew who was forced to flee from Hitler's Germany,
a communist through the Stalin years,
he stayed in the party in 1956 and he lived to see 1989
and now in the 1990's he sees the threat of a return to barbarism.
Eric, you've written important books
about the history of the 19th-century
about imperialism, about labouring men.
What are the challenges of writing the history of your own century,
the times you yourself have lived?
Well, one thing that makes it difficult to write
contemporary history, is that you need, it seems to me,
a certain amount of distance.
Emotional distance as well as chronological distance from it.
It's possible to do this now since the end of the '80s,
beginning of the '90s, because you can look back
and see the period from 1914 or thereabouts
to 1989, '91, thereabouts,
as something belonging together,
as not simply a tract of time but something which has its unity.
What then is the shape of that period, the short century?
I think the shape is
it begins with the breakdown of 19th-century society.
The breakdown, the reconstitution of capitalist society
on a different basis.
One of the by-products of this breakdown was the October Revolution
and the enormous effects, globally, which it had.
Now, this period is over
and we find ourselves in another of the...
at another of the historic moments
when we find the existing world system if you like,
the world economy, the world civilisation, working up towards -
or perhaps in the process of - a major restructuring, a major change,
in a direction which may not be easy to predict, impossible to predict.
What I noticed in your introduction to the book was a sense
of historical change destroying the continuity between generations -
erasing the past as it progresses
so that what's truly terrible about this century
is that people can't remember and it makes a historian's job more difficult,
it makes a historian's job more important,
but this there's this continual sense of the tape
of the historical past being erased from people's memory
by the sheer pace of change.
I think this applies to the younger generation,
the post-war generation, more than anything else and I think it happens
not so much because of the pace of change
but because of the change of character of society
which concentrates on the individual
rather than the individual as part of a community, a society,
a continuum between generations, and on the now,
namely buying things, enjoying things, here and now.
And that's the enemy of historical continuity and historical memory.
Yes, because for one thing, you see, the mechanisms...in the past
there are always mechanisms by which the young generation is linked
with the older generations.
-For instance, Marc Bloch...
-The great French historian.
..the great French historian, once pointed out that in actual fact
in agrarian societies continuity is maintained by jumping generations.
Children are brought up by grandparents
because parents go out and work in the fields
and so consequently children immediately get introduced
to what grandparents remember about their past and so on in turn.
And that's been broken up in our century.
This has been broken completely for a variety of reasons,
for one thing, indeed, the experience of the past is quite often
no longer relevant, or no longer seems relevant
to the younger generation
and consequently it becomes something different.
The only past which people,
very young people, really recognise, is their own personal past.
The rest is something like olden times.
I wanted to now shift tack and talk about the ways
in which your own life intersects with the history
because I think this is what makes it such an unusual book, the sense
in which your own life is implicated in the story you are telling.
I mean, if you begin right at the beginning - you're born
in Egypt, your father works for the Post and Telegraph Company.
It's a very imperial beginning, in a sense.
Your own life begins in the British imperial twilight.
I mean, is that how you see your own beginnings?
I have been conscious of, as it were, living in history
for a very long time, but that is essentially because
at a crucial stage,
you know, when I was, whatever it is, a young teenager,
I was lucky...
Yes, lucky enough, to live in Berlin just in the last years
when Hitler came to power
and if you don't feel that you are part of world history
at that time, you never will.
So you are a very odd case, in fact.
You're an English, Jewish boy,
growing up in the Berlin in which Hitler comes to power.
That's where we are. Now, at 14, you do something extraordinary -
you join the Communist Party. Why?
It isn't extraordinary, I can assure you that in 1931, '32,
it was not at all extraordinary for somebody to become a Communist.
Because you can't understand anything
about the first half of the 20th century -
at least from 1914 until the Second World War right in the middle -
without grasping that most people believed
the old world was coming to an end.
Inevitably. The old world was crashing,
we were living in the crashing of an old world.
And you had to look for an alternative.
It was either the fascist alternative or it was a socialist alternative
which in Germany in 1931, '32, would have meant Communism.
THEY SING PATRIOTIC ANTHEM
But Hitler is just about to take power. This is 1933.
Is it becoming dangerous to engage in student activity?
Obviously we had...
We knew that this was a major catastrophe.
I mean, I can still remember to this day,
the afternoon when I was walking back from school and saw the headline
"Hitler as"... you know, "Reich Chancellor."
Personal danger in the sense of being personally afraid,
that's a completely different matter.
Whether you are personally afraid or not is a private matter,
but, as it were, that you know that what is happening
is something dramatic and for a long period at least irreversible,
that we knew.
Is that a moment when you become conscious of Jewishness
or had you always been conscious of Jewishness?
There's no way in which you can be brought up in Central Europe
without being conscious of Jewishness if you are a Jew,
even though I wasn't that conscious of anti-Semitism,
because in some ways I was being treated as a foreigner,
an English boy, rather than anything,
but there's no way in which you can avoid
the consciousness of being a Jew, which I've always had.
You leave in 1933 for England,
but you don't leave because of thing Hitler.
-No, not because of Hitler.
-You're not Jewish refugees from Hitler.
We were really refugees from the slump, you might say.
Do you leave behind Jewish relatives in Austria and Germany?
-Yes, of course.
-What happens to them?
Some get out, some get into concentration camps and die.
At about this period, '33, '34...
..the kulak class is being liquidated
and millions of peasants are dying, starved or being deported by Stalin.
'33,'34, we're in the midst of the Five-Year Plan,
or the second Five-Year Plan, I can't remember.
But in any case millions of people are dying in the Soviet Experiment.
If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you
at that time? To your commitment to being a Communist?
This is a sort of academic question
to which an answer is simply not possible.
I don't actually know that it has any bearing
on the history that I have written.
If I were to give you a retrospective answer,
which is not the answer of an historian on something...
..I would have said probably not.
..in a period in which, as you might say,
mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal,
the chance of a new world being born in great suffering
would still have been worth backing.
Now, the point is,
looking back as a historian...
I would say that it was probably not.
The sacrifices which were made by the Russian people
were probably only marginally worthwhile.
Their sacrifices were enormous,
they were excessive by almost any standard, and unnecessarily great.
But I'm looking back on it now
and I'm saying that is because it turns out
that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution.
Had it been...
I'm not sure.
After all, do people now say,
"We shouldn't have had World War II
"because more people died in World War II than died in Stalin's Terror?"
So what that comes down to is saying
that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created,
the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified.
Which is exactly what people said about World War I and World War II.
Most people ended up by saying, "We think it was wrong in World War I."
Very few people ended up by saying,
"We think it was wrong in World War II."
But isn't there some sense
in which the radiant tomorrow can't, in principle, be built at that cost?
Because it can't then be a radiant tomorrow,
because human beings have memories
and what they remember is desolation.
In the first place, I think, you see,
a radiant tomorrow was rhetoric.
It was the rhetoric of the people that I believed in, too, that's true,
but it was pure rhetoric.
We didn't believe in radiant tomorrows.
We believed in A world rather than NO world.
We hoped that that would be a far better world.
We hoped that it would be, quote-unquote, "a perfect world",
in which, you know,
in some of us, when you're young enough,
you believed that there wouldn't be any unhappiness,
there wouldn't be any unhappiness in love in this new world,
but that isn't true,
even if, rationally, one knew that this wouldn't be the case,
nevertheless, the real secret of the whole business was,
if you believe you are living in a world
which is crashing about your ears,
your choice is a future or no future.
And it was that.
If you remember, and I quote it somewhere in my book,
the famous phrase by Walter Benjamin about the angel. Huh?
The angel of history.
The angel of history, you see?
That what the angel of history sees as he moves backwards into progress
is precisely the ruins
that are being accumulated by the process of history.
So, in a curious way,
even though we, as Communists,
and other Socialists, if you like,
were committed to an upbeat view of the future,
we really, living through the period in which we did,
we knew we weren't living through a period in which all you have to do
is to push the right kind of button
and turn the right kind of switch,
and everything's going to be lovely.
I don't think any serious left-winger
even believed that the Soviet Union,
that everything in the Soviet Union was lovely. It was an awful place,
even if you underestimated the number of people who were killed
and imprisoned in it.
You come to England in 1933.
-By 1936, you're in Cambridge.
Right through your Cambridge years, and then in the post-war years,
you're very actively in the Communist Party.
What did it mean to be a party member in those years?
Those of us who stayed in and committed ourselves,
I suppose the only thing to do is, it's a lifetime commitment
and a total commitment. It was the most important thing for us,
..again, I've got to return to what we said earlier on,
you didn't have the option, you see?
Either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future
and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future.
-When you say total commitment, I mean, how total?
If the party told you to do something,
it would have priority over everything else.
I mean, if the party said,
-"You can't be going out with that woman..."
-Really? That far?
It dictated your personal life
as well as your political convictions, completely?
In theory, at any rate.
Whether it always did so in practice, we don't know,
but in fact, to a surprising extent,
I mean, yes,
you know, I mean...
It would have complete priority.
You see, what I find very difficult to square here is
your obvious restless independence of mind
with this party belief. I can't see how someone like you
could remain within a kind of organisation of military Jesuits.
I think if you found
you couldn't actually hold still for what you were supposed to,
you just kept quiet.
You dealt with something else.
For instance, I never professionally wrote anything or said anything
about the Soviet Union or the Russian Revolution
because it was perfectly clear to me
that what you were officially supposed to say about it
was just not so, or at any rate,
contained large chunks which were simply not defensible.
When did you know that to be the case?
Oh, I mean, from the moment that
they started saying, whatever it is,
that Trotsky had been an agent of the British intelligence service
going back to 1918, that kind of stuff,
which was even before the war.
Well, if you did that,
the option was, either you wrote about the Soviet Union,
in which case you couldn't be in the Communist Party,
or you kept quiet and wrote about something else.
Did you ever go to the Soviet Union in this early period
and what impression did it make on you if you did?
I went to the Soviet Union
for the first and the only time, really,
except for relatively short trips, which don't count,
in the year after Stalin died,
when they were just beginning to open up.
It made a very poor impression on me,
not so much because you could tell
about all these awful things which had happened - you could merely see
that it was an extraordinarily poor and backward country,
but one knew that after the war and the destruction.
It was a country in which one didn't recognise any Communists.
Meaning we knew what Communists were like
and the only thing that one could see in Russia
were people who lived in a Communist country
and made their career in a Communist country.
Now, of course, this was untypical in the early '50s
because the guys had yet to come back from the camps
and later on... Or from exile, and later on,
one came across, again, people who were recognisable,
-but whereas in...
-What you're saying there is interesting -
that is, the people who actually burned with an original faith
had been put in prison, in fact.
-I don't know, but you didn't come across them.
Whereas, for instance,
in the "People's Democracies," quote-unquote,
you did recognise these people.
You may have thought, you know,
"These have now become bureaucrats" or this, that or the other
but you could recognise how they worked, how their minds worked.
They worked the way we worked. Not in Russia.
What's it like to be in a church,
assuming that Communism is a kind of secular religion,
when you know, having seen with your own eyes,
that the central mystery at the centre of the church,
that is, the state of the Soviet Union, is rotten?
How do you live with that?
The Soviet Union...you see, for us,
in the West, was not the central mystery.
Socialism, Communism, were the central mystery.
The Soviet Union is where it started
and for practical purposes, you absolutely had to work with it
because that was...between the wars, that was the only game in town.
There was no other kind of socialism.
If that had gone, there would be no chance at all.
In effect, you couldn't get anywhere without the Soviet Union.
And, you see, that was true.
Without Stalin, without the Red Army,
we wouldn't have won the war.
A couple of months ago,
I was at a conference in Italy about Nazi atrocities during the war,
the memory of World War II,
and there were people there from Russia too
who regarded the entire subject as merely a conspiracy
to stop people talking about the awfulness of Stalinism
and one of the Italians got up and said, "You must realise,
"Stalin was terrible for YOU.
"For US, it meant liberation."
Let me tell you... Let me tell you a story, Eric,
-that I grew up with about Claud Cockburn, who was in the party.
And they asked Claud Cockburn
what the experience was of being in the party
and he told the following, admittedly very sexist, joke,
about a southern belle in a rape trial
who is asked by the judge,
"When," he asks the southern belle, "did the rape actually occur?"
And the belle says, "Judge, it was rape, rape, rape all summer long."
But I mean, wasn't being in the party,
to an intelligent intellectual like you, at a certain point,
rape, rape, all summer long,
in the sense that you had '56, the Hungarian invasion.
You then had Prague, '68, the Soviet invasion again.
You had one constant thing, that was just unjustifiable, to justify.
'56 was the real turning point.
This was when the international communist movement went to pieces.
Until that time, it didn't.
In fact, it was held together, probably by the Cold War,
which prolonged, actually, the existence of the Soviet Union
and the existence of the international Communist movement.
So before that,
you had a number of things which were increasingly implausible,
not so much the actual terror,
because we really did not know,
nobody knew, how many people were killed.
Even now, they don't know.
Even the anti-Stalinist outsiders don't know
because the estimates about everything in the Soviet Union
are pure speculation. I mean...
Are you actually seriously telling me
that the Stalinist crimes are much exaggerated?
No, I'm not telling you that. I'm simply saying that nobody knows.
What we say about Stalin so far is...
Depends very largely on
the attitude of the people
who are making the estimates.
For instance, on the gulags, there is a difference.
All the estimates are terrible and indefensible
because they all run into millions.
But the estimates range from between
3-4 million to between 13-14 million.
And with a range like this,
they are not serious estimates,
they aren't even orders of magnitude.
All you can say is that whatever actually turns out in the end,
it was inhuman, indefensible,
and there is no way in which
you can minimise it.
What happens in '56 to you?
Do you leave the party over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, or not?
No, we protested, all of us. I protested.
Others did too, but I personally didn't leave,
but most of the others did.
Why didn't you leave? And why didn't you leave for so long after?
It's very different for people who became
communists in Berlin
between 1931 and 1933.
Even though for most of us,
in this country and elsewhere,
the basic historic experience is that of the 1930s.
The broad popular front one. This is still the way I think about politics,
effectively and politically.
In fact, the commitment goes earlier.
And in a way...
..I, in the first place,
I never wanted to belong to the people
who had left and turned against.
I don't want to be in that company,
I didn't want to be in that company.
In the second place,
I did not want to betray the people I knew
who had actually
sacrificed their lives and lost.
You see, a lot of people,
people like myself,
had very easy lives, by and large.
But there were others of my friends
and comrades who haven't.
And, you know, I can show you
photographs of people and say,
"This man was killed
"in the Resistance.
"This man was killed..."
These were my contemporaries.
And I do not wish, I did not wish,
by renouncing this past, to diminish
the enormous commitment for the good
which this movement represented
and I still believe represents.
It just so happens that those of us
who were Communists in the West
never had anything much to, er,
shall we say, reproach ourselves with.
We fortunately never became governments
and were expected to do the things
which Communists in government in the East were expected to do.
We were on the right side.
What we did was, on the whole, on the right side in this country.
All we can say is that when we talked about Russia,
which was neither here nor there
as far as I was politically concerned,
we were either fools,
or liars, or naive,
but that's quite a different thing
from saying that God failed.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
In what sense do you still feel
there is something left to communism as a project?
Because it's not clear to me in the book what you think is left
that's viable politically about the communist project.
Communist Party - no, nothing.
Communism as something...
a state and society
organised on the model
on which it was in the Soviet Union
and on the model of the Soviet Union -
no, no future.
I believe - as I try to show in the book -
that, in a sense, this was a peculiar historical freak,
if you like,
that for understandable reasons,
the revolution triumphs in a country
in which communism...
or socialism as Marx and other socialists conceived it,
could not conceivably have been built.
So what is viable? What remains?
What remains is, in fact, that if the world is to have a future,
it will have to be, as it were,
it cannot rely on the spontaneous operations of the capitalist system.
It has to rely on, to some extent,
human communities taking conscious responsibility
for their welfare and their future.
Whether this implies something like...
whether this, that,
or all industries are to be run by the government,
these seem to me to be second-order questions.
But that it cannot be left to simply
the free play of the market,
or some equivalent. That seems to me to be absolutely basic
and that remains absolutely basic, it seems to me.
-But that just makes you a good left-wing social democrat.
That doesn't make you a communist.
That is probably true that in a sense,
becoming a good left-wing social democrat
is the way in which Marxism
was clearly developing
before the Russian Revolution.
Marxism didn't actually have the reputation of being
essentially a theory of
revolution and barricades.
It was anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists which had this.
The idea of the revolution barricades
came back into Marxism
via October, you see?
Mmm. But what we come down to
at the end of it
is that you made a commitment
when you were 14 which was -
we either have socialism or we have barbarism,
and in a sense, you've remained true to that all your life.
I hope so.
And, alas, we haven't got socialism,
but we do have an increase in barbarism.
What exactly do you mean by barbarism?
I mean firstly that, in some sense,
the rules of social behaviour
which tend to govern all societies -
must govern them if they aren't to...
disintegrate into some kind of
Hobbesian anarchy - are under threat
or under disintegration
because of the change,
changes in society which we have seen and through which are going?
But, I mean...
Which changes are producing
barbarism within the capitalist world?
For one thing, the growth of big cities,
and I suppose I would say...
the fact that the mechanisms
for keeping these things under control in the past
are either weakened or may possibly disappear.
Which mechanisms do you mean?
The state, for one thing.
You yourself, if I may say so,
have pointed out that
one of the reasons why, in Yugoslavia,
you find that there is this extraordinary
uncontrolled outburst of almost...
erotic, I think you say, violence
is that these countries have got used,
over a long period, to government and law
having the monopoly of legitimate violence.
This now disappears.
There are no other rules about how to treat violence and what to do,
and the result is indeed cruelty,
So barbarism means, to use your own phrase,
the democratisation of violence?
That, I think, is one aspect of it.
That's obviously the aspect which we mostly notice.
But at the same time, it seems to me
that barbarism is also much more specifically
the gradual weakening of the standards and aspirations
of 18th-century rationalism
and 18th-century enlightenment.
Finally, the last sentence of your book, as I recall, says,
"Unless we have a changed society, we'll be going into darkness."
A very sombre conclusion, and I wondered if
you could put some flesh and bones on that
very tenacious dream of a changed society
that still obviously drives you and still obviously inspires you.
It's difficult to imagine because we are gradually getting used,
you see, to living under conditions
which, in the days of our parents, my parents,
or grandparents, would have been regarded as intolerable.
And so what is darkness, you see?
Everybody thinks a catastrophe
is something which happens
from one day to the next, like a big earthquake, or something like this.
But what we are not easily used to is a slow-motion catastrophe,
such as we can see happening in large parts of Africa today.
It is possible for human life to go on and people adjusting themselves
to living in the sort of conditions in which people have been living
for 20 years in Angola and Mozambique,
for, whatever it is, ten years or more in Somalia,
for five or six years in Liberia and a number of other places.
No doubt, in some way or other,
something like life,
on the basis of being nasty, brutish and short,
can nevertheless become regularised again.
And yet, looking at it from where we stand
and looking at it not only from our hopes,
but from the experience...
After all, living in Liberia or Mozambique
even in the early 1970s - or Somalia - was different.
Living in Tajikistan was different.
It wasn't ideal, it was even bad,
but it was better than what there is now.
And I think when to say darkness,
it doesn't mean that we shall all, kind of, commit suicide,
it means we shall get used to living under conditions
which should not be tolerated.
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