What a strange human being the historian Eric Hobsbawm was. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a new report by the New Culture Forum on attitudes to Communism almost a century after the Russian Revolution. It includes this exchange between Michael Ignatieff and Professor Hobsbawm:
Ignatieff: In 1934 ... 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?
Hobsbawm: ... Probably not.
Hobsbawm: Because 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 ... The 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 ...
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter of a system that killed millions and, as Nick Cohen has pointed out, surely would have killed him.
Laden with honours throughout his life by the liberal democratic system, he went to his grave believing that all the murder had been worth it in order to achieve this deluded fantasy of a worker’s paradise. So powerful is ideology that a man can be brilliant in his field, which is after all the study of the human condition, and yet at the same time totally blind to one form of evil.
But then he was hardly alone, and many intelligent, well-informed people are still at best ambivalent about the crimes of the Soviet Union, Communist China and the other Marxist states. I hear there may even be one or two in politics today.
Perhaps this might not matter, except it has knock-on effect on attitudes to mainstream politics. How you view the extreme, pathological end of an ideology also influences how you look at its norms.
Dennis Sewell’s report 'The Second Time as Farce: The crimes of communism, retro-Bolshevism and the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution', features a great deal of polling of young people on their attitudes to Communism, most of which shows they’re quite ignorant about its crimes. But the most telling is the poll which asked people how they regarded 1917. Of those who had an opinion, roughly half viewed the Communist revolution as ‘something well-intentioned but that then went horribly wrong’; meanwhile over a quarter saw it as either ‘a largely positive event that gave ordinary people hope of overthrowing oppression’ or ‘something that showed it is possible to build a fairer society without capitalism’. The remainder held the view that it was ‘a tragic event born out of a murderous ideology that led to totalitarian dictatorship’.
So only a quarter of young people actually view Communism as intrinsically a bad idea that was bound to go wrong. They were just trying to make the world a better place!
As Sewell says:
We should approach the ‘good intentions’ justification with scepticism... One might, for instance, understand and forgive a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1930s joining the Communist Party, particularly if he has witnessed Jarrow marchers passing through town. But if he is still in the Party, or spying for the enemy 20 years later and cynically sending innocents to their deaths, then really this talk of ‘idealism’ and ‘good intentions’ will no longer wash.
Then there is the hopeful optimism, which genuinely expects that next time around communism will be different. Next time it will be without a Stalin. Next time – without a Pol Pot. These terrible men were the product of specific times and contingencies, so the argument goes, and it could all work if we behave well. But the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski dismissed the possibility of a democratic communism as ‘contradictory as a fried snowball’.
Exactly. If a type of aeroplane had crashed on every single occasion it was flown, a travel company that sent 200 people up in one wouldn't be forgiven for having good intentions. It would be regarded as criminally irresponsible.
Sewell points out that Communism is not studied as much as Nazism in schools, but it's more to do with deeper institutional bias in education. As he notes: ‘A YouGov poll for the National Union of Teachers in 2013 showed that only 12% of those planning to vote intended to vote Conservative. At the general election 18 months or so later, the Tories attracted 37% of the popular vote.'
He also quotes from the exam board Edexcel 'on the subject of Conservative ideology' in its most recent A-level Government and Politics syllabus, which he describes as 'downright scandalous'.
As well as ‘reform is preferable to revolution’ it defined conservatism as ‘fear of diversity’ and support for ‘social and state authoritarianism’. Conservatism views people as ‘limited, dependent and security-seeking creatures’ and supports ‘resurgent nationalism ... insularity and xenophobia’.
The entry on socialism describes it as defined ‘social stability and cohesion, social justice, happiness and personal development’ and the worst thing that can be said about it the allusion to ‘conflict as a motor of history’.
The actual marking schemes, used in real exams and deciding students’ real results, are even worse. The ‘correct’ answer as to why Conservatives might wish to alleviate poverty is out of ‘a pragmatic concern ... in the interests of the rich and prosperous’. Authority is valued because it ensures individuals ‘know “where they stand” and what is expected of them’.
Not one of the five suggestions given as a potential answer to the question ‘Why has the Coalition government tried to reform the benefits system?’ mentions improving lives by freeing people from the welfare trap; four are variations on ‘cutting costs’. The marking scheme for the question ‘The Coalition government’s deficit- reduction programme goes too far, too fast. Discuss’ provides nine bullet points in support and one against: hardly a discussion. But if teenagers didn’t regurgitate this stuff, they wouldn’t have got any marks.
Furthermore, taxpayers continue to pay to have International Socialism's reputation presented to the younger generation as benign. The Socialism Goes Global project, funded to the tune of £818,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, looks at:
'the transmission, circulation and reception of values, cultures, and beliefs between what western contemporaries called the ‘Second’ and ‘Third Worlds’. Following the Second World War, the countries of eastern Europe radically recast their global role by re-imagining their relationships with Africa, Latin America and south-east Asia. They developed new forms of global knowledge and new institutions to support a wide-ranging program of socialist ‘export’: theatre and film, economic and scientific expertise, humanitarian aid and political ideals – all were essential to eastern Europe’s grand effort to translate ‘socialist modernity’ globally. The project also reshaped the ‘socialist metropole’, as post-colonial cultures were imported into eastern Europe through, for example, mass media, political solidarity movements, and the presence of ‘Third World’ students, workers and exiles.'
One way to redress the balance might be to commemorate the victims of Communism in the same we do of those who died under Fascism, although I agree with Dennis that we should avoid it being a competition, because Nazism was worse. But we could still challenge what Ferdinand Mount called the ‘asymmetry of indulgence’ that characterises our society’s treatment of the extreme Left and Right.
In 1993 there were attempts in the US Congress to have a bill establishing a foundation to ‘educate the American public about the crimes of communism and honor the memory of more than 100,000,000 victims of communism around the world’.
However an actual day of remembrance has never really got off the ground, except 'European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism' on 23 August, which is the worst possible time of year, with many people on holiday. The obvious date is surely 1 May.
I don’t see much hope. Branding Communism as intrinsically evil would necessarily tarnish the wider Left, just as Nazism - the pathological variant of reaction - has permanently damaged conservatism. And since left-liberalism is the prestige faith, that is not going to happen.
I like to look at the children’s history books when I take my kids to the library each week, and these are raising a generation of true believers. Although far more deal with the Marxism of race, with a number of hagiographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, I picked one up the other day explaining the Chinese Revolution. Mao is described in bold letters as a ‘social visionary’ and I could find no mention of the millions who died, only a figure of 35,000 attributed to conflict during the period.
Two generations of people have been almost inoculated to the fundamental ideas of reaction, such as the division of humanity into in and out groups based on ancestry or faith, but are raised to be receptive to the quest for human equality based on the idea that humans can be remoulded by their environment; a theoretically less revolting idea, but one that has sent even more people to their graves.
In Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in a coalition in which their only demand is that they are able to control education, since all that matters in the long term is raising a generation to share your beliefs; in contrast issues like healthcare, defence, even the economy are ephemeral. If conservatives were seriously interested in their long-term prospects, they would think about setting up schools where they were able to do the same.