Some glimpses of revolutionary insight - and then darkness



Revised and Updated Edition By Eric Hobsbawm

Abacus, 2007

368 pages, $27.95(pb)

From a capitalist publisher's point of view it is easy to see why this book, first published in 1973, has been reissued in a new edition. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm is a respected and widely read authority. His classic modern history series (including Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire and Age of Extremes) has set a high standard for others to follow. Hobsbawm's reputation alone will ensure this new edition sells enough to turn a tidy profit.

But from the perspective of a reader searching for insight into the revolutionary movements of the 20th Century it is difficult to appreciate the reasons for reprinting this collection of 35-year-old essays and book reviews. Although a handful of more recent articles have been included in this updated version, the book is largely unchanged from its first publication. Overall the essays fall far short of the thoroughness that have marked his best historical works. The political analysis of the book is marred by the author's failure to come to terms with Stalinism.

Revolutionaries, however, is not without some worth. To the extent that they are developed, Hobsbawm's discussions of the role of intellectuals in revolutionary movements and the history of urban insurrections are interesting. He approaches history and politics in order to investigate the dynamics of progressive social change. This orientation clearly distinguishes him from the conservative, mainstream historians who study the past only to help justify today's status quo.

At his best Hobsbawm demonstrates his capacity for profound insight. A 1965 essay on the Vietnam War makes the prophetic prediction — 10 years before the war ended — that the brutal US-led invasion was doomed to failure. The essay correctly anticipated that despite the determined resistance of the Vietnamese people and their desire to freely determine their own affairs the US administration would still pursue the war with the only means left to them — a policy of "illusions and terror".

Drawing on the example of the then recently concluded Algerian war of independence, Hobsbawm argued that US "terror" would be increasingly applied to the Vietnamese civilian population in the form of bombings, indiscriminate civilian killings, mass reprisals and torture. The "illusion" of success in the war against a dehumanised enemy would be spread among the population at home. If these illusions gained widespread acceptance then "it can always be argued that just one more effort will tip the balance: more troops, more bombs, more massacres, more 'social missions'".

Among other things this demonstrates that the current day warmongers in the US, Australia and Britain are anything but original. The justifications for the ongoing Iraq war we repeatedly hear from George Bush, John Howard and their media backers follow this strategy almost exactly.

Many of the essays in Revolutionaries are concerned with the history of the Moscow aligned Communist Parties (CPs) in Western Europe. It is here that Hobsbawm's analysis is most questionable. Although these parties (especially the French and Italian CPs) enjoyed significant working-class support in the post-war years they have all suffered a massive decline, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Politically these parties have moved further to the right. The remnants of the French and Italian CPs have even participated in capitalist governments responsible for attacks on working-class living standards.

It is unfortunate that this "revised and updated" edition of Revolutionaries includes no consideration of the subsequent evolution of these parties and the reasons for their decline. But this omission would be less grating if Hobsbawm's reflections on the earlier history of these parties were not so unsatisfactory.

An article titled "Confronting Debate: The German Communist Party" demonstrates Hobsbawm's hesitation to draw candid conclusions from the German KPD's failure to prevent the rise of fascism. In the early 1930s the KPD still enjoyed the active support of millions despite their inability to take advantage of the revolutionary upsurges of 1919, 1921 and 1923. Hobsbawm correctly acknowledges that the German party followed a "suicidal policy" in refusing to propose a united front with the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) against the threat of Nazism. Instead the German Communists irrationally attacked the mass-based SPD as "social fascists". They argued that the advent of a fascist dictatorship should not be feared by German workers as it would herald the communist revolution shortly thereafter.

The resulting disunity among anti-fascist forces in Germany created the conditions for Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

This false policy was imposed on the KPD by the Stalinised bureaucracy of the Soviet Union during its ultraleft "Third Period" phase. The horrors of Hitler's genocidal dictatorship became the heavy price the world would pay for the KPD's suicidal course. It ranks as one of the greatest crimes of Stalinism.

But what Hobsbawm admits on the one hand he seeks to take away with the other. His essay concludes that "perhaps [the KPD] failed for German reasons: because of the inability of the German left to overcome the historic weaknesses of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat" particular to Germany. In a later 1996 article Hobsbawm writes that the poor economic conditions of the Great Depression best explain the KPD's failure to halt the rise of fascism.

In the same vein Hobsbawm's assessment of the appalling role of the Spanish CP during the Spanish Civil War dovetails with those of the most brazen Stalinist apologists. In his article "The Spanish Background" he agrees that the Spanish Civil War was undeniably a popular, social revolution pitted "against armed counter-revolution and the gigantic, and the last analysis fatal, internal weaknesses of [the] revolution".

But he fails to emphasise that one of the major "fatal internal weaknesses" of this revolution was the anti-revolutionary policy of the Spanish Communists themselves who actively repressed and persecuted those sections of the revolutionary movement outside of their control. This coincided with the prevailing agenda in Moscow in the mid-1930s, which was to subordinate revolutionary movements across Europe to the short term foreign policy considerations of the conservative Stalinist bureaucracy.

The ensuing confusion and demoralisation among the Republican forces is a major factor explaining the victory of General Franco's counter-revolutionary forces in 1938. Hobsbawm, however, offers the curious, circular argument that the very fact of Franco's victory means such criticisms of the Spanish Communist policy "remain academic". Against the evidence he still insists that the communist "policy was the one that could have won the [civil] war".

Hobsbawm also proves too willing to excuse the failure of the French CP to provide revolutionary leadership in France during the famous May 1968 uprising. A 1969 article included in Revolutionaries defends the French CP from widespread allegations that they helped derail the revolutionary potential of the mass movement. Although he admits that the French CP "consistently trailed behind the masses" and even failed the "test of a revolutionary movement" he asserts at least equal blame should be laid at the feet of the "character of the mass movement" which had "no political aims in itself". This argument blurs the fact that it is the responsibility of a revolutionary party to convince the spontaneous mass movement of the "political aim" of taking state power — not the other way around.

For these reasons Hobsbawm's Revolutionaries remains a frustrating book from a Marxist historian capable of much better. Unlike many of Hobsbawm's other books this collection of essays only has a modest relevance for revolutionaries today.