The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

Mini Teaser: Ten years after its death, communism's elegists--Eric Hobsbawn chief among them--have yet to give up the ghost.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

The funeral of communism will last for thirty years, prophesied François Furet in 1995. "The funeral procession will be accompanied by an immense crowd", he added, "and there will be much weeping. Even young people will join the cortege, trying here and there to give it the air of a rebirth." Hopes of a rebirth were vain, for the faith in communism was irretrievably tattered, but the funeral would last for years because "anti-communism remains more than ever a damnable heresy . . . more universally condemned in the West than in the great days of victorious anti-fascism." Furet was not thinking only of France; he explained that in the United States the revisionist mourning party would prolong the funeral indecently, laboring as diligently as the Holocaust deniers but ever so much more respectably.

Jean-François Revel has lately demonstrated how prescient Furet was, in a polemical tract called La Grande parade, where parade is a fencing term for a parry, meaning in this case the desperate riposte of those who refuse to let communism go into what communists themselves used to call the dustbin of history. After glancing at Revel's account of this French fencing, we shall see that the same parry and thrust are being deployed in English over communism's corpse, notably in the work of the veteran historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Revel says that, whereas in the early 1990s communism and anything like it was definitively proven to be a failure, a vast historical catastrophe, by 2000 we were confronted with a resurgence of excuses, attenuations, forgetfulness and plain misrepresentation, all in favor of a renewed belief in socialism. "The years 1980 to 1990 were the decade of the admitted collapse of communism, as well as the relative and acknowledged failure of democratic socialisms. The years 1990 to 2000 will have been the decade of largely successful efforts to obliterate the lessons of those historic experiences."

Nothing shows this better than the reception since 1997 of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, a massive compilation by a team of French historians of the infamies committed by and in the name of communism over seventy years around the world. Clinically factual and amply documented, this work was denounced, in quarters from the Left-leaning Le Monde all the way to the far Left, as an apology for fascism, a maneuver in favor of the racist National Front, a diversion from the trial of the collaborator Maurice Papon, or simply (the pitiful resources of invective already beggared) a "fraud" and an "imposture." Several of the academics among the editors of the work came under intolerable pressure from their university superiors to recant in public.

The parry is much the same in the United States as in France or England, or anywhere else that Rupert Murdoch prints newspapers. To wit, any attempt at a balance sheet of decades of tyranny and genocide perpetrated in the name of utopia can only proceed from a nostalgia for the Cold War dressed up as an interest in history. That's all old stuff; why drag it up now? Are the hawks bitter at losing their stock in trade, anti-communist rhetoric, and are the eternal reactionaries still enraged by those who, in their thirst for social justice, admittedly made some generous errors but who meant well? Such views are common in the French media, whereas in the United States they are mostly confined to academe, where the professors who invented the notion "totalitarianism" now consider that it is a misleading term, never to be applied to pluralist regimes such as those of Stalin and Brezhnev, while they dismiss their elders--Malia, Ulam, Pipes and Conquest--as Cold War Sovietologists.

There is resistance to this intellectual fencing even in France, as appeared lately in one of those squalid disagreements that Parisians like to call literary scandals. It concerned a massive tome by a British communist historian, which no one among French publishers wanted to bring out in a French translation, whereupon the author cried, "Censor-ship!" In Paris the superannuated courtesans of the communist cause, who had just discovered they had been innocent virgins all along, sprang to the author's defense behind their standard bearer, Le Monde Diplomatique. The book was Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes,4 which was enjoying some success in Britain and the United States and in numerous translations elsewhere, but which Parisian publishers en bloc rejected as unsellable in a country abreacting from its long infatuation with Stalinism. Said Pierre Nora of Éditions Gallimard, France had been "the longest and most deeply Stalinized [Western] country" but it was now in "decompression", which entailed hostility to anything that could, from near or far, recall that former pro-Soviet, pro-communist age, including plain Marxism. Eric Hobsbawm cultivates this attachment to the revolutionary cause as a point of pride. . . . But in France at this moment, it goes down badly.

Less charitably, Revel dismissed the book as "pure propagandist hocus-pocus", a "pro-totalitarian manifesto" put out by "an old and incurable British Stalinist" and "an imperturbable negationist" of communism's crimes.

The mourners at the funeral were determined to prove Nora wrong. They wished to demonstrate that there was indeed a ready market in France for a book designed to console true believers for the demise of communism, to assure them that "real" socialism had not failed, and that liberal capitalism remained the demon to exorcise. They did what socialists always do when the market lets them down: They wangled a subsidy out of the Minister for Culture of the ruling socialist government and gave this taxpayers' money to an obscure Belgian publisher for bringing out Hobsbawm's book in French. Helped by the notoriety generated during this dispute, the translation is selling well. The story ends with everyone convinced they were proven right.

Actually, we need not rely on that book to show Hobsbawm as the very paragon of a mourner at communism's funeral, because he has recently produced another and up-to-the-minute exercise in apologetics, On the Edge of the New Century. However, before we leave the subject of publishing works on the sudden death of communism, it is worth looking at the fortunes of a masterpiece in the genre, which has had a curious difficulty getting into English. Vladimir Bukovsky, who was rescued from twelve years in Soviet insane asylums and prisons by the Brezhnev-Pinochet prisoner exchange, wondered why there had been no equivalent of the Nuremberg trials when communism collapsed, why several thousand known criminals got off scot-free, and why anyone in the West who raised such questions was scorned as a sick cold warrior, nostalgic for the nuclear nightmare. So he wrote the sort of indictment that would be tabled at Moscow trials patterned on Nuremberg.

An engrossing side issue that Bukovsky took up was the exploitation by the internal Soviet propaganda machine of the sayings of Western sympathizers and fellow-travelers, whom Bukovsky was cruel enough to name. In translation, these passages would cause some embarrassment to people who today claim they bear no responsibility for Soviet crimes but whose words were bullets--no blood on their hands but blood all over their fountain pens, Revel would say. Given the mood Pierre Nora has described in France, this powerful Russian work found a ready French translation, but no reputable publisher could be found for an English version. It languished untranslated as long as Hobsbawm's book had, before it was taken up and mangled by a minor American publisher. The print run appears to have been paltry and the work shrank from 616 pages in French to 256 pages in English. Communism's mourners are as active in getting consolatory books translated as they are in hampering the translation of disturbing ones.

So soon after it ended, histories of the twentieth century are plentiful. There are notable ones by Clive Ponting, J.M. Roberts, Agatha Ramm and Martin Gilbert. Special mention should be made of a 1998 work by Hobsbawm's successor as professor of history at Birkbeck College, London--Mark Mazower, an author free of the partisanship of his predecessor--entitled The Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. Hobsbawm beat the field by chronicling a "short" twentieth century, which ended in 1991, so that the first version of his history was out by 1994. He stopped in 1991 because that was when the Soviet communist party went down corps et biens, and the story as he told it had communism as the tragic hero of the century; when it fell, the tale was told.

Historians are of course entitled to frame their narrative as the answer to a particular question; there is nothing wrong with such selectivity. A philosopher even says, "History books, indeed, ought commonly to be more, not less, selective than they are; greater selectivity would be a step towards objectivity, not away from it." There remains an obligation to ensure that answers to one question do not contradict the answers to other equally valid questions. Each historian cannot do his own thing regardless of others in the field. For example, one cannot tell the story of the Soviet Union and the Cold War as though it were all about the effort to realize a communist ideal and had nothing to do with nationalism and ethnicity. Hobsbawm tries to do just that. In his history, as in his essays on nationalism, he is slave to the Marxist prejudice, as old as the Communist Manifesto, that "the workers have no fatherland", and so nationalism and ethnicity could never determine their actions whenever socialism was an option.

Essay Types: Essay