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When the facts change, Mr Hobsbawm, it's OK to change your mind
on October 25, 2007
I read this book for two reasons: 1) To better understand the Marxist mind, especially in light of the great Marxist defeats (or at minimum, setbacks) of the twentieth century, 2) To understand the profound influence Hobsbawm has had on the intellectual left and centre-left in modern politics.
Hobsbawm's ideas surrounding history and the forces which influence it are unabashedly Marxist, and it's easy to see why they must have seemed a credible alternative to the fascism, particularly given Hobsbawm's experience as a young boy in 1930s Berlin. Indeed, Hobsbawn does a fine job of illustrating the the indispensable role of international, Soviet-backed communism in defeating fascism and winning WWII. However, after WWII, one gets the impression that his ideas are rather static and his analysis of world events increasingly out of touch until finally, he appears bewildered as to why the world has ended up the way it has. For example, he seems genuinely surprised by the post-war economic success of capitalist countries--many of whom were former enemies of the USA which later fell into he US sphere of influence (ie, Germany and Japan). He describes the economic success of these countries and compares their performance to countries in the Soviet sphere thus:
"The USA, by a combination of historical luck and policy, had seen its dependencies turn into economies so flourishing that they outweighed its own. . . . On the other hand, the Soviets' allies and dependents never walked on their own two feet."
He then goes on to justify this by saying that the contest was "a war of unequals from the start" and that "the interaction of Soviet-type economics with the capitalist world economy . . . made socialism vulnerable".
To the sceptical reader, this smacks of a gloss-over. Why were countries in the US sphere "lucky"? If Marxism and/or state planning are indeed better ways to organise economies, why did US policies, e.g. Marshall aid + the encouragement of semi-autonomous, at least partly free market economies, work better in the long term? The question is never asked. Hobsbawm even goes as far as to say that the Soviets should have reformed their economy in the early 1970s instead of selling oil to the world market, and relying on loans, but this belies the broader point of what compelled the Soviets to do this in the first place. It feels as if Hobsbawm is reeling for a good explanation but cannot come up with one.
Examples of Hobsbawm's Marxist beliefs' inability to explain history increase progressively after 1940. Hobsbawm never fully addresses the issue of the millions of people who died in Soviet labour camps. He doesn't, in this reader's opinion, explain adequately the reasons for the construction of the Berlin wall--or the Soviet Union's motives in implementing the widespread prohibition of free movement outside the Soviet sphere. These are just a few very obvious examples, but there are many more.
Hobsbawm clearly has legitimate criticisms of the US and its foreign policy after the war, and he obviously believes in the precepts of Marxism and has valid disagreements with free market ideology. But, in this reader's opinion, he never adequately explains why communism appears to have, at he very least, had very serious competition from free market capitalism and liberal / social democratic politics, which, at the time Hobsbawm wrote The Age of Extremes, seemed to have won a significant battle in the war of ideologies.
Hobsbawm's book, therefore has failed to help this reader understand rationally why Marxists think the way the do, and it has certainly failed to help him understand the socialist leanings of scores of British, European, and American politicians. After 585 pages, other than sentimentality, dogma, and dog-headedness, there appears to be little rationale for the ideology Hobsbawm so fully espouses.
-- This is not to say that history does not have a way of proving the rationalist wrong. Still, Keynes's words may be relevant: "When the facts change, I change my mind".