June 15, 2003

Eric Hobsbawm, Still An Unrepentant

Eric Hobsbawm, Still An Unrepentant Communist at the Grand Old Age of 85

Eminent neo-Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm pens a veritable tome in Le Monde Diplomatique that is up, in full and in English, over at Counterpunch. If you can't handle the length of the piece--the Guardian has a truncated version here. [Come to think of it, my post is a bit long too, apologies!]

Below are some key parts of the piece penned by the man who once stated, when asked whether he thought the chance of bringing about a communist utopia was worth any sacrifice, "yes".

"Even the sacrifice of millions of lives?" he was asked. "That's what we felt when we fought the second world war," he replied.

Ah, the easy remove of the intellectual romanticizing Stalin and ilk!

But let's turn to his take on more recent events:

EH: "There are important differences in the structure of the domestic state and its ideology. The British empire had a British, but not a universal, purpose, although naturally its propagandists also found more altruistic motives. So the abolition of the slave trade was used to justify British naval power, as human rights today are often used to justify US military power. On the other hand the US, like revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia, is a great power based on a universalist revolution--and therefore based on the belief that the rest of the world should follow its example, or even that it should help liberate the rest of the world. Few things are more dangerous than empires pursuing their own interest in the belief that they are doing humanity a favour."

Hobsbawm may be referring to the opening grafs of the U.S. national security strategy unfurled last September:

"In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

This is the stuff of a universalist revolution? It's pretty non-alarming fare, no? Regardless, however, a couple grafs later the strategy document turns to the real issues that keep U.S. policymakers up at night (and no, it's not revolutionary zeal even for supposed messianic characters like Wolfy):

"Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government. Today, that task has changed dramatically. Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us. "

Self-defense in the face of a post 9/11 world? Crazy Trotskyist perma-rev stuff? Or what you would expect responsible stewards of our national security policy to deal with during challenging times?

But let's also take a look at Hobsbawm's contention that we have been going to war on behalf (allegedly via propagandistic distortion, of course) of "human rights." Let's look at recent uses of U.S. military power.

Sure, "human rights" were used to justify US military power in Bosnia and Kosovo. Better to let the parties continue to massacre themselves? Surely Mr. Hobsbawm, a committed Communist, must have been saddened to see the Titoist project run so afoul with leaders like Slobodan Milosevic or Franjo Tudjman at the helm.

Hobsbawm himself has written: "History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented. The past legitimizes. The past gives a much more glorious background to a present that doesn't have that much to show for itself."

So perhaps he wouldn't object to the use of NATO airpower (even approved by Germany's Greens with respect to Kosovo) to help stem what would likely have been large scale massacres of Kosovars based on resurrected mythologies from the Serbian past?

Post 9/11, the U.S. fought two wars in each of Afghanistan and Iraq. The first was fought in direct reaction to the Taliban's refusal to hand over the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. So what's Hobsbawm's take on 9/11?

Hobsbawm has said this about 9/11: "9/11 did not threaten the United States, it merely was a terrible human tragedy which briefly humiliated the U.S..."

Odd take on 9/11 isn't it, particularly the use of the word humiliated? I don't think Americans felt humilated. As a resident of downtown Manhattan at the time, I think most fellow city dwellers felt an amorphous mixture of fear, anger, pride in the resilience of the city, deep sadness for the thousands of victims and their families, among other emotions. But humiliation? No.

A vignette and slight digression. Maybe four days after the attacks, I was in Union Square still trying to get a handle on what had just happened in lower Manhattan. From one corner of the park, a band from Massachusetts (I think?) wearing period Colonial uniforms and blaring pipes and drums began marching through the park. A motley crew comprised of construction workers, professionals, models, techies, homeless, NYPD, local shopkeepers and other curious lookers-on stood and listened to songs like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

A surreal scene that was hard to imagine taking place in non-heartland, sophisticated, postmodern, post-bubble Manhattan. Except that 9/11 had happened. But one thing is sure. This nevertheless still improbable conclave certainly wasn't evocative of feelings of humiliation but of rejuvenation and strength in the face of the tremendous tragedy and adversity that had befell the city (and, indeed, the nation).

But contra Hobsbawm, many of us did feel threatened. Even before the anthrax in October--people felt that all bets were off, that anything could happen. And we weren't panicked idiots to think so. It would be irresponsible in the extreme to not be planning for a WMD attack on a major city in the coming months and years. Anything can still happen.

Which brings me back to Hobsbawm. The U.S. didn't go into Afghanistan claiming it was necessarily going to fight the good fight for human rights. The U.S. went in to respond to a threat--a perilous transnational terror group mostly, at the time, headquartered in that country--and to deny them an important sanctuary and kill as many of their operatives and fellow-travellers as possible.

Iraq too, contra Hobsbawm's piece, was never portrayed as mostly a war to liberate the Iraqi people. It was about denying a brutal dictator access to what might still prove to have been more than a rudimentary WMD program.

The strategic paradigm and posture of the U.S. changed post 9/11 so that a leader traditionally hostile to U.S. interests, who had tried to kill a U.S. President, who had actually used WMD, who had started two regional wars, who was a neo-Stalinist thug--was deemed a threat to the U.S. that needed to be removed in the interests of American self-defense.

More from Hobsbawm's piece:

EH: "Effectively, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the only superpower, which no other power could or wanted to challenge. The sudden emergence of an extraordinary, ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power is hard to understand, all the more so since it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies developed during the cold war, nor the interests of the US economy. The policies that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended. But patently a public assertion of global supremacy by military force is what is in the minds of the people who are at present dominating, or at least half-dominating, the policy-making in Washington. Its purpose remains unclear."

U.S. policy is "mad," "extraordinary," "ruthless." If we were marching into Damascus, Teheran and points beyond I might better understand Hobsbawm's hyperbole. Given the limited military action that has taken place since 9/11, I just don't get it (except that it bespeaks knee-jerk hard left anti-Yank diatribes heard myriad times from the likes of Tony Benn or George Galloway--less often from intelligent quarters like these as no one can fairly deny Hobsbawm's immense talents as a historian).

EH: "Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy the whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, to leave friendly governments behind them and go home again. This will not work. In military terms, the Iraq war was very successful. But, because it was purely military, it neglected the necessities of what to do if you occupy a country--running it, maintaining it, as the British did in the classic colonial model of India. The model "democracy" that the Americans want to offer to the world in Iraq is a non- model and irrelevant for this purpose. The belief that the US does not need genuine allies among other states, or genuine popular support in the countries its military can now conquer (but not effectively administer) is fantasy."

Here he has a point. Paul Bremer has his hands full. We need experts who truly understand the region and don't adopt a fortress mentality. But as Andrew Sullivan points out today, the situation in post-war Iraq is not quite a dire as many like to portray. Give us a chance Mr. Hobsbawm!

And by the way, where has the U.S. said she doesn't "need genuine allies among other states"? Again turning to the national security document:

"There is little of lasting consequence that the United States can accomplish in the world without the sustained cooperation of its allies and friends in Canada and Europe. Europe is also the seat of two of the strongest and most able international institutions in the world: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has, since its inception, been the fulcrum of transatlantic and inter-European security, and the European Union (EU), our partner in opening world trade."

Hardly brutish Crawford unilateralism, no?

EH: "The emptiness of the policy is clear from the way the aims have been put forward in public relations terms. Phrases like "axis of evil", or "the road map" are not policy statements, but merely sound bites that accumulate their own policy potential. The overwhelming newspeak that has swamped the world in the past 18 months is an indication of the absence of real policy. Bush does not do policy, but a stage act. Officials such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz talk like Rambo in public, as in private. All that counts is the overwhelming power of the US. In real terms they mean that the US can invade anybody small enough and where they can win quickly enough. This is not a policy. Nor will it work. The consequences of this for the US are going to be very dangerous. Domestically, the real danger for a country that aims at world control, essentially by military means, is the danger of militarisation. The danger of this has been seriously underestimated. Internationally, the danger is the destabilising of the world. The Middle East is just one example of this destabilisation--far more unstable now than it was 10 years ago, or five years ago. US policy weakens all the alternative arrangements, formal and informal, for keeping order. In Europe it has wrecked the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation--not much of a loss; but trying to turn NATO into a world military police force for the US is a travesty. It has deliberately sabotaged the EU, and also systematically aims at ruining another of the great world achievements since 1945, prosperous democratic social welfare states."

Where to begin with all this? First off, the argument that NATO is either a) dead or, even more fictitious, that the U.S. killed if off, along with allegations that the U.S. sabotaged the EU, is total bunk.

And why is the road map "merely a sound bite"? It's a carefully developed and well thought out plan. It's not easy, as the past weeks indicate, having the roadmap proceed smoothly--but that hardly makes it merely a soundbite.

As to the contention that Perle and Wolfy's "Rambo" talk is leading to a militarization of U.S. society--it's hard to see where Hobsbawm is going with this one. AEI think-tankers rushing the ramparts at 1600 Pennsylvania, a coup spearheaded by the likes of Walter Berns perhaps? The U.S. a massive timarchic polity with jingoism and fascistic tendencies on the uptick? This is all just too fevered, I fear. Maybe history will prove me wrong, but I highly doubt it.

To wrap up, not suprisingly, Hobsbawm asks the question:

"How is the world to confront--contain--the US? Some people, believing that they have not the power to confront the US, prefer to join it."

Rather incredibly, he points to the Turks as a valiant example of standing up to the hegemon:

EH: "The most positive contribution so far has been made by the Turks, simply by saying there are things they are not prepared to do, even though they know it would pay. But at the moment the major preoccupation is that of--if not containing--at any rate educating or re-educating the US. There was a time when the US empire recognised limitations, or at least the desirability of behaving as though it had limitations. This was largely because the US was afraid of somebody else--the Soviet Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened self- interest and education have to take over."

Ankara might help tutor and re-educate the U.S. then--after having nobly spurned Washington's cheap bribes (surely because they were interested in limiting U.S. power--not because of their Kurdish problem)? But, Hobsbawm appears to be saying, a parliament that says no to the Yanks, thus helping the U.S. better recognize its "limitations," is a parliament I like!

Folks, Hobsbawm is a giant--I read him (with fascination) in university as a European History major. That said, however, his leftist orientation and distrust of a quasi-omnipotent hegemon based on his understanding of great power politics leads him to make too many gross exaggerations in his piece that run contra a judicious examination of how American power is being excercised today.

Posted by Gregory at June 15, 2003 09:31 PM
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