Against Eric Hobsbawm

It is a dangerous thing to disagree with Steven Poole, but I think his defence of Hobsbawm’s Stalinist account of Eastern European history is just plain wrong. Hobsbawm wrote, in a lecture for Amnesty,

Since the life-and-death struggle of the Russian Civil War, torture in the USSR — as distinct from the general brutality of Russian penal life — had not served to protect the security of the state. It served other purposes, such as the construction of show trials and similar forms of public theatre. It declined and fell with Stalinism. Fragile as the Communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even a nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989.

and the rather unpleasant Oliver Kamm claimed that this meant Hobsbawm was implying that the crushing of the Prague Spring was a “limited, even nominal” use of armed force.

Poole thinks this is either stupid or mendacious, since Hobsbawm was clearly talking about only torture. I don’t think he was. He was talking about torture in a general concept of coercion, and claiming that not much of that was necessary after 1957. This is, strictly speaking true, but in a way which is entirely dependent on the cut-off date. The reason that 1957 matters is that the Hungarian uprising had been the year before. The Russian tanks had then quite clearly demonstrated that they were prepared to use as much force as was necessary to crush any resistance. So when they rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 there was no fighting. Everyone remembered Hungary. There was some fighting in Gdansk in 1970, but not a huge amount. Unarmed demonstrators cannot stand up to tanks.

So it is strictly true that only a limited and by Stalinist standards nominal use of armed coercion was needed to maintain the system after 1957, but only because everyone knew—or believed from Hungary to Gorbachev—that massive and wholly unrestrained force would be used to defend the system if it were ever at serious risk.

Morally speaking, Kamm is entirely right here. See also Marek Kohn in the comments, pointing out that the martial law which crushed Solidarity was referred to officially as “a state of war”.

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6 Responses to Against Eric Hobsbawm

  1. steven says:

    It’s not that dangerous to disagree with me, but I’m not defending Hobsbawm’s Stalinist-or-otherwise account of anything, just pointing out that he didn’t say what Kamm says he said where he said it.

    By “armed coercion” Hobsbawm here really does mean internal repression/torture (for the “systems” in question “to maintain” themselves, not in general “to maintain the system” as you put it, where your change from the plural to the singular helps your interpretation but is not what Hobsbawm wrote). Torture is explicitly the subject of the chapter’s subsection, and is explicitly named as the subject in the sentences immediately preceding and immediately following the sentence fragment in question.

    Nonetheless, your point about the dates is a good one, and you make a reasoned argument, which is more than can be said for Kamm. 😉

  2. Marek Kohn says:

    I’m not sure how meaningful the ‘internal’ distinction is in the context of the Soviet satellite states, but the use of the military by the Polish authorities against the mass Solidarity opposition movement in 1981 was undoubtedly internal, repressive ‘armed coercion’ – officially designated a ‘state of war’.

  3. steven says:

    Yes, the example of martial law in Poland was pointed out by a commenter at my blog, and is a much better argument against Hobsbawm than Kamm’s invocation of 1968.

    BTW I thought The Race Gallery was brilliant.

  4. abb1 says:

    Too much of your argument is hanging on the 1956 Hungarian incident. And that nail is not nearly strong enough, IMO.

    Soviet intervention in Hungary wasn’t automatic, they were trying to negotiate, to find a compromise; their attempts were rejected, Hungary declared that it was leaving the Warsaw Pact. Geopolitical situation at the time was highly unstable and unfavorable to any wavering, as the events in Hungary coincided with the Anglo-French aggression in Egypt. Still, it took the Soviets at least a week to decide to intervene militarily.

    In short, the Hungarian incident was neither intended nor had it become a precedent, a template for future interventions as you seem to argue. It was a solution to 1956 Hungarian crisis and nothing else.

    Clearly, if American paratroopers landed in an Eastern European capital – that would’ve triggered a Soviet invasion for sure. But it’s also clear that the Eastern European states could initiate a whole range of socio-economic reforms that would NOT trigger a Soviet invasion. It’s not really that different from the US and its client states; middle eastern clients like Saudi Arabia, central-american clients like Panama, etc.

  5. acb says:

    I don’t think it’s in the least bit clear that they could trigger any interesting range of reforms without triggering a soviet invasion. The Czechs tried exactly that. The Hungarians had some reforms, on tiptoe. The Poles had three separate insurrections put down with armed force. If Hungary wasn’t meant as a precedent, it certainly became one.

    Even if the US treats parts of Central America the same way, that doesn’t make the Soviet conduct more excusable.

  6. abb1 says:

    Who’s talking about excuses? The issue here is the level of coercion necessary to maintain a highly ideological socio-economic system, in this case the Soviet model of socialism (or ‘state capitalism’ or whatever you want to call it).

    So, Dubcek cross the line (which, in fact, demonstrates that the Hungarian incident wasn’t exactly ‘the lesson learned’). Just like, say, Allende and Ortega crossed the line. Again, there was a period of negotiations, and then a crackdown. Much more gentle, in fact, than the devastation all over central and south America at about the same time.

    So, was the system maintained with a relatively low level of coercion? I’ll say: compare to the competing ideological model – yes, certainly. Relatively low, much less ruthless.

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