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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