31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 10


He's in his eighties. Whatever he did, let him go home


Mr Bruce Anderson, of this magazine, has attained heroic status by having wine thrown over him at a party by Ms Polly Toynbee. But after a short speech by Pro- fessor Eric Hobsbawm at the same func- tion, Mr Anderson reportedly pronounced: `Free Pinochet, jail Hobsbawm.'

I strongly disagree. Professor Hobsbawm, like General Pinochet, is in his eighties. At this late stage in his life, jailing Professor Hobsbawm would solve nothing. It would appear needlessly vindictive. I understand the strong feelings against this man. Oppo- sition to Professor Hobsbawm was one of the idealistic causes which drew right- wingers of my own generation into politics.

We were enraged by the atrocities which he committed on the printed page year after year. Which of us will ever forget the brutality which he perpetrated right in the middle of his Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (1956). Of the French Revolu- tion, he wrote,

Conservatives have created a lasting image of the Terror, dictatorship and hysterical blood- lust unchained, though by 20th-century stan- dards . . . its mass killings were relatively modest. Revolutionaries, especially in France, have seen it as the first people's republic, the inspiration of all subsequent revolt. For all it was an era not to be mea- sured by everyday human criteria.

Note here the implication that the French Revolution's 'terror, dictatorship and hysterical bloodlust' amounted to an `image' created by 'conservatives' — not a reality created by revolutionaries. In any case, the 3,000 or so murders which the Left attributes to General Pinochet are by 20th-century standards relatively modest, including by the standards of General Pinochet's fellow Latin America dictator, President Castro. Professor Hobsbawm's phrase, 'everyday human criteria' could be taken to mean such criteria as reason, pro- portion, and the sparing of women and the sick, both of which categories the Terror did not spare. We may suspect, however, that what Professor Hobsbawm had in mind was our old leftist friend, or enemy: you can't make an omelette without break- ing eggs. The Terror was justified either because of the unusual situation or in order to bring about a better world. But those are arguments with which General Pinochet would have justified his own crimes. Then there was Professor Hobsbawm's praise of the Soviet economy as recently as 1975, by which time the New Left had long since given up on it and depicted it as 'state capitalism', just as bad as private capital- ism. 'People may make jokes about it,' Pro- fessor Hobsbawm wrote,

but the problem of inflation is not the same as in France, let alone Britain. In many respects, whatever their own problems, the socialist economies, however imperfect they may be, do not have the problems which leave the capitalist economies in crisis and I think it is important to remind ourselves and to remind everybody else of this today.

At first glance, Professor Hobsbawm as hammer of inflation is an unexpected role. The anti-inflation cause is traditionally one for right-wingers. Professor Hobsbawm was here more Friedman than Lenin. 'Stable prices now!' or 'Control Improvident Mon- etary Aggregates!' have never been cries at the barricades. The explanation for Profes- sor Hobsbawm's fiscal rectitude is perhaps to be found in the date — 1975. That was when the broad masses were starting to worry about inflation. Rising prices had had a hand in defeating Harold Wilson five years before. They would help elect Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Down the ages the Left has always seized on the economic prob- lems of the moment and pretended to be able to solve them. Nowadays, Professor Hobsbawm puts his faith in `globalisation' or 'global capitalism' to cause the discon- tents which might bring back collectivist rule across the world. But `globalisation' and 'global capitalism' are but the latest words for free trade. When it has suited it, the Left has favoured that. When Baldwin went to the country in 1923 on a protec- tionist — that is, in effect, an anti-global capitalism — platform, Labour was for free trade; 'cheap food' being what they called it when applied to agriculture. Foreign imports, so the argument went, would be cheaper for the workers than the produce of home farmers protected from foreign competition.

To return to the issue of whether Profes- sor Hobsbawm should be jailed, there are objections quite apart from the humanitari- an one prompted by his age. If we jailed him, we would have to jail all the other dis- tinguished octogenarian professors of a Marxist persuasion. I am, as may have been deduced from the above quotations, a col- lector, indeed archivist, of their pronounce- ments over the years. I would go so far as to claim that I am to Hobsbawmism what Herr Simon Wiesenthal is to Nazism.

One of my prize exhibits, for example, is an article by Professor Christopher Hill now aged 86 — in the special issue of the Modern Quarterly devoted to the death of Stalin. It is entitled 'Stalin and the Science of History'. The article's purpose is to do justice to one of Stalin's neglected roles: that of historian. Professor Hill begins with an account of how in 1934 'two self-educat- ed men met in Moscow'. They were Stalin and H.G. Wells, whose books, it will be remembered, included The Outline of Histo- ry and A Short History of the World. The two self-educated men talked about English his- tory. The trouble was that one of them knew more about it than the other. The one who knew most about it, according to Pro- fessor Hill, was of course Stalin. He put Wells right about Cromwell and the role of the masses in the English revolution.

Professor Hill quotes from the two histo- rians' debate on the matter, and in the nor- mal course of events, Wells, having dis- agreed with Stalin, would have been shot. But Stalin was presumably trying to become liked by Britons such as Professor Hill at the time, in which endeavour Stalin was obviously successful, and Wells was spared.

After lengthy extracts from such of Stal- in's work as Dialectical and Historical Mate- rialism, Professor Hill quotes Engels on the need for humanity to leap from the world of necessity to the world of freedom. He concludes that 'it was Stalin's great happi- ness that he was able to contribute so large- ly to the creation of such a society • • • Humanity, not only in the USSR, but in all countries, will always be deeply in his debt. Nonetheless, I am campaigning against Mr Anderson to keep our grand old Marx- ist professors out of jail. And I see hope that their atrocities will not be repeated by the younger generation of left-wingers. Quite a few of the latter, while wishing General Pinochet to stand trial, have said that President Castro should too. In any case, such is bourgeois capitalism's seizure of most of the Labour party, it looks as if history will remember the name Hobs- bawm, not for the Marxist professor, but for his daughter, Julia. She is New Labour, and in public relations.