The Scotsman Sat 7 Jul 2007
Why the Left is right
PROFESSOR ERIC HOBSBAWM, Britain's greatest living left-wing historian, has had a couple of things to feel sanguine about lately. First, he is still living, having celebrated his 90th birthday last month. "I never expected to reach it when I was young," he says down the phone from Hampstead. "I'm lucky. In another ten years it won't be so uncommon to reach 90, but for now it has a certain scarcity value."
Last month's other landmark, though, means more to him: the end of the Blair era and the arrival of Gordon Brown at Number 10. Curiously enough, Hobsbawm can claim some role in the birth of New Labour. Even in the late 1970s, then a Communist Party member, he was pointing to the decline of the old industrial working class, scandalising Labour's sectarian left as he urged the party to reform and reach out beyond its traditional base. However, Tony Blair - "Thatcher in trousers," he once called him - was not what he had in mind.
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"Where Blair went wrong worst was Iraq," he says. "At some stage a guy who began as a brilliantly intuitive election-winning politician discovered that he had a calling to save the world by armed intervention, and he had it even before he got on to the Americans. Second worst is the complete forgetting that government is for ordinary people. The idea that the only thing that counts are the people who have managed to seize the opportunity in a free market and become rich and famous and celebrated, and to build the values of your society on that - this I think has been Blair's fault; perhaps unconsciously he's been biased in that way.
"Gordon Brown will be an enormous improvement, at least for those of us who have found it impossible to support the Labour Party in the last Blair period. He has a sense of the traditions of the Labour movement, and above all a sense of social justice and equality."
Yet Hobsbawm doesn't really do sanguine. His politics may make him closer to the Brownites than the Blairistas ("I've always been for Gordon") and there are also family connections: his daughter, Julia Hobsbawm, and Sarah Brown, née Macaulay, were schoolfriends who ran an "ethical" PR firm until 2001. But he isn't waving any flags. An avowed pessimist - though qualified pessimism is perhaps a better description, a spike of pragmatism running through its core - his expectations for Brown's premiership are bolted to a generally downbeat analysis of where the world is at.
"I'm sceptical about what's going to happen - I don't think he'll achieve as much as one could hope for. A return to the old social democratic or Labour governments that operated as though their economies could be isolated from the world economy is no longer possible. The real problem for Gordon and for everyone else is precisely how this globalisation can be detached from a completely free capitalism, which is bound to end in enormous difficulties."
This is one of the central dilemmas in Hobsbawm's history of the present, set out with broad, sometiimes polemical, brushstrokes in Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, a slim volume of essays - he doubts any more "big books" are in him - that picks up where the bestselling Age of Extremes and The New Century left off. In short, flux is the order, or disorder, of the day: "We are in a period of considerable trouble and crisis, rather as we were between the wars."
The tremendous dynamism of globalised capitalism is now outside the control of national governments, he says, yet there are no global authorities worth talking about. He shares the now conventional wisdom that global warming represents the gravest threat posed by this neo-liberal world economy. Despite Hurricane Katrina, the Americans have barely accepted there is a problem, he says, dismissing the recent G8 "breakthrough" for its lack of commitments.
"Some governments in theory accept the importance of the environment, including China, but they are reluctant to do anything that will slow down their economic growth. Something will be done - the problem is, it won't be enough."
When it comes to international politics itself, we're living in a "dangerous, unbalanced and explosive world". Nothing has replaced the relative stability of the Cold War, a point the US has unintentionally hammered home over the past five years with the failed "megalomaniac policy ... of a group of political crazies". The age of empires is dead, and the idea of having the world run by a solo power is out, says Hobsbawm. The future is pluralistic.
As for the terrorism that, for the US, legitimises its foreign policy, we shouldn't underestimate fundamentalist Islamic movements. "They create an atmosphere of uncertainty and sooner or later they may become, in a military sense, more dangerous." Yet for now they are strategically insignificant. "The real danger is the reaction of the US to 9/11 - it's created havoc in large parts of the world." And the threat to liberal-democratic traditions at home? We shouldn't get "hysterical", though the pressure is severe. "This is why it's terribly important to maintain the independence of the judiciary. One of the weaknesses of the US is that the Supreme Court has been less active in defending these traditional liberties than in some other countries."
Also on the home front, Hobsbawm is in two minds about devolution. He calls himself a fan, as it brings government closer to the people, though he wonders how often that's the result. Small states, he says, can be more prosperous "as dependencies of transnational capitalism" than they can be as part of a larger unit. But he is worried by ethnic identity politics - a sensitivity heightened by the fact that, before arriving in London at 16, he was a Jew in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. "The real danger is an ethnic conception of Englishness or Scottishness. In a world of free movement, if the number of Poles or Lithuanians coming to Scotland are as large as those coming to England, and then you say the only true Scots are not these people who come from outside, then you run into trouble - and this is happening everywhere".
Apart from the breadth and clarity of his storytelling, part of the reason for Hobsbawm's popularity is that he's too grounded in the facts to hitch his historian's wagon to either a crudely dialectical vision of the past or the inevitability of some utopian Marxist future. Still, he insists that Marx remains vital and, indeed, has made a comeback, the Communist Manifesto of 1848 predicting the kind of globalised capitalism that emerged in the 1990s. And, despite the pessimism, resistance is never futile. Anti-globalisation protests - "people in balaclavas fighting police with watercannons" - bring attention to the issues; more concretely, he says NGOs and activist groups, though hardly ideologically united, have developed a global profile. "Simultaneous action in various parts of the world is now possible. How effective this is going to be remains to be seen".
Hobsbawm himself stuck with the Communist Party decades after the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the revelations of the gulag had party intellectuals in the West tearing up their cards in droves - an "unrepentant" loyalty that had critics savaging him after the publication of his autobiography, Interesting Times, in 2002.
Since then (and, in fact, well before) he has condemned elements of the Soviet experiment, especially Stalinism. It's a source of anger, though, what he sees as the demonisation of the philosophy that first electrified him as a Berlin schoolboy in the early 1930s. "There's been a systematic attempt to remove communism or indeed revolutionary socialism from the political agenda and turn it into something like a political pathology or a sin. I have refused to go along with this. This was a good cause, and continues to be a good cause, even though the things they have stood for haven't worked. As a political programme communism is no longer on the agenda, and it's no longer possible to say I'm a communist. But it doesn't mean I don't think it was a perfectly legitimate and indeed admirable thing for people to be."
So how does he describe himself these days? He doesn't throw out alternative labels. Reflecting, perhaps, his conviction that we live in an age of uncertainty, he answers, "I think one has to keep on fighting in order to get the system changed, but I don't believe the methods we used in the 20th century of hoping to change it will work."
• Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism by Eric Hobsbawm is published by Little, Brown, £17.99.
Hobsbawm's forecast for the 21st century
"Beyond its scant chance of success, the effort to spread standardised western democracy suffers from a fundamental paradox. It's conceived as a solution to the dangerous transnational problems of our day [but] a growing part of human life now occurs beyond the influence of voters, in transnational public and private entities that have no electorates, or at least no democratic ones."
"If 21st-century states prefer to fight their wars with professional armies, or contractors, it is not just for technical reasons, but because citizens can no longer be relied upon to be conscripted in their millions to die in battle for their fatherlands. Men and women may be prepared to die (or more likely to kill) for money or for something smaller, or for something larger, but in the original homelands of the nation, no longer for the nation-state. What, if anything, will replace it as a general model for popular government in the 21st century?"
"War in the 21st century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the 20th century, but armed violence creating disproportionate suffering will remain omnipresent and endemic - occasionally epidemic - in a large part of the world."
This article: http://living.scotsman.com/books.cfm?id=1057902007