‘Keep Your Eye on the Corpses’

by Jay Nordlinger

I have long read Allan Massie on literary subjects. He is a brilliant and learned man, with a great deal to offer. Occasionally, he wanders into political subjects. His view of Israel, for example, is the same as most any intellectual’s. What a shame.

Yesterday, he wrote about the late Eric Hobsbawm, the most influential historian in the English-speaking world. The most honored, too (if you measure by honorary degrees and such). He was a Communist, unrepentant to the end. Unlike many Communists, he did not shrink from justifying Stalin’s mass murder. It might have led to a shining socialist world, you know.

Massie likes and defends Hobsbawm. I would like to make a few points.
First, Massie notes that Hobsbawm joined the Communist party in 1932, when he was 15. This was in Germany, and he was Jewish. Didn’t that make sense? The Nazis were coming.

I would note that, between the National Socialists and Moscow’s socialists, there was not much difference. Whether the boot is black or red, if it still stomps on the human face — who cares? The Nazis and the Soviets locked arms in their infamous pact. Hitler, the double-crosser, broke the pact, much to Stalin’s chagrin, of course. And if Stalin had not died when he did — he himself might have done in a spectacular number of Jews. It was in the works.

Plus, shouldn’t Hobsbawm have grown up at some point? Like the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s . . . eventually? Like his friend Gene Genovese? (Who was also 15 when he joined the party.) Half the first editors and writers for National Review were ex-Communists. They can do a world of good.

Second, Massie writes, “[Hobsbawm] wasn’t, despite what has often been said, anti-American, though he was a severe critic of American foreign and military policy. But he loved New York and jazz . . .” This reminded me, eerily, of what people said about Yuri Andropov, the old KGB man, when he rose to the top spot in the Kremlin. Remember how Andropov was supposed to like Scotch, too? And Glenn Miller, wasn’t it?

Third, Hobsbawm was an especially maddening Communist, because he chose to live his life in a liberal democracy — namely Great Britain. They made him a Companion of Honour! (I believe that’s the title.) People in liberal democracies often honor those who would bring them down. It is a suicidal tendency, as James Burnham pointed out. (He was one of the greatest NR ex-Communists.)

I wish Hobsbawm had gone to live in one of the Communist countries he so admired, and wanted others to endure: the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Bulgaria, North Korea, wherever. But they almost never do, do they? No, they stay and enjoy the blessings of liberal democracy, blessings they would overturn for everyone else.

In a country like the USSR, Hobsbawm would have been a member of the nomenklatura — a prize catch and guest — and he might have remained a member. He might have lived happily ever after, enjoying all the privileges: dachas, choice foods, permission to travel, etc. Or he might have zigged when he should have zagged (to borrow Genovese’s memorable phrasing). He might have irked the leadership, somehow. As a result, he might have been killed. The Communists — particularly in the Soviet Union and China — have killed more Communists than any anti-Communist ever dreamed of killing.

My fourth point: A guy like Allan Massie wouldn’t last two seconds in a society that the E. J. Hobsbawms would make. Yet people excuse the likes of Hobsbawm all the time. They would never excuse Nazis and Nazi apologists. Communists earn this strange exemption. Why? Many people have pondered the question. I suppose Paul Hollander comes closest to answering, with satisfaction.

When it comes to the corpses, what does it matter? What does it matter whether the corpses were made by people wearing the swastika or people wearing the hammer and sickle? How many corpses have the hammer-and-sickle crowd piled up? Many more than the swastika crowd.

“Keep your eye on the corpses,” Elie Kedourie once told NR’s David Pryce-Jones. But hardly anyone ever does. It’s good advice, regardless.

Hang on, one more thing — I suppose I mustn’t let this pass. Massie writes,

The trouble is that we all have a tendency to excuse the crimes, even the atrocities, committed by the side with which we identify; and this habit was prevalent throughout the Cold War. Many in the West then believed that if the Americans laid waste to South Vietnam and Laos with napalm, that was fine because they were fighting against the evil of Communism, and so on.


Actually, it was the Communists who laid waste to South Vietnam and Laos (not to mention Cambodia): a million murdered, hundreds of thousands of others in a desperate flight on the South China Sea, still others in “reeducation camps.” When Massie writes “the evil of Communism,” I get the impression he does not regard Communism as evil. Is that a true impression? Massie is obviously a liberal and humane man. A lover of Sir Walter Scott! (And sports and other great things.)

Anyway, keep your eye on the corpses.

N.B. I have amended this post since the original posting — lengthened it, for one thing.

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