In an email composed after reading Christopher Hitchens’s kind treatment of Eric Hobsbawm in today’s New York Times, Arnold Beichman points out the following exchange, which took place in an interview published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1994. Hobsbawm’s interlocutor is the journalist Michael Ingatieff, who began by asking Hobsbawm how at this late date he could possibly continue to justify his Communism.
HOBSBAWM: You didn’t have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn’t going to be a future and this [the Communist Party] was the only thing that offered an acceptable future.
IGNATIEFF: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?
HOBSBAWM: This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible…I don’t actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, ‘Probably not.’
HOBSBAWM: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.
IGNATIEFF: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
“You have to read this exchange twice,” Arnold writes, “because it is unbelievable that anyone could today defend Stalin’s terror in the name of a socialist revolution that never was.”