Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hobsbawm Historical Revisionist

Firstly let me say that I enjoy Eric Hobsbawms historical writings. The depth and the historical materialist perspective, the breadth of the his writings whether on social rebels or jazz, working class history or on world history, his works are invaluable. He is a marxist historian, and an unrepentant one at that. So far so good. Unfortunately Hobsbawm spent most his years defending the Soviet Union and the Communist Party after Stalins fall.

While other marxist historians like E. P. Thompson moved towards the New Left abandoning Stalinism, Hobsbawm remained a true believer. Even after the pivotal event which led most of the old left to abandon the CP and create the New Left, that event was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Now that Soviet Union has collapsed Hobsbawm has finally admitted that the CP was bankrupt. Ironcially it is this event the one that Hobsbawm did not allow to influence his party loyalty that he writes about since this is the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

Could it have been different? :: Eric Hobsbawm: Budapest 1956

A revolution that opposed Stalinism, and was the very model of revolts that would follow it, Czechslovakia in 1968 and Poland with the Solidarity Revolts through the seventies and eighties. And inevitably the actions in Hungary would be replayed in Russia when communism there collapsed, the tearing down of statues of Stalin, the military refusing to fire on the Duma, etc.

Between 1953 and 1956 workers across Eastern Europe revolted against Post War Stalinist Russian Imperialism. As Chris Harman of the International Socialists wrote in his invaluable work about this period;Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe.

The Hungarian Revolution splintered the Trotskyist movement as much as it splintered the Communist Parties in the West. A new analysis was developed contending that the Soviet Union was not socialist nor an alternative to capitalism but was actually a different form of capitalism, state capitalism.

These events gave succour to those in the Forth International who contested Trotsky's undying faith that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers state. It gave rise to a variety of views of state captialism in the Soviet Union, including theJohnson Forest Tendency, being CLR James and Raya Dunsevkaya, the International Socialists, and the Bureacratic Collectivist theory of Max Schactman.

During the cold war this tendency was broadly called the Third Way Tendency one that declared that both the Soviet Union and American Imperialism were a danger to the world and to class struggle. It would be the revolts in Eastern Europe like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that would inspire this tendency.

And it was the old guard like Hobsbawm for whom the Hungarian Revolution would be an anathema to their soft stalinism. Hobsbawm says in his review;
"Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity. Probably no episode in 20th-century history generated a more intense burst of feeling in the Western world than the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Although it lasted less than two weeks, it was both a classic instance of the narrative of justified popular insurrection against oppressive government, familiar since the fall of the Bastille, and of David’s in this case doomed victory against Goliath."

He then proceeds to look back at the history of the period with his inside insight devoid of emotion to define why and how the revolution occured, which he blames on a deformed Communist Party and the negative influence of Stalin.

It is an amazing read, certainly one that he would not have nor could have written at the time or for years after. But fifty years later he too as a marxist historian can finally give this pivotal event in Communist Party history its due, devoid of emotion.

The Hungarian Revolution led to contradictory trajectories in Western Politics, it furthered the Cold War and the rise of the neo-fascist right, with its exiles coming west full of venom for Stalinism and full of venomous anti-semitism.

Perhaps the best way to begin the history of the uprising is with the miserable state of the Hungarian Communist Party during World War Two. Since briefly establishing the only Soviet republic outside Russia in 1919 (with the enthusiastic support of the young Hungarian movie industry under Alexander Korda, Michael Korda’s uncle), the Party had been scattered and reduced by domestic repression, Stalin’s terror and its own internal quarrels, and several times had actually dissolved. Gati claims that by 1940 there were barely more than two hundred activists in Hungary and fewer than fifty reliable survivors in Moscow, with the result that one of Stalin’s four Magyar postwar proconsuls (Rákosi, Gerö, Révai and Farkas), all incidentally Jewish, had to be transferred from the Czechoslovak to the Hungarian Party.

And amongst disenchanted Trotskyists like Shactman and Burnham it led them to the right and they became the ideological forefathers of the neo-cons.
It subesequently led to the collapse of the CP in Europe and North America and the rise of the New Left.

These political tendencies are still very much with us today even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and fifty years after the Hungarian Revolution. And even if it is late in the day it is nice to see Hobsbawm belatedly reflect on this pivotal event in the history of the Cold War.


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