Hobsbawm on the Vicissitudes of Left-liberalism

Hobsbawm, Eric. 2012. “After the Cold War: Eric Hobsbawm Remembers Tony Judt.” London Review of Books, April.

Beautifully-written rebuttal of the 20th century liberal rejection and condemnation of communism, as well as homage to civic courage. Crafting a story of intellectual and political maturation and redemption, Hobsbawm dissects how Tony Judt traversed from the Cold Warrior troops and conservative tooldom (as Judt started out trivially focused on critiquing dying French Left intellectualism) to trenchant critic of imperial Israeli apartheid politics.

Both Hobsbawm & Judt understood the twentieth century’s “basic passion: namely the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths.”

 …Judt “launched one of the most implacable attacks on (Hobsbawm) in a passage which has become widely quoted, especially by the ultras of the right-wing American press. It amounted to: ‘make a public confession that your god has failed, beat your breast and you may win the right to be taken seriously. No man who doesn’t think socialism equals Gulag should be listened to.’

 …after 1968 (Judt) became much more of a militant oppositionist liberal over Eastern Europe, an admirer of the mixed but more usually right-wing academic tourists who provided much of our commentary on the end of the East European Communist regimes. This also led him and others who should have known better into creating the fairy tale of the Velvet and multicoloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out.

 …Four things shaped French history in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Republic born of the incomplete Great Revolution; the centralised Napoleonic state; the crucial political role assigned to a working class too small and disorganised to play it; and the long decline of France from its position before 1789 as the Middle Kingdom of Europe, as confident as China of its cultural and linguistic superiority. Denied a Lenin and deprived of Napoleon, France retreated into the last and, we must hope, indestructible redoubt, the world of Astérix. The postwar vogue for Parisian thinkers barely concealed their collective retreat into Hexagonal introversion and into the ultimate fortress of French intellectuality, Cartesian theory and puns. There were now other models in higher education and the sciences, in economic development, even – as the late penetration of Marx’s ideas implies – in the ideology of the Revolution. The problem for left-wing intellectuals was how to come to terms with an essentially non-revolutionary France. The problem for right-wing ones, many of them former communists, was how to bury the founding event and formative tradition of the Republic, the French Revolution, a task equivalent to writing the American Constitution out of US history. It could not be done…

 …Tony had so far made his name as an academic bruiser. His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s, whose objective is neither truth nor truthfulness, but winning the case. Faced with governments and ideologues who read victory and world domination into the fall of communism, he was honest enough with himself to recognise that the old verities and slogans needed to be junked after 1989. Probably only in the ever nervous US could such a reputation have been built so quickly on the basis of a few articles in journals of modest circulation addressed exclusively to academic intellectuals.

 …(Judt) was well aware of the risks, personal and professional, he ran in attacking the combined forces of US global conquest, the neocons and Israel, but he had plenty of what Bismarck called ‘civilian bravery’ (Zivilcourage) – a quality notably lacking in Isaiah Berlin, as Tony himself noted, perhaps not without malice. Unlike the ex-Marxist scholiasts and intellocrates on the Left Bank who, as Auden said of poets, made ‘nothing happen’, Tony understood that a struggle with these new forces could make a difference. He launched himself against them with evident pleasure and zest. This was the figure who came into his own after the end of the Cold War, widening his courtroom technique to flay the likes of Bush and Netanyahu rather than some political absurdity in the Fifth Arrondissement or a distinguished professor in New Jersey. It was a magnificent performance, a class act; he was hailed by his readers not only for what he said, but what many of them would not have had the courage to say themselves. It was all the more effective because Tony was both an insider and an outsider: English, Jewish, French, eventually American, but plurinational rather than cosmopolitan” (Eric Hobsbawm 2012).

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