Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created [in the USSR], the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
His thinking here is plainly utilitarian - that it's acceptable to trade off the lives of a few millions so that hundreds of millions can (ex hypothesi) enjoy greater happiness.
But what exactly is wrong with Hobsbawm's reply?
The obvious retort is the deontological one, that there are some things we simply shouldn't do to people, even if they are necessary to create a radiant tomorrow.
But many of Hobsbawm's critics cannot use this reply, because they themselves are utilitarians. Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator, or who defend the use of A-bombs against Japan because they shortened the war are using the same calculus as Hobsbawm - weighing some lives against others' future well-being. The difference between them and him is one of accounting, not politics or morality.
Another reply is that it was impossible that Communism would ever have created a radiant tomorrow, so there was simply no possibility that the 20m deaths could ever have been justified.
This reply, however, looks like the hindsight bias. It's only now that the Hayek-Mises critique of central planning seems correct; nobody much believed it when Sputnik was launched.To those of us reared on Popper's critique of Marxism, there is something paradoxical about Communism's critics claiming that its collapse was inevitable.
Instead, I suggest two utilitarian reasons why Hobsbawm was wrong:
One is that happiness is more or less stationary. Neither higher aggregate incomes nor freedom (real or formal) greatly increase it. If this is the case (and it is an if), then even if Communism had created a bright new dawn, then the welfare gains would not have been sufficient to justify 20m deaths.
The problem with this argument is that, if we push it far, then it renders lots of political activity redundant.Whether this is a problem for politics or for happiness research is another matter.
Secondly - and this is the answer I favour - the Communists were guilty of overconfidence. 20m deaths is a high price. To believe that any political project is worth such a price is to exaggerate both its feasibility and its payoffs; perhaps the removal of a clear and present evil such as Nazism is the only exception here. Such exaggeration isn't just factually wrong after the fact, but was irrational at the time.
My point here is one expressed by the tagline of this blog - that what is wrong in politics is not so much extremism as fanaticism.