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October 02, 2012


Luis Enrique

interesting stuff. Like you, I don't favor potential response 1. When you are talking about the transition from serf to citizen worker in socialist utopia, it seems to me the gain in happiness would be large.

it seems to me that a system capable of the Great Terror just isn't going to also be capable of delivering the radiant tomorrow, which I guess is your "irrational at the time" point.


People are extraordinarily flippant about the risks of possible events when they aren't going to face their consequences themselves.

One thing that I find dislikeable about Hobsbawm's quote is the word "sacrifice". The victims of the Soviets were not abandoned with regret for the good of humanity but slain without much thought or care for the good of their murderers. Hobsbawm had a far better grasp of English than I so his phrasing wouldn't have been merely inept. His perceptions were just miserably skewed.


"Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator,"

The difference is that the USA and Britain genuinely did not want to harm those civilians. Unless I'm mistaken, the USSR intentionally locked up and killed people for opposing the regime (or, under Stalin, just for the sake of it). You have a stronger point re the atom bomb, although at least the people who decided to drop that didn't do so because they thought all the people should die for not liking America.


Very interesting.

If I recall correctly, Jean Paul Sartre also defended Stalinism despite its atrocities.

Perhaps both Sartre and Hobsbawm felt compelled to choose between Nazism and Stalinism. Perhaps many of us would have chosen similarly had we lived through their extreme times. Who knows?


Unless I'm mistaken, didn't Hobsbawm support the Soviet decision (parotted by the drones in the CPGB) to oppose war against Nazi Germany (this was before Barbarossa)?


"This reply, however, looks like the hindsight bias. It's only now that the Hayek-Mises critique of central planning seems correct; "

Well, didn't Hobsbawm stick to his views still in the 1990's and 2000's, with all the benefits of hindsight available to him?

But excusing Hobsbawm isn't an isolated phenomenon, of course. It's not only permissible to like Hobsbawm, but it's also quite hip to wear a Che Guevara T-shirt. While it's not so hip to wear a Josef Mengele T-shirt.


The point is, surely, that an organization capable of sacrificing millions of people is never going to be able to create a "radiant tomorrow", simply because once you have established the precedent that sacrificing for radiance is acceptable, there is no limit to the amount of sacrifice you can justify.



"The difference is that the USA and Britain genuinely did not want to harm those civilians."

What on earth does that mean? How can you invade a country only to find "oops' I've done harm to civilians"? Any state involved in an aggressive act against another state knows they will harm civilians.


just wondering how the terror famines in the Ukraine improved conditions for anyone or were even part of the plan to improving conditions? Or the Party purges, or the Doctors' plot or the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Just what was the roadmap that Hobsbawm and co were working towards?

At least there waqs a rationale for dropping the A-bomb on Japan - and I have heard several people give thanks that they did not have to participate in an amphibious invasion of Japan, given what had happened in Okinawa and other places.

Also, the people who invaded Iraq had a sated reason - even if it turned out untrue. It was at least possible.

I am totally unclear how the massacres of Soviet Russia were oriented towards any goal other than the need for mass slaughter. In this, the regime was exactly similar to the Nazis.

Account Deleted

If it hadn't been for Hobsbawm's The Forward March of Labour Halted, we wouldn't have got New Labour. In turn that means we wouldn't have got Tony Blair as PM or the decision to invade Iraq. So you see, that bastard Hobsbawm has a lot to answer for. It's not just Stalin's purges his corpse should be strung up for.

Jimmy Saville, on the other hand, is a much maligned national treasure who we all miss to this day. At least he never wrote any sodding history books.

gastro george

History should teach us the meaning of context. ["Those Tudors, they were so sexist"]


Richard avers,

"You have a stronger point re the atom bomb, although at least the people who decided to drop that didn't do so because they thought all the people should die for not liking America."

It's long been documented that Japan was ready to negotiate for surrender before the atom bombs were dropped. They were particularly worried by the prospect of the soviet union declaring war on them and occupying some of their territory.
The possession and testing of the bomb was used or at least Truman attempted to use it as a bargaining chip at the Potsdam conference. The dropping was merely the culmination of this 'logic' and the death of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians was of no concern whatsoever to Truman.


"It's long been documented that Japan was ready to negotiate for surrender before the atom bombs were dropped"

What evidence do you have for this statement? Everything I have ever read on the subject suggests that they were prepared to defend their homeland come what may, and the evidence of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the use of Kamikaze attacks seems to back that up.

If on the other hand you are suggesting that the Japanese were prepared to negotiate a ceasefire and an end to hostilities short of total surrender, well I'm sure the Japanese authorities probably would have jumped at the opportunity to end the war but stay in power, when staring down the barrel of defeat in 1945. Unfortunately for them nothing less than total surrender was on the table, and without the atom bomb drops the Japanese would not have countenanced such a course of action for a considerable amount of time.


Those crazy SWPers Churchill and FDR were able to distinguish between communism and fascism. What is it with young people today that they can't manage this? Those presently doing the intellectual equivalent of pissing on Hobsbawm's grave are *exactly* the sort of people who supported General Franco's invasion of Spain.


"It's only now that the Hayek-Mises critique of central planning seems correct"

It isn't. The USSR proved that it works.

And I'd take Hobsbawm's politics over those of the bien-pensant Blair-Cameronites any day.

john b

the Party purges, or the Doctors' plot or the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Saboteurs and traitors seeking to destroy the emerging workers' stake, and spreading the workers' state's future benefits to more people, respectively. Within the worldview that central planning works, that failures were the result of sabotage rather than impossible targets, and that the workers' state was worth having, all of those make perfect sense.

Unfortunately for [Japan] nothing less than total surrender was on the table

Which is completely begging the question, isn't it? The Allied refusal to accept anything other than unconditional surrender is *exactly* the same kind of 'sacrificing individual lives for a greater perceived moral good' that Chris is describing in the OP.

john b

(always forget this site strips out HTML. Insert imaginary blockquotes around paragraphs 1 and 3 above...)


I think the missing concept here is the idea of an emergency. In an emergency the ethical imperative is "end the emergency," not keeping score and assigning blame. There's a big difference between seizing someones home to provide shelter for people in a natural disaster and seizing someones home to build a shopping center because more people will benefit from the shopping center then the house. World War II was kind of an emergency, and Russia sucks is more of long term problem. And this is the kind of reasoning is what was used in the examples you mention. The justification the Bush administration gave for Iraq wasn't that it would make the world a better place on the whole, it was that he was planning to Al'Qaeda the entire country with nukes and stuff. Utilitarianism is only a justification for taking over if you're lucky enough to have, or clever enough to manufacture, an emergency.


See also: "it's okay for factories to use child labour and have lax safety, because it's making us all richer".


Good post. the flaw I think is the confusion that happiness is the same as contentedness, which I think is the natural human condition when most needs are meet.


Assessing Hobsbawm's politics is very hard to do objectively as the above contributions show. Every person tends to employ Utilitarian reasons for supporting or opposing various policies. But it is much more difficult to do this well then is usually allowed. When dealing with big ideas and complex real world relationships such as political systems and their domestic and international dimensions. It all depends on the assumptions of fact you make and the assumptions about future events you make as well.


The fact that many of Hobsbawm's critics cannot - without hypocrisy - use a deontological argument because they themselves are moral utilitarians doesn't prove the deontological argument wrong and that one must resort to a utilitarian argument as done here.

I am far from convinced that a utilitarian anti-over confidence theory represents a stronger guide or limit to human cruelty than a deontological one.

Torquil Macneil

This is unusually silly for this blog. If making any utilitarian calculation about human life ('sacrifice') disqualifies you from criticism of Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot then it would be intellectually incoherent to oppose the Holocaust while at the same time supporting the building industry. The 'sacrifices' of Stalin's that are objected to and which Hobsbawm appears to apologise for involved the use of terror for political purposes, and his critics do not selectively defend (as far as I am aware) other uses of terror for different political ends.

And Shuggy, the Franco example cuts both ways. On what leg are standing criticising the defenders of Franco if it is deemed inapropriate to criticise Hobsbawm? Franco was after a radiant future too, wasn't he?


As commented already at Shuggy's, I think the comparison between Hobsbawm's implied utilitarianism and utilitarian arguments on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Iraq, is a little off.

Chris analyses Hobsbawm's utilitarianism as weighing deaths against future happiness of the living, whereas the utilitarian arguments in defence of dropping A bombs on Japan in 1945 and invading Iraq in '03 weigh estimated deaths as a consequence of those actions against estimated deaths as a consequence of not acting.

Hobsbawm's comparison is of things so different that an exchange rate seems impossible to define; the other examples are more like with like comparisons than Hobsbawm's.

Added to that, while the morality of area bombing civilians with atomic weapons is doubtful to say the least, the mechanism of cause and effect argued for is at least clear. I'm not clear, however, on how Stalin's terror might have increased the Russian revolution's odds of bringing happiness - and it is primarily Stalin's terror we're talking about, not 1917, yes? So a difference in clarity of proposed cause and effect, as well as a difference in comparing like with like.


Utilitarians don't seem to acknowledge that in fact they value people and their happiness largely inversely according to their psychological distance, just like everyone else.

There is not one who actually demonstrates they value life and happiness equally in their actions. No one here on this blog values people equally. What a stupid idea!

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