Edward Lucas, European Voice
Historians have every right to ask uncomfortable questions about the past. But they are honour-bound to seek the answers honestly. That is what the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn has failed to do in an article about Tony Judt, a much-mourned writer who died horribly from motor neurone disease in August 2010.
Judt was unusual among left-wing historians of western Europe (his early specialty was the annals of French communism and socialism), because he became interested in what was happening farther east. In the 1980s he learned Czech, befriended the Czechoslovak opposition and highlighted their cause. In the years after 1989 he kept going, biffing the notion that the real Europe was the western half of the continent, and that the easterners were second-class, parvenu Europeans.
He would have been incensed by the Swiss decision last week to re-impose immigration quotas on EU citizens from all the new `east European' member states. Never mind the statistics about income levels or even the numbers from each of the ten countries that actually come to Switzerland; the decisive factor seems to be simply the taint of having lived under communism.
For Hobsbawm, communism was not repellent but a noble idea that failed to fulfil its promise. His article about Judt in the London Review of Books is scandalous in many ways. But the most outrageous passage comes where he attacks his late colleague for becoming: "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 multi-coloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out. The real heroes of the period were Gorbachev, who destroyed the USSR, and...Jaruzelski in Poland, who effectively ensured a peaceful transition and [was] execrated by both sides."
Cramming so much nonsense into so few lines is quite a feat. The academics who made clandestine trips behind the Iron Curtain to smuggle books and teach seminars (disclosure: they included my father, the Oxford philosopher JR Lucas) were not "tourists". The events of 1989 were not a "fairy tale" and it was not Western visitors of any kind who created them. The Soviet Union had not decided to "pull out": it was still killing people in Lithuania in January 1991 (hardly heroic behaviour by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader). Václav Havel was in jail when I arrived as a reporter in communist Czechoslovakia in early 1989. The last article I wrote that year was about his election as president. If that is not a revolution, I do not know what is.
Of course, it is worth asking what happened to the old elites and their money amid the euphoria. All over the region the fleet-footed smelted old power into new wealth (and in some cases then renewed their power). Ex-spooks have fared distressingly well in Russia. Not every opposition figure deserves equal glory, nor was everyone inside the old regimes equally villainous.
But the truly troubling question is why such an eminent historian is unable to view the facts fairly, and resorts to lazy generalisations and low smears – and why the editors of an important literary journal let him do so. The tribal loyalty of the left to the failed communist experiment is astonishingly durable, and creates a mental prison in which sacrifice and courage in the cause of freedom attracts only patronising sneers. Hobsbawm does not see that – and is cross that Judt did.
The tribal loyalty of old Western Marxists is astonishing – and scandalous. (1)