Coddling a Cuddly Communist Historian - August 26, 2003

Times Watch for August 26, 2003

Coddling a Cuddly Communist Historian

A Communist Life With No Apology, Sarah Lyalls Saturday profile of Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, portrays him as a benign grandfather: Mr. Hobsbawm, a gangly 86-year-old with thick horn-rimmed glasses and an engagingly lopsided smile, spoke in his living room in Hampstead, long the neighborhood of choice for London's leftist intellectuals, in between sips of coffee.[hes] that unlikeliest of creatures, a committed Communist who never really left the party (he let his membership lapse just before the collapse of the Soviet Union) but still managed to climb to the upper echelons of English respectability by virtue of his intellectual rigor, engaging curiosity and catholic breadth of interests.

The Times uses that phrase in its call-out line for the article: Respectability by virtue of intellectual rigor. Meanwhile, Hobsbawms identification with the Stalinist Soviet Union (a sympathy all the worst in an influential historian) is glossed over.

Lyall does brings up, rather regretfully, that the British historians Communist cheerleading often get in the way of a full appreciation of his achievements: Yet he will always be dogged by questions about how he can square his long and faithful membership in the Communist Party with the reality of Communism, particularly as it played out under Stalin. In [Hobsbawms autobiography] Interesting Times, he denounces Stalin and Stalinism but also praises aspects of Communist Russia and argues that in some countries, notably the former U.S.S.R., life is worse now than it was under the Socialist system.

Lyall infers that some people just wont leave Hobsbawm be: Some people will never forgive Mr. Hobsbawm for his beliefs. In an angry review of his new book in The New Criterion, David Pryce-Jones said that Mr. Hobsbawm was someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda and that his Communism had destroyed him as an interpreter of events. Interesting Times has gathered mostly glowing reviews across Britain. But the book again raises the problem that even Mr. Hobsbawm's admirers find dismaying.

The angry Pryce-Jones indeed criticizes Hobsbawm, noting the historian defended the 1956 Soviet onslaught on Hungary in a letter to the Communist Daily Worker. At the time, Hobsbawm wrote: While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.

Pryce-Jones also notes: Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified? Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, Yes.

Pryce-Jones may also disagree with Lyall about Hobsbawms alleged denunciation of Stalinism in Interesting Times. He writes: By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains the central point of reference in the political universe, and the dream of the October revolution is still vivid inside him.

Lyall tries to explain Hobsbawm: His youth, particularly as Hitler's fascists began their rise to power, propelled him into Communism and into a lifelong sympathy for revolutions, for contrary thinking, for the ideal of revolutionary utopia. This took root in many ways, from his love of jazz (for a time, he was the jazz critic for The New Statesman) to the wide range of subjects in his books. Being a Communist intellectual was hardly contrarian in the early 40s. (In some circles it was nearly a requirement.)

In her most galling passage, Lyall gushes: Over his many years and against considerable odds, Mr. Hobsbawm has somehow maintained his belief in human resilience, in man's ability to live through the most appalling personal and public tragedies and still go on. Speaking of the blitz, he said that survival during that time required a suspension of fear, a willful pushing aside of reality.

This about a man who would have willingly condemned 20 million people to death to fulfill his warped Communist ideology. Admittedly, Lyalls phrase, a willful pushing aside of reality, is an apt (if perhaps too generous) description of the worldview of unrepentant totalitarian supporter Eric Hobsbawm.

For the rest of Sarah Lyalls profile of Hobsbawm, click here.

Communism | Eric Hobsbawm | David Pryce-Jones | Sarah Lyall | Soviet Union | Josef Stalin

A Forest Brother and Survivor of Stalinism

On the same day the Times buffs the reputation of the Communist historian Hobsbawm, it also to its credit presents a more accurate view of Communism in a profile of an Estonian who rebelled against the Soviet occupation. Reporter Michael Wines tells the horrific tale of Alfred Kaarmann, a man who survived the horrors of Stalinism.

Kaarmann was one of the forest brothers of Estonia, rebels against Soviet occupation. Wines notes in his Saturday story: Mr. Kaarmann is one of the last of the so-called Forest Brothers, the bands of Baltic-state guerrillas regarded as heroic figures here for spending years, even decades, in hiding from Soviet forces, who wrested Estonia from the Nazis.

Wines tells Times readers why: The victorious Soviets ordered all former Estonian soldiers to register. Mr. Kaarmann's brother did so, and was arrested and sent to a Russia's most dreaded Arctic prison camp, Vorkuta. "I didn't want that to happen to me," Mr. Kaarmann recalled. "We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp."

After losing an arm to a Soviet rifleman, Kaarmann soldiered on: For seven more years, disabled and mostly alone, he lived in a hole in the ground. He saw almost no one: his mother died in 1947, and he missed her funeral. His betrothed, Kleina, never knew where he lived; he says that he visited her secretly only in summer, when there was no snow to leave tracks. At the time, Mr. Kaarmann says, he was driven by the knowledge that capture would be even worse. But he eventually was captured, in 1952, by the K.G.B. He soon found that his fears had been understated. First, he says, he was beaten. Then a Soviet tribunal sentenced him to 25 years' hard labor. A series of prisons followed, including a notorious Ural Mountains prison near Perm.

One wonders what Alfred Kaarmann would have to say to Eric Hobsbawm.

For the rest of Michael Wines interview with Alfred Kaarmann, the forest soldier, click here.

Communism | Estonia | Alfred Kaarmann | Soviet Union | Michael Wines

Fickle Filkins Flip-Flops On Iraq

Sundays front-page story from Baghdad reporter Dexter Filkins, Chaos and Calm Are 2 Realities for U.S. in Iraq, actually finds a few things going right in Baghdad: American soldiers, without helmets or flak jackets, attended graduation ceremonies of the Diwaniya University Medical School. At ease with the Iraqi students and their parents, the American marines laughed, joked and posed in photographs. One by one, the students walked up to thank them, for Marine doctors had taught classes in surgery and gynecology and helped draw up the final exams.

On Monday, Filkins returns to form in his front-page piece, suggesting Iraqis were if anything safe during the reign of Saddams despotic government: Four months after Saddam Hussein's government collapsed, the streets of some Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, are still quite chaotic, with rampant robberies, kidnappings and shootings often going unpunished. The collapse of public order that followed the fall of Mr. Hussein's government was made worse by the disintegration of the Iraqi Army, which made guns and munitions easily available on the streets. No doubt Hussein made the camel trains run on time as well.

For Filkins Sunday piece on Iraq, click here.

For Filkins Monday story on Iraq, click here.

Dexter Filkins | Saddam Hussein | Iraq War

Too Little Too Late In Afghanistan, the Times Reports

Mondays story by David Rohde, U.S. Said to Plan Bigger Afghan Effort, Stepping Up Aid, assumes Afghanistan is failing while taking the most cynical possible view on the Bush administrations stepping up of aid to Afghanistan: But officials of aid groups here contend that the presidential election in the United States next year will be the motivating factor. They say the White House is eager to have Afghanistan appear to be a success story to American voters.

Rohde takes for granted that the cash infusion comes too late: However, questions are already being asked here about whether a belated billion-dollar infusion of American cash and advisers would produce the desired results. Aid workers say that reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have been stymied by a lack of political will in Washington, by what they see as draconian security restrictions imposed on American government workers here by their own security officials, by fierce bureaucratic infighting and by an attempt to rebuild Afghanistan on the cheap. (By the way, the U.S. is spending $900 million this year for that on the cheap Afghanistan reconstruction.)

For the rest of David Rohdes story from Baghdad, click here.

Afghanistan | George W. Bush | Campaign 2004 | David Rohde | War on Terrorism

Jim Wallis, Christian Marxistand Bush Supporter?

The headline of Tuesdays front-page story from White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller ponders: Bush Compassion Agenda: An 04 Liability?

Bumiller theorizes that Bush is failing to follow through on his compassionate conservatism, due in part to conservative pressure: But supporters, some administration officials among them, acknowledge that Mr. Bush's compassionate conservative agenda has fallen so far short of its ambitious goals, in a number of cases undercut by pressure from his conservative backers, that they fear he will be politically vulnerable on the issue in 2004.

She questions Bush's willingness to demand financing from Congress on his signature "compassionate conservative" issues, like education reform and AIDS, with the same energy he has spent to fight for tax cuts and the Iraq war. Critics say the pattern has been consistent: The president, in eloquent speeches that make headlines, calls for millions or even billions of dollars for new initiatives, then fails to follow through and push hard for the programs on Capitol Hill.

The opening of Bumillers story gives Bush a strange new ally-left-wing Rev. Jim Wallis. She describes Wallis (leader of the left-wing religious group Call to Renewal and editor of Sojourners magazine) as a Bush supporter, albeit one who is now (how convenient) critical of the president. Bumiller writes: Some religious supporters of Mr. Bush say they feel betrayed by promises he made as a candidate and now, they maintain, has broken as president. After three years, he's failed the test, said one prominent early supporter, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fights poverty. Is it really newsworthy that a left-wing activist is critical of Bush?

Wallis never was a Bush supporter. Thought Wallis did give a qualified endorsement to Bushs faith-based charitable initiatives, during Campaign 2000 he organized (with Arianna Huffington) the shadow conventions that took place alongside the Republican and Democratic party conventions in an attempt to shift both parties further to the left.

For the rest of Elisabeth Bumillers analysis of Bushs compassionate conservatism, click here.

Elisabeth Bumiller | George W. Bush | Compassionate Conservatism | Labeling Bias | Rev. Jim Wallis