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Scapegoat of the British Left?

Gerard Killoran explains his frustrations with Hobsbawm's latest book

Neil Kinnock once described Eric Hobsbawm as 'the most sagacious living Marxist', which pretty much summed up everything I disliked about both of them - Kinnock's pretentiousness and Hobsbawm's appeal to pretentious pessimists. Hobsbawm was responsible for a 1978 essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted, which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The annoying thing is that, had Jim Callaghan called an election in late 1978, he might have won. A returned Labour government could have managed the economic crisis in time for North Sea oil money to come flooding in to subsidise social programmes rather than mass unemployment. Thatcher would have been sacked and her brand of neo-liberalism discredited both in the Tory Party and politics generally. Things could have been very different indeed if Callaghan and others had kept their nerve.

The groupings around Kinnock in the Labour Party and Hobsbawm in the Marxism Today wing of the Communist Party, would go on to become the Praetorian guard of New Labour and take the army of labour on a detour from a forward march to a rightward one into the desert. I'm not saying Hobsbawm is to blame for everything that's gone wrong over the last thirty years, but I'm looking for a scapegoat and he'll have to do.

Hobsbawm has got to that time of his life where he hasn't the time or energy to do any more big serious works of History but is using his lifetime of experience and knowledge to put today's events in their historical perspective - and I'm forced to admit that in this collection of essays based on lectures, he does a pretty good job. The essays range over the major issues of our time: war, peace, 'terrorism', nationalism, and imperialism. As for the latter, Hobsbawm attempts an analysis of the nature and ambitions of the new American Empire with its massive internal market and contrasts it with the British Empire with its reliance on overseas sources of raw materials and customers.

One question that Hobsbawm struggles with, and fails to find a satisfactory answer to is, 'Why did America invade Iraq?' Marx famously wrote, 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.'

This has influenced Marxists so much that they concentrate on analysing the circumstances but see the 'Men mak(ing) their own history' as little more than gossip. Cheney and Bush have to make decisions as human beings and surely it is necessary to examine their motivations as well as the class forces that influence them.

Difficult question

So, why did America invade Iraq? This is a question that seems difficult to answer now, mainly because the invasion has been such a disaster, Before the war, the answers seemed simple. The antiwar camp believed the war was primarily about oil and reshaping the middle-east in favour of America and Israel. The pro-war idiots (both useful and useless) saw it as a war of disarmament and liberation. With no WMDs, a million dead and four million refugees, oil at $80 a barrel and Iran emerging as the dominant power in the region - people are confused. Surely the Americans can't have wanted this? Well, not all of it. Capitalism is not a monolith. Rupert Murdoch wanted the war because he thought oil would dip below $20 a barrel and General Motors is seeing sales slump - but the oil business that gave us Bush, Cheney and loved Condoleezza Rice so much they named a tanker after her, is doing very well indeed. As are the arms manufacturers. Oil exports from Iraq are still at or below pre-war levels, but the oil must be paid for in US Dollars rather than the more valuable Euros that Saddam asked for. What's good for General Motors might be good for the USA, but what's that to the oil, guns and money mafia that runs the country?

There can be both conspiracy and cock-up. The Americans did believe that Iraqis would welcome them as liberators, the resistance was unexpected, and Iran and Syria were to be next on the menu. Hobsbawm believes that the invasion was 'an exercise in demonstrating international power'. This was put less delicately by the prominent neo-con Michael Ledeen, "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." This is what is known by the 'decent left' as 'humanitarian intervention'.

Despite the entire American security apparatus turning against it and the US army facing disintegration, don't rule out an attack on Iran. After all the propaganda war began some time ago and is continuing despite the absence of an Iranian Nuclear weapons programme and the fact that the most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa stating that, 'the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons'. Now every BBC report on Iraq seems to implicate Iran in attacks on British forces in and around Basra by the Mehdi Army. This ignores the fact that the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr are Iraqi Shia nationalists opposed to the rival Badr Brigade who fought for Iran against Iraq in the first Gulf War and who are allied to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who also spent time as an exile in Iran. If that wasn't enough evidence of Iranian support for the puppet government of Iraq (they expect to take over the strings from the Americans), Iran has very good relations with the Kurds of Iraq (as opposed to the Kurds of Iran) in particular with Iraqi President and PUK leader Jalal Talabani making regular visits to Tehran to embrace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Pro-war propaganda

While on the topic of pro-war propaganda, can I mention the opposite, pro-war lack of propaganda. Have you noticed the news black out on the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia and the subsequent violent occupation compared with coverage of Darfur? Human Rights Watch has now reported on tens of thousands of Somalis having to flee Mogadishu because of the brutal tactics of the Ethiopian soldiers. HRW have written an open letter to Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, asking him to tell the Ethiopians to stop their abuses of human rights, which is appropriate as the Ethiopians invaded at the behest of the Americans. Clearly a good war, as the Islamists in Somalia had brought about the wrong kind of peace.

Back to the book, which doesn't give you much change out of a twenty quid note. All in all, I think Hobsbawm's latest, and perhaps last, publication is a reasonably coherent overview of the forces at play in the world but underplays the actions and motivations of individuals which are often personal, ambitious and against their class interests. And I still blame him for Thatcher.

Book reviewed: Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, Eric Hobsbawm (Little, Brown £17.99 hb)