To the Darkest Corners of the World

Eric Hobsbawm, the world’s greatest living historian, has some cautionary words about the conditions for democracy and the limits to power in the Guardian, in response to the aims set out in George W. Bush’s inaugural address:

This idea is dangerous whistling in the dark. Although great power action may have morally or politically desirable consequences, identifying with it is perilous because the logic and methods of state action are not those of universal rights. All established states put their own interests first. If they have the power, and the end is considered sufficiently vital, states justify the means of achieving it – particularly when they think God is on their side. Both good and evil empires have produced the barbarisation of our era, to which the “war against terror” has now contributed.

ELSEWHERE: Gary Younge asks whether the desire to “spread freedom” extends to regimes in countries such as Uzbekistan.

While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by transferring institutions across borders. The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). “Spreading democracy” aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Rafe
2022 years ago

Is the the Eric Hobsbawn who remains an unreconstructed admirer of the Soviet experiment? Does he have any clues to offer about the death of democracy in the USSR? Has anyone ever managed to count the cost to democracy of the worldwide propaganda and subversion of the communist parties of the world? Apart from the damage inflicted by the communists themselves, there was the disastrous consequence that the US and allies felt obliged to support just about any regime, however unsavory, that appeared to represent a barrier against real or imagined communist threats. The point here is to try to apply the same rules to each side and not play favorites.

As for Sri Lanka, it may be that the cause of the civil war was misplaced efforts at affirmative action.

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Rafe,

Why the focus on communism? Why should Hobsbawm’s ideological preference have anything to do with the content of those two paragraphs? You have not engaged with the ideas at all, only disparaged them by association.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

Trying to impose democracy on Iraq–or any other fractured polity in todays world,– is a bit like the Brits saying in 1850 that India would be democratised in 5 years. I like this analogy with Sihks, Muslims and Hindus approximating Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Despite the difference in size and population, Iraq has as many fault lines as pre-independent India.

The Indian democracy handover (superbly done by Mountbatten) nearly fell apart on partition with much bloodshed, but compare Mountbatten’s empathy, knowledge, integrity, negotiating skills (and trump card with the Princely States of his royal connection) with the suspicion, ignorance, greed and table thumping of Paul Bremer, Rumsfield and Bush.

Mountbatten surprised all by setting an early goal for independence and swept all obstacles before him with ”the greatest goodwill of the greatest number of Indians”. Given that the Brits were there for some 400 years is indicative of the timescale for success of the exemplary democracy that India is today.

Can any rational argument succeed in proposing the use of armed force as the only way to achieve democracy in”dark corners of the world” ? I think emphatically not.

production line 12
production line 12
2022 years ago

Coulda sworn Hobsbawm was dead.

Che Tibby
2022 years ago

rafe, the cause of the sri lanka war was the imposition of a ban on the use of tamil in the public service. the british had used the usual tactics and ensured that this minority was favoured for government jobs and education.

when the brits left a nationalist sinhalese government tried to ban tamil and ensure sinhalese-only langauge use (late 1950s). this instantly isolated a huge number of tamils, and the conflict gradually escalated from ‘a problem’ to ‘shooting each other’.

so, the affirmative action program favoured the majority. if they had have adopted a bi-lingual line, they conflict might not have occurred.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Eric Hobsbawm, the world’s greatest living historian,’

Really? How so?

gilbert
gilbert
2022 years ago

Hobsbawm is a demoskeptic and fails to point out that, on the whole, states that had democracy imposed upon them have had a much happier time of it than those that had communism or theocracy imposed instead. Czechoslovakia is a bullshit example and, as an historian, he knows it. In any event, I seem to recall that (West) Germany and Japan had democracy imposed upon them and they seemed to do all right. Or is he saying that certain ‘types’ just aren’t comfortable with the idea of choosing their own rulers?

cs
cs
2022 years ago

For pedants, I think the correct description is “arguably the world’s most accomplished living historian, and certainly the most accomplished historian within the Marxist tradition”. Can anyone name a more accomplished living historian?

production line 12
production line 12
2022 years ago

I was pretty damned sure, too…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

He’s definitely still alive, the column was dated 22nd January.

Rafe, if you’d take the trouble to read Hobsawm’s autobiography, ‘Interesting Times’ or for that matter ‘The Age of Extremes’ you’ll find numerous statements condemning Soviet Marxism, Stalin, etc. I seem to remember quoting some on an earlier thread, but I don’t have the spare time to find and excerpt them now. Basically, Hobsbawm’s position is that he kept his CP membership out of loyalty to his comrades who fell in WW2 and the Spanish Civil War and because he continues to believe that capitalism is an unjust system. He’s quite open about the fact that he does not expect Marxism to become a viable political strategy again, and about its pathologies in practice, but he continues to call for a universalist ideology to counterpose against liberalism. It seems to me that this is a justifiable and understandable stance.

Geoff, I’m thinking of the scope of his work, the marvellous ability to synthesise and create meaning, and his immense contributions in historiography and the philosophy of history.

gilbert
gilbert
2022 years ago

Nicolas Werth, Bernard Lewis and Richard Pipes have all written about totalitarian regimes and their relationships with the liberal democracies from a perspective that doesn’t instinctively side against countries that resist the temptation to line their populations up against a wall and shoot them.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

The test of a historian is how well they can explain how much of the past, not whatever political affiliations they may or may not have. Unless you live in a totalitarian state, political correctness is irrelevent.

production line 12
production line 12
2022 years ago

Well, there ya go. Suppose I owe Mr Hobsbawm an apology. Still, if’n I keep saying it long enough, I’m sure to be right eventually…

And as for Richard Pipes? I say ‘tcha!’ to Richard Pipes. At least Hobsbawm had the decency to develop an appreciation for the people whose history he was writing.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

gilbert, you claim that Hobsbawm is a “demoskeptic” and ask “is he saying that certain ‘types’ just aren’t comfortable with the idea of choosing their own rulers?”.

Very clearly not. There’s nothing in his column which would warrant that interpretation, which is more readily associated with writers like Samuel Huntington (and you can find it in Bernard Lewis as well).

Hobsbawm writes:

“The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities.”

I don’t see you offering any argument to refute the example of Czechoslovakia, just assertion. Arguably, democracy has been fractious in parts of the West where the sense of a national project has broken down – for instance with the Lombard League in Italy and conflict between different linguistic populations in Belgium. As to Germany, you had a population with a long developed sense of national identity. It’s very questionable whether Japan has anything but the forms of a liberal democracy.

Most liberal political theory and political sociology will tell you that a high degree of values consensus and therefore legitimacy is required in order for cleavages within a democracy to accept the concept of majoritarian rule. You can find the argument in David Kemp, for one.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Bush’s second inaugural address is one of the most egregious examples of rhetorical bullshit I have ever read.

Its unabashed hypocrisy is simply gagging.

Brian Letier, who is usually quite measured, described it simply as “the most lunatic public address by a leader of America I can recall in my lifetime”.

I think Hobsbawm was very restrained for an “infamous” Commie.

Did his speechwriters have Churchill playing on their iPods? Who do they think they are kidding?

An unequivocal signal that currnet political demogogy no longer needs to bother with history or the world as we know it.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Mark wrote that Eric Hobsbawm yearns for a universalist ideology to counterpose against liberalism. Hobsbawn wrote that the logic and methods of state action are not those of universal rights, and this has been the message of the free trade liberals for a very long time. That is the reason why many libertarian liberals are staunch critics of the war in Iraq.

The standing agenda of humanitarian politics is to tame the power of the state and one strategy is to minimuse the domain of party political action. However both radicals and conservatives (of the kind that Hayek is not) tend to expand the role of the state. Maybe until there is bipartisan resistance to that tendency, peace and freedom will remain elusive.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I’ll have you know George W Bush is one of the greatest historians alive, just not in the Marxist tradition.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Which one then James? Texan solipsism? Hollywoodian imperial eristics?

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

First one sounds plausible though I’m not sure the school is geo-politically based – I think it might be dietry – they eat a lot of beef.

trackback
2022 years ago

Hijacked faith

Now, according to Seymour Hersh, Bush has his crosshair firmly pointed at Iran as the next target on his list of nations to be converted into democracies. Both Tim Dunlop and Mark Bahnisch think this is far from out of the question. Then where to? Wh…