Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of  freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e.  historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society  such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

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