The spectacular Stalinist

When the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 95, the “respectable” media on both sides of the Atlantic joined in a chorus of hosannas to his memory. The BBC broadcast an hour-long retrospective. The Guardian ran thousands of words about him, including an exhaustive obituary by Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn, whose first few sentences made him sounds like something just short of a god:

January 1976: The British historian Eric Hobsbawm. (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)
E. J. Hobsbawm

Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death…he had achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life…he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind….Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis…he was unrivalled.

No less fulsome was Hobsbawm’s New York Times obituaryby William Grimes, which overflowed with words like “masterwork,” “incisive,” “eloquent.” Nick Higham’s piece for the BBC website was equally fawning.

Kotkin at Harriman Institute in February 2015
Stephen Kotkin

And the New Yorker ran a cozy tribute by historian Stephen Kotkin, who, calling Hobsbawm “refreshingly serious—intellectually curious and politically engaged—yet un-full of himself,” proceeded to celebrate Hobsbawm’s books, which “put considerable empirical flesh on the classical Marxist bones,” and closed with the admiring observation that “having embraced and never relinquished the passionate early Marx, E. J. Hobsbawm…was in it to change the world.” Hobsbawm, Kotkin concluded, had “long ago become probably the world’s best known living historian, with books translated into some forty languages.”

As those last few sentences suggest, to be sure, there was one ticklish little fact about Hobsbawm: he was a lifelong Stalinist. Most of those who extolled him in the “respectable” media did acknowledge this detail, but they all found curious ways to, shall we say, diminish its importance.

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William Grimes

While admitting, for example, that critics saw Hobsbawm as “an apologist for Soviet tyranny,” Higham was quick to add that the late, great Kremlin toady “was too shrewd, too open-minded to pursue a narrow Marxist approach in his work or his politics.” The Guardian obit proffered a strikingly similar “yes, but” formulation on Hobsbawm’s Communism: “Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement….Yet he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks.”

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Ed Miliband

Higham, indeed, referred neutrally and without irony to Hobsbawm’s “Marxist ideals” (can one imagine a writer for the BBC ever citing in this way someone’s “Nazi ideals”?) and quoted then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s praise for Hobsbawm as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family” and as a man who “cared deeply about the political direction of the country.” Kettle and Wedderburn, for their part, even saw Hobsbowm as a victim – a man whose university career was hampered by “a very British academic McCarthyism” (read: a disinclination to allow a Stalinist to indoctrinate students).

More tomorrow.

Barroso’s European “empire”

In 2004, José Manuel Barroso, the Maoist student leader turned mainstream politician (and professed believer in freedom and democracy), stepped down from the post of Portuguese prime minister to become President of the European Commission.

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The three European “presidents” as of November 2011: Jerzy Buzek (Parliament), José Manuel Barroso (Commission) and Herman Van Rompuy (European Council)

The very action – leaving the role of head of government of a European nation to become one of three “presidents” of the European Union (the other two being the heads of the European Council and European Parliament) – underscored the degree of power that the unelected EU leadership had accumulated, by that point, relative to that organization’s supposedly sovereign member states. As leader of the European Commission, Barroso arguably wielded more authority than any head of government in Europe, with the exception of the chancellor of Germany. Certainly Barroso the president of the European Commission was a far more potent figure than Barroso the premier of Portugal.

Although Barroso, on completing his second term as president of the European Commission, would maintain that he harbored no desire to see the EU evolve into a superstate, his own statements and actions while in office seemed – to put it mildly – to belie that claim.

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With Muammar Qaddafi at an EU-Africa Summit

In 2007, for example, he said: “Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.” He added, paradoxically, “What we have is the first non-imperial empire.” In 2010, sounding very much like the Maoist he had once been (and supposedly no longer was), he expressed outright disdain for elective government, saying that “decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.”

Two years later, declaring the need to “move toward a federation of nation states” and to “move to common supervisory decisions,” Barroso announced plans for a European banking union that would subordinate every financial institution in the eurozone to the European Central Bank – a clear step toward even greater power for Europe’s unelected masters in Brussels and toward even greater weakening of the authority of elected national legislatures and heads of government. Of course, he had no intention of asking the people of Europe whether they approved of such a move. The next year, he reiterated the need for increased “integration,” for more “federalism.” 

After Irish citizens, in a 2008 referendum, rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, formerly known as the EU Constitution, Barroso issued an absurdly counterfactual statement saying that “this vote should not be seen as a vote against the EU” – and saw to it that the Irish were made to vote again. (The second time, they cast their ballots the “right way.”) 

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Mario Monti

It was on Barroso’s watch that Silvio Berlusconi, the elected prime minister of Italy, was replaced, in 2011, with one of Barroso’s own right-hand men, Mario Monti, who had never held an elective office. (So that he could serve as prime minister, he was summarily appointed “Senator for Life” by Italy’s ceremonial president.) Like a good EU soldier, Monti proceeded to implement EU policies in that country. The next year, again with Barroso’s blessing, essentially the same thing happened in Greece. 

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With Angela Merkel

Throughout his tenure, moreover, Barroso responded with anger to criticism of the EU, of the European Commission, of the organization’s lack of democratic accountability. Consistently, he blamed problems that are inherent in the very structure of the EU and the eurozone on the governments – and the citizens – of member countries. When Ireland collapsed economically in 2013, Barroso rejected the idea that the yoking of the Irish economy to those of other countries via the euro had anything to do with it; instead, perversely, he turned the whole situation upside-down, charging Ireland – get this – with causing a problem for the euro.  

He is one of those bureaucrats, in short, who act as if – and who genuinely seem to believe that – the people exist for the sake of institutions of government, rather than the other way around. Barroso the EU honcho may not still have been a Maoist, but he still, quite clearly, had the young Maoist’s belief in tyranny.

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With David Cameron

Certainly Barroso’s own fierce authoritarianism, his extremely aggressive efforts to strengthen the EU’s power over member states, and his adamant refusal to address the inherent structural problems and lack of democratic accountability that make the EU a net negative force in the lives of millions of Europeans, helped lead to the recent vote by British citizens to bow out of the EU. You’ve got to hand it to Barroso, then, for his latest move: having left his EU post in 2014, he accepted the job, in July of this year, of non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International (GSI) at €5 million a year. His task? To “help Goldman Sachs as it deals with the fallout from Britain’s exit from the European Union.” Well done, good and faithful servant. 

Barroso: From Beijing to Brussels

You’d think he’d brought about world peace or discovered a cure for cancer, because the litany of awards he’s collected goes on for pages: a couple of dozen honorary degrees from universities around the world, plus fifty or so sundry international distinctions, ranging from the Transatlantic Leadership Prize of the European Institute in Washington, D.C., to the Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great (Lithuania), from the Gold Medal of the Hellenic Parliament to the Prix European of the Year.

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José Manuel Barroso

From 2004 to 2014, based in Brussels and Luxembourg, José Manuel Barroso was the president of the European Commission, a post that made him one of the most powerful men on the continent. But he started out in Portugal, where during his college years, in the immediate aftermath of his country’s democratic “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 – which overthrew the longstanding right-wing dictatorship that had begun with António de Oliveira Salazar in 1932 – he was a leader of a Maoist group called the Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, or MRPP (later known as the Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat, or PCTP/MRPP), which was notorious for its alleged involvement in terrorism.

A 1976 TV clip showing the young Barroso is now famous (or infamous) in his homeland. The clip shows Barroso, then a student, at a meeting of the Lisbon University Revolutionary Students Commission. Speaking with an interviewer, he gives a thumbs-up to a proposal that has just been ratified by the commission. According to the less than felicitously translated subtitles, he says approvingly that the proposal aims “on the right direction of the combat, made within a revolutionary structure.” He goes on to speak of the “crisis of the bourgeois Education System” and to describe a recent government action as “anti-proletarian.”

Barroso, who had become active after the Carnation Revolution, was reportedly well known on campus for committing acts of petty revolutionary vandalism – writing anti-capitalist slogans on walls and stealing university furniture. Years later, one Portuguese politician who had known Barroso in his student days told the BBC that he had been “very radical, hard-working and ambition” back then, but that he had “no strong convictions on anything” and was driven not by principle but by power.

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Mao Zedong

Indeed, when the Portuguese left failed to win power in the 1970s, Barroso performed a 180-degree quick-change – leaving the Maoist fold in 1980 and joining the country’s major party of the right, the PPD-PSD. Presumably, he was now a devotee not of Beijing-style totalitarianism but of individual liberty and elective democracy. As we will see, there has been very good reason in recent years to wonder about the authenticity of this long-ago conversion.

As in the MRPP, he rose quickly in the party’s hierarchy. From 1992 to 1995, he was Foreign Minister; from 2002 to 2004 he was Prime Minister. If he has any great gift, it is apparently for figuring out how to climb to power.

But the greatest prize of all was yet to come.

Famine and fraud

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The denialist’s bible

Douglas Tottle is a Canadian trade-union activist whose 1987 book Fraud, Famine and Fascism may fairly be described as the bible of Holodomor denial; Tottle himself has been called “a sort of guru” to his fellow denialists. The argument set forth in his book is that the whole idea of the forced famine was an invention of the Nazis, designed to discredit Josef Stalin and his benign regime, and that this myth, this lie, was then taken up by Western capitalists, who have kept it alive ever since as just one more chapter in a long history of evil Western propaganda against the Soviet Union. “Both to undermine support of a socialist alternative at home, and to maintain a dominant position in international economic and political relationships,” Tottle wrote in his introduction, “all manner of lies and distortions are employed” by the Western powers that be “to cast the USSR in as negative a light as possible.” Tottle, who had no apparent training or experience in historical research, singled out Robert Conquest for criticism and ridicule, accusing him of producing “anti-communist propaganda,” charging him with an “unswerving anti-communist bias,” and sneering that his “career as an obsessive anti-Soviet historian has spanned two cold wars.”

Tottle’s book, just so you know, was put out by a Communist publishing house, Progress Publishers, and was praised by such reliable authorities as the Stalin Society (yes, there is such a thing) and the Communist Party of Sweden.

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Josef Stalin

We noted yesterday that the timing of Jeff Coplon’s Village Voice article denying the Holodomor and smearing Conquest was less than fortuitous: only a couple of years later, the Iron Curtain came down, the archives were opened, and Conquest was proven right. Tottle’s timing was lousy, too. His book came out in December 1987, and almost simultaneously the head of the Ukrainian Communist party, Volodymyr Shcherbytskyi, publicly acknowledged the reality of the Holodomor. Being a good Communist soldier (and not an objective historian, as he’d presented himself), Tottle bowed to the party line and withdrew his book.

Nonetheless, the book remains available online, and continues to be cited as definitive by any number of apologists for the Soviet Union. Only last year, an official Russian government “news” site, Sputnik News (which has been described by Foreign Policy magazine, the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a Kremlin propaganda outlet), ran an article by Ekaterina Blinova entitled “Holodomor Hoax: The Anatomy of a Lie Invented by West’s Propaganda Machine.” (Blinova makes her point of view crystal clear when she writes of the “bold historical experiment kicked off by Communists” and suggests that Soviet Communism failed only because “it did not comply with the plans of the Western financial and political elite.”)

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Judy Whitehead

Among the readers who gave Blinova’s fantastical rewrite of history an enthusiastic thumbs-up in the comments section was Judy Whitehead, a professor of anthropology at University of Lethbridge. “Thanks for this,” she wrote. “The anti-Communist paranoia in the west fueled this hoax. Its mythical nature and its use by Nazi sympathizers should be better known throughout the world.” Whitehead, it turns out, is a fervent supporter of the so-called “antifascist resistance in Ukraine” – in other words, the anti-democratic Putin puppets who seek to deny Ukraine a free and independent future and return it to the status of a Kremlin satellite.

Coplon v. Conquest

Yesterday we looked at the first wave of denial about the Holodomor, the famine that Stalin engineered in the Ukraine in 1932-33. We saw how New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty cemented his place in history by denying the reality of a genocide that he knew very well was taking place.

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Jeff Coplon

But denial of the Holodomor has lived on. One example: Jeff Coplon. Born in 1951, he’s spent most of his career working as a sports journalist and hack writer, ghosting autobiographies for the likes of Cher. But he made himself notorious with a 1988 article in the Village Voice, “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust,” in which he spun the Holodomor as a Big Lie served up by the American right to impugn the Soviet Union. The article began with an epigraph from Adolf Hitler, no less: “Something therefore always remains and sticks from the most impudent lies…. The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed.” Coplon went on to sneer at the 1983 documentary, Harvest of Despair, calling the entire history of the Holodomor “a fraud.” Yes, he admitted,

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Josef Stalin

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possibly one or two million, Ukrainians died — the minority from starvation, the majority from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffering. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible.

But….

Stalin, Coplon insisted, hadn’t meant to kill all those people. He just made some really big mistakes. What’s more, other officials, further down in the power structure, were guilty, too. Even some of the starving Ukrainians themselves did things that weren’t in their own interests. In short, it’s one big muddle.

And…..

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Robert Conquest

Those who have pushed the narrative of the Holodomor, Coplon further argued, have had unsavory motives. They’ve been – gasp! – anti-Communists. Coplon dismisses one of them, Robert Conquest, as a know-nothing propagandist with CIA ties and careerist bent. This crude depiction of a truly great historian by a hack sportswriter is breathtaking in its audacity. Coplon does everything he can to discredit Conquest – pointing out, for example, that the research for Conquest’s book on the Holodomor was funded in part by “an $80,000 subsidy from the Ukrainian National Association, a New Jersey-based group with a venerable, hard-right tradition.” As for the book itself, Coplon mocks it as yet another piece of what he sneeringly calls “faminology.” For good measure, he ridicules Conquest as “an ideologue whose serious work is long behind him.” 

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One of Coplon’s masterworks

Alas for Coplon, timing was not on his side. Soon after his article came out, the Iron Curtain fell. The Soviet archives were opened. Conquest was vindicated – and then some. (The author Kingsley Amis, who was a friend of Conquest’s, suggested that his first book after the opening of the archives should be entitled I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.) By the time of his death last August, Conquest had been awarded a Order of the British Empire and named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; meanwhile, Coplon went on to co-author such classics as My Story with Sarah, Duchess of York (1996) and My Father’s Daughter with Tina Sinatra (2000).

Never, as far as we know, has Coplon publicly apologized for his reprehensible whitewash of the Holodomor and his inexcusable slander of Robert Conquest.

Denying the Holodomor

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The Holodomor Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated last November

Ukrainians call it the Holodomor, which means “extermination by hunger.” The man-made famine – conceived by Stalin as a way of eliminating Ukrainian nationalism – took the lives of at least 2.5 million Ukrainians (and perhaps three times that) in 1932 and 1933. It was, without question, an act of cold-blooded mass murder. Food supplies were cut off; grain produced in the Ukraine, in amounts large enough to feed Ukrainians several times over, was transported out of the Ukraine and sold abroad; Ukrainians seeking to leave the Ukraine to find food elsewhere in the USSR were turned back. The Ukraine reached such heights of desperation that widespread cannibalism resulted. And yet from the very beginning, there have been those in the West who have denied the existence of immense historical atrocity.

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Walter Duranty

The very first of these deniers – or, at least, the most prominent and influential of the first, contemporary wave of deniers – was our website’s own poster boy, New York Times reporter Walter Duranty.

As the Times‘s man in Moscow from 1922 to 1936, Duranty exercised immense control over what, and how much, Americans – and the Western world generally – knew about what was going on inside the Soviet Union. His overall record is disgraceful; he was one of the earliest modern examples (CNN, more recently, has provided us with many others) of a foreign correspondent who is prepared to systematically whitewash the dictatorship in which he is stationed, presumably in order to retain access.

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Gareth Jones

But none of the propaganda he served up about Uncle Joe was as bad as his thoroughgoing misrepresentation of the Holodomor. When a courageous young British journalist named Gareth Jones, who had traveled widely in the Ukraine and seen the starvation up close, reported honestly on his findings, Duranty was quick to shoot him down, calling his report “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”

Duranty – the man who had the name, the reputation, and the golden Times imprimatur – won the day; Jones, a nobody, was dismissed as a fabricator or, at best, a rank hyperbolist. In fact Duranty was well aware of the famine; he knew Stalin had engineered it; and he accepted it as something that simply had to be done in order to advance the USSR’s long, glorious march toward utopia. (It was, incidentally, Duranty, acknowledging the Holodomor in a private letter, who first wrote, apropos of Stalin’s tough love for his subjects, that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”)

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Louis Fischer

Joining Duranty in the cover-up was Louis Fischer, a staffer for The Nation who parroted the official Kremlin line, insisting that there was no starvation in the Ukraine, and blaming any food shortages on counterrevolutionary Ukrainians. (To his credit, Fischer, who at the time of the famine was a devout Communist, later turned against Communism and left The Nation because of its Stalinist slant.)

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George Bernard Shaw

The great playwright George Bernard Shaw, who defended Stalin’s show trials and summary executions (and whose fatuous stoogery deserves to be discussed at greater length on this site at a future date), was taken on a Potemkin tour of the USSR in 1932 and on his return to Britain stated that hadn’t seen “a single under-nourished person in Russia, young or old.”

But that was just the beginning. More tomorrow.

Eulogies for a Stalinist

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Alexander Cockburn

As we’ve noted, Alexander Cockburn‘s death unleashed a torrent of praise from the mainstream media, most of which pretended that he’d been something of a classical liberal. The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg didn’t play that game – in fact, he admitted that Cockburn’s politics had been morally offensive – but he sought to put those politics into, shall we say, some kind of larger context. Emphasizing style over substance, personality over ideology, Hertzberg recalled “the dazzle of [Cockburn’s] charisma in the eyes of a certain cohort of bohemian and would-be bohemian youth” back in the 1970s. Hertzberg exulted: “what style! Cockburn was a rare bird, a peacock among the scowling mudhens of America’s humor-challenged Nixon-era New Left. He was a combative Fleet Street Oxbridge dandy, a prolific, lightning-fast writer, often laugh-out-loud funny, with a rich store of obscure (to us provincials) historical allusions and a knack for deploying a tone of elaborate courtesy in the joyful delivery of delicious insult.”

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Hendrik Hertzberg

He was a Stalinist, in short: an apologist for the Gulag, the Moscow show trials, the Holodomor, and much else. But oh, what sense of humor! What charm! What wit! And there was more: “Cockburn’s speaking voice was as seductive as his wit was sharp. He was good-looking, too, in the angular, joli laid way of certain British star performers. A bit of Jagger, a bit of Peter O’Toole.” 

Yes, a Peter O’Toole in the service of the Kremlin. 

One person who didn’t try to obscure the straightforward facts about this man was the distinguished historian Ronald Radosh, who quite rightly called Cockburn “the true successor of Walter Duranty, a man who wrote to serve the enemies of the United States and to glorify what he saw as the great achievements of the Bolsheviks and their successors.”

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Ronald Radosh

Radosh noted that when he, Radosh, favorably reviewed former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares’s memoir Against All Hope – a book that, as Radosh put it, revealed “the truth about the torture state that Fidel Castro had created in Cuba, thereby making the public aware for the first time in our country of the reality of how Castro treated his country’s political opponents” – Cockburn responded by disseminating the Havana regime’s lies, smearing the valiant Valladares and dismissing his accounts of torture as counterrevolutionary lies.

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Armando Valladares

In a letter to The Nation protesting Cockburn’s reprehensible effort to discredit Valladares, Radosh observed that the only reasonable conclusion one could come to after reading it was that Cockburn supported Castro’s torturing of his opponents. Cockburn, in his reply, derided Radosh as “a professional anticommunist, with the tunnel vision that goes with that trade,” and again denied that Castro’s government engaged in torture.

Given the kind of information to which Cockburn had ready access, it is impossible to interpret his statements about Castro and Radosh as anything other than the most cynical and heartless of lies.