On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy, by Eric Hobsbawm (Pantheon Books, 128 pp., $19.95)

Yes, Eric Hobsbawm is still at it. The University of London professor, it should be remembered and endlessly repeated, was an early member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and perhaps the most prominent scholarly defender of the Soviet Union in the West. He remained a Party member even after the 1956 invasion of Hungary, when most of his colleagues quit in disgust, and stayed until the very end of the twilight struggle, when, rather than quit, he merely let his membership lapse. Asked by a television host if “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified” to establish a communist utopia, he unhesitatingly responded: “Yes.” He remains an “unrepentant communist” to this day.

While the fall of the Soviet Union may have chastened Hobsbawm about the practicality of communism, it has not tempered his disgust for the United States. Now 91 years old, he has recently compiled four brief essays about America and “imperialism” into a slim volume. Hobsbawm predicates his critique on “the strength and indestructibility of my own political convictions”—but an argument presented nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War, by a man too stubborn to own up to the fatal contradictions of Marxism and his own role in justifying them, is bound to have many problems of its own.

Hobsbawm’s vituperation at American “empire,” “supremacy,” and “hegemony” characterizes this angry little book. In the preface, he notes that his lectures were written during a period “dominated by the decision of the U.S. government in 2001 to assert a single-handed world hegemony, denouncing hitherto accepted international conventions, reserving its right to launch wars of aggression or other military operations whenever it wanted to, and actually doing so.” Elsewhere he attacks American global hegemony as exceptionally malign and historically unique. September 11 produced a national trauma that “enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy”; these maniacs have carried out a “megalomaniac American policy,” he claims. Hobsbawm does not appear to have marked the irony of such a passage’s being written by an apologist for the Soviet Union.

Hobsbawm goes on to argue that the nostrums of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia “were formally denounced by President Bush in 2002, namely that, in principle, sovereign states, acting officially, respected one another’s borders and kept out of one another’s internal affairs.” It boggles the mind that a renowned international historian could maintain that the past 400 years of human history were marked by the existence of a widely agreed upon, not to mention respected, system of nonintervention in sovereign states’ internal affairs that America somehow destroyed at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It’s even more remarkable that an unreconstructed Marxist and defender of the Soviet Union could make such an observation—consider the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Brezhnev Doctrine, and Soviet-funded insurgencies from Angola to Nicaragua, to name just a few of international communism’s manifold acts of aggression against free peoples.

Hobsbawm’s hatred for capitalism is evident in his suspicion of unchallenged American power. “The currently fashionable free-market globalization has brought about a dramatic growth in economic and social inequalities both within states and internationally,” he complains. He doesn’t much care for the enormous benefits that capitalism has brought mankind in terms of economic productivity and quality of life; rather, it is the persistence of “inequalities” that matter most. Fine, he’s a Marxist. But Hobsbawm doesn’t let his criticism of capitalism end there. “This surge of inequality, especially in the conditions of extreme economic instability such as those created by the global free market in the 1990s,” he explains, “is at the roots of the major social and political tensions of the new century.” What about militant Islam, many of whose funders, ideologists, and practitioners are hardly lacking in purchasing power? Amazingly, there is no mention of jihadism in these lectures, a remarkable omission in a book that seeks to explain the twenty-first-century international order. More proof that Marxists really don’t understand the importance of religion.

On Empire is not an explicit apologia for the Soviet Union, though it might as well be. Hobsbawm grieves for the loss of the Soviet empire less for the glories that it might have bestowed upon the world than for its ability to check the rapacious United States. After the fall of the great European empires, international communism was the last obstacle to America’s present-day “global supremacy,” he writes. International competition between the two superpowers “kept at bay both the danger of a global war and the collapse of large parts of the globe into disorder or anarchy.” But there was a great deal of “disorder” and “anarchy” during the Cold War, inspired by Soviet meddling in all corners of the globe. And whatever “order” existed at the time came with a price for the peoples living under Soviet rule. Yet that price is one that Hobsbawm, like any good apologist and revisionist, doesn’t care to discuss.

Western Cold Warriors should at least appreciate the Soviet Union for the stability that it provided and realize that its disintegration is the major cause of today’s “world disorder,” Hobsbawm argues. For instance, he notes the dramatic increase in the “number of independent states” in the world but laments that “a number—probably a growing number—of these political entities appear incapable of carrying on the essential functions of territorial states or are threatened with disintegration by secessionist movements.” This is true, but it’s hardly a reason to bemoan the end of Soviet imperialism. It should not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm opposed NATO intervention to prevent the wholesale slaughter of innocents by Slobodan Milosevic in the postcommunist Balkans. In this book, he describes that crisis not as an attempted ethnic cleansing on the part of a racist, expansionist thug, but as a “rebellion against Serbia of an extremist minority group among Albanian nationalists in Kosovo.” The Gulf War, presumably, was nothing more than an insurgency against Iraq among fringe Shiites, Kurds, and Kuwaitis.

The last lecture in the book, entitled “Why America’s Hegemony Differs from Britain’s Empire,” seeks not only to distinguish between the British Empire and the alleged American one, but also to show why the latter is demonstrably worse. What makes our global hegemony so bad is that “unlike Britain and all other European states, America never saw itself as one entity in an international system of rival political powers.” Hobsbawm asserts that “Britain certainly had a strong conviction of its superiority to other societies, but absolutely no messianic belief in, or particular desire for, the conversion of other peoples to the British ways of government.” American democracy promotion abroad—which, predictably, Hobsbawm sneers at—is worse than British imperialism, because our latter-day raping and pillaging of the world makes a pretense of goodwill whereas the British were, at least, less sentimental about their intentions. But this isn’t accurate, either; the British may not have wanted to “convert” Kenyans or Indians to parliamentary democracy, but they certainly had altruistic justifications for their foreign exploits.

Like all totalitarians, Hobsbawm abuses language. For reasons that go unexplained, “peace” and “order” never existed within the British or American “empires,” yet somehow they flourished within the Soviet realm. Hobsbawm adds obligatory scare quotes to the words “tyranny” and “freedom.” He concedes that American military bases abroad exist at the behest of their host governments—unlike British bases during the Empire’s heyday—yet he doesn’t seem to understand how this consensual relationship might discredit use of the word “empire” in describing America’s global posture. And if America is an “empire,” then what does that make China, with its economic exploitation of Africa and suborning of the mass murder of Sudanese, Zimbabweans, and Burmese? Or Russia, which seeks once again to dominate Eastern Europe?

Hobsbawm is no doubt a prodigious and prolific writer. But after reading his latest effort, I’m reminded of something that David Pryce-Jones observed in a review of Hobsbawm’s 2003 memoir, Interesting Times: “Lifelong devotion to Communism destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events.”


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next