g e n e r a l first hand. ‘You are not allowed to talk,’ says Ai. ‘You are just sitting here, in this pose: two hands on your lap, facing forward. And there are two guys sitting right close to you, one in your position and another one also like this, and they stare at you and will never move their eyes, will never blink even. And no emotion, absolutely silent … from arrival in the morning until ten in the evening.’
One interrogator tells Ai he is sad because his ‘mentor’ had died. This turns out to be bin Laden. When Ai says that bin Laden is not the man’s mentor he replies, ‘I respect him. I hate Americans.’ ‘They all say they hate Americans [Ai spent 11 years in New York] but they don’t really hate Americans. They love American songs, they love whatever Americans do but they’ve been told Americans are brutal, crazy, inhuman.’
Other interrogators are soldiers:
They walk like a performance. They are like robots … If they want to change position, they stamp their feet like robots … They cannot doze but they are so sleepy because their minds are empty. And sometimes they would argue. One would say, ‘You cannot blink your eyes!’ And the other said, ‘You did, not me!’ … the cameras can really see if they doze … They are really being highly watched … There’s two other soldiers whose job it is to search them … they have to go with you, in this tiny [bath]room. One person before you, one behind … Then you start to pee. Then they look at your dick because, you know, they have to make sure it ’s really a dick … there’s also a camera in the bathroom. They are being watched.
Now confined at home in Beijing, Ai Weiwei tells Barnaby Martin, who conceived this invaluable book, ‘even when you’re released you are still in this big, unlawful prison. Nothing really to protect you and everybody just listens to the decision of somebody high up … I feel nothing. I feel empty … this is a game that is almost not playable because there are no rules. Not even the poorest rules. They can do anything … they are so ruthless and they make up new rules when they want.’ It is lucky that Ai was in their hands for only 81 days. Liu Xiaobo must endure 11 years. To order these books, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 29
j ohn g r ay
Evasion Tactics Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century
By Eric Hobsbawm (Little, Brown 336pp £25)
Speaking with the Italian journalist Antonio Polito in an extended interview published as The New Century (2000), Eric Hobsbawm explained why he confined his work as a historian primarily to the 19th century. Writing 20th-century history would have required him to deal with the Soviet Union, which he was not inclined to do:
It is clear that scholars who were critical of communism have less hesitation in studying phenomena like the gulags, while a communist historian would certainly prefer to avoid it … I have tended to avoid dealing with it directly, because I knew that if I had, I would have had to have written things that would have been difficult for a communist to say without affecting my political activity and the feelings of my comrades. This is why I chose to become a nineteenth-century historian rather than a twentieth-century one.
In terms of the study of history Hobsbawm’s decision was highly productive. Forming his celebrated trilogy on the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution up to the outbreak of the Great War, The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987) are undoubtedly works of considerable historical scholarship. If he had kept silent about his own time he might be remembered today as a major historian who just happened to be a communist. But in fact he wrote extensively on many aspects of the 20th century including the Soviet Union, and here the quality of his work fell off severely. In books such as The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (1994), Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007) and How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (2011) – the last two volumes being collections of essays – he presented a picture of the last century that did little more than recycle the prevailing progressive consensus.
The view of Russia that Hobsbawm presents in his writings is the dullest academic orthodoxy. There is no sign of any interest in those – such as the Mensheviks, whose story is told in André Liebich’s magnificent From the Other Shore: Russian Social Democracy after 1921 (1997) – who, for decades after they had been politically defeated, struggled, often in poverty and obscurity, to show how the repression that followed the revolution was largely the consequence of applying Marxist-Leninist doctrine. For Hobsbawm, tyranny in a faraway backward country told us nothing about Marxism as a political project. If the Soviet system was repressive, it was chiefly because of the authoritarian legacy of Tsarism. Had the revolution occurred as Marx predicted – in a more developed country – the democratic and humanistic ideals of the revolutionaries could have been realised. At best half-truths, these banalities have shaped the predominant Western view of the Soviet Union for generations. Actually there is nothing peculiarly Russian about the type of repression – pervasive censorship, a vast intelligence apparatus keeping the population under more or less continuous surveillance, show trials, executions and the large-scale use of the penal system for the purpose of political control – that was practised by the Soviet regime. These are features of communism wherever it has been in power. To present the history of the last century as if it tells us nothing about the universal consequences of attempting to realise Marxian dreams is an enormous evasion. But it is an evasion that fits well with conventional views of Russia and communism, and Hobsbawm’s endorsement of this consensus goes far to explain the extraordinary reverence in which he was held by the time he died in October of last year.
Dealing mainly with cultural issues, the present volume has a bottom-drawer feel. Hobsbawm wrote a good deal on m a r c h 2 0 1 3 | Literary Review 43