Hobsbawm’s tender feelings for the ”October Revolution”

1994 the English professor of world fame Eric Hobsbawm 1994 published ”The Age of Extremes”. Because of Hobsbawm’s reputation, this book that is in need of warning signs. The preceding three volumes make for good reading but will not be discussed here.

Hobsbawm emphasizes that the ”October revolution 1917” was one of the most important events in the history of the twentieth century. All the more interesting then that the parts of the book treating the Soviet Union are biassed and contain remarkable coverings up and cases of concealing.During most of his life he was a member of the Commnist Party, also during the many years when that meant being stalinist. What would other historians think of a colleague who during most of his life was member of a Nazi party?

The fact that Russia in 1917-1918 had a democratically elected Parliament (The Constituent Assembly) and that it was dissolved by force and suppressed with violence and murder is of cause uncomfortable for Hobsbawm. The few facts shown in his book are meant to discredit this body, and very important facts are not mentioned at all – concerning the election in late 1917 and the results.

There is also reason to point out a few errors which at first sight might not look serious but which show that Hobsbawns knowledge of Russia and the USSR is not so good.

Events will here be referred to according to older style until the first of February 1918, when Russia was thirteen days after Western Europe. The February Revolution of 1917 occurred when in the rest of Europe it was March and the so called October Revolution when it was November in the rest of Europe.


Tsar Nicolaus II was overthrown in February 1917 and Russia got a provisory government formed from the situation in the almost powerless parliament of tsarist times, the duma.

During the rest of 1917, the Bolsheviks violently attacked this government. The instrument for the campaign was a newly formed Bolshevik press sponsored by very large amounts from Germany, the main enemy in the ongoing WWI. Hobsbawm never mentions this startling fact. In a country at war, of course it was treason.

In October 1917 the Bolsheviks took power in Russia through a coup d’état. The provisory government, now overthrown after eight months, had proclaimed an election to a parliament that would give the country a constitution, The Constituent Assembly – Uchreditelnoe Sobranie. The election was held and this democratic parliament assembled once, in January 1918. Then Lenin dissolved it with force he first democratic popular assembly in Russia.

In his chapter The World Revolution Hobsbawm writes about the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917:

The real issue is not whether, as anticommunist historians have argued, it was a putsch or coup by the fundamentally antidemodcratic Lenin, but who or what should or could follow the fall of the Provisional Government. /…/ The military counterrevolution had only begun.”

What shall we call it if not a coup d’état? During the first decade after the ”October Revolution”, it was not called revolution in Russia but coup d’état, ”perevorot”. Later it began to be called ”revolution” for greater prestige and the communists’ own kind of historiography.

Hobsbawn writes of the role of the peasants in the upheavals aafter world war I:

/…/ where they constitued the majority of the population, they practically guaranteed that socialists, let alone Bolshevik ones, would not win democratic general elections. This did not necessarily make peasants bastions of political conservatism, but it fatally handicapped demokratic socialists; or else – as in Soviet Russia – pressed them into abolishing electoral democracy. For this reason the Bolsheviks, having demanded a Constituent Assembly /…/ dissolved it as soon as it met, a few weeks after October.” (The italics are mine.)


Hobsbawm writes that socialists, let alone Bolsheviks, could not win democratic general elections. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what socialists did!

Such parties did win this election in November 1917, the first democratic election ever in Russia. The election was not won by the Bolsheviks, with their 23,9% of the ballot, you can actually read this in The Great Soviet Encyklopedia, the edition under Brezhnev times. (The Bolshevik vote was 9 844 000.)

If you add all the votes for the other Socialist parties, you get 27 463 000, to be compared with the Bolshevik 9 844 000. Many of these parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, the largest (16 5000 000) can be described as Social Democratic. One of the many small parties was the legendary Jewish Workers’ Association Bund – 555 000 votes. Altogether 42 million men and women voted. Participation was 60%.


Hobsbawm defines the Bolsheviks as ”democratic socialists”, which is either a slip of the pen or the communists’ permanent assurance that only communist parties and states were democratic. The tens of millions of innocent people (much more than a hundred millions, if we add Mao’s China) murdered by communist regimes, are silent witnesses of what ”communist democracy” is.


He also claims that the Bolsheviks were pressed by the peasants to abandon democracy by elections. As a matter of fact, Lenin dissolved and forbid the Constituent Assembly as soon as possible, to avoid the risk that this overwhelming, non-bolshevik majority would be able to form a functionin. coalition.


Hobsbawm is not entirely ignorant of the fact that results from this parlamentiary election are available. But of all available figures he chooses only to mention that the liberal ”Constitutional demokrats” (called the CaDets, a pun) got mor than 2,5 % of the mandates. Only the small percentage, not that this represented two million votes.

And, most important, he does not mention the fact, unfortunately not much known among other than specially interested, that there was a free, secret and democratic ballot and that the Bolsheviks had against them a socialist majority of three times as many votes as their own. As we have found, that does not fit into a schematic communist way of writing history.

The low result för the CaDets, 2,5%, suites him better, in order to make the Bolsheviks look like a ”party of the masses”. And he does not give the figures for the Communist result in the election.


During the Civil war in Russia, millions in the countryside died by starvation. This was repeated ten years later during the so called ”collectivization”, an euphemism for the nationalization by force of acriculture.

When the peasants during the Communists’ first years at power were not paid for their produce neither with money nor with goods, they stopped delivering provisions. The Communists sent armed patrols to the countryside which confiscated all food they could find. The result was a horrible famine in the countryside: at least three million people were killed this way. The total can have been much larger.

When agriculture was to be nationalized, the procedure was repeated. Especially in the Ukraine the resistance against ”collectivization” was very strong. The peasants now knew that they must hide their food but armed patrols once again found it and the peasants fell victims to a famine worse than anything in Czarist Russia. Armed troups cordoned the actual areas, the peasant could not escape but were forced to die by starvation. No less than five millions were murdered this way, possibly more. The worst time was 1932-1933. Not only the Ukraine was affected but also areas in southern Russia and other parts of the USSR. In the republic of Kazakhstan at least one and a half million died, out of a population of four millions, the procentually largest death toll in any of the areas of organized starvation.

Hobsbawm says nothing more of the catastrophal famine during the Civil War apart from mentioning ”hunger”, and that’s it. The Civil War was actually over already in 1919, you could perhaps say it ended in the autumn of 1920 when Wrangel’s forces were evacuated from the Crimea. The so-called Civil War that continued for some time after this date was that the Red Army, with modern arms och superior by numbers, suppressed peasant upprisings where the farmers were armed with hunting rifles and hayforks. These peasant risings were more remarkable than the modest and short foreign interventions, but it is a communist tradition to blow up their importance. And suppressing peasant risings is maybe not a desirable fact in the history the communists write themselves.

On the mass murder of millions of peasants in the Ukraine and other parts of the USSR, Hobsbawm writes that the agrarian politics was ”disastrous /…/ Its immediate effect was to lower grain output and almost halve livestock, thus producing a major famine in 1932-33”.

The famine was not a result of the peasants’ slaughtering of much of the livestock. They would have had cereals enough, had it not been confiscated by the communist regime. The explanation that the famine resulted from slaughtering of livestock was seen in some literature, probably because authors and journalists could not imagine rulers act to their own people as Stalin did.

Hobsbawm mentions much of the disasters in the USSR that it is impossible to conceal, even that ”the number of direct and indirect victims [of the Soviet era] must be measured in eight rather than seven digits.” But ”/…/ [I]t does not much matter whether we opt for a ‘conservative’ estimate nearer to ten than to twenty millions or a larger figure/…/”

That the majority of the victims were millions of innocent people in the countryside, deliberately murdered by Stalin, is something the book does not tell you. Maybe Hobsbawm thought they were ”indirect victims”.


While Hobsbawm does not discuss Lenin’s and Stalin’s mass murder of innocent people in the countryside, he finds it worth mentioning a nonsensical theory that the Great terror during the last years of the thirties should have been ” Stalin´s desperate method to overcome the bureacratic maze”.

The Great terror was simply Stalin’s way of infusing fear in the Soviet people, in order to control that the hate did not materialize that the genocide during the ”collectivization” had generated,

The sinologist Jaspers has pointed out that this was repeated in China during the ”cultural revolution”, which in fact was Mao’s way of asserting his power after the inevitable hatred against him after his mass murder of innocent peasants during the ”Great Leap Forward”, when at least 45, maybe 80 million people in the countryside, died of starvation after the confiscation of their food.


The ”Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” is the established name of the agreement between Stalin and Hitler that in August 1939 took the world by surprise, and that led to World War Two. The two dictators divided eastern Europe between themselves. Hitler took western Poland and Stalin the eastern part of the country, plus the three Baltic republics, which were with force made parts of the Soviet Union.

The proper name of the pact ought to be the Stalin-Hitler Pact, since they agreed on the deal. If you look in Google, the combination Molotov-Ribbentrop is the most common, 606 000, but ”Stalin-Hitler” is not uncommon, 450 000.

A curious detail: Hobsbawm writes ”Stalin-Ribbentrop”, which is not common at all, 3 530, the entire combination ”Stalin-Ribbentrop pact” only 813.

Why does Hobsbawm write Stalin- Ribbentroop pact”, and only once? The only hypothesis I can formulate is tha even if Hobsbawn understood that Stalin was a monster, the old stalinist Hobsbawm found it to unpleasant to put Stalin together with Hitler. The ”Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” was very embarrassing for the communists in 1939, and the explanations have been quite varied.

The diplomatic maneuvres during the second half of the thirties was both at the time and later in communist memoirs explained with that the western powers threw Stalin into Hitler’s arms, and a generation later Howsbawm still clings to this version: ”It was the fear of being left to confront Hitler alone which eventually drove Stalin, since 1934 the unswerving champion of an alliance with the West against him, into the Stalin-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, by which he hoped to keep the USSR out of the war while Germany and the Western powers would weaken another /…/”

Well, it is also possible that the reason for Stalin was the possibilities of taking back large territories that Russia lost after the first world war.


We all make errors. Even famous historians do. But there are some small errors or incaccuracies in The Age of Extremes that follow a pattern. About the Constituent Assembly, elected in democratic ballot, which the bolsheviks dessolved with violence, Hobsbawm writes: ”For this reason the bolsheviks, having demanded a Constituent Assembly /…/ dissolved it as soon as it met, a fewweeks after October.” (My italics.) It was not ”a few weeks”, but more: seventy two days, slightly more than ten weeks. The wording ”a few weeks” is perhaps meant to show that there was somethin slapdash with the Constituent Assembly. Another explanation would be that Hobsbawn when he tells of the Russian revolution makes use not of real knowledge but writes in a tradition with simplified communist historical writings.

Incidentally, By the way, the first (and last) session with the Constituent Assembly was fifty days, seven weeks, after the election.

Reading Hobsbawn one also gets the impression that Lenin and the Bolsheviks are responsible for the modern russian ortography: ”It was the October revolution which reformed the Russian calendar, as it reformed Russian orthography, thus demonstrating the profundity of its impact. For it is well known that such small changes usually require socio-political earthquakes to bring them about.”

This reform of the Russian ortography was actually prepared by some of Czarist Russias most distinguished linguists, like Alexei Shakhmatov (1864-1920) and the epoch-making Jan Baudoin de Courtenay (1845-1929). Already before the revolution it was just a question of time when it was to be realized. Thus it was not (which Hobsbawms words can make yhou believe) a daring linguistic analysis from Lenin or Lunacharsky that led to the reform of the orthography.

The February Revolution also meant that Finland got independant. Hobsbawm describes this as noble generosity by the bolshevik leader. Finland ”had been allowed to secede by Lenin”. Was his knowledge that distorted? Again, that is what you can find in history written by communists. Lenin just signed a paper and accepted facts. Finland’s independance was won in a bloody and tragical civil war where the white under the former tsarist general Mannerheim defeated the red, among which were Russian forces. That, and not Lenin’s signature, made Finland free and independent. The red hade intended to make Finland a part of the Soviet Union.

Finland continued to be a problem for communist history. Hobsbawms says that the independent Finland was a ”contrarevolutionary country”. This is a communist way of describing Finland, a free, democratic country with security of life and property. Free Finland with free, secret ballot was according to Hobsbawm ”only just” one of ”the European countries with adequately democratic politic institutions that functioned during the entire inter-war-period”.

In the description of territorial changes after World War Two Hobsbawm seems to have strange information: ”The USSR /…/ occupied those European parts of the Tsarist empire lost in 1918 (except for the parts of Poland taken over by Germany) and Finland, against which Stalin had fought a clumsy winter war in 1939-40, which pushed the ‘Russian frontiers a littler further away from Leningrad.” (My italics.)

Categorically he claims that the Soviet union after the war occupied Finland.

It did not.

Finland remained a free, independant country with democratic rule. There was no occupation. Careless mistake? Freudian slip? As a result of subconcious wishes by the Hobsbawm who during this winter war wrote a brochure defending Stalins attack against a peaceful neighbour?

A clumsy winter war” shows how nonchalant many communists are when Russian lives are concerned. During the three and a half month of this war 23 157 Finnish soldiers fell in battle and no less than 150 000 Soviet soldiers, probably 175 000 (the Russian historien Pavel Aptekar has looked through the Soviet military lists). For comparison: during WWII:s seven years, 326 000 British soldiers fell in battle.

Hobsbawm only mentions that the war ”pushed the Russian frontiers a little further away from Leningrad”. The distance is 120 kilometers. And he omits that Finland lost legendary Karelia and that 400 000 Karelians lost their homes and became refugees; Finland took care of them. The words ”a clumsy winter war” and nothing more is shameful mockery of the innocent Finnish and seven times as many, really also innocent Russian boys that Stalin forced to meet their death in the forests of Karelia.


The following is not the result of Hobsbawm’s never faltering love to Lenin and the ”october revolution”, but if he had been was more knowledgeable of modern books on Russian history, he would not have omitted one of the decisive factors behind the revolution 1917. (Yes, ”love”, see later in this article.)

As a historian concerned with economy he finds first of all material reasons for what happened. As a matter of fact, the military situation and the supply situation were not at all catastrophal. The queing for bread in February 1917 was the result of poor administration, there was food enough in the country, and the Russians held their positions at the front. Among the reasons for the February revolution in Petrograd Hobsbawm does not mention the most important: the devastating impopularity of Nicolaus II and his wife Alexandra.

Nicolaus himself was in the GHQ in the city of Mogiljov (Mahiljoŭ) and had so been for a long time, far away from the capital. His incompetent wife ”ruled” in Petrograd, irresponsibly and impulsively, with capricious appointments made acording to which candidates were friends of the weird and hated Rasputin. Even a large group of the relatives of the tsar, the Romanov dynasty, asked collectively Nicolaus to put an end to all this. The situation just waited for something to trigger the explosion, and that turned out yo be the disturbances in February.


We find the explation of all this distorting and tendentious descriptions in Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes if we go to Hobsbawm’s autobiography ”Interesting times”. During his long life this world famous historian has not been able to draw conclusions of what happened to Russia after October 1917, notwithstanding that he gives many details of the bad state of things during the Soviet era:

The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disk of computers. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness which I do not feel towards Communist China, because I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbolized it.”

(My italics.)

1994 a question was posed to Hobsbawm during a program onTV:

So if that brilliant future actually had been realized, then the loss of fifteen, twenty millions of human lives had been justified?”

Hobsbawm immediately answered ”Yes”.

Most of us would say that a brilliant future can not be achieved at all to the prize of tens of millions murdered innocent people.


The casualties in the Winter war: The Russian historian Pavel Aptekar from the Military State Archive in Moscow told of his research at a conference with Russian and Finnish participation 1995; it was published in the Russian Governmental Historic Magazin ”Rodina”.

What triggered the February Revolution? See Richard Pipes: The Russian Revolution et al. That czar Nicolaus lost all prestige is also evident from lots of memoirs.

The famine orgnized by Stalin in the beginning of the thirties is the subject of Conquests ”Harvest of Sorrow”, the first great book on the catastrophy, and already under Gorbachev Russian newpapers published much material; after 1991 there is much new documentation in print.

The discussion of the similarities between Stalin’s massmurder and Mao’s and the great terror and the ”cultural revolution” is to be find in Jasper Becker’s ”Hunger Ghosts”.


A version a half as long and adapted for a daily news paper, was published in Svenska Dagbladet november 11th 2012.

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