Eric Hobsbawm is author of The Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century 1914-1991; this is an edited version of an address to the world political forum on perestroika 20 years on, held last weekend in Turin by the Gorbachev Foundation

The Last Of The Utopian Projects

By Eric Hobsbawm

09 March, 2005
The Guardian

I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, but for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed. His place in history is secure.

But did perestroika bring about a second Russian revolution? No. It brought the collapse of the system built on the 1917 revolution, followed by a period of social, economic and cultural ruin, from which the peoples of Russia have by no means yet fully emerged. Recovery from this catastrophe is already taking much longer than it took Russia to recover from the world wars.

Whatever will emerge from this era of post-Soviet catastrophe was not envisaged, let alone prepared, by perestroika, not even after the supporters of perestroika had realised that their project of a reformed communism, or even a social-democratised USSR, was unrealisable. It was not even envisaged by those who came to believe that the aim should be a fully capitalist system of the liberal western - more precisely, the American - model.

The end of perestroika precipitated Russia into a space void of any real policy, except the unrestricted free market recommendations of western economists who were even more ignorant of how the Soviet economy functioned than their Russian followers were of how western capitalism operated. On neither side was there serious consideration of the necessarily lengthy and complex problems of transition. Nor, when the collapse came, given its speed, could there have been.

I do not want to blame perestroika for this. Almost certainly the Soviet economy was unreformable by the 1980s. If there were real chances of reforming it in the 1960s they were sabotaged by the self-interests of a nomenklatura that was by this time firmly entrenched and uncontrollable. Possibly the last real chance of reform was in the years after Stalin's death.

On the other hand, the sudden collapse of the USSR was neither probable nor expected before the late 1980s. A prominent CIA figure interviewed by Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE thought that, supposing Andropov had survived in good health, there would still have been a USSR in the 1990s - clumsy, inefficient, in slow and perhaps accelerating economic decline, but still in being. The international situation would have been, and remained, very different. International disorder followed the collapse of the single Russian state that had been a great world power since the 18th century - as it had the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after the first world war. For a few years even the existence of Russia itself as an effective state was in question. It is so no longer, but the necessary restoration of state power in Russia in recent years has been at heavy risk to the political and juridical liberalisation which was the major - I am tempted to say the only real - achievement of perestroika.

Did perestroika herald "the end of history"? The collapse of the experiment initiated by the October Revolution is certainly the end of a history. That experiment will not be repeated, although the hope it represented, at least initially, will remain a permanent part of human aspirations. And the enormous social injustice which gave communism its historic force in the last century is not diminishing in this one. But was it "the end of history" as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989, in a phrase that he no doubt regrets?

He was doubly wrong. In the literal sense of history as something that makes headlines in newspapers and TV news bulletins, history has continued since 1989, if anything in a more dramatic mode than before. The cold war has been followed neither by a new world order, nor by a period of peace, nor by the prospect of a predictable global progress in civilisation such as intelligent western observers had in the mid-19th century, the last period when liberal capitalism - under British auspices in those days - had no doubts about the future of the world.

What we have today is a superpower unrealistically aspiring to a permanent world supremacy for which there is no historical precedent, nor probability, given the limitation of its own resources - especially as today all state power is weakened by the impact of non-state economic agents in a global economy beyond the control of any state, and given the visible tendency of the global centre of gravity to shift from the North Atlantic to the zone of south and east Asia.

Even more questionable is the wider - almost quasi-Hegelian - sense of Fukuyama's phrase. It implies that history has an end, namely a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions. There is no historic justification for teleology, whether non-Marxist or Marxist, and certainly none for believing in unilinear and uniform worldwide development.

Both evolutionary science and the experiences of the 20th century have taught us that evolution has no direction that allows us concrete predictions about its future social, cultural and political consequences.

The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century. What the 21st needs is both social hope and historical realism.