Eric Hobsbawm acquired a reputation beyond the confines of academia chiefly as a result of his bestseller, The Age of Extremes, a magisterial overview of "the short 20th century". Its history started in 1914, he argued, with the war that destroyed the old European empires, and finished in 1991 with the collapse of another multinational empire - the Soviet Union. This is an interesting chronology, not least because it means that we have been living in the 21st century for nearly a decade. If history is periodised in this way, a diagnosis of this century need not be just an exercise in speculation. At least in part, it can be based on the recent past.
Compared with The Age of Extremes, The New Century - essentially a transcript of Hobsbawm's conversations with Antonio Polito - is a slight volume. Yet its refreshingly sober perspective on contemporary trends gives it an interest that many more pretentious volumes lack.
Noting the corrosion of the state that has been underway in many parts of the world over the past 30 years or so, he points out that the immense power that the state was able to exercise during much of the 20th century was a very recent development. Until the 19th century no state was capable of carrying out an accurate census. Again, it was only then that European states were able to disarm their citizens and achieve a monopoly over organised violence. The degree of public order we have come to take for granted in Europe is highly unusual.
Similarly, Hobsbawm is clear that the much-hyped phenomenon of globalisation goes back a long way - at least as far as the last three decades of the 19th century. Yet he is equally clear about what distinguishes world markets today from those 100 years ago: the development of new technologies that abolish time and distance and enable not only trade but, crucially, production to be conducted on a world-wide scale. In these and other examples, Hobsbawm shows he possesses to an extraordinary degree the historian's gift of identifying what is old and what genuinely new in the present time.
But it is a gift that he has chosen not to apply to the 20th century's most stupendous political failure. As he freely admits in the concluding conversation, Hobsbawm's lifelong - and still unrenounced - communist convictions put the 70-odd years of Soviet communism off-limits for him.
He confesses that he has "tended to avoid dealing with the Soviet Union directly" - a tendency that led him to become a 19th-century historian. If he had devoted himself to 20th-century history, he observes, he would either "have written things that would have been difficult for a communist to say without affecting the feelings of my comrades", or else written things that would have "brought me into conflict with my conscience as an academic". In other words, Hobsbawm chose to be silent about Soviet crimes and tragedies because writing about them would have embarrassed his political friends.
Perhaps it is late in the day to take Hobsbawm to task for his choice. Few people care to remember the tens of millions of lives which were lost or broken under the Soviet system. What is the point? Why harp on old crimes against humanity, when post-communist Russia - still reeling from the West's attempt to impose a callow creed of free markets on it - is so full of new ones?
Yet there is an intellectual as well as an ethical failure in burying the dead in silence. By passing over the human costs of the Soviet experiment we forfeit the chance to learn why it failed. I believe it is Hobsbawm's inability to answer this question - more than his undoubted concern for his friends in the CPGB - which explains his refusal to engage with the Soviet period as an academic historian.
As Alexander Nekrich and Mikhail Heller show in Utopia in Power (1986), still by far the best history of the USSR, Soviet crimes against humanity were not mainly side-effects of Russian backwardness. They resulted from flaws in the Marxist world-view. The Soviet regime was not an imperfect embodiment of Marxism but its definitive refutation.
Eric Hobsbawm cannot admit this. If he did, he would be forced to accept that the project to which he has devoted the whole of his active political life was a catastrophic error. So he has chosen instead to consign the 20th century's most disastrous political experiment to the memory hole.
John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of EconomicsReuse content