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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Communism, in life and death

Nguyen Chi Thien, right, spent his life fighting communism. Eric Hobsbawm, left, spent his life as a communist supporter.

ROLAND SCHLAGER/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY;ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nguyen Chi Thien, right, spent his life fighting communism. Eric Hobsbawm, left, spent his life as a communist supporter.

It was only upon reading his obituary this month that I first learned of Nguyen Chi Thien. He was a courageous Vietnamese dissident who had spent nearly 30 years in prison for his opposition to communist repression, cruelty, and lies. Much of Nguyen’s opposition was expressed in poetry, most famously “Flowers from Hell,” a collection of poems he memorized behind bars, and only put down on paper after being released from prison in 1977.

The poems were published after he audaciously handed off the manuscript to British diplomats at their embassy in Hanoi, the AP obituary recalled. As he walked out of the embassy, “security agents were awaiting him, and he was promptly sent back to prison.” He spent the next 12 years in Hoa Lo, the notorious Hanoi Hilton. While he was in captivity, “Flowers from Hell” was published; it earned the International Poetry Award in 1985. By the time he emigrated to the United States in 1995, his poems had achieved wide renown. His stanzas “became as familiar as songs,” wrote Anh Do in The Los Angeles Times, and “continue to move the Vietnamese immigrant generation — and their sons and daughters.”

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By coincidence, the same newspaper page that carried Nguyen’s obituary also ran a much longer story about Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British historian who died on Oct. 1 of pneumonia at age 95. The two men could hardly have been less alike.

Nguyen defied communist totalitarianism, sacrificing his freedom in defense of the truth. He refused to pretend that there could be anything noble or uplifiting — let alone ideal — about a revolutionary movement that pursued its ends through mass slaughter and enslavement. Like so many other dissidents, from Andrei Sakharov to Liu Xiaobo, he was a champion of liberty, sustaining hope and keeping conscience alive in the teeth of regime that persecutes decent men for their decency.

Hobsbawm, on the other hand, was a lifelong Marxist, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party from his teens until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long after it was evident to even true believers that the Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed a nightmare of blood, Hobsbawm went on defending, minimizing, and excusing the crimes of communism.

Interviewed on the BBC in 1994, he was asked whether he would have shunned the Communist Party had he known in 1934 that Stalin was butchering innocent human beings by the millions. “Probably not,” he answered — after all, at the time he believed he was signing up for world revolution. Taken aback by such indifference to carnage, the interviewer pressed the point. Was Hobsbawm saying that if a communist paradise had actually been created, “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm’s answer: “Yes.”

Imagine that Hobsbawm had fallen in love with Nazism as a youth and spent the rest of his career whitewashing Hitler’s atrocities. Suppose he’d refused for decades to let his Nazi Party membership lapse, and argued that the Holocaust would have been an acceptable price to pay for the realization of a true Thousand-Year Reich. It is inconceivable that he would have been hailed as a brilliant thinker or basked in acclaim; no self-respecting university would have hired him to teach; politicians and pundits would not have lined up to shower him with accolades during his life and tributes after his death.

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Yet Hobsbawm was fawned over, lionized in the media, made a tenured professor at a prestigious university, invited to lecture around the world. He was heaped with glories, including the Order of the Companions of Honour — one of Britain’s highest civilian awards — and the lucrative Balzan Prize, worth 1 million Swiss francs. His death was given huge play in the British media — the BBC aired an hour-long tribute and the Guardian led its front page with the news — and political leaders waxed fulsome. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair called him “a giant … a tireless agitator for a better world.”

Such adoration is sickening. Unrepentant communists merit repugnance, not reverence. Compared with a true moral giant like Nguyen Chi Thien, Hobsbawm was nothing but a dogmatic leftist creep, and the toadies who worshiped him were worse.

Nguyen knew all about such toadies, as a few tart lines from his 1964 poem, “Today, May 19th” — written about Ho Chi Minh — make clear:

Let the hacks with their prostituted pens

Comb his beard, pat his head, caress his arse!

… The hell with him!

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Jacoby.

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