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Eric Hobsbawm: A man of Extremes

1 October 2012

12:14 PM

1 October 2012

12:14 PM

A few years ago, I wrote a review of Eric Hobsbawm’s last collection of essays and noted

 ‘Hobsbawm is now 94, and although I have no wish to usher the old boy from the room, I can see his obituaries now. Conservative and liberal writers will say that his loyalty to totalitarianism disfigured his writing, most notably, in his whitewashing of Soviet atrocities in The Age of Extremes, his history of the 20th century. Leftists will say he was the greatest Marxist historian of our times, whose sweeping accounts of the world from the Enlightenment to the present have shaped the way we think. Neither will acknowledge that both have a case.’

I’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s papers to see if I’m right, but I can defend my argument now. Hobsbawm was a great historian with a sweeping vision and an ability to comprehend and communicate the vast movements in human history. He also supported some of the most monstrous regimes history has ever inflicted on the human race. Never once to my knowledge did he understand why people pulled him up on that point.  As I pointed out, his autobiography reveals his incomprehension in almost comic detail.

‘When he first visited the Soviet Union in 1954, Eric Hobsbawm discovered that the theory of a workers’ state and the practice of a Moscow still bleeding from Stalin’s last purge did not quite gel. “It was an interesting but also a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals,” he recalled in his autobiography, “for we met hardly anyone there like ourselves.”

Wrong part of Russia, Eric.

If he had gone to Siberia, alongside the corpses of “anti-Soviet” Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Chechens, Tartars and Poles, of tsarists, kulaks, Mensheviks and social revolutionaries and of merely unlucky citizens who had been denounced by malicious neighbours, or rounded up by the secret police to meet an arrest quota, Hobsbawm would have found the bodies of communist intellectuals – just like him.

No one killed as many communists as the communists did. If Hobsbawm had followed the logic of his convictions and moved from Nazi Germany to seek a home in the Soviet Union rather than Britain, his chances of surviving would have been slim. Either the party would have shot him in the great purge for being foreigner and a Jew to boot, or he would have been forced to denounce innocent comrades to save his skin. After concluding the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin handed German communists over to Hitler as a gesture of goodwill. If the purge of 1936-38 had not killed Hobsbawm, the pact of 1939 probably would have done for him instead.’

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I expect we will hear one excuse tomorrow that ought to have been buried with the Soviet Union: “communists excused Stalin because they were consumed by the laudable desire to fight fascism”. It is a half truth at best. The far left of the 1930s did indeed fight fascism. But in 1939 Stalin stood on his head and signed a pact with Hitler. For two years, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, western communists and their sympathisers stood on their heads too and became the Nazis’ de facto allies. I have always been fascinated by ‘the midnight of the century’, when far left and right united against the middle, because it echoes our own time when liberal leftists excuse and indulge the radical Islamist right. Here’s a long online extract from my book What’s Left, in which I look at how desperate left wing writers became to say that Hitler was not the real enemy.  In it I say:

 ‘Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams, the two most respected left-wing intellectuals of my youth, accepted the accommodation with Nazism and produced a pamphlet that defended the Soviet invasion of Finland which the Hitler–Stalin pact had authorized. Hobsbawm and Williams claimed that far from engaging in an imperial land grab, Stalin was protecting Russia from an invasion by British imperialists. I’ve read it twice to be sure, but nowhere do Hobsbawm and Williams explain how a Britain which was on her knees and couldn’t defend her cities was in a position to march on Moscow. Williams blithely admitted later that he and Hobsbawm were just obeying the party’s orders. ‘We were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words.’

Read the whole extract to understand how widespread left toleration of fascism became in the early years of the war. But try to understand too why, perhaps because of my background on the left – my grandfather was Hobsbawm’s commissar – I cannot despise Hobsbawm or indeed my grandfather as I would despise an old Nazi. If you need convincing, look at Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes  The most brilliant analysis of the 20th century sits alongside the most abject apologias for tyranny. For all his contradictions, I’ll miss the better side of his intellect.

 


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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    If Frogsporn was ‘was the greatest Marxist historian of our times’ I wonder who was the greatest Nazi historian of our times and did they perchance meet over a KFC chicken bargain bucket as befits their tiitanic contribution to life of the working man?,

    • Curnonsky

      Will David Irving elicit the same outpouring of tributes when he departs for his infernal reward?

  • sam

    Give me Bob Conquest instead, any day.

  • James Parris

    My father joined the Young Communists as a 17 year old in 1944, an admirer of the Soviet Union, as many were at the time. He’ll still tell the story of how it took him a couple of months to see through the racket that the Communist Party was – individual working class Communists were genuine and admirable people, the leaders and would-be leaders were contemptible. Hobsbawm really was an interesting historian, but his inability to see through the Marxist-Leninist scam unfortunately damns him.

  • Eli

    An intellect which can do a” brilliant analysis” with the “sweeping vision” of Marxist historicism does not have a “better side”: the sweeping vision is the bedrock of his belief in tyranny. The vision and the cruelty are one.

  • Asmodeus

    The Marxist left such as Hobsbawm,A J P Taylor,Christopher Hill and E P Thompson dominated the writing of history in Britain in the post war period with countless students getting their version of history from their books.The view of Nazism and Communism as equivalent evils is a recent one.In the post war period despite the Cold War there was the uncomfortable fact that The Soviet Union had been our ally in the recent World War and millions of people remembered the propaganda extolling their achievements.Dennis Healey the Labour Defence minister in the 1960s was a former Communist and there were many others.There were also some establishment figures who had been members of the British Union of Fascists.The type of modern witch hunting into peoples political opinions was largely unknown in Britain then and would have been dismissed as McCarthyism to anyone suggesting it.

    • http://twitter.com/TheBoyPhelan TheBoyPhelan

      Taylor was not a Marxist, see his intro to the Peguin edition of The Communist Manifesto, a brilliant debunking

      • Asmodeus

        A man of the left though not an anti-communist by any stretch of the imagination.

    • Daniel Maris

      I think you can criticise people like AJP Taylor, and EH Carr much more for attempting to camouflage their beliefs. I don’t recall Hobsbawm doing that.

    • Curnonsky

      There is also the uncomfortable fact that many members of the British establishment continued to be Communists and agents of the Soviet Union which might have explained the lack of enthusiasm for “witch hunting”.

  • anyfool

    Is that photo the Spitting Image model for Ed Milliband.

  • anyfool

    Eric Hobsbawm is dead,
    Poke him to make sure.

  • kidmugsy

    Did he write his history in good faith? Thought not.

  • Rosa

    He will be having an interesting chat with St Peter as we speak…..

  • Vulture

    They say one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but that’s sentimental hogwash. Eric Hobsbawm was a disgusting apologist for mass murder on a gargantuan scale, too vain to repent of his loathsome opinions. If you want a chilling insight into how his views warped a generation, look at the Guardian’s comments beneath news of his long overdue death.

    It’s a tribute to Britain that he was allowed to die in his bed rather than share the fate of the millions of victims of the Communism he championed.

    Its a disgrace to Britain that he was lauded and praised by academia and an Establishment who should have known better.

    RIP bollocks., he deserves to rot in hell along with his old chum Stalin.

    PS> And he was a crap historian too – as a ‘Marxist’ how could he not be?

    • Kyoto

      Also I’ve just had a read of the editiorial in the Quisling and some of the comments of the proto-gulag guards. Funnily, enough the left is so intellectually bankrupt that they do not realise their praise for Hobsbawm as a great man undermines the theoretical basis of his history as a collective force driven by economic change to a singular utopic conclusion. If such were the case it would neither require Marx or Hobsbawn to tell us so as it would simply have happened.
      Nice to see the left endorses the Great Man theory of the makers and shapers of the world, how bourgeois, and how Quisling to be happy in a place of such ignorent denial.

  • Attlee45

    As the grandson of a Communist, I understand the urge to come to terms with the terrible past. Yes it is hard to despise the despicable when it is part of your own history. i remember some critic of Hobsbawm writing that those thick glasses he wore were specially designed – they allowed him to view history with absolute clarity – his own time however, not so much…

    • Mr Grumpy

      Hard indeed, but there’s not a lot of understanding on offer for those children of prominent Nazis who have failed to despise the despicable.

      • Attlee45

        Perhaps a suitable starting point would be to read Francis Becketts’ two excellent books, “Stalin’s British Victims” and “The Rebel Who Lost His Cause” – about his turncoat fascist father, John Beckett.

  • Mr Grumpy

    PS: “But try to understand too why, perhaps because of my background on the right – my grandfather was X’s gauleiter – I cannot despise X or indeed my grandfather as I would despise an old Communist.”
    Can you imagine reading it in a Spectator blog post? Can you imagine the writer continuing to have a job?

    • Kyoto

      Also William’s defence of why he and Hobsbawn wrote the pamphlet justifying the Soviet invasion of Finland is the ‘we were simply obeying orders’. Extrapolating as the left do with any statement from the right one can conclude that both William’s and Hobsbawn would have no qualms to massacre as many innocents if ordered to do so.

  • Mr Grumpy

    If he had been an old Nazi who had spent the last 70 years failing to unequivocally condemn Nazism you would have had no call to feel anything about him because you would in all probability never have heard of him. No amount of brilliance would have induced any university, any reputable publisher or journal or newspaper, to touch him with a bargepole. Your double standard is not some private peccadillo to be indulged in consideration of your family history. It sits at the heart of our culture. RIP Eric Hobsbawm, notwithstanding.

  • http://twitter.com/fcaidan Aidan Foster-Carter

    First four words false. Not “a few years ago”, but only last year. Wake up Cohen!

    • http://www.facebook.com/nick.cohen.961 Nick Cohen

      Sorry, days must be dragging by, can’t think why

  • Kyoto

    You should have a chat with that nice girl Zoe Williams who works in the same newspaper as you though on the midweek Quisling edition. I understand she is an admirer of Eric ‘so long I aggree with the cause the more blood the better’ Hobsbawn.
    Also on a personal level about Hobsbawn it appears that at least one of his own children are simply interested in making money through most bourgeis of occupations PR. So no interest in the means of productions etc. If Hobsbawn cannot teach the value of the revolution to his own children – those who he has most influence over – then even he should realise that all along it was a delusion.
    Of course he never will because there are too many fellow travellers who cling to the delusion becaue they have nothing else left.

  • Kyoto

    You should have a chat with that nice girl Zoe Williams who works in the same newspaper as you though on the midweek Quisling edition. I understand she is an admirer of Eric ‘so long I aggree with the cause the more blood the better’ Hobsbawn.
    Also on a personal level about Hobsbawn it appears that at least one of his own children are simply interested in making money through most bourgeis of occupations PR. So no interest in the means of productions etc. If Hobsbawn cannot teach the value of the revolution to his own children – those who he has most influence over – then even he should realise that all along it was a delusion.
    Of course he never will because there are too many fellow travellers who cling to the delusion becaue they have nothing else left.

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