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Eric Hobsbawm and the Fatal Appeal of Revolution - Spectator Blogs

2 October 2012

2:23 PM

2 October 2012

2:23 PM

Tony Judt’s verdict on Eric Hobsbawm seems fair: “If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.” That if is a hefty qualification, of course, for some of the reasons Nick Cohen makes admirably clear. Any appraisal of Hobsbawm’s life and work that fails to account for his unrepentant communism is a dishonest enterprise. But so too is any verdict obsessed with Hobsbawm’s communism to the exclusion of all else. (See, for example, Michael Burleigh’s piece in the Telegraph.)

It seems obvious to me that it is possible – unusual perhaps but certainly possible – to be both a great historian and hopelessly, even wickedly, wrong on one of the greatest questions of the twentieth century. History is as messy and contradictory as people. “Yes, but…” is a vital element to the business of history and “Yes, but…” should be something Hobsbawm’s defenders and prosecutors should each bear in mind.

So I liked Roy Foster’s verdict very much:

Most historians are by nature either short-story writers or novelists; Eric Hobsbawm was both. […] His own work recognised the importance of deviation, paradox and contingency, as well as the larger course of the historical juggernaut, and he was – indeed – curious about everything.

That helps explain why so many people – regardless of their own political preferences – have read and will continue to enjoy Hobsbawm’s work. You need not agree with it or with the politics of its creator to find it valuable. It’s depressing – if also predictable – that much of the commentary on Hobsbawm’s death has descended to the level of My Team vs Your Team.

Hobsbawm’s communism was a kind of religion. This is not a novel observation, merely one worth keeping in mind. Understood in this fashion his reluctance to grant his opponents the recantation they desired becomes more understandable. The true believer betrayed by actual events invariably finds himself in a lonely place. Nevertheless, I can understand how it can be that the purity of the original idea actually gains force the more the idea is corrupted by man’s imperfect attempts to put it into deliverable practice. There’s always a place for the melancholy of betrayed promise.

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This can lead to startling conclusions. Hobsbawm’s 1994 interview with Michael Ignatieff has, quite reasonably, been widely cited these past few hours. This was the vital exchange:

Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?

Hobsbawm: …’Probably not.’

Ignatieff: Why?

Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing… The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?

Hobsbawm: Yes.

At first blush this seems appalling. A second consideration of what Hobsbawm said here is little more promising. But, per Chris Dillow, consider the premise of the question: what is the acceptable price for a worldwide revolution that leads to a radiant future enjoyed by all? Hobsbawm’s answer is at least an honest one. I have no idea what mine or yours would be. (Churchill, for whatever it may be worth, also considered the sacrifice of fifteen or twenty million Soviet citizens a price worth paying towards purchasing two causes: the defeat of Nazism and the preservation of the British Empire.)

This is, at least in part, a question (like so many others) of ends and means. The communist delusion was that the ends were achievable but Hobsbawm’s answer to this hypothetical question is both extreme and not as unusual as you might think or hope to believe. It is the same answer that might be given by other religious revolutionaries in other places and at other times.

The old Scots Covenanters or their modern-day equivalents in radical Islam tell us this. Creating a New Jerusalem is a bloody business and the notable element of the twentieth-century’s agonies is not their novelty but the monstrous scale upon which they were dramatised and the suffering, unprecedented in numbers though not perhaps in kind, it caused. But should we really still be surprised that righteous certainty so often leads to barbarism?

I’ve been reading Old Mortality recently, a political novel of disturbing, timeless  relevance. In it slaughter is justified so that “the wicked may be taken away from among the people, and the Covenant established in its purity”. Early on, Scott has Balfour of Burley telling young Morton:

“Young man, you are already weary of me, and would yet be more so, perchance, did you know the task upon which I have been lately put. And I wonder not that it should be so, for there are times when I am weary of myself. Think you not it is a sore trial for flesh and blood to be called upon to execute the righteous judgments of Heaven while we are yet in the body, and retain that blinded sense and sympathy for carnal suffering which makes our own flesh thrill when we strike a gash upon the body of another? And think you, that when some prime tyrant has been removed from his place, that the instruments of his punishment can at all times look back on their share in his downfall with firm and unshaken nerves? Must they not sometimes question even the truth of that inspiration which they have felt and acted under? Must they not sometimes doubt the origin of that strong impulse with which their prayers for heavenly direction under difficulties have been inwardly answered and confirmed, and confuse, in their disturbed apprehensions, the responses of Truth himself with some strong delusion of the enemy?”

Morton cavils at this, suggesting that “feelings of natural humanity” must have some influence upon beliefs and conduct. To which Balfour replies with pitiless scorn:

“It is natural you should think so; you are yet in the dungeon-house of the Law, a pit darker than that into which Jeremiah was plunged, even the dungeon of Malcaiah the son of Hamelmelech, where there was no water but mire. Yet is the seal of the covenant upon your forehead, and the son of the righteous, who resisted to blood when the banner was spread on the mountains, shall not be utterly lost as one of the children of darkness. Trow ye, that in this day of bitterness and calamity, nothing is required at our hands but to keep the moral law as far as our carnal frailty will permit? – think ye our conquests must be only over our corrupt and evil affections and passions? – no – we are called upon when we have girded up our loins to run the race boldly, and when we have drawn the sword to smite the ungodly with the edge, though he be our neighbour, and the man of power and cruelty, though he were of our own kindred and the friend of our bosom.”

Fine, terrifying stuff you will agree. Scott’s characters may be fictional; the sentiments they express genuine and historical nonetheless. And not the least of the difficulties with revolution is that since the New Jerusalem is never finished, it becomes liable to the fallacy of sunk costs. Quitting or walking away becomes an even greater betrayal of all the sacrifices that have gone before. (Indeed the wonder of the post-1945 world may not be that so many were, for a spell anyway, attracted to the Soviet Union but that so few people were.)

Hobsbawn readily conceded communism’s failure but clung – stubbornly or foolishly? – to the promise of the October Revolution. If that was some kind of cop-out it was at least one it should be possible to understand even if it is also condemned.

If Hobsbawn stuck with an imagined left he was also, increasingly, a man who saw and catalogued the left’s failures. As Eugene Genovese observed in a penetrating review of The Age of Extremes published by The New Republic:

Hobsbawm writes as a historian, but he always aims to contribute to political thought and political action, and never more than in this book. In retrospect Hobsbawm finds that “the strength of the global socialist challenge to capitalism was that of the weakness of its opponent.” And, in truth, many of us who supported the socialist bloc to the bitter end believed for a long time that the political Byzantinism, mass murders and bureaucratic rigidities of socialism would be overcome, that those horrors were all that was keeping capitalism afloat. We overestimated the weaknesses of capitalism and we underestimated the weaknesses of socialism. In effect, we remained convinced that capitalism could not solve its problems, but that socialism would solve its own. But those latter problems were not passing, they were intrinsic. And so our blunder, as blunders go, was a beaut.

[…] The implications of Hobsbawm’s realism are far-reaching. He seems to think that the coming struggles will take place between right-wing and left-wing versions of what we might call, for want of a better name, social corporatism, a politically regulated and socially responsible system of private property. The left-wing version may lessen inequality, reshape social stratification and render it more humane, replace current elites with more attractive ones and redefine the principle of authority in political, economic and social life. And yet, contrary to the dreams of a grand human “liberation” that are once again inundating us, the hard-headed analysis in Hobsbawm’s book suggests that a left-wing social corporatism will not be able to do away with inequality, or stratification, or elites, or firm authority in economic, social and political life.

With capitalism in crisis again, the case for reading – or re-reading – Hobsbawm seems worth paying attention to. If nothing else, it seems perverse to deny all his work on account of the worst of it or, rather, because of the worst lies in which he believed and the horrors that stemmed from them. Practice matters more than theory and that’s a problem belief and ideals have never yet managed to solve, far less defeat.

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  • fitzfitz

    When he referred to the BBC as a ” petit bourgeois kaffeeklatch ” he knew what he meant as the post mortem one-note response indicates … in what year will his spying be revealed ? 2014 ? 2020 ?

  • Eddie

    My experienced of historians is that they are all guilty of confirmation bias and tend to be very ‘meat and potatoes’ in their thinking. They lack imagination or the ability to really look at evidence or have imagination or vision; many lack any empathy for those who lived in different societies, so happily condemn the awful people of the past (the nasty racists…).
    That is why I disagree profoundly with this: ‘Most historians are by nature either short-story writers or novelists; Eric Hobsbawm was both’
    Now they are not. Historians usually have no imagination whatsoever, and most of them can’t write anything but turgid, dullard, yawn-inducing, political protagandist, polemic prose.
    Historians are, rather, devout and zealous in their political loyalties, and then try and squeeze history into their templates in order to ‘prove’ them right. In this, they have the mechanical brains of all terrorists and political zealots (eg Islamists): they all have a plan for what the world would be, and see history through that lens. Historians also tend to be SO arrogant and bigoted against others who do not share their (usually leftwing) views.
    Useful idiots like Hobsbawn really should be condemned a bit more, and understood a little less: Stalin and what Soviet Russia did to people was just as bad as what Hitlert did, and yet the hardcore lefties at universities (all owning massive houses which have got up in value by thousands of pounds in the last 3 or 4 decades) still excuse murder and torture in Communism’s name.
    Most historians I have met are political dinosaurs – probably because the only people who can afford to be loony left socialists are those with safe-as-houses jobs from which they are unsackable, with massive property wealth and huge gold-plated ring-fenced pensions.
    We should never mourn historians. I am not sad at all that Hobsbawn is history.

    • Alistair

      It’s a fair point.

      Too many historians build cases like sandcastles; piling on anecdote rather than confronting the counter-argument and attempting to falsify quantitively. I put it down to a lack of scientific and logical training.

  • MikeF

    Churchill did not think the deaths of 15-20 million soviet citizens a price worth paying for anyhting. As soon as the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union he acted to provide whatever aid Britain could. Your remark is really the old fallacy about the possibility of a ‘Second Front’ – i.e. a land invasion – of Western Europe any earlier than it actually happened. The overwhelming opinion of historians of the Second world War is that any attempt to launch a ‘D-Day’ in, say, 1943 would have been a disaster.

    • Kyoto

      I agree about Churchill and the deaths of soviet citizens. Is there any evidence for Churchill actually making such a remark. I accept he may of but I’m just curious to know if he did so.
      With respect to the ‘Second Front Now’ movement this started in 1942 and the left was quite prepared to fling British troops onto some beach somewhere – anywhere – in France as a means of alleviating pressure on the Russian front. It would have achieved nothing and led to a slaughter of Somme-like proportions, but whilst the left still can caricature WW1 generals as donkeys, the delusions of the left who reside in Britain are always excused by contextualisation.
      With respect to Soviet casualties a huge cause of the deep German penetration into the USSR lies firmly at the feet of Stalin. He did not believe Germany would invade, moved the Red Army out of prepared positions in the western USSR into unprepared positons in eastern Poland, and after reovering from his breakdown insisted that the Red Army engaged in reckless and pointless counter attacks against the German Army in 1941. The latter 2 against the wishes of the Soviet High Command. If Stalin and his cronies had followed the High Command’s advice the German penetration would have been shallower, with far less German-inflicted casualties.
      Almost certainly the Germans and Soviets would have arranged a peace treaty and Eric would have written approvingly of this sacred document.

  • CraigStrachan

    “Christ and No Quarter” was the slogan of the Covenanters, which I suppose can be viewed as an authentic and terrible expression of the worldview of religious fanatics. Or alternatively, evidence of just how far they missed the point.

  • Jupiter

    Ih he had been a fascist instead of a communist, would the media numpties be fawning all over him? I don’t think so.

  • BillRees

    Was Hobsbawm a great historian? That’s for others to say, but he was certainly a man who expressed opinions in a way that should be uncharacteristic of genuine historians.
    For example, some months ago I heard in interview on Radio 4 in which he was asked a question about George W Bush. His snorted response was something along the lines that Bush almost certainly had never read a book.
    In fact Bush devoured books on history probably as much as Hobsbawm himself.
    That Hobsbawm unquestioningly accepted the conventional wisdom of the left on Bush reveals a man who was intellectually lazy.
    So I suspect the answer to my first question would probably be negative.

    • Ed

      You need wait no longer for your answer – you are wrong. Hobsbawm was unquestionably one of the greatest historians of the last century (we can freely debate who was ‘the greatest’, but his position among the very best is simply not open to question by anyone who knows the first thing about historiography). Your suspicions, which do not appear to be based on having read any of his books or articles, can be safely laid to rest.

      • BillRees

        Presumably you have read all or some of his books.
        So why was he among the greatest historians? I’m curious to know.

      • Eddie

        The phrase ‘great historian’ is an oxymoron, in my opinion.
        There is no such thing – because historians just comment on those people who do and create: ie those who really are great.
        All historians I have ever read write pure propaganda which attempts to retell historical events in order to promote their own propaganda for whatever political dogma they devoutly defend.
        That’s why I only read fiction really: it is so much more real than anything any historian usual writes (and badly; most historians are really terrible and turgid writers).

        • Eddie

          And I do confess to being a ‘historian-ist’ – a prejudice not included (yet) in any Equalities Act (though one never knows…)
          I am also profoundly prejudiced about historical novels – which writers without imagination who like to plagiarise history write (and far too much, too).
          The true damage people like Hobsbawn (and Chritopher Hill and EP Thompson et al) have done, is to make the study of history extremely left-wing: for them it’s all about labour movements, (rather thanh great men achieving, creating and leading) the poor laws, the romanticisation of the working man and the demonisation of the ‘other’: that too is a profounf prejudice, and it is one that has seeped into the study of history like pus from a wound that will not heal.
          Hence, history teachers and lecturers are almost all extremely left wing and attempt – rather shamelessly – to indoctrinate their students with this garbage. They of course label anyone who does not share their extreme leftwing prejudices as ‘facistic’ or at the least ‘right wing’ – which makes 99%+ of British people right-wing then!
          Perhaps we need a purge of history educators? I am sure Hobsbawn, with his admiration for mass murder, would agree with the methods if not the victims…
          Ironically, but predictably, these lefties are also extremely conservative of mind, unbending to a changed world, wedded to a nostalgic communist past, and – like Communism (in Russia, China etc) – deeply puritanical about unproductive silly things like sex.

  • Vulture

    Wrong as usual Mr Massie. Hobsbawn was not a great historian precisely because he was a Communist. A historian is supposed to search for truth and objectivity while a Communist is conditioned to see everything through a Marxist prism and the great fallacy that Marxism is a ‘science’.
    Therefore ipso facto, the late, not so great villain Hobsbawm was a fraud, and as his lifelong fidelity to mass murder shows, a fool as well. As are you for pretending otherwise.

    • Ali Buchan

      Name one historian, throughout the whole of history, that hasn’t looked through some kind of prism in order to offer their best interpretation of the ‘facts’.

      • Vulture

        Of course there is no such thing as objectivity. But the point about Marxists is that they are obliged – one might say ordered – to look through the particular prism of their ideology, thus distorting all that they write or do.
        I find Hobsbawm unreadable and unoriginal – at the most a great synthesister, but never a great historian

        • Ali Buchan

          I disagree, though your point is a very fair one. My argument would be that those whose views as individuals have led them towards a certain collective ideology are likely to interpret events in similar ways, without any feeling of necessity or compulsion.

          Some would say that it is us as critics or opponents looking to refute certain arguments or theories that contain individuals in certain ideological boxes.

          I enjoy EH, and would certainly describe him as great. As I learnt as an undergrad, there’s no rule against being both a wonderful historian and, simultaneously, being wrong.

          • Vulture

            I think we cling to those things that most enchanted us in youth. In Hobsbawm’s case that was Communism. In yours it was…well…Hobsbawm! (There’s no accounting for taste).
            One can well understand why he fell for Marxism in the 1930s – they were the only ones who appeareed to be fighting the fascism that directly threatened his life.
            What was unforgiveable, however, was holding to that view after the purges, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the takeover of Eastern Europe, the show trials of the 1950s, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, even ( Ye Gods!) after the fall of the wall and the collapse of Communism.
            I commend to you another 95-year old historian, by spooky coiuncidence born like Hobby in the year 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Coup also enchanted by Communism in his youth.
            Robert Conquest, chronicler of the Grteat Terror and the Ukrainian famine, learned the error of his wayds. He was asked what to title an updated version of his book which denounced Stalin’s crimes. He suggested: ‘I told you so You Fucking Fools’
            Now he really IS a great historian : but I bet the BBC and Guardian don’t go all gooy at the knees when he pops his clogs as they have with Hobby.
            Hobby was one of those fucking fools. I do hope that you aren’t.

          • Vulture

            I think we cling to those things that most enchanted us in youth. In Hobsbawm’s case that was Communism. In yours it was…well…Hobsbawm! (There’s no accounting for taste).
            One can well understand why he fell for Marxism in the 1930s – they were the only ones who appeareed to be fighting the fascism that directly threatened his life.
            What was unforgiveable, however, was holding to that view after the purges, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the takeover of Eastern Europe, the show trials of the 1950s, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, even ( Ye Gods!) after the fall of the wall and the collapse of Communism.
            I commend to you another 95-year old historian, by spooky coiuncidence born like Hobby in the year 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Coup also enchanted by Communism in his youth.
            Robert Conquest, chronicler of the Grteat Terror and the Ukrainian famine, learned the error of his wayds. He was asked what to title an updated version of his book which denounced Stalin’s crimes. He suggested: ‘I told you so You Fucking Fools’
            Now he really IS a great historian : but I bet the BBC and Guardian don’t go all gooy at the knees when he pops his clogs as they have with Hobby.
            Hobby was one of those fucking fools. I do hope that you aren’t.

  • LB

    With capitalism in crisis again
    ====================

    Capitalism isn’t in crisis. We haven’t had it. The banks that failed should have been sent to the wall.

    Instead we had Brown’s lets keep the red flag flying here, and he nationalised them.

    The crisis is one of states running frauds. Ponzi scams on a massive scale. Taking people’s money and spending it. Then when those contributions are due to be paid out in pensions, the shit hits the fan.

    That’s nothing to do with capitalism. It’s to do with fraudsters running governments and hiding the debts off the books.

    Hence you fall into the class of Hobsbawn because you can’t face up to the fact that you have either been conned by the state or are too ignorant to realise the extent of the theft. Being generous, I’ll put you into the delusional class.

  • LB

    A bit like saying Hitler was a good man because he built the Autobahns.

    Thinking that killing 20 million people to get your own way sums up Hobsbawn.

    He’s scum.

  • Ali Buchan

    It seems to me that communism appeals to the very best interests of man and is corrupted by the very worst, whereas capitalism appeals to, or at least accepts, the very worst and is improved by the times we exhibit the very best of humanity.

    Perhaps the ‘radiant tomorrow’ that could justify the deaths of millions is actually the discrediting of the ideology. Had those people not died, perhaps communism would have stayed a very creditable, even preferable, alternative.

    After all, communism as a pure theory has never been tested. What has been proved, however, is that human beings lack the civilisation to be able to execute it. We must, therefore, at least for the moment, accept a pragmatic form of capitalism that accepts our species’ selfishness and irrationality. To me, the question falls into the same category as benevolent dictatorship vs. democracy.

    • Eddie

      Or:
      Capitalism is common sense and based on innate human instincts (shared by all human beings who are, yes, selfish and greedy and tribal and want to have more than other human beings).
      Communism is fantasy: a pipe-dream which is based on wishful thinking, and which it utterly irrational and unworkable, even without taking into account human nature (how can a Communist state pay workers’ wages from the tax those workers pay? Doesn’t go, does it?)
      To say Communism has never been tried is exactly the same as the Islamists’ arguments that ‘True Islam’ has never been tried in the world – but would create a Utopia if it was (yeah right…)
      Though I would say that Communism where it has been tried reflects the pre-existing culture: Soviet communism had very Russian characteristics (love of a strong leader, secrecy, bureaucracy, suspicion of foreigners, dreadful food etc)
      Communism is just like a fairytale for those who cannot accept reality – but less fun than a Disney film.
      There are of course different levels of capitalism; but really, even Communism is all about human nature and had its rich powerful elite and class system wherever it was tried.

    • Alistair

      Ali,

      Communism as a pure theory has been tested?!? This seems to be a simple fallacy of non-falsifiability, or the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

      Now, Communism in practise has failed dismally at each and every attempt. (Unless you want to argue that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Mengistu, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, the Kibbutz, etc etc etc. were all insincere in their efforts? )

      It’s no use saying after every failure “ah-ha, but that wasn’t true communism”; You have to have a reasonable standard of falsification beforehand. How many attempts and Stalisnist golgothas are allowed before one suspects the theory itself is fatally, catastrophically flawed?

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