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.

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.