Intellectuals Rally to Eulogize Stalinist Eric Hobsbawm


I wasn’t going to write about Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died on October 1 at age 95, but after perusing a few obituaries – and learning, from an article by the novelist A.N. Wilson, that on the evening of Hobsbawm’s death the BBC “altered its programme schedule to broadcast an hour-long tribute” I feel obliged to weigh in.  Not about Hobsbawm himself or his work, with which I am not terribly familiar, but about the appallingly widespread readiness to overlook, relativize, or rationalize Communism.

For Hobsbawm, if you didn’t know, was a lifelong Communist.  As the British historian Michael Burleigh wrote the other day in the New Yorker, Hobsbawm exhibited to the end “a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Asked by the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff on television whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – not to mention the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm muttered in the affirmative.” Burleigh did praise Hobsbawm as a historian – but how reliable a historian can you be when everything you write is distorted by ideology?  Burleigh admitted himself that Hobsbawm, in his work, routinely whitewashed Communist perfidy.  “Such a cosmopolitan thinker,” Burleigh wrote, “had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges, while being manifestly nonplussed by the democratic transformations of Central Europe since 1989-90.” Nothing ironic there at all: Hobsbawm would simply appear to be one of those “intellectuals” for whom ideology is realer and more important than human beings.  Burleigh closed with an apt observation: “Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left” as well as about “the bovine complacency with which, since Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives have allowed such dubious figures licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and our universities.” It’s depressing to note that Hobsbawm’s Communism didn’t prevent Tony Blair from naming him a Companion of Honour in 1998.

Burleigh’s piece was bracing in its honesty, and I was impressed that the New Yorker ran it.  But it was the exception.  The New Yorker also ran an item by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin, who celebrated Hobsbawm’s works at length, concluding: “It is arguably Hobsbawm’s overall life/work rather than any single piece that has been and will continue to prove most influential….having embraced and never relinquished the passionate early Marx, E. J. Hobsbawm, as he reaffirmed in his last book, was in it to change the world.” Kotkin makes this last bit – Hobsbawm’s undying devotion to Stalinist revolution – sound admirable instead of disgusting.  Another fawning necrology was served up by Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who, writing in The Nation, told us that Hobsbawm was “a life-long advocate of social justice” whose histories incorporated “a sophisticated Marxist analysis” and “always carried a moral inflection.” Foner had nothing critical to say about Hobsbawm’s Communism, accepting Hobsbawm’s own explanation that he’d stayed in the Party “out of respect for the memory of comrades who had suffered persecution or death for their political beliefs.” What about respect for the millions murdered by the regimes he cheered on?  Nothing on this from Foner, who summed up Hobsbawm’s life as follows: “His life and writings will long serve as an inspiration to those who believe that a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current world, and to the struggle to create a better one.” Inspiration?  A better world?  If a knowledge of modern history teaches us anything, it should teach us, above all, to view the life story of someone like Eric Hobsbawm as a cautionary example.

CNN didn’t disappoint either, running at its website a thoroughly appalling billet doux by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, whose entire purpose was to justify Hobsbawm’s loyalty to Communism, to wit:

To be a man of Hobsbawm’s generation was to have experienced the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression, to be a Jew of Hobsbawm’s generation was to have seen the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. In those years of the 1930s…was to face what seemed to be a binary choice, to be with the Nazis or against them. And no one seemed to be more against the Nazis than the communists….

Yeah, right up until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939.  Why, then, did Hobsbawm remain a Soviet loyalist for seventy-three years afterwards?  Snyder’s argument was that Communism offered “a sense of community,”

a collective sense that the struggle was not in vain, for a more glorious world could and would come. Like religion for Americans, who repeat that “things happen for a reason,” communism offered a logic of pain and progress. Every arrest, every sentence to a concentration camp, every execution was not just a moment of horror, but further proof of capitalism’s decadence and weakness.

And what of the millions of arrests by Soviet authorities, the millions of people sent to Gulags, the millions executed on orders from the Kremlin?  What of the Ukrainian famine, the Gulag, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  Were all of these things proof of nothing?  On such matters Snyder was silent. “Just why Eric Hobsbawm thought as he did, wrote as he did, and lived as he did,” Snyder insisted, “is a matter that is beyond the judgement of any one of his colleagues, and there are people far better equipped than I to judge.” Beyond judgment?  Would Snyder say that about a Nazi?  Yes, Snyder finally coughed up a pro-forma acknowledgment that there is something a mite troubling about Hobsbawm’s lifelong loyalty to the Soviet dream.  But Snyder wound up his piece with this repulsive statement: “wrong as it [the Soviet state] was, it did embody certain virtues. There is something to be said, after all, for defending the weak, even today, especially today.”

Then there were the British papers.  In the Financial Times, Hobsbawm’s colleague Simon Schama held him up as the crème de la crème of historians.  In the Telegraph, Labor MP Tristram Huntoffered personal recollections of the always “gregarious” Hobsbawm, praising his “cosmopolitan breadth of learning,” “profound analytical insight,” and “extraordinary scholarship.” TheGuardian didn’t surprise, coming through with a long, affectionate obit by Guardian editor Martin Kettle (the son of two Communist activists) and sociologist Dorothy Wedderburn (also a longtime Party member), who dealt with Hobsbawm’s Communism by treating it as matter-of-fact (“He became a member of the legendary Cambridge Apostles” – nice touch, that “legendary”!) and by painting him as “a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks.” Interestingly – and this is one for the books – it turns out that Wedderburn died in September, and guess who wrote her obituary?  None other than Hobsbawm, who noted with obvious approval that Wedderburn had remained a Party member “until sometime in the mid- or late 1950s…but never announced her resignation or changed the basic pattern of her political activities.”

This weird, somewhat creepy, and perhaps unique case of mutual memorializing, courtesy of the Guardian, seems to me to epitomize what Burleigh meant when he decried the domination of the “soft culture” by unrepentant radicals.  That Ivy League historians and major news media in both the U.S. and U.K. lined up to eulogize a character as detestable as Hobsbawm – who, as Wilson pointed out, was “open in his disdain for ordinary mortals,” admitting himself that he had nothing but contempt for “the suburban petit bourgeoisie” – says a great deal about what’s considered acceptable nowadays in both the mainstream culture and the academy on both sides of the pond.  It also seems emblematic that Hobsbawm’s daughter Julia was, according to Wilson, “one of the spin doctors who sold New Labour” to Britain: what else, after all, could more perfectly illustrate the fact that while the conservative establishment, in Europe as in America, goes to great pains to distance itself from Nazis and other right-wing extremists, the left-wing establishment feels little or no compulsion, either for practical or moral reasons, to dissociate itself from outright Communists?

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  • Chezwick

    Another great offering from the esteemed Mr Bawer. That final sentence in particular is a powerful testimonial…show-casing the intellectual and cultural dysfunctionality of the contemporary Western world.

  • Gary

    Hmmm…for all the talk of Hobsbawm being a "great mind" etc., it is worth noting that his vaulting intellect did not prevent him from failing to grasp the fundamental reason his beliefs, when put into practice, always end in misery:- the human being (with "competitive" in its DNA) is simply the wrong component for a socialist or communist society.

    When that simple truth eludes those who gain power, then we start to see the hecatombs appear, as reality meets cultural Marxism. If it still eludes you after the holocausts, then you really are "special".

  • Omar

    Why is Nazism always associated with the Right when it is not? In fact, Nazism was a far left-wing ideology which despised democracy and the free-market, and advocated for government control on everything. Nazism meant "National-Socialism". The main difference between Nazism/Fascism and Communism is the issue of nationalism vs. internationalism. Obviously, Eric Hobsbawn (whose books I had to read for European History class this past Spring semester) and the other leftist "academics" didn't watch neither the" Soviet Story" film documentary nor Glenn Beck's "Revolutionary Holocaust" TV documentary. Hobsbawn probably didn't read Jonah Goldberg's book, "Liberal Fascism", either. The links are here for anyone who wants to know the truth about the similarities between the two totalitarian ideologies (Nazism/Fascism and Communism): http://www.sovietstory.com/ and http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,583732,00.htm

    • tagalog

      Totalitarian political philosophies transcend right-left distinctions. Fascism/Nazism and Communism are flip sides of the same coin. See Hannah Arendt, On Totalitarianism. I think she has it pretty much right. One distinction between right-wing and left-wing totalitarianism is that left-wing totalitarianism wants to control the economy, while right-wing totalitarianism wants private entrepreneurs to assume the risk of loss, but for the state to step in and command those entrepreneurs to act for the state when the state needs money.

      I recently came across a quotation from George Orwell: "The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom."

      • Ray Olson

        What, to you, does that Orwell quotation mean? Where is it from? Damned if I can make anything out of it. I'm not condemning it or you, and I think well of Orwell. I'm just asking for enlightenment.

        • tagalog

          The Orwell quote strikes me as saying that a totalitarian state can't permit its citizens to be armed. Seemed pretty clear to me. But he did expand a bit on the theme in his essay.

          On the other hand, totalitarian states can collectivize national effort with ease, so they can indeed do great things. They just can't allow there to be any risk to their total control of everyone. This is the reason why some Obama fan recently lamented that the U.S. can't be Red China for a day, and the reason why this country is not at the point where it will stand still for totalitarianism.

          The quote appears in an essay or news column Orwell wrote between 1941 and 1944 entitled "Don't Let Colonel Blimp Ruin the Home Guard." The comment I read states that the title of the column is "completely misleading since the message was to get anyone on the left who harboured revolutionary feelings into the Home Guard under military discipline," a statement I don't fully understand myself. In the article, Orwell wrote:

          'Even as it stands the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do, they cannot give the factory worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER'S COTTAGE IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE IT STAYS THERE.'

          Interestingly enough of course, in England, no rifles hang on the wall of any person's home (laborer, working-man or anyone else) as a matter of national law. Those days seem to be over for the nonce.

  • zalukas

    Communism brawl with national socialism was just a family fight.

    Eric was an American Jew, who knows nothing of horrors of totalitarianism, living comfortable life, protected by very people he despised.

    Stalin was a monster along with Uncle Adolf. Europe was just too small for both of them.

    Free men must showcase deprived pseudo intellectuals like this as a warning to humanity, short of tar and feather them.

    • Jacob

      Hobsbawn was born in Egypt, grew up in Vienna and Berlin and subsequently fled mainland Berlin (in '32 I think), because he was a, gasp, Jew. How tasteful of you to bring that up, btw…

  • PAthena

    Thank you, Mr. Bawer, for speaking the truth about Hobsbawm. But Naziism was not "right-wing" but "left-wing." "Nazi" is short for "Nazional Sozialismus,) "National Socialism," a form of Socialism which was nationalist, unlike Communism (or the pretensions of communism). It was also called "fascism" with the name of Benito Mussolini gave to it when he founded the Italian Fascist Party in World War I. The traditional Socialist view was that war was between capitalists, and the Italian Socialist Party opposed the participation of Italy (against Germany) in World War I. Mussolini was a leader of the Italian Socialist Party and editor of its newspaper Avanti. He had originally opposed Italy's participating in World War I but changed his mind. He founded the Fascist Party as a nationalist socialist party and supported Italy's participation in the war.

    • Maxie

      True. Communism was global in scope whereas Fascism and Naziism were nationalistic. All were socialistic dictatorships and totalitarian in nature. Stalin's Bolshevik regime was by far the most genocidal. Mussolini's Fascism was repressive but not genocidal.

    • https://www.facebook.com/jackhschwartz Jack Schwartz

      PAthena. Excellent commentary. This information must be widely publicized. Many naively still believe that Naziism and Fascism are 'right-wing' as contrasted with the 'left-wing' communists (socialists). Marx stated that there was no difference between communism and socialism, seeing them as two names for the same political theory and movement. Those who believe (or pretend to believe), as Hobsbawm asserts, that in the face of Naziism (nationalist socialism), the only choice was for 'its opposite: Communism' (internationalist socialism) are fools or liars. Remember always the brave 'Society of the White Rose' resistance under Hitler. These were the great lovers of classical liberalism as represented by Goethe and Schiller. See this beautiful tribute to those noble fighters who opposed both Naziism and Communism, seeing them as tow variants of the same theme: totalitarian collectivism.

      Here is Ms. Thompson's description of her painting: "Homage to the White Rose honors a group of brave and honoralbe people at a critical and famous moment in history. The White Rose was a resistance group of students and teachers in Nazi Germany who distributed illegal pamphlets opposing Naziism and were subsequently executed for this act of courageous intellectual defiance. This painting captures the critical moment when the students deliberately pushed their pile of pamphlets into the student atrium of the University of Munich. The pamphlets contained quotes from the great German romanticists, Goethe and Schiller, honoring and defending the idea of human freedom." http://www.maureenthompson.com/TheWhiteRose.html

  • tagalog

    The Soviet system did NOT "embody certain virtues." It claimed that it possessed those virtues, but it never did.

    The closest it ever got to a rational statement of its values was to say that a lie told to advance the cause of world socialism was morally defensible, that communism was historically inevitable, and therefore the central government was NEVER wrong as it made its way along the course set by historical determinism. That's it. Oh yeah, one more: slave labor is permissible in a communist system because it is a logical conclusion of the primacy of the collective and the culmination of the Surplus Labor Theory of Value.

  • Alexander McCallum

    As a Brit, excellent article.

    Just to note the BBC programme that fawned over him was a BBC Radio 4 programme, thankfully most British people would have been watching TV or listening to other radio stations.

  • Horace

    Communism is the sacred cow of the Media- University atheist elites and Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky, Professor Obama, or anybody else who seems to give it an air of respectability is sacred too. The American left is still in control of the US education system because the conservatives are afraid of them. The lefties ars as communist as they can get away with at all times. They are getting away with more and more lately. They drive the world into every kind of destructive crisis they can in hopes of harvesting power from pain. Their Bolshevik, Stalinist and Maoist heroes sure revelled in the pain of others. Even murder is no barrier to these amoral thugs when they get the opportunity. They will never stop by themselves. Conservatives should loudly identify them and get them fired every chance they get. Forget about tolerance, they don't tolerate you. Don't give up the younger generation to these liars.

  • Horace

    Hogspawn is in his element now. PBUH.

  • watsa46

    Mr Hobs.. must have been suffering, like many others, of something called pinpoint selective Alzheimer disease.

  • Maxie

    Hobsbawm's lifelong committment to the malevolence of genocidal communism is indicative of a narcissistic paranoia which characterizes the sickness of Marxist 'thought'. Marxism is a fear-based malady disingenuously masquerading as "social justice" which is nothing more than revenge. It is a revenge of weak intellectual narcissists against a world that does not enthusiastically and willingly acknowledge their imagined greatness. So butchering millions of such ungratefuls becomes a well-deserved, if perverse justice. Marx was the archetype of this mental malevolence and deserving of his iconic status as its spiritual leader.

    Re: http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/../2012/0…

  • fanlad

    The flaw in Communism is their belief that man is the one and only God, thus their love of self, to serve self. They answer to no one but man. But I'm reminded of what happened to the tower of babel, when man tried to build it to heaven. God destroyed it. The Utopian dream of a perfect man made world will never stand.

    • https://www.facebook.com/jackhschwartz Jack Schwartz

      Fanlad, I strongly disagree with your premise. Communism is not characterized by love of self, but by envy for those who rightly honor their true creative contributions to human culture. Communist ideologues were (and are) not egoists, but narcissistic sociopaths. deluded by their own vision of a world of 'useful idiots' ruled by nihilist collectivist dictators, such as themselves. When examined closely, these anti-individualist ideologues all suffer from well-deserved self-loathing.

  • Ghostwriter

    I've never read any of Mr. Hobsbawm's work. After reading up a little more on him,I don't know if I'd WANT to.

  • https://www.facebook.com/jackhschwartz Jack Schwartz

    Conservative are not afraid of the American left. On the contrary, they are fighting hard against the leftist domination of our universities and K-12 curriculum. One of the strongest voices is that of the neo-conservative, David Horowitz. See his book: 'Indoctrination U: The Lefts War Against Academic Freedom' http://www.amazon.com/Indoctrination-Lefts-Agains