A historian who refused to learn from history.
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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