The life and death of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012

In his dotage in the 1990s a respected academic historian, author of bestselling books, and lifelong Nazi was interviewed for the Times Literary Supplement about his youthful commitment to Hitler. The interviewer asked “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?”

The historian replied instantly; “Yes”

Of course, that never happened but something almost identical did.

In his dotage in 1994 a respected academic historian, author of bestselling books, and lifelong Marxist was interviewed for the Times Literary Supplement about his youthful commitment to Stalin. The interviewer asked “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?”

Eric Hobsbawm, who died yesterday aged 95, replied instantly; “Yes”

It is one of the great mysteries of intellectual life in the last few decades that anyone who confesses to a youthful flirtation with Nazism or fascism is shunned by polite society until a sufficiently long and intense period of penance had passed, while a youthful fondness for communism is presented as one of those harmless things we all go through, like collecting football stickers.

During the 20th century the miserable ideology of communism slaughtered millions and immiserated millions more. Between the Ukrainian famine and purges of the 1930s, the gulags, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, to the insanity of Mengistu in Ethiopia, communism was responsible for as many as 94 million deaths in the last century.

To paraphrase Montesquieu, there has never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Marx.

And yet we don’t regard it with the same abhorrence as Nazism. Instead, the death of Eric Hobsbawm is mourned.

Ed Miliband said that this apologist for totalitarianism “cared deeply about the political direction of the country.” More, one hopes, than he cared for the millions whose deaths he excused.

For the BBC Nick Higham wrote that “Eric Hobsbawm was remarkable among historians in being proud to call himself a Marxist long after Marxism had been discredited in the West.” Hobsbawm was remarkable for no such thing. He was remarkable for his slavish devotion to the Soviet Union long after its full horror had been exposed. As Michael Moynihan wrote:

“When the bloody history of 20th-century communism intrudes upon Mr. Hobsbawm’s disquisitions, it’s quickly dismissed. Of the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II—’the Second World War,’ he says with characteristic slipperiness, ‘led communist parties to power’ in Eastern and Central Europe—he explains that a ‘possible critique of the new [postwar] socialist regimes does not concern us here.’

Why did communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder? ‘To answer this question is not part of the present chapter.’ Regarding the execrable pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which shocked many former communist sympathizers into lives of anticommunism, Mr. Hobsbawm dismisses the ‘zig-zags and turns of Comintern and Soviet policy,’ specifically the “about-turn of 1939–41,”‘which “need not detain us here'”.

In 2002 Hobsbawm wrote “To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.” Imagine a historian writing that about Nazi Germany and getting a 21 gun salute from the BBC.

Hobsbawm became a Marxist while living in Germany in the early 1930s. Like many during that time he saw a straight choice between communism and Nazism. He wasn’t alone in lacking the imagination to see the alternative of liberal democracy and many embraced totalitarianism of one colour or other.

But few embraced it with Hobsbawm’s vigour. In August 1939 erstwhile foes Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact making Nazis and communists allies until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Many communists severed ties with Moscow in disgust but, as Nick Cohen points out, Hobsbawm remained a loyal propagandist for Stalin which in practice meant Hitler too.

Hobsbawm traveled to the Soviet Union in 1954 but noted that “It was an interesting but also a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals for we met hardly anyone there like ourselves.” To quote Nick Cohen again,

“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”

In 1956 the Communist Party of Great Britain again fractured over Soviet policy, this time the brutal conquest of Hungary which left possibly 2,500 Hungarians dead. Hobsbawm supported the invasion.

Time and again Eric Hobsbawm was faced with the full scale of the horror visited by the regime he supported and time and again he remained loyal. As he wrote in 2002

“The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow ‘the lines’ it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do . . . Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed . . . If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so”

Hobsbawm pleaded for “historical understanding”; he isn’t hard to understand. He was a man who failed to see that the choice of one murderous regime over another was no choice at all, who lacked the humility to admit it, and who was possessed of an incredible ability to blind himself to realities, no matter how bloody, which didn’t fit his view of the world.

Hobsbawm was the Marxist version of David Irving. Why is his death any more worthy of mourning?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

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