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


Does the X Factor have the x factor?

And so X Factor draws to a close for another year. Like a visit from an elderly, incontinent relative, we don’t have to think about it until we next see Christmas decorations in Sainsbury’s (which could be sometime in late February).

This year was different. Hundreds of thousands rebelled against Simon Cowell’s domination of the Christmas number 1 spot by buying an old record owned by Sony BMG; Simon Cowell’s company. With cash coming in from people who hated him as well those who loved him, it was a very merry Christmas indeed for the Botox puffed flat-top.

I didn’t watch much of the X Factor; I found better ways to spend my time like running a pumice stone over my cold sores. But I saw enough to catch one of the anonymous, androgynous, cruise ship crooners the show produces gushing that singing on stage was “his dream come true”.

Really? Was it? What exactly had he done to pursue this dream? Had he learned an instrument, spending tedious hours plonking Sloop John B and soaking his fingers in Surgical Spirit? Had he formed a band? Had he spent long, boring hours practicing with his band to get to a level where they were able to produce pretty much two hours of non stop music without screwing up? Had he played gigs in pubs where the audience will often tell you to keep the noise down as they couldn’t hear who just scored for West Ham? Had he set up a MySpace page to share his version of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ with the public?

Or had he sat on his arse looking at pictures of Westlife in his bedroom waiting for the next set of crappy TV auditions to come along?

Vapid brain acid like X Factor conveys the idea that all you have to do is wait around. You don’t have to work. The Beatles spent a year before they got famous playing 12 hour sets in some of the grimmest clubs in Hamburg. They had paid their dues. What have these warbling weasels ever done? This isn’t effortless in the way that Morrissey can effortlessly knock out a great song but effortless in that they haven’t done anything.

But along with the idea of making it without really doing anything the format also creates a horrible sense of entitlement. In the early stages you have the spectacle of entrants pleading to be let through with cries of “Pleeeeeeeease, I want this SO much” which for dignity is down there with fishing a pizza slice out of a urinal. People think that just because they want ‘it’ not getting ‘it’ is unfair. Well, try working for ‘it’ like The Beatles did.

But what is ‘it’? Another group in early auditions begged convicted toilet attendant beater Cheryl Cole (there’s a role model) saying “We’ve seen what you’ve got and we want it to”. So they want the house. They want the Hello magazine wedding. They want the stupid footballer boyfriend. If they ever make a record as wonderful as ‘Strange Fruit’, well, that’s a bonus.

Effortless crap served up on a plate. That’s show business!

(Printed in London Student, vol 30, issue 7, 18/01/10)

The great rock n’ roll swindle

Homes fit for Working Class Heroes

“We recognize that a pact including such measures as fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs – education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans – would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation in the poorest countries, at a cost equal to just one percent more of the US budget”

These were the words of Bono in the lead up to the Live 8 concerts in summer 2005. A cry for money to be sent to Africa to help alleviate the crushing poverty that wrecks the lives of so many on that continent.

But not, it seems, if Bono is going to be asked to stump up for it. Yesterday the news broke that Bonos band U2 have carried out a neat soft shoe shuffle and transferred part of their publishing business to Holland where they will pay less tax. For a man who prides himself on his sincerity, that seems a little odd. But pop music, a genre which defines itself to some extent on its raw, uninhibited emotion, is no stranger to such rank hypocrisy.

Back in 1971 former Beatle John Lennon sang the song ‘Imagine’ in which he asked us to “Imagine no possessions”. Lennon, famed for his ‘sincerity’, is sitting at a white grand piano in the drawing room of his mansion as he sings this. Imagine no possessions? You first John.

He wasn’t alone. In 1973 Pink Floyd released the album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ which went on to sell a staggering 25 million copies. The album included ‘Money’, a song satirizing the rich and selfish written by bass player Roger Waters, which included the line “I’m alright Jack keep your hands off of my stack”. The money that comes in from royalties on a song like ‘Money’ everytime it is played on radio or TV anywhere in the world, and every time a copy of the album or single is sold, must be enormous. But, back in the Britain of the 1970’s, taxes likewise were enormous with a top rate at the now unimaginable 98 pence in the pound. As a result, Roger Waters moved to France where taxes were lower and band mate Nick Mason says “It was greed that drove Pink Floyd into exile. We thought we could make a pile of cash if we lived outside the country, saved taxes and invested the money”. ‘Keep your hands off my stack’ indeed.

Pink Floyd went on to release the album ‘The Wall’ in 1979. This time the hit single was ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ which included the famous line “We dont need no education”. When the Floyd played at Live 8 it was impossible not to notice the contradiction between the band singing that sang that famous line and the pictures of African children bearing placards reading ‘Education is our right’. Who is right? Multi millionaire musician Roger Waters? Or the children of sub Saharan Africa?

The song also contains the ridiculous line “We don’t need no thought control”. Well ask yourself this, because it doesn’t appear to have crossed Waters’ mind; who’s thoughts are easier to control? Someone who has good grammar, can communicate, understand idealistic concepts and has a working knowledge of science and history? Or one of the uneducated Morlocks our Comprehensive ‘schools’ are currently cranking out?

The hypocrisy of these rock gods is alive and well in a younger generation. Jennifer Lopez makes millions as a singer, actress and now perfume maker yet will still insist that “Im still Jenny from the block”. Coldplay singer Chris Martin said last year that “Shareholders are the great evil of this modern world”. For a man whose music is so insipid it might come as no surprise that his politics are equally fatuous, but one might have expected a firmer grasp on economics from an alumni of one of Britain’s top public schools, Sherbourne, and University College in London. The expensively educated husband of movie start Gwyneth Paltrow, doesn’t seem to realize that the investment put into companies like his record label EMI by shareholders enables those companies to pay for the A&R men and women who discover bands like Coldplay.

Why is it that these super rich stars are so hell bent on trying to convince us that they are, in fact, barely educated and without a penny to their names? In the song ‘Working Class Hero’, John Lennon sings that ‘They’ “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV” (but not, it seems, with Beatles records) and “But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see” (that we should all live in a mansion in Surrey) and finishes up by claiming that “If you want to be a hero well just follow me”. The inference is clear; Lennon is a working class hero and we should all be following his example.

But Lennon wasn’t a working class hero and he was being dishonest again. The cover of the Oasis single ‘Live Forever’ has a picture of a very nice suburban semi. It turns out this picture of the middle class idyll was taken in Liverpool. Furthermore, it is the house which John Lennon grew up in. Not quite the Dickensian slum which ‘Working Class Hero’ would have you believe.

The answer as to why they play down to the gallery like this could well just be a bid to appeal to what they think their audience wants to hear. If this is the case it is a pretty condescending view of the record buying public. Perhaps the reason can be found in the vanity of these ‘artists’? In the song ‘Common People’, Pulp famously sang about a girl who slums it with the Proles safe in the knowledge that she can go home to her wealthy parents. It is quite easy to imagine a similar thought process animating Roger Waters when he warns his audience of the evils of a good education, or John Lennon when he tells us that possessions are of no importance, before the pair of them board their helicopters and whiz back to their mansions.

In the Godfather, Michael Corleone says that “Discontent for money is just a trick of the rich to keep the poor without it”. Perhaps there is an element of this in the hypocritical posing about that rock stars do? Tell people that education is a crock, that material things are an actual negative and they will not want to pursue them. All at once, your hold on the Mansions, limos and private jets looks just that little more secure.

The Rulers and the Ruled

They went to a Comprehensive

There is an old Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk beams down to some planet and finds a society divided between people who live in gleaming cities in the clouds and those below, the Troglytes, who live beneath the ground and work in the mines that power the city. Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis, made in 1927, tells a similar story of a society divided between two groups; Thinkers, who rule, and Workers who, well, work. In HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the Time Traveler visits earth in the future where the Eloi live above ground and the Morlocks live below it. Three stories with a common theme; the Rulers and the Ruled.

This may look like the stuff of science fiction, stories of blatant injustice and good versus evil, but I would argue that Britain today is congealing into two separate nations, those who rule and those who are ruled.

A study carried out by the Sutton Trust has found that “54% of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately, despite fee-paying schools catering for 7% of the school population”. Furthermore, “That figure has increased from 49% in 1986, when the research was last carried out”. This bears out the findings of the LSE report into social mobility which I referred to in the previous entry. As Sir Peter Lampl says, “This is another example of the predominance of those who are privately educated in influential positions in society”. The educational elevator has stalled leaving those at the bottom stuck where they are while those at the top pass on national leadership in an almost hereditary manner.

As such it will come as no surprise to note that man of the people “Call me Dave” Cameron (Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford) is the son of Stockbroker, Ian Donald Cameron, and Mary Fleur, daughter of Sir William Malcolm Mount, 2nd Baronet. His friend George Osborne (St Paul’s School and Magdalen College, Oxford), the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is the son of Sir Peter George Osborne, founder of Osborne and Little, the leading fabric and wallpaper designers. Such toffery should only be expected of the party of Alec Douglas Home and Anthony Eden but even the horny handed sons of toil who run the Labour party have a head start in life. Tony Blair (Fettes College and St John’s College, Oxford) is the son of a Law lecturer at the prestigious Durham University and his former partner in crime, Peter Mandelson (County Grammar School and St Catherine’s College, Oxford), is the grandson of Baron Morrison of Lambeth, former Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the House of Commons and Foreign Secretary. The Sutton Trust concluded that “Nearly a third of MPs and almost two thirds of members of the House of Lords were educated privately, compared to 7% in the wider population” and that “27% of the Commons and 42% of the Lords were educated at Oxford or Cambridge universities”.

This web runs right through the elite of British leadership. Whilst working as a TV producer, Mandy met John Birt (St Mary’s College and St Catherine’s College Oxford where he got a third in Engineering) who went on the become Director General of the BBC and was rewarded with a Life Peerage in the House of Lords when stepped down in 1999. One of Birt’s friends from his early TV career was Peter Jay (Dragon School and Oxford University and son of former Labour MP Baron Jay of Battersea – Winchester College and New College, Oxford) who married Margaret Callaghan (Blackheath High School and Somerville College, Oxford – now Baroness Jay of Paddington). Margaret was daughter of future Labour leader James Callaghan who made Peter Jay the ambassador to the United States even though his qualifications amounted to 10 years as The Times economics editor. Are you still with me?

More prosaic examples abound. The journalist Alan Coren (Wadham College, Oxford) seems to spawn TV presenters at will, his daughter Victoria having recently hosted a show about the English language and his son Giles frequently appearing as a newspaper columnist/film critic/restaurant critic (both junior Coren’s having graduated from Oxford). Terry Yorath and Kenny Dalglish, both ex international footballers, have generously donated their daughters to the noble cause of sports broadcasting. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (Westminster and Christ Church College, Oxford), has given the country the ‘domestic goddess’, daughter Nigella, and son Dominic, former editor of The Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. The radical black activist, columnist and TV presenter Darcus Howe has seen his daughter, Tamara Howe, become a director of production for London Weekend Television.

There is another, more sinister vision of a divided society. In the novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley described a world in which people were divided from birth into castes, allotted their role in society. Bred in test tubes, those selected to be Alphas are educated and engineered to be physically superior, designated to rule. They rule over the Gammas, Delta and Epsilons, who are fed alcohol whilst in the test tube so as stunt their mental growth and leave them happy with the lt society’s rulers and builders have allotted them.

I believe we have seen that in this country. The education which could keep the population turning over, the social mobility which we have seen declining, has been destroyed. It was destroyed by people who had been bought the very best education money could buy. It may well have been done for supposedly good reasons, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ perhaps, but the end result has been to entrench the social and economic elite (which was responsible for the death of education on the first place) in its position. On the Labour side, the Oxford educated Anthony Crosland promised the end of the grammar schools back in the 1960’s. Today, his fellow Oxford alumnus, “Call me Dave” Cameron has said “absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system”. With so much expensively educated cross party opposition to the restoration of the engine of social mobility, ie grammar schools, what chance do the children of the less well off have?