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Ron Radosh

The Case of Eric Hobsbawm: Can a Stalinist Be a Good Historian?

October 13th, 2012 - 12:53 pm

But unlike Ferguson, Pryce-Jones was not amused at his conversations. Once, at a dinner with the British ambassador, Hobsbawm said in his presence that “a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill 5 million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later. The last person who had reduced genocide to mathematics was Joseph Goebbels, I replied, whereupon Hobsbawm got up from the meal and left the house.”

Hobsbawm, he notes, grew up among all those who became Soviet spies. Like them, he writes,“Hobsbawm was doing whatever he could to make sure that less fortunate people would not have the privileges and freedom he himself enjoyed.” Pryce-Jones also considers Hobsbawm to have been a liar, but one “who was in the habit of lying by omission. Absent from his account of the present age are the enforced famines that killed millions in the Soviet Union, and the Gulag system of slave labor that killed millions more and drove desperate victims to revolt. There is no mention of Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police — ‘our Himmler,’ as the grateful Stalin described him. No mention of the ruthless elimination of Communists who hadn’t kept up with the current Party line or of democrats who found themselves in the Party’s way. No mention of the massacre at Katyn of thousands of Poles.” Omission, indeed.

Pryce-Jones ends by noting all the British establishment press and media that lauded him after his death. What he does not explain is why they did this. The London Times ran its two-page obituary under this headline: “Magisterial historian of the modern age whose nuanced Marxist views helped to reshape the political Left in Britain and beyond.” Again, note that word: “nuanced.” And note the  lack of letting readers know the way in which Hobsbawm despised regular people, and heaped scorn upon them personally.

Pryce-Jones thinks that the reception and honors given him have taken place because communist ideology has seeped down to the intellectuals and journalists, and hence they think like he did, and that “decades of falsehoods and manipulation have deadened the moral sensibility even of intelligent people.” That may be true, but I do not think it is a sufficient explanation.

The reason liberals and center-left figures like Tony Blair and Ed Miliband and others have praised him goes beyond that. It is simply that they see Hobsbawm, despite his overt Stalinism, as one of them — a man of the Left. To break with him or to heap scorn upon him as A.N. Wilson (a Tory intellectual) did, is to demean themselves. They may have personally not been willing to break an egg to make an omelet, but they have respect for those who were willing to do just that, because their goal was the same — to reach the utopian classless society in which all conflict would come to an end.

To condemn Hobsbawm, they feel, would be to condemn themselves. Unlike Eugene D. Genovese, who realized that the goal itself was a false one, they hold true to the struggle and the end result. Scorn and critique are reserved for only the anti-communists, those brave enough to reject the path to which Eric Hobsbawm stayed true.

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