May 12, 2019

RED ERIC: A worthy new biography of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm shows the ardent communist in the crucible of the 20th century.

Evans’ view is that Hobsbawm was a historian first and a communist second. He did not take his allegiance to the party to the extent of lying, distorting evidence or using his professional work for propaganda, the way many communists in other fields certainly did. Indeed, Evans makes good use of the transcripts of MI5’s wiretaps of CPGB’s London headquarters, which reveal that the party bosses saw Hobsbawm as more of a problem than an asset; for instance, he stubbornly refused to follow the party line on Hungary in 1956. Hobsbawm himself acknowledged that as a communist “you were supposed to write a straightforward line, and whatever I said did not fit in.” He noted that “not a single one of my books was ever published in Russia in the Soviet period”: His defenses of bandits as freedom fighters hardly matched the Soviet vision of total state control.

At the same time, Evans tends to discount—precisely because it is so obvious—the way that Hobsbawm’s communism informed his vision of modern history, particularly in his bestselling Age series. For Hobsbawm, capitalism was the great evil and disaster of the modern world, and communism a noble and necessary, if sometimes misguided, attempt to cure it. No amount of communist atrocity could change this equation. Late in life, Hobsbawm was interviewed by the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff, who asked him whether “the loss of fifteen, twenty million people” would have been justified if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating a world revolution; he unhesitatingly answered “Yes.” Unlike the repentant ex-communists he despised, Hobsbawm never gave up the barbaric doctrine that the end justifies the means.

This core conviction of the essential goodness of communism colors Hobsbawm’s interpretation of key moments in modern history, particularly when the Soviet Union is involved. When he comes to write about the Russian Revolution in The Age of Extremes, for instance, Hobsbawm romantically praises communist revolutionaries, who were responsible for untold amounts of suffering and death, as “the necessarily ruthless and disciplined army of human emancipation.” He chastises England and France for appeasing Hitler at Munich, but barely mentions Stalin’s alliance with Hitler to divide Poland between them. And he blames the origin of the Cold War, not on Stalin’s actual aggression in Eastern Europe, but on a putative American attempt to “turn an exhausted and impoverished U.S.S.R. into yet another client region of the U.S. economy.” Hobsbawm’s history may be legitimate left-wing interpretation rather than culpable communist propaganda, but clearly the line is a thin one.

As blogger Moe Lane once wrote, “Marxism is intellectualism for stupid people; it tends to attract the sort who can’t understand that an economic system that cannot feed its own population reliably has failed at the game of Life. Literally.”

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