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

At first glance, the question of whether a self-proclaimed Marxist historian, a member in good standing of the Communist Party, can be a good historian seems self-evident. After all, anyone who in this day and age still defends the Marxist-Leninist project and the reign of Lenin and Stalin in the the 20th century must be somewhat self-deluded.

The late Eric Hobsbawm, who died two weeks ago, was such a historian. A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain to the end and a founding member of the Communist Party Historians Group (and an editor of its journal Past and Present), Hobsbawm was heralded in obituaries and memorial statements as one of the best historians writing in our own time.

The mainstream media went out of its way to sing Hobsbawm’s praises. Last week’s Time, for example, ran a short piece by Ishaan Tharoor, who wrote that “though the Cambridge-educated Briton was an unrepentant Communist who refused to quit the party even after the horrors of Stalin became clear, his work showed little trace of dogma. As a historian, he was interested less in the actions of great men than in the lives of ordinary people.” Or, to put it in clearer terms, Tharoor is saying that Hobsbawm may have supported totalitarianism and the regime of the Gulag, but he cared about the real people and their “struggles.” And, moreover, his “taut, lucid prose” was written in “Marxism’s most ideal form: cosmopolitan, humanist and rooted in the study of societies from the bottom up.”

I bet you weren’t aware that to Time, Marxism was cosmopolitan and humanist. PJM’s own Roger Kimball sees Hobsbawm a bit more accurately. Roger said it best in these words:

Hobsbawm was adulated by an academic establishment inured to celebrating partisans of totalitarian regimes so long as they are identifiably left-wing totalitarian regimes. Although he claimed to have been victim of a “weaker McCarthyism” that retard advancement of leftists in the UK, Hobsbawm enjoyed a stellar career replete with official honors, preferments, and perquisites. He was showered with honors and academic appointments at home and abroad. His books won all manner of awards. In 1998 he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honor. But the central fact about Hobsbawm, as about so many doctrinaire leftists, was his willingness to barter real people for imaginary social progress. If he “abandoned, nay rejected” the “dream” of the October Revolution, he never abandoned its animating core: an almost reflexive willingness to sacrifice innocent lives for the sake of a spurious ideal.

Hobsbawm himself made this quite clear in a now famous and much quoted interview with Michael Ignatieff that conducted in 1994. What you are saying, Ignatieff asked, is “that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm immediately gave a one-word answer that says it all: “Yes.” No wonder Roger Kimball refers to him as a “repellent figure.”

Naturally, writing in The Nation, the left-wing’s most prominent historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner lauded Hobsbawm in very different terms. Playing the old Popular Front game, Foner ignored Hobsbawm's defense of the old Soviet Union and of Stalin’s terror. Foner simply called him a “life-long advocate of social justice.” Obviously, in Foner’s eyes, anyone supporting Stalin and the old Soviet cause was simply revealing his concern for the peoples of the world and their persistent struggles for equality. Hobsbawm never gave up his beliefs, Foner writes. Of course, Foner never tells readers what these were, saying only that Hobsbawm stayed firm “out of respect for the memory of comrades who had suffered persecution or death for their political beliefs.”