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

Not a word from Foner about the many who were persecuted or met their death in the Soviet system that Hobsbawm so revered. This is not surprising. In 1994, Foner attacked Eugene D. Genovese’s Dissent essay “The Question,” writing that Genovese was  prone to “right-wing ideology” because he dared to acknowledge what Foner and Hobsbawm never could -- that in supporting the Soviet Union, the Left was as guilty as Stalin, and that “social movements that have espoused radical egalitarianism and participatory democracy have begun with mass murder and ended in despotism.” To Foner, the great sin is anti-communism, and he believes that supporting left-wing tyranny is excusable and understandable.

Foner concludes that “Hobsbawm’s historical writings brought to bear a sophisticated Marxist analysis that saw class conflict as a driving force of historical change but rejected narrow economic determinism and teleological frameworks. Like Marx himself, Hobsbawm saw capitalism as a total social system, which had to be analyzed in its entirety, and rejected notions of historical inevitability. He insisted that people must strive to envision a more humane social order, but that history had no predetermined trajectory.”

So we are not surprised that Eric Foner thinks Hobsbawm to be a great historian. How could he not? After all, he shares with the late scholar a fond remembrance for the old Soviet Union and a nostalgia for the good work engaged in by the old Communists, like Foner’s own parents and uncles.

It is surprising, then, that more than a few conservatives share Foner’s estimate of Hobsbawm’s work. The Harvard professor and British born historian Niall Ferguson, whose conservative credentials are solid, has written that while he and Hobsbawm disagreed about everything, they were good friends. Hobsbawm, he writes, was “a truly great historian. I continue to believe that his great tetralogy -- The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) -- remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.” Ferguson adds:

Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the "little man" and a love of the telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era. The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship.

That is definitely one way of putting it. Judging from the many plaudits Hobsbawm received after his passing, it certainly is the established judgement in Britain from both those on the Left and those on the Right. Indeed, no historian or scholar has ever received such major newspaper coverage after their death than Hobsbawm has. And most of these commentators prefer to ignore all the times in which Hobsbawm revealed in the same works they discuss his continual apologias for the Soviet Union and the reign of Joseph Stalin. It seems to be seen by them as a quaint quirk that can or should easily be overlooked.