The Case of Eric Hobsbawm: Can a Stalinist Be a Good Historian?
Weekly Standard writer Christopher Caldwell also sees Hobsbawm favorably, writing that Hobsbawm had an "independent" mind, and that because he "defended a cruel and misguided project did not mean that he was misguided about everything." He explains:
Hobsbawm’s assertion in Nations and Nationalism (1990) that traditional nationalism was losing its hold on the loyalty of citizens was much ridiculed when the war in Yugoslavia began months later. But today he looks more right than wrong. His scepticism about democracy was not to most official tastes, but only by ignoring the data could one dispute his contention that both Colombia and the US were countries with well-functioning democracies and high murder rates. “Even as an alternative to other systems,” he wrote of democracy, “it can be defended only with a sigh.” That elegant, 19th-century-style sentence gives us a clue to why Hobsbawm is beloved even of those who do not share his politics.
Even Genovese, who made the kind of break with his past that Hobsbawm never did, always considered him a great historian, whom he once dedicated a book of his to, referring to Hobsbawm as his “main man.” Writing at the time of publication of the last of Hobsbawm’s trilogy of world history, Genovese wrote a largely favorable review of his work for The New Republic. Hobsbawm’s book, he wrote, “offers a powerful interpretation of the wellsprings of an age of unprecedented economic transformation, mass slaughter and social upheaval. With great analytical force, Hobsbawm tells the story of capitalism’s greatest crises, its triumph over the challenges of communism and fascism, and its current strengths and weaknesses.”
Reading his review carefully, however, indicates the ways in which Genovese believes that Hobsbawm wrote good history. Hobsbawm's conclusions, Genovese wrote, went against the grain of what Marxists believed. Genovese argues that “the Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s produced an astonishing economic transformation and an unprecedented prosperity. The bourgeoisie learned its lessons and revamped its economic system in ways that socialists, or at any rate Marxists, had believed impossible.”
To put it somewhat differently, Genovese argues that Hobsbawm may have considered himself a revolutionary Marxist and a Communist, but that his own work cast doubt on the very major beliefs of the Marxian construct. He writes, for example, that Hobsbawm “concedes the conservative charge that socialism and communism developed as secularized versions of an apocalyptic religious faith.” So Genovese thinks Hobsbawm was a great historian because, Genovese argues, “on one matter after another Hobsbawm, who remains devoted to the left, destroys its pet notions.” I do not know whether or not Hobsbawm ever wrote in response to this review, but I seriously doubt whether he believed that in his own body of work he was destroying the very ideas he held most dear.