The Case of Eric Hobsbawm: Can a Stalinist Be a Good Historian?
Perhaps the single most insightful recent piece on Hobsbawm appears in The American, the magazine of The American Enterprise Institute. The article is written by Lee Harris. Harris understands why so many conservatives think well of the old Stalinist. Hobsbawm’s belief that had the Soviet experiment worked and produced the utopia its supporters promised, the millions killed in the effort would have been justified, Harris writes:
[I]s a product of what Hobsbawm’s admirers see as his strongest point, namely, his interest in grand historical narrative—offering a sweeping, big-picture view of events. In an age in which historians tend to specialize in narrow and detailed analysis of isolated tracts of history, and even thin slices of it at that, it is refreshing to see a historian who is brave enough to take the whole destiny of man as his theme. This, after all, is one of the more creditable legacies of the Marxist tradition, the search for an overriding pattern that gives meaning and purpose to the dismaying vicissitudes of seemingly haphazard events. But there is a catch to this style of grand theorizing -- it allows, indeed it positively encourages, the grand theorist to permit the ends to justify even the vilest and most atrocious means, including the massacre of innocent millions.
Harris argues, moreover, that Hosbawm must have been aware, as Genovese claimed, that he really was not much of a Marxist anymore, despite his claims to have been one. Harris writes, comparing Hobsbawm to Genovese:
Hobsbawm’s claim that he was a Marxist rested solely on a sentimental attachment to the delusions of his youth, and he sometimes came close to admitting as much. But a serious thinker cannot allow his youthful enthusiasm to cloud his mature judgment. Having come to realize that Marx’s End of History was an illusion, Hobsbawm should have openly confessed that Marxism, as a philosophy of history, was bankrupt. It is not simply that Hobsbawm was wrong—a serious thinker can be forgiven that—but that he was intellectually incoherent, claiming to be a Marxist while simultaneously abandoning the cardinal doctrines of Marxism. This fatal incoherence was pointed out as early as 1994 by one of Hobsbawm’s most perceptive critics, the brilliant American historian Eugene Genovese, who died at the age of 82, only a few days before Hobsbawm. What made Genovese’s critique so powerful was that he, like Hobsbawm, had begun his life as a Marxist radical, but, unlike Hobsbawm, Genovese had the fortitude of character to accept the lessons of history, instead of evading them. Indeed, Genovese’s intellectual honesty forced him not only to renounce Marxism, but to abandon progressivism altogether, a move that ended in his full conversion both to conservatism and to the Roman Catholic Church—a fact that might explain why his death was not greeted by the same outpouring of adoration from the liberal media as the death of Eric Hobsbawm.
He notes that in praising Hosbawm, Genovese in his review favorably cited the works of Vilfredo Pareto, the 20th century social theorist whose work was always “anathema” to Marxists and whose belief in a “circulation of elites” that continue to rule the social order directly contradicts the entire Marxist paradigm. So if Hobsbawm secretly thought Pareto was right, as Genoevese believed, Harris concludes that Hobsbawm should have “had the courage to come out of his closet, to admit disillusionment with Marxism, and to recognize the folly behind the myth of inevitable human progress.”
Had he done that, however, Hobsbawm would not have had the continuing love of the Western Left which extended from Tony Blair of the center-left in Britain to Eric Foner of the Marxist Left in the United States. Indeed, he would have found himself isolated and scorned in polite academic and left-liberal circles, and been ignored or savagely attacked in the way Eugene Genovese was in his last years.