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.”
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.
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.
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.
So I must agree with Harris’s closing remarks, that what Hobsbawm’s long life shows is that “even men of great intelligence and vast erudition can deceive themselves into believing that crimes of the most unimaginable horror are a small price to pay for the fulfillment of their no doubt deeply humanitarian dreams.”
So let me end with citationa from two of Hobsbawm’s most severe critics. In Britain, the literary scholar A.N. Wilson suggested that not only was he a liar and a fool, but he might even have been a traitor as well. Because Wilson’s suggestion departed so greatly from the general honors given to Hobsbawm after his death, it is worth quoting from at length:
But as far as the history of the 20th century was concerned, he never learned its lessons. The tens of millions dead, the hundreds of millions enslaved, the sheer evil falsity of the ideology which bore down with such horror on the peoples of Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany, never occurred to this man.
He went on believing that a few mistakes had been made, and that Stalinism was 'disillusioning' - but that, in general, it would have been wonderful if Stalin had succeeded.
Any barmy old fool is, thank goodness, entitled to their point of view in our country. Unlike Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, Britain is a country where you can more or less say or think what you like.
What is disgraceful about the life of Hobsbawm is not so much that he believed this poisonous codswallop, and propagated it in his lousy books, but that such a huge swathe of our country’s intelligentsia - the supposedly respectable media and chattering classes - bowed down before him and made him their guru. Made him our ‘greatest historian’….The truth is that, far from being a great historian who sometimes made mistakes, Hobsbawm deliberately falsified history.”
Read the entire article to find out the specifics of what Wilson terms were Hobsbawm’s blatant “lies.”
Wilson also raises the question of whether or not, when he was at Cambridge in the 1930s with Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and Anthony Blunt, Hobsbawm too was a Soviet agent. Hobsbawm tried unsuccessfully to gain access to MI-5 files held on him, so he could find out who “snitched” on him. Why, Wilson asks, did Hobsbawm use that term, rather than simply attack the spy agency for even having a file on him? The term “snitched,” he thinks, may imply that Hobsbawm may have been a bit more than a simple Marxist academic in those years. So here is Wilson’s scathing conclusion about Hobsbawm:
Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace. His books will not be read in the future. They are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.
What his death tells us, however, is that the liberal establishment that really runs this country has learned no lessons from history. It is still prepared to bow down and worship a man who openly hated Britain - and who knowingly wrote lies.
In our own country, writing in National Review, David Pryce-Jones writes his own chilling article about Hobsbawm. Calling him “The Tyrant’s Historian,” Pryce-Jones writes that “the enigma remains that a man with such an inhuman and mendacious record had an international reputation as a historian, garlanded with honorary degrees and awards.” Like Niall Ferguson, Pryce-Jones also knew Hobsbawm, and indeed was a neighbor of his at his country house in Wales.
But unlike Ferguson, Pryce-Jones was not amused at his conversations. Once, at a dinner with the British ambassador, Hobsbawm said in his presence that “a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill 5 million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later. The last person who had reduced genocide to mathematics was Joseph Goebbels, I replied, whereupon Hobsbawm got up from the meal and left the house.”
Hobsbawm, he notes, grew up among all those who became Soviet spies. Like them, he writes,“Hobsbawm was doing whatever he could to make sure that less fortunate people would not have the privileges and freedom he himself enjoyed." Pryce-Jones also considers Hobsbawm to have been a liar, but one “who was in the habit of lying by omission. Absent from his account of the present age are the enforced famines that killed millions in the Soviet Union, and the Gulag system of slave labor that killed millions more and drove desperate victims to revolt. There is no mention of Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police — ‘our Himmler,’ as the grateful Stalin described him. No mention of the ruthless elimination of Communists who hadn’t kept up with the current Party line or of democrats who found themselves in the Party’s way. No mention of the massacre at Katyn of thousands of Poles.” Omission, indeed.
Pryce-Jones ends by noting all the British establishment press and media that lauded him after his death. What he does not explain is why they did this. The London Times ran its two-page obituary under this headline: “Magisterial historian of the modern age whose nuanced Marxist views helped to reshape the political Left in Britain and beyond.” Again, note that word: “nuanced.” And note the lack of letting readers know the way in which Hobsbawm despised regular people, and heaped scorn upon them personally.
Pryce-Jones thinks that the reception and honors given him have taken place because communist ideology has seeped down to the intellectuals and journalists, and hence they think like he did, and that “decades of falsehoods and manipulation have deadened the moral sensibility even of intelligent people.” That may be true, but I do not think it is a sufficient explanation.
The reason liberals and center-left figures like Tony Blair and Ed Miliband and others have praised him goes beyond that. It is simply that they see Hobsbawm, despite his overt Stalinism, as one of them -- a man of the Left. To break with him or to heap scorn upon him as A.N. Wilson (a Tory intellectual) did, is to demean themselves. They may have personally not been willing to break an egg to make an omelet, but they have respect for those who were willing to do just that, because their goal was the same -- to reach the utopian classless society in which all conflict would come to an end.
To condemn Hobsbawm, they feel, would be to condemn themselves. Unlike Eugene D. Genovese, who realized that the goal itself was a false one, they hold true to the struggle and the end result. Scorn and critique are reserved for only the anti-communists, those brave enough to reject the path to which Eric Hobsbawm stayed true.