Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Hobsbawm - influential yes, deserving veneration? Hardly

The death of Eric Hobsbawm at 95 has provoked outpourings of paeans to his legacy, glorifying his undoubted significant contribution to the scholarship of history and in being influential, especially to Labour politicians in the UK. He has many fans, it includes Labour leader Ed Miliband, former NZ leftwing Prime Minister Helen Clark and a virtual who's who of leftwing activists in the UK today.

It is right for those who knew him personally to commemorate him on that level, as a friend or family member.  However, he is also presented as being more than that, as a great historian, but also with a moral fibre that was impeccable. 

Almost universally he was described as gentle, Tony Blair said "He wrote history that was intellectually of the highest order but combined with a profound sense of compassion and justice. And he was a tireless agitator for a better world".


I am not going to dismiss claims he was a nice man in person, nor will I criticise his works, because I am not a scholar of history and I have not read them.  However, Hobsbawm has his own history, that lasted to his final years, of being an apologist for the most blood thirsty regimes of the 20th century.

He wasn't just a Marxist historian, he was a member of the British Communist Party until its dissolution and he turned his back on the mass murders, starvation and atrocities his comrades committed for the cause, even recently effectively claiming that the ends would justify the means.  

A synthetic quartet, from Age of Revolution to Age of Extremes, dazzles readers with the author’s apparent fluency as he zigzags from First to Third World contexts – unless you happen to be an expert on Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela.Throughout, there was a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Asked by the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff on television whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – not to mention the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm muttered in the affirmative.

Why is it that people who would, to a man or woman, claim they believe in compassion, even free speech and human rights, choose to have an enormous blind spot about a man who gave succour to those who created rivers of blood for the communist utopia?  

Imagine, for example, if he had embraced National Socialism, and had grudgingly accepted that the Holocaust would have been justified if a greater Europa run by Germany had been a happy, healthy, strong, fully employed economy of aryan people with order, wealth, equality and peace?  I can barely bring myself to write such nonsense, but he would have been vilified and ignored.  However, he embraced Stalin, he stuck with the Communist Party ever after the USSR crushed the revolutions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.  The various genuine claims about his compassion and character seem awfully cold when there is a calculated lack of passion about those crushed under the machine of "actually existing socialism".

I came across this when I asked Ben Pimlott if he regarded the atrocities of Soviets somehow less vile than those of the Nazis. He said he did but could not or would not offer an explanation. The explanation probably would have been something like: the Soviets were well-meaning, attempting to build a better world and the Nazis were simply evil. This is barely worthy of consideration. Both Stalin and Hitler appealed to better world ideologies built on absurd theories of history and both thought they were justified in killing millions and imposing suffering on a scale never before seen. Even if we give some moral credibility to communism, the character of Stalin is enough to detonate any notion that he was pursuing some great cause.

Cobden Centre fellow John Phelan says that he is no more worthy of acclaim than the pseudo-intellectual David Irving, which seems rather unfair, as Irving has spent his life denying reality explicitly, whereas Hobsbawm simply chose to be wilfully blind:

Time and again Eric Hobsbawm was faced with the full scale of the horror visited by the regime he supported and time and again he remained loyal. As he wrote in 2002“The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do . . . Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed . . . If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so”Hobsbawm pleaded for “historical understanding”; he isn’t hard to understand. He was a man who failed to see that the choice of one murderous regime over another was no choice at all, who lacked the humility to admit it, and who was possessed of an incredible ability to blind himself to realities, no matter how bloody, which didn’t fit his view of the world.

Observer columnist Nick Cohen says of his work:

If you need convincing, look at Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes The most brilliant analysis of the 20th century sits alongside the most abject apologias for tyranny. For all his contradictions, I’ll miss the better side of his intellect.
He notes about how Hobsbawm defended Stalin's Pact with Hitler:

I expect we will hear one excuse tomorrow that ought to have been buried with the Soviet Union: “communists excused Stalin because they were consumed by the laudable desire to fight fascism”. It is a half truth at best. The far left of the 1930s did indeed fight fascism. But in 1939 Stalin stood on his head and signed a pact with Hitler. For two years, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, western communists and their sympathisers stood on their heads too and became the Nazis’ de factoallies. I have always been fascinated by ‘the midnight of the century’, when far left and right united against the middle, because it echoes our own time when liberal leftists excuse and indulge the radical Islamist right. 

Quite.  Right now we see again and again, the willingness to gloss over someone who had a blindspot, if not quite a denier for the atrocities his comrades committed.

Hobsbawm seemed like an old man who could never face up to the fact that he backed the wrong horse, it saw men and women murder, starve and torture on a scale unheard of in history.   That lack of contrition, lack of strength of character to admit he was wrong, means his memory will forever be darkened.

He was one of those academics that universities, and the politicians and bureaucrats who they spawned, forgave, glossing over these inconvenient black spots in his beliefs, to embrace his thoughts and writings.

Like the umpteen leftwing writers, especially feminists, today who treat Islam and Islamists with kit gloves, because, to them, it represents an attack on capitalism, sexualisation of women and conservative Christianity, those who today praise him - who did not actually know the man - are guilty of the same moral blind spot.

It isn't being nasty or mean to question the legacy of a man who happily sat on the side of murderers, indeed it is morally vacuous to do anything but that.

Douglas Murray writes as if a Nazi sympathising equivalent had died.

More below

A comment on the Daily Telegraph wrote of Hobsbawm and his utopianism and his abject refusal to see the evidence that the results of his philosophical beliefs were misery and horror. I thought it was worthy of repeating:

That Hobsbawm has learned nothing from living in England and that he has failed to grasp the fact that ideologies dedicated to remaking man and transforming him into some gruesome socialist robot have failed, and were doomed to fail, is demonstrated by his admiration of the Communist Manifesto. There are only two types of person that can admire such a hideous manifesto: those who want to exercise power over all other people; and those who are willing to submit to such power provided that their material needs are met, slaves in other words, people born for the whip (but at least they know they are slaves and they enjoy the kiss of the whip). I assume that Hobsbawm sees himself as some kind of Marxist Grand Inquisitor ruling over the dumb proletariat and wielding his whip for their benefit in between sequestering the assets of the hated middle classes and so reducing them to servitude and penury. It goes without saying that no serious Marxist could or would ever derive any envious pleasure from expropriating and defiling the hated expropriators. It is done out of a sense of duty to History (really). 

Some 36 minutes into an interview with Hobsbawm (Life in History, BBC Radio 4, repeated tonight) and I have still not picked up any mention of Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot or any reference to the genocide carried out by communist regimes in the 20th century. Finally, in the 45th minute, we reach the question for which I had been waiting. Hobsbawm is asked why he stayed in the Communist Party. Ever solicitous and unctuous, Schama and the programme editor avoid posing any awkward questions by the expedient of citing part of an earlier interview with Sue Lawley on 5th March 1995 (I am sure it is pure coincidence but Stalin died on 5th March 1953). When asked about mass murder in the Soviet Union by Lawley, Hobsbawm says that he did not know; he says he did not believe the details, perhaps, he says, he did not want to believe them (so much for evidence then and the reliability of Marxist historians). 

He says: ‘We did not know the extent of it’ [communist mass murder]. Lawley then asks whether such was his dedication to the dream of communism that any kind of sacrifice was worth the price:

Hobsbawm: “Yes, I think so”

Lawley: “Even the sacrifice of millions of lives?”

Hobsbawm: “Well that’s what we felt we had fought WWII for, didn’t we?”

Lawley: “Is there a difference between killing someone in war and killing your own?”

Hobsbawm: “We didn’t know that”

.As Hobsbawm says ‘We didn’t know that’ you can detect the utter fear and panic in his voice. This is the question he has known would come and has dreaded. Hobsbawm clumsily dodges the question and Lawley lacks the killer instinct to press the point of the knife to his throat. No listener can be convinced by Hobsbawm’s repulsive denial. There is, of course, a universe of difference between killing the enemy in war for survival and butchering millions of kulaks, so-called class enemies in the 1930s (circa 11,000,000) in order to build socialism. The fact that Hobsbawm claims not to see any difference between communist class war and a national fight for survival denigrates the struggle that Britain waged against Nazi Germany. According to Hobsbawm’s perverted view there is no difference between British soldiers killing German soldiers and Communist Party activists murdering millions of unarmed and innocent peasants in Ukraine by shooting and mass starvation.When Hobsbawm says ‘We didn’t know that’, one has to ask when he did finally know THAT, that being the real nature of the totalitarian Soviet Union and its imitators. Why did Lenin create the most brutal and long-lasting system of censorship in the twentieth century? What was Hobsbawm’s reaction to the news of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact)? What did he make of the publication of Doktor Zhivago? Why did the Red Army invade and rape Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and threaten to invade Poland in 1981? What did he make of Solzhenitsyn, the Truth Teller? Why did the Soviet state kill and imprison writers? Why did the KGB arrest the manuscript of Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate? Why did Stalin judicially murder some of his most talented army commanders at the moment when the threat posed by National-Socialist Germany was all too clear? How does Hobsbawm explain and justify Order № 00447? 

 When did he realise that the massacre of 21,857 Polish prisoners at Katyn and other sites in 1940 was a Soviet crime not a Nazi one? When did he finally accept that the full scale of the Ukrainian genocide, the Holodomor, with its 6,000,000 dead from genocide by starvation and another 5,000,000 dead from cold, disease and shooting? Does Hobsbawm even accept that the Holodomor took place? Hobsbawm says that his continuing membership of the Communist Party is a Cold War question and is irrelevant. This is a self-serving, cowardly evasion and Hobsbawm knows it. If a 95 year old former member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was asked about his continuing loyalty to National Socialism would Hobsbawm be satisfied with an answer along the lines that ‘this is a WWII question and is irrelevant’? Thousands of questions that historians ask about the Soviet regime are Cold War questions: are they irrelevant as well? Recall Hobsbawm’s views on chronology: ‘without chronology there can be no history’. That is true of an individual as well and in a BBC programme dedicated to a ‘life in history’, questions about Hobsbawm’s membership of the most genocidal political institution in man’s history are utterly relevant. 

There is another Cold War question that requires an answer: was Hobsbawm ever recruited by any Eastern European intelligence agency, say, the KGB or Stasi, with the aim of spying on academics and students known to be hostile to socialism? Hobsbawm could remove all doubt and speculation by stating unequivocally that he was not recruited by any Soviet bloc intelligence agency and that he never provided any information to any intelligence agency. Hobsbawm should also ask himself whether an academic, let us say the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, who remained a committed National Socialist until his death in 1976, would have found employment in a British university. Hobsbawm’s continuing belief in Marxism in 2012 reflects a state of mind that, despite all the earlier, reasonable talk about evidence and reason, is one that is demonstrably impervious to evidence and reason: the hallmark of the true revolutionary-believer slave.Hobsbawm’s position on Soviet genocide is nauseating and hypocritical even by the standards of British academics that played down Stalin’s crimes. 

Why does Schama not press the case about genocide committed in the name of communism to the point of destruction? In fact, a more aggressive and less easily deflected interviewer than Lawley could easily have brought about Hobsbawm’s psychological collapse on air. Hobsbawm sounded very close to breaking: he knows that Marxism is repulsive and he knows that for all his adopting the pose of the learned academic that his support of Marxism and his failure to acknowledge the full scope of communism’s hideous crimes against humanity, far worse than anything committed by the Nazis, is disgusting, cowardly and immoral. There is no difference between the person that denies National-Socialist crimes against Jews, the Holocaust, and communist propagandists like Hobsbawm who deny the Holodomor and other crimes committed by communist regimes. Schama’s role here is also disgraceful and shameful since by failing to ask and to press home the forensic questions that should have been pressed home he allows Hobsbawm’s prevarication and mendacity to pass unchallenged.


Mark Hubbard said...

Another great post Scott. I love your Euro-centric posts because my knowledge is so parochial to NZ.

Richard McGrath said...

Thanks for posting that, Scott. I wasn't aware of the extent of the mass murder in Ukraine. Looks like Hobsbawm had dug himself into such a deep hole he could never have got himself out.

Scott said...

Hi LS,

it's worth finding out more about Hobsbawm's political trajectory before treating Tony Blair's tribute to him as representative of the views of the left, or indeed of anyone except Tony Blair. Although Hobsbawm was a member of the CPGB til it folded in 1991, he was estranged from the party leadership after 1956 and had become a eurocommunist by the '60s. In the '70s and '80s he moved further to the right and was instrumental in laying the foundations for Blairism. The CPGB itself had moved a long way to the right by the '80s, and had become a social democratic organisation. Blair was paying tribute to an old mentor.

In my experience, most of the left - the left that is left of Tony Blair, anyway! - has been critical of Hobsbawm's politics. His softness of Stalinism has been explored at length by all sorts of commentators, and his proto-Blairite writings in the late '70s and '80s made him hugely controversial.

Hobsbawm as an historian has been much more respected than Hobsbawm as a political theorist. It may not be obvious, but the bestselling broad-ranging histories of the modern world he's most famous for now are not the basis of his reputation amongst other scholars. He's revered, instead, for his studies of nineteenth and early twentieth century English history. The Soviet Union and related controversies really doesn't come into stuff like that.

Although I do think Hobsbawm had a reluctance to think through some of the positions he adopted as a young member of the CPGB in the 1930s and '40s, and I think this reluctance has a bad effect on his histories of the modern world - for instance, his discussion of the revolution in Catalonia in 1936-37, a revolution which, as George Orwell showed, was suppressed by Stalinists, is very unfair - he repeatedly refers to the crimes of Stalin in his work after '56. You won't find him denying the existence of gulags and purges.

I thought Hobsbawm was trying in that 1994 interview was to present the viewpoint of his younger self, rather than the views he held at the time. To understand why he was a commie we have to revisit the 1930s. A huge number of Jewish refugees from Hitler became communists, because the Soviet Union seemed, up until the Pact of late 1939 at least, to be the only force opposing fascism in Europe.

But I think that Hobsbawm will live on not as a political thinker but as a historian. I recommend his book Labouring Men, which includes some remarkable essays on subjects like the relationship between Chartism and the new creed of Methodism in nineteenth century England.