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.
Take this review of his works from historian Michael Burleigh. He describes his four "great" books on history as:
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".
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:
Observer columnist Nick Cohen says of his work:
He notes about how Hobsbawm defended Stalin's Pact with Hitler:
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.
Douglas Murray writes as if a Nazi sympathising equivalent had died.
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).
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.