Monday, October 01, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm does not deserve the praise he has received today

My Twitter feed today has been full of praise for Eric Hobsbawm, which (given the impeccably Sound people I follow) troubles me. I have not read enough enough of Hobwbawm's work to judge him as an historian, but I know enough about him to judge his politics. And they stink.

My introduction to Hobsbawm was through an exchange he had with Michael Ignatieff on television in 1994. I have often seen it quoted, but today Heresy Corner posted the whole of the relevant passage:
Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist? 
Hobsbawm: ...'Probably not.' 
Ignatieff: Why? 
Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing... The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure. 
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified? 
Hobsbawm: Yes.
But Hobsbawm's delinquency goes back long before that. As Ian Buruma wrote in 2002:
In his latest book, a memoir entitled Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, Hobsbawm tries to explain why. Why he fell in line, in 1939, when Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union; or during the show trials in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and even after 1956, year of the Hungarian uprising.
And an article in The Free Library from the Foundation for Cultural Review provides more of the background. In 1940, with Raymond Williams, Hobsbawm published a defence of the Soviet invasion of Finland. And on 9 November 1956 he had a letter published in Daily Worker defending the Soviet Soviet invasion of Hungary:
"While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible."
And the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968? Oliver Kamm covers that:
Moving to more recent panegyric, Hobsbawm remarks in On History (1997): “Fragile as the communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989.” He means the 27 Soviet divisions, 6,300 tanks and 400,000 troops sent into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to snuff out political reform.
I do not blame Hobsbawm for being part of the generation that he was. I can quite see how the Soviet Union might have seemed a bulwark against Nazism. (Equally, I have sympathy for those in the Baltic states who saw the Nazi Germany as their deliverance from Stalin's Russia.)

But to support Soviet Communism after 1956 and even 1968 was unforgivable. It was not intellectual consistency but a form of vanity - a refusal to admit that he had been wrong.

For that reason I cannot join the chorus of praise for Eric Hobsbawm.


Lorgy said...

I have to say, I disagree.

Fine, his politics stink. But I remember reading his work as an undergraduate - to me he is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, representative of an historical tradition. One of the important things we've learned in the last fifty years is that there is no one history, that history can be seen in many different ways. The Marxists, as some of the first to challenge the Whig school, were part of what made that possible.

Of course, almost no-one writes Marxist history any more, because the world has moved on - now we claim not to be ideological, though of course we are. Marxist history at least was honest about it (ditto Whig history).

So for me, Hobsbawm's death is like closing the chapter on a school of history, and while I wouldn't say I regret it, I'm glad that it existed - and for that, it's worth praising Hobsbawm, even if you don't agree with him.

Manfarang said...

The End of the Last Man of History?

callmemadam said...

Hear, hear!

Domingo BarĂ³n said...

A conversation between Eric Hobsbawm and Alexander Solzhenitsyn might have been interesting. It was from the Estonian lawyer Arnold Susi, with whom Solzhenitsyn shared a cattle truck on their way to the Gulag, that he began to understand how loathed the Soviet Empire was in the Baltic States. I imagine there are no Baltic historians with any regard for the late Mr Hobsbawm.