ERIC HOBSBAWM, 1917-2012: REQUIESCANT IN PACE?
"One of the most impassioned pieces he did for a paper I edited was a defence of civil service practice as constituted by the Trevelyan reforms of the Victorian period. He can’t have relished the blackguarding of the civil service which Labour leaders like Harold Wilson and Tony Blair thought it wise to go in for. He was as decent as he was dialectical, and this intervention was a clue to his kindly English patriotism. But it was not the only sort of patriot he was. He was and remained a patriot of the Left, as doesn’t need saying. When Stalin fell from grace and the Soviet Union from sovereignty, he explained why he did not quit the Communist Party somewhere along that line. He did not leave because the party had once been his family, during the hard, wandering times he and his real family had endured from his birth in the throes of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. He worked hard for the British party and was eventually close to its summit, while also an antagonist of the Stalinist rearguard that held on after the Second World War. It was startling to see him quoted recently as saying that some Sappers he was with during the war had caused him to feel that the British working class ‘were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people’. He could be synoptically sharp with persons and categories of person, but no one who saw much of him can have doubted his feeling for working-class folk and for the sufferings of poverty. One of the most dismal prejudices to be encountered in Anglo-America has been its worsening failure to imagine how decent people could choose to be communists in the 1930s".Karl Miller, "Eric Hobsbawm". The London Review of Books. 25 October 2012, in www.lrb.co.uk.
Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at the age of 95, was a historian of the 19th and 20th centuries. In a long life he achieved global renown and excited wide controversy. His three Ages – The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962); The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (1975) and The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987) – were masterpieces of political, social and, to a lesser degree, economic history in their ability to forge historical narrative and give it life....Hobsbawm hated nationalism in most of its forms: one of his most-read books – and one whose name has become a common phrase – is The Invention of Tradition (1983: editor, with Terence Ranger), which includes a sharp essay by Hugh Trevor-Roper on the English origin of the modern kilt. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for much of his adult life, leaving it a little before the party itself left the stage in 1991. There is no question that allegiance to the party and the world communist movement deeply influenced his historical writing; in his fourth Age – The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1995) he was famously reticent or evasive or curt about the vast crimes of Stalinism. Hobsbawm would explain to interviewers, and in his writing, that “he had made his choice” and the global threat of Nazism, uniting Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives, was the primary struggle, one to which consideration of Stalin’s massacres before and during the war had to defer, “the chance of a new world being born amid great suffering would still have been worth backing”. At the same time, he was a strong supporter of the reformist communism of Mikhail Gorbachev, and was critical both of Boris Yeltsin, who was later to become Russian president, and the leaders of the various republics for destabilising them by appealing to ethnic nationalism, once thought long buried. Hobsbawm saw the strife which was unleashed by the end of the USSR – especially in the Caucasus – as underpinning his objections".John Lloyd. "Historian who inspired wide controversy." The Financial Times. 1st October 2012, in www.ft.com. I was not a student of Eric Hobsbawm, nor did I know personally anyone who was. I did hear some amusing tales of his intellectually 'slumming' exercise in teaching as a lecturer in the New School for Social Research in the very early 1990's. I did read and was impressed by a collection of essays that came out in the 1970's, titled 'Revolutionaries'. Where Hobsbawm's caustic and laser-like wit, sarcasm and intelligence were on full display. I was also impressed, like many others by the essay collection that he co-edited with Terence Ranger. The four-volume opus dealing with world history from 1789 to 1989, while cogent enough and in parts enjoyable, was not as impressive to my eyes as least. With many of his obiter dicta reflecting a not very well concealed Marxist-Leninist based intellectual superiority. A superiority which in some instances, appears in retrospect rather threadbare if not slightly ridiculous. In short, Hobsbawm's reputation as a historian, will no doubt stand-up or not in ten to twenty years time, in not so different a fashion that his confreres in academic Marxism in the historical profession: Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson and Victor Kiernan, have experienced. So far the collective stock of all three, it can safely be said is rather down, by a quarter if not more...Where however I wish to make a longer comment, is on the fraught issue of Hobsbawm's almost life-long membership of the British Communist Party (BCP). As both the obituaries in the Financial Times and the London Review of Books show, this aspect of Hobsbawm life has drawn a good deal of attention. And to my mind correctly so! Now of course there are two ways of trying to explain away Hobsbawm's, nearly life-long commitment to Communism: i) it was something which reflected the 'choices' available in the 1930's with the rise of Fascism; ii) that Hobsbawm 'choice' was something which was not so much reasoned but emotional in nature and that one cannot gainsay it, any more than one can gainsay being a member of a particular family. The first argument was made by John Lloyd, the second by Karl Miller. Both arguments are, once one has given each a moments thought, nonsensical and idiotic. Simply put, the first argument's flaw is the fact that Hobsbawm unlike his confreres in Marxist historiography remained a member in good standing of the Communist Party after both the denunciation of Stalin in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev and the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in the same year. All three of Hobsbawm's ex-colleagues in the BCP, decided in the aftermath of the events of 1956 to hand in their party cards. Hobsbawm did not....The second argument made by Karl Miller, is of course infinitely more odious of the two. One response to it would simply be that if one's family is responsible for the mass murder of innocent women and children, then perhaps one should renounce one's membership in said family. However, I would like to end on a considerably more nuanced and eloquent comment by none other than the late, great Leszek Kolakowski in a splendid dialogue with none other than Edward Thompson circa 1973:
"You and I were both active in our respective Communist Parties in the 40's and 50's, which means that, whatever our noble intentions and our charming ignorance (or refusal to get rid of ignorance) were, we supported within our modest means, a regime based upon mass slave labor and police terror of the worst kind in human history. Do you think that there are many people who could refuse to sit at the same table with us on these grounds? No, you are innocent, while I do not feel, as you put it, the 'sense of the politics of those years' when so many Western intellectuals were converted to Stalinism....You seem to imply the existence of a 'Marxist family' defined by spiritual descendence from Marx and to invite me to join it. Do you mean that all people who in one way or another call themselves Marxist form a family (never mind that they have been killing each other for half a century and still are) opposed as such to the rest of the world? And that this family is for you (and ought to be for me), a place of identification? If this is what you mean, I cannot even say that I refuse to join this family; it simply does not exist 1."1. Leszek Kolakowski. "My Correct Views on Everything." in My Correct Views on Everything. Edited Zbigniew Janowski. (2005), pp. 7,20.