The death of Eric Hobsbawn in October, at a grand old age of 95, has shown the British Left in its worst light. Hobsbawn was a lifelong apologist for some of the most monstrous crimes in history. For this, the British Establishment welcomed him to its bosom. He was professor and then president at my alma mater of Birkbeck College at the University of London. Prime Minister Tony Blair consulted him and advised the Queen to make him a Companion of Honour in 1998. His death has produced the predictable deluge of tributes. Labour Party Member of Parliament Tristram Hunt wrote a particularly oleaginous piece for the London Daily Telegraph concluding Hobsbawn was “a great scholar and undaunted public intellectual”. Blair’s successor and the current leader of the Labour Party, Edward Miliband, mourned the loss of “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics, and a great friend of my family”.
There are many who argue that Hobsbawn was indeed an excellent historian. Others might disagree, believing that historians need to work at the coalface of the sources, mining information and refining it into new knowledge about the past. Ironically, for such a defender of the working class, Hobsbawn rarely went near a coalface, metaphorically or literally. He was a teacher (by all accounts, quite a good one) and a synthesiser (again, a good one).
Leaving aside his academic achievements, Hobsbawn should have been notorious as the last of Stalin’s foot soldiers. He joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and remained loyal even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, when several of his comrades left. While Khrushchev’s extinction of the Hungarian bid for freedom caused a crisis among British communists, they had been able to swallow Stalin’s purges and the Nazi/Soviet pact of 1939. Hobsbawn has a particularly malodorous record in this respect. He wrote a pamphlet with Raymond Williams defending Stalin’s alliance with the Nazis, thus destroying at a stroke the justification for their support of the Soviet Union as a bulwark against fascism. On the purges, Hobsbawn told the Canadian journalist (and later, politician) Michael Ignatieff in 1994 that they would have been a price worth paying for the Marxist workers’ paradise.
Eric Hobsbawn wasn’t the only Stalinist to rise high in the esteem of British academia and society. His fellow traveller, Christopher Hill, was another example. When he died in 2003, also in his 90s, encomiums filled the newspapers. In Hill’s case there is now little doubt about his significance as a historian. He was thoroughly second-rate. He did read the primary sources relating to his favoured period of seventeenth-century England but his reconstructions were so tendentious that historians of the period no longer take them seriously. My graduate research overlapped with Hill’s work on the subject of England’s universities, so I included a passage refuting his views in my PhD dissertation. My supervisor rebuked me for flogging a dead horse.
Whereas Hobsbawn thought Stalin’s murders might be justified, Hill simply denied they ever happened. In a television interview broadcast shortly before his death, he insisted that he’d been in Russia in the 1930s and had seen no evidence for the atrocities. And it’s true. He was there. Like many contemporaries on the Left, he enjoyed a carefully supervised tour of the Soviet Union’s wonderful achievements. When Stalin died in 1953, Hill announced “He was a very great and penetrating thinker. Humanity not only in Russia but in all countries will always be deeply in his debt.” The reward for his unwavering admiration for Uncle Joe was election as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.
How did these men remain fêted throughout their lives? In large part, a popular misapprehension about communism saved them from the opprobrium they deserved. Too many people still accept the good intentions of communists to make the world a better place, even if, in practice, it all went terribly wrong. This is a fundamentally flawed analysis. At its most basic level, communism must crush freedom. It is the forcible merger of the individual into the system. It is not a utopian system that went wrong, but the antithesis of much that is best about humanity. That the perpetrators of communism’s crimes thought they were acting for the greater good is no mitigation. In many ways, it made the situation worse. As CS Lewis observed, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive... those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Stalin didn’t take in everyone on the Left, especially once his crimes were manifest. George Orwell saw communism for what it was and, in Animal Farm and 1984, gave us dreadful illustrations of its true nature. A one-time comrade of Hill and Hobsbawn, EP Thompson, became a fierce critic of Stalin while remaining on the hard left. Today, writers like Nick Cohen and Martin Amis keep alive the tradition of leftwing liberalism. And the Labour Party itself, when in government, gave no quarter during the Cold War.
So let us hope that, with Hobsbawn’s passing, we will no longer have to endure sentimental fawning over men like him: Men who can praise a society which would have packed them off to Siberia with alacrity and where they surely would not have lived into their nineties.
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