Eric Hobsbawm: a talented historian who outshone his Marxist ideology
Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, died this morning, aged 95. I’ve written critically in the past about Hobsbawm’s politics and their influence on his writings about the 20th century. In the last conversation I had with Christopher Hitchens, we touched on the issue. Hitch was scathing that Hobsbawm’s eventual parting from Communism was due to a simple failure, at the end of the catastrophic history of the USSR, to renew his subscription.
It was an extraordinary failure of imagination that caused Hobsbawm to write, with Raymond Williams, a notorious Cambridge pamphlet supporting the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40. As Williams later recalled (in Politics and Letters, 1981, p.43), without shame: “We were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words.”
Hobsbawm was a young man at the outbreak of the Second World War, but as far as I know he never expressed contrition for this act of intellectual prostitution in the service of totalitarianism. (In his memoirs, by the way, Hobsbawm claims that the pamphlet has been lost. It hasn’t: I have a copy.)
I mention this, because you can’t understand Hobsbawm without grasping his commitment to what came to be known as Eurocommunism – an adherence to Marxist theory allied with an acceptance of Western parliamentary democracy. And Eurocommunism, despite its ideological compromises, was deeply implicated in associating with Soviet Communism.
Hobsbawm was also an outstanding historian – and you can’t understand him, either, without having read his three-volume account of England in the 19th century. He was a superb economic historian who, in spite of his Marxism, never underestimated the role of the individual in historical change (as assessed in his book Primitive Rebels, among others). On my only meeting with him, I found him a man of deep intellect, humility and charm. It was one of the ironies of his generation that ideology could seize some of its most talented figures. The talent, in Hobsbawm’s case, superseded it, even so.