One wouldn't know it from "How to Change the World," but Mr. Hobsbawm wasn't always convinced that the Soviet Union, along with its puppets and imitators, was misunderstanding the essence of Marxism. He never relinquished his membership in the Communist Party, even after Moscow's invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, he began his writing career with a co-authored pamphlet defending the indefensible Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. "To this day," he writes in his memoirs, "I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness." There was some ugliness in the socialist states occupied by Moscow, he admitted in 2002, but "leaving aside the victims of the Berlin Wall," East Germany was a pleasant place to live. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?It is little short of astonishing that Professor Hobsbawm should actually say that "real" Marxism was not practised in those self-described Communist countries. Undoubtedly, back in the old days he would have attacked anyone who suggested such a heresy about Stalinism, Maoism, what have you.
In a now infamous 1994 interview with journalist Michael Ignatieff, the historian was asked if the murder of "15, 20 million people might have been justified" in establishing a Marxist paradise. "Yes," Mr. Hobsbawm replied. Asked the same question the following year, he reiterated his support for the "sacrifice of millions of lives" in pursuit of a vague egalitarianism. That such comments caused surprise is itself surprising; Mr. Hobsbawm's lifelong commitment to the Party testified to his approval of the Soviet experience, whatever its crimes. It's not that he didn't know what was going on in the dank basements of the Lubyanka and on the frozen steppes of Siberia. It's that he didn't much care.
Readers of "How to Change the World" will be treated to explications of synarchism, a dozen mentions of the Russian Narodniks, and countless digressions on justly forgotten Marxist thinkers and politicians. But there is remarkably little discussion of the way communist regimes actually governed. There is virtually nothing on the vast Soviet concentration-camp system, unless one counts a complaint that "Marx was typecast as the inspirer of terror and gulag, and communists as essentially defenders of, if not participators in, terror and the KGB." Also missing is any mention of the more than 40 million Chinese murdered in Mao's Great Leap Forward or the almost two million Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
When the bloody history of 20th-century communism intrudes upon Mr. Hobsbawm's disquisitions, it's quickly dismissed. Of the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II—"the Second World War," he says with characteristic slipperiness, "led communist parties to power" in Eastern and Central Europe—he explains that a "possible critique of the new [postwar] socialist regimes does not concern us here." Why did communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder? "To answer this question is not part of the present chapter."
When I reviewed The Age of Extremes in the Salisbury Review [the article is not on line] I pointed out a couple of interesting historical comments. Professor Hobsbawm with a completely straight face could say, among other things, that it was not entirely comprehensible but very sad that agricultural failure and, indeed, famine happened wherever collectivization was practised. This meant, in his opinion, that one cannot really judge how effective, economically and socially, such a theoretically wonderful idea could be.
He was also coy on the subject of the Warsaw uprising, saying quite fairly that most urban uprisings in Europe towards the end of the war were successful, with the Allies racing to help those who were fighting the Nazis. The one exception was in Warsaw and, Professor Hobsbawm speculated, that must have been because it took place prematurely. So it failed and was put down with some ferocity. No mention here of the well known fact that, unlike the British and the Americans, the Soviets decided not to race to help the Poles but stopped and watched the fun, refusing to allow even Western aid. After all, their aim was to impose their own government on Poland not let the Poles be involved in liberating themselves.
There are many other points of this kind that one could quote from Professor Hobsbawm's work. What is so shocking is the fact that he is described by the media and the academia (on all sides of the political spectrum) as one of our greatest modern historians. Would this be said about an historian who told lies about some other totalitarian system, for instance Nazism? We know the answer to that. David Irving is worse than a pariah in the intellectual world.
I have written on this subject before, in 2006, mentioning such matters as the Danish cartoons (as the blog was about freedom of speech) and David Irving's imprisonment in Austria for Holocaust denial. Who, I asked, should be denied their rights to say bad things, lying things, wicked things about historical events?
What of those many left-wing groups that still proclaim the need for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of the working class by violence if necessary? Should they all be arrested?And yet, as Michael Moynihan points out:
Well, of course not. But what of the historians who have been peddling lies about the Soviet Union, denying the horrors of Communism and generally abusing freedom of speech? What of Professor Eric Hobsbawm CH, given that honour by Tony Blair?
Throughout his long and distinguished career Professor Hobsbawm belonged to the CPGB (as long as there was a CPGB to belong to) and refused to acknowledge the Joseph Stalin was not the nicest possible man around, who occasionally got a little bit angry but what can you expect when you have the welfare of the world at heart.
Even in recent books Professor Hobsbawm implicitly denied the extent of Stalin’s and Mao’s mass murders, and was all coy about the victims of collectivization imposed by every single Communist tyrant from Uncle Joe to Colonel Mengistu. Far from being disdained, let alone arrested and imprisoned, the good professor is highly feted (Companion of Honour, no less) and his books are required reading by all university students of history.
All this, despite the fact that every single thing the Austrian judge or the British one in the Irving libel case of 2000 said about that wretched man can be said about Professor Hobsbawm (and numerous other, less eminent historians) with a few adjustments: instead of Nazism, Communism; instead of the Holocaust, the purges and collectivization; instead of mass murder, mass murder.
In 2003, the New York Times declared Eric Hobsbawm "one of the great British historians of his age, an unapologetic Communist and a polymath whose erudite, elegantly written histories are still widely read in schools here and abroad." The Spectator, a right-leaning British magazine, gushed that Hobsbawm is "arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain's, but the world's." The Nation anointed him "one of Aristotle's 'men of virtue.' "One can exonerate the Queen - she was given his name by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and presumably asked no more. Though, it is possible, that Her Majesty has her own views on people who support vile, murderous regimes and corrupt the teaching of history. But what on earth was the Spectator thinking of by publishing that kind of nauseating comment?
That the 94-year-old Mr. Hobsbawm has long championed dictatorial regimes hasn't diminished his standing among the intelligentsia or within the establishment he so obviously loathes. In 1998, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon him a Companion of Honour—"In action faithful and in honour clear."
As it happens, Professor Hobsbawm was one of the first people my family visited on our arrival to England, he having been our guest at various times in Hungary (naturally, he was a much honoured visitor to the East European countries, though, as we know now, they were not really practising Marxism). For a while my father and he kept in touch and in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Professor Hobsbawm refers to this friendship in a slightly disdainful way, suggesting that my father "had claimed" to have been arrested in the Soviet Union. No doubt, the great man thought that all stories of such arrests were merely "claims" that could not be substantiated, perhaps not even now with the publication of many of the Soviet secret police archives. Or maybe it is the publication of that material that made him deny the Soviet Union "real Marxist" status.
My father once asked him whether he and his friends and colleagues knew what was going on in the Soviet Union. The answer was unequivocal. Of course they knew, said Professor Hobsbawm, but they did not want to know. Since then, as we know, he has accepted the knowledge and has decided that all those sacrifices would have been well worth it if the socialist utopia had been established.