Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In Defence of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm
 Less than a day after his death, some right-wing commentators have dubbed Eric Hobsbawm the David Irving of the Left. This is a distortion of which Irving himself would be proud.
Unlike Irving, Hobsbawm was widely regarded as a great scholar by academics of all political hues, from Tony Judt to Niall Ferguson. More importantly, there is nothing to suggest that Hobsbawm deliberately falsified or suppressed historical evidence as Irving has done.

Bizarrely though, others have accused Hobsbawm of lying about his opposition to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The truth is that Hobsbawm was very ambivalent about the invasion: he initially supported it "with a heavy heart" and with the demand that Soviet troops should leave soon, but by December 1956, he had co-written and co-signed a historians' letter of protest against the invasion.

Much is now being made of the following infamous segment in Michael Ignatieff's 1994 BBC interview with Hobsbawm:
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: This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible...I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, 'Probably not.'


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. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. 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?


This is a cold utilitarian calculus, but as Chris Dillow rightly argues,
Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator, or who defend the use of A-bombs against Japan because they shortened the war are using the same calculus as Hobsbawm - weighing some lives against others' future well-being.
Indeed, many commentators (eg., Kevin Myers) have also argued that the Vietnam War and its tremendous human cost were justified in order to limit the spread of communism. Moreover, there are plenty of excuses being made for the British Empire despite its harsh repression of rebellions in Ireland, Iraq, Palestine and Kenya, not to mention the terrible famines that occurred on its watch in Ireland and in India. Thus, why should Eric Hobsbawm be vilified for such logic while everyone else gets a free pass?

In this regard, it must also be stated that, though a lifelong communist and a critical supporter of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm never denied the crimes of communism. In his study of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, he wrote,

[T]he number of direct and indirect victims [of Soviet communism] must be measured in eight rather than seven digits. In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a "conservative" estimate nearer to ten than to twenty million or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification.1

In the final analysis, I think Eric Hobsbawm was a good man, but like all of us, he was flawed as well. He clung to some sort of Platonic ideal of what communism should be rather than what it was in reality. Yet whatever his personal politics, Hobsbawm ought to be remembered for the quality of his scholarship and the impact he had on the study of history.

May he rest in peace.

1.Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, p.393

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