Hobsbawm is generally considered to be Britiain’s greatest ‘Marxist’ historian (though cases could be made for Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson – never mind Dorothy Thompson), but I must confess to mixed feelings about him.
On the plus side is the sheer erudition and elegance of books like The Age of Extremes, his dogged, non-careerist, life-long commitment to what he regards as the “left” in politics, and his insistence that Marxism must retain its roots in the enlightenment values of the late eighteenth century (an unfashionable view in this era of identity politics).
On the minus side is his persistent lack of identification with the working class (indeed, he now seems to say that it no longer exists), his “reality denial” (Robert Conquest’s term) over the Soviet Union, his shameful and evasive record over Hungary in 1956 (the Soviet invasion led Hill and Thompson to resign from the CP while Hobsbawm remained) and his persistent refusal to come to terms with Stalinism itself. The fact that he was – and remains – a person of towering intellect makes these shortcomings less, not more, forgivable. While working class Communist Party members could be forgiven for not knowing about, or believing the truth of, the full counter-revolutionary barbarity of Stalinism, an intellectual like Hobsbawm has no such excuse. As David Caute put it “One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn’t you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn’t you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the gulag? As Orwell himself documented, a great deal of evidence was reliably knowable even before 1939, but Hobsbawm pleads that much of it was not reliably knowable until Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956.”
Very reluctantly, I tend to come down against Hobsbawm. I think my mind was made up when I read Interesting Times when it came out in paperback a few years ago. I’d been looking forward to reading what this great historian and critical Eurocommunist would have to say about what was probably the single most despicable and shameful episode in the history of the Comintern: the Stalin-Hitler pact. Here’s what he wrote (in its totality, in that particular book) on the subject:
“[S]ince the line-change of the autumn of 1939, it was not the war we had expected. in the cause for which the Party had prepared us. Moscow reversed the line which the Comintern and all European Parties has pursued since 1935 and had continued to pursue after the outbreak of war, until the message from Moscow came through. Harry Pollitt’s refusal to to accept the change demonstrated that the leadership of the British Party was openly split on the issue. Moreover, the line that the war had ceased to be anti-fascist in any sense, and that Britain and France were as bad as Nazi Germany, made neither emotional nor intellectual sense. We accepted the new line, of course. Was it not the essence of ‘democratic centralism’ to stop arguing once a decision had been reached, whether or not you were personally in agreement? And the highest decision had obviously been taken. Unlike the crisis of 1956 (see chapter 12) most Party members – even the student intellectuals – seemed unshaken by the Moscow decision, though several drifted out in the next two years. I am unable to remeember or to reconstruct what I thought at the time, but a diary I kept for the first few months of my army service in 1940 makes it clear that I had no reservations about the new line. Fortunately the phoney war, the behaviour of the French government, which immediately banned the Communist Party, the behaviour of both French and British governments after the outbreak of the Soviets’ winter war against Finland made it a lot easier for us to swallow the line that the western powers as imperialists were, if anything, more interested in defeating communism than in fighting Hitler. I remember arguing this point on the lawn in the Provost’s garden at King’s [college of Cambridge University - JD] with a sympathetic sceptic, the mathematical economist David Champernowie. After all, while all seemed quiet, if not somnolent, on the western frront, the only plans of the British government for action envisaged sending westyern troops across Scandinavia to help the Finns. Indeed one of the comrades, the enthusiastic public school boy and boxing half-blue J.O.N. (‘Mouse’) Vickers – he actually looked more like a large weasel than a mouse, thin, quick and mobile – was due to be sent there with his unit when the Russo-Finnish war ended. For communist intellectuals Finland was a lifeline. I wrote a pamphlet on the subject at the time with Raymond Williams, the future writer, critic and guru of the left, then a new, militant and obviously high-flying recruit to the student Party. Alas, it has been lost in the course of the alarums and excursions of the century. I have been unable to rediscover a copy. And then, in February 1940, I was at last called up.”
So, we know what Hobsbawm thought about the Stalin-Hitler pact at the time; we know what he thought about the Russo-Finnish war; we know about his Cambridge student comrades and the lost pamphlet written with Raymond Williams: but what we don’t know, because we’re not told, is what Hobsbawm thinks now (or at least in 2002) about the pact. This evasion is, ultimately, inexcusable.
I will listen to tonight’s interview with very great interest. If you listen as well, feel free to let Shiraz know what you think.