Born (Alexandria, Egypt) 9 June 1917; died (London) 1 October 2012
The great historian and political commentator Eric Hobsbawm died earlier today, aged 95. Like many others, I have highly ambivalent feelings about him: on the one hand an undoubtably fine historian and a man of sincerely held leftist views; but on the other, an apparently uncritical Stalinist at least until the late 1970’s after which he became a “Euro-Communist” and gave intellectual justification to Neil Kinnock and the forces that were dragging Labour to the right. He genuinely hated Blair and what became New Labour, but lamentably failed to account for his own role in the process, just as he never properly accounted for his own Stalinist apologetics
I shall be returning to the subject very soon, and offering some further thoughts on this extraordinary and important figure. I may even devote some space to his jazz criticism (he wrote about it as ‘Francis Newton,’ a name that referenced Frankie Newton, a fine, neglected black American trumpet player who was a member or fellow-traveller of the US Communist Party).
For now, it seems appropriate to simply quote the (in places strange and surprising) concluding words of his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times:
The test of a historian’s life is whether he or she can ask and answer questions, especially ‘what if’ questions, about the matters of passionate significance to themselves and the world, as though they were journalists reporting things long past — and yet, not as a stranger but as one deeply involved. These are not questions about real history, which is not about what we might like, but about what happened, and could perhaps have happened otherwise but did not. They are the questions about the present not the past, which is why they are important to those who live at the start of the new century, old or young. The First World War was not avoided, so the question whether it could have been is academic. If we say its casualties were intolerable (as most people agree) or that the German Europe that would have emerged from the Kaiser’s victory might have been a better proposition than the world of Versailles (as I hold), I am not suggesting it could have been different. And yet, I must fail the test, were I asked such a question even in theory about the Second World War. I can, with enormous effort, envisage the argument that Spain might have been better off if Franco’s coup had succeeded in 1936, avoiding the Civil War. I am prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea nor — this time without difficulty, for I was never a Zionist — Theodor Herzl’s project of a Jewish state. He would have done better to stay with the Neue Freie Presse as its star columnist. But if you ask me to entertain the proposition that the defeat of National Socialism was not worth the 50 million dead and the uncounted horrors of the Second World War, I simply could not. I look forward to an American world empire, whose long-term chances are poor, with more fear and less enthusiasm than I look back on the record of the old British Empire, run by a country whose modest size protected it against megalomania. What marks have I got in the test? If they are too low, then this book will not give readers much help as they go into the new century, mostly with a longer life ahead of them than the author.
Still, let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.