Hobsbawm on Radio 4 tonight

April 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm (BBC, history, Jim D, Marxism, stalinism, terror, war, wireless)

Eric Hobsbawm

BBC Radio 4 once again justifies the licence fee with what should be a fascinating programme at 8.00 pm tonight: Simon Schama interviews Eric Hobsbawm.

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.

iPlayer here.


  1. Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

    Hobsbawm is close to perfect as a popular Marxist historian. Readable and intellectual. Of course, cuntsl just want historians that write about the private lives of monarchs and trumpet about how great Churchill the criminal was.

    Nobody should condemn a great historian – perhaps the greatest of his generation – because he wrote something stupid seventy years ago. Hobsbawm occassionaly made mistooks – everybody does, after all – but his work remains monumental.

    you know when something is such utter shit that even Oliver Kamm sides (partially anyway) with Hobsbawm. Which is what he did with the truly dire spewings of one Geoffrey Levy (who he?). Funnily enough, it also looks like Levy plagarised one of Kamm’s attacks on Hobsbawm. Kamm says:

    “You would not know this from anything Levy writes, but Hobsbawm has written important and original works of scholarship in the economic history of the 19th century. That’s just a fact; he really has made contributions to the study of history, which Birkbeck (of which I’m a graduate) has justifiably acknowledged. It’s important to note this aspect of Hobsbawm’s work, and I did note it in a highly critical short article about his politics, in 2004. We can take it that Levy is therefore aware of the point too, because he has clearly relied on my article for source material while not attributing it to me.”


  2. Jim Denham said,

    Have just heard the programme: disappointing. Schama was obviously in awe of the great man and didn’t ask any political questions, until towards the end (and with profuse apologies), when he asked about staying in the CP after Hungary etc, and Hobsbawm got sniffy and started on about “that’s a cold war question.”

    So he still refuses to honestly account for his political record (and there *are* a number of possible honourable explanations): sorry, the man goes down further in my estimation.

    A fine historian, but a miserable figure in terms of politics.

  3. Roger said,

    Haven’t listened to it yet (saving that dubious pleasure for the megabus night bus ride to London tomorrow when hopefully it will help me sleep) but surely your ‘on the minus side’ is about as damning an indictment as you can write.

    Even being another Birkbeck graduate and knowing full well what a contribution Hobsbawm made to that once great (but now much degenerated institution) I can’t warm to anything he wrote knowing everything that he refused to write – even long after there could no longer be any meaningful personal, political or professional consequences to ‘fessing up.

    Like the Sainted Hitchens I actually rather agree with the central thesis of The Forward March of Labour Halted? but I can’t help but wish he’d kept it all under his hat – without the myth of class struggle and all the institutions it sustained we can only helplessly observe the slow and painful death of our civilisation.

    Oh and Schama is a #1 shit – started out as an excellent art critic with The Embarrassment of Riches but showed his true reactionary colours with Citizens and has confirmed it with everything he’s done since.

  4. Matt said,

    Schama also failed to get Hobsbawm to answer to another question. Talking about his writings on jazz – which I confess I haven’t read – he passed over the reason why he published them under the pseudonym Francis Newton. I’ve read that Hobsbawm claimed it was to separate his jazz and historical works rather than because of the CP’s attitude to jazz.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Yes, an interesting point Matt. The use of a pseudonym for his jazz writings may well have been because of the CP’s generally hostile attitude towards jazz. But his choice that that particular pseudonym is also significant: Frank (sometimes “Frankie”) Newton was a highly talented but commercially-neglected black American trumpet player of the 1930’s and 40’s who was very close to (and probably a member of) the US Communist Party.

  6. Andrew Coates said,

    The problem with the Forward March of Labour wasn’t its assesment of the shrinking weight of the left and the unions, it was that it was a political intervention to justify turning away from both of them.

    I listened to the programme and found it interesting, but Jim really puts his finger on it when he used the word ‘evasive’. I find it hard to stomach anybody who’s a European intellectual, and a historian, who couldn’t even grasp the basic features of Stalinism in the 1930s. Or as in the programme, claimed ‘we didn’t know’. Obviously we didn’t know just how bad the Gulag was but it was rpetty obvious what the coutnryw as like at the time.

  7. Roger said,

    Yes my objection is that while the younger Hobsbawm was quite happy to turn off his critical faculties for the sake of the party and the struggle, the older Hobsbawm did the exact opposite and gave them free rein at a point of profound demoralisation when we needed our grand old men to keep our spirits up.

    If he’d fully regretted his earlier stance he would at least have become a consistent liberal centrist belatedly rejecting the God that failed (and it seems more than appropriate that his daughter found a comfortable niche in the New Labour PR machine).

    Compare and contrast with Raphael Samuel and EP Thompson who came from much the same academic and political mileus but made the hard political and personal choice of leaving the all-embracing CPGB cocoon in 1956 rather than staying warmly inside it until it had finally served its purpose and could be destroyed to fuel the rise of New Labour.

  8. Corrigendum « Poumista said,

    […] Jim Denham on Eric Hobsbawm. Extract: […]

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