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Eric Hobsbawm's death provoked violently contradictory reactions in the media. In one camp, the BBC, the Guardian, The Times and others proclaimed him the greatest historian of our time. In the other, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail dismissed him as a propagandist who distorted the historical facts to suit his own ideology. In both cases much more attention was devoted to him than is normally given to historians, or indeed to writers of any kind. Clearly his extreme left-wing views contributed at least as much to his fame as the merits of his books. 

When I first met him in the late 1960s, Hobsbawm was already a fashionable and much admired figure among academics and intellectuals. He and his warm-hearted and witty wife Marlene lived in a comfortable family house in Hampstead, enjoying a quintessentially middle-class existence. Eric smoked a pipe and liked his slippers to be laid out for him when he got home.

I became friendly with them, particularly with Marlene, through my then husband John Gross, who had met Eric at King's College, Cambridge, where John had been an English lecturer and Eric a Fellow. 

The Hobsbawms were exceptionally generous hosts, giving many lunch and dinner parties for their mostly left-leaning friends. We were frequently invited to these jolly and stimulating gatherings. John, however, would often find reasons not to accompany me: he was totally out of sympathy with Eric's politics and felt uneasy about too much socialising with someone who persisted in supporting the murderous Soviet regime. I, on the other hand, was politically very ignorant and anyway shared the generally accepted view that friendship and politics should be kept apart.

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October 29th, 2012
11:10 PM
He's almost as wily as Mitt Romney, but I guess that, at his age, it would be very uncomfortable for him to say, "I've been horribly wrong all along!" Just a few points: 1. On page 4, where he says that he and other leftists were surprised by the revelations about Stalin in 1956, he added: "it's no use saying that it had all been available. I'm pretty certain that even a lot of people in the Soviet Union didn't realise what had been going on." Actually, I believe that the information was out even by the end of WWII. Moreover, of course they wouldn't have known about the Gulag inside the USSR! Their press was totally controlled and most Soviet citizens couldn't travel outside the country and had almost no contact with foreigners. So, this was really not a sensible answer. 2. On the same page, he says: "most of us fortunately were not in a position to have anything to reproach ourselves with. What we had done, what we did in our political activity in this country, was not something to be ashamed of. That we happened to be associated with people who had a lot to be ashamed of is another question." That reasoning should have gone out the window the minute the show trials began in the late 1930s. They stuck with the party through the show trials, forced collectivization, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and knowledge of the Gulag (however limited). Nothing to be ashamed of? Hmmmm. 3. When he says that culture in the Eastern bloc (say, Hungary) was richer than in the West, that is not a balancing off point for material well-being, not if the standards of living, quality of life, education, medicine, and what have you were so markedly inferior...not to mention civil rights.When the interviewer noted that the quality cultural output was against the system in the East, he said that this was fine, as if this didn't undermine his whole point. The richer culture existed in spite of the system, not because of it, and the system that he defends as creating a richer culture was actually trying to suppress that richer culture. It's enough to make one's head spin. I'm not fan of unregulated capitalism, either. I'm more or less a social democrat. And unbridled capitalism does generate inequalities and a host of other problems. But Eric Hobsbawm strikes me as either disingenuous or totally deluded.

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