The life and times of Stalin's last apologist and Britain's best-known Marxist historian
On the morning of Wednesday October 10, 2012, around the time the Prime Minister was addressing the Conservative Party conference, a party of mourners left the chapel at Golders Green crematorium with the words of the “Internationale” ringing in their ears. The Communist anthem sounds more rousing in the original French, so that was the version used. In death as in life, Eric Hobsbawm was proclaiming his loyalty to the cause he had first espoused as a boy in Berlin in the years 1931-33.
Hobsbawm got a good send-off. Tributes were paid to him by Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History at Oxford, who knew him from his days at Birkbeck College, London; by Lady Kennedy, a Labour peer, better known as Helena Kennedy QC; and by his son, Andy. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, attended the service, as did Jon Snow, Simon Schama, Tariq Ali and Jonathan Miller. Recordings of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and of some jazz were also played.
In the days after his death at the grand old age of 95, Hobsbawm’s historical works, especially The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire 1874-1914, were newly acclaimed. Nor did all the praise come from the Left. Niall Ferguson described these books, together with The Age of Extremes 1914-1991, as “the best introduction to modern world history in the English language”, and added: “With his extraordinary erudition and quick wit, Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historical conversationalists I have ever known.”
If Hobsbawm had been an unrepentant fascist, instead of an unrepentant Communist, he would not have received such favourable coverage. Nor would Miliband and other members of the intelligentsia have made Hobsbawm’s funeral so crowded that there was standing room only. Nor, we can be sure, would Tony Blair have recommended that the great man be made a Companion of Honour: a distinction Hobsbawm accepted in 1998 (he justified doing so by saying how much it would have pleased his mother, who died in 1931).
Ferguson did recall how he hoped that Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times, published in 2002, “would contain some expression of remorse for his decision to remain a member of the Communist Party even after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes”. But as Perry Anderson, himself a distinguished man of the Left, pointed out in a long and careful account of that work in the London Review of Books, it contains “no discussion at all of the actual political history of the period”, and of Hobsbawm’s Marxism “virtually all we are told is that he read The Communist Manifesto at high school in Berlin”.
Hobsbawm’s death occurred as the Labour conference was getting under way in Manchester. Miliband at once paid tribute to him as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family”. But in his own speech, Miliband proceeded to embrace a quite different figure, Benjamin Disraeli, and to appropriate that great Conservative Prime Minister’s tradition of “One Nation” Toryism. This shameless act of political body-snatching made for excellent theatre: few people had imagined the Labour leader could be so audacious. But it also required Miliband to distance himself from his own father, the thoroughly left-wing academic Ralph Miliband, and from the north London Marxism of his youth. So the Labour leader admitted that his father “wouldn’t agree with many of the things I stand for. He would have loved the idea of ‘Red Ed’. But he would have been a little bit disappointed that it isn’t true.” This was an elegant and affectionate way of trying to free himself from the politics with which he grew up. For the Labour leader, this is a matter of political life and death: he cannot allow himself to be portrayed as an out-of-touch north London leftie with a sophisticated grasp of socialist theory and no idea how normal people live: hence his emphasis in his speech on his comprehensive schooling. Hobsbawm did not figure in that speech.
As well as the tributes to Hobsbawm since his death, there have been a number of indignant protests against him. Michael Burleigh, who is a member of Standpoint‘s advisory board, wrote an angry piece in the Daily Telegraph which ended: “Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left. But the eminence that he and his fellow travellers have enjoyed also speaks to the bovine complacency with which, since Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives have allowed such dubious figures licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and our universities.”
“Bovine complacency” well describes the usual reaction in England to intellectuals who spend their time chipping away at the foundations of our society. In 1790, Edmund Burke warned the French, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, not to take seriously the revolutionary sentiments being expressed in some circles in London: “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
Burke was alarmed by the complacent attitude many in England took towards what was happening in Paris. The worst excesses of the French Revolution, including the September massacres, the execution of the king and queen, and the reign of terror, all lay in the future. But to the penetrating eye of Burke, an outsider and an Irishman, it was already clear in early 1790 that the overthrow of traditional authority had created terrible dangers. Thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, still saw nothing much to worry about.
We are seldom inclined to worry very much what intellectuals are doing, especially if they are of foreign origin. It is hard to imagine that such eccentric and impractical characters could ever cause trouble. At a later period, Marx and Engels were allowed to carry on their work in England pretty much undisturbed. Most of us just don’t think the kind of thing they were writing about is going to happen here. In 1978, Hobsbawm delivered his Marx Memorial Lecture, in which he actually reassured us that revolution was becoming less likely: “The forward march of labour and the labour movement, which Marx predicted, appears to have come to a halt in this country about 25 to 30 years ago.” In other words, the Attlee government of 1945-51 represented the high point of working-class pressure for change.
Hobsbawm provided the statistics needed to back this up. He pointed out that the proportion of non-agricultural manual workers in Britain was already almost 70 per cent in 1867, when the Second Reform Bill was passed. This was exceptionally high compared to other countries, and forced the ruling classes to find ways to gain working-class support. But this dominance did not last. In 1911 three-quarters of workers were manual, but that proportion had fallen to just over half in 1976, and Hobsbawm warned, correctly, that it was bound to fall further. In 2012 it is well under a third.
Marxism Today published Hobsbawm’s lecture in September 1978, under the title “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” By making the Left face the need to win support from beyond the rapidly diminishing ranks of the trade unions, Hobsbawm performed a notable service for those who understood that the party must also appeal to the middle classes or it would die. No wonder he was soon being described as Neil Kinnock’s “favourite Marxist”. This cannot be regarded as an intellectual distinction, but it did show how useful Hobsbawm had become to the Labour leadership. When one looks at this aspect of his activities, it is possible to argue that far from being dangerous, he had allowed himself to be coddled into becoming a minor pillar of the Establishment. Marxism Today ceased to be a Marxist publication and instead began to prepare the way for Blair, whose advisers later included at least two of the magazine’s contributors, Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbetter.
And yet there remain Hobsbawm’s repulsive views about the Soviet Union. He was challenged over and over again to explain how he could have stayed in the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Miriam Gross challenges him with quiet persistence in the interview which accompanies this piece. But Hobsbawm maintained to his dying day that despite the millions of murders to which it led, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a great cause to which he was right to remain loyal. In 1994, when Michael Ignatieff asked him whether, if “the radiant tomorrow” had actually been created in the Soviet Union, the death of 15 or 20 million people would have been justified, Hobsbawm replied: “Yes.” In 1995, when Sue Lawley put it to him on Desert Island Discs that “Marxist Leninism is a dead duck”, he replied: “I don’t think the cause has been defeated, but at least it will not be realised if at all in the way we thought it was going to be realised.”
Since Hobsbawm’s death, Nick Cohen has reminded us in his Spectator blog that at the start of the Second World War, Hobsbawm and his fellow Cambridge Communist Raymond Williams not only accepted the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but actually wrote a pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland, in which they claimed that “Stalin was protecting Finland from an invasion by British imperialists”. Oliver Kamm, in The Times, has described this as “an extraordinary failure of imagination” and an “act of intellectual prostitution in the service of totalitarianism”.
Robert Conquest, who has done more than any other Western writer to catalogue Soviet crimes, observed after reading Age of Extremes that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive reality denial” as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. Michael Gove, now the Education Secretary, assured the 2008 Conservative conference that “only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”.
Those tears remained unshed. Many intellectuals left the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956, in protest at the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Hobsbawm knew how bad things looked. He wrote a letter at this time in which he said of the CPGB’s line: “We tell [the public] that we do not give the USSR ‘uncritical support’, but when they ask us where we disagree with its policy all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.”
Ponomareva was the Soviet discus thrower who was arrested for allegedly stealing five hats from C & A in Oxford Street in 1956. The Soviet athletics team withdrew in protest from a meeting at White City: a decision the Daily Worker, organ of the CPGB, had the temerity to describe as “regrettable”.
Why the atrocious double standard? Why are most people so much more tolerant of support for Stalin than they would be of support for Hitler? I do not except myself from this stricture. Somehow Auschwitz strikes me as worse than the Russian camps, whose names are in any case not as familiar to me. Is it that we judge the Germans by a higher standard than the Russians — that we expect the former to be correct, albeit humourless, while incorrectness comes as no surprise in Russia? Martin Amis observes in his book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, that “it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany”. Amis reminds us of some of the most horrifying evidence amassed by Conquest about Stalin’s crimes, yet still black comedy keeps breaking through.
Perhaps we attribute higher and therefore more admirable ideals to the Communists than we do to the Nazis. In his essay “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, Kingsley Amis, who joined the Communist Party in 1941 and left it in 1956 because of Hungary, wrote: “The ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City, is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss.”
Hobsbawm said something similar in Interesting Times: “The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with indulgence and tenderness.”
These are the terms in which one might speak of an early love affair, with a woman who proved impossible to live with, but who still evokes fond memories. Hobsbawm prided himself on remaining faithful to his first political love. With obstinate vanity, he alluded to the sacrifices he had made on her behalf, including the slower promotion he obtained in the academic world. Others might do the obvious thing and renounce Communism, but he distinguished himself by his fidelity to a cause which no longer even existed in any viable form. Born in the year of the Russian Revolution, he also managed to outlive it and to become a kind of living history. For the Left, he had turned into an international treasure, while for the Right, although contaminated by his support for the Soviet Union, he was no longer a threat and could be treated as a pleasant reminder that the Communists lost the Cold War. My elder daughter’s history teacher has just recommended The Age of Extremes to her. I suppose this makes me an irresponsible father, but I hope she enjoys it.