Overrated: Eric Hobsbawm

The Marxist historian, born a century ago, didn’t just turn a blind eye to the crimes of Communism but to much else besides

Overrated
ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY

Standpoint has written about E.J. Hobsbawm in 2008 and again in 2012, after his death. We make no apology for returning to Britain’s leading Marxist historian at a time when the Labour Party is led by openly Marxist figures (John McDonnell cites Das Kapital and Jeremy Corbyn has called Marx a “great economist” in the general election campaign) and when history has never been more topical as we redefine our identity after Brexit. 

This month marks the centenary of Hobsbawm’s birth. When he died he was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest British historians of his generation and a major public intellectual. The Guardian wrote that he was “one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown”. The Times called him a “magisterial historian of the modern age”. 

These tributes barely acknowledged the attacks on Hobsbawm for staying loyal to the Communist Party after the purges, after 1956 and even after 1968 when Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. After reading The Age of Extremes, Robert Conquest concluded that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive reality denial” regarding the USSR.  Reviewing Hobsbawm’s memoir, Interesting Times in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt wrote: “Rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” In a review headlined “The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm”, the political philosopher John Gray wrote: “A vast silence surrounds the realities of Communism.” 

Hobsbawm’s admirers, however, insist that his Marxism never got in the way of his achievement as a historian. This is not so. Throughout his four-volume history of the modern world it is always the revolutionaries, socialists and Communists who loom large. Of course, these books cover the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions. But does that really explain why The Age of Revolution has so much more time for the Chartists and the Carbonari than for leading figures of the American Revolution like Washington and Jefferson? Did a “proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement” really come into existence in the 1830 revolution? What does he mean by “proletarian” in early 19th-century Paris — or Britain? 

Throughout the first three books, Hobsbawm consistently undervalued the economic and political importance of the aristocracy and peasantry, preferring to look for signs of “proletarian” revolutionary potential. He constantly wrote of the age of the bourgeoisie and the significance of the urban working class but failed to give due emphasis to the importance of the land and the rural population in the long 19th century: the counter-revolutionary French peasantry in the 1790s, 1840 and 1871, the agrarian US South, the Irish Famine and the political consequences of the fall of agricultural prices during the late-19th-century Great Depression. These are all major moments in European and American history, but Hobsbawm failed to do them justice because as a Marxist his eye was always on the urban and industrial bourgeoisie and the working class. 

All this pales into insignificance by comparison with the problems in The Age of Extremes. Hobsbawm’s account of Stalinism is full of evasions and euphemisms. Stalin’s economic policy was “closer to a military operation than an economic enterprise”, but “like military enterprises which have genuine popular moral legitimacy [sic], the breakneck industrialisation of the first Five-Year Plans (1929-1941) generated support [sic] by the very ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ it imposed on its people”. Then on the next page, “The ‘planned economy’ of the Five-Year Plans which took the place of NEP in 1928 was necessarily a crude instrument [sic].” 

In his tone, his vocabulary and his use of statistics, Hobsbawm never did justice to the horrors of Stalinism. The worst years of the Stalinist terror are “covered” in 14 pages in a book of over 600 pages. The Gulag appears only twice, each time in just one sentence. But even this is not as bizarre as Hobsbawm’s failure to engage with the Holocaust in his major work on the 20th century. There are just four passing references. It is hard to check it in the index because it doesn’t appear. Nor does it appear among the 15 casual references to “Jews” that are listed in the index. There is one reference to concentration camps (p. 149) and one to “the Final Solution” (p. 150) — both cursory — but none to death camps, Auschwitz or Treblinka. 

There are other serious absences. Hobs-bawm never took religion seriously. His account of  the Napoleonic Wars is perfunctory. He offers weak social analysis of the 1848 revolutions and fails to explain the mid-19th-century boom in The Age of Capital or the causes of the Great Depression in The Age of Empire

A Communist who, even in his seventies, couldn’t honestly face up to the history of Soviet Communism; an acclaimed historian whose best work is filled with strange prejudices and basic errors of interpretation. Hobsbawm’s legacy seems deeply problematic; it is hard to imagine what will endure.