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Eric Hobsbawm and the Totalitarian Double Standard
A remarkable historian has died -- but does it matter that he was a Stalinist?
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The death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm at the age of 95 two days ago set me down memory lane. The one time I met this illustrious historian was when Gene Genovese (who predeceased Hobsbawm by just a few days) introduced him to me at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston in 1969. I had just given a critical rejoinder to a plea for a “humanistic Marx,” who had suffered from 19th-century German anti-Semitism. In my response, I suggested that Marx himself had been virulently anti-Semitic but that if one accepted his historical analysis his personal prejudices should not seem important. After all, Marx was trying to explain the course of human history and planning for a revolutionary future. He was “not competing for the ADL liberal of the year award.” It seems Hobsbawm, who was a dedicated member of the English Communist Party, agreed with my sentiments and expressed concern about “the exotica being produced by idiosyncratic, would-be Marxists.” Thereupon I took a liking to this dignified gentleman in a three-piece suit, who had learned splendid English after growing up in Vienna. He may have been a commie but he was clearly no bleeding-heart leftist.

Moreover, I had been reading on and off the first volume of what became his four-volume study of the modern age since the French Revolution. This first volume, Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962), was one of the best synthetic works on a tumultuous period in modern European history, and unlike conventional, pro-liberal-democratic treatments of the same sprawling subject, Hobsbawm made a strenuous attempt to integrate economic and social change with evolving ideological fashions. Whatever his personal politics, Age of Revolution and the succeeding volume Age of Capital were highly respectable scholarship. They came from a disciplined mind that operated from a historical materialist perspective.


What is hard for anyone who is not some kind of leftist ideologue to shove down the memory hole is Hobsbawm’s lifelong dedication to communism, most particularly his unswerving loyalty to Stalin’s memory. To his credit, Hobsbawm never hid his loyalty to the Soviet experiment, and unlike his fellow Stalinist Eric Foner, who scolded Gorbachev for dismantling the Soviet dictatorship, Hobsbawm never grew into a fashionable, politically correct leftist. He died the communist he became while living in Berlin in the early 1930s (or perhaps even earlier). This shows an honesty and consistency that is admirable at some level but also invites the deception and application of double standards that one expects from the usual suspects. In what has become the authoritative obituary, the Guardian dwells on Hobsbawm’s impressive work as an historian, his happy second marriage (after a failed first one and a child born out of wedlock), and his decision to venture on to new Marxist research paths in the 1970s. The paper also tells us that his friend and Marxist associate Christopher Hill had dropped out of the CP by the 1970s but Hobsbawm chose a different course. That path was of course one of total subservience to the Soviet Union, although Hobsbawm had objected when Khrushchev in 1956 had dared to comment on Stalin’s “cult of personality.”

One could only imagine, as my son reminded me, what the same sources would say if Hobsbawm, like Martin Heidegger, had once rashly come out in support of the Third Reich, even if, as in the case of one of the West’s greatest philosophers, he had subsequently withdrawn from politics. Obviously being a lifelong Stalinist is not like being a temporary Nazi in 1933. It brings bouquets for one’s idealism rather than a rash of anti-fascist tirades, masquerading as books, which are reviewed in the elite press. But let’s not pick such an extreme example. Let’s imagine that Hobsbawm went from being a Stalinist to something less ominous than a fleeting Nazi enthusiast. What if he had gone from defending the gulags to being an opponent of gay marriage? Would the Guardian have treated him any worse when he died at 95 as a one-time “Marxist historian”? You bet it would.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Communism 
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  1. Jim Bovard says: • Website

    Excellent piece. I especially like the analysis about receiving “bouquets for one’s idealism.”

  2. Nice Paul. Love the 1969 anecdote. I’m tempted to go back an re-read Hobsbawn, it was lifetime ago.

  3. “He may have been a commie but he was clearly no bleeding heart leftist.”
    The fellow worshiped Stalin…are you really comfortable hiding behind irony here? Or perhaps it is sarcasm? Flippant and cowardly given what the “thought” of these people bred, you should have to read that sentence every day for the rest of your life while you dream of the numberless dead.

  4. DavidT says:

    Actually, Hobsbawm denied being a Stalinist:

    “Eric Hobsbawn: I must leave the discussion of Amis’s views on Stalin to others. I wasn’t a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I’ve written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin.”

    Interestingly, the same site quotes Hobsbawm as acknowledging that if he had not been Jewish, he might have become a Nazi! “In Germany there wasn’t any alternative left. Liberalism was failing. If I’d been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they’d become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.”

  5. Jack Ross says:

    I’m well aware of the times when The Guardian makes me want to vomit in its view of history, but are you sure they have the same distinctly American affluent liberal chip on their shoulder about gay marriage?

  6. When I think of how Sir Charles Petrie, than whom 20th-century Britain produced few more talented and less provincial historians, was airbrushed out of respectable consideration because he dared to support (temporarily) Mussolini and (rather more lastingly) Franco … well, Hobsbawm’s innumerable awards and fawning Guardian obit do rather stick in my throat. I did smile, though, at the notion of Hobsbawm possibly undergoing latter-day demonization for failing to advocate “gay marriage”.

  7. But… didn’t Stalin support Nazism too, until against all his belief, the one-time corporal turned on him, too? Doctrinaire communists in the thirties did an about-face to support Nazism without apology or seeming recognition of any cognitive dissonance when the Molotov-Ribbentrop alignment came into effect.

    Moreover, Stalinism purged Jews and it was only Stalin’s own demise that saved any number from an even bigger purge in the wake of the purported “Doctors’ Plot” against his life…

  8. Karen says: • Website

    In the New York Times obit, William Grimes includes this passage: “In 1994, he shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.” (Every time a communist dies, the NYTimes believes an angel’s given wings.)

    My question is, what wasn’t “genuine” about Stalin’s communism? For isn’t the fatal flaw of Communism and all forms of Statism – that its genuine, or utopian nature, can simply never be achieved without hideous coercion and human suffering because it goes completely against the grain of human nature – a human nature Hobsbawn himself indulged in his three piece suit and lovely English life.

  9. Calling Hobsbawm a “lifelong Stalinist” is a bit much; his depiction of Stalin in The Age of Extremes is not particularly flattering.

  10. I’ve read that Stalin was a bank robber. On the other hand, I’ve heard he did bad things, too.

  11. As a progressive I was disappointed and even a bit depressed at the Guardian’s whitewash of the man’s politics, though I was glad the liberal press has not gone as far in celebrating him as it did Howard Zinn when he died.

    Well, not yet, anyway.

    Karen, the flaw in communism’s utopian vision is that it can never be realized at all.

    What you’re stuck with, in the end, is always the destruction and horror that’s supposed to lead to Happy Valley but never does.

    It’s the political equivalent of a flying saucer cult for which tens if not hundreds of millions died, worldwide.

    Far worse than Islam, in fact. Up to now.

  12. As a communist who openly deplored the denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality in 1956,and who always played down Soviet crimes, I’ve no idea why my description of EH as a Stalinist should be seen as over the top. As for my suggestion (the reader was right that this was my gist) that social radicals are more loathsome than Stalinists in the West, it seems to me that our civilization is not being threatened by out-and-out Stalinists any longer but by the social Left, which controls our media and cultural industry.It is moreover this Left, not the Stalinists, who have been in my face for decades, and so I naturally react to them with more repugnance than I do to Stalinist senior citizens. Finally, not incidentally, the PC Left continues to cover up Stalinist and Maoist crimes and in this repect is no better than the old-fashioned commies, albeit socially more destructive.

  13. I’m trying to decide which assertion is more laughable, that organs of the western “PC Left” maintain an ex-Soviet Memory Hole down which they throw copies of Stalin’s death warrants and the Little Red Book, that Hitlerism is too roundly condemned, or that capital-C Communism has been less destructive of society than western social liberalism, as evidenced by the cratered societies riven by alcoholism, divorce, atheism, abortion running the gamut from casual to mandatory, human trafficking, and absolute anomie it has left behind.

  14. JD Salyer says:

    Well-put, Dr. Gottfried.

    As James Kalb has observed, from the point of view of the PC Left egalitarianism-motivated Communist crimes compare to those of the Nazis in much the same way a botched surgical operation might compare to a series of psychopathic ax murders.

  15. I don’t see your description of Hobsbawm as a “lifelong Stalinist” as over the top, I see it as objectively inaccurate. Also, you need to watch out for dangling modifiers, unless you were a Stalinist who played down Soviet crimes.

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks for this concise obit.

  17. I’ve no idea what else one must do to demonstrate Stalinist views than what I’ve cited from Hobsbawm’s biography– for example, denouncing the Soviet criticism of Stalin in 1956 and expressing support for Stalin’s great leap forward for many decades–without ever retracting one’s political commitments. Would my critic require such exacting proof of someone’s political identity if we were discussing an apologist for Hitler’s genocidal crimes? I doubt it.

  18. TomB says:

    Paul Gottfried wrote:

    “To his credit, Hobsbawm never hid his loyalty to the Soviet experiment….”

    I’m dubious. In the first place we have here an essential monster: A guy who, knowing all the facts about Stalin and the Gulag and the Holomodor … still we are to believe that his personal integrity is such that he had to be honest about same.

    But then there’s this very very curious and very very interesting comment he made four years before his death as reported by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail: Hobsbawn, Wilson notes, attempted to get MI 5’s files on him and said he would like to see same to find out who had “snitched” on him.

    Now, what in heaven did he mean by this? As Wilson notes, one big thing suggests itself: While at Cambridge Hobsbawm was friendly with Antony Blunt and Guy Burgess and others who were recruited there for spying on behalf of Stalin, and certainly moved in those circles as a member of the Apostles.

    So while Wilson suggests that Hobsbawm had indeed been so recruited and felt that someone had outed him to MI 5 it also makes equal sense that he meant he was just outed as a commie at the time, period. And it was thus that he decided to “come out” and display the alleged honesty about his affiliation that he’s now praised for.

    And it’s very very hard to see him meaning anything *other* than the above.

    Of course is someone can forth with some proof that before he got to Cambridge he was already signing Stalin’s song openly, that changes things. But I doubt this is true, and it *still* leaves open Wilson’s “snitched as an actual spy” theory which is bad enough.

    So no, I wouldn’t give this old gargoyle even the benefit of this doubt. As Wilson notes, even in his most serious vein the man would lie at the drop of a hat in the service of the ideology he had clearly pledged himself too. And he was sophisticated enough to recognize that ideology demanded just that: A complete and utter subordination of any and all feelings for things like honesty or integrity or virtue or etc. to the service of The Party. Complete and utter, like selling you soul to the devil, and once he did it, he never for a moment regretted what he gave up and indeed reveled in the freedom it gave him.

    In essence, he knowingly and wittingly pledged himself to and then happily and indeed proudly abided by that pledge to be nothing less than a potential moral monster, and he then time and again happily played that part in actuality.

    While I am very much against the absolutist judgmentalism that so infects even the most intelligent reaches today and that commands that if you don’t like someone they must be seen as totally bad, in the case of Hobsbawm I doubt one could find even the most molecular trace of true virtue in the man. Equal to if not even less than the Hitlerian model.

    At least Hitler liked dogs; I’ve yet to read a single thing about Hobsbawm that persuades me he had even that much humanity or virtue about him. Indeed, I see a picture of him and it’s like looking at a grinning skull, reveling in the idea of the Black Marias, the shootings at Katyn, the walking frozen corpses in the Kolyma. Like Trotsky, a reveler in his own hideousness.

    Let’s hope he’s burning in hell right now.

  19. Ooh, Paul, you’ve made Stephen Webster very, very angry, and he’s assigned you a punishment. Now go to your room and start reading and dreaming!

  20. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    An admirably consistent Communist? I find this website goes out of its way to try to seem sophisticated…

  21. Like TomB, I would have no objection to the concept of Hobsbawm being in hell; but I would (amplifying a connotation of Paul Gottfried’s) concede one virtue on Hobsbawm’s part. For all his ideological obnoxiousness Hobsbawm could write decent, readable English prose.

    His companion in pro-Soviet villainy, Christopher Hill, simply couldn’t. Try opening any of Hill’s once-lauded 1970s books ostensibly dealing with the English Civil War (The World Turned Upside Down; God’s Englishman; yada yada yada). These tracts reveal that Hill not only thought like a commissar; he also wrote like one.

  22. J D Salyer,

    You wrote,

    “As James Kalb has observed, from the point of view of the PC Left egalitarianism-motivated Communist crimes compare to those of the Nazis in much the same way a botched surgical operation might compare to a series of psychopathic ax murders.”

    Well put.

    The communists killed people who, as they believed, stood blocking the path to Utopia.

    Hitler killed people he hated just to kill people he hated.

    That, I think, is the difference so many on the left – and by no means only the extreme left – suppose counts so heavily in favor of people who bought into the communist delusion, in contrast to Nazis.

    Essentially, though Hitler’s intentions were as damnable as his actions the communist slaughterers all “meant well,” you see.

    Well, some of them, anyway.

    I have yet to see anyone suggest Pol Pot or Abimael Guzman, too, meant well.

    As for me, I think that line is a little too much like saying Muslim Jihaders slaughtering Jews, Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists are not as bad as Hitler killing Jews because they believe they are doing Allah’s will and killing people who stand in the way of the universal Caliphate, while he was merely killing Jews because he hated them.

    Hitler, after all, hated Jews because he believed them and their influence on Europe harmful in many ways, did he not?

    Shouldn’t he get the same indulgence communist tyrants are given as genocidal murderers who, at least, meant well?

    Were his beliefs really more fantastic or stupid than the communist Utopia or the Muslim religion?

    You may wish to say so, but no, I think not.

    Were they more a sort of pretense or trumped-up excuse for horrific, devastating violence than the relevant Muslim beliefs?

    Well, consider this.

    Christians hated Jews and persecuted and slaughtered them for religious reasons from Roman times right down to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, at least.

    If Muslim Jew-hating is not as guilty as Hitler’s then neither is Christian Jew-hating, though Hilter’s “secular” anti-Semitism is obviously the child of that ancient Christian tradition.

    We have only just begun to be honest about the role of Christianity in bringing about the Holocaust.

    Why now make excuses for the hatreds cultivated and acted on with such murderous joy by the Muslims?

    Or those of the quondam communist Utopians?

    Besides, surely I am not the only one to have wondered?

    When did the scales, if ever there were any, fall from the eyes of Stalin and Mao?

    When did they realize, at last, that it was all claptrap and history, the revolution, and their own regimes were never going to lead humanity, or even their own countries, to Marx’s anarchist Happy Valley?

    For how many decades did they continue their tyrannical devastation after they lost their faith, much like some Caliph – or pope – turned atheist but staying on in the job, acting in the eyes of everyone as a sincere and honest believer?

    Mao, I hear, spent his last decades as the worst of China’s emperors cavorting in a swimming pool with nubile young girls supplied by his household slaves.

    It’s a hard life for those who mean well.

  23. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Too many Stalinists and other Communists died in their sleep. They were owed their own equivalent of the Nuremburg Trials, lifelong odium and ostracism. Thanks for making sure that Hobsbawm didn’t skulk away from this life without someone noting the stench that marked his passage.

  24. The previous respondent must be kidding that someone is hiding the alleged link between Christianity and the Holocaust. I’ve been reading about it for sixty years, while being underwhelmed by the evidence. About two years ago New Republic devoted an entire issue to providing extracts from Daniel Goldhagen’s latest potboiler arguing that the Holocaust was caused by Christian anti-Semitism. One significant problem with this blame-game is that most of the Western forces fighting the Nazis were Christian, whereas Hitler and other Nazi leaders considered Christianity to be an evil Jewish invention.There is also plenty of evidence of pre-Christian pagan anti-Semitism, which the German Jewish historian Guido Kisch maintained was absorbed into medieval culture.The truth is Christians have been the only non-Jews who have deplored anti-Semitism and blamed themselves for it.But this hardly shows they caused the Holocaust.

  25. TomB says:

    Just to add to the excrement pourable over Hobsbawm—not that there could ever be enough—it’s always seemed to me that one could, roughly but validly enough, discern two sorts of Bolsheviks.

    Oddly enough the one sort includes both the “common man” sort and the intellectual, and they are the class (such a delicious word to use in this context) who in the undeniable millions just fell for Marx and Lenin’s economic hooey, and looked around them and just felt there had to be some alternative to the grinding poverty that existed. And *that* then was their touchstone, and while condemnable still, one has some better understanding when such folks didn’t totally flinch at the horrors of Stalinism. They looked at the long history of horrors under that grinding poverty and might still even support Leninist-Stalinism while wishing it kept the grand historical revolution it thought same represented as no-violent as possible, but thought that some goodly amount was still probably needed.

    And most of these folks eventually of course came to reject communism totally.

    And then there were the Trotskyites, such as old Lev of course, and Hobsbawm, even if the latter may have sided with Stalin, because by “Trotskyites” here I mean the folks who were drawn to Marxist-Leninism specifically *because* of its promise of monstrous violence. Of course they drew the Marxian and Leninist economic theory over them like some camoflage, but at base they were in it for the blood. For revenge of some sort, they just thrilled to the idea of Trotsky’s “rivers of blood” talk in an almost sexual way.

    Millions being slaved death chopping out some ice-bound canal to nowhere no matter that even as envisioned same was to be of utterly marginal use? Great! Historical justice!

    Those Ukranian peasants, reduced to actually eating dirt and dying in their millions? The same!

    It wasn’t really the economics of it for them, it was The Justice.

    *That* then was Hobsbawm’s type, clearly. Masked as noted by that pretend deep agreement with the economic arguments, or the materialist ones or etc.

    He was then, to be identified as accurately as possible, a voyeur of sadism. Probably too delicate himself to ever actually do any of the deeds, or too cowardly like Stalin almost certainly was—but a lover of torture nonetheless.

    And as for Hobsbawm’s writing skills, I still say so what? And still say that him liking dogs would redeem him more.

  26. How can anyone believe that nations close to Bolshevik- leveled Russia did not know what was going on? And who were the agitators and the leadership?

    From “Socialist Thought: The Second International 1889-1914 Part II”:

    “… the German Social Democrats, who possessed by far the strongest and best-organised Socialist Party and had behind them the greatest prestige, both as the reputed guardians of the Marxist tradition ** Germans — Hitler — didn’t know about the communist threat?? ** and because of the success with which they had held out against Bismarck’s attempt to destroy by means of Anti-Socialist Laws.

    “… and though the Russian Social Democratic delegates at International Congresses continued to regard the German Social Democratic Party as the leading exponent of the Marxist creed ** Germans — Hitler — didn’t know about the communist threat???? ** , their own situation was so different from that of the Western countries which dominated the International’s proceedings as to make it difficult for them to take much part in many discussions. Their most important intervention was at Stuttgart in 1907, when Lenin ** that would be V.I. Lenin, the revolutionary who with Trotsky leveled Russia ** and Rosa Luxemburg …”

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