Few of today’s intellectuals would risk a sentence like this one: “The links between Jugend and culture, or more specifically between it and die Moderne, are too obvious to require comment.” They would fear being inaccessible, if not outrageously elitist. Yet it’s clear [Eric] Hobsbawm believes there is a body of knowledge that is the common inheritance, the patrimony, of all educated citizens — and that should be assumed. It’s in this, as much as through any argument he spells out, that the author shows how much has changed — and reveals himself as an emissary from a vanished world.
None of this is to suggest that Hobsbawm is a stuffy presence on the page. On the contrary, his prose is regularly enlivened with choice facts — “The first American productions of Ibsen were in Yiddish” — and elegant metaphor: “Operatic production, like Shakespearean play production, consists of attempts to freshen up eminent graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.”
What’s more, his range of reference is dazzlingly wide. Even in his 90s, he was able to comment on heavy metal, rave culture, football, Disneyland, social media, the movie “Man on Wire” and the Occupy movement against the “1 percent.” He makes some playfully unlikely connections. Noting that the decade after 1965 saw a decline in vocations for the Roman Catholic priesthood, he adds, “Indeed, 1965 was the year in which the French fashion industry for the first time produced more trousers than skirts.”
Unexpectedly, perhaps, for a Marxist, he is, in Isaiah Berlin’s well-worn formulation, more of a fox than a hedgehog, a knower of many things rather than the advocate of a single big idea. Indeed, Hobsbawm’s Marxism is lightly worn and anything but dogmatic. True, he remains a theoretical materialist, regularly tying developments in culture to changing economic circumstances, but those looking for Communist polemic will need to look elsewhere. In an essay on manifestoes, he describes the “Workers of the World Unite” slogan as “well past its sell-by date.” Elsewhere he calls the Enlightenment, not Communism, “the most admirable of all human movements.”
Yet Hobsbawm remains controversial. After his death, London’s Daily Mail ran a piece under the heading “He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was . . . Eric Hobsbawm a traitor too?” Earlier, and more respectably, Tony Judt had written that his fellow left-leaning historian “refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works.” Plausibly, Judt wondered if Hobsbawm’s failure to denounce Stalinism was an act of loyalty to his “adolescent self,” the boy who had witnessed the ascent of Hitler and remembered the Communists as the Nazis’ most strident opponents. The Reds had stood against the brownshirts and so Hobsbawm would forever stand with them. There is nothing in this collection to suggest that Judt got that wrong.
The book has its flaws. If anything, it is too foxlike, ranging so widely that it ends up spread too thin: A chapter on religion is a global tour d’horizon that can’t help being superficial. Like many anthologies, it can feel disjointed rather than a coherent whole: Its title, “Fractured Times,” is unintentionally apposite. Some may dislike the curmudgeonly asides: He brands Tex-Mex food “a barbaric mutation” of Mexican cuisine.
But these are minor. To read this book is to travel through what Hobsbawm called the “short 20th century,” accompanied by one of its sharpest minds — waving much of that era goodbye.
—Jonathan Freedland on Eric Hobsbawm. Compare and contrast the fanboy adulation Freedland displays–and we have seen other such examples of fanboy adulation before–and Freedland’s claim that “Hobsbawm’s Marxism is lightly worn and anything but dogmatic,” with the following passage, which neither Hobsbawm’s ghost nor any of his admirers should ever be allowed to live down:
The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, has been to certify the inevitable triumph of Communism. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end–long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach. He loves to describe himself as a professional historian, but someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth, is nothing of the kind, neither a historian nor professional.
It becomes quite a good joke that Communism collapsed under him, proving in the living world that the beliefs and ideas in his head were empty illusions, and all the Marxist and Soviet rhetoric just claptrap. This Hobsbawn cannot understand, never mind accept. His best-known book, Age of Extremes, published as recently as 1994, still attempts to whitewash Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering, glossing with fundamental dishonesty over such integral features as enforced famine through collectivization and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and omitting all mention of the massacre at Katyn, the terrifying secret police apparatus of Beria, and the Gulag. At the same time, Hobsbawm depicts the United States “unfortunately” as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. Presenting him with a prestigious prize for this farrago, the left-wing historian Sir Keith Thomas said, “For pure intelligence applied to history, Eric Hobsbawm has no equal.” Another left-winger, the journalist Neal Ascherson, held that “No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source.” So much for Robert Conquest, Sir Kenneth Dover, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Bernard Lewis, and other genuine scholars.
A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstanding example of the type. The overriding question is: how was someone with his capacity able to deceive himself so completely about reality and take his stand alongside the commissar signing death warrants?
Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, (1) conveys the same point, only rather more deviously. On the very last page, it is true, he is “prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea” though for no very obvious reason (except as a cheap shot) he concludes the sentence by cramming in the comment that Herzl’s Zionism was also not a good idea. Note that slippery use of “Comintern” as a substitute for Communism itself. The concession, such as it is, is anyhow vitiated by an earlier passage when he attacks America and its allies, bizarrely spelled out as India, Israel, and Italy, and referred to as rich and the heirs of fascism. In this passage he predicts, “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism” (Which leaves Americans as barbarians.) By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains “the central point of reference in the political universe” and “the dream of the October revolution” is still vivid inside him. He cannot bring himself to refer to Leningrad as St. Petersburg. Learning nothing, he has forgotten nothing.