Remember Us With Forbearance: The Unrepentant Eric Hobsbawm, An Obituary

HobsbawmDonald Sassoon in Berfrois:

Eric Hobsbawm outlived his short twentieth century (1917-1991) by more than twenty years. And right to the end he was still the object of scandal for having been far too long a communist. ‘You see’, he might have said, (‘you see’ was one of his habitual linguistic tics) ‘there have been many communists among major historians, but they left. Some stayed on the left (E.P. Thompson), some moved right (Annie Kriegel, François Furet). I stayed until the end, the bitter end.’

Since even the popular media agree that Hobsbawm was a remarkable historian, a great historian, and some even say that he was the greatest living historian (something which he found rather unconvincing and a little embarrassing), it begs the question: how can an impenitent communist be a great historian? Indeed, whenever Hobsbawm was interviewed, especially in Britain or the United States, sooner or later, the utterly predictable questions would pop up. And why did you support the USSR? And why did you stay so long in the communist party? (the sub-text here being ‘the producer insisted I should ask you this because it would look odd if I didn’t’). The interviewer would offer a challenge: Here is the opportunity to denounce your past, to repent, to say sorry. Take the chance. Admit it: you were wrong!

Although he has consistently refused to abjure, he freely admitted mistakes, erroneous interpretations, his belated realization of the gravity of Stalin’s crimes (Khrushchev’s speech was to him a revelation). However, on the substance: ‘are you sorry to have been a communist?’ he always remained unrepentant.

What kind of communist was he? He belonged, he explained in his autobiography, Interesting Times, to the generation for whom the hope of a world revolution was so strong that to abandon the communist party was like giving in to despair. But he must have been tempted. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary a letter was sent to the Daily Worker, then the party daily. It was signed by Hobsbawm as well as other party intellectuals such as Christopher Hill, E.P Thompson, Ronald Meek, Rodney Hilton, Doris Lessing, and the remarkable Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (who, in a somewhat eccentric way, is supposed to have rejoined the party over Hungary on the grounds that one does not desert friends in need). The letter declared that, ‘We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to the Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure of the British communists to think our political problems for themselves…The exposure of grave crimes and abuses in the USSR and the recent revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseudo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems of Poland and Hungary, have shown that for the past twelve years we have based our political analyses on the false presentation of the facts….’.