Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm: Smelly and Orthodox



The day after I left for Tunisia Eric Hobsbawm died.  A former professor at Birkbeck College, he was ‘Britain’s best known Marxist historian’.  I suppose he must have been; it said so in the Guardian, though just how many outside the common rooms and beyond the chattering classes knew of this ghastly old fraud is open to question.  Now you have a flavour of what is to follow.  Read no further if you think it a sin to speak ill of the dead, for I am about to speak ill; Ana’s silver hammer is about to fall upon Hobsbawm’s head! 

For me his passing really does mark the end of a political Cretaceous period.  He was the last Stalinist, the last of the ideological dinosaurs who corrupted intellectual life in this country for so many decades.  I’m rather glad I was away, missing some of the more nauseating tributes, including one from Ed Miliband at the Labour Party conference, where he was described as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family.”  Hmm, yes, I take this as a measure of the Milibands.  If you do not already know that measure you will before I have finished. 

He was also lauded by the BBC, no surprise there, in that Hobsbawm might be said to have defined a large part of the Corporation’s political and intellectual outlook in much the same way that the creepy Jimmy Savile defined its subterranean sexual morals. 

I was disappointed, though, to note that praise also came from Niall Ferguson, a right-wing historian for whom I hitherto had considerable respect.  He was rash enough to describe Hobsbawm’s cycle of books beginning with The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 as “the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.”  What utter rot!  Has he actually read these awful, badly written ideological apologetics, I have to ask?  Either he has completely failed to understand the falsity here or, like so many others, has descended into abject hypocrisy. 

Let me give you this scenario.  Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party - no friend of the Milibands - has taken part in an in-depth television interview.  In the course of this he was asked one key question – if Hitler had achieved the radiant future he promised would this have justified the murder of six million Jews?  He answers in one word: yes.

Now just imagine the perfect storm that would follow, just imagine the ostracism and the denunciations.  Of course it never happened; it’s a fiction.  It is no fiction that Hobsbawm was asked a similar question by Michael Ignatieff in an 1994 interview, namely, if the “radiant tomorrow” had actually been created in the Soviet Union would the death of 15 or 20 million people have been justified?  Yes, came the reply.  Was there a storm, was he ostracised and denounced?  No; instead Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour in 1998.

Hobsbawm remained loyal to his murderous political passions all of his life.  He became a Communist at an early age while living in Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.  In another interview, perhaps more revealing than he ever intended, he said he joined the Communist Party partly because he was Jewish - “if I hadn’t been, I might well have become a Nazi in those circumstances.”  In a deeper sense he did: that sense in which both Nazism and Communism have a similar view of the value of human life.

Unfortunately for us he came to Britain before Hitler took power, though he always held this country, its people, its politics and its institutions in contempt.  Fortunately for him he did not go to the Soviet Union, his ideological motherland.  If he had, as a foreigner, an intellectual and a Jew he is unlikely to have survived Stalin’s purges.

Hobsbawm was a traitor in spirit.  A member of the Cambridge Apostles in the 1930s, it may very well be proved at some future point that he was also a traitor in deed.  His treason in word began early.  A supporter of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, he co-authored a pamphlet defending the Soviet attack on Finland, saying that Stalin was merely trying to protect Russia “from an invasion by British imperialists.” 

There is another irony here.  Let’s assume that this defender of the Nazi-Soviet pact had gone to the Soviet Union instead of taking advantage of British liberty, including the liberty to write laughable twaddle.  Let’s say that, by some miracle, he had survived the Great Purge, no doubt by lauding Stalin and denouncing others.  Well, then, that same Pact would almost certainly have finished him.  For Stalin, as a gesture of friendship and goodwill, was delighted to hand German Communist exiles over to the Nazis.

Instead Hobsbawm became the prime example of the idiocy and bad faith of the British left.  He became a prime example of the alienated intellectual who, as George Orwell noted, took their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.  He became a prime example of the polysyllable-spewing Stalinist that Orwell identified in The Road to Wigan Pier and elsewhere.  The crushing of Hungarian freedom came in 1956; others left the Communist Party; Hobsbawm remained.  The crushing of the Prague Spring came in 1968; others left the Communist Party; Hobsbawm remained.  As Soviet Communism grew senile and sclerotic he grew senile and sclerotic with it.  

Hobsbawm, incidentally, was in the habit of referring to Orwell as the “upper-class Englishman Eric Blair.”  Englishman he certainly was; upper-class he certainly was not.  What marks Orwell out was his decency and his honesty, his contempt for the forms of abject power worship embraced by the likes of Hobsbawm, full of contempt for people while full of love for the Masses.

In the end the Hobsbawm disease is reducible to one thing: the cancer of abstraction.  He remained loyal to the ‘ideals’ of the Russian Revolution, even after those same ‘ideals’ descended to a murderous practice time and time and time again.  But the grand illusion actually goes deeper; it goes as deep as Rousseau and the French Revolution. 

The Soviet Experiment, you see, was for Hobsbawm just the latest expression of 'Enlightenment Values', a belief that it was possible to create the world anew following an abstract blueprint.  Those who are not deluded understand the implications of this – the death of millions.  More human beings have been destroyed by Communism and ‘Enlightenment Values’ than by any other force in history.  And there never was, never could be, a happy outcome, only a mountain of skulls that would have made even Tamerlane blanch.  Not Hobsbawm. 

I have the deepest contempt for this man’s legacy, for the malign impact he has had on the intellectual life of this country, for the way in which his minions and fellow travellers have been allowed to corrupt so much of the media establishment, particularly the BBC, an organisation that has become a national disgrace.  It is indeed a matter of concern, as Michael Burleigh noted in the Telegraph, that such dubious figures have been given licence to dominate the soft culture of the BBC and so many universities. 

I return to George Orwell, specifically to his essay on Charles Dickens, which concludes with the following observation;

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Smelly little orthodoxy never let go of Hobsbawm’s soul.  I, too, see his face in his writing.  There he is, smirking. His eyes show it all.  They show him to be mean-spirited, unimaginative and small-minded. His is the face of a hypocrite and a liar. His is the face of a twentieth century Communist, smelly and orthodox to the end.  He will be forgotten, his dishonest and derivative books unread.  He was bad rubbish.  Good riddance. 


25 comments:

  1. Death, best thing for him really.

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    1. I would not wish that on anyone, though we are far better off without the kind of views he embraced. I'm glad they are dead.

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    2. The end justifies the means.

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  2. Have a wonderful Samhain Eve!

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    1. I did, Anthony, thanks. I hope you did too. :-)

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  3. Marxist historian? Sounds like an oxymoron to me. I'd heard of this mountebank but hadn't read his work. However, I had a hard time trying to wade through Das Kapital, so if someone had told me he was a Marxist that would have been warning enough. Unfortunately, when people like this get into positions of influence, particularly as university professors, the damage they can do is incalculable.

    I know that you're not a fan of the BBC Ana, but I do think sometimes that you're a little hard on it. I worked for the Corporation in the 1970s and found it to be smug, complacent and self-regarding, but this was a time when it was producing television of unsurpassed quality (Alistair Cooke's America; Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New; and the brilliant The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, inter alia).

    However, the quality of its journalism has fallen off a cliff in the last 30 years. The old-timers, like Richard Dimbleby, were the best in the business. Dimbleby actually flew with Bomber Command over Germany to be able to give people back home a (radio) picture of what it was like, and his was the voice that anchored the Coronation in 1953. There are modern exceptions: I'm thinking of Ian Pannell's reports from inside Syria, produced, like Dimbleby's, at considerable risk to his personal safety.

    And a lot of Radio 4's output is still worth listening to (not including The Archers, I hasten to add!). My Food for Thought from last week was inspired by a report on one of the station's science programs. However, there is far too much of what I would call sloppy journalism on the BBC nowadays, which led me to write a series of critiques at the beginning of this year under the general title "BBC English".

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    1. Dennis, I think you have described the position very well. I think present standards of journalism at the Beeb are lamentable. I think it general there has been a falling off in standards of programme making. I think old Auntie's general ethos is quite poor. Yes, I am critical but I also try to be objective. There are still occasional flashes of brilliance, the recent adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End being a case in point. But this is beginning to look like oases in the desert.

      I'll come over and dine. :-)

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  4. Good to see your teeth are as wickedly sharp as ever Ana!
    I've only read some of Hobsbawm’s books, but I must agree about how pernicious his influence was, along with that of so many other communist apologists and fellow travelers. Your comment about the left always expecting to be judged by its supposed intentions -and never by its results- reminded me of a book I read a few months ago by a french intellectual, Jean-François Revel, called Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era. One of the things that caught my eye was how outraged the french intellectual world was when The Black Book of Communism came out. They even went so far as to make one of the contributors to the book recant on what he said so he could save his academic career! The Passing of an Illusion by Furet on the other hand was much better received, which is not hard to comprehend, since it doesn't contrast the high humanitarian ideals bien-pensants everywhere purport to defend with the murderous outcome putting them into practice always entails.
    Btw, I had never seen the last picture of Hobsbawm you posted, by the end he looked like a cross between Mr Burns, a Zombie and a raisin.

    PS: May I ask what you think of Tony Judt?

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    1. Thanks, Wilson. Yes he does rather!

      The Revel book looks interesting. Have you read Nick Cohen's What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way? I found it very useful.

      As yet I've not read any of Judt's work.

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    2. I'll see if I can get my hands on Cohen's book.
      As for Judt, I highly recommend Postwar. He was a Social Democrat, but a rather unusual one; he didn't flinch from condemning many of his peers for flirting with totalitarianism and was also a very good writer.

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    3. Cohen, on the political left himself, caused a perfect storm among his comrades when his book was published. Have a look at the extremes on AmazonUK!

      On your recommendation I've added Postwar to my Amazon basket.

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  5. Happy Halloween, Ana. Or Samhain.

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    1. Thanks, Calvin. Either way is good. :-)

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  6. Judge Ana, I don't know this guy but he may well deserve your judgment!

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  7. Ana, I said that because I know there are no real historians exist in Communist countries.

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    1. Because history requires a detached and objective consciousness, not at a premium in communist societies.

      Incidentally are you familiar with the work of Mo Yan? I've not read any of his novels or stories but I've been reading about him in the wake of the Nobel award. Some of his themes sound altogether grotesque!

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    2. Exactly! I don't blame communism for everything but as ideology, it's poisonous! No such thing as "Marxist historian".

      No, I never read any of his works. No guts and no interest. It's just not something I would appreciate as art or literature. but you know, art is about freedom. I think he can write anything he wants. Noble prize? I don't take it serious since longtime ago.

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    3. Yes,I know exactly what you mean.

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  8. Very good. When I was reading history at Cambridge I kept to myself my disapproval of Marxist and Marxist-Leninist dons but wish I hadn't. Orwell said of himself that he was lower-upper-middle class. You were nice about my take on this which I am posting here:http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2012/10/eric-hobsbawm-almost-converted-me-to.html

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    1. I thanked you there and I thank you here. :-)

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  9. Okay, so did you read his books or did you just read the opinions of others claiming he was a Marxist historian? I read a few of his more popular books -- they were very well written and much more entertaining to read than a lot of other history books and they suprisingly covered a lot more subjects than Marxism. Just my 2 cents.

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    1. Darko, I've read his 'Age of' series and I've read some of his articles. My opinions, I assure you, are never second hand. The Age of Extremes I thought singularly unimpressive, full of dubious judgements and glaring evasions. I do not like his work, I do not like his style, I do not like his politics and I did not like him. I cannot but judge these things politically which, I will admit, is my own bias. We are all guilty of some reading or other.

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