Convenient amnesia – airbrushing the history out of History FERGUS DOWNIE

Convenient amnesia – airbrushing the history out of History

FERGUS DOWNIE recalls an unjustifiably revered and self-deluding historian

Eric Hobsbawm

Historians, as Khrushchev once observed, are dangerous people, but how could this be otherwise when they are entrusted with a power that not even the Gods possess – the power to change the past. Little wonder that Marxists have taken such care to ransack it for signs of a society pregnant with the possibilities of their drab utopia. As a cursory glance at the British Academy’s hall of fame reveals, the academic preeminence of Marxist historians is hardly in doubt – and nowhere is this more evident than in the enduring fame of Eric Hobsbawm.

The last great survivor of the Communist Party Historians Group, Hobsbawm’s passing in 2012 was accompanied at the BBC and other barometers of correct thinking by the kind of fawning necrologies more often seen in the defunct People’s Republics. Indulged in his lifetime, he was all but canonized in death. Most of this eulogizing admittedly came from academics who, unlike Hobsbawm, kept no flame flickering for the deceased Soviet Union. The likes of Tristram Hunt and Simon Schama who distinguished themselves with particularly treacly eulogies are at most members of the soft Left, but this simply emphasizes the cachet that Marxism has retained even as its political prospects waned. It is easier after all to indulge wild thoughts when they safely lead nowhere – and this perfectly captures the moral universe of the consumer Left, a world where the absence of a public role opens up a world of symbolic transgressions and fashionable poses; the ultimate low cost, low obligation morality of the bourgeois bohemian.

If it is a creed easily borne, however it is also, by the same token, a life only half-lived – the iconography of the Left remains a heroic one and when the barricades have been swept from the streets the temptation for revolutionary dilettantes to warm their hands on the ashes of their grandfathers’ passions has been irresistible. This is perhaps why Hobsbawm was so interesting personally to the current generation of progressive intellectuals. With his sheer longevity, he provided a living connection to the great ideological conflicts which sustained their martyred self-image just as his intellectual gifts enabled him to airbrush a history which was sorely in need of it.

Before expanding on the details of this major accomplishment, it is as well to note the very un-Marxian detachment from active political projects which this retreat into the past symbolized, and its roots in the political failure of the Left. Hobsbawm was well aware of the receding political prospects of a class-based socialism – his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture “Forward March of Labour Halted” was prescient and it could only undermine the raison d’etre of a philosophy predicated on an accurate grasp of the laws of history. This disappearance of the critical element of praxis hobbled Marxist history with a navel-gazing character: after all, if the exploration of the past struggles of the exploited does not shine a light on history in the making, what is left but sentimental melodrama? For all its literary brilliance, E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class belongs firmly in this genre and Thompson’s preoccupation with the losers of history was a testament to a political disillusionment which was shared by Hobsbawm. And if the latter avoided the romanticism of Thompson he still had to deal with the manifest failure of an ideology which had consumed millions of lives. The unfortunate result was history as rationalisation and a progressive parochialisation of his thought – having been forced to recant his faith in world communism, his creative energies were bottled up in penning apologias for past Stalinist indiscretions. With Hobsbawm the political became very personal and a book like Age of Extremes was every bit as autobiographical as Interesting Times.

Professor Hobsbawm’s output was prodigious right up until the end, even if in later years it consisted of slovenly cuttings of articles and interviews unconvincingly forced into book titles. The New Century: Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism and How to Change the World are dreadful examples of this fading mental energy, and the numerous public interviews in which he dispensed pious sermons to assembled sycophants also gave ever decreasing returns. Much like A J P Taylor in his twilight years, Hobsbawm rambled into the absurd. Perhaps his lowest point was an appearance at the Hay Festival with Christopher Hitchens, when he implied that the ambient grey squalor of life behind the Iron Curtain redeemed itself in the intimate friendships it engendered, before adding, as one must, that such deep relationships were less often forged in the shiny barbarism of the USA. A sense of intellectual decency might have provided some kind of check to this drivel, but in the massed ranks of Orwell’s ‘snob Bolsheviks’ these achingly vacuous perorations were treated with bewildering seriousness.

At the time Hobsbawm was churning out his famous quartet, starting with the Age of Revolution in 1962 and ending with the acclaimed Age of Extremes in 1994, these stumbles were some way off, and this multi-volume odyssey is almost unanimously regarded as a tour de force, capable of drawing praise even from unfashionably right wing historians like Norman Stone and Niall Ferguson. Some of the attraction is a product of Hobsbawm’s much vaunted ‘range’ and omnivorous global interests. Part of the great wave of Mitteleuropa which imbued British academic life with high German seriousness, he was repelled by what he saw as the provincialism and excessive empiricism of British academic history. He tackled big subjects and eschewed the ‘antiquarian archive grubbing’ which he saw as the domain of lesser mortals. Hobsbawm did very little primary source work, but then who needs evidence when you have a doctrine? History was simply a stage upon which to project his cosmic Marxist dramas and to those who questioned his carelessness with the facts, one can easily imagine him retorting as Hegel is reputed to have done – ‘so much the worse for the facts’.

The necessary lie never quite made an appearance, but in most of his work dealing with twentieth century history you can hear the beating of its wings. Even supposing he felt no conscious need to massage facts his Marxism had a distinctly parochialising effect, for if he opened up grand vistas he explored them with a pretty crude instrument. If Hobsbawm sparkled in the nineteenth century his treatment of most of the twentieth century was riven with banality and special pleading.

For a supposedly panoramic view of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes has some striking omissions – the Katyn Forest massacre does not even make an appearance as a passing footnote, and it requires an act of will to overlook such an event when setting out to rewrite the history of the twentieth century as a moral parable. Few episodes better symbolize the moral bankruptcy of that era than those 20,000 Polish officers, murdered and dumped in mass graves, but as Hobsbawm well knew they were the inevitable casualties of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which as a loyal Communist he endorsed. Not surprisingly, this collaboration between the Nazis and the Communists is an area where Hobsbawm’s eloquence repeatedly deserts him – though he found the necessary steamroller prose at the time to write toadying articles defending the USSR’s invasion of Finland and the carving up of Poland.

As for all communists, the periods of the Popular Front and the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis are comforting touchstones. Like so many patrician Marxists, Hobsbawm evidently thought that his sterile creed could reap moral capital from the bravery of the Russian people; reading The Age of Extremes you could be forgiven for thinking that the ordinary Russian in uniform was fighting for another Five Year Plan. Yet few wish to recall the awkward fact that Hitler’s destruction of the Weimar Republic was aided by the KPD at every turn – the Communist and Nazi paramilitary wing even co-operating during the Berlin transport workers strike of 1932 – or that the workers’ state was supplying the Nazi war machine for almost two years.

It is not just his silence which condemns either. The Age of Extremes is shot through with bizarre assertions which tarnish his claims to be considered a serious historian. The outlandish suggestion that the Bolshevik revolution was ‘made by the masses’ constitutes a claim that not even Lenin made, and what is one to think of the spurious attempt to portray the excesses of Stalinism as the necessary price of its successful defiance against Nazi Germany? Stalin turned the USSR into a major industrial economy in a few years, he contends, and one capable, as Tsarist Russia had not been, of surviving and winning a war against Germany.

As with the mass credentials of the Bolsheviks (they received a quarter of votes in the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 even with the aid of rigged elections), not much forensic detail is necessary to establish holes in this argument. The notion that Russia’s industrial growth was particularly impressive during the ’30s, or that it required such staggering human losses is easily contradicted by evidence available even at the time. Even by the crudest indicators of giganticism favoured by central planners, such as production of crude steel, the increases were no more than that achieved during the later years of Tsarist rule, and no more than might have been achieved under Bukharin’s proposals for a limited free market. The most that one can say is that the Soviet economy registered the same rate of growth as Germany with far less of the efficiency. In the absence of a rational pricing system it was inevitable that white elephants like Magnitogorsk, ‘the world’s greatest steel mill’, which used up more natural resources than it produced, would abound.

Moreover, how does one begin to even measure the lost economic and military potential of the missing millions with which Russia might have confronted Germany in 1941? The scale of the latter still staggers the imagination – in 1937 as many as 700,000 men, women, and children were executed, and the census of that year yielded further horrors. Even after the first batch of statisticians had been shot, it still revealed a population 18 million lower than had been forecast. Gosplan’s bureaucrats were evidently too incompetent even to quantify their own murders but this did not unduly disillusion Hobsbawm, who in any case was shielded from embarrassment by largely gushing audiences. Just occasionally, however, he met someone who asked a pointed question. Probed by the Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff on whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – to say nothing of  the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red Utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm replied unhesitatingly “yes”. One death is a tragedy – a million clearly was a statistic.

Like so many communists and their fellow travelers Hobsbawm nursed an air of persecuted martyrdom, but there is precious little evidence he suffered for his convictions. On the contrary his ascension to the establishment was smooth enough; a personal chair in 1970 was followed by membership of the British Academy eight years later, and an ostentatiously spurned knighthood in 1998, all of which went hand in hand with a private fortune generated by colossal royalties and the cash-backed accolades showered on him by the academic nomenclature (the Balzan prize alone weighing in at a cool one million Swiss francs). Hobsbawm like so many socialist intellectuals was socialist in all senses bar money.

To have been a communist before the German invasion of the Soviet Union was to be in objective terms a traitor. Hobsbawm complained self-righteously about it, but MI5 would have been negligent if they had not kept a file on him. Having noted his membership of the ‘legendary’ Cambridge Apostles, the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle added, with apparent complete lack of irony that ‘as with so many other communists Hobsbawm volunteered for intelligence work’. This, alas, for the USSR at least, was not to be, and he passed the war in the company of ‘a very working class unit’ of engineers attempting to build some ‘patently inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of East Anglia’.

Nothing if not dismissive of the ‘upper class Englishman’ Eric Blair slumming amongst the proles, Hobsbawm himself exhibited a certain de haut en bas grandeur in his dealings with the proletariat once this Marxian abstraction had assumed human form, noting that they were for the most part not very clever, but nevertheless ‘very very good people’. Like so many Marxists his portrayals of the intimate and human, details of everyday life betrayed an awkwardness of touch which did not plague a writer like Orwell. He may have loved ‘humanity’ but it was an impossibly abstract love – not for him the circle of intimate affections radiating outwards but a doctrinal one which held up an impossible standard for imperfect humankind.

The political dangers spawned by this bloodless abstraction ‘humanity’ were apparent to Edmund Burke. He lived to see the Jacobins draw up an indictment against a whole people on the basis of abstract ideology, and can anyone not think of Trotsky’s famous denunciation of ‘vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life”‘ when reading the following lines by Seymon Frank?

Sacrificing himself for an idea he does not hesitate to sacrifice other people for it. Among his contemporaries he sees either merely the victims of the world’s evil he dreams of eradicating or the perpetrators of that evil……This feeling of hatred for the enemies of the people form the actual concrete and psychological foundation of his life. Thus the great love of mankind gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction.

This is the self-defeating abyss of revolutionary morality, and as faith in the Red Utopia receded there has been an inevitable tendency for a free-floating misanthropy to crowd out any residual idealism – hope in salvation is gone, but there still remains the dream of everlasting damnation. This is the misanthropic cul-de-sac in which the contemporary Left has become ensconced; its puerile anti-Americanism in itself a barely disguised form of loathing for the social inferiors who eat fast food and sate their plebeian tastes on Hollywood mass culture. Asked the inevitable questions about George W. Bush and the American occupation of Iraq, Hobsbawm needed only to observe that ‘the barbarians were in charge’ to draw the appropriate Pavlovian response. This is a very low bar but then the contemporary Left has actually had very little to say in recent years, which is no doubt why much of the vernacular is becoming ever more labored and postmodernised.

Hobsbawm was well aware of the dangers of the new irrationalism that the 21st century fanned, and it could be seen first hand in his own discipline. His Marxist historical method was both anchored in, and part corrective to, a Whiggish interpretation of history rooted in basic tenets of Enlightenment rationalism, but in the new postmodern dispensation such grand teleological narratives were redundant. All that remained was the identity-obsessed therapy studies on Western campuses which have all but destroyed the idea of a liberal education. Hobsbawm lamented this decline of the humanities, and the pass it gave to every species of violent irrational enthusiasm, but if he thought the legacy as important as he professed he might have drawn the same conclusion as other vestigial Marxists and prioritized his resentments. After 9/11 Jürgen Habermas had at least chosen American vulgarity over the forces of violent religious obscurantism, even exchanging letters with the Pope on the Christian roots of Western civilization. But Hobsbawm contented himself with the narcissism of small differences, ending his autobiography with a flourish of dated anti-Americanism that demeaned his stature. Ultimately he lacked what Orwell called ‘moral effort’, but what it is after all to have talent to squander.

FERGUS DOWNIE writes from London


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