In Britain, nonagenarian Eric Hobsbawm has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years as a commentator on the current economic climate. He seems to be saying that capitalism had it coming all along and finally everyone is recognizing what he already knew. But is he reliable in this analysis, given his support for Stalin long past most intellectuals dropped their support because of Stalin’s ethnic cleansings?
I have had a soft spot for Eric Hobsbawm because his Nations and Nationalism was the first difficult history text in undergrad that I understood. I remember this as a kind of light bulb moment–there was a time when his text was completely inaccessible and then, after a little help from a great professor, I understood it.
I also liked the narrative scope of The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 and have thought about assigning it to undergrads. I sat in on a class in graduate school that read several histories of the twentieth century, and this one stuck in my mind as accessible and thought provoking.
As I was contemplating putting the text on a syllabus for the job market, I ran across this heated 2009 article by Geoffrey Levy about Hobsbawm, dismissing his many books because of his opinion on Marxism and more particularly on Stalinism. It exposes how insipid my own “ahhhh, Hobsbawm has another book out, how cute” impulse is (I also read his autobiography for a class, which made him seem so much more like a personable character to me). Why does England venerate him as a great historian if he has long held these views on Stalin? Let me quote the beginning:
The Marxist historian who’s crowing about the crash of capitalism and says Stalin was right to murder millions is demanding to see his MI5 files. Imagine how the KGB would have treated him!
The voice, though old and crackly, trembled with self-justification. ‘Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism,’ it declared, ‘not only destroys the heritage and tradition but is incredibly unstable…’
Imagine the pomposity and satisfaction with which Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who lives in a large house in the fashionable North London suburb of Hampstead Heath, regurgitated his old argument to listeners of Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.
In the current world crisis, who better for the BBC to exhume for its listeners than the West’s greatest 20th-century apologist for Soviet communism and excuser of its totalitarian evils.
Professor Hobsbawm has been all over the airwaves since the credit crunch crisis began, crowing about capitalism’s demise. But then, should one expect anything else from an intellectual who has never apologised for expressing his approval of Stalin’s mass murders?
I have long thought that Hobsbawm was both doctrinaire and derivative, which pretty much go together, anyway: mostly a bore, telling you what you already knew, with lots of footnotes or hurrumphing erudition. Among those canonical Brits of the 1970s, Christopher Hill and Raymond Williams were the key figures for me, because they were never boring–Hill writing a whole goddamn book on Milton in the English Revolution, Williams writing the most heartbreaking non-fiction book I’ve ever read, The Country and the City.
I’m always thinking about and with these folks because they were the writers I turned to in trying to understand early modern capitalism, back when I was doing Russian history, ugh. Hobsbawm was always the least interesting of them because he was always trying to prove that Marx was right about something, whatever it was. Everybody else had something else to prove
He has long thought this,
since reading The Age of Revolution in 1971, when I didn’t know what it meant to be a Marxist, and thus had no intention of becoming one.
Do American historians read Hobsbawm? I started out my professional life with a foot in European history, so I have perhaps more exposure to him than others, but I haven’t read him in many years. What is your opinion of his work and his legitimacy as a public critic of contemporary capitalism?