U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Opinions of Eric Hobsbawm?

Eric Hobsbawm

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?

On our facebook page, James Livingston explained why he doesn’t read or assign Hobsbawm:

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?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. my sense is that he’s a name known more than read. like you, people know him more as an historian/theorist of nations and nationalism. i’ve seen references to his book (with george rude), from i think the early 1960s, about Captain Swing.

  2. Varad: Uncharitable? Try foolish and false. David Irving claims the Holocaust never happened. I don’t recall Hobsbawm denying Stalinism, the gulag, or the mass murders. His most hostile critics accuse him of justifying those horrors, not denying them. What’s more, Irving’s work, particularly in the later part of his career, is devoted to and consumed by his Holocaust denial. Hobsbawm’s work is hardly devoted to a defense of Stalinism. His most important scholarship is about 19th century Europe, primitive rebels, nationalism, and more. The comparison seems completely facile.

  3. I used *Age of Extremes* last fall in a twentieth-century world history course, and the students very much appreciated the book. I never got the sense that Hobsbawm “justified” Stalinism so much as explained it. Also, Hobsbawm’s Marxism has clearly moderated over time. *Age of Extremes* almost heaps praise on the mixed-economy Western welfare state.

    Varad: I’m with Corey in that your Irving comp is most unwarranted.

  4. I wonder which contemporary historians will be read out of the profession in their old age for still having something good to say about neoliberalism in the wake of the collapse of free-market globalism?

  5. Moreover, it turns out that Irving’s work on the bombing of Dresden, the scholarship on which his early, positive reputation was built, is also extremely problematic simply as scholarship.

    As Corey says, I’ve never heard anyone accuse Hobsbawm of presenting massive falsehoods in his scholarship, which is the most serious charge against Irving.

  6. Yes, the comparison was tendentious. It was meant to be. Please see my further comments to Lauren’s post on Susie’s FB page.

  7. S-USHI: Society for US History of Ichthyians. Core texts: The Old Man and the Sea and Walton’s Compleat Angler.

    It could also be the Society for US History of Ichthys. That would have rather different core texts.

  8. Livingston’s comment is really intriguing. This summer my advisor told me I would benefit from reading Raymond Williams, so I ordered Culture and Society, Keywords, and The Country and the City. My prof’s advice: read the first book now, use the second as needed, but “you should probably save the last book for later.” I figured this was because it was too far afield from my research interests or something. But after reading Livingston’s assessment of it — “the most heartbreaking non-fiction book I’ve ever read” — I think I know why my advisor told me to wait on that one. So of course now I have to read it immediately!

  9. Of course I’m not an historian, but I’ve read virtually everything Hobsbawm has written and thus think there’s much to be learned from his body of work. I’m looking forward to reading his latest collection of essays, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (2/3 of which ‘have not been published in English or at all’). I also happen to enjoy the works of most of the one-time members of the “Communist Party Historians Group,” but especially Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, E.P. Thompson, and Victor Kiernan.

    I strongly identify with the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Left generally, so I’m clearly biased, although my own worldview is not simply “Marxist.”

  10. I’m not a historian but I read H’s ‘The Age of Revolution’ in college a long time ago and ‘The Age of Extremes’ (well, most of it) more recently. [Also have two other Hobsbawm bks on my shelf: ‘Industry and Empire’ and (a vol. he edited w/ Terence Ranger) ‘The Invention of Tradition’.] My sense is that he’s a good historian and a lucid writer with a wide range of knowledge and an enviable ability to synthesize. He also has a good eye for anecdote. I like (and have quoted on my blog) the opening of Age of Extremes in which he recounts Mitterand going to Sarajevo on June 28, 1992 b/c June 28 was the date in 1914 on which Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, only to have virtually no one outside of professional historians catch the reference.

    I don’t know much about his personal political history except that he was a member of the CP for a long time. I agree w the comment above re his views having ‘moderated’ — certainly, iirc, there is a good deal in Age of Extremes which prob. could have been written by a garden-variety liberal or social democrat.

  11. The linked G. Levy column in The Daily Mail does find some dumb and/or clueless things H. said over the years, though only 2 or 3 of them (e.g. the response to Ignatieff in that ’94 interview) rise to the level of inexcusable, imo. Would be interesting to see if H. responded at the time (I’m guessing he didn’t).

  12. Dr. Hartman had us read Eric Hobsbawm in an undergraduate History Teacher preparation course. If my memory serves me, the general class consensus was not all that in favor or the book. However, having progressed quite a bit from my undergraduate days I do see some merits in Hobsbawm’s work. I would have to read the piece again to speak with any sort of certainty here, but I do recall a fixation (to put it nicely) on Marxism. In fact, this was what drew the ire of most of the class. I find it interesting, looking back, that in a high school teacher preparation class we so valued democratic (or at least what we call democratic here in the United States) ideals that we so eagerly vilified an academic for their unabashed Marxist inclinations. Now, mind you, as undergrads we had been exposed to very little modern Marxist material. I certainly did not understand Marxism as well as I do now, which I must admit is still far less than more experienced historians. However, I think it does speak to a propensity to encourage capitalist-democratic teachers in the US over Marxist approaches. In fact, Illinois State’s College of Education even has a credo entitled “Realizing the Democratic Ideal” in which teacher candidates are indoctrinated into a teaching philosophy that has the “Democratic Ideals” of our nation fully integrated and front-and-center in their approach.

    Gee…I can’t imagine why Hobsbawm threw our class for such a loop!

    Bradley Marcy

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