Hoisted from the Archives from 2012: Eric Hobsbawm, RIP: Let me correct the late Tony Judt, who said: "If he had not been a lifelong Communist, [Eric Hobsbawm] would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century."
It should read: "Even though he was a lifetime Communist, Eric Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historians of the 20th century."
A thousand years from now people are likely to still read The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital. I have tried to write reviews of those two books, and so far I have failed--I have been unable to write anything that conveys just how good they are.
Kindred Winecoff also has some thoughts:
Eric Hobsbawm, RIP: Hobsbawm was blinded by faith, and when the faith was gone he was blinded by habit. As a historian his inability to grasp the true course of history -- rather than the trajectory imagined by Marxists -- was shocking. The 20th century was revolutionary; it's just that the enduring revolutions weren't propagated by the radicals…. [Christopher] Hitchens put it thus:
Thus there is less paradox than first appears in the willingness of such a civilized man to align himself with such a barbaric and philistine politics. He did it, he tells us in effect, because the Communist International supplied the elements of family and fatherland that were unavailable to a deracinated Jewish orphan intellectual. In other words, he did it because of his displaced yearning for family values, religion and patriotism: the Tory virtues.
Hobsbawm described himself as a "Tory communist," and there is something to be said for sticking to ones' guns even when the cause is lost, as Hobsbawm did. What exactly should be said is another matter, but here is what Hobsbawm did say:
I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it. I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living…. In 1994, decades after Stalin's de-iconization by the Soviets themselves, Hobsbawm said that Stalin's millions of murders were "probably excessive" but would have been worth it had a communist society emerged. As if that was ever the goal. Even for Hobsbawm himself one wonders, given that he was on record as saying that if Stalin enlisted him for the KGB he would be compelled to answer the call whatever misgivings he may have had. (And he doesn't have to have had many.) His Tory communism was servile, in other words, not emancipatory….
So what then to do with… the reactionaries on the Left?…. While Hobsbawm eventually came to the point of denouncing Stalin, he never fully disavowed the project that not only made Stalin possible, but made him inevitable.
Yet these same aspects of Hobsbawm's personality helped make him one of the 20th century's great historians. He did as much as any single person to change the study of history from Great Men to broader social processes and global orders. His influence on method may last much longer than his influence on thought. Both have already lived longer than his political ideology.
Christopher Hitchens--a man who knew much about aligning himself with barbaric and philistine politics to supply the elements of family and motherland otherwise absent--does, I think, have this right. Hobsbawm:
was born in 1917 at Alexandria, Egypt…. His early childhood was spent in Vienna… and Berlin…. In 1929, when Hobsbawm was 12, his father died, and he started contributing to his family's support by working as an au pair and English tutor. Upon the death of their mother two years later… he and Nancy were adopted by their maternal aunt, Gretl, and paternal uncle, Sidney…. [W]hen Hitler came to power in 1933… the family moved to London, where Hobsbawm enrolled in St Marylebone Grammar School…
Spending the years 1929-1933 from when you are 12-16 as an orphaned Jew in Berlin watching the rise of Hitler… And while others bobbed and weaved one and only one group of people had your back, welcomed you in, fought to protect you against the greatest evil the world has ever seen. Ernst Thaelmann's Communist Party seemed, to Hobsbawm, his only friends, his only family, his only comrades.
And he never deserted his comrades--even though he owed it to them to do so.