Eric Hobsbawm: a tarnished or triumphant reputation?

How is it possible to be a major historian and an apologist for communism?  It may depend on the breadth of your horizons.  Without tackling the question head-on, Eric Hobsbawm who died yesterday at the age of 95 explained himself  in his own terms on this fundamental point in the introduction to Age of Extremes :The short twentieth Century 1914-1991 he called The Century: a Bird’s Eye View.  His synthesis on this most terrible and most transforming of centuries that shaped us all is roughly as follows:

The October Revolution of 1917 exposed the weaknesses of the globalising world order that collapsed in 1914. The Great Depression in the West between the wars gave communism its chance to show what it could do. Democracy shrunk mainly to North America but an emergency anti-fascist alliance of former opponents saved democracy. “The victory over Hitler’s Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won by the Red Army”. The war was followed by brief Golden Age up to about 1970 which is hard to explain.  But during the period the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was not alone in fearing that communism might outstrip capitalism. True, it was communism that collapsed first, but has capitalism fared much better? The Cold War (though not a term he adopted), kept the lid on a lot problems that are now bubbling up to the surface.

While the The Guardian carries encomia from a panel of historians, including the  pro imperialist Niall Ferguson, the Telegraph prints a denunciation from the historian of terror Michael Burleigh:

Throughout, there was a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Asked by the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff on television whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR – not to mention the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – might have been justified if this Red utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm muttered in the affirmative.

Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges, while being manifestly nonplussed by the democratic transformations of Central Europe since 1989-90.

The Times’ verdict (£) of this son of the Enlightenment l is “ a peerless historian who transcended ideology.”

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  • Put on one side any “muttered in the affirmative” (which hardly qualifies in most terms as a deliberated response). Now consider Hobsbawn’s obituary for Tony Judt (in the London Review of Books, 26 April 2012):

    Tony was, of course, as anti-Stalinist as anyone, and bitterly critical of those who did not abjure the CP even when they were demonstrably not Stalinists and were, like myself, slowly edging clear of the original world hope of October 1917. Like those opposed to the performing of Wagner in Israel, he could let political dislike get in the way of aesthetic enjoyment, dismissing Brecht’s poem about the Comintern cadres, ‘An die Nachgeborenen’, ‘admired by so many’, as ‘obnoxious’ not on literary grounds, but because it inspired believers in an evil cause. Yet it is evident from Thinking the 20th Century that his basic concern during the acute phase of the Cold War was not the Russian threat to the ‘free world’ but the arguments within the left. Marx – not Stalin and the Gulag – was his subject. True, after 1968 he became much more of a militant oppositionist liberal over Eastern Europe, an admirer of the mixed but more usually right-wing academic tourists who provided much of our commentary on the end of the East European Communist regimes. This also led him and others who should have known better into creating the fairy tale of the Velvet and multicoloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out. The real heroes of the period were Gorbachev, who destroyed the USSR, and men within the old system like Suárez in Franco’s Spain and Jaruzelski in Poland, who effectively ensured a peaceful transition and were execrated by both sides.

    Does that, at least in part, answer Michael Burleigh? And should we consider Burleigh as an unbiased, unopinionated and non-ideological source, without baggage? I must confess I felt a trifle ambiguous about his Moral Combat [Hitler = ‘our’ monster; his defence of ‘Bomber’ Harris — the bombing campaign was morally repugnant but no war-crime, which in itself seems to amount to a “fine judgement”].

    Anyway, let’s try rewriting Mr Walker provocative opening sentences there: Is it possible to be a world-class brain-surgeon and a cat-hater? It may depend on the choice of your pet. Or merely a matter of putting chalk and cheese in the same recipe.

  • The fact that Burleigh’s article demonstrates that he has no idea what Hobsbawm actually researched (see his ridiculous claim that he only did original research on Sicily) means we can safely ignore him.

    Hobsbawm was one of the greatest historians and most influential there has ever been. I suspect that that is what really annoys his right-wing critics. The cogency of his Marxist analysis was something that could not be dismissed.

  • HeinzGuderian

    ‘British historian David Pryce-Jones conceded that Hobsbawm was “no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian”, but also charged that, as a professional historian who has “steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth”, he was “neither a historian nor professional.”[18] Brad DeLong strongly criticised Age of Extremes: “The remains of Hobsbawm’s commitment to the religion of World Communism get in the way of his judgment, and twist his vision. On planet Hobsbawm, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster, and the Revolutions of 1989 a defeat for humanity. On planet Hobsbawm, Stalin planned multi-party democracies and mixed economies for Eastern Europe after World War II, and reconsidered only after the United States launched the Cold War.”[11] After reading Age of Extremes, Kremlinologist Robert Conquest concluded that Hobsbawm suffers from a “massive reality denial” regarding the USSR,[34] and John Gray, though praising his work on the nineteenth century, has described Hobsbawm’s writings on the post-1914 period as “banal in the extreme. They are also highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism, a refusal to engage which led the late Tony Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm had ‘provincialised himself’. It is a damning judgement”.

    One wonders why Mr Hobsbawm never emigrated to Russia,to live the ‘communist dream’ ?

  • One wonders why Generaloberst Guderian cuts-and-pastes so avidly — and so unoriginally — including what seem to be footnote references. We deserve either a decent edit or the citations to which those references refer.

    If it’s “guilt by association”, I see there Pryce-Jones of the National Review, J. Bradford DeLong, Robert Conquest and … err … John Gray (is that John Nicholas Gray?) Well, well: at least two paid apologists for the Dark Side (you get better value via the neoCon shills at Commentary). Perhaps the estimable Heinz Wilhelm should have cut out the middlemen and applied directly to the CIA for his pre-programmed clipping.

    Hobsbawn was a historian, and one of eminence. To isolate Age of Extremes from the other books of that vast tetralogy is perverse. To overlook Bandits and Captain Swing — or the grandpappy of both, Primitive Rebels — is to ignore the whole subsequent school of “history from below”. Doing so is, near enough, the tramp-stamp of the unabashed statist.

  • paul23

    am not sure if this add to the debate.. but I’ve have just read Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder’s. how people lived in the dark absurdity of a dictatorship.

  • Rory Carr

    How is it possible to be a major historian and an apologist for communism?

    Gosh, I wouldn’t know, not being an historian myself. I suppose we could have asked the likes of Christopher Hill, Eric Thompson or Raymond Williams, they seemed to have had no difficulty in earning the acclaim and respect of their peers regardless of their political opinions just as, I suppose has Niall Ferguson who manages to combine an admiration for imperialism with a reputation for scholarly historical critique.

    I am not so sure that condemnation by David Pryce-Jones, a right-wing polemicist known best for his fondness for, and lavish application of, adjectives (the more, the angrier), does much to harm a man’s reputation. Jones may not yet have written a column condemning Santa Claus for showering gifts on the children of the undeserving poor but, if so, it can only have been an oversight on his part and one, no doubt, soon to be remedied.

    I last heard Eric Hobsbawm speak during a debate with the late Mick McGahey at ULU (University of London Union). The time, as I recall, was just after the Miner’s Strike and the topic was on how the Left should progress, which really boiled down to the differences within the Communist Party (“Tankies vs. Eurocommunists) which would soon lead to a total and irreparable split and the demise of the party.

    Mick McGahey (a man I much admired, to the point almost of adoration) spoke for the old guard and Hobbsbawn for the new departure. Politically I was in agreement with Hobbsbawm and it broke my heart almost to find myself on the opposite side to McGahey. I had seen his loyalty in action during the strike when he publicly defended, at every turn, Scargill, whom in private I had heard him despair of – “Ego run fuckin’ riot.” ” A fuckin’ heid-the ba’ ” were some of the more repeatable pronouncements on his leader in private, but in public he was as staunch as Horatio at the bridge.

    But if Mick’s loyalty was to the cause of the miners and old comrades. Hobbsbawm’s was to the very hope of communism itself and, much as he despaired of the failings of the Soviet experiment, his experiences as a Jewish Bolshevik in Nazi Germany and the lesson of the attempts by western capitalism to crush the infant revolution in Russia had no doubt tempered his soul so that one never aided the enemy by being openly critical of one’s comrades.

    Such was for internal discipline alone – that the enemy might not be afforded ammunition to divide and rule. If so it was for this reason that he mostly avoided tackling the development within the Soviets head-on and while that may be a criticism it does not detract in any way from the meticulously researched subjects that he did tackle. Along with Hill and Thompson and Williams, Hobbsbawn broke away from a history moribundly limited to the deeds of “great” individuals and opened it out into an examination of the mindset and movements of the mass of men and women from whom such “great men” most often owed indebtedness but whom, more often than not, they treated abominably.

    Hobbsbawn was also aware that the advances that had been made, most especially post WW2, by the working classes, had been won because a battle-hardened, disclipined, well-armed working class, concious that their very survival was in large part owed to the heroism and sacrifice of the Red Army and the Soviet people, were returning home determined not to be put off with the failed post-WWI promise of “Homes Fit For Heroes” The result was a landslide victory for the Labour Party and free false teeth and speccies and National Health orange juice and dried milk for the babies in return for not grabbing the lot..

    “The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian,” is the judgement of Tony Judt as quoted in the New York Times. I’m not so sure. I know quite a few dozen unrepentant Communists (and include myself among their ranks) but I’ve yet to read an historian of the industrial age that could hold a candle to Eric Hobbsbawm.

  • Greenflag

    The Financial Crisis of 2007 /2008 exposed the weaknesses of the globalising world order that began in the late 1980’s with the collapse of Soviet Union . The Great Depression in the West since 2008 gave capitalism a chance to show what it could do. Democracy while superficially on the rise in North Africa and parts of Asia has regressed in the USA and UK and Europe where Government coalitions are hobbled together from former ideological opponents who between them can get just over half the vote of the half of the electorate who bother to vote.

    “The victory over Saddam’s Iraq was essentially won, and could only have been won by the USA ”. The invasion of Afghanistan was followed by an invasion of Iraq while the ‘incomplete ‘ ‘democratisations ‘ of the latter two countries is was seen as an incentive to invade /attack Iran .

    Or briefly the 20th Century is dead -Long live the 20th century 🙁

    ‘But during the period the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was not alone in fearing that communism might outstrip capitalism. True, it was communism that collapsed first, but has capitalism fared much better? ‘

    Capitalism at least in the west has fared worse since the end of communism .Fukuyama’s the ‘End of History ‘ was premature. Ironically the capitalist maxim of free trade and competition being essential ingredients in keeping the capitalist dynamic and it’s accompanying ‘democratising ‘ side effects alive and kicking has instead backfired with the lack of competition in the ideological field -capitalism has degenerated into an understated global currency war between the main players which is another factor in their reluctance to bring about the global banking reforms that are required to prevent another worldwide financial meltdown !

    ‘The Cold War (though not a term he adopted), kept the lid on a lot problems that are now bubbling up to the surface.’

    In a political sense it did but the ‘problems ‘now bubbling to the surface are the same problems that existed back in the 1930’s and the 1890’s and the 1830’s -just on a different level . We see income inequality rising everywhere in the west but most notably in the USA /UK and ironocally in Russia where red in tooth and claw ‘capitalism ‘ survives in it’s purest form .

    I’m not an historian although I’ve more than an average interest but it seems to me that the evidence from the contributions of the Guardian’s ‘Encomida ‘ on Prof Hobsbawn is that there is no such person as a ‘neutral ‘ historian and if there ever were they are becoming even less numerous .

    As for Prof Hobsbawn’s in the long term a ‘Red Utopia ‘ would have been worth the sacrifice of so many millions of lives ? It’s back to ‘the end justifies the means ‘ gyrations that have plagued every ‘utopian ‘ political construct since Eve bit the apple .

    I’ll rely on my personal experience which included a two week trip to the USSR and a several week Hungarian ‘exposure’ as the communist state imploded as well as a near arrest in East Berlin by the Vopos -all of which were persuasive enough to convince me that ‘communism ‘ for all it’s idealism ,and it’s only now seen ameliorating impact on the worst excesses of western capitalism , was not to be ‘solution ‘ to the human political and economic predicament .

    But then I have the same feelings about our current western cul de sac Wall St /City of London /Frankfurt gambling casino style capitalism .

  • Im not sure that it is possible to be a major historian and an apologist for any political philosophy.
    Surely from Day 1……History students are told to look to the “source” and who is interpreting it for us.

  • fitzjameshorse1745 @ 1:30 pm:

    Precisely! In this case it’s the difference between a thinker who put the working class at the centre of his arguments and the Pax Americana types who … get their views from a more elevated position.

  • Greenflag

    In the absence of any Irish historian of similar stature to Prof Hobsbawn there is an American equivalent in Howard Zinn.

    ‘My history… describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan).

    My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.

    I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.’

    Howard Zinn

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_People's_History_of_the_United_States

  • Greenflag @ 4:32 pm:

    In the absence of any Irish historian of similar stature …

    We don’t do too badly, so let’s celebrate what we have: Roy Foster; two Bews; Keith Jeffrey; Micheál Ó Siochrú; Eunan O´Halpin; Diarmaid Ferriter … If any of those go on into their tenth decade, who knows if they’ll stand comparison.

    By the way, when Richard English (himself no slouch) contributed to the History Today series on “Coming to Terms with the Past” [vol 54, issue 7] he dragged in our main topic here as his third point:

    that – as Eric Hobsbawm once put it – the major task of the historian ‘is not to judge but to understand even what we can least comprehend’. In few places is this a more pressing duty than in twenty-first-century Northern Ireland. There, even more urgently than is common, there persists the notion that one’s own political views deserve to be recognised as right and good because they are, at root, the only truly valid ones to hold. Opponents’ views, by contrast, are held to be inferior, less legitimate, less worthy of support. In contrast to this popular wisdom, a more persuasive approach to understanding Northern Ireland would see a political culture not as essentially right or good, but rather as right and good in terms of the interests of those adhering to it. For the Hobbesian paradox of Ulster is this: that competing attitudes which logically rest for their validity on the invalidity of their rivals, are simultaneously politically valid in terms of advancing the perceived communal interests of their adherents. Thus rival traditions (Irish nationalist and Ulster unionist) rely on each other’s invalidity, yet both remain persistently valid. In this setting, historians’ explanation of what can least be comprehended – the perceivedly less legitimate or valid view of the other tradition – is achingly necessary. The more historians explain rather than accuse, the more likely will be a proper understanding of what we have experienced in Northern Ireland and of how best to improve upon it in the future.

    explain rather than accuse … — Now, wouldn’t that be a novelty, even among present company.

  • HeinzGuderian

    ‘One wonders why Generaloberst Guderian cuts-and-pastes so avidly — and so unoriginally — including what seem to be footnote references. We deserve either a decent edit or the citations to which those references refer.’

    Sorry malc,was I treading on your toes ? 😉

  • DC

    So another Marxist has gone, a pity. I think every political party should have its in-house marxist thinker/office for relevant analysis of the current play of capitalism, I find Marxist views on the economy to be pretty sound.

    There is a clip of him on Newsnight setting out such an analysis post financial crash:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODE2sZ20GRQ

    Are there any other big Marxist thinkers left in the UK/Ireland?

  • Reader

    DC: Are there any other big Marxist thinkers left in the UK/Ireland?
    They’re all busy getting ready for the next election. At least they don’t need to lose any time writing the manifesto – it’s already been done.

  • DC

    Have a good chuckle to yourself there Reader, why don’t you?

  • Harry Flashman

    Hobsbawm was a great historian in the same way that Leni Reifenstahl was a superb film-maker.

    Like David Irving Hobsbawm was able to pick up on little-researched details to paint an absurdly unbalanced historical picture. They are two sides of the same historiographical coin.

    (By the way Malcolm chastising another poster for cutting and pasting has to be the funniest thing I have read on Slugger in years.)

  • Reader

    DC: Have a good chuckle to yourself there Reader, why don’t you?
    OK, I’ll be serious. If there are great Marxist thinkers out there shouldn’t they be trying to win elections? Instead you think you’ll recognise them by their really insightful essay on some conference in 1953. And their key personal quality will not be energy, or compassion, or principle, or efficiency – apparently it will be loyalty. Loyalty to lesser people doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
    Marxists are no doubt engaged in a massive critique of the world financial system, and presenting the results to a world that wouldn’t trust them to make the tea.

  • Rory Carr

    DC, I would heartily recommend Terry Eagleton’s witty, clever and oh-so-accessible, Why Marx Was Right.

    You might also fancy a peek at his demolition derby review on Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion in the London Review of Books which begins:

    “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

    Ouch ! One can almost fell Dawkins’ squirm.

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching

    Like that late, great humanitari, Erish Fromm, who placed Marx, along with The Buddha, The Christ, The Meister Eckhart and Freud as the one of the great spiritual teachers, Eagleton is unafraid to celebrate the spiriatual dimension of Marx which underpinned and illuminated everything that he wrote.

  • Rory Carr

    Apologies to my readers and to Fromm’s memory.

  • Rory Carr

    That aplogy was for failing to complete the spelling of “humanitarioan” when referring to Fromm.

  • This was a highly-promising thread: thank you, Mr Walker.

    It seems to have hit the buffers hard. Let’s try Reader @ 8:59 am for the latest bit of bathos — making one slight alteration:

    OK, I’ll be serious. If there are great climatologists out there, shouldn’t they be trying to win elections?

    Here’s what I think is another fair question: do you agree with this?

    Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.

    Marx, The Grundrisse, of course.

    A freshman student is almost certain to be presented with that in Principles of History 101. [The context is answering Proudhon; and goes on to consider the nature of slavery and capital.]

    Diffidently, I’d suggest that — for the time being — there is a plenitude of Marxian historians. Even, to the horror of the Jeane Kirkpatrick clones, in the US: Zinn is dead, but Ignatiev is still productive. Thought [Cf: Marx, above]: is it possible to debate race cogently — and separate it from a context of capitalist exploitation — except from a Marxian perspective (also see below)? Is it possible properly to debate US history without addressing the race issue?

    In the UK, the tradition of Thompson, Hill, Carr and Hobsbawn is now so well lodged in British history departments as to make it mainstream. That was, in part, why the study of history had officially to discouraged under the Thatcherites. In 1976 there were something like 150,000 students of history or economic history. That was rapidly slashed by two-thirds. Even now the history student is an endangered species.

    Modern Marxist historians (the full-blown and unapologetic types) are still there — though they are likely to be self-described as “eco-socialists” (e.g. Joel Kovel) or some other abstraction (the most obvious, I suppose, being Michael Löwy with a parallel existence in surrealism)
    _________________________

    I see the loopies are hunting in packs again [Lupus = wolf, so hardly ad hominem].

    Like it or not, when I quote, it is in support of a point. For example the one the loopies have hit upon was a precise response to the Burleigh thrust. It was shown as a proper quotation, given an exact citation and enclosed in the [blockquote] html-markers. It wasn’t smuggled in as a plagiarised alternative to original thought, unedited for content and legibility.

    And it didn’t lead to one of the most pathetic non-arguments going [emigrate to Russia, pshaw!]

    Perhaps at some other outing we might consider the use of glove-puppets.

    To put wholly-discredited David Irving, a legally-endorsed “anti-Semite” and “racist”, in the same breathe as Hobsbawm exceeds the mark (also a quotation, but don’t expect the illiterati to recognise it). Only a rank troll — or worse — could stoop so far.

  • Harry Flashman

    Yes, David Irving subscribes to a thoroughly discredited political ideology, the genocidal followers of which he tries to rehabilitate in his, actually well-researched, historical writing.

    Like I say, you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between Irving and Hobsbawm as historians.

    I never did understand why Nazis are deservedly rejected by polite society while communists, mass-murderers on a wholly larger scale, get to sit at high table in so many senior common rooms.

    I prefer western enlightenment-based, liberal democracies myself, I never had much time for followers of lunatic mittel-European fanatics.

  • Harry Flashman @ 11:39 am:

    I prefer western enlightenment-based, liberal democracies myself: don’t we all?

    I never had much time for followers of lunatic mittel-European fanatics: ditto. But Irving most definitely has found lots of time. Incidentally, from my geographical co-ordinates, Braunau am Inn is arguably Mitteleuropeanisch. But, if that was a throwaway at Egyptian-born Hobsbawn, it missed by many leagues. Dodgy history, Harry!

    For the record:
    ¶ Who are these admirers of Irving’s actually well-researched, historical writing? Please assure us they extend beyond the Institute of Historical Review (founder: Lewis Brandon of the British National Front).
    ¶ Can you also confirm you are aware of Richard J. Evans’s demolition job? If you haven’t, the core is a available on-line
    ¶ In which case, please refute Evans’s arguments.

    [I’ve hot-linked two sources there. They don’t show in the preview. Corrections later, if necessary. I always like to cite my sources. Unlike some.]

  • Yes: the hot-links didn’t show. I’ll have to spend more time with my HTML.

    Richard J. Evans’s book is Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lying-About-Hitler-Evans/dp/0465021530

    The first two sections, courtesy of the NY Times are accessible: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/e/evans-01lying.html

  • Greenflag

    Malcolm Redfellow @ 4:56 pm

    ‘Roy Foster; two Bews; Keith Jeffrey; Micheál Ó Siochrú; Eunan O´Halpin; Diarmaid Ferriter … If any of those go on into their tenth decade, who knows if they’ll stand comparison.’

    Thanks for the refs . I’ve read Ferriter, Foster and Bew and will check out the others . As to making it to their tenth decade ? Theres a line in An Englishman Abroad ‘ when Guy Burgess (Alan Bates ) makes a wry comment ‘that the British will forgive anybody if they live long enough ‘. In the case of Northern Ireland – forgiveness may take centuries and the forgetfulness -never 😉 ?

    Oswald Mosley(84) PG Wodehouse (94) and now Hobsbawn . ?

    As to

    ‘Thus rival traditions (Irish nationalist and Ulster unionist) rely on each other’s invalidity, yet both remain persistently valid. In this setting, historians’ explanation of what can least be comprehended – the perceivedly less legitimate or valid view of the other tradition – is achingly necessary. The more historians explain rather than accuse, the more likely will be a proper understanding of what we have experienced in Northern Ireland and of how best to improve upon it in the future.

    Could not agree more –

    ‘explain rather than accuse’

    In the history of Europe probably no other mass peasantry suffered under the yolk of absolute monarchy than the Russians . The ‘hijacking ‘of democratic revolution /evolution by the Bolsheviks was enabled by the blind reaction of Tsarist regimes . People eventually give up on peaceful reform when the forces opposed to reform have learnt nothing either from history or their own surrounding social and economic circumstances. 🙁

  • Tomas Gorman

    “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

    Thank you Malcolm. Perhaps my favourite Marxian quote.

  • Im inclined to think we give Historians far too much credit for influencing people, particuarly politicians.
    In Guardian or Independent obituaries, it is common practice to say that a Deceased Politician went to (insert University) where he was heavily influenced by being tutored by (insert Historian).
    And frankly that has never rang true for me. Have I been influenced politically by a a historian? I dont think so. Ive never read a David Irving book but that is because I thought no way would I want to be seen reading it……more a commentary on his politics than his books. Likewise I didnt mind being seen with a Hobsbawm book….cos it reflected on who I already was. I already knew his politics before I opened the book.
    It wasnt so much about being a lefty…….more an act of defiance.
    On the other hand obituaries of historians have a ring of truth when the influence of another historian is mentioned because we are talking about style, methodology…..rather than politics.

  • Greenflag

    @ DC ,

    Thanks for that 5 minute clip with Hobsbawn . Sharp analysis by the Professor and he made mincemeat of the interviewer I thought . And interesting that he’s a pessimist in regard to financial capitalism’s (the current model) lack of confidence in it’s ability to reform itself . Authoritarian Capitalism you could almost call it Neo -fascism is on the ascendant in China and elswhere. The developing world is looking to China rather than the USA or UK as developmental models . Even in the west the power of multinational corporations and lobbyists vastly exceeds any remaining and dwindling powers of trades unions. And most of the elected politicians are in hock to the corporatist interest which we see in continued demands for lower or zero taxation as countries compete as ‘beggars ‘ for their share of multinational ‘investment ‘

  • BluesJazz

    Hobsbawn (and Terry Eagleton) are pseudo academic polemicists who pander to the pseudo intellectual middle class Islington set.

    For a real historian, try Professor Norman Stone. A true genius.

  • Harry Flashman

    Marx and Hitler, were both German fantasists who produced out of whole cloth global theorems based on badly researched, and for the most part unworkable, varieties of socialist thinking and whose followers then went on to commit genocide.

    Those are the mittel-European cranks that are so admired by people like you, Hobsbawm and others who seem incapable of accepting free market, liberal democracy as the nearest thing to a decent form of society that has ever existed.

    Hobsbawm rejected liberal democracy in favour of communism, indeed Stalinism. Others rejected it in favour of Naziism and fascism. They are two sides of the same coin.

    I despise such men.

  • What is it about Holocaust-deniers in these parts? First Irving; now Stone (though, to be fair and frank, I’m not sure which way “Fluke Kelso” — cf: Robert Harris, Archangel — currently wags over Ottomans and Armenians: he seems to swing both ways).

    I’d contest fitzjameshorse1745 @ 1:11 pm, if only on the basis that “we are what we eat”.

    The Whig school of history held sway for a couple of centuries — until Butterfield (1931) undermined it fatally. Permit a introductory quotation:

    It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent. One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement…
    It is astonishing to what an extent the historian has been Protestant, progressive, and whig, and the very model of the nineteenth-century gentleman. Long after he became a determinist he retained his godly role as the dispenser of moral judgements, and like the disciples of Calvin he gave up none of his right to moral indignation.

    If we are supposed to stand some “Marxist theory of history” up against Acton (surely the prime exemplar — and a particular target of Butterfield, if I recall correctly), then I’d be put to pains to come up with a simple description (beyond “dialectical materialism”) of what Marx’s “theory of history” amounted to. I’d be tempted to say it involves:
    ¶ “real human beings”;
    ¶ forms of society which are derived from the means of production,
    and
    ¶ political superstructures determined (and controlled?) by the prevailing economic apparatus.
    Which leads us to the “history from below” approach — and as I suggested (again above) that is pure Hobsbawm.

    But then Marx and Engels were social observers (proto-sociologists, perhaps) rather than practising historians. That is why I preferred (see previous posting) to use “Marxian” to describe the application of analyses and interpretation as a way of ordering argument — rather than a Whiggish assumption that the “past explains the present” (because, in all honesty, too often it doesn’t).

    Why that all matters is because editorials and opinionated articles are mass-produced on daily bases which are predicated in accord with either the “Whig” or the “Marxian” mind-set.
    _________________________

    Acknowledging the nod from Greenflag @ 12:55 pm, I regret that top-of-my-head list omitted many other worthies: Jonathan Bardon, anyone? Perhaps I had hoped others could contribute to a wall of fame.

    Now, what’s this I picked up through my local Oxfam Books? Why it looks like Brian Walker, Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922. What a coincidence!

  • Rory Carr

    For Harry Flashman to express his understanding of Marx thus:

    “Marx and Hitler, were both German fantasists who produced out of whole cloth global theorems based on badly researched, and for the most part unworkable, varieties of socialist thinking…”

    can only indicate to those who have made a study of Marx’s writings (which would include most students in the field of modern history and all who attempt to develve into economics or politcal economy) that Harry, as with Blues Jazz and our old Nazi-admiring troll, Heinz Guderian have managed to read very little or indeed, any of Marx at all and quite probably even less of Eric Hobsbawm.

    Hobsbawm is attacked through ignorance because he is unapologetically influenced by Marx and Marx is attacked out of ignorance because to do other would put them in fear of being frowned upon by what they assume to be the ever-vigilant henchmen of those who have usurped power through exploitation and hold it through armed might, secret police, pretend democaracy and a corrupt and amenable press.

    Why not grow a pair, guys and get round to your local library ? Or simply do a bit of browsing. It’s all out there ready to dispel your abysmal ignorance with but a little effort and, in the case of both Hobsbawm and Marx, teriific entertainment by two unique literary stylists to embellish their world recognised methods of research.

    Alternatively you can continue to sit there stewing in your obvious ignorance and mutter, ” I won’t read then because I don’t like them. Besides which, what if my bosses/ customers/political masters/ patrons found out ? They wouldn’t like it.”

    The young Marx wrote:

    ” If, by the age of forty, a man is not universally loved,by virtue of his own loving nature,then he may as well take himself to the river bank and throw himself in.”

    Everything he wrote was underpinned by his desire that man should be free and enlightened to find and express his own true and better nature. He remains the great spiritual giant of modern times.

    Before Marx, the great political economists, Smith and Ricardo, both admirers of capitalism or that cringing apologist for its worst excesses, Malthus, had only ever been able to describe capitalism they had not ever satisfactorily attempted to explain how it worked though both Smith and Ricardo were worthy pioneers in the field. Without Marx, the poor capitalists did not have a clue how the system they so loved, so depended upon, actually worked and that remains so today. Trouble is that even now, so few bother to find out or if they do, fatally ignore the obvious signs of impending disaster or they greedily and immorally attempt to profit from such disaster out of the cataclysm of their rivals and the misery of the masses.

    Of Capital and its perfidious hold upon the mind of man, Marx wrote:

    The demand to give up the illusions about its [Capitalism’s] condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

    Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain [of illusion] without any fantasy or illusion but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.”

    How possibly could this man whose demand is to do away with the very fantasy which held so much of mankind in slavish thrall be described as “a German fantasist” when his burning desire was to liberate man from such fantasy and point the way towards enlightenment and free him from the slavery of illusion?

    This excision from a 1965 essay by Eugene Kamenka in Socialist Humanism (ed. Erich Fromm) sums it up better than can I:

    ““Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”[1] It was for the sake of liberating men from these chains (chains which Rousseau thought could he made “legitimate”) that Marx became a radical critic of society; it was in the name of freedom, and not of security, that Marx turned to Communism. The vision before his eyes, from his youth onward, was that of the creative, self-determined man, master of his environment, of the universe, and of himself, co-operating, spontaneously and harmoniously, with all other men as “aspects” of the human spirit liberated within him. “Dignity,” the young Marx writes in a secondary school essay, “can be afforded only by that position in which we do not appear as servile instruments”; “the criticism of religion,” he writes in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher nine years later, “ends in the teaching that man is the highest being for man, it ends, i.e., with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, forsaken, contemptible being forced into servitude.” Communism, for Marx, meant neither the mere abolition of poverty nor that abstract application of fairness which he rejected so scathingly in his Critique of the Gotha Programme — the triumph of distributive justice in social affairs. Least of all did Marx see communism as a form of state socialism in which governmental or “representative” power and authority replaced individual power and authority over men.”

    Who but the most slavish of slave hearts could object to opening up their hrats and minds and souls and living as fearless human beings in harmony and co-operation with their fellows ? Well we may think of any great corporate mogul I suppose or their henchmen like , or the Dirty Digger, or the Canadian fraudster and knight of Coldharbour but what sane human being would possibly object ?

    “Everywhere man is born free but his mind is in chains,” Rousseau quoted approvingly by Marx. As true today as it was then. Sad. So very sad.

  • DC

    Could Chinese capitalism be replicated in western society, interesting study to have.

    A more hands on economy and neo-fascism for financial markets and financial services, rather than the last century whenever it was played out over people and territory.

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: making one slight alteration:
    “OK, I’ll be serious. If there are great climatologists out there, shouldn’t they be trying to win elections?”

    You made two alterations. You left out “Marxist”, and you changed thinkers to climatologists.
    So, yes, I would say that Marxist climatologists should probably be trying to win elections, mostly because their non-scientific fellow travellers are mostly knocking back the port and having endless earnest discussions instead of getting out there and changing the world. It would be a pity to lose the contribution of good scientists, but science is the same whether done by conservatives or Marxists. So, hopefully someone will pick up the scientific slack; whereas obviously neither Marxist historians nor conservative climatologists are going to get out there and win elections for the Communist party.
    (If the Communist Party isn’t actually Marxist, I hope you still see the point.)

  • Greenflag

    ‘Could Chinese capitalism be replicated in western society, interesting study to have.’

    Just get rid of democracy i.e government by majority vote -(we’re almost there in Anglophone land where about 27% of the electorate vote for the Government -the remaining are either opposed or remain couched /oblivious or no longer think it matters as corporate interests rule anyway .

    The next stage is to drive median incomes lower and institute a 20/80 divide whereby the 80% are in service/retail / low paying jobs /non unionised and politically atomised and thus powerless . The top 20% can then get the required 27% by bribing /paying off the top tiers of the 80% to vote against their economic interests and thus keep the 1% /2% in power .

    Prof Hobsbawn seems to be suggesting that these current trends will continue over the next 20 /30 years . As we can see from the failed responses of the USA /UK/EU to the now 6 year long international financial crisis -Hobsbawns critique about the lack of confidence within financial services led capitalism is telling .

    Continued rising income inequality fits in with Marxian analysis . A future for the west in which large numbers perhaps even a majority of ‘males ‘ will have no meaningful work is not without possibility . Continued outsourcing of jobs plus technological advances will continue as economic power shifts from west to east over the next 30 years .The question is will present western democracies be able to cope with such structural change without their societies imploding .?

  • Just how much of a “marxist” he was, Im inclined to take witha pinch of Salt. He was after all a “Companion of Honour” and that seems pretty “Establishment”.
    Can a real Marxist accept an “honour” which is effectively the gift of the Prime Minister of the day? …Id assume Tony Blair.

  • Permit me to sidle up to the flank of fitzjameshorse1745 @ 8:55 pm, and pat it gently. Because it’s such a noble beast, I do so sedulously and circumspectly (as follows):

    I heard Michael Longley at a TCD London dinner, relating his experience of returning to London and being asked, at the airport check-in, if he had anything given to him to carry. We all chortled: yes, we’ve all been there.

    I’ve already blogged this one (and thought it quite well done), so it’s refried has-beens (and a good opportunity to poke snooks at those who whinge about cut-and-paste) —

    In one particular poem, [Longley] reaches out from his personal experience to one of the many horrors of the years of the Troubles. Longley’s dying father, Major Longley, Military Cross, first appears with:
    two pictures from my father’s head.
    These are the Ulster Division, going over the top at the Somme, and the subsequent battlefield, strewn with corpses of slain Scotsmen in their kilts. Longley associates these received memories with the burial of three squaddies, shot by the IRA in a pub urinal:
    Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
    Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.

    Major Longley had his passing moment at the Savile Club last evening.

    Longley recounted his “audience” at Buckingham Palace; and how an equerry had taken him to the spot in the Palace grounds, recorded in a family photograph, where Longley Senior had been awarded his First World War medal.

    With little sense of irony, Longley Junior then appended his personal story of returning to Ireland, being asked by the security man why he had been in London, and producing from a side pocket the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.

    Yet Major Longley, post World War One, was an immigrant to Northern Ireland, a war-wounded commercial traveller. While Michael Longley is explicitly of Belfast (Home is Belfast. Belfast is Home. I love the place.), he still struggles to connnect with it:
    “For reasons I don’t understand, I find it difficult to get Belfast into my own poems — unlike Ciarán Carson or, to a lesser extent, Derek Mahon.”

    In short, Longley’s problem (one with which Malcolm finds connection) is that a large part of him is the Englishman abroad. His anecdote of the visit to Buck House was prefaced by a remark on the monarch’s appeal:
    I went into that audience a republican. I came out a convinced monarchist.

    So to the Companions of Honour: Membership of the order confers no title, or precedence, but recipients of this one-class order are entitled to use the post-nominal letters CH.

    ‘Nuff said? Well, perhaps not. When Hobsbawn received his Copmpanionship, and that only last year, he was a new entrant, along with Douglas Hurd, Norman Tebbit, John Major and … Margaret Thatcher. Laugh? — we almost croaked. Since Hobsbawm was well gone with leukaemia, who’d deny him long-overdue local credit? Heaven knows, he had been honoured widely everywhere else.

    As far as I know, only half-a-dozen have refused the C.H.: Priestley, Graves, Lowry (twice), Ben Nicholson, and Virginia Woolf’s dad.

  • Mr Redfellow….as you can imagine I am not well up on the Honours system. And had completely forgotten about the CH thing until I posted something of a “status” in another place and was reminded of it.
    As I knew merely that it was one of those limited edition honours……I am now indebted to wikipedia for the additional info.
    It remains for me hard to take….albeit amusingly that Hobsbawm would have accepted.
    Certainly I tend to thin of marxists in ivory towers….albeit briefly like Malcolm Muggeridge or longer term like Tom Driberg who were strangely tolerated by the Establishment and Lord Beaverbrook.