Friday, 3 May 2013

Eric Hobsbawm- An Exemplar in Tergiversation!

Eric Hobsbawm - 'Neil Kinnock's favourite marxist' divided opinion like  no other historian.    Buckets of praise and criticism were heaped on him in equal measure.   In 1994 the newspaper journalist Neil Ascheson said of Hobsbawm 'No historian writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source'.    In 2002 he was described by the Spectator magazine a quintessential Conservative publication  as 'arguably our greatest living historian'.   The historian Nial Ferguson wrote 'that Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable'.

Conversely critics such as the British historian David Pryce Jones charged that Hobsbawm was a professional historian 'who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda and scorned the concept of objective truth' and 'He was neither an historian nor a professional'.   A lacerating criticism to say the least.   Brad Delong criticised Hobsbawms Magnum Opus 'Age of Extremes' thus:  'The remains of Hobsbawms commitment to world communism got in the way of his judgment and twisted his vision.'    Therein lies the nub of the matter.

The Yale historian Timothy Snyder cites Orwell's analysis and dismay at the role and actions of the communists during the Spanish Civil War.    In regard to the Communists in this war Hobsbawm merely says 'its pros and cons continue to be discussed in the political and historical literature.'   He is  clearly engaged here in an exercise in fence sitting!    He refers to George Orwell not by his literary name but disparagingly as 'An upper class Englishman called Eric Blair'.   An attempted put down of a distinguished libertarian writer.

Unlike the principled communist E P Thompson and indeed many others Hobsbawm didn't leave the Communist Party in 1956 after the bloody suppression of the Hungarian workers revolution by Soviet tanks.   In a letter to the Daily Worker on November 9th, 1956 he defended the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising although with "a heavy heart".   Although paradoxically he signed an historians letter of protest.

In reviewing Hobsbawms memoirs and his albeit equivocal support for Stalinist Russia at times David Caute wrote:  'Didnt you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew.....the induced famine, the false confessions, the terror within the party, the massive forced labour of the Gulag?  As Orwell himself  documented a great deal of evidence was already  reliably knowable.'   Hobsbawm feebly claimed ignorance until Khrushchevs denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956.
In conclusion, Hobsbawm was undoubtedly preeminent amongst contemporary Marxist historians
although his erudition was tempered by evasion, avoidance and tergiversation.    the epithet 'Tergiversator'  seems appropriate.   His claim that the demise of the Soviet Union was 'traumatic not only for Communists but Socialists everywhere' received short shrift form the journalist Francis Wheen who commented:
'Speak for yourself comrade, I like many other socialists greeted the fall of the Soviet model with unqualified rejoicing.   Marxs favourite motto "de omnibus disputandum" (everything  should be questioned)  was not one which had any currency in the realm of "actually existing socialism"- a hideous hybrid of mendacity, thuggery and incompetence.'  

A coruscating critique which cannot be gainsaid.

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