The following article appears in The Times today.
THIS week Prospect magazine announced the outcome of a readers’ poll to identify the top five public intellectuals in Britain. In fourth place was the octogenarian historian Eric Hobsbawm. The oddity of this rests in the magazine’s stated criterion for a public intellectual: “We are stressing current contributions — by which we mean the past five to ten years.” Readers thus voted for Professor Hobsbawm not for his scholarly works of 19th-century history, but for his serial attempts in the past decade to exculpate a lifetime’s commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In his memoir Interesting Times (2002), Hobsbawm writes of his fellow student Communists of the 1930s: “Hardness, indeed ruthlessness, doing what had to be done, before, during and after the revolution was the essence of the Bolshevik.” He means it descriptively rather than approvingly — yet the principle has stayed with him. According to the historian Robert Conquest, Hobsbawm was asked by Michael Ignatieff in a BBC interview in 1994: “What (your view) comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” He replied: “Yes.”
Hobsbawm concedes that greater knowledge of Stalinist Russia would not have dissuaded its partisans, but maintains irrelevantly: “Of course we did not, and could not, envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet peoples.” Perhaps not the scale, but certainly the character of Stalin’s repression was well known to readers of such esoteric material as the American Saturday Evening Post, which published the memoirs of the Soviet defector and former intelligence officer Walter Krivitsky in 1939. It took an intellectual not to see it.
HOBSBAWM has rarely missed an opportunity even after communism’s demise to obfuscate its record. “One might also claim,” he proffers demurely in The Age of Extremes (1994), “that in the Bolshevik Party constructed by Lenin, orthodoxy and intolerance were to some extent implanted not as values in themselves but for pragmatic reasons.” The notion that Lenin — of whom Bertrand Russell remarked after meeting him, “His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold” — was not merely pragmatically intolerant but congenitally bloodthirsty is too unsophisticated a thesis to merit Hobsbawm’s consideration.
Moving to more recent panegyric, Hobsbawm remarks in On History (1997): “Fragile as the communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989.” He means the 27 Soviet divisions, 6,300 tanks and 400,000 troops sent into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to snuff out political reform.
Though Prospect is interested only in recent work, the seeds of Hobsbawm’s obtuseness lie much farther back. In his memoir he accords a fleeting mention to a pamphlet he wrote at Cambridge with the future literary critic, Raymond Williams, on the Russo-Finnish War. Hobsbawm laments: “Alas, (the pamphlet) has been lost in the alarums and excursions of the century. I have been unable to rediscover a copy.” This is just as well, because the Russo-Finnish War consisted in Stalin’s invasion of Finland two months after his non-aggression pact with Hitler. As loyal Communists, Hobsbawm and Williams supported both the invasion and the pact.
Prospect’s “five intellectuals” are to be accorded dinner with a Cabinet minister and a newspaper editor, with the conversation recorded for the magazine. If Hobsbawm’s interlocutors have any gumption, they will refuse to sit with him.