‘When he first visited the Soviet Union in 1954, Eric Hobsbawm discovered that the theory of a workers’ state and the practice of a Moscow still bleeding from Stalin’s last purge did not quite gel. “It was an interesting but also a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals,” he recalled in his autobiography, “for we met hardly anyone there like ourselves.”
Wrong part of Russia, Eric.
If he had gone to Siberia, alongside the corpses of “anti-Soviet” Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Chechens, Tartars and Poles, of tsarists, kulaks, Mensheviks and social revolutionaries and of merely unlucky citizens who had been denounced by malicious neighbours, or rounded up by the secret police to meet an arrest quota, Hobsbawm would have found the bodies of communist intellectuals – just like him.
No one killed as many communists as the communists did. If Hobsbawm had followed the logic of his convictions and moved from Nazi Germany to seek a home in the Soviet Union rather than Britain, his chances of surviving would have been slim. Either the party would have shot him in the great purge for being foreigner and a Jew to boot, or he would have been forced to denounce innocent comrades to save his skin. After concluding the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin handed German communists over to Hitler as a gesture of goodwill. If the purge of 1936-38 had not killed Hobsbawm, the pact of 1939 probably would have done for him instead.’
Helen Szamuely throws in a personal reminiscence:
Hobsbawm’s was one of the first homes we visited on our arrival to this country and there were subsequent meetings but the friendship fell apart, largely, in his opinion, because of my father’s anti-Soviet and anti-Communist writings and activity. Well, maybe. Somehow, he never quite got round to mentioning that at one stage before the estrangement my father asked him whether he knew about the Soviet purges, the terror, the truth about collectivization. Yes, admitted Professor Hobsbawm, but “we did not want to know, we did not want to hear”. Subsequently, as we have seen, he told some journalists that, of course, he knew but it was of no significance. Others he told that neither the Soviet Union nor the People’s Democracies were the political face of real Marxism though, for some reason, he had remained strongly and unarguably supportive of them.
Then he added: he [Tibor Szamuely] himself, after almost starving in the siege of Leningrad, claimed also to have had the usual spell in a camp during the dictator’s final lunacies.
This is a deeply dishonest comment. First of all, my father was nowhere near Leningrad during the war and never claimed to have been. But the notion that he “claimed” to have had the “usual spell” in a camp is a highly distasteful and dishonest sneer not just at one man, who most certainly did have a spell, albeit a relatively short one, in a camp but at all the people who came out of the Soviet Union and other Communist countries with tales of horror. Then there is the phrase about “the dictator’s final lunacies”.
The dictator, in this case, of course, is Stalin whose word remained law for Professor Hobsbawm, the loyal member of the CPGB for decades. Those slightly boring final lunacies was his second purge, which was largely anti-Semitic in character with a ferocious campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans”, that is Jews.
#more#The real importance of these stories is not about Hobsbawm’s qualities as a historian (from my own reading, he was frequently interesting and frequently misguided, frequently at the same time, and sometimes he was just plain wrong) or about the peculiarities of his psyche, but it is about the way that he was never really called to any sort of intellectual or social account for his prolonged support for a cult/religion/philosophy/ideology (call it what you will) that revolves around purification by slaughter. Instead he was honored. To repeat the list I mentioned earlier today: New School for Social Research, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Royal Society of Literature, Stanford, King’s College, Cambridge, the British Academy, Companion of Honour, etc., etc.
He was a giant of progressive politics history, someone who influenced a whole generation of political and academic leaders. He wrote history that was intellectually of the highest order but combined with a profound sense of compassion and justice. And he was a tireless agitator for a better world.
Back at The Spectator, Douglas Murray makes the necessary point like this:
A great historian has died. He joined the Nazi party in the 1930s, spurred by a fear of the communism which was then spreading through Europe. Although he survived for many decades to see the consequences of the ideology, he nevertheless remained nostalgic for, and loyal to, fascism. . . . In recent years some controversy was caused when he was asked whether the deaths of millions of people in the Holocaust would have been justifiable if it had led to the fascist state he wished to bring about and he replied ‘yes’. Lively, witty and convivial, he remained a central figure in far-right circles and was always able to draw a crowd at the Hay-on-Wye festival and the salons of literary London. For his many notable achievements he was given numerous awards. In 1998 he was made a Companion of Honour . . .
Unimaginable, isn’t it? And that says it all.