Eric Hobsbawm, who died this month at a grand old age of 95, was a lifelong apologist for some of the most monstrous crimes in history. Despite this, the British Establishment welcomed him to its bosom. He was professor and then president at my alma mater of Birkbeck College at the University of London. Prime Minister Tony Blair consulted him and advised the Queen to make him a Companion of Honour in 1998. His death hash produced the predictable deluge of tributes. Labour Party Member of Parliament Tristram Hunt wrote a particularly oleaginous piece for the London Daily Telegraph concluding Hobsbawm was ďa great scholar and undaunted public intellectual.Ē Blairís successor and the current leader of the Labour Party, Edward Miliband, mourned the loss of ďan extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics, and a great friend of my family.Ē
There are many who argue that Hobsbawm was indeed an excellent historian. Others might disagree, believing that historians need to work at the coalface of the sources, mining information and refining it into new knowledge about the past. Ironically, for such a defender of the working class, Hobsbawm rarely went near a coalface, metaphorically or literally. He was a teacher (by all accounts, quite a good one) and a synthesizer (again, a good one), but he was not noted for original research.
Leaving aside his academic achievements, Hobsbawm should have been notorious as the last of Stalinís foot soldiers. He joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and remained loyal even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, when many of his comrades left.
Hobsbawm has a particularly malodorous record in respect to Stalinís purges and the Nazi/Soviet pact of 1939. He wrote a pamphlet with Raymond Williams defending Stalinís alliance with the Nazis, thus destroying at a stroke the justification for their support of the Soviet Union as a bulwark against fascism. On the purges, Hobsbawm told the Canadian journalist (and later, politician) Michael Ignatieff in 1994 that they would have been a price worth paying for the Marxist workersí paradise.
Eric Hobsbawm wasnít the only Stalinist to rise high in the esteem of British academia and society. When his fellow traveler Christopher Hill died in 2003, also in his 90s, encomiums filled the newspapers. In Hillís case there is now little doubt about his significance as a historian. He was thoroughly second-rate. He did read the primary sources relating to his favoured period of seventeenth-century England but his reconstructions were so tendentious that historians of the period no longer take them seriously. My graduate research overlapped with Hillís work on the subject of Englandís universities, so I included a passage refuting his views in my PhD dissertation. My supervisor rebuked me for flogging a dead horse.
Whereas Hobsbawm thought Stalinís murders might be justified, Hill simply denied they ever happened. In a television interview broadcast shortly before his death, he insisted that heíd been in Russia in the 1930s and had seen no evidence for the atrocities. And itís true. He was there. Like many contemporaries on the Left, he enjoyed a carefully supervised tour of the Soviet Unionís wonderful achievements. When Stalin died in 1953, Hill announced ďHe was a very great and penetrating thinker. Humanity not only in Russia but in all countries will always be deeply in his debt.Ē The reward for his unwavering admiration for Uncle Joe was election as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.
How did these men remain fÍted throughout their lives? In large part, a popular misapprehension about communism saved them from the opprobrium they deserved. Too many people still accept the good intentions of communists to make the world a better place, even if, in practice, it all went terribly wrong. This is a fundamentally flawed analysis. At its most basic level, communism must crush freedom. It is the forcible merger of the individual into the system. It is not a utopian system that went awry, but the antithesis of much that is best about humanity. That the perpetrators of communismís crimes thought they were acting for the greater good is no mitigation. In many ways, it made the situation worse. As C.S. Lewis observed, ďOf all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive . . . those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.Ē
Stalin didnít take in everyone on the Left, especially once his crimes were manifest. George Orwell saw communism for what it was and, in Animal Farm and 1984, gave us dreadful illustrations of its true nature. A one-time comrade of Hill and Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, became a fierce critic of Stalin while remaining on the hard left. Today, writers like Nick Cohen and Martin Amis keep alive the tradition of leftwing liberalism. And the Labour Party itself, when in government, gave no quarter during the Cold War.
So let us hope that, with Hobsbawmís passing, we will no longer have to endure sentimental fawning over men who praised a society in which they would have been packed off to Siberia with alacrity rather than living into their nineties.
James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.