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Eric Hobsbawm: A Life Through Red-Tinted Spectacles.

By Leslie Clark
October 1st, 2012 at 3:58 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in History

Tributes and obits have poured in for the historian Eric Hobsbawm who died today at the age of 95. Common to all obituaries, he gets a rose-tinted appreciation. But for a man who was essentially an apologist for totalitarian repression, the fawning obit writers are assessing his life through red-tinted spectacles. If Eric Hobsbawm was of the extreme right, his talents would not shelter him from derision and banishment from respectable intellectual circles.

Like many other history undergraduates, I read ‘The Age’ series in my first year of university and was blown away. Quite simply, it was a tour de force. Any student of Modern History ought to begin with Hobsbawm. Nonetheless, his depth of knowledge and academic brilliance should not be allowed to mask his questionable judgement. Writing in 2002, Niall Ferguson reminded us of the lines this obedient Communist toed in the 20th Century:

“He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.

In 1954, just after Stalin’s death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians’ Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.”

EP Thompson, a fellow Marxist historian, had the decency to tear up his membership card in 1956. When learning of the full horrors of the Soviet Union, others like Robert Conquest dedicated their academic lives to elucidating the true murderous nature of the regime. I can safely say that when the time comes, Robert Conquest, 95, author of the exceptional The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, will not receive a tribute from the Leader of the Opposition or be acknowledged on the homepage of the BBC website.

Sadly, Marxism has retained a respectability when other equally dubious ideologies have not.