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The Burleigh Riposte

The Disparagement of Eric Hobsbawm

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm had vocal enemies, in so far as you expect fellow historians to be “vocal” about anything.  Michael Burleigh was foremost amongst them, though proved uncharacteristically timid at stages.  Writing of his reaction of the late historian in The Telegraph (Oct 1), we find a Burleigh puzzled that no words were exchanged between them at a dinner followed by a public lecture by Niall Ferguson, “though we were at the same table, and Mrs Hobsbawm seemed chatty enough.”

Then, the rub, or perhaps the scrape as the weapon is readied.  “You have to understand the British Left, which is still near hegemonic in the humanities and social science departments in our universities, to grasp why those of a more liberal conservative persuasion will disagree.” Ditto a Cypriot barber’s in London’s Charlotte Street, where both men had their hair cut in silence.

Where the descriptions in some obituaries of Britain’s foremost Marxist historian have been bland, Burleigh’s take peers through the woods, colouring accounts with sinister import.  “At King’s College, Cambridge, he belonged to the notorious ‘Apostles’, a feeder for membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain.”

Burleigh has valid points to make, but his own ideological stance warps the Hobsbawm legacy.  He dismisses, with a degree of contempt, the “career obstacles” that “were clearly not insurmountable”.  That was hardly “Macarthyism” lite, and it didn’t seem to matter that Hobsbawm’s career was stymied by university functionaries and worthies.  A moderate degree of persecution can be justified – at least in the humanities.

Hobsbawm’s magnificent trilogy still moves readers, “unless you happen to be an expert on Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela”.  These constitute the set of The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire: 1874-1914The Age of Extremes, published in the United States as A History of the World, 1914-1991, was the eagerly awaited appendage to the trilogy.  But Hobsbawm’s work was marred, in Burleigh’s view, by a “deceitful” downplay of the communist role in Spain in the 1930s, and the Soviet-sponsored coups in Eastern Europe after 1945.  Most unforgivable of all was that “dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure.”

Ideology, and certainly faith, can blotch the copybook.  Hobsbawm refused, through his life, to desert the communism that shaped him as a figure.  As he explained to the New York Times in 2003, “I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”  His critics chaffed at this insistence on not recanting his Communist beliefs, perhaps dooming his legacy to a memory of communist sympathiser rather than the systematic, insightful historian.

To dismiss an entire quartet of books as merely “synthetic”, something Burleigh does with glee, suggests an intellectual dishonesty, not to mention irresponsibility.  One never likes commentators to stray from their allocated patch in the groves of academe – something Hobsbawm did with relish.  Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn’s review in The Guardian (Oct 1) does what Burleigh feared most – sanctify their subject, a figure revered by those of the left and the right.  “In a profession notorious for microscopic preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority.”  Burleigh begs to differ – we are left with Hobsbawm the flawed believer rather than Hobsbawm the accomplished historian.  When one historian attempts to tear pieces of another, the sight is far from edifying.

Burleigh, in his casually vicious dismissal, ignores Hobsbawm’s use of Marxism. It has been argued that Hobsbawm was one of the key pre-Blair influences in shaping the emergence of New Labour, something he might well have had trouble believing. It was his writings in such journals as Marxism Today that sallied against the “hard Left” and suggested a “third way” during the 1980s for Britain’s labour movement, a point made with some conviction by Herbert Pimlott in the 2005 fall issue of Labour/Le Travail.  Some of Hobsbawm’s points are gathered in the edited collection of The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1981).  After Labour’s defeat in June 1983, Hobsbawm’s formula to counter the ever imposing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was strikingly simple – a cross-party alliance, a species of popular front politics.

Allan Massie is kinder (Telegraph, Oct 3), noting how excusing crimes is the logical outcome of defending the side we best identify with – the Cold War being an all too clear example of that.  Nor did he even scold Hobsbawm’s departed spirit for being unflinchingly Marxist.  “Marxism, whether you like it or not, is a respectable theory of social development.”  It provides a rubric to work with, something Hobsbawm excelled at doing.  Yes, his work compressed much secondary literature, but broad strokes of history always do.  As for his own communist leanings, best read, urges Massie, Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times.  Therein lie the vast contradictions, often tragic, of ideology in the twentieth century.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com