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ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY


Standpoint
has written about E.J. Hobsbawm in 2008 and again in 2012, after his death. We make no apology for returning to Britain’s leading Marxist historian at a time when the Labour Party is led by openly Marxist figures (John McDonnell cites Das Kapital and Jeremy Corbyn has called Marx a “great economist” in the general election campaign) and when history has never been more topical as we redefine our identity after Brexit. 

This month marks the centenary of Hobsbawm’s birth. When he died he was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest British historians of his generation and a major public intellectual. The Guardian wrote that he was “one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown”. The Times called him a “magisterial historian of the modern age”. 

These tributes barely acknowledged the attacks on Hobsbawm for staying loyal to the Communist Party after the purges, after 1956 and even after 1968 when Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. After reading The Age of Extremes, Robert Conquest concluded that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive reality denial” regarding the USSR.  Reviewing Hobsbawm’s memoir, Interesting Times in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt wrote: “Rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” In a review headlined “The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm”, the political philosopher John Gray wrote: “A vast silence surrounds the realities of Communism.” 

Hobsbawm’s admirers, however, insist that his Marxism never got in the way of his achievement as a historian. This is not so. Throughout his four-volume history of the modern world it is always the revolutionaries, socialists and Communists who loom large. Of course, these books cover the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions. But does that really explain why The Age of Revolution has so much more time for the Chartists and the Carbonari than for leading figures of the American Revolution like Washington and Jefferson? Did a “proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement” really come into existence in the 1830 revolution? What does he mean by “proletarian” in early 19th-century Paris — or Britain? 

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C. Paul Barreira
June 13th, 2017
9:06 PM
"Hobsbawm’s legacy seems deeply problematic; it is hard to imagine what will endure." Falsehoods of a similar type appear in most Australian academic work relating to the Great War. One in particular—and egregious—received the approbation of Sir Hugh Strachan. How safe is that? Hobsbawm's legacy seems assured. Defined by politics, argument is all; 'evidence' merely provides illustration.

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