Here’s my obituary from AO Deadpool. Not my favourite historian.
Eric Hobsbawm became a communist at the very start of the century in which communism killed millions and impoverished its followers, while the capitalist democracies lifted unprecedented numbers out of poverty for the first time in human history. He is remembered today as the last Party apologist standing. For an ignorant peasant without access to books, this might be forgivable. For a professional historian it was a tour de force of pigheadedness.
Hobsbawm’s support for the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, which set in train the Second World War (on the grounds that it was “an anti-capitalist war”) was an early sign he was a slow learner. But when he called the Russian invasion of Hungary a “revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseudo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems of Poland and Hungary,” he was willfully blind. By the time he labelled the Prague Spring suppression by 50,000 Soviet tanks “only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion” he was to all intents mad. If he hadn’t lived so long, no one would have taken much notice.
But he refused to die, and never changed his views. Most notoriously, in 1994 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when asked by Michael Ignatieff if the 15 to 20 million dead at Stalin’s hands would have been justified if communism had achieved its aims, he answered with the single word: Yes.
Even in his later books he omitted inconvenient facts, the Russian massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, and tried to exonerate Stalin from blame for the suppression of the Warsaw uprising. There were few communist dictators he couldn’t find a good word to say about. He called Honecker and Ceaucescu “far from unimpressive.”
The general public ignored him — his books never sold outside academia, and to the working class he was an irrelevance. In 1978, after he had criticised the Labour leadership for failing to progress socialism, the left-wing MP Dennis Skinner said “the writings of bloody ‘Obsbum were as relevant to the Labour party as Sporting Life.”
His views had become a joke, but not his hypocrisy. He never made any effort to live in the countries he so admired — in later life he did the opposite and took up university posts in the United States. Despite arguing for redistribution of wealth, he failed to redistribute that bit which he had control over; he lived in a nice house in Hampstead and maintained a second holiday home in Wales.
But at least he was a left winger, so the chattering classes never disowned him. Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour, and obituaries in the Guardian and New York Times praised him as a historian, although they couldn’t spell his name. And ugly as he was, he still got laid occasionally – he had two wives, two children by the second one and a third, illegitimate son.
Eric Hobsbawm saw a lot happen,
But whatever it was, his mind did not open.
Stalin’s great purges, even Prague Spring,
He’d started a Commie, to his faith he would cling.
It wasn’t too hard to see the problem with fascism
And he had a good eye for the flaws of capitalism
But his books had no room for communist sin
For the murdered officers in the graves of Katyn
The people ensured that he stayed unread,
Apart from homes in leafy Hampstead.
While communist victims languished in jails.
Hypocritical Eric kept another in Wales.
The lesson of all this – some never learn.
We’ll never make people like Hobsbawm turn.
It’s no good trying to persuade ’em.
The best we can hope for – to outlive ’em.