Was Hobsbawm a spy?

hobsbawm4
E. J. Hobsbawm

This week we’re remembering British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, who spent his life applauding Stalin – and being applauded, in turn, by the cultural elite in both Britain and America. On Monday and Tuesday, we relived the brilliance with which Hobsbawm’s admirers managed, in the obituaries that followed his death on October 1, 2012, to minimize or explain away – or even valorize – his Communism. As we saw yesterday, it took writer A. N. Wilson to dispel all this nonsense and spell out the hard facts about Hobsbawm, whom he truthfully described as a “fashionable Hampstead Marxist.”

wilson2
A. N. Wilson

But isn’t it possible that Hobsbawm, despite his noxious politics, actually was a good, or perhaps even great, historian? Nope. His books, Wilson explained, “are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.” What’s worse, Hobsbawm, like all Communists, could not be relied on to tell the truth about matters close to his heart. In other words, he committed what, for any historian, is the ultimate crime: he lied.

Wilson spelled it out: in his 1994 book The Age Of Extremes, Hobsbawm “quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40, saying it was merely an attempt to push the Russian border a little further away from Leningrad.” Hobsbawm was also silent on the infamous Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police murdered 20,000 Polish soldiers in cold blood. And he blithely dismissed the Soviet Army’s refusal to intervene when the Nazis crushed the 1944 Warsaw uprising.

stalin4
Josef Stalin

There’s more. In On History (1997), Hobsbawm claimed that “only a limited, even minimal, use of force was necessary to maintain” the Communist system “from 1957 until 1989.” As Wilson charged, this was nothing less than “a blatant lie”:

Ask the inhabitants of Prague, where Soviet tanks rolled into the streets in 1968, if they agreed with Hobsbawm that this was “minimal use of force.” Ask the millions of people who were taken from their homes by KGB thugs and forced to live, often for decades, in prison-camps throughout the Gulag, whether force had been “minimal.”

burgess
Guy Burgess

Finally, Wilson raised a question that none of the laudatory eulogies had dared to go near: had Hobsbawm – who, at Cambridge in the 1930s, had chummed around with Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and others who later turned out to be Soviet spies – been a spy himself? Late in life, Hobsbawm had tried to get his hands on his MI5 file – to find out, he said, who’d “snitched on him.” Why, Wilson asked, had Hobsbawm used the word snitched? The very word, after all, “implied that he had done something…criminal.”

Wilson was almost alone in posthumously reprehending “the Hampstead Marxist,” but not entirely. In the Telegraph, historian Michael Burleigh also pulled back the curtain on the real Hobsbawm, attributing the postmortem cheers to the leftist hegemony in British humanities and social science departments and calling Hobsbawm’s books “synthetic,” ill-informed, and – above all – shot through with “a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure.” Here’s Burleigh:

blunt
Anthony Blunt

Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges…..

burleigh
Michael Burleigh

But then again, how could Hobsbawm possibly have understood or respected or cared about courageous people who resisted Stalin’s stooges, given that he himself was one of the most prominent of those stooges – a lifelong stooge, a shameless stooge, and, alas, a stooge whose stubborn stoogery was rewarded with glittering prizes by a fatuous, craven, and morally bankrupt cultural elite?

The “Hampstead Marxist”

hobsbawm3
E. J. Hobsbawm

During the last couple of days we’ve been looking at the worshipful tributes that issued forth in the mainstream media after the death of Stalinist historian E. J. Hobsbawm. The Guardian called him “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind.” A writer for the New Yorker praised the Kremlin apologist’s fierce determination “to save the world.”

It took the prolific British novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson to say what needed to be said about Hobsbawm. Noting the “fawning” panegyrics by the BBC, the Guardian, and other media, Wilson said: “You might imagine…that the nation was in mourning.” But, he added, “I do not believe that more than one in 10,000 people in this country had so much as heard of Eric Hobsbawm, the fashionable Hampstead Marxist.” (Hampstead is an upscale, artsy neighborhood in London.)

wilson
A. N. Wilson

Unlike Hobsbawm’s admirers, Wilson recalled the historian’s “open…disdain for ordinary mortals,” his determination to mix “only…with intellectuals” and to avoid, in Hobsbawm’s own words, “the suburban petit bourgeoisie which I naturally regarded with contempt.” Wilson also foregrounded the 1994 TV interview in which Hobsbawm admitted his support for Stalin’s murder of millions of Soviet citizens. “Just imagine what would happen,” suggested Wilson,

if some crazed Right-winger were to appear on BBC and say that the Nazis had been justified in killing six million Jews in order to achieve their aims. We should be horrified, and consider that such a person should never be allowed to speak in public again – or at least until he retracted his repellent views and admitted that he had been culpably, basely, wrong.

blair3
Tony Blair

But what really happened to Hobsbawm after that interview? The opposite. His career soared. He was offered (but rejected) a knighthood. Later he accepted from Tony Blair the title Companion of Honour. Oxford gave him a prize worth half a million pounds. As Hobsbawm got older, the media increasingly described him as the country’s greatest living historian. All this despite the fact, as Wilson pointed out, that Hobsbawm never learned the lessons of the century he had lived through. On this subject, Wilson was nothing less than eloquent:

Stalin_Joseph
Josef Stalin

The tens of millions dead, the hundreds of millions enslaved, the sheer evil falsity of the ideology which bore down with such horror on the peoples of Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany, never occurred to this man. He went on believing that a few mistakes had been made, and that Stalinism was “disillusioning” – but that, in general, it would have been wonderful if Stalin had succeeded.

Any barmy old fool is, thank goodness, entitled to their point of view in our country. Unlike Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, Britain is a country where you can more or less say or think what you like. What is disgraceful about the life of Hobsbawm is not so much that he believed this poisonous codswallop, and propagated it in his lousy books, but that such a huge swathe of our country’s intelligentsia – the supposedly respectable media and chattering classes – bowed down before him and made him their guru.

More tomorrow.

Making Hobsbawm a hero

Yesterday we started exploring the legacy of the late British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, a hero of the British and American cultural elite – and a lifelong Stalinist.

hobsbawm2
E. J. Hobsbawm

As we’ve already begun to see, most of the eulogies in “respectable” media touched on Hobsbawm’s Communism, but offered little in the way of judgment of this detail. New York Times writer William Grimes, for instance, admitted that Hobsbawm, unlike many others, “stuck with the Communist Party after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Czech reform movement in 1968.” But Grimes then put a benign spin on this fact, quoting Hobsbamw’s 2003 statement, in an interview with the Times, that Communism “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.”

Not until the very end of Grimes’s very long necrology did he – briefly – address Hobsbawm’s refusal “to recant or, many critics complained, to face up to the human misery it had created.” (Note, indeed, how Grimes makes the objective fact of the mass human suffering caused by Communism to an opinion held by “many critics” that the ideology had caused “misery.”) Grimes mentioned a notorious 1994 television interview on the BBC (see clip below) in which Hobsbawm, in Grimes’s words, “said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.” (Note, again, that Grimes turns the murder of millions by Stalin into deaths occurring under Stalin.)

Even here, Grimes cast Hobsbawm not as an unrepentant admirer of totalitarian genocide but as a victim of history. It was Tony Judt, another historian, who provided Grimes with the perfect quote with which to conclude the obit: “The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian,” Judt said. “It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.” Yes, that’s right: Hobsbawm supported the murder of millions, but in the end he was the victim.

floud
Professor Sir Roderick Floud

In a lengthy testimonial for the British daily The Independent, Professor Sir (yes, “Professor Sir”) Roderick Floud called Hobsbawm “one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century.” Floud, too, took the “yes, but” approach to Hobsbawm’s Communism: yes, he was a lifelong Marxist, longtime Communist Party member, and inveterate apologist for Stalin, “but his influence as an historian and political thinker far transcended those allegiances.” After several detailed paragraphs about Hobsbawm’s career, Floud returned to the subject, writing as follows:

It would be overly cynical to suggest that Hobsbawm’s success as an historian stimulated jealousy. But the esteem in which he was held evoked hostility from those who could not forgive his Communism. An intellectual adherence to Marxism can, some argue, be explained in terms of the times in which he grew up; but to continue to defend the Communist Party long after the evidence of atrocities became known, is to some inexcusable.

Check out Floud’s wording there. First, see his reference to “those who could not forgive his Communism.” One might have been prepared to forgive Hobsbawm’s Communism if he had ever repented of it; but he never did. And, again, as with Higham’s reference to “Marxist ideology,” imagine The Independent running an article containing the phrase “those who could not forgive his Nazism.” Note also Floud’s words “to some.”

stalin
Josef Stalin

But Floud isn’t done trying to relativize and contextualize Hobsbawm’s Communism: “Hobsbawm’s adherence to the Communist cause stems from the circumstances in which, as a Jew, he was recruited in Berlin in 1932….Living in different times, the extremity of that passion sometimes seems hard to understand.” Yet millions of European Jews chose not to respond to Nazi totalitarianism by embracing Soviet totalitarianism.

Floud even found a way to make Hobsbawm’s tenacious Stalinism look potentially praiseworthy: is it possible, he asked, “that some part of his reluctance to disavow Communism even when it was failing stemmed from a wish not to betray the memory of former comrades”? Again, would anyone try to defend a stalwart Nazi in this fashion?

More tomorrow.

The spectacular Stalinist

When the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 95, the “respectable” media on both sides of the Atlantic joined in a chorus of hosannas to his memory. The BBC broadcast an hour-long retrospective. The Guardian ran thousands of words about him, including an exhaustive obituary by Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn, whose first few sentences made him sounds like something just short of a god:

January 1976: The British historian Eric Hobsbawm. (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)
E. J. Hobsbawm

Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death…he had achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life…he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind….Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis…he was unrivalled.

No less fulsome was Hobsbawm’s New York Times obituaryby William Grimes, which overflowed with words like “masterwork,” “incisive,” “eloquent.” Nick Higham’s piece for the BBC website was equally fawning.

Kotkin at Harriman Institute in February 2015
Stephen Kotkin

And the New Yorker ran a cozy tribute by historian Stephen Kotkin, who, calling Hobsbawm “refreshingly serious—intellectually curious and politically engaged—yet un-full of himself,” proceeded to celebrate Hobsbawm’s books, which “put considerable empirical flesh on the classical Marxist bones,” and closed with the admiring observation that “having embraced and never relinquished the passionate early Marx, E. J. Hobsbawm…was in it to change the world.” Hobsbawm, Kotkin concluded, had “long ago become probably the world’s best known living historian, with books translated into some forty languages.”

As those last few sentences suggest, to be sure, there was one ticklish little fact about Hobsbawm: he was a lifelong Stalinist. Most of those who extolled him in the “respectable” media did acknowledge this detail, but they all found curious ways to, shall we say, diminish its importance.

grimes
William Grimes

While admitting, for example, that critics saw Hobsbawm as “an apologist for Soviet tyranny,” Higham was quick to add that the late, great Kremlin toady “was too shrewd, too open-minded to pursue a narrow Marxist approach in his work or his politics.” The Guardian obit proffered a strikingly similar “yes, but” formulation on Hobsbawm’s Communism: “Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement….Yet he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks.”

milliband
Ed Miliband

Higham, indeed, referred neutrally and without irony to Hobsbawm’s “Marxist ideals” (can one imagine a writer for the BBC ever citing in this way someone’s “Nazi ideals”?) and quoted then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s praise for Hobsbawm as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family” and as a man who “cared deeply about the political direction of the country.” Kettle and Wedderburn, for their part, even saw Hobsbowm as a victim – a man whose university career was hampered by “a very British academic McCarthyism” (read: a disinclination to allow a Stalinist to indoctrinate students).

More tomorrow.

Barroso’s European “empire”

In 2004, José Manuel Barroso, the Maoist student leader turned mainstream politician (and professed believer in freedom and democracy), stepped down from the post of Portuguese prime minister to become President of the European Commission.

Les_trois_présidents_2011-11-30
The three European “presidents” as of November 2011: Jerzy Buzek (Parliament), José Manuel Barroso (Commission) and Herman Van Rompuy (European Council)

The very action – leaving the role of head of government of a European nation to become one of three “presidents” of the European Union (the other two being the heads of the European Council and European Parliament) – underscored the degree of power that the unelected EU leadership had accumulated, by that point, relative to that organization’s supposedly sovereign member states. As leader of the European Commission, Barroso arguably wielded more authority than any head of government in Europe, with the exception of the chancellor of Germany. Certainly Barroso the president of the European Commission was a far more potent figure than Barroso the premier of Portugal.

Although Barroso, on completing his second term as president of the European Commission, would maintain that he harbored no desire to see the EU evolve into a superstate, his own statements and actions while in office seemed – to put it mildly – to belie that claim.

EU-Africa Summit
With Muammar Qaddafi at an EU-Africa Summit

In 2007, for example, he said: “Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.” He added, paradoxically, “What we have is the first non-imperial empire.” In 2010, sounding very much like the Maoist he had once been (and supposedly no longer was), he expressed outright disdain for elective government, saying that “decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.”

Two years later, declaring the need to “move toward a federation of nation states” and to “move to common supervisory decisions,” Barroso announced plans for a European banking union that would subordinate every financial institution in the eurozone to the European Central Bank – a clear step toward even greater power for Europe’s unelected masters in Brussels and toward even greater weakening of the authority of elected national legislatures and heads of government. Of course, he had no intention of asking the people of Europe whether they approved of such a move. The next year, he reiterated the need for increased “integration,” for more “federalism.” 

After Irish citizens, in a 2008 referendum, rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, formerly known as the EU Constitution, Barroso issued an absurdly counterfactual statement saying that “this vote should not be seen as a vote against the EU” – and saw to it that the Irish were made to vote again. (The second time, they cast their ballots the “right way.”) 

mario_monti
Mario Monti

It was on Barroso’s watch that Silvio Berlusconi, the elected prime minister of Italy, was replaced, in 2011, with one of Barroso’s own right-hand men, Mario Monti, who had never held an elective office. (So that he could serve as prime minister, he was summarily appointed “Senator for Life” by Italy’s ceremonial president.) Like a good EU soldier, Monti proceeded to implement EU policies in that country. The next year, again with Barroso’s blessing, essentially the same thing happened in Greece. 

José-Manuel-Barroso-Angela-Merkel
With Angela Merkel

Throughout his tenure, moreover, Barroso responded with anger to criticism of the EU, of the European Commission, of the organization’s lack of democratic accountability. Consistently, he blamed problems that are inherent in the very structure of the EU and the eurozone on the governments – and the citizens – of member countries. When Ireland collapsed economically in 2013, Barroso rejected the idea that the yoking of the Irish economy to those of other countries via the euro had anything to do with it; instead, perversely, he turned the whole situation upside-down, charging Ireland – get this – with causing a problem for the euro.  

He is one of those bureaucrats, in short, who act as if – and who genuinely seem to believe that – the people exist for the sake of institutions of government, rather than the other way around. Barroso the EU honcho may not still have been a Maoist, but he still, quite clearly, had the young Maoist’s belief in tyranny.

cameron
With David Cameron

Certainly Barroso’s own fierce authoritarianism, his extremely aggressive efforts to strengthen the EU’s power over member states, and his adamant refusal to address the inherent structural problems and lack of democratic accountability that make the EU a net negative force in the lives of millions of Europeans, helped lead to the recent vote by British citizens to bow out of the EU. You’ve got to hand it to Barroso, then, for his latest move: having left his EU post in 2014, he accepted the job, in July of this year, of non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International (GSI) at €5 million a year. His task? To “help Goldman Sachs as it deals with the fallout from Britain’s exit from the European Union.” Well done, good and faithful servant. 

Barroso: From Beijing to Brussels

You’d think he’d brought about world peace or discovered a cure for cancer, because the litany of awards he’s collected goes on for pages: a couple of dozen honorary degrees from universities around the world, plus fifty or so sundry international distinctions, ranging from the Transatlantic Leadership Prize of the European Institute in Washington, D.C., to the Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great (Lithuania), from the Gold Medal of the Hellenic Parliament to the Prix European of the Year.

Barroso_1490053c
José Manuel Barroso

From 2004 to 2014, based in Brussels and Luxembourg, José Manuel Barroso was the president of the European Commission, a post that made him one of the most powerful men on the continent. But he started out in Portugal, where during his college years, in the immediate aftermath of his country’s democratic “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 – which overthrew the longstanding right-wing dictatorship that had begun with António de Oliveira Salazar in 1932 – he was a leader of a Maoist group called the Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, or MRPP (later known as the Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat, or PCTP/MRPP), which was notorious for its alleged involvement in terrorism.

A 1976 TV clip showing the young Barroso is now famous (or infamous) in his homeland. The clip shows Barroso, then a student, at a meeting of the Lisbon University Revolutionary Students Commission. Speaking with an interviewer, he gives a thumbs-up to a proposal that has just been ratified by the commission. According to the less than felicitously translated subtitles, he says approvingly that the proposal aims “on the right direction of the combat, made within a revolutionary structure.” He goes on to speak of the “crisis of the bourgeois Education System” and to describe a recent government action as “anti-proletarian.”

Barroso, who had become active after the Carnation Revolution, was reportedly well known on campus for committing acts of petty revolutionary vandalism – writing anti-capitalist slogans on walls and stealing university furniture. Years later, one Portuguese politician who had known Barroso in his student days told the BBC that he had been “very radical, hard-working and ambition” back then, but that he had “no strong convictions on anything” and was driven not by principle but by power.

mao-zedong1
Mao Zedong

Indeed, when the Portuguese left failed to win power in the 1970s, Barroso performed a 180-degree quick-change – leaving the Maoist fold in 1980 and joining the country’s major party of the right, the PPD-PSD. Presumably, he was now a devotee not of Beijing-style totalitarianism but of individual liberty and elective democracy. As we will see, there has been very good reason in recent years to wonder about the authenticity of this long-ago conversion.

As in the MRPP, he rose quickly in the party’s hierarchy. From 1992 to 1995, he was Foreign Minister; from 2002 to 2004 he was Prime Minister. If he has any great gift, it is apparently for figuring out how to climb to power.

But the greatest prize of all was yet to come.

Famine and fraud

tottle
The denialist’s bible

Douglas Tottle is a Canadian trade-union activist whose 1987 book Fraud, Famine and Fascism may fairly be described as the bible of Holodomor denial; Tottle himself has been called “a sort of guru” to his fellow denialists. The argument set forth in his book is that the whole idea of the forced famine was an invention of the Nazis, designed to discredit Josef Stalin and his benign regime, and that this myth, this lie, was then taken up by Western capitalists, who have kept it alive ever since as just one more chapter in a long history of evil Western propaganda against the Soviet Union. “Both to undermine support of a socialist alternative at home, and to maintain a dominant position in international economic and political relationships,” Tottle wrote in his introduction, “all manner of lies and distortions are employed” by the Western powers that be “to cast the USSR in as negative a light as possible.” Tottle, who had no apparent training or experience in historical research, singled out Robert Conquest for criticism and ridicule, accusing him of producing “anti-communist propaganda,” charging him with an “unswerving anti-communist bias,” and sneering that his “career as an obsessive anti-Soviet historian has spanned two cold wars.”

Tottle’s book, just so you know, was put out by a Communist publishing house, Progress Publishers, and was praised by such reliable authorities as the Stalin Society (yes, there is such a thing) and the Communist Party of Sweden.

stalin
Josef Stalin

We noted yesterday that the timing of Jeff Coplon’s Village Voice article denying the Holodomor and smearing Conquest was less than fortuitous: only a couple of years later, the Iron Curtain came down, the archives were opened, and Conquest was proven right. Tottle’s timing was lousy, too. His book came out in December 1987, and almost simultaneously the head of the Ukrainian Communist party, Volodymyr Shcherbytskyi, publicly acknowledged the reality of the Holodomor. Being a good Communist soldier (and not an objective historian, as he’d presented himself), Tottle bowed to the party line and withdrew his book.

Nonetheless, the book remains available online, and continues to be cited as definitive by any number of apologists for the Soviet Union. Only last year, an official Russian government “news” site, Sputnik News (which has been described by Foreign Policy magazine, the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a Kremlin propaganda outlet), ran an article by Ekaterina Blinova entitled “Holodomor Hoax: The Anatomy of a Lie Invented by West’s Propaganda Machine.” (Blinova makes her point of view crystal clear when she writes of the “bold historical experiment kicked off by Communists” and suggests that Soviet Communism failed only because “it did not comply with the plans of the Western financial and political elite.”)

whitehead
Judy Whitehead

Among the readers who gave Blinova’s fantastical rewrite of history an enthusiastic thumbs-up in the comments section was Judy Whitehead, a professor of anthropology at University of Lethbridge. “Thanks for this,” she wrote. “The anti-Communist paranoia in the west fueled this hoax. Its mythical nature and its use by Nazi sympathizers should be better known throughout the world.” Whitehead, it turns out, is a fervent supporter of the so-called “antifascist resistance in Ukraine” – in other words, the anti-democratic Putin puppets who seek to deny Ukraine a free and independent future and return it to the status of a Kremlin satellite.