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.)
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.
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:
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.