Was Hobsbawm a spy?

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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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…..

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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?

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