On the left, opinion seems divided on Eric Hobsbawm. For some, he is one of the British left’s, and by extension Britain’s, greatest historians. For others, his failure to break with the British Communist Party when the horrific and borderline-genocidal crimes of Stalinism became irrefutable will forever taint his legacy.
Either way, it’s certainly fair to say that his radicalism was certainly tempered as he got older and his politics got steadily more mushy.
It happens to a lot of us though (including me?), and defeat after defeat can have that effect. The collapse of the USSR disoriented a lot of people. He was only human and many in the official communist movement have made their peace with the status quo and embraced various brands of dreary, Third Way, guilty liberalism and Thatcherism-lite. Hobsbawn, to his credit, never went that far.
In the same way that I regard AJP Taylor, I wouldn’t agree with every word he has written but am aware that he was a formidable practitioner of his chosen specialty.
Another well-known historian is Niall Ferguson.
He impresses me slightly less than Hobsbawn and Taylor.
In fact I would say he was a pompous, vapid charlatan whose view of the world is one I utterly, utterly despise. His attempt to misrepresent the blood-soaked history British imperialism as an act of benevolence on the part of successive British governments and capitalists is beneath contempt. However, there is money to be made in reinforcing the status quo, defending the ideas of the establishment and writing books that Richard Littlejohn would heartily endorse. Being a right-wing wanker is a lucrative cottage industry for its practitioners.
I did enjoy reading Ferguson’s comments about Hobsbawm in the Guardian this morning. Rather self-serving, I’m sure you’ll agree, if you’ve read them. Whenever anyone uses time and space that they are given to pay tribute to someone else and spend most of it talking about themselves you get a pretty good indication of what they are really like. Bruce Forsyth does it all the time.
Ditto Ferguson, apparently.
In amongst the ego-massaging and self-justification there are a couple of revealing remarks, that although presumably meant as a joke, highlight Ferguson’s mindset rather succinctly:
Unlike many continental intellectuals of the left, Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine………….The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship……..I hate even more the thought that his place as the grand old man of the British left may now be taken by one of his altogether less admirable – and amiable – epigoni.
What was supposed to be an opportunity to pay tribute or critically engage with the ideas of a dead colleague turns into one long sneer directed at his political opponents. And it is very telling commentary on the times we live in that lefties have to be ‘amiable’, even though Ferguson of course is anything but. Self-awareness clearly isn’t a strong point, is it Niall?
All things being equal however, I am a big favour of ‘Tory Marxists’ like Ferguson coming out and admitting a)the existence of class politics and b) which side they are on. It clarifies the debate and I wish they would do it more often (the more Tories are honest about what they think the worse they seem to do in elections and the easier it is for the left to win the argument……)
(NB: I heartily recommend checking out Shiraz’s take on Hobsbawm.)