The great paradox of Hobsbawm’s choice
The words “communist” and “socialist” are now used so recklessly in the United States that their meaning has been devalued. But Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died Oct. 1, was the real deal.
Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Hobsbawm used Karl Marx as the inspiration for both his personal politics and his successful transformation of our understanding of history. He was an unabashed and unwavering supporter of communism in theory and practice, who only let his party membership lapse at the final moment, when the Berlin Wall fell.
His singular contribution to the telling of the human story was to reject the traditional method of viewing history through the actions of great men and women, in favor of describing the larger economic and social tides on which leading figures are often mere flotsam. Though history was usually taught through the lives of kings and queens, Hobsbawm demonstrated that economic and social history offered a fuller explanation of why events happened. He also gave prominence to previously ignored political agitators, whose courageous actions obliged leaders to agree to benign reforms.
His quest for discovering explanations for historical movements beyond the usual bold-faced names was inspired by his personal experience as a young Jewish man growing up in Austria and Germany, when Hitler and Nazism were on the rise. His choice to join the Communist Party in 1936 was both an act of faith and a practical solution to his personal dilemma. Though moderate opponents of Nazism were soon swept aside in their attempts to counter the threat to freedom by democratic means, Communists offered firm, direct action to subvert the burgeoning Nazi state.
To become a Communist was therefore an easy choice for Hobsbawm. He could either fight for humanity, democracy, decency and civilization – or he could resign himself to the victory of satanic, brutal primitivism.
Having made that fundamental choice, he never felt inclined to revise it. Even after it became evident that the vanguard of communism in practice, Joseph Stalin’s Russia, inflicted brutality every bit as murderous as the Nazis’, Hobsbawm stood by his original decision – despite the slaughter of millions during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the starvation of millions through inept agricultural policies, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1940, the liquidation of Polish leaders on Stalin’s orders, the occupation of Eastern Europe by Soviet puppet governments after 1945 and the sending of tanks to suppress democratic movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
As he explained in a 2003 New York Times interview:
I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it. I still think it 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.
There was a yawning paradox at the center of his life. While he stressed the bigger canvass on which history is written, and gave deserved recognition to the unsung heroes who pushed for progress, he lived on the front line of history made by great men. The history of Germany would have been far different had it not been for the monstrous, maniacal personality of Adolf Hitler. The same was true of Stalin in the Soviet Union. The insanity of both men changed the course of the world.
Similarly, Western civilization may well have gone under had it not been for the determination of the twin giants Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They made decisions and took personal risks that smaller men might have ducked.
In his own life choices, Hobsbawm regularly played down the importance of the individual in favor of the common good. This was reflected in his muttered reply to being asked whether the massacre of millions in the name of communism would have been justified if such mass murder resulted in a socialist utopia. He replied: “In a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing.”
It was an answer that defied the humane approach otherwise evident in his writing and his personal life. In rejecting the notion of “great men,” Hobsbawm also underestimated his own greatness and his potential to influence others. Had he broken with the Communist Party at any stage, his example could have inspired many others to follow him and reject a utopian notion that had degenerated into a murderous creed. The fact that he did not recant, even in the face of such clear evidence of barbarism, casts a long shadow over his reputation as one of the greatest historians of our age.
PHOTO: Screengrab from BBC video.