Eric Hobsbawm, who died Monday at 95, was the last of the sentimental Stalinists. He was one of the most famous British historians of the twentieth century, and his books sold worldwide by the hundreds of thousands. In Brazil, for example, he achieved an astonishing celebrity.
He was a gifted prose stylist and very learned. His principal and most significant characteristic, however, was intellectual dishonesty characteristic of the age in which he grew to maturity. He made the choice for Soviet Communism, for perhaps understandable personal reasons, at 14, and remained true to his choice for 81 years, long after there ceased being any possible excuse for doing so. At least no one could accuse him of being a turncoat: he supported a radical form of evil from his early adolescence to his late senescence.
Of course a man of his intelligence had to admit that things had turned out not quite as hoped in the Soviet Union, but he was never able to draw the most obvious lesson or conclusion from the failure. Photographs frequently show his mouth as contorted as his reasoning, as if he were unable to bring himself to speak straightforwardly from both sides of his mouth at the same time, as it were. His writing was no less duplicitous, as a 2003 memoir showed:
The months in Berlin [as a child] made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and, as I now know, was bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and a tenderness which I do not feel towards communist China, because I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbolised it.
It would take an entire volume to disentangle the evasion and dishonesty of this. What kind of dream is it, what kind of hope of the world, that inevitably fails at the cost of millions of lives? And what kind of person thinks he has the right, albeit only in print, to treat the deaths of millions of people with any kind of indulgence?
A writer of my acquaintance once turned down an invitation to dinner with Hobsbawm (who rarely refused any honor or privilege that the unjust capitalist state could offer him) on the grounds that if Hobsbawm’s political wishes had come to fruition, he would have had his proposed guest shot in short order. A man who could think until late in his life, as Hobsbawn did, that the murder of 20 million people would be justified if it brought about a socialist utopia, would hardly balk at the death of a single bourgeois guest.