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Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In noting the death last week in London of Eric Hobsbawm, The Scrapbook observed its usual doctrine of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. But then our attention was drawn to his New York Times obituary, which blandly explained that Hobsbawm’s “three-volume economic history of the rise of industrial capitalism established him as Britain’s pre-eminent Marxist historian.” That made us sit up straight—and confirmed, once again, that when it comes to the reputation of certain (inevitably left-wing) public figures, all is forgiven if you live long enough. Eric Hobsbawm was 95 when he gave up the ghost.

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

Now, if Hobsbawm had been nothing but “Britain’s pre-eminent Marxist historian,” The Scrapbook’s attitude would be simple: “God rest his soul, the poor misguided fellow.” For Marxism, while egregiously wrong and an inspiration for the 20th century’s most durable and bloodthirsty tyrannies, is a legitimate (if misguided and discredited) point of view. As Ronald Radosh notes elsewhere in this issue, Eugene Genovese—the great historian of the South who also died last week—began his long, fruitful intellectual career as a Marxist. 

Yet Hobsbawm was more than a “Marxist historian.” He was a Communist (he only let his party membership lapse when the Soviet Union disappeared) and, worse, was a lifelong apologist for the despotism, violence, oppression, mass murder, and genocidal impulses of Communist regimes which, had he lived in one of them, would undoubtedly have killed him. 

But Hobsbawm, who was born in Egypt, was fortunate: His Jewish family sent him to live in England, where he thrived unmolested for his ethnic identity, religion, or beliefs. And toward the end of his life, he was showered with honors. In this country, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in England, he was elected to the British Academy, awarded a degree by Cambridge, and made a Companion of Honour. 

The prime minister who conferred that distinction on Hobsbawm, Tony Blair, had this to say on his death: 

He wrote history that was intellectually of the highest order but combined with a profound sense of compassion and justice. And he was a tireless agitator for a better world.

The Scrapbook is willing to wager that Blair never waded through all of Hobsbawm’s economic history of Eur-ope, or his various excoriations of the United States and all that it stands for. But we would like to think that even Blair might have hesitated to embrace this “tireless agitator for a better world” had he pondered this exchange on the BBC in the early 1990s:

Interviewer: What your view comes down to is saying that had the “radiant tomorrow” actually been created, the loss [in Soviet Russia] of fifteen or twenty million people might have been justified? 

Hobsbawm: Yes.

Suppose Eric Hobsbawm had been a lifelong fascist, a member of the Nazi party long after the death of Hitler and the collapse of the Third Reich, sentimentally attached to the “dream of the .  .  . revolution,” and happy to justify—decades after the end of World War II—the killing of fifteen or twenty million people for National Socialism. Would Cambridge have awarded him an honorary degree? Would the New York Times have set aside four columns for his obituary? Would Tony Blair overlook -Auschwitz to celebrate Eric Hobsbawm’s sense of compassion and justice and intellectual history of the highest order?

The question answers itself.

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