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Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 - 2012

In one of those coincidences that heighten—or at least change—one's experience of a book, I had just started reading Eric Hobsbawm'sHow To Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism, when I learned that he died earlier today at the age of ninety-five.

Hobsbawm kept working right up until the end of his life: How To Change the World appeared last year; next spring his British publisher will release a new collection of his essays on culture and politics. Hobsbawm's reputation as a historian was so great that it could coexist securely, if not always happily, with his reputation as an unrepentant Communist. He was a historian's historian. Conservatives like Niall Ferguson and anti-Communist liberals like Tony Judt revered his three-volume survey of "the long nineteenth century":The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire: 1874-1914.

Hobsbawm described himself as a "Tory communist," a term that always would have been paradoxical but is now almost unintelligible. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School became more important in American universities than Marx's political philosophy, it came to be assumed, not unreasonably, that any self-described Marxist would be as interested in the politics of personal liberation as in socialism. Hobsbawm, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and grew up in Vienna and Berlin before being shipped off to live in England just after Hitler became chancellor, was a different kind of leftist—the kind who found much of the Sixties counterculture decadent and, at best, counterproductive. He was, in the end, a kind of traditionalist. Like many other Communists of his generation, he was committed to pragmatic self-sacrifice, not utopian self-indulgence.

Despite his lucidity and widely attested personal decency, Hobsbawm also became an object lesson in the dangers of ideological devotion. His passion for justice drew him into a cause that would require him to excuse the many injustices that took place in the Soviet Union under Stalin. A lot of Western Communists abandoned ship after the Soviet crackdown on Hungary in 1956. Not Hobsbawm. Nor did he quit after the tanks rolled into Prague twelve years later. In a 1994 interview with Michael Ignatieff he famously claimed that if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating a true communist society, it would have been worth the deaths of the twenty million people who perished under Stalin. Didn't Marx himself say that "no great movement has been born without the shedding of blood"? So self-sacrifice wasn't the only kind of sacrifice that socialism might require.

Too much can be made of Hobsbawm's unwillingness to offer the standard mea culpas. He did not deny that Stalin's atrocities really happened, or that they were indeed atrocities. He was not a revisionist, and he was not a monster. He was, rather, a man who had subordinated everything to a single hope. He would admit that this hope had been disappointed, but he would not renounce it. To do so would have been to renounce himself, since he believed it was this hope that had given his life its purpose and meaning. His willingness to accept the death of millions if it led to the world he thought socialism could deliver reminds me of Cardinal Newman's often quoted statement (at least as outrageous to any liberal secularist as Hobsbawm's theoretical bargain):

The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremest agony than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

Some have argued that, despite its scientific pretensions, Marxism is essentially a misbegotten form of religion. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly the case that the Communist Party inspired, and indeed demanded, a kind of religious fidelity in its members. In a 2009 article in the Guardian, Hobsbawm offered a level-headed assessment of the economic and political challenges we now face after the death of Soviet Communism and the latest crisis in capitalism.

Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in what amounts to a pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt. The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.

Why "especially for people on the left"? Perhaps because people on the right, along with fellow-traveling neoliberals, still have or think they have a set of safe coordinates. (The reputations of Adam Smith and David Ricardo have not been tarnished—nor the interpretation of their work much affected—by what happened on Wall Street four years ago.) The left is still figuring out how to make use of Marx's important insights without going in for the whole package of discredited predictions and false promises. We should now be able to see what most people in Hobsbawm's generation, whether they were Communists or anti-Communists, could not see: that it's possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist, much less a Communist. Certainly it's difficult to imagine, even now, how one could effectively oppose "international bourgeois anarchism" without first learning something about the logic of capitalism from Marx.  

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Communism was the worst plague of the 20th century, and Hobsbawm was an unrepentant, though completely phony, admirer. If he had been sincere, he would have left behind his comfortable surroundings in Britain for all the glories of a worker's apartment in Novosibirsk.

The danger of an errant ideology. Poor Hobsbawm. Poor Newman.

THORIN:I'm pretty sure that Nazi Germany was the "worst plague of the 20th century". Disagreement with this point means you prefer the WW2 victory of Hitler. Yes, it's that simple.Hosbwam was slow to condemn the USSR, granted, and that should not be forgotten or passed over. Also, he clearly exercised that vulgar Marxism which sees the need for an intellectual or political vanguard in order to make a fundamental change to the current capitalist mode of production. Capitalism rules the world and it follows that there is no other source of capitalism's present-day collapse than the constantly revolutionary capitalist mode of production itself. I don't believe that the overcoming of capitalism will result in men, well armed with guns and canned soup in bunkers or with leninist state-capitalism. We know too much, have encountered too many by means of telecommunications to descend into outright barbarism. Our social graces have already been transformed by the telecommunications revolution. But Hobsbwam was already in his 70s when dial-up AOL appeared.

A noted historian who renounced Marxism also deserves to be remembered:"Eugene D. Genovese, a prizewinning historian who challenged conventional thinking on slavery in the American South by stressing its paternalism as he traveled a personal intellectual journey from Marxism to conservative Catholicism, died on Wednesday at his home in Atlanta. He was 82."

Thorin: Did you need to dance on the man's grave? I know you have a habit of making divinely certain statements, but you should have kept this nasty little swipe to yourself.

"We should now be able to see what most people in Hobsbawms generation, whether they were Communists or anti-Communists, could not see: that its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist, much less a Communist."I am not so sure about that. Marxism was first of all a philosophy, not a form of social criticism. It was predicated on the belief in the coming of the total revolution, the transition from the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom, the liberation of men from every form of dependency and, therefore, on atheism, inasmuch Marx regarded God as the archetype of the "Lord". The idea that Marxism can be 'sublated" by separating his social analysis from his metaphysics has been a constant refrain on the Catholic left for almost a century, but for some good reasons nobody has been able to really pull it off. In Italian we have some excellent essays by Augusto Del Noce that explain with great philosophical rigor why that is a delusion. Frankly, I think Hobsawm knew better.

Mr. Boudway:to make myself clear your idea that ' people in Hobsbawms generation could not see: that its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist' sounds really naive to a European! Are you familiar at all with Eurpean intellectual history from 1945 to the 1970's??? What you think 'they could not see' is actually what lots and lots of people thought at that time.What you call a 'possibility' was regarded as an ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY by two or three generations of European Catholic intellectuals: Mounier, Jean Marie Domenach, and most of the Esprit crowd in France, Franco Rodano, Felice Balbo and the whole "Catholic leftt" movement in post-war Italy, countless of 'liberation theologians' in the 60' and 70's... the list goes on and on. If you read Italian I recommend that your read Del Noce's classic study of the idea of 'inveramento' (preserving the truth of Marxism while rejecting Communism) in "L'epoca della secolarizzazione.' It is an absolute classic.

From the 1994 interview: IGNATIEFF: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist? HOBSBAWM:This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible...I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, 'Probably not.' IGNATIEFF: Why? HOBSBAWM: Because 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. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure. IGNATIEFF: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified? HOBSBAWM: Yes.To his credit, he did say 20 million deaths were "excessive" even if it wouldn't have made any different to him at the time.Such a generous display of human empathy is something to which we can all aspire.

Hobsbawm was (is?) a wonderful historian to read, even though one has to correct for his Marxism, so to speak. The same was true of E.H. Carr, and though I don't know whether one might consider him an apologist for Stalin, he certainly came pretty close. Just a couple of remarks about some other points raised above. I'm not sure we can lay the deaths of 20 million at Stalin's feet. Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (2010) makes the point that while, prior to about 1942, Stalin's victims far outnumbered Hitler's, Hitler caught up and passed him (if I remember right, he finds Hitler guilty of about 14 million, and Stalin around 9 million). As I remember, he does not count battle deaths, or (I think) victims of air raids and such, but only those who would not have died in normal times, even normal wartimes. Much depends of course on how you count the victims. In any case, both Hitler and Stalin and their ilk pale by comparison with Mao Zedong. According to the historian Frank Diktter, 40 million perished in Mao's Great Famine of 1959-61 (not all by starvation, either); and that doesn't count the earlier victims of the land reform and thought reform campaigns, or the later Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. But I don't ever remember reading anything by Hobsbawm that pays much attention to China, save as a victim of western imperialism.Second, I find the argument that communism is a "religion" a bit tiresome, particularly when used by those trying to show that religions (in their more conventional sense) have been particularly bloodthirsty in human history. If one raises the question of Maoism or Stalinism or Naziism, one is often told that these don't count, because they are really "religions" rather than offshoots of secularism. It's a way of dodging the issue, in other words. I don't think historians generally fall for such arguments, and usually find themselves interested in the secular causes of the "wars of religion" -- dynastic power politics, greed, trade, social change, etc., etc. None of which, of course, excuses the way the religions -- including the Christian churches -- allowed their faiths to be used as a cover for such human sinfulness.

Hobsbawm's essay, "Inventing Traditions," is a clarifying read, especially for Catholics.

What comes across so strikingly is the neglect of either secular or religious absolute ideology of basic human goodness. Newman's words are as disturbing as those pope's and saints who encouraged others to commit grievous sins in murdering their neighbors. It is the same mentality that leads those followers to murder abortion doctors while neglecting the seven million children who die every year lacking basics. And those countless young girls, some as young as three, who are forced into human trafficking. Compared to Jesus who declared that he was every sick, hungry and barely clad sufferer.

Mr. Gallicho:Communism caused the death of 100,000,000 people in the 20th century and was an especially vicious opponent of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, imprisoning and torturing and killing believers in large numbers. If Hobsbawm had been an unrepentant member of the Nazi Party, no one would be paying tribute to him. But the victims of Communism don't count: they are largely forgotten, and those who defended their murderers are widely praised.Michael Burleigh (a Catholic, by the way) struck just the right note on Hobsbawm, in the Daily Telegraph:

Thorin,You seem to believe there is no moral difference whatsoever between Communism and Nazism, but you recommend a (good) piece by the historian Michael Burleigh as having "struck just the right note on Hobsbawm." Do you really think this is the kind of piece he would have written about an unrepentant Nazi? I rather doubt it. But if not, why not?

It's quite a stretch to liken the quote from Newman to Hobsbawm's position. We've discussed the former's quote here before. I think it's a hyperbolic attempt to indicate the qualitative difference between physical evil and moral evil, a difference one might even regard as infinite given the One against whom one sins.

Carlo Lancellotti:Matthew Boudway wrote, Its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist. You replied, I am not so sure about that.The material below seems to suggest that John Paul II learned from Marx without becoming a Marxist. What do you think?

Neither capitalist nor Marxist: Karol Wojtyla's social ethics, by Jonathan Kwitny, Commonweal, Oct. 10, 1997. . . . In a chapter on Marxism [in his Catholic Social Ethics], Wojtyla saw beyond the system that tyrannized his own life and into the issues that would later present themselves to him as pope. He wrote:
The relentless materialism in Marxism contradicts Catholicism, [which] sees man as spirit and matter in one, [and which] proclaims the superiority of the spirit....

But, he added, "the goal of these thoughts is not to criticize Marxism entirely." He explicitly embraced Marx's essential theory that "the economic factor...explains, rather substantially, the different facts of human history.... Criticism of capitalism the system of exploitation of human beings and human work is the unquestionable 'part of the truth' embodied in Marxism."In 1993, John Paul II would provoke mocking headlines when he criticized Poland and other post-Communist countries for accepting pure market economics from the West and thus abandoning the "grain of truth" in Marxism. Although many thought the pope was reversing himself, he was in fact using almost the same words he had used forty years before in class lectures and in his book, and had been using ever since.Wojtyla separated Marx's analysis of economic exploitation, which he largely accepted, from Marx's solutions, which he rejected. "The Catholic social ethic," he wrote in 1953, "agrees that in many cases a struggle is the way to accomplish the common good. Today...a class the undeniable responsibility of the proletariat." Not only is class-conscious revolution compatible with Christianity, he argued; it is sometimes necessary to Christianity. What is incompatible is Marxism's subjugation of the individual human spirit to a grand economic design after the revolution.

Fr. Komonchak,To say that something reminds one of something else is not to say the two things are alike in every important respect. The point was not to justify Hobsbawm's position by comparing it to Newman's remark, nor to discredit Newman by comparing him to Hobsbawm. The point was that Hobsbawm's rationale, like Newman's very different rationale, is bound to strike the secular bourgeois liberal as not only alien but offensive. No doubt Hobsbawm's rationale would also have offended Newman, as it offends us. But it was the predictable extension of his view that only Communism could make sense of history. In this view, Communism makes sense of the suffering it causes in the same way it makes sense of all the suffering that came before it. That all of human suffering can and will be accounted for that it isn't just an absurd waste, without redress is one thing about which Newman and the Communist might agree.I think it's too easy to defend Newman's words as "hyperbole." If the difference between physical evil and moral evil is infinite, then one cannotand does not need toexaggerate the degree of physical agony that is preferable to one small sin. Insofar as the words are merely hyperbolic, they are also grotesque (see Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chapter 3).

I take Newman's quote in context for two reasons. One he is responding to the oft raised objection of preferring dogma over concern for the poor. Secondly, it is a major problem with the hierarchical church which demands luxury for its princes (bishops and cardinals) unlike the example of Jesus, while spending an inordinate amount of time on zygotes compared to the minimum on the three year olds forced into traffic. Along with a prodigious amount of time distinquishing between venial and mortal sin presuming God is so deeply offended while the constant gospel of Jesus is to let the captives free. We will not get the gospel straight until we pay less attention to Augustine and Newman and more to Romero and Day.

Yes, "Inventing Traditions" is fascinating. Here you learn, among other things, that traditional Scottish plaids are a late (18th century) invention, foisted on tenants by their landlords. (Should someone send a copy to Cardinal Burke propos of his "traditional" dress?)

Gene Palumbo:sure, in principle we can learn from anybody. As St.Paul said, "Test everything and keep what is good."However, the question of 'learning from Marx' is much more historically and philosophically loaded that just taking the "grain of salt" mentioned by JPII. As I mentioned in my previous comments, the question of "keeping the truth of Marx" (in Italian, 'inveramento', in the sense of keeping his social analysis while tossing his metaphysics) was the CORE cultural project of the European Catholic "left" from 1945 on. Dozens of famous intellectuals devoted their life to that project, and it shaped whole political movements. And others, like Del Noce, made a living of showing that Marx's political economics CANNOT be detached from his metaphysics. This is why I mentioned that Mr Bodway's remark that people of Hobsbawm generation did not consider the possibility of separating Marx from Communism sounded almost comical to European ears.

Gene:another thing: all the insightful remarks we can find in Marx (I could name several) do not amount to Marxism, meaning his core philosophy, his view of the world, which is essentially materialistic. I would argue that Leninism is a consistent development of Marxism, but I cannot argue it here. Therefore, what can be saved of Marx is, in any case, not "Marxism."

Carlo,A couple of points.First, if Del Noce was right and every part of Marx's project is infected with his bad metaphysics, then JPII was wrongwhich is possible of course. But I'm inclined to side with JPII (and Mounier, and Jean Marie Domenach, and the "Esprit crowd").Second, I said most people in Hobsbawm's generation. I should probably have said "many," or made it clearer that I was mainly talking about the United States and England, where the Cold War had an especially polarizing effect on the study of Marx. Even in these countries, however, you could find people like G. A. Cohen, who arrived at a position that depended on some of Marx's historical analysis while also rejecting Marx's claim that his own version of socialism was scientific rather than utopian. Marx believed that socialism was inevitable, though we knew neither the day nor the hour of its arrival. The socialist's job was to prepare for it and help it along at the critical moment. Cohen called this the "obstetric fallacy."

Carlo,One more point, this one in response to your last comment.I wrote that "its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist, much less a Communist."Now you write that "all the insightful remarks we can find in Marx (I could name several) do not amount to Marxism."This is not a response to what I wrote but a restatement of it.

Carlo:It seems to me that, in your two comments here, youre conceding Matthews point the very point you took issue with in your original comment. He said, Its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist, and you replied back then -- Im not so sure about that. Now it appears right? that you are sure.Also: If we can assume that what Kwitny wrote is accurate, it seems to me that you downplay how much John Paul II learned from Marx. You speak of a mere grain of salt, but Kwitny says

{Wojtyla] explicitly embraced Marx's essential theory that "the economic factor...explains, rather substantially, the different facts of human history.... Criticism of capitalism the system of exploitation of human beings and human work is the unquestionable 'part of the truth' embodied in Marxism." (emhasis added)

Thats a lot more than a grain of salt, right?You also say, all the insightful remarks we can find in Marx (I could name several) do not amount to Marxism. But Matthew never said they amount to Marxism. Finally, you say, what can be saved of Marx is, in any case, not Marxism. Matthew didnt claim that, either. All he said was, Its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist. Period.

Matthew and Gene:if by "learning from Marx" you mean "picking a few good points here and there" I gladly concede the point.However, if you mean "accepting Marx's general theory of capitalism and class struggle" then I stand by my original remarks. Which were also motivated by Matthew's final sentence:"Certainly its difficult to imagine, even now, how one could effectively oppose international bourgeois anarchism without first learning something about the logic of capitalism from Marx."Del Noce argues that that Marxism proved unable to defeat neo-bourgeois capitalism precisely because of Marx's materialistic metaphysics, which ultimately helped capitalism establish itself to a higher degree, by destroying the residues of Christian morality that still constrained the bourgeoisie in the XIX century.

Matthew and Gene:let me be even more specific: 1) as I said lots of people in Howbawm generation would have subscribed to the idea that "Its possible to learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist." Especially a lot of European Catholic intellectuals. That was my main comment to Matthew's original post and I stand by it.2) The question you implicitly raised is what that means. Taken literally it is unobjectionable, as I already said.3) However, most people (including the French and Italian famous people I mentioned) did not take literally. They took it (and some still take it) to mean: make the Marxist analysis of capitalism a self-standing "scientific" theory of society and use it to promote social justice, detaching it from Marxist metaphysics. I believe the history of Europe is the living proof that this is impossible, but it would be absurd to try and argue it here, so if you disagree we shoulkd probably just leave it at that.

David Mills posted at the First Thoughts blog today about Eugene Genovese, who apparently unlike Hobsbawm did regret the blood-drenched excesses of the Left.

Jim,Genovese had enormous respect for Hobsbawm, as this review in the New Republic makes clear:

Eric Hobsbawm is one of the few genuinely great historians of our century. He is also the one genuinely great historian to come out of the Anglo-American Marxist left. I admit to my prejudice. He has been the strongest influence on my own work as a historian, and in 1979 1 dedicated a book on black slave revolts to Eric Hobsbawm: Our Main Man. I have made a great many mistakes in my life,, but reading and rereading Hobsbawms powerful new book I am relieved to see that I got at least that much right.

And this was a couple of years after the piece David Mills was discussing at FT.

As for the number of the crimes of Stalin, Timothy Snyder, Professor at Yale, has documented in his book: Bloodlands, and elsewhere, that Stalin can "only" be held responsible for the deaths of 6-8 million people and not the 20-25 million that is normally attributed to him. If true its lesson at least to me that numbers can be deceiving.

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