Praise and Criticism
In 1994, Neal Ascherson said of Hobsbawm: "No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source. But the key word is 'command'. Hobsbawm's capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs." In 2002, Hobsbawm was described by right-leaning magazine The Spectator as "arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain's, but the world's", while Niall Ferguson wrote: "That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable. . . . His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history. Nothing else produced by the British Marxist historians will endure as these books will." In 2003, The New York Times described him as "one of the great British historians of his age, an unapologetic Communist and a polymath whose erudite, elegantly written histories are still widely read in schools here and abroad." James Joll wrote in The New York Review of Books that "Eric Hobsbawm's nineteenth century trilogy is one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades." Ian Kershaw said that Hobsbawm's take on the twentieth century, his 1994 book, The Age of Extremes, consisted of "masterly analysis". Meanwhile, Tony Judt, while praising Hobsbawm's vast knowledge and graceful prose, cautioned that Hobsbawm's bias in favour of the USSR, communist states and communism in general, and his tendency to disparage any nationalist movement as passing and irrational, weakened his grasp of parts of the 20th century.
With regard to the impact of his Marxist outlook and sympathies on his scholarship, Ben Pimlott saw it as "a tool not a straitjacket; he's not dialectical or following a party line", although Judt argued that it has "prevented his achieving the analytical distance he does on the 19th century: he isn't as interesting on the Russian revolution because he can't free himself completely from the optimistic vision of earlier years. For the same reason he's not that good on fascism."
British historian David Pryce-Jones conceded that Hobsbawm was "no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian", but also charged that, as a professional historian who has "steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth", he was "neither a historian nor professional." Brad DeLong strongly criticised Age of Extremes: "The remains of Hobsbawm's commitment to the religion of World Communism get in the way of his judgment, and twist his vision. On planet Hobsbawm, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster, and the Revolutions of 1989 a defeat for humanity. On planet Hobsbawm, Stalin planned multi-party democracies and mixed economies for Eastern Europe after World War II, and reconsidered only after the United States launched the Cold War." After reading Age of Extremes, Kremlinologist Robert Conquest concluded that Hobsbawm suffers from a "massive reality denial" regarding the USSR, and John Gray, though praising his work on the nineteenth century, has described Hobsbawm's writings on the post-1914 period as "banal in the extreme. They are also highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism, a refusal to engage which led the late Tony Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm had 'provincialised himself'. It is a damning judgement".
In an interview with Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff on British television, Hobsbawm responded in the affirmative to the question of whether 20 million deaths may have been justified had the proposed communist utopia been created. The following year, when asked the same question on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, that is if "the sacrifice of millions of lives" would have been worth a communist utopia, he replied: "That's what we felt when we fought the Second World War". Hobsbawm has similarly argued that, "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".
Tony Judt opined that Hobsbawm "clings to a pernicious illusion of the late Enlightenment: that if one can promise a benevolent outcome it would be worth the human cost. But one of the great lessons of the 20th century is that it's not true. For such a clear-headed writer, he appears blind to the sheer scale of the price paid. I find it tragic, rather than disgraceful." Neil Ascherson believes that, "Eric is not a man for apologising or feeling guilty. He does feel bad about the appalling waste of lives in Soviet communism. But he refuses to acknowledge that he regrets anything. He's not that kind of person." Hobsbawm himself, in his autobiography, wrote that he desires "historical understanding . . . not agreement, approval or sympathy".
Hobsbawm stressed that since the utopia had not been created, the sacrifices were in fact not justified—a point he emphasised in Age of Extremes:Still, whatever assumptions are made, the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits. In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a "conservative" estimate nearer to ten than to twenty million or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification. I add, without comment, that the total population of the USSR in 1937 was said to have been 164 millions, or 16.7 millions less than the demographic forecasts of the Second Five-Year Plan (1933–38).
Elsewhere he has insisted:I have never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia, though the sheer extent of the massacres we didn't realise. . . . In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine—we knew of the Volga famine of the early '20s, if not the early '30s. Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the west. It was that or nothing.
With regard to the 1930s, he has written thatIt is impossible to understand the reluctance of men and women on the left to criticise, or even often to admit to themselves, what was happening in the USSR in those years, or the isolation of the USSR's critics on the left, without this sense that in the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were, in a profound sense, fighting for the same cause. Not to mention the more obvious fact . . . that, in the conditions of the 1930s, what Stalin did was a Russian problem, however shocking, whereas what Hitler did was a threat everywhere.
Gina Herrmann, in her 2010 study of Spanish communists' memoirs, claimed that "of the many myths that Western Communists lived by, perhaps the most abiding is that of Communist anti-Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s—one that was consolidated in Spain's Civil War of 1936–1939." However, the profound fascist/anti-fascist schism of the period described by Hobsbawm was real enough, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes:For many Europeans and Americans, the show trials were simply trials, and confessions were reliable evidence of guilt. Some observers who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union saw them as a positive development: the British socialist Beatrice Webb, for example, was pleased that Stalin had "cut out the dead wood." Other Soviet sympathizers no doubt suppressed their suspicions, on the logic that the USSR was the enemy of Nazi Germany and thus the hope of civilization. European public opinion was so polarized by 1936 that it was indeed difficult to criticize the Soviet regime without seeming to endorse fascism and Hitler.
Nevertheless, Snyder also claimed that "The Spanish Civil War revealed that Stalin was determined, despite the Popular Front rhetoric of pluralism, to eliminate opposition to his version of socialism", and that his determination was knowable and known even contemporaneously (Snyder cites George Orwell's analysis of, and dismay at, communist actions in Spain). On the communist role in Spain, Hobsbawm writes simply that "its pros and cons continue to be discussed in the political and historical literature", and refers to Orwell, not by his literary name, but as "an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair". He also claimed that the demise of the USSR was "traumatic not only for communists but for socialists everywhere", a statement that led journalist Francis Wheen to retort: "Speak for yourself, comrade. I, like many other socialists, greeted the fall of the Soviet model with unqualified rejoicing; and I don't doubt that Karl Marx would have been celebrating. His favourite motto, de omnibus disputandum ('everything should be questioned'), was not one that had any currency in the realm of 'actually existing socialism'—a hideous hybrid of mendacity, thuggery and incompetence."
The 1930s aside, Hobsbawm was criticised for never relinquishing his Communist Party membership. Whereas people like Arthur Koestler left the Party after seeing the friendly reception of Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Moscow during the years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941), Hobsbawm stood firm even after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, though he was against them both. In his review of Hobsbawm's 2002 memoirs, Interesting Times, Niall Ferguson wrote:The essence of Communism is the abnegation of individual freedom, as Hobsbawm admits in a chilling passage: "The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do . . . Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed . . . If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so."
Consider some of the "lines" our historian dutifully toed. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in the great Berlin transport strike of 1932. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.
Hobsbawm let his membership lapse not long before the party's dissolution in 1991. In his review of Hobsbawm's memoirs, David Pryce-Jones accuses him of actually supporting the invasion of Hungary:e carefully makes sure not to quote the letter he published on 9 November 1956 in the Communist Daily Worker defending the Soviet onslaught on Hungary: "While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible." Which is more deceitful, the spirit of this letter, or the omission of any reference to it ?
In those memoirs, Hobsbawn wrote: "The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . 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 tenderness." Reviewing the book, David Caute wrote: "One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn't you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn't you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the gulag? As Orwell himself documented, a great deal of evidence was reliably knowable even before 1939, but Hobsbawm pleads that much of it was not reliably knowable until Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956."
Reviewing Hobsbawm's 2011 How to Change the World in The Wall Street Journal, Michael Moynihan argued:When the bloody history of 20th-century communism intrudes upon Mr. Hobsbawm's disquisitions, it's quickly dismissed. Of the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II—"the Second World War," he says with characteristic slipperiness, "led communist parties to power" in Eastern and Central Europe—he explains that a "possible critique of the new socialist regimes does not concern us here." Why did communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder? "To answer this question is not part of the present chapter." Regarding the execrable pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which shocked many former communist sympathizers into lives of anticommunism, Mr. Hobsbawm dismisses the "zig-zags and turns of Comintern and Soviet policy," specifically the "about-turn of 1939–41," which "need not detain us here." In one sense, Mr. Hobsbawm's admirers are right about his erudition: He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Marxist thought, specifically Italian communism and pre-Soviet socialist movements. But that knowledge is wasted when used to write untrustworthy history.
Reviewing the same book, Francis Wheen argued in a similar vein: "When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to 'temporary episodes such as 1939–41'. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over."
David Evanier, in an article published in the American conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, called Hobsbawm "Stalin's cheerleader," writing: "One can learn almost nothing about the history of communism from Hobsbawm's Interesting Times—nothing about the show trials, the torture and execution of millions, the Communist betrayal of Spain."
In 2008, the historian Tony Judt summed up Hobsbawm's career this way:
Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of narrative history. On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.
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