A Word About Eric Hobsbawm…

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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34 Responses

  1. Annelid Gustator says:

    Those are three good books. Solid stuff.Report

  2. Roger says:

    I’m not familiar with his work, but it seems to me that for a historian to be pro communism is like a priest being pro pedophilia. He is either really stupid (really unlikely) or morally empty.

    Below is a quote from Jeff Jacoby


    “Hobsbawm, on the other hand, was a lifelong Marxist, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party from his teens until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long after it was evident to even true believers that the Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed a nightmare of blood, Hobsbawm went on defending, minimizing, and excusing the crimes of communism.

    Interviewed on the BBC in 1994, he was asked whether he would have shunned the Communist Party had he known in 1934 that Stalin was butchering innocent human beings by the millions. “Probably not,” he answered — after all, at the time he believed he was signing up for world revolution. Taken aback by such indifference to carnage, the interviewer pressed the point. Was Hobsbawm saying that if a communist paradise had actually been created, “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm’s answer: “Yes.””


    • Glyph in reply to Roger says:

      Roger, this is not to defend either Communism nor Hobsbawm (who I haven’t read either), but I think since Nob notes his books were about the 19th century not the 20th, I would think that they still could be important/well-done works, even if he goes off the rails a little later in the 20th.

      Interestingly, this could tie into some of the threads recently about whether a creationist can be a good scientist – so long as their area of study is sufficiently distant from their blind spot, I’d say they can.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

      Not to Godwin the point, but we were OK with possibly killing a few hundred thousand mostly innocent Japanese to make the world safe for democracy. I think after that, all we’re arguing is where the decimal point is.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Jesse, that wasn’t just an abstract ‘make the world safe for democracy’; we were, in fact attacked by another country, and were counterattacking that same country (setting aside things like proportionality of response and civilian casualties etc.).

        Your comparison might have more weight if 1.) it were Americans killing *other Americans* to ‘make the world safe for democracy’, and 2.) if the actual casualty numbers involved were closer to comparable. Even attributing the highest estimates of Japanese civilian deaths (around 1 million) completely and solely to US actions (doubtful to be the case), that is still not 15-20 million Russian dead by their countrymens’ hands.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to Roger says:

      I mostly agree with you although I haven’t read his work either, but I add a small caveat to what appears to be your takeaway from this:

      Interviewed on the BBC in 1994, he was asked whether he would have shunned the Communist Party had he known in 1934 that Stalin was butchering innocent human beings by the millions.

      If Hobsbawm had since renounced Stalinism (which, as far as I know, he never did), then I can imagine someone, in a moment of candor, saying that in the past they would have made the wrong decision.

      But you were writing, of course, knowing that Hobsbawm was unapologetic, apparently to the end, and he was willing to justify mass murder on the unlikely possibility that everything would turn out right. I can’t really disagree with you even if I wanted to.

      However good Hobsbawm might have been as a historian, from what I know of him, I have very little respect for him as a person.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        from what I know of him, I have very little respect for him as a person.

        No disagreement from me, in case that wasn’t clear. But just as we separate artist-as-person from his art, it is possible I think to separate the historian-as-person, from the books he wrote.Report

        • Pierre Corneille in reply to Glyph says:

          I agree, but with a qualification.

          The reader of any historian’s work invests a certain amount of trust in that historian. It is for practical purposes usually impossible for anyone other than a specialist in the exact topic of a monograph to rescan the primary sources to assess the value of the historian’s argument.

          I know one historian personally whose dishonesty is so flagrant that I would have a hard time trusting almost anything they write, and if invited to write an academic journal review of his work, my bias would be so great that I’d have to decline. That is probably as much of a personal failing on my part as it is on this person’s, but I believe he goes so so beyond the pale that he’s untrustworthy.

          Again, though and as you point out, the proof is in the work itself, and Hobsbawm’s oeuvre may very well be above par. And I ought, even if I don’t, check my personal issues at the door, or at least suspend my suspicion.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

            What’s interesting here (and again, I am talking completely out of my rear and working solely off what is in this post and comments when it comes to him) – Hobsbawm appears if anything to be TOO honest. “Yep, still an unrepentant Marxist, and 20 million deaths would *totally* have been worth it, if it had worked!”

            Gotta give the man points for consistency at least, I guess. So as long as you know his biases, he seems unlikely to hide too much, if he’s not even ashamed of *that*.Report

            • Pierre Corneille in reply to Glyph says:

              With that I agree, but although I’d give him *some* points, I wouldn’t give him a lot.Report

            • Roger in reply to Glyph says:


              Should we also separate the priest from the pedophile? Just keep him away from kids and listen to his wonderful and honest sermons?

              It seems to me that for a historian to approve of communism is an admission that they either do not understand the complex interactions of effects or they are moral monsters. In either case, the guy should be recognized as a nut job. I haven’t read anything he has written. And never plan to, but I certainly wonder about the quality of his insights on anything else he has written.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Roger says:

                For the analogy to hold, Hobsbawm isn’t like a pedophile. He is more like someone who admires (or at least accepts) someone who was a pedophile.

                Many people remain Catholic, and choose to either disbelieve or ignore what certain priests did, or believe that the good the church has done outweigh the bad.

                They may be mistaken – gravely so – but it does not mean that they themselves are a risk to children.Report

              • Roger in reply to Glyph says:


                Yeah, I am pretty much taking the analogy way too far. Guilty.

                But just for kicks… We should at least make sure kids don’t read this monster admirer’s stuff…no?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Roger says:

                We can definitely keep his books behind the counter in a plain brown wrapper, how’s that? 😉Report

              • Turgid Jacobian in reply to Glyph says:

                This is asinine. These works of his are bog-standard history. How much iron was produced by whom, when; whose trade was faster and relied on what types of modalities, etc.Report

              • Roger in reply to Glyph says:

                Works for me, Glyph.

                Truth be told, Trevor, I’ve never read a word of it. I am indeed just riffing.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

                Turgid, I haven’t read it either, but I above defended his works in theory at least, saying despite his political beliefs about 20th century regimes, his 19th century histories might be perfectly fine works.

                The ‘brown wrapper’ thing was just a joke for Roger’s benefit.Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Ahh, then he’ll be a member in good standng of the moral monster community. You can lump him in with Koch and company.Report

        • kenB in reply to Glyph says:

          Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy asked whether we’d be willing to give his books such respect if he had been an equally ardent and unrepentant defender of Nazism. Personally I think works should be judged apart from their authors regardless, but it’s not hard to imagine that there’d be a much different attitude towards his books in that case.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to kenB says:

            Anybody here read Knut Hamsun? Fantastic novelist. One of the best I think. His dislike for the British after the Boer War was very understandable. His treasonous support of Hitler in his older years was unforgivable. And yet, if you want to become a novelist, you really should read ‘Hunger’ at least once.

            As for Hobsbawm, his trilogy is a great place for a general reader to begin with the nineteenth century and Age of Extremes is a decent take on the 20th, but I think we need to be careful not to oversell him. It’s a wonder that his politics didn’t harm his books and they certainly can be read and appreciated by non-Marxists, but I really don’t think they’re earthshaking.Report

          • Nob Akimoto in reply to kenB says:

            This probably won’t help my reputation any, but I also think Carl Schmidt was a fantastic political theorist and am relatively fond of Wagner (Lohengrin particularly).

            Hobsbawm’s identification with the Communists is as much a part of his upbringing in Weimar Germany in the 20s and 30s as a Jew. Lest it be forgotten who the Nazis first turned their sights to.Report

            • dhex in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

              someone can have opinions which are morally monstrous or even just hella lame* and still be good at their primary engagement.

              * in this case, depending on how serious you take an academic being communisty.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I wouldn’t trust a young earth creationist to explain geological time to me, but I might be completely comfortable listening to him explain the John Elway era of the Broncos.

    To the extent that the history he’s discussing is fundamentally incompatible with his world view, he should be ignored the way we ignore young earth creationists talking about how The Great Flood created the Grand Canyon.Report

  4. Zach says:

    I have an appreciation for Hobsbawm to the extent that he left an indelible mark on professional history – he was one of the last of the titans, someone with a true capacity to both seriously engage in the work while promulgating his views to a mass audience.

    I suspect future generations will not be kind to him though.Report