Eric Hobsbawm and the Neglect of Communist Crimes

I was going to comment on the passing of Eric Hobsbawm, the famous historian and longtime apologist for communism. But co-bloggers Jonathan Adler and David Bernstein have already said most of what I could have said. I also recommend this column by Jeff Jacoby.

I will add only that Hobsbawm’s career is yet another example of our neglect of communist crimes, demonstrated in this case by a willingness to excuse their apologists. Had Hobsbawm been a comparably dedicated and unrepentant apologist for the Nazis or even for a run of the mill right-wing authoritarian regime, he would not have been a respected member of the intellectual establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books would not have been required reading for undergraduates all over the English-speaking world.

If Hobsbawm had been, say, a physicist or a zoologist, his defenders could at least claim that his political views were irrelevant to his work. But he was a historian specializing in modern European and British history, and his communist outlook clearly influenced the work that made him famous. That is not to say that the work was entirely without intellectual merit. But the degree of that merit was greatly reduced by its adherence to a worldview that was not only morally perverse but permeated with empirical and logical fallacies.

UPDATE: Some commenters point to Martin Heidegger as a right-wing counterpart to Hobsbawm. The analogy is only partially correct. Heidegger did indeed praise the Nazis while they were in power. But after Hitler fell from power, he didn’t continue to defend them, and tried as much as possible to minimize his pro-Nazi past. Unlike Hobsbawm, Heidegger did not continue to defend his preferred totalitarian regime for decades. He also didn’t support neo-Nazi groups after the war, in contrast to Hobsbawn, who remained a member of the Communist Party for decades. If Heidegger had acted as Hobsbawn did, his reputation in intellectual circles would have been far, far worse. Even as it was, he took a great deal of flak as the details of his activities in the Third Reich came to light in the post-World War II years. What Heidegger did was clearly reprehensible, and he deserves all the opprobrium he got for it, and probably more. But he was nowhere near as unrepentant an apologist for Nazism as Hobsbawn was for communism.

In the column linked above, Jeff Jacoby explains what a right-winger would have had to do in order to be genuinely analogous to Hobsbawm:

Imagine that Hobsbawm had fallen in love with Nazism as a youth and spent the rest of his career whitewashing Hitler’s atrocities. Suppose he’d refused for decades to let his Nazi Party membership lapse, and argued that the Holocaust would have been an acceptable price to pay for the realization of a true Thousand-Year Reich [as Hobsbawm claimed in 1994 that the mass murder of 15 to 20 million people would have been an acceptable price to pay to establish a communist society]. It is inconceivable that he would have been hailed as a brilliant thinker or basked in acclaim; no self-respecting university would have hired him to teach; politicians and pundits would not have lined up to shower him with accolades during his life and tributes after his death.