Eric Hobsbawm: A Historian and His Hope

If years were measured by the stature of the historians who die during them, 2012 would have to rank right up there. I wrote earlier this year in tribute to the military historian John Keegan. Then last week we lost Eugene Genovese, one of the leading scholars of the American South, and American intellectual historian Henry May. (I’m less familiar with May and so appreciated John Fea’s post earlier this week.)

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) – Wikimedia

While I still tend to think that Keegan looms largest, Monday’s passing of his fellow Briton Eric Hobsbawm has understandably inspired a torrent of tributes, including a set of four in The Guardian by Niall Ferguson, David Priestland, Catherine Merridale, and Roy Foster.

Reading those essays, I most resonated with Priestland’s praise for Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the world since 1789 (The Age of Revolution; The Age of Capital; The Age of Empire; The Age of Extremes), which I continue to recommend to students:

At a time when academic historians were becoming increasingly suspicious of “grand narratives”, he saw how important it was to understand the broader forces of historical change. And in doing so, he not only reframed the way historians look at the past, but also met a real appetite among the public for works of synthesis. The series is deservedly a classic, and will be read for many years to come.

Even as the historical discipline grew more and more fragmentary around him, Hobsbawm dared to tell big stories — and had the knowledge and craft to populate them with complicated characters and painterly details. Referring to the aforementioned tetralogy, Foster concluded that Hobsbawm’s “expansive intellect, linguistic range, cultural authority, organisational power and ability to see the interconnectedness as well as the variousness of the way people live through time, made him a great historian, in a great European tradition.”

Hobsbawm, Age of ExtremesFerguson agreed that the Age of… series “remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language,” but he dwelt more on the second factoid that any casual fan of Hobsbawm knew about him: that he was a Marxist, and remained so long after being a Marxist historian sounded as likely as being a Lamarckian biologist.

On the one hand, Ferguson found Hobsbawm to be charitable and non-doctrinaire in his ideological commitment:

Unlike many continental intellectuals of the left, Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the “little man” and a love of the telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era. The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship.

At a time when much smaller ideological differences are regularly the occasion for vituperative ad hominem attacks, Hobsbawm should serve as an example of how civilised people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else.

At the same time, Ferguson couldn’t help but recall his disappointment that Hobsbawm’s autobiography did not “contain some expression of remorse for his decision to remain a member of the Communist party even after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes.” (The right-leaning Daily Telegraph hosted a debate about this piece of the Hobsbawm story, with Allan Massie defending Hobsbawm against Michael Burleigh.)

In another eulogy, Catholic journalist Matthew Boudway praised Hobsbawm, but also paused to consider his unapologetic embrace of the Soviet experiment: (H/T Matthew Schmitz)

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. [here’s Massie on that 1994 interview] 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.

Gulag Labor
Forced Soviet labor in the early 1930s

And if Hobsbawm’s “ideological devotion” and “passion for justice” sound like religious fervor… Hobsbawm himself acknowledged that

One might at most claim that Marxist socialism was for its adherents a passionate personal commitment, a system of hope and belief, which had some characteristics of a secular religion (though not more than the ideology of non-socialist crusading groups) and, perhaps more to the point, that, once it became a mass movement, subtle theory inevitably became at best a catechism; at worst, a symbol of identity and loyalty. (The Age of Extremes, p. 388 — and here remember Hobsbawm’s introductory remark that this kind of history is, for historians of his generation, “inevitably also an autobiographical endeavour,” p. 3.)

Boudway cautions us not to condemn Hobsbawm too quickly, and even leaves him sounding tragically (or pathetically) noble in his commitment to a certain eschatological vision, a grand hope whose Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, and other totalitarian expressions took the lives of tens of millions of human beings in the 20th century:

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. [see ch. 13 of The Age of Extremes and chs. 9 and 12 of his autobiography] 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.

Reading this, I wondered if Hobsbawm’s death marked the end of a generation of secular historians who truly believed in an end to history, that there was purpose in the past. Or, as Catherine Merridale reflected in her contribution to the Guardian tribute:

Few people seem inclined to make the case for Soviet power today, and fewer still call themselves Marxists. But my own generation of historians has struggled to find an alternative moral compass (we do not speak of ideology). Instead of liberation and justice, we find ourselves writing about memory; instead of class and capital, we identify victims and perpetrators. It is a way of dodging post-imperial guilt and continuing intellectual confusion.

Now, as the existence of the professional society whose biennial meeting I’m about to attend attests, there are those of us in the guild who believe we do have a moral compass (not that we read or follow it perfectly) and who confess as Savior and Lord a liberator who ushered in a reign of justice, who came “to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And to do it while renouncing political power and violent coercion. (Would that more of his followers have emulated him in those respects…)

To repeat one of my favorite quotations from Covenant historian and educator Karl Olsson,

Those of us who confess Christ as Lord believe that in him in a special way history has become hope. Because of the character of God as revealed in Jesus, we have hope that both history and what lies beyond it will be stamped by the character of God. Hence even when we mourn about our own mortality or the frailty of the institutions and societies of which we are a part, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope. (in a 1977 column in The Covenant Companion)

I don’t mean to suggest that hope is an unproblematic scholarly virtue for Christians, or that historians outside that religion all find their work ultimately meaningless. But for my part, I simply can’t imagine finding any hope in history if I didn’t believe in Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Judgment. (Perhaps a failure of my imagination, my non-Christian friends would understandably respond.)

So (re)encountering Hobsbawm’s sober but unwavering commitment to Marxism and then Merridale’s anxiety about her generation of historians lacking any such telos reminded me of Bradley Gundlach’s appreciation for the insights of the (non-Christian) historian Christopher Lasch, who

Christopher Lasch
Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) – Wikimedia

in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, ventures as a sympathetic outsider to write about providence, grace, and eschatology in the Christian tradition and to sift essentially Christian notions from modern substitutes for, or perversions of, them. Under the stress of scientism and the Adam Smith-inspired “moral rehabilitation of desire,” he argues, a rich and morally substantial tradition was eclipsed by the idea of “progress”—a radically different notion altogether, but one that has been misread as a secularized version of Christian hope….

Lasch stands as a secular historian keenly attuned to the distinction between the truly sacred and the poor substitutes modernity has offered in its stead. (“On Assimilating the Moral Insights of the Secular Academy,” in Confessing History, eds. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, pp. 158-59)

At the same time, Gundlach finds substantial limits to Lasch’s still-secular moral vision: “There is a certain pathos to the recognition of the part of secular people that their secularity violates human needs. Lasch, especially, writes in the tradition of Joseph Wood Krutch (The Modern Temper) and Walter Lippmann (Preface to Morals), two figures who in the late 1920s articulated the emptiness that secularity brought, yet felt they had no alternative but to try to reconstruct morals without the sacred canopy of meaning” (p. 160).

So while I expect that heirs to Hobsbawm will emerge to fulfill Merridale’s desires for a new moral compass and revitalized clarity of thought and purpose among secular historians, I doubt both that they will write with the same ambition, skill, and generosity as Hobsbawm or that they will be any more likely than him to reconcile the contradictions arising inevitably from whatever “system of hope and belief” they passionately commit themselves to.

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