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Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, and the End of History

Friday, October 5, 2012

Grand historical narratives have been repeatedly abused by those true believers who convince themselves that a few million lives are a small price to pay to get to the End of History a little quicker.

When a man dies at a ripe old age, the sins of his youth are normally forgiven him, assuming there is anyone around who remembers them. Or, at the very least, these sins are not loudly trumpeted forth nor dwelled on at painful length in his obituaries.

The death of Eric Hobsbawm at the age of 95 has proven an exception to this rule. The very day after Hobsbawm’s death was announced, the formidable English polymath A. N. Wilson wrote a stunningly savage attack on the man who was often regarded as the preeminent British Marxist historian of our time. “Hobsbawm,” A. N. Wilson writes, “will sink without trace. His books will not be read in the future. They are little better than [Communist] propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.” This departure from the normal etiquette in dealing with the demise of a much lauded public intellectual deserves a bit of explanation.

A. N. Wilson is a Tory—a conservative, in other words—and it might seem only natural that a conservative would disagree with the reading of history offered by a Marxist like Hobsbawm. Yet ideological differences did not keep other conservative historians from offering their praise at Hobsbawm’s bier. In a postmortem piece in The Guardian, Niall Ferguson, whose conservative credentials are beyond reproach, claimed Hobsbawm as a personal friend and argued that, despite his Marxist politics, Hobsbawm was nevertheless “a truly great historian,” whose chief works will continue to be “the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.”

Why these two diametrically opposite takes from two distinguished conservative thinkers? The answer, I think, can be put in a single word: Stalinism.

For A. N. Wilson, Hobsbawm was preeminently the man who “excused Stalin’s genocide.” Indeed, in his article, Wilson raises the fascinating question of whether Hobsbawm became a Soviet agent while at Cambridge in the 1930s, along with his friends Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. If so, then Hobsbawm was not just a bad historian, but, according to Wilson, a traitor as well. (Keep in mind that A. N. Wilson, among his many talents, is also a novelist, with a novelist’s lively imagination.)

Many well-intentioned American and English intellectuals also championed Stalin’s Russia during the worldwide depression that wrecked the economies of the capitalist West, but which left the isolated USSR relatively unscathed.

Admirers of Hobsbawm would certainly pooh-pooh the idea that their hero ever became an actual Soviet spy, yet it would be impossible for them to pretend that Hobsbawm in his younger days was anything other than a fervent champion of the Worker’s Paradise known as the Soviet Union. Yet this fact hardly made Hobsbawm unique. Many well-intentioned American and English intellectuals also championed Stalin’s Russia during the worldwide depression that wrecked the economies of the capitalist West, but which left the isolated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics relatively unscathed. Yet out of the ranks of these Soviet sympathizers of the thirties there emerged a number of disenchanted intellectuals, many of whom would go on to become the sharpest and most trenchant critics of the Soviet Union. For example, Arthur Koestler, whose most famous book, Darkness at Noon, remains one of the most powerful attacks on horrors of Stalinism, joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1931, roughly the same time that Eric Hobsbawm, who was then 15 and living in Berlin, joined it as well. 

The political sins of youth? In Koestler’s case, definitely yes. Disillusioned by the great Soviet purge trials of the late thirties, Koestler left the Communist Party in 1938, then began writing Darkness at Noon in an attempt to explain one of the most puzzling aspects of the purge trials—how men who had dedicated their lives to promoting Soviet communism could be brought to accuse themselves of being traitors to the USSR and go loyally to their deaths, convinced that they were offering their lives up to the inevitable triumph of Communism.

Koestler was an early example of a convert from Stalinism, but he was hardly alone. Other leftists would renounce their Communist allegiance over the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, which paved the way for the conquest and division of Poland by both the Third Reich and the USSR. But there were many Communists who remained faithful to their sacred cause through thick and thin, including Eric Hobsbawm. Neither the Hungarian uprising of 1956 nor the grim suppression of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968 was a significant enough event, in Hobsbawm’s opinion, to warrant a renunciation of his Communist Party affiliation. Indeed, it was only after the collapse of the Soviet system in the late eighties that Hobsbawm officially ceased to be a card-carrying Communist, and that was only by letting his membership in the party lapse.

It is true that a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm published a major work, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, in which he candidly acknowledged that the Soviet experiment had cost millions of lives. About time, many of his critics must have thought to themselves—and if Hobsbawm had left it at that, he might well have salvaged his reputation from the charge of being the longest-living British apologist for Stalinism. But Hobsbawm did not leave it at that. In a remarkable interview with Michael Ignatieff on British TV in 1994, Hobsbawm made it clear that the problem he had with the Soviet experiment was not that it cost millions of lives, but that it failed to create the model utopia of his dreams. If the experiment had worked, the loss of millions would have been justified. After all, as Hobsbawm coyly argued, don’t we all agree that the defeat of fascism in the Second World War justified the deaths of millions?

Oddly enough, this astonishing statement is a product of what Hobsbawm’s admirers see as his strongest point, namely, his interest in grand historical narrative—offering a sweeping, big-picture view of events. In an age in which historians tend to specialize in narrow and detailed analysis of isolated tracts of history, and even thin slices of it at that, it is refreshing to see a historian who is brave enough to take the whole destiny of man as his theme. This, after all, is one of the more creditable legacies of the Marxist tradition, the search for an overriding pattern that gives meaning and purpose to the dismaying vicissitudes of seemingly haphazard events. But there is a catch to this style of grand theorizing—it allows, indeed it positively encourages, the grand theorist to permit the ends to justify even the vilest and most atrocious means, including the massacre of innocent millions.

Hobsbawm made it clear that the problem he had with the Soviet experiment was not that it cost millions of lives, but that it failed to create the model utopia of his dreams.

Yet even this position might make some wicked sense if the grand theorist really and truly believed that the end in view was the end of all human misery and suffering. This was the position taken by Karl Marx himself. Marx never doubted that history had a purpose, namely, the inevitable victory of communism, which, according to Marx, would bring the End of History—or, more precisely, an end to the nightmare of history, with its bloody wars and revolutions. The global triumph of Marxist communism would usher in the reign of perpetual peace that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had hopefully prophesized in the heyday of the European Enlightenment.

For Marx and his early followers, such a lofty and noble end could justify a great deal of violence and bloodshed. But suppose they had been permitted a glimpse into the future and had seen for themselves that the violence and bloodshed would lead absolutely nowhere and that the great social experiment undertaken in Marx’s name would result in genocide and ultimately in catastrophic collapse and ruin. What would they have said then?

Obviously we have no way of knowing the answer to that question, but we do know that Eric Hobsbawm was permitted that glimpse into the future denied to Marx, and we know what his answer was. Ah, if only it had worked…

What makes this answer so disturbing is that with the collapse of the USSR, Hobsbawm abandoned all hopes of an end to history—ironically at the very same moment that many Western intellectuals became converts to a new End of History scenario. Following the lead of Francis Fukuyama in recasting Marx’s grand dialectic, these intellectuals believed that the final stage of history was near at hand, culminating not in a global embrace of communism, but rather in the worldwide triumph of liberal democracies buoyed up by free market economies.  

Needless to say, Hobsbawm had no use for this particular End of History. Fukuyama, he wrote, was the new Dr. Pangloss, the pedant in Voltaire’s Candide who is forever assuring his pupils that they lived in the best of all possible worlds. History, Hobsbawm argued, was not culminating anytime soon—a lesson that we have learned to our cost in the post 9/11 epoch. In fact, during his last years, Hobsbawm made it clear that he no longer had any idea where history might be taking us next.

Some epochs may be better than others, but, if so, this is simply a bit of serendipity, and certainly not proof of the inevitable improvement of the human lot.

This position, which might be called historical agnosticism, will seem quite sensible to most of us—do any of us really know where we are currently heading?—but it is certainly not Marxism, and Hobsbawm was surely aware of this fact. Indeed, I think it can be argued that after the fall of the USSR, Hobsbawm’s claim that he was a Marxist rested solely on a sentimental attachment to the delusions of his youth, and he sometimes came close to admitting as much. But a serious thinker cannot allow his youthful enthusiasm to cloud his mature judgment. Having come to realize that Marx’s End of History was an illusion, Hobsbawm should have openly confessed that Marxism, as a philosophy of history, was bankrupt. It is not simply that Hobsbawm was wrong—a serious thinker can be forgiven that—but that he was intellectually incoherent, claiming to be a Marxist while simultaneously abandoning the cardinal doctrines of Marxism. This fatal incoherence was pointed out as early as 1994 by one of Hobsbawm’s most perceptive critics, the brilliant American historian Eugene Genovese, who died at the age of 82, only a few days before Hobsbawm. What made Genovese’s critique so powerful was that he, like Hobsbawm, had begun his life as a Marxist radical, but, unlike Hobsbawm, Genovese had the fortitude of character to accept the lessons of history, instead of evading them. Indeed, Genovese’s intellectual honesty forced him not only to renounce Marxism, but to abandon progressivism altogether, a move that ended in his full conversion both to conservatism and to the Roman Catholic Church—a fact that might explain why his death was not greeted by the same outpouring of adoration from the liberal media as the death of Eric Hobsbawm. 

Unlike A. N. Wilson or Niall Ferguson, who were always conservative, Genovese’s own Marxist past permitted him to grasp “the internal contradiction” in Hobsbawm’s post-Soviet thinking. In his 1995 review of The Age of Extremes for The New Republic, Genovese wrote that “Hobsbawm never mentions Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian social thinker of the early decades of this century who was a pioneer in economic theory and its application to social change; but Hobsbawm’s book conjures up nothing so much as Pareto’s ‘circulation of elites.’”

This is a damning indictment from one Marxist to another, as Genovese surely knew. Within Marxist circles, the name Pareto has always been anathema, and for good reason. If Pareto is right, then the Marxists are wrong. More generally speaking, Pareto’s theory of the “circulation of elites,” if true, gives a deathblow to all hopes of an End to History, both those of Marx and those of Fukuyama—indeed, a deathblow to progressivism of every sort. Put as bluntly as possible, Pareto argued that history is an endless cycle in which one small group, aka an elite, obtains mastery and control over the rest of society. But the elite group that is currently on the top of the heap will inevitably be challenged by a new elite. Over time, the old elite will lose its grip on power, often simply because it has forgotten how to retain the power that its ancestors knew well how to seize for themselves and their heirs. At this point, the rising elite replaces and often liquidates the old elite, and in its turn rules the roost to the exclusion of everyone else. The same cycle, however, is bound to occur again and again, over and over, without any hope of an End of History.

Pareto, in short, is not proposing mere historical agnosticism, but outright historical pessimism. Things will change, but they will not progress. Some epochs may be better than others, but, if so, this is simply a bit of serendipity, and certainly not proof of the inevitable improvement of the human lot.

The historical pessimist, unlike the historical triumphalist, will never deceive himself or others into believing that by killing a few million human beings today, they are preparing for the future happiness of billions.

If Hobsbawm had become a closet follower of Pareto by 1994, as Genovese suggests, then he should have had the courage to come out of his closet, to admit his disillusionment with Marxism, as Arthur Koestler had done over a half-century earlier, and to recognize the folly behind the myth of inevitable human progress, as any true historical pessimist must do. True, this would have required Hobsbawm to have grown out of the enthusiasms of his youth—or his sins, if you will—but then he was given far more time to change his mind than is allotted to most mortals. It is a great pity he never took the opportunity to do so. 

Needless to say, Pareto’s style of historical pessimism is not to everyone’s taste. Yet it does have one great redeeming virtue. Grand historical narratives, proposing to show how mankind must inevitably reach the promised land, have been repeatedly abused by those true believers who find it all too easy to convince themselves that a few million lives are a small price to pay in order to get to the End of History a little quicker than otherwise. The historical pessimist, unlike the historical triumphalist, will never deceive himself or others into believing that by killing a few million human beings today, they are preparing for the future happiness of billions. Refusing the lure of utopia, the pessimists can focus on making the present world not perfect, but just a little better than it would be without their efforts.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Eric Hobsbawm is that his long life demonstrates how even men of great intelligence and vast erudition can deceive themselves into believing that crimes of the most unimaginable horror are a small price to pay for the fulfillment of their no doubt deeply humanitarian dreams.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Stop Apologizing for Our Liberties,” “Obama and Second Chances,” “Thucydides in London: Would the Ancient Greeks Approve of Our Modern Olympics?,” and “‘It’s Not About Crime, It’s About Values.’” Scott Shane discusses “Karl Marx’s Long Shadow in Eastern Europe.” Leon Aron says “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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