Grand Narratives and Blind Spots


EJ Hobsbawm 1917-2012

When EJ Hobsbawm died on 1 October he was hailed as one of the greatest British historians of his generation and a major public intellectual. The Guardian wrote that “he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind.” The Independent called him “one of the leading historians of the 20th century”. The Times called him a “magisterial historian of the modern age”. The New York Times quoted historian Tony Judt: “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.”

There are two things that are curious about this chorus of praise. First, there was so little dissent. It was as if the many attacks on Hobsbawm over the past twenty years had never happened. Since the mid-1990s he had come under attack for staying loyal to the Party after the Purges, after 1956 — when his fellow Communist historians left — and even after 1968 when the Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. The tone was set in Michael Ignatieff’s interview with Hobsbawm for The Late Show (BBC2, 1994):

Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?

Hobsbawm: Probably not.

Ignatieff: Why?

Hobsbawm: Because 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… The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great.  But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?

Hobsbawm: Yes.

Many of the best historians and intellectuals of the past twenty years have attacked Hobsbawm on the same issues. Reviewing his memoir, Interesting Times, for The New York Review of Books, Tony Judt wrote, “Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” Niall Ferguson, reviewing the same book for The Daily Telegraph, wrote:

“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.”

In his review in the TLS, David Pryce-Jones wrote the following year,

“[H]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 his memoirs]?” Just last year, in a review called “The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm”, the political philosopher, John Gray, wrote that Hobsbawm’s writings on the 20th century are “highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism.” Curiously, while some of the obituaries did a bit of throat-clearing about Hobsbawm’s lifelong commitment to Communism, only the historians Michael Burleigh in The Daily Telegraph and Anne Applebaum on Radio 3’s Night Waves openly attacked his refusal to leave the Party rather than making references to this in passing. These were rare voices in a deluge of praise.

Even more extraordinary, however, is the silence around another question. How good a historian was Hobsbawm? None of his admirers have grounded their praise in a close reading, or anything like a close reading, of his work, even his best work. Only Mark Mazower in The Guardian even conceded that there may be some failings (“One would not read Hobsbawm for a clear-eyed assessment of communism’s limitations, just as one would not “find much in his work on the role of gender in history, another blind spot”). Otherwise, nothing.  Hobsbawm started out in the 1950s and ‘60s as a British social historian who contributed significantly to a major reinterpretation of 19th century British economic and social history. The second stage of Hobsbawm’s career began in 1962, when he published The Age of Revolution, Europe 1789-1848. This became the first part of a trilogy on 19th century Europe, followed by The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (1975) and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 (1987). With The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994), he finally wrote about the 20th century.

Together these books established Hobsbawm as one of the leading European historians of his time. Niall Ferguson called them “the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.” The Age of Extremes, wrote Perry Anderson in The Guardian, “brings the most powerful history of modernity we possess to a close.” These four books, covering two hundred years of European history in two thousand pages, from the French Revolution to the fall of Soviet Communism, are considered among the masterpieces of 20th century history-writing.

It is not hard to see why. Hobsbawm may not have been an exciting stylist compared to EP Thompson or Simon Schama, but he wrote clearly and well. His reading was prodigious. So was his range of interests. Hobsbawm wrote about political, social and economic history, but also about the arts and the sciences, the history of ideas as well as warfare and diplomacy. He told a large story of great social and economic changes but he also had a superb eye for the telling detail. “Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today,” he wrote in The Age of Revolution. “In one canton on the Ligurian coast 72 per cent of the recruits in 1792-9 were less than 1.50 metres (5 ft 2 in.) tall.” On the next page, he tells us that most people “lived and died in the county, and often the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.” Hobsbawm was a master of historical narrative, summarising great events — the French and Russian Revolutions, the uprisings of 1848 and the Great Depression — in a single chapter. He placed these events in a larger context: the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and political liberalism. This is history as the big picture.  No dry-as-dust monographs, getting bogged down in fussy detail and endless footnotes. And on the journey there are many fascinating insights. In his account of the French Revolution he stops to point out how often in the long 19th century moderate liberals would take fright at the excesses of the mob and free to the conservative camp. This was true in Paris in 1789, 1848 and 1870 and just as true in Berlin in 1919. He explains how important the Napoleonic Wars were to the rise of the great bankers of the early 19th century. He writes approvingly about the Congress of Vienna in 1815, contrasted with the mistakes made at Versailles a century later. Later, we are told about the expansion of Islam in the early 19th century. The insights come thick and fast, a lifetime’s learning condensed into a stunning paragraph.  There is much to praise. But there are significant problems and absences, too. The books are Eurocentric.  In The Age of Revolution there are over thirty references to Paris, almost twenty to Manchester but none to Boston and one to Japan. The central focus is always on the European Great Powers, and later America (which is consistently marginalised). Even in The Age of Empire, there are fifty or more references to Germany, Russia and Great Britain, but only eight to India and Africa, six to China and five to Latin America. Calcutta and Bombay appear once, so too the Boxer Rising and Sun Yat-Sen.  Cairo and Islam don’t appear at all.

It’s not just a matter of name-checks. More seriously, it affects the analysis too, as Perry Anderson showed in a devastating account of The Age of Extremes in 2002.  Hobsbawm divided his history of the 20th century into three sections: “The Age of Catastrophe” (1914-50) (which strangely does not include Stalinism), “The Golden Age” (1950-1970s) and “The Landslide” (1970s-91). The titles speak for themselves. What is puzzling, Anderson observes, is that Hobsbawm’s “Golden Age” might have been a period of renewed peace and prosperity in Europe, but it was also a period when approximately 35 million people suffered violent deaths, mostly in the Third World, above all in Mao’s China, whereas during what he calls “The Landslide”, only five million were killed. Whose golden age? Whose landslide?  Similarly, “The Landslide”, a time of economic uncertainty and decline in the West, saw “a dramatic shift in the relative wealth of the most densely inhabited regions of the earth” — China, South East Asia, India.  “In all this part of the world,” writes Anderson, “where some three fifths of humanity live, the sum of misery has been reduced more significantly than in the halcyon days of the Atlantic boom.” Finally, what of the spread of parliamentary democracy in Latin America and Asia?  asks Anderson. “How, could he have overlooked the greatest human progress of all, that has spread across the world in the latter rather than former period?” There can only be two answers. Either that growing democracy and prosperity in the Third World does not matter as much to Hobsbawm, or, perhaps, that democracy is not that much of a blessing? This might explain, writes Anderson, why “[W]here democracy [in The Age of Extremes] enters the story, it gets brusque treatment”. Hobsbawm’s focus is on revolution — why it happened and why it didn’t — not on the rise of parliamentary democracy.

Women fare badly in all four books. In The Age of Revolution only six women are mentioned more than once (three are the Brontë sisters) and in The Age of Capital, two women are mentioned twice. None receive substantial discussion, though there is a chapter on “The New Woman” in The Age of Empire.

Hobsbawm never took religion seriously. In The Age of Capital there are eight references to the Roman Catholic Church, six to Islam and none to Protestantism.  He writes, “Compared to secular ideology, religion in our period is of comparatively slight interest, and does not deserve extended treatment.” In The Age of Empire, which takes a more international perspective, there are no references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Sikhism.

These are systemic failings which recur in all four books.  In addition, there are many one-off problems: the poor chapter on political thought in The Age of Revolution, the perfunctory account of military history during the Napoleonic Wars (all done and dusted in two pages) or of the diplomacy of 1815-48, the era of Talleyrand and Metternich, all in ten pages, the dismissal of American literature both in The Age of Revolution (p309) and in The Age of Empire (p19), the weak social analysis of the 1848 Revolutions and the failure to explain the mid-19th century boom in The Age of Capital (or the causes of the Great Depression in The Age of Empire). The list goes on.  Hobsbawm’s admirers insist that his Marxism never got in the way of his achievement as a historian.  This is not so. Throughout these books, it is always the revolutionaries, socialists and Communists who loom largest. Of course, these books cover the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions. But does that explain why The Age of Revolution has so much more time for the Chartists and the Carbonari than for leading “gurus of the American Revolution like Washington and Jefferson?  There are seventeen references to the French 19th socialist, Saint-Simon, and twelve to Engels, only four to Burke, one to Herder and none to de Maistre. Did “[A] proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement” really come into existence in the 1830 revolution?  Hobsbawm consistently undervalues the importance of the aristocracy and peasantry, preferring to look for signs of “proletarian” revolutionary potential in the cities.  He constantly writes of the age of the bourgeoisie but fails to give due emphasis to the importance of the land and the rural population in the long 19th century: the counterrevolutionary French peasantry in the 1790s, 1840 and 1871, the Agrarian South and the American Civil War, the peasant question in Russia, the Irish Famine and the political consequences of the fall of agricultural prices during the Great Depression in the late 19th century.  These are all major moments and yet Hobsbawm fails to do them justice because as a Marxist his eye is always elsewhere.

This doesn’t compare with the problems in The Age of Extremes. Hobsbawm’s account of Stalinism is full of the language of evasion and euphemism. He writes, “any policy of rapid modernisation in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless.” On Stalin’s economic policy: “like military enterprises which have genuine popular moral legitimacy, the breakneck industrialisation of the first Five-Year Plans (1929-1941) generated support by the very “blood, toil, tears and sweat” it imposed on its people.” “The ‘planned economy’ of the Five-Year Plans which took the place of NEP in 1928 was necessarily a crude instrument.” This is the language of a Party member not a historian.  In Chapter Six, “The Arts, 1914-1945”, there is no discussion of Soviet Terror and the Arts. There are no references in the book to Osip or Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vassily Grossman or Boris Pasternak. Anna Akhmatova appears twice (once in a footnote and once in a long list on p505) and Shostakovich appears just once, in a footnote.  Readers of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands will wonder about Hobsbawm’s treatment of the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic Republics. Hobsbawm offers just four references to the Ukraine, none to the famine of the 1930s. There are two references to Belarus—neither during the Stalin years. Of the few references to the Baltic republics only one footnote refers to the half-century of Soviet occupation.

In his tone, his vocabulary and his use of statistics, Hobsbawm never does justice to the horrors of Stalinism.  The worst years of the Stalinist terror are “covered” in fourteen pages in a book of over 600 pages. The Gulag appears twice, each time in one sentence.  Even this is not as bizarre as Hobsbawm’s failure to write about the Holocaust in his major work on the 20th century. There are just four passing references.

It is hard to check it in the Index because it doesn’t appear. Nor does it appear among the 15 casual references to “Jews” that are listed in the Index. There is one reference to concentration camps (p149) and one to “the Final Solution” (p150) but none to Auschwitz, Treblinka or any other death camp. Perhaps this is in keeping with Hobsbawm’s unsentimental approach to modern history, the Holocaust in particular. In his memoir, Interesting Times, published almost a decade after The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm is austere on this point. He writes scathingly of “the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of ‘the victim’, the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah (and in the era of unique and unprecedented Jewish world achievement, success and public acceptance), asserts unique claims on the world’s conscience as a victim of persecution. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, do not wear ethnic badges.” (p24)

No one could accuse Hobsbawm of doing this.  Although he writes movingly about being orphaned by the time he was fourteen, he engages in no special pleading. He is emphatic that although he spent his childhood in interwar Vienna and then the last years of Weimar Berlin, he could not recall “any personal anti-Semitism.” Even the deaths of two uncles and three aunts in the Holocaust are quickly passed over: Uncle Victor Friedmann and Aunt Elsa, “from somewhere in France” (IT, p177), Uncle Richard Friedmann and Aunt Julie who ran a fancy goods store in Marienbad (IT, pp 177-8) and Aunt Hedwig Lichtenstern. “Their names,” he wrote, “were entered in … the whitewashed walls of the Altenschul, the ancient synagogue in Prague… I read Uncle Richard’s and Aunt Julie’s names there through tears, not long before the Prague Spring of 1968.’ (IT, p178) It is the one reference to tears. The account is over in less than one paragraph.

After Berlin he left for Britain in 1933 but he always emphasised this was not as a refugee. “We were subjects of King George V,” he writes in his memoirs, “and therefore… not in any sense refugees or victims of National Socialism. However, in every other respect we were immigrants from central Europe.” (p78) “Not in any sense refugees”? He was born in Alexandria, the son of an Englishman, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum (sic, the ‘w’ in Hobsbawm was a clerical error). Had he stayed on in Berlin after 1933 there might well have come a point, when British passport or not, he would have been considered a refugee. His insistence upon this point is, however, less striking than his refusal to consider how, as a historian writing a memoir, he might have been affected by this experience. Compare Hobsbawm’s austere account with Peter Gay’s superb, reflective memoir, My German Question. Both men were eminent European historians forced to leave Berlin when the Nazis came to power. Gay wrote honestly about the experience of exile, vividly recalling those fragmented objects that carried remnants of his shattered childhood. Curious, also, that Hobsbawm took so long (he was almost eighty) to write the history of his own century: why did he spend all those years on British workers from ‘the long 19th century’? Starting with his first book on documents from the Fabian era in 1948, drawing on research for his PhD, he always stopped before 1917, the year he was born, also the year of the Russian Revolution. His first book stopped in 1900. None of his great essays in the 1950s on British social history for The Economic History Review go beyond 1914. And then, when he finally reaches the 20th century, he has nothing of interest to say about the Holocaust.  A second possible explanation is that his refusal to engage with the Holocaust is part of a larger reluctance to engage with the Second World War. It is true that his account of the War is over in five pages. On that basis, how could he have written significantly more on one episode, albeit something as terrible as the Holocaust? In the same way, his account of the First World War is over in eight pages and the Armenian genocide is covered in one sentence (one of four references to Armenia in the whole book). We might recall that in The Age of Revolution, the military side of the Napoleonic wars is covered in two pages (p111-113). It begins: “The relative monotony of French success makes it unnecessary to discuss the military operations of the war on land in any great detail.” So much for Austerlitz and Waterloo. Trafalgar did well to get two mentions in the book (Nelson got none).  In this reading, the Holocaust is part of a larger pattern, and this in turn can be read two ways. It is not treated any differently from many other great events —the two World Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Armenian genocide, Cambodia (Pol Pot is mentioned once in The Age of Extremes, on p451, Rwanda once, in a footnote on p353). It can be read as a way of pointing out that history is not about wars, even the greatest wars in modern history, or about genocide. History is about social and economic processes which develop over long periods of time. The reason the French Revolution matters is because it is a turning point in the rise of the bourgeoisie. The reason the Industrial Revolution matters is because it is a crucial moment in the emergence of capitalism, and therefore, eventually, of liberalism.

Remember that a clear narrative line drives through all four books. There is one central story. It is not just the story of “the long 19th century”, from 1789-1914 and then “the short 20th century”, from 1914-1991. His story is “the triumph of a liberal-bourgeois capitalism”. In The Age of Revolution, he writes, “the great revolution of 1789-1848 was the triumph not of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general but of middle class or ‘bourgeois’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’, but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world (part of Europe and a few patches of North America), whose centre was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.” By The Age of Empire this has become further distilled: “Essentially the central axis round which I have tried to organise the history of the [long 19th century] is the triumph of capitalism in the historically specific period of bourgeois society in its liberal version.” These are the three cornerstones of his great edifice: Capitalism, the Bourgeoisie and Liberalism. The World Wars, the great genocides of the 20th century, these are “flotsam and jetsam. Tragic losses of life. Grotesque inhumanity. But they are side-roads of the great central motorways of world history. It is a terrible world-view, one that might have been shared by EH Carr, one that certainly would have appalled Isaiah Berlin. It is, however, consistent.

A second way of looking at this strangely insubstantial engagement with the Holocaust (and these other terrible events) is more biographical and speculative. Instead of looking at Hobsbawm the Marxist, writing about “the impersonal groundswell of history” (as he calls it in The Age of Revolution), we could consider Hobsbawm the orphan, who lost his father in 1929 and his mother in 1931, who moved from Alexandria to Vienna to Berlin to London, all by the age of sixteen, who then saw the only relatives he knew sail o# to Chile, soon after his aunt Gretl had died. Could such a person bear to write about trauma and suffering on the scale of the Holocaust, Armenia or Rwanda? It wasn’t that he felt nothing. It was that he felt too much. The most powerful moments of his life are treated obliquely in his autobiography. Feelings of loss and abandonment are invested, every time, in an object—a bottle of Tokay, a bicycle, a bird. At the age of eighteen, Hobsbawm, about to go to Cambridge to study History, sits down to “balance the accounts”. He writes about himself, “Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, a tall, angular, dangly, ugly, fair-haired fellow of eighteen and a half…” One sentence stands out from this remarkable passage: “Has no sense of morality, thoroughly selfish.” Typically, he doesn’t reflect on this then—or in 2002.  “No sense of morality” because he doesn’t understand the suffering of others, or because he understands it too well? Was the Communist party a substitute family for a displaced orphan? Or was there something about its emphasis on process and the impersonal that reassured him? We will never know because he never asked himself these questions in his writings.

His reluctance (some would say, failure) to engage with the Holocaust is almost certainly bound up with his antagonistic relationship to Jewishness. While he takes neither religion nor nationalism seriously (again, unlike Berlin, who took both very seriously indeed) his distaste for Judaism is clear. In The Age of Revolution, there are nine references to “Jews, Judaism”, one fewer than Balzac or Brazil. The first reference tells us everything we need to know: “among whose mud the Chassidic Jews venerated their miracle-working rabbis and the orthodox ones disputed the divine subtleties of the law.” The tone could hardly be more contemptuous: Chassids, wonder-rabbis and mud. The following references are equally cursory and scattered. There is just one sustained discussion of Jews in the whole book: two pages on emancipation and assimilation, “the volcanic eruption of talent among the western Jews.” That is the whole history of Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries, from rabbis to assimilated Jews like Rathenau and Freud, from Vitebsk to the Lower East Side. His discussion of Dreyfus is fragmentary and uninteresting. Herzl gets three mentions, Weizmann one, Ben-Gurion none. Hobsbawm had no time for Judaism.  He was, he wrote, “a ‘non-Jewish Jew’” (but, he added, emphatically not “a ‘self-hating Jew.’”) All this is clear enough, but does it explain why he didn’t (or couldn’t?) write about the Holocaust or thoroughly engage with any aspect of Jewish history or culture? He maintained, throughout his lifetime, a passionately critical stance on Zionism.

A Jew not very interested in Jewish history or culture and unable to write about the Holocaust in a sustained, or even an interesting way. A Communist who, even in his seventies, couldn’t face up to the history of Soviet Communism. An acclaimed historian whose best work is filled with strange prejudices and basic errors of interpretation. Hobsbawm’s legacy, despite all the acclaim now, seems deeply problematic and it is hard to imagine what will endure. My guess, one that would appall both the eighteen year-old Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm and the ninety five year old Companion of Honour, is that it won’t be the shelves of history books. They are already beginning to fall apart under close inspection. They will be outlasted by the first hundred pages of his Interesting Times, with those haunting images of the bicycle, the bird and the bottle of Tokay.

Professor David Feldman responds:

With rare exceptions, the obituaries and commentaries written in the immediate aftermath of Eric Hobsbawm’s death were laudatory and dwelt on his achievements as a historian. David Herman wonders why. In my case I was contacted by The Observer and asked to write a piece that would not be a formal obituary but a brief account by someone who had known Eric as a colleague. In the week of his death it was easy to decide I should provide a warm appreciation of the man and his influence rather than focus on any intellectual or political differences I had with him. I imagine others made similar judgments.

David Herman, however, writes to the beat of a different drummer. Speaking “truth” not to power but to the recently deceased, his assessment condemns Hobsbawm as an unrepentant Communist, cuts him down to size as a historian and suggests that the absence in his writings of anything other than scattered comments on Jewish history and the Holocaust is laden with dark import. These are significant charges and they should not pass without comment.

Let’s begin with communism. Herman is still fighting the Cold War and he does so without scruple when it comes to the facts. He tells us that Hobsbawm’s account of Stalinism in The Age of Extremes “is full of the language of evasion and euphemism.” The truth is that Hobsbawm describes Stalin’s terror as one of “unprecedented inhumanity” (p.391), collectivisation was “disastrous” (p.383.) When he counts the human cost of “Russia’s iron decades”, Hobsbawm concludes that, whether we take a high or low estimate of the number of direct and indirect victims, “none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification.” (p.393) Any fair minded assessment of Hobsbawm’s opinions on the Soviet Union would take account of passages such as these. Herman is simply unreliable and his misrepresentations do not get close to the demands of responsible criticism.

What Herman finds hard to take is that Hobsbawm never left the Communist Party and while he changed his mind on many things, not least the Soviet Union, he never resiled from his original commitment. As Donald Sassoon points out in his excellent obituary on the party had to pay a price for Hobsbawm’s loyalty: namely, that he would say and write what he liked. Given his attachment to the ideal, what would Hobsbawm have gained from leaving? The answer is less clear cut than we sometimes imagine. The marginal and failed political careers of the socialist intellectuals who left the Party do not provide much encouragement. Hobsbawm, by contrast, as well as the Communist party magazine Marxism Today, played a central part in Labour Party debate in the 1980s. As the Left tried to rally in the face of Thatcherism, Hobsbawm’s essay, “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” became an essential point of reference. In its dying years the Communist Party became uniquely relevant to the British left.

Herman reserves some preposterous comments for his assessment of Hobsbawm as historian. Hobsbawm wrote tolerably well, he says, and read a lot. On the debit side, however, Hobsbawm is condemned as eurocentric, shackled by Marxism, weak on war, women, religion, nationalism, peasants and the land. Herman confines himself to Hobsbawm’s quartet of books focused on Europe from the French Revolution to the fall of communism but, as we have seen, he does not read these with more than one eye. Had he ranged a little further he would have had opportunity to admire the staggering breadth of Hobsbawm’s work in Primitive Rebels and Bandits whose pages encompass four continents. Captain Swing, first published in 1969, is a pioneering account on a subject to which, according to Herman, Hobsbawm paid no heed: rural poverty and revolt. Far from being a reductive Marxist uninterested in cultural history, Hobsbawm played a crucial role in awakening interest in “the invention of tradition” and in doing so stimulated a torrent of research across and between disciplines. While most of those around him were busy developing specialisms, Hobsbawm’s omniverous curiosity is cause for celebration.

Herman would sooner damn with faint praise. His want of humility or even respect in the face of such an extraordinarily productive life is odd. Hobsbawm’s work, he says, is vitiated by “errors of interpretation” and will soon be consigned, literally perhaps, to the dustbin of history. On the latter point he may be right. Few historians are read long after they are dead. But this is the wrong yardstick. Had I written The Age of Revolution in 1962 and found it still in print and selling well half a century later I would be more than satisfied. And in Hobsbawm’s case that’s just for starters. Hobsbawm’s writing had its distinctive emphases. He had little to say about the history of religion and he disdained anything that smacked of identity politics. His critical history of Nations and Nationalism since 1780 illustrates the latter point. He was happy to cite Renan’s dictum that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.” Being a committed nationalist, he believed, was incompatible with serious history. Herman wastes some paragraphs speculating on why Hobsbawm never wrote extensively about Zionism or the Holocaust. But there is no puzzle here. It would have been extraordinary had Hobsbawm written extensively or sympathetically about Jewish nationalism.

More serious is that Hobsbawm had little to say about war.  But this was not a simple outgrowth of his Marxism. He was anything but a sectarian when it came to history. An early advocate of dialogue between history and the social sciences, Hobsbawm was also a great admirer of the French Annales school of history. The Annales gave pride of place to the geographical and economic structures which, its adherents argued, shaped history in the longue durée. It was not only Marxism that lead Hobsbawm away from what the annalistes dismissed as histoire événementielle. The approach brought much into view but some things, not least the Holocaust and other genocides, were occluded.

Errors of interpretation? Herman naively implies there are right and wrong answers as we strive to understand the past. A more appropriate critical response to Hobsbawm is to try to do better. We stand on the shoulders of a giant to see further not to spit in his face.

Professor David Feldman, Birkbeck, London University

David Herman Responds:

I am surprised by the abusive tone of David Feldman’s letter attacking my article on EJ Hobsbawm. It is true that we disagree about EJ Hobsbawm, first as a Communist, second as a historian and, finally, over Hobsbawm’s relation to Jewishness, in particular the Holocaust. However, we are old friends, going back to our first year at Cambridge together over 36 years ago, so I would have thought we could discuss these disagreements without personal abuse. Out of respect for our friendship I will focus on the issues of substance.

I always worry when an academic puts the word truth in inverted commas. In my article on Hobsbawm, I quoted Hobsbawm extensively, using his own, words, facts and figures to back up my assertions. For example, when I said that his quartet on modern European history is Eurocentric I said, “In The Age of Revolution there are over thirty references to Paris, almost twenty to Manchester but none to Boston and one to Japan.” When I said that Hobsbawm “never took religion seriously”, I wrote, “In The Age of Capital there are eight references to the Roman Catholic Church, six to Islam and none to Protestantism. … In The Age of Empire … there are no references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Sikhism.” “Women,” I wrote, “fare badly in all four books. In The Age of Revolution only six women are mentioned more than once … and in The Age of Capital, two women are mentioned twice. None receive substantial discussion…” And so on. Not once in his response does David Feldman question any of these facts. Only on three occasions does he give page references to Hobsbawm’s work, when giving a different interpretation from mine. Each time, as we shall see, these are massively outweighed by the issues I mentioned in my article. Professor Feldman writes, “Herman naively implies there are right and wrong answers as we strive to understand the past.” Is it naive to say that sometimes there are right and wrong answers? If there are astonishingly few references to women or to religion, what conclusions should we draw? Or should we, like Professor Feldman, just ignore the issue completely?

First, Communism. Professor Feldman asserts that I am “still fighting the Cold War and he does so without scruple when it comes to the facts.” I have written nearly fifty articles for the JQ. There is no evidence in any of these articles that I am a Cold Warrior. Nor does he offer any. He quotes four times from Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes and concludes that “Any fair minded assessment of Hobsbawm’s opinions on the Soviet Union would take account of passages such as those. Herman is simply unreliable and his misrepresentations do not get close to the demands of responsible criticism.” This hardly does justice to four paragraphs in my article where I quoted several damning comments from Hobsbawm on Stalinism; pointed out the absence of any discussion of Soviet terror and the Arts in his chapter on “The Arts, 1914-1945”; pointed out the absence of the famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, a mere two references to the Gulag (both in the same sentence), the lack of references to Belarus (twice), the Ukraine (four times) and the Baltic Republics (only one reference to the half-century of Soviet occupation); and showed that the worst years of the Stalinist terror are covered in fourteen pages in a book of over six hundred pages. Professor Feldman doesn’t refer to a single one of these quotations or facts. He is impressed that Hobsbawm offered a few banalities such as calling Stalin’s terror one of “unprecedented inhumanity” (this is in the 1990s, after the fall of Soviet Communism). producing an original account of the famine of the 1930s (and perhaps before the 1990s) would have been worthy of a major historian. A few banalities are not and hardly wish away this dismal record.

David Feldman then goes on to say that what “Herman finds hard to take is that Hobsbawm never left the Communist Party” and contrasts Hobsbawm’s career with “The marginal and failed political careers of the socialist intellectuals who left the Party”. I am not alone. I am not aware of a single reputable intellectual or historian who is not baffled by Hobsbawm’s refusal to leave the Party decades after fellow-historians like EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, who themselves left years after figures like Koestler, Milosz and Silone.

Professor Feldman is impressed that Hobsbawm “played a central part in Labour Party debate in the 1980s.”  He did write several essays for Marxism Today, The New Left Review and The Guardian in the 1980s, in particular “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” I will leave it to readers of the JQ where these stand compared with the political writings of EP Thompson, Czeslaw Milosz, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kolakowski, Manès Sperber and the many other ex-Communists who made up what Tony Judt once called “the twentieth century’s Republic of Letters”. Judt went on, “By excluding himself from such company, Eric Hobsbawm, of all people, has provincialised himself.” Exactly. As for Feldman’s sentence, “In its dying years the Communist Party became uniquely relevant to the British left.” I can only assume this is a misprint. Irrelevant, surely?

Secondly, Hobsbawm the historian. I singled out his quartet on the history of modern Europe because they are widely regarded as his greatest achievement as a historian and it is best to judge someone by their best work. David Feldman summarises my admiration for Hobsbawm in one sentence: “Hobsbawm wrote tolerably well, he says, and read a lot.” This is a serious misrepresentation. I wrote almost five hundred words praising Hobsbawm’s achievements: “one of the leading European historians of his time”, his quartet is “considered  among the masterpieces of 20th century history-writing”, “His reading was prodigious”, “Hobsbawm was a master of historical narrative”, “The insights come thick and fast, a lifetime’s learning condensed into a stunning paragraph”, “There is much to praise”, etc, etc.

However, there are also failings and absences in Hobsbawm’s historical work and this was my focus as so mnay of the tributes barely mentioned any of them. The books, I wrote, are Eurocentric, women barely feature, he never took religion seriously, he was particularly weak on political theory and military history, and, most seriously, his Marxist beliefs often got in the way of serious historical analysis of major events, from the French Revolution to the importance of agrarian elites in 19th century and early 20th century Europe. Professor Feldman may feel he “would be more than satisfied” if he had written The Age of Revolution but that is hardly historical analysis and he makes no effort to counter any of the specific criticisms I made. He simply makes a number of assertions such as, “Hobsbawm’s omniverous [sic] curiosity is cause for celebration.” Not, perhaps, if you are a Ukrainian, from Belarus or the Baltics, a woman, a soldier or a political philosopher. The point is precisely that Hobsbawm’s curiosity was not omnivorous. It was partial, frequently limited, and far too often dictated by his political prejudices.

Finally, Hobsbawm and Jewishness. David Feldman writes, “Herman wastes some paragraphs speculating on why Hobsbawm never wrote extensively about Zionism or the Holocaust.” It is true that I tried to explore why a major 20th century historian should be so uninterested in Jewish history and culture and, above all, the Holocaust. It’s an important issue and curiously neglected by many of the tributes that followed his death. Professor Feldman does not agree. For the Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism “there is no puzzle here”. Hobsbawm’s interests lay elsewhere. Marxism and the influence of the Annales school “brought much into view but some things, not least the Holocaust and other genocides, were occluded.” The Holocaust, it seems, must be “dismissed as histoire événementielle.” The retreat to words like “occluded” tells the story. Professor Feldman makes no attempt to engage with the greatest mystery of Hobsbawm’s career: his resounding silence on the greatest issue in modern Jewish history, no attempt to wonder whether a historical approach that does not take the Holocaust seriously might be seriously flawed.

A troubling pattern emerges here. Once again, with Hobsbawm, the victims must be swept aside, “occluded”. Whether Jews or victims of Stalinism, they just don’t seem worth the attention of a historian whose curiosity was not, after all, omnivorous. That is why, along with all the systemic absences, his work will not last.


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