02 October 2012
Since leaving behind school and a great A level teacher, I have never been able to get on with history. I can’t fully explain why though it may be something to do with historians’ need to have opinions, ideologies or, as Catherine Merridale puts it in the Guardian today, “a moral compass.” I can’t see how any of those might help one to understand the chaos of the world. I do see that we all have a perspective which might, at a stretch, be called something like an ideology or whatever, but that would be just wordplay. It is ironic that the one profession that should avoid opinions at all costs is also the one most often called upon to express them.
All of which disqualifies me from writing about Eric Hobsbawm, who died yesterday, so I won’t, not directly at least. The only thing I will say is that he was plainly liked and admired and that there is a cloud over his career – his refusal to express any contrition for his support of Stalin.
David Aaronovitch, in a Twitter debate I had with him yesterday, offered the ‘in his shoes’ defence which is reasonable. Many of us, if we are honest, might have found ourselves supporting Hitler or Stalin in the circumstances of the time. The best of us would have pulled out as soon as the reality of these men became clear – which, in the case of Stalin, was at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The British left, including Hobsbawm, went on supporting Stalin well beyond that, some still do. They should be clear what that means – it means not only do they support the Terror and the Gulag, they also support the Holocaust. I can think of no argument that would exculpate them.
They should be clear what that means – it means not only do they support the Terror and the Gulag, they also support the Holocaust. I can think of no argument that would exculpate them
Aaronovitch’s formulation obviously, therefore, needs a modification – ‘in his shoes, at that time’. David, graciously agreed. By that standard, of course, Hobsbawm is convicted. But there is a further, vaguer. defence often offered by the left. I came across this when I asked Ben Pimlott if he regarded the atrocities of Soviets somehow less vile than those of the Nazis. He said he did but could not or would not offer an explanation. The explanation probably would have been something like: the Soviets were well-meaning, attempting to build a better world and the Nazis were simply evil. This is barely worthy of consideration. Both Stalin and Hitler appealed to better world ideologies built on absurd theories of history and both thought they were justified in killing millions and imposing suffering on a scale never before seen. Even if we give some moral credibility to communism, the character of Stalin is enough to detonate any notion that he was pursuing some great cause.
If Hobsbawm had been a right winger who supported and continued to support Hitler, the coverage today would have been very different, yet, in my terms, there is no difference. Sentimentality and and easy nostalgia for the days of the Comintern infects the British left and prevent them being effective. (It also infects the American left. I know of two prominent academics who could not work there because they had merely hinted at moral equivalence between Hitler and Stalin,) Blair did not destroy this legacy, he further inspired it. Miliband shows signs of being smart enough to move on while being genuinely left-leaning. He has said he will split the banks, if he also says he will deny limited liability to the investiment banks, he will have shown himself to be a better, truer conservative – one concerned, above all, with justice – than the Tories and he will have my vote