Tuesday, October 02, 2012

For Eric Hobsbawm

I was sorry to hear that Eric Hobsbawm has died.  His critics, while being right on the substance - i.e. his blindness to the crimes of Stalinism - are also wrong, and not just because of the utterly obnoxious way they have done the intellectual equivalent of pissing on his grave.  (If you've missed any of this, while it's a strong field in which to compete, this has to be one of the most gratuitously stupid and offensive pieces written so far.)

A couple of points and with the first I'm grateful, as is so often the case, to Chris Dillow for cutting through the bullshit:
"But what exactly is wrong with Hobsbawm's reply [to Michael Ignatieff]? The obvious retort is the deontological one, that there are some things we simply shouldn't do to people, even if they are necessary to create a radiant tomorrow. But many of Hobsbawm's critics cannot use this reply, because they themselves are utilitarians. Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator, or who defend the use of A-bombs against Japan because they shortened the war are using the same calculus as Hobsbawm - weighing some lives against others' future well-being. The difference between them and him is one of accounting, not politics or morality."
While I was among those who supported the invasion of Iraq, I would go further: not a few of those who took the same position as I did on this issue made what I thought then and now a rather lazy comparison between the architects of Appeasement and those who disagreed with them on Iraq, and identifying - not always implicitly - with Winston Churchill.

To them I'd have to say - because they are over-represented among Hobsbawm's critics - that I'm sorry if this is too obvious an historical point to make but Churchill and FDR seemed to be able to distinguish between the threat posed by communism and that presented by the Nazis, which is why they were on the same side as the USSR during the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945. What is it with young people today that they can't complete a similar intellectual exercise?

Here's another thing: from what one has read, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Hobsbawm was primarily a historian of the 20th century. This is not the case. His trilogy - the Age of... - which focused on the 'dual revolution' in industry and politics, taking place over what he described as the 'long 19th century', is what those of us who prefer reading history to moral posturing will remember him for.  He had, until the 'Age of Extremes', avoided the 20th century for fear his own partisanship would have coloured his work, as he remarked to Antonio Polito. Would that his critics were even half as self-aware.


The Plump said...

Absolutely. It was his later work that slipped into a rather academically poor bout of apologia.

You nail the response to Ignatieff, but I would differ slightly. There are two objections to his position, one is the sheer scale of the terror, but the most important one is that Stalinist terror could never have achieved the ends it purported to be bringing about. The invasion of Iraq and the use of nuclear weapons both could, and did. Both aims and methods were more limited. But this was not the question he was asked. It was simply a utilitarian one, like was the death of 50 million worth it to defeat the Nazis, but based on a counterfactual.

I think it is the smugness that irritates me the most though.

kellie said...

I think Chris Dillow's comparison is a little off. He analyses Hobsbawm's utilitarianism as weighing deaths against future happiness of the living - things so different that an exchange rate seems impossible to define - whereas the utilitarian arguments in defence of dropping A bombs on Japan in 1945 and invading Iraq in '03 weigh estimated deaths as a consequence of those actions against estimated deaths as a consequence of not acting, more like with like comparisons than Hobsbawm's, though ultimately unmeasurable as history tests only one outcome.

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