People who sneer at the “fawning” eulogies of public figures they disliked will tut at critical obituaries of those they admired. So it is with Eric Hobsbawm, who is being praised for his tremendous works of history even as he’s being criticised for his communist beliefs. Left wing people on Twitter huff at such criticisms as if they’re dreadfully boring. This, perhaps, is easier than showing that they’re unjust. They aren’t.
Others, though, of different persuasions, seem to think Hobsbawm’s sympathies should lead us to view him with nothing but contempt. Michael Gove is being quoted as saying that “only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”. Gove is a man who’s claimed a war that led to the deaths and dispossessions of hundreds of thousands, and left its survivors with a corrupt government and a society torn by violence, was “a proper British foreign policy success” so I’m not entirely sure why he’s any more respectable. Even disregarding this, though: why do Hobsbawm’s opinions make him unlistenable? No one seems to bridge the gap between his sympathies for Stalinism and his being rightfully discredited. Their argument, instead, tends to be that nobody would admire him if he’d held other disreputable opinions. As this – rather more sympathetic – blogger says…
If Eric Hobsbawm was of the extreme right, his talents would not shelter him from derision and banishment from respectable intellectual circles.
Really? Perhaps not. Yet this wasn’t always true. By the late 1970s David Irving’s admiration for the Nazis was hardly a secret. His book Hitler’s War emanated a fondness for the Führer. Even after its publication, though, historians of the intellectual establishment like Taylor and Trevor-Roper could be found praising his work. It was only after the man’s scholarship had been discredited, first by Bird, Jäckel and others, then most damningly by Evans, that he came to be perceived in the light he’s now seen.
While Irving’s admirers should have scrutinised his books with greater care before praising them they were correct not to dismiss him on the basis of his views. Being opinionated doesn’t preclude one from being objective when it’s necessary, and the quality of those opinions shouldn’t lead us to deny ourselves the important products of that objectivity. Should Carlyle be forgotten for Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question? Should William Shockley’s views on race inspire us to avoid using devices with transistors? Clearly not. Truth is too valuable to be rejected because it emerges from a source that one dislikes. If somebody dumps a sack of pins across the floor there’s no shame in donning gloves and picking through to find the diamonds that glint within them.
I know too little about Hobsbawm’s work to offer a grand appraisal of his virtues and demerits. Yet it seems to me that there’s just cause to criticise him without being a fan of Joe McCarthy and to praise him without being fond of Joe Stalin.