But really, Brad DeLong got it right in 1995: Hobsbawm was blinded by faith, and when the faith was gone he was blinded by habit. As a historian his inability to grasp the true course of history -- rather than the trajectory imagined by Marxists -- was shocking. The 20th century was revolutionary; it's just that the enduring revolutions weren't propagated by the radicals.
An intellectual hobby of mine is to think about how and why much of the left has become so doctrinaire: the recitation of the same tropes and catch-phrases, the absence of real analysis much less actionable politics, the wanderlust since 1989 (at the latest; for many it was 1968 or 1956 or 1945 or, hell, Kronstadt itself), the knee-jerk ideology. It is all so... reactionary. In a review of Hobsbawm's memoir, Hitchens put it thus:
Thus there is less paradox than first appears in the willingness of such a civilized man to align himself with such a barbaric and philistine politics. He did it, he tells us in effect, because the Communist International supplied the elements of family and fatherland that were unavailable to a deracinated Jewish orphan intellectual. In other words, he did it because of his displaced yearning for family values, religion and patriotism: the Tory virtues.Hobsbawm described himself as a "Tory communist," and there is something to be said for sticking to ones' guns even when the cause is lost, as Hobsbawm did. What exactly should be said is another matter, but here is what Hobsbawm did say:
“I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”That last sentence sums up DeLong's critique: it was the wrong horse, and in his last book of history on the 20th century he kept backing it even after the USSR had dissolved and it was clear that the emancipation of humanity was more likely to occur -- and was in fact occurring -- via the social processes that Hobsbawm dedicated his life to resisting. In 1994, decades after Stalin's de-iconization by the Soviets themselves, Hobsbawm said that Stalin's millions of murders were "probably excessive" but would have been worth it had a communist society emerged. As if that was ever the goal. Even for Hobsbawm himself one wonders, given that he was on record as saying that if Stalin enlisted him for the KGB he would be compelled to answer the call whatever misgivings he may have had. (And he doesn't have to have had many.) His Tory communism was servile, in other words, not emancipatory.
Many ex-communists and some post-communists took a different path, congratulating themselves all along the way on how clever they'd been to switch allegiances only after there was no remaining viable alternative. In his a postscript to an essay on Solzhenitsyn, collected in As of this Writing, Clive James chided those (like Hitchens) who came late to Robert Conquest's party:
[They may] be found conceding that Conquest might have had a point about the Bolsheviks all along. But those who never doubted that he did can't expect credit for having been right. What we can expect is to be dismissed for having been on the Right. To be a liberal democrat was considered reactionary then, and to have been so then is to be considered reactionary now. People who have abandoned erroneous opinions would be giving up too much if they ceased to regard people who never held them as naive. As Revel pointed out, the Left demands a monopoly of rectification.So what then to do with those few who never rectified at all? With the reactionaries on the Left? Perhaps Hobsbawm deserves some credit for his unflappable conservatism, or might deserve some if the Tory communist was not the worst sort: the authoritarian impulse thrives on the credulous, on those who are capable of reflection but choose to suppress critical thought instead, who channel intellectual energy in only one direction and in service of only one master. While Hobsbawm eventually came to the point of denouncing Stalin, he never fully disavowed the project that not only made Stalin possible, but made him inevitable.
Yet these same aspects of Hobsbawm's personality helped make him one of the 20th century's great historians. He did as much as any single person to change the study of history from Great Men to broader social processes and global orders. His influence on method may last much longer than his influence on thought. Both have already lived longer than his political ideology. As Tony Judt put it:
If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.