Hobsbawm’s blinkered vision

The history of the past century is dominated by the clash between universalism and nationalism. Eric Hobsbawm, who died last week at the age of 95, wrote about it and lived it. He combined scholarly brilliance and monumental political error.

As a teenager in Berlin, Hobsbawm witnessed the collapse of the Weimar Republic. He studied at Cambridge in the 1930s and became one of the great historians of the modern era. Yet his understanding of the 20th century was bounded by an ideological choice he made as a young man. In 2002, he recalled in his memoirs, Interesting Times, that "in the crisis-saturated atmosphere of Berlin in 1931-33… political innocence was not an option". To the end of his life, Hobsbawm espoused the universalist ideals of Communism, which he contrasted with the particularist aims of Zionism. It's not necessary to await the verdict of history to recognise how terrible was that judgment.

The paradox of Hobsbawm is that his Marxism was not an idiosyncrasy. It saturated his understanding of history, and not always for the worse. It illuminated the themes of his outstanding work on 19th-century economic history. Hobsbawm's trilogy comprising The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire explores the ascendancy of bourgeois Europe from 1789 to 1914. But his treatment of 20th century history was far less incisive. In doctrinal disputes within the Communist movement, he took the side of Eurocommunism - a pragmatic accommodation with Western parliamentary democracy. Yet he was far from grasping the totalitarian character of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

In his 1997 book, On History, Hobsbawm makes this judgment: "Fragile as the communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989." That is an extraordinary way to characterise a period that included the crushing of the Prague Spring by 6,300 Soviet tanks in 1968.

In his memoirs, Hobsbawm explains the roots of his Marxism and also his status as a "non-Jewish Jew" (the phrase was coined by Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, to denote someone of Jewish birth but no Jewish allegiance). He says: "I have no emotional attachment to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds."

That slighting description of Israel coexisted with Hobsbawm's stubborn belief that the Soviet Union remained, for all its deformities, a workers' state. Yet Communism was not, as its defenders argued, an imperfect realisation of a humanitarian impulse, let alone a scientific route to emancipation. Oppression is integral to Communism because it aims at social unity. There is no place for political opposition in a state where the people's interests are one. That's why Communism has always and everywhere abolished liberal political rights.

The state of Israel has many flaws. It has perpetrated many injustices. But the Jewish national movement created and sustained a democracy through decades of siege. Modern, secular Zionism envisaged the need for a Jewish state and realised it in conditions of utter catastrophe for the Jewish people. In doing so, it confronted and disarmed its own extremists.

When eventually a Palestinian state coexists with a secure Israel, that too will testify to the ideals of pluralism and equity that characterised the vision of Theodor Herzl and other Zionist pioneers. In the clash of ideologies, Hobsbawm the great historian showed not just emotional distance but profound incomprehension.

Last updated: 11:45am, October 14 2012