Necessary Murders

by Robert Bruce (January 2013)

At the time Hobsbawm was churning out his famous quartette, starting with the Age of Revolution in 1962 and ending with the acclaimed Age of Extremes in 1994 these stumbles were some way off, and this multi-volume odyssey is almost unanimously regarded as a tour de force, capable of drawing praise even from unfashionably right wing historians like Norman Stone and Niall Ferguson. Much of the attraction is a product of Hobsbawm’s much vaunted ‘range’ and omnivorous global interests. Part of the great wave of mitteleuropa which imbued British academic life with high German seriousness, he was repelled by what he saw as the provincialism and excessive empiricism of British academic history. He tackled big subjects and eschewed the ‘antiquarian archive grubbing’ which he saw as the domain of lesser mortals. Hobsbawm did very little primary source work but then who needs evidence when you have a doctrine? History was simply a stage upon which to project his cosmic Marxising dramas and to those who questioned his carelessness with the facts, one can easily imagine him replying as Hegel is reputed to have done to one of his students – ‘so much the worse for the facts’.

For a supposedly panoramic view of the twentieth century, the Age of Extremes has some baffling omissions – the Katyn Forest massacre does not even make an appearance as a passing footnote, and it requires an act of will to overlook such an event when setting out to rewrite the history of the twentieth century as a parable. Few episodes better symbolize the moral bankruptcy of that low dishonest decade than those 20,000 Polish officers, murdered and dumped in mass graves, but as Hobsbawm well knew they were the inevitable casualties of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which as a loyal Communist he endorsed. Unsurprisingly, this collaboration between the Nazis and the Communists is an area where Hobsbawm’s eloquence repeatedly deserts him – although this was not so at the time when he wrote a todying article defending the USSR’s invasion of Finland and the carving up of Poland.

His outlandish suggestion that the Bolshevik revolution was ‘made by the masses’ makes claims that not even Lenin made, and what is one to make of this spurious attempt to portray the excesses of Stalinism as the necessary price of its successful defence against Nazi Germany?

It turned the USSR into a major industrial economy in a few years and one capable, as Tsarist Russia had not been, of surviving and winning a war against Germany. One must add that in few other regimes could or would the people have borne the unparalleled sacrifices of this war effort

The war nevertheless relieved many bad consciences but not before the Nazis had occupied most of Western Europe. To have been a communist before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was to be in objective terms a traitor2 – Hobsbawm complained self-righteously about it, but MI5 would have been negligent if they had not kept a file on him. Having noted his membership of the ‘legendary’ Cambridge Apostles, the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle noted, with a complete lack of irony that ‘as with so many other communists Hobsbawm volunteered for intelligence work’. This was, alas, for the USSR at least, not to be, and Hobsbawm passed the war in the company of ‘a very working class unit’ of engineers attempting to build some patently inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of East Anglia.

Hobsbawm noted with an air of anticlimax that they were not for the most part very clever, but nevertheless ‘very very good people’, which to his credit is at least more respectful than anything the Webbs might have come up with. Like so many Marxists his portrayals of the intimate and the human, particularly workers betrayed an awkwardness of touch which did not plague a writer like Orwell. They loved humanity but it was an impossibly abstract love – not for them the circle of intimate affections radiating outwards but a doctrinal one which held up an impossible standard for imperfect humankind.

Hobsbawm opted for prolonged silences, in which his supplicants could read profound meditations (I recommend Simon Schama’s  interview to those interested in turning silence into masked profundity), and if he had little to say he at least wrote it with some literary verve. For this at least we may offer some thanks.


[1] By a decree of April 1935 penalties for treason were extended to children aged 12 and above. The French Communist rag L’Humanite helpfully noted that children matured more quickly under socialism.

[2] As late as March 1940 planning was being undertaken for the bombing of Soviet oil fields.



The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.

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