Sunday 28 December 2014

Germans cut to Soviet heart of Hobsbawm

Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00

The British press and Irish 'radicals' have a very indulgent view of the Marxist historian, writes John-Paul McCarthy

THE BBC and the Guardian were in the deepest mourning last week as they contemplated life without the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Reading the various tributes from liberal England brought me back to the jarring line in Tony Blair's memoir, where he admitted that he probably liked Gerry Adams that bit more than a British first lord ought to.

Extremes of emotion and of behaviour do tend to make the genteel English pulse beat that little bit faster.

And liberal England would not deny Hobsbawm a statesman's adieu just because he looked so fondly for so long at the murderous Stalinist experiment. We all make mistakes, right?

And he made amends in a roundabout way in his memoir, explaining his communism as an inexorable byproduct of a boyhood lived in the shadow of actual Nazis?

As someone who tried and failed half a dozen times to get through Hobsbawm's big books, I used to feel sufficiently detached from him to go along with the indulgent BBC-Guardian analysis.

Not anymore though after digesting some of the Hobsbawm obituaries in the German newspapers.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) took aim last week at the general British weakness for gunmen and hard-chargers and looked back in stupefaction at Hobsbawm's ascent into the British academic stratosphere.

They made three major points in this obituary, none of which you'll find in the British press or amongst the Irish 'radicals' who treat Hobsbawm like an oracle.

They made the point that there was something indescribably cold about his writing, something they traced to his birth in Egypt in 1917.

This is a very shrewd insight because you see it in one of Hobsbawm's early attacks on Daniel O'Connell in the Sixties. Lacking any interest in O'Connell's complex formation in Gaelic Ireland and his constant need to speak to two audiences while at Westminster, the young Hobsbawm wheeled out the big moral guns against Dan.

He quoted one of the Chartist heavy-breathers who thought O'Connell was a glorified shopkeeper who hated the urban poor.

O'Connell's hostility to trade unions and evangelicals like Lord Shaftesbury was enough for Hobsbawm, and as such, he closed the book on The Liberator. The vulgarity of this kind of analysis looks very similar to the paranoid nationalist case against O'Connell that people around Daniel Corkery used to make.

And this wouldn't be the first time the Marxist approach marched in lock-step with what used to be gently called the 'advanced nationalist' analysis.

The point, though, to go back to the German indictment, is the humourlessness and lack of imagination in that kind of approach.

The FAZ then dug up Hobsbawm's infamous meditation in 1992 on the Soviet nightmare. He was asked whether the Stalinist social project, especially in the field of adult literacy, cancelled out the millions that were systematically murdered during that experiment after 1917.

Hobsbawm answered as the FAZ put it "mit einem knappen 'Ja'", literally 'with a tart yes'.

They weren't all that convinced either by his later modification of this answer.

There are lots of things wrong with that "tart Yes" of course, but Hobsbawm was hardly the first British citizen to try to figure out the Stalinist issue via artful arithmetic.

The proper answer to a question about the relationship between social progress and mass murder is a shrug of the shoulders.

Such questions ask us to grapple with the nature of life and the purview of God, and no amount of steel production statistics will help you answer them.

The Germans then drew these threads together and connected the emotional reserve with the fondness for cosmic utterances.

They didn't much care for his books and mocked his early depiction of Indian and Brazilian bandits as bleeding heart proto-socialists, calling this Robin-Hood history.

I always mentally contrast Hobsbawm with our own Caoimhin O Danachair, especially his work on the brutal class conflicts at the lower end of the social spectrum just before the Famine. There aren't many proto-socialist dreamers in O Danachair's rendering of the fight to the death between landless labourers and the large farmers hovering over them!

The Germans made one final sobering contribution, and in doing so they turned Hobsbawm's German youth against him.

He always explained his Stalinist instincts in terms of the fear he felt when walking home from school on the day the newspapers announced Hitler's accession to the chancellorship. The FAZ waved all this away and said the real basis of his communism was to be found in the collective, erotic ecstasy Hobsbawm experienced at the last legal communist rally in Germany on January 23, 1933.

That emphasis on the seductive lure of the crowd helps us understand Hobsbawm that bit better.

The world-historical sage reduced to a feverish bear cub, searching for strength in numbers then and forever more.

Sunday Independent

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