What a strange human being the historian Eric Hobsbawm was. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a new report by the New Culture Forum on attitudes to Communism almost a century after the Russian Revolution. It includes this exchange between Michael Ignatieff and Professor Hobsbawm:
Ignatieff: In 1934 … millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a communist?
Hobsbawm: … Probably not.
Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing … The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and unnecessarily great. But I’m looking back on it now and I’m saying that is because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure …
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter of a system that killed millions and, as Nick Cohen has pointed out, surely would have killed him.
Laden with honours throughout his life by the liberal democratic system, he went to his grave believing that all the murder had been worth it in order to achieve this deluded fantasy of a worker’s paradise. So powerful is ideology that a man can be brilliant in his field, which is after all the study of the human condition, and yet at the same time totally blind to one form of evil.
But then he was hardly alone, and many intelligent, well-informed people are still at best ambivalent about the crimes of the Soviet Union, Communist China and the other Marxist states.