On the death of Eric Hobsbawm at the beginning of last month, The Guardian wrote, in an editorial:
Few historians were as interested as Mr Hobsbawm in explaining the politics and economics of the present in the light of the lessons of the past. He looked the facts in the eye and drew his conclusions – occasionally wrong ones. But it helped him progress from the communist rigidities of his youth – and it may explain why the Soviet Union never published his books.
It is scarcely surprising that a paper like The Guardian, whose sympathies are clearly with the left, should have looked kindly on Hobsbawm. Less so perhaps that Niall Ferguson would have called him one of the greatest historians of his generation, or The Spectator “arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain’s, but the world’s”.
Many might quibble as to whether Hobsbawm’s conclusions were just “occasionally” wrong: he was consistently evasive about the scale of the crimes committed by the government of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Yet even such a noted and acerbic anti-communist as the late Tony Judt found Hobsbawm’s blindness about the hopes for humanity raised by communism – and his refusal to clearly dissociate from it even after the scales had fallen from his eyes ‑ “tragic rather than disgraceful”.
Not so AN Wilson, writing in The Financial Times (November 3rd/4th). For Wilson, once described as a young fogey, but now surely just an old one, Anne Applebaum’s no doubt excellent new book Iron Curtain “should be compulsory reading for very history student being taught by a pupil of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm …” (Why are friends of freedom like Wilson so fond of compulsory reading?) “ … Hobsbawm’s spider’s web,” he continues, “stretches all over the country, with Hobsbawm disciples in key positions in history faculties”.
If Hobsbawm and Hobsbawm disciples have indeed had an influence in British (and Irish) university history faculties, arguably its tendency as been to open minds rather than close them. Inviting young people in what we call a free society to look behind, or away from, accepted wisdom rarely does much harm. There are enough forces, God knows, that will tend to bring them back eventually to the mainstream. Wilson of course disagrees, indeed quite strongly so: “Hobsbawm has, in my view, done more damage to young people than Jimmy Savile.”
Apart from the easy contempt for the victims of abuse that this statement evinces, we might also ask why did an editor at the FT not simply strike a pen through it? Can the words of a “celebrity columnist” not be tampered with on grounds of taste? Or do newspaper editors now all hold, as John Horgan seems to suggest elsewhere in the drb, that it is controversy – no matter how cheap and tawdry – rather than intelligence or ideas that sells newspapers?