Michael Burleigh: Eric Hobsbawm ... A Believer in the Red Utopia to the Very End





Michael Burleigh is a historian and author of Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, and winner of the Nonino International Master of His Time Prize.

A few decades ago I almost had a conversation with Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian who died yesterday aged 95. We were sitting in neighbouring chairs in a Cypriot barber’s in London’s Charlotte Street. The barber spoke of our common profession, but neither of us took the innocent prompt any further. Nor did we exchange a word a decade later at a dinner following a public lecture by Niall Ferguson, though we were at the same table, and Mrs Hobsbawm seemed chatty enough. The fact that I like jazz too (he was an amateur music critic) was not enough to bridge the gulf between us.
 
I can almost hear the wave of mourning that is about to fix Hobsbawm in the public consciousness as “the most celebrated British historian of the 20th century”. You have to understand the British Left, which is still near hegemonic in the humanities and social science departments in our universities, to grasp why those of a more liberal conservative persuasion will disagree.
 
First there is the tendency to worship at the feet of foreign gurus, a failing George Orwell (or as Hobsbawm had it, the “upper-class Englishman Eric Blair”) attributed to Britain’s alienated intellectuals taking “their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow”. This led them to give credibility to such evanescent charlatans as Michel Foucault, the chief exponent of “knowledge as power”, and the Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said...


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