April 2012

Reading Eric Hobsbawm’s selection of essays, On History, was a puzzling experience. The committed Marxist historian and unrepentant member of the Communist party can show a light touch, and vivid insights, but can also write clunking sentences that would never get past an alert don at a Cambridge tutorial. His narrative is frequently strait-jacketed by vague personifications and the dismal Marxist categories of class that dominate his thinking. For example, he rightly states that there is no such thing as black history, or women’s history, or homosexual history – only history, but then undermines his whole philosophy by insisting that Marxian insights are alone what give history its structure and purpose. Thus I was also surprised by Tony Judt’s plaudits for Hobsbawm in the former’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, a book comprising conversations between Judt and the historian Timothy Snyder shortly before Judt died in 2010. Judt, a declared ‘man of the left’ himself – although what that means apart from a belief in state welfarism is not clear – identifies the damage that influential historians have performed in ignoring the massacres that have consistently occurred in the name of Marx, Engels and Lenin, or treating them as unfortunate mistakes in the Great Socialist Experiment, but appears to exclude Hobsbawm from his targets. Judt has an appealing iconoclastic bent: he is overall incisive and refreshing about the role of the public intellectual in laying open the truths that lie behind politics, and fulfils that job well. Unfortunately he shares with Snyder an apparent belief that intellectuals can therefore be experts in everything – while asserting that most economists (not all?) just confuse the public. The conversations conclude with some wishy-washy and fashionable observations on ‘the crisis of capitalism’, calling for greater intervention and regulation by the governments of the liberal democracies without analyzing their failures in contributing to the problem by virtue of unsustainable deficits. It seems to me that such an observation crisply encapsulates the hollowness of leftist intellectualism, which a) assumes that the fruits of wealth-creating entrepreneurialism can be taken for granted; b) presents what are really aspects of political spending choices as moral, instead of pragmatic, questions; and, c) overlooks the fact that the Law of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly play a dominant part in any decisions made. A rich sample of quotations, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both writers, appears in this month’s Commonplace entries.                                                           (April 30, 2012)

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