The competition may be pretty intense, but if I were asked to name the single worst idea in the twentieth century it would be the one adopted by people who believed that the response to totalitarianism was totalitarianism. The twentieth century is littered with these people: those who became fascists because they were fearful of communists, or communists because they were fearful of fascists. Both had reason to fear the other, but both ended by propelling the other and in the process sucking nearly all air out of the decent center ground.
Of course those who took the fascist cause to their heart have not heard the end of it. Even those who played no active part in the horrors of Nazism find themselves rightly excoriated if they ever acted as apologists for, or deniers of, the crimes of that wicked ideology. When Diana Mosley went on the BBC radio program, "Desert Island Discs," and reminisced about how amusing her friend Adolf Hitler had been, it went down very badly indeed. Alas for her, had she only made the right type of friends on the other side of the totalitarian spectrum she might have gone to her grave a national treasure.
For certainly that is how the news was received in Britain after the death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1st October at the age of 95. A prize-winning and highly decorated historian, Hobsbawm was lauded in death, as in life, by colleagues from academia and the world of left-wing politics. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair released a personal tribute. His predecessor, Neil Kinnock, reminisced about what a guru Hobsbawm had been to him while Kinnock was leader of the Labour party. The current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, himself the son of a famous Marxist, mourned, "An extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family."
Britain's main left-wing newspaper, The Guardian, cleared the front-page and much of its inside pages for the obsequies. An uncritical leader was published by the ordinarily centrist Times, and the BBC altered its broadcast schedule to make room for special programming once the news had been announced. All of which would ordinarily be rather nice to see. There are not very many thinkers, writers or historians who receive such popular acclaim, or are ever credited with practical political influence.
Unfortunately, whatever Hobsbawm's skills as a historian – and these are certainly open to question – the ideology to which he subscribed for his entire life was one which if anything outdid even Nazism in the devastation it wrought on our planet. For Hobsbawm was a life-long Marxist and a member of the Communist Party from his schooldays and all the way through. I imagine that if Diana Mosley had been offered the opportunity to acquire and retain Nazi Party membership from 1945 right up until her death, she may well have taken it. But the popular reaction to the fact would not have been joshing. Not so with Hobsbawm. A former Labour Party speech-writer explained that, "His decision never to leave the Communist party was quixotic - prompted by loyalty to old comrades, the way he told it." A writer in the Times recalled the dead Communist to have been – "a man of deep intellect, humility and charm" – on his only meeting with him; going on to claim that the talent the man had shown had "superseded" the ideology.
I do not see how this could be so. This man's career was spent whitewashing, minimizing, excusing and stooging for some of the worst crimes in human history. Having been given ample years to recant his views, he resisted the call, instead holding them to the end. The system he supported prevented many people reaching even a quarter of the age he was fortunate enough to live to. But for him human life always took an – at best – secondary importance. The really crucial thing was communist ideology – surely, along with Nazism, the most bankrupt and destructive ideology the world has ever seen? Asked in a BBC television interview in 1994 whether the creation of a communist utopia would be worth the loss of "15, 20 million people," he replied clearly, "Yes."
It should not need to be said that this man, with his lifelong actions, teachings and propagation of a disgusting ideology would not have been celebrated had his crime been support of Nazism. Had he joined the Hitler youth voluntarily in 1933 and stayed inside fascist movements until his death; had he denied the Holocaust and said that the death of six million Jews and many millions of others would have been worth it for the achievement of the ideal Nazi state he would have died in ignominy. He would not have been celebrated in his life and he would not have been celebrated after death. Irrespective of any consideration of his works he would not have had plaudits from politicians of any stripe, let alone the leaders of political parties of the right.
And this, forgetting (as people will) the appalling Hobsbawm is the truly, seriously, deeply wrong thing.
Today the crimes of Nazism are recognized and reviled enough for us to be confident – not wholly confident, but fairly confident – that such crimes will not be allowed to recur. Can the same be confidently said of its twin ideology?
If a Nazi had just died and the main newspapers, the national broadcaster, leading right-wing politicians and others broke out into a wave of mourning, regret and "we shall not see his like" routines, you would worry that this could come back, wouldn't you? Most of all you would worry that no lessons at all appeared to have been learned. We do not have to imagine the dread of such a scenario, for we have just seen it. And the sight of it should freeze our blood, whether we believe ourselves on the "right" or on the "left."