Tuesday, October 2, 2012
British historian Eric Hobsbawm died this Sunday, apparently certain to the end that a vast loss of human life was somehow worth the cost of the failed Soviet project. As with Christopher Hitchens - who wrote about Hobsbawm with an easy familiarity - there was no eleventh hour realization, no deathbed conversion. It's about time we stopped fantasizing about these things; leftism, after all, is more a statement of faith than conviction, and faith will endure almost any torment or misgiving.
I feel moved to write about Hobsbawm's passing as a mentor of sorts - not that I subscribe to any facet of his ideologies or consider anything he wrote as definitive, but the truth is that Hobsbawm's work played an important, if conditional, part in taking me to where I am today.
Back at the dawn of the '90s I found myself in a unique and - in retrospect - valuable set of circumstances. I was single and living in a large but incredibly cheap loft apartment on the downtown west side, and thanks to what I realize now was the last brief boom time of journalism and magazine publishing in Canada, I was able to earn a comfortable living while enjoying outrageous amounts of free time. It was also at that point that I realized that my education - five years at a reputable but shabby Catholic boys' school, followed by three incomplete years of an arts BA - had been, to put it mildly, lacking, and that now would be a good time to catch up on some reading.
I decided that my lifelong interest in history was sorely lacking any real foundation in facts or context, and that I was at a loss whenever it strayed into the minefields of politics or economy. I began plowing much of my disposable income into books - the internet was still a few years off, remember - and ended up purchasing Hobsbawm's trilogy of books on "the Long 19th Century."
I read them, and his companion book on the 20th century just ending, with real interest, but found it hard to ignore the feeling that the author's viewpoint was substantially skewed, and that many of his observations didn't really harmonize with my understanding of the same events. In the interest of "equal time," I began reading Hobsbawm alongside books by Paul Johnson, the conservative historian who I like to imagine as his polar counterpart, fated to author books destined to end up on the same sale tables as Hobsbawm's an ocean away from where the two men lived and worked, if only to provide me with the context I craved.
What rankled me about Hobsbawm was a persistent bloodlessness in his tone, which worked in service to - I would only understand this later - his tacitly Marxist view of the inevitability of history. When people (well, atheists, mostly) hit me with that slyest of questions - "You're a smart person. Think of everything the Catholic Church has done in its history - the Inquisition, Galileo, the witch burnings, the abuse of children; how can you be okay with that?" - I'm reminded of Hobsbawm, repeatedly saying that he was fine with the 20 million (minimum) who died in the hope that the realization of global Communism could be realized, and whose lives were essentially wasted because there's no way that it could, or should.
Never mind the myths and cliches people are willing to spout when trying to damn the Catholic Church. I'm still willing to answer that I'm happy, as a Catholic, to own the errors and mistakes of the Church's history. They happened - albeit not quite the way that most people imagine - as did so much of the rest of the horror and folly we find in history. The fact is that most of it didn't happen in my lifetime, and that which did (clerical abuse) is something that Catholics do protest constantly, to the point where I trust my fellow parishioners more than the bureaucracy of my archdiocese, and I find it hard to fault people whose faith has been shaken by the revelations of abuse and cover-up.
That said, the Church is a greater thing than the people in it, and God's grace a greater ideal than a pervert's betrayal of trust or the selfish ass-covering of a clerical bureaucrat. The ideology of Communism - dialectic materialsim - explicitly rejects transcendence, so the greater good imagined by someone like Hobsbawm is ultimately destined to be a human achievement. And humans are assholes. That God not only failed, but was built to fail.
But it has to be remembered that much of that tainted history happened (if it happened the way it's imagined) long before I was born; the famines and purges and pogroms of the Soviet era all happened in Hobsbawm's lifetime, and he never found it in himself to protest them, or even tear up his party card.
"He is determined to show that he was not a dupe, but went into it all with eyes open, while he is no less concerned to argue that he did not want to become one of those 'God That Failed' ex-Communists," Christopher Hitchens wrote of Hobsbawm in a New York Times review of his rather blandly titled book Interesting Times. "Is this idealism or cynicism?"
I found most of the ideological leftists I knew to be cynics, from the college classmate who espoused the revolution of the working class but could be found in summer floating in the pool at his girlfriend's house in Rosedale, to the Chilean Marxist who sponged constantly off his wife's parents while fucking around on her at every opportunity. Reading Hobsbawm made it easy for me to imagine how they could do it with a smile on their face.