Eric Hobsbawm was widely considered one of the greatest British historians of his age; he was certainly the most controversial.
Long a loyal member of the Communist Party, Hobsbawm wielded enormous influence during the 1960s and 1970s, when his ideas helped to provide the intellectual underpinning for Left-wing revolutionary activism in the West. But though the scope and grasp of detail that pervaded his many beautifully-written books won praise across the political spectrum, there was no getting around the fact that he persisted in defending the record of totalitarian communism long after it ceased to be fashionable or, indeed, defendable.
Where many of his comrades left the Communist Party in protest after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, for example, Hobsbawm did not. Refusing to give up his party card, he explained that he “did not want to lose that narrow high ground”, and did not want to betray the memory of old comrades - “enormously good people” who had devoted their lives to the “liberation of mankind”. It was only a little while before the party itself dissolved in 1991 that he let his membership lapse.
Hobsbawm kept the apologetics going until well after the Soviets themselves had given up the struggle; in the 1990s he was one of the few Marxist academics who still argued that a system which even its practitioners considered to have been an unmitigated catastrophe had “great and sometimes astonishing achievements to its credit”.
In 1994 he wrote that, on balance, the achievements of the “shining light” of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent dictatorship of Stalin had been positive and wrote of the “far from unimpressive records” of dictators like Honecker and Ceaucescu.