Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Eric Hobsbawm: The Historian Who Won’t Say Goodbye to All That
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, March 2, 2003

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, by Eric HobsbawmIn a 1994 British television interview, the journalist Michael Ignatieff put a startling question to Eric Hobsbawm, the distinguished historian and long-time communist. “Had the radiant tomorrow actually been created,” Ignatieff asked, referring to the Soviet Union and its bloody history, “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm’s answer was perhaps even more startling. “Yes,” responded the historian. He did not hesitate.

Few figures of Hobsbawm’s stature have maintained such a steadfast devotion to the battered communist project. An unrepentant member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1936 until shortly before the party closed up shop in 1991, Hobsbawm soldiered on through the Cold War, often a skeptical, weary comrade, but a party man nearly to the end; he was certainly England’s most famous communist.

In Britain, the recent publication of Hobsbawm’s memoirs, “Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life” (forthcoming from Pantheon in the United States this August) has refocused attention on his long-lasting party loyalties. Today, Hobsbawm calls himself “a lifelong but anomalous communist,” and while he has regrets about the past, he offers no apologies for his beliefs. Is the eminent historian a man of abiding principle or appalling blindness?

At 85, Hobsbawm is a grandee of the British intellectual establishment: About the only thing missing from his long list of honors is a knighthood. Every inch the English don-he is hardly a fire-breathing revolutionary-Hobsbawm is a man of fastidious demeanor who enjoys listening to jazz records (he was jazz critic for the New Statesman in the 1950s) and has a noted fondness for travel.

Hobsbawm made his name in the ’50s as a Marxist historian. But his idiosyncratic passions took him far beyond the world of the industrial working classes: He also wrote with sympathy about the rural poor, urban mobs, Sicilian bandits, American gangsters, and other “primitive rebels,” as he dubbed them. A vigorous, footloose researcher, Hobsbawm never confined himself to dusty archives or stale seminar rooms; one could just as easily find him confirming a fact with a peasant on an Andean hillside. Later, in a series of panoramic surveys, he charted the rise of capitalism during the “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914), winning applause from readers of all political persuasions.

Still, Hobsbawm’s politics have raised more than a few eyebrows during his life-and never more so than since the publication of “Interesting Times.” Even the most sympathetic readers, such as New Left Review editor Perry Anderson, note a troubling silence about the Stalinist terrors that tested-and broke-the faith of other ardent Party members.

In The Times Literary Supplement, historian Richard Vinen bristled at Hobsbawm’s omissions. “There is something disconcerting about the way in which Hobsbawm veers away from questions about his own political commitment,” Vinen wrote. “Indeed, the closer that he comes to such questions, the more confusing he becomes.” In Prospect magazine, the writer Ian Buruma concluded that Hobsbawm “is a decent man who served a blood-soaked cause.”

In his memoir, Hobsbawm stresses the importance of time, place, and historical circumstance as a powerful catalyst for his beliefs. He relates that he was born to nonreligious Jewish parents in 1917; his father was an English citizen living in Alexandria, Egypt, his mother a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hobsbawm spent his boyhood in Vienna and, after the death of both parents in the late `20s, in Weimar Berlin.

Berlin, a left-wing city with a strong workers’ movement, would be a crucible for his beliefs. He watched the disintegration of Weimar Republic, and the rise of the Nazis. By 1933, with Hitler in power, the teenage Hobsbawm moved to England to live with a relative. He entered Cambridge University and joined the Communist Party soon after.

Reading Hobsbawm’s richly textured evocations of Berlin and Vienna between the wars, one can see the political and psychological appeal Communism would have had for an uprooted, parentless young man whose world-both public and private-was falling to pieces around him. Liberalism and democracy had failed, and “we were not liberals,” he states. The CP gave him a structure and an outlook; being a member of a vanguard party, he writes, “was a combination of discipline, business efficiency, utter emotional identification, and a sense of total dedication.”

In surveying the 20th century, Hobsbawm’s favorite reference points are the Popular Front of the 1930s and the oft-romanticized crusade against Fascism-not the grim realities of show trials, forced collectivization, political murder, man-made famine, censorship, and the general ruthlessness of Stalin’s Russia. About these, “Interesting Times” has its contradictions and evasions. Hobsbawm tells us he is moved by the appeal of anti-fascism; but, on his own account, he was little troubled by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, even though it caused an uproar in Party circles of London, Paris, and New York.

Khrushchev’s speech on Stalin’s crimes, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, caused two of his close colleagues, E.P. Thompson and fellow historian Christopher Hill (who died this past Monday at 91), to leave the party. But not Hobsbawm. He loathed the thought of “being in the company of anticommunists” like Arthur Koestler. The party, for all its flaws, was his home. “The reasons for going were not strong enough,” he writes. “In practice I recycled myself from militant to sympathizer or fellow-traveler.” Spiritually, he drifted into the orbit of the relatively mainstream Italian Communist Party (where he had many personal contacts), becoming, he tells me, merely an “ornament” to the British Communist Party. He was hardly out in the street flogging copies of the Daily Worker.

Today, Hobsbawm admits that “we kept our eyes and ears shut about things like the trials,” and that he “couldn’t conceivably defend the Stalinist terror.” Still, he repeatedly stresses that communism was a movement of world revolution. “The appalling things that happened in Russia were only one side of the picture for us-as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Russia and the power of the Soviet Union were a force for liberation for colonial peoples.” He adds, “You may say that wasn’t such a good idea in some parts of the world. But it was felt to be.”

How did Hobsbawm’s politics affect his scholarship? Can a communist also be a judicious scholar? This is a question which, at least in some quarters, has been hotly debated. In a New Criterion essay which savaged the historian this January, journalist David Pryce-Jones thundered that “Communism destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events.” Arguably, Hobsbawm’s failures are most glaring when the topic is the communist world of the 20th century. In his only full-length work on 20th-century history, “The Age of Extremes” (1994), he dubiously argues that “the Soviet system was not `totalitarian.”’ His bold description of the Cold War years as “The Golden Age” raised the hackles of a few critics. “To refer to the years 1950-1974 as a `Golden Age’ cannot help but sound ironic to someone from, say, Prague,” the historian Tony Judt commented in the New York Review of Books.

For Hobsbawm, the Cold War is an object of considerable nostalgia. He places heavy emphasis on the rising affluence of the Western working classes, who flourished in the two decades after World War II, becoming able to afford washing machines and cars. At the same time, he points out that the Soviet Union outperformed the West economically in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Cold War provided the world with a stable system of international relations (given our present situation, a compelling argument), and the might of the Soviet Union gave capitalism an “incentive” to reform itself-“fear”-that is lacking today.

Hobsbawm continues to speak fondly of the Brezhnev era. He recalls that a “lady from Leningrad who married a close friend of mine told me in the 1970s: ‘You must realize that for ordinary Russians these are the best times in their or their father’s and grandfather’s lives.’”

What of his political convictions today? I ask. “I was very strongly committed and I remain committed to collective action for change,” Hobsbawm says. He tells me how enormously cheered he is by the recent victory of Lula, Brazil’s new left-wing president. And he cites a recent poll showing that the Vietnamese are the most satisfied with the prospects for their children. Still, he is sobered by the 20th century’s ugly history. Via e-mail, he ventures a final assessment: “It is not for someone who supported the USSR to minimize the human costs of the Soviet and Chinese experiments.” But, he adds, “It is for others to say that not only Communism was blood-stained.”


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