Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life
At the age of eighty-six, Eric Hobsbawm is the best-known historian in the world. His most recent book, The Age of Extremes, was translated into dozens of languages, from Chinese to Czech. His memoirs, first published last year, were a best seller in New Delhi; in parts of South America—Brazil especially—he is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. He controls vast continents of information with confident ease—his Cambridge college supervisor, after telling me once that Eric Hobsbawm was the cleverest undergraduate he had ever taught, added: “Of course, you couldn’t say I taught him—he was unteachable. Eric already knew everything.”
Hobsbawm doesn’t just know more than other historians. He writes better, too: there is none of the fussy “theorizing” or grandiloquent rhetorical narcissism of some of his younger British colleagues (none of the busy teams of graduate researchers, either—he does his own reading). His style is clean and clear. Like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Christopher Hill, his erstwhile companions in the British Communist Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm is a master of English prose. He writes intelligible history for literate readers.
The early pages of his autobiography are perhaps the finest Hobsbawm has ever written. They are certainly the most intensely personal. His Jewish parents—he from the East End of London, she from Habsburg Austria—met and married in neutral Zurich during World War I. Eric, the older of their two children, was born in Alexandria in 1917—though his recollections begin in Vienna, where the family settled after the war. They struggled with little success to make ends meet in impoverished, truncated post-Habsburg Austria. When Eric was eleven, his father, returning “from another of his increasingly desperate visits to town in search of money to earn or borrow,” collapsed and died on their doorstep one frozen February night in 1929. Within a year his mother was diagnosed with lung disease; after months of unsuccessful treatment in hospitals and sanatoria she died, in July 1931. Her son was just fourteen.
Eric was sent to Berlin to live with an aunt. His account of the death throes of German democracy is fascinating—“We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” A Jewish orphan swept up in the desperate politics of the Weimar Republic, the young Hobsbawm joined the German Communist Party (KPD) at his Gymnasium (high school). He experienced at close quarters the suicidal, divisive strategy imposed by Stalin on the KPD, which was ordered to attack the Social Democrats, not the Nazis; he took part in the courageous illusions and hopeless marches of Berlin’s Communists. In January 1933 he learned of Hitler’s appointment to chancellor from the newsstands as he walked his sister home from school. Like the narrative of his Viennese childhood, his Berlin stories seamlessly interweave moving personal recollections with a historian’s reflections upon life in interwar Central Europe:
It is difficult for those who have not experienced the “Age of Catastrophe” of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional way-station between a dead past and a future not yet born.
These first hundred pages alone are worth the price of the book.
The Hobsbawm children were moved to England (they had British passports and relatives in London). Within two years the precociously gifted Eric had mastered the transition to English-language education and won an Open Scholarship to read history at King’s College, Cambridge. There he began his lifelong ascent into the British elite, beginning with remarkable performances in his undergraduate examinations and election to the Apostles, the self-selecting “secret society” of Cambridge (whose members before him included Wittgenstein, Moore, Whitehead, Russell, Keynes, E.M. Forster, and the “Cambridge spies” Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt). Noel Annan, his King’s contemporary, described the undergraduate Hobsbawm as
astonishingly mature, armed cap-a-pie with the Party’s interpretation of current politics, as erudite as he was fluent, and equipped to have a view on whatever obscure topic one of his contemporaries might have chosen to write a paper.1
After the war, Hobsbawm’s politics slowed his formal progress up the English academic career ladder; but for his Communist Party membership he would probably have held distinguished chairs at a young age. Nevertheless, with each new book—from Primitive Rebels to The Age of Capital, from Industry and Empire to The Invention of Tradition—his national and international celebrity steadily grew. In retirement, Hobsbawm’s career has been capped with all manner of glories: he has lectured everywhere, holds a multitude of honorary degrees, and is a Companion of Honor to the Queen of England.
His travels over the years have placed Hobsbawm in some intriguing circumstances: he rode on a Socialist Party newsreel truck during the 1936 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris at the height of the Popular Front (there is a photograph of him there, uncannily recognizable across a span of nearly seven decades); he crossed briefly into Catalonia during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. In Havana he once translated—ad lib—for Che Guevara. In his autobiography he writes with unforced enthusiasm of journeys and friendships in Latin America, Spain, France, and—especially—Italy. Unlike most other British historians—and historians of Britain, which was his first calling—he is not only polylingual but also instinctively cosmopolitan in his references. His memoirs are refreshingly reticent about immediate family and loves; they are filled instead with the men and women who composed his public world. They record a long and fruitful twentieth-century life.
But something is missing. Eric Hobsbawm was not just a Communist—there have been quite a lot of those, even in Britain. He stayed a Communist, for sixty years. He let his membership in Britain’s tiny Communist Party lapse only when the cause for which it stood had been definitively buried by History. And unlike almost every other intellectual to fall under the Communist spell, Hobsbawm evinces no regrets. Indeed, though he concedes the utter defeat of everything communism stood for, he unblinkingly insists that, halfway through his ninth decade, “The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me.”
Predictably, it is this unrelenting refusal to “renege” on a lifelong commitment to communism that has attracted public comment. Why, Hobsbawm has been asked in countless interviews, did you not leave the Party in 1956, like most of your friends, when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprisings? Why not in 1968, after the Red Army invaded Prague? Why do you still appear to believe—as Hobsbawm has suggested on more than one occasion in recent years—that the price in human lives and suffering under Stalin would have been worth paying if the outcomes had been better?
Hobsbawm responds dutifully if a little wearily to all such interrogations, sometimes conveying a touch of disdainful impatience at this obsession with his Communist past; he has, after all, done a lot of other things too. But he invites the question. By his own account, communism has absorbed most of his life. Many of the people he writes about so engagingly in his autobiography were Communists. For many decades he wrote for Communist publications and attended Party functions. When others left the Party, he stayed. He devotes a lot of time to describing his loyalties; but he never really explains them.
Hobsbawm’s attachment to communism has very little to do with Marxism. For him, being a “Marxist historian” just means having what he calls a “historical” or interpretative approach. When Hobsbawm was young, the movement to favor broad explanations over political narrative, to emphasize economic causation and social consequences, was radical and iconoclastic—Marc Bloch’s Annales group was pressing similar changes upon the French historical profession. In today’s historiographical landscape these concerns appear self-evident, even conservative. Moreover—unlike the Gramscian epigones at the New Left Review —Hobsbawm has a very English unconcern with continental-style, intra-Marxist debates and theory, to which he pays little attention in all of his writings.
In Hobsbawm’s version, even communism itself is hard to pin down. There is little in his account about what it felt like to be a Communist. Communists, in Britain as elsewhere, spent most of their time in agitprop—selling the Party publications, canvassing for the Party candidates at elections, spreading the “general line” at cell meetings and in public debates, organizing meetings, planning demonstrations, fomenting (or preventing) strikes, manipulating front organizations, and so on: mundane, routine, often grindingly tedious work undertaken out of faith or duty. Virtually every Communist or ex-Communist memoir I can recall devotes considerable space to such matters—indeed, this is often the most interesting part of such books, because these routines took up so much time and because, in the end, they were the very life of the Party.2
But as Eric Hobsbawm makes clear, he had no taste for such local branch work—except as a high school student, when he braved SA brownshirts and undertook the truly dangerous job of canvassing for the doomed KPD in the March 1933 elections. In later years, however, he devoted himself entirely to working in “academic or intellectual groups.” After 1956, “convinced that, since the Party had not reformed itself, it had no long-term political future in the country,” Hobsbawm dropped out of Communist activism (though not out of the Party itself). So we learn nothing from his memoir about communism as a way of life, or even as a politics.
This detachment from the Party as a micro-society is entirely in character, however. It would be idle to speculate on the link between the traumas of Hobsbawm’s youth and the affinities of the man, though he himself concedes that “I have no doubt at all that I must also bear the emotional scars of those sombre years somewhere on me.” But it is clear that he always kept the world at a certain distance, shielding himself against tragedy, as he explains, by “my intellectualism and lack of interest in the world of people.” This has not prevented Eric Hobsbawm from being very good company and enjoying it too. But it may account for a certain deficiency in empathy: he is not much moved either by his former comrades’ enthusiasms or by their crimes. Others left the Party in despair because it had meant so much to them; Hobsbawm was able to remain because, in his daily life at least, it meant so little.
In a rather different key, however, Eric Hobsbawm fitted much better into the Communist mold than many of his more wholeheartedly engaged contemporaries. There have been numerous all-consuming micro-societies in the history of the modern European left. In Britain alone there were the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party, the Fabians, assorted Social Democratic and anarchist federations, not to speak of Trotskyists and other latter-day Old Believers.3 But what distinguished the Communist Party, in Britain as elsewhere, was the principle of authority, the acceptance of hierarchy, and the addiction to order.
Eric Hobsbawm is decidedly a man of order, a “Tory communist,” as he puts it. Communist intellectuals were never “cultural dissidents”; and Hobsbawm’s scorn for self-indulgent, post-anything “leftism” has a long Leninist pedigree. But in his case there is another tradition at work. When Hobsbawm scornfully dismisses Thatcherism as “the anarchism of the lower middle class,” he is neatly combining two anathemas: the old Marxist abhorrence of disorderly, unregulated self-indulgence; and the even older disdain of the English administrative elite for the uncultivated, socially insecure but economically ambitious service class of clerks and salesmen, formerly Mr. Pooter, now Essex Man.4 Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin—a Communist mandarin—with all the confidence and prejudices of his caste.
This comes as no surprise: as Hobsbawm writes of his ascent into the Apostles back in 1939, “even revolutionaries like to be in a suitable tradition.” The British mandarin class, in universities as in the civil service, were frequently attracted to the Soviet Union (albeit at a distance): what they saw there was planned improvement from above by those who know best—a familiar conceit. The Fabians especially (Shaw, Wells, the Webbs) understood communism in this light and they were not alone. This, I think, is why reviewers of Hobsbawm in Britain are often bemused when critics fuss over his communism: not just because it is bad form to invoke a man’s private opinions; or because Soviet communism happened to other people far away (and quite long ago) and has no echo in local experience or history; but because engineering human souls is tempting to elites of every stripe.
But Eric Hobsbawm is not just a very senior and rather proud “member of the official British cultural establishment” (his words); if he were, he must surely long since have set aside his attachment to an institutional corpse. He is also a romantic. He has romanticized rural bandits, brilliantly if implausibly shifting the moral authority of industrial proletarians onto rural rebels. He romanticizes Palmiro Togliatti’s Italian Communist Party—which in the light of recent revelations sits ill with Hobsbawm’s insistence upon “not deluding oneself even about the people or things one cared about most in life.”5
Eric Hobsbawm still romanticizes the Soviet Union—“Whatever its weaknesses, its very existence proved that socialism was more than a dream,” a claim that can only make sense today if intended as bitterly ironic, which I doubt. And he even romanticizes the much-vaunted “hardness” of Communists, their purportedly clear-eyed grasp of political reality. To say the least, this sits uncomfortably with the litany of disastrous strategic errors committed by Lenin, Stalin, and every single one of their successors. At times Hobs- bawm’s rueful nostalgia sounds curiously like that of Rubashev in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon—“For once History had taken a run, which at last promised a dignified form of life for mankind; now it was over.”
In Interesting Times Hobsbawm reveals a distinctly soft spot for the German Democratic Republic, hinting more than once at a certain lack of moral fiber in those intellectuals who abandoned it for the sirens of the West (“Those who could not stand the heat got out of the kitchen”). He tends, I suspect, to confuse the shabby authoritarianism of the GDR with the remembered charms of Weimar Berlin. And this, in turn, leads to the romantic core of his lifetime commitment to communism: an enduring fidelity both to a singular historical moment—Berlin in the last months of the Weimar Republic—and to the alert, receptive youth who encountered it. He says as much in a recent interview: “I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it.”6
In his memoirs he is explicit:
I came to Berlin in the late summer of 1931, as the world economy collapsed…. [It was] the historic moment that decided the shape both of the twentieth century and of my life.
It is not a coincidence that Eric Hobsbawm’s description of those months is the most intense, charged—even sexually charged—prose he has ever written. He was certainly not the only sensitive observer to grasp immediately what was at stake. Writing home from Cologne, where he was studying, the twenty-six-year-old Raymond Aron described the “abyss” into which Germany was slipping. He, too, understood intuitively that the Titanic had hit the iceberg; that the future of Europe now hinged on the political lessons one drew from this defining moment. What Aron saw in Germany between 1931 and 1933 would become the central moral and political reference for the rest of his life and work.7
One can’t help but admire Hobsbawm’s uncompromising decision to keep faith with his adolescent self, navigating alone at the dark heart of the twentieth century. But he pays a high price for that loyalty, far higher than he realizes. “There are certain clubs,” he has said, “of which I would not wish to be a member.”8 By this he means ex-Communists. But ex-Communists—Jorge Semprún, Wolfgang Leonhard, Margarete Buber-Neumann, Claude Roy, Albert Camus, Ignazio Silone, Manès Sperber, and Arthur Koestler—have written some of the best accounts of our terrible times.9 Like Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Havel (whom Hobsbawm revealingly never mentions), they are the twentieth century’s Republic of Letters. By excluding himself from such company, Eric Hobsbawm, of all people, has provincialized himself.
The most obvious damage is to his prose. Whenever Hobsbawm enters a politically sensitive zone, he retreats into hooded, wooden language, redolent of Party-speak. “The possibility of dictatorship,” he writes in The Age of Extremes, “is implicit in any regime based in a single, irremovable party.” The “possibility”? “Implicit”? As Rosa Luxemburg could have told him, a single irremovable party is a dictatorship. Describing the Comintern’s requirement in 1932 that German Communists fight the Socialists and ignore the Nazis, Hobsbawm in his memoirs writes that “it is now generally accepted that the policy…was one of suicidal idiocy.” Now? Everyone thought it criminally stupid at the time and has thought so ever since—everyone, that is, except the Communists.
Hobsbawm is sufficiently tone-deaf in such matters that he can still cite with approval the nauseating sentiments in Bertholt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After Us”:
We, who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Could not be kind ourselves.
After that it comes as less of a surprise to read Hobsbawm’s curious description of Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” in 1956 as “the brutally ruthless denunciation of Stalin’s misdeeds.” Note that it is the denunciation of Stalin that attracts the epithets (“brutal,” “ruthless”), not his “misdeeds.” In his enthusiasm for the socialist omelet, Hobsbawm has clearly lost little sleep over the millions of broken eggs in unmarked graves from Wroclaw to Vladivostok. As he says, History doesn’t cry over spilled milk.
At most, he evinces regret at the injustices committed by Communists on Communists: recalling that the trial of Traicho Kostov in Sofia in 1949 “left me unhappy,” he describes it as the first of the “show trials which disfigured the last years of Stalin.” But it wasn’t. In Bulgaria itself there had been an earlier show trial, that of the Agrarian leader Nikola Petkov, who was tried and executed in September 1947 by Kostov’s own party. However, Petkov passes unmentioned. His judicial murder does not reflect ill on Stalin.
As Hobsbawm half concedes, he might have been wiser to stick to the nineteenth century—“given,” as he puts it, “the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century.”10 He still seems to be writing in the shadow of an invisible censor. When describing the survival into the 1920s of Habsburg-era links between independent Austria and Czechoslovakia, he concludes: “The frontiers were not yet impenetrable, as they became after the war destroyed the Pressburg tram’s bridge across the Danube.” Younger readers might reasonably infer that a fractured tram line was the only obstacle to Czechs and Slovaks seeking to visit postwar Austria after 1948; Hobsbawm avoids mention of any other impediment.
These are not atavistic slips of the pen, occasional Homeric nods. British commentators who tiptoe politely around them in homage to the author’s accomplishments are simply patronizing an old friend. Hobsbawm deserves better. François Furet once said that leaving the French Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary “was the most intelligent thing I have ever done.” Eric Hobsbawm chose to remain and that choice has hobbled his historical instincts. He can acknowledge his mistakes readily enough—his underestimation of the Sixties, his failure to anticipate the precipitate decline of Eurocommunism after the mid-Seventies, even his high hopes for the USSR which, “as I now know, was bound to fail.”
But he doesn’t seem to understand why he made them—even the concession that the USSR was “bound” to fail is simply an inversion of the previous assumption that it was “bound” to succeed. Either way the responsibility lies with History, not men, and old Communists can sleep easy. This retroactive determinism is nothing but Whig History plus dialectics; and dialectics, as a veteran Communist explained to the young Jorge Semprún in Buchenwald, “is the art and technique of always landing on your feet.”11 Hobsbawm has landed on his feet, but from where he stands much of the rest of the world is upside down. Even the significance of 1989 is obscure to him. Of the consequences of the victory of the “free world” (his scare quotes) over the Soviet Union he merely warns: “The world may yet regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism or barbarism, it decided against socialism.”
But Red Rosa wrote that nearly one hundred years ago. The socialism of which Eric Hobsbawm dreamed is no longer an option, and the barbaric dictatorial deviation to which he devoted his life is very largely to blame. Communism defiled and despoiled the radical heritage. If today we face a world in which there is no grand narrative of social progress, no politically plausible project of social justice, it is in large measure because Lenin and his heirs poisoned the well.
Hobsbawm closes his memoirs with a rousing coda: “Let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.” He is right, on every count. But to do any good in the new century we must start by telling the truth about the old. Hobsbawm refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works. If he seriously wishes to pass a radical baton to future generations, this is no way to proceed.
The left has long shied away from confronting the Communist demon in its family closet. Anti-anticommunism—the wish to avoid giving aid and comfort to cold warriors before 1989, and End-of-History triumphalists since—has crippled political thinking in the Labor and Social Democratic movements for decades; in some circles it still does. But as Arthur Koestler pointed out in Carnegie Hall in March 1948,
You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons…. This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.12
If the left is to recover that self-confidence and get up off its knees, we must stop telling reassuring stories about the past. Pace Hobsbawm, who blandly denies it, there was a “fundamental affinity” between extremes of left and right in the twentieth century, self-evident to anyone who experienced them. Millions of well-meaning Western progressives sold their souls to an oriental despot—“The ludicrous surprise,” wrote Raymond Aron in 1950, “is that the European Left has taken a pyramid builder for its God.”13 The values and institutions that have mattered to the left—from equality before the law to the provision of public services as a matter of right—and that are now under assault—owed nothing to communism. Seventy years of “real existing Socialism” contributed nothing to the sum of human welfare. Nothing.
Perhaps Hobsbawm understands this. Perhaps, as he writes of James Klugmann, the British Communist Party’s house historian, “he knew what was right, but shied away from saying it in public.” If so, it isn’t a very proud epitaph. Evgenia Ginzburg, who knew something about the twentieth century, tells of blotting out the screams from the torture cells in Moscow’s Butyrki prison by reciting over and over to herself Michelangelo’s poem:
Sweet is’t to sleep, sweeter to be a stone.
In this dread age of terror and of shame,
Thrice blest is he who neither sees nor feels.
Leave me then here, and trouble not my rest.14
Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.
Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars—A Group Portrait (Random House, 1991), p. 189. ↩
See, for example, Raphael Samuel, “The Lost World of British Communism” (Part I), New Left Review, No. 154 (November/December 1985), pp. 3–53, where he sketches a marvelous portrait of “an organization under siege,…[maintaining] the simulacrum of a complete society, insulated from alien influences, belligerent towards outsiders, protective of those within”; “a visible church,” as Samuel tells it, tracing “an unbroken line of descent from the founding fathers, claiming scriptural precedent for our policies, adopting patristic labels for our anathemas.” ↩
For an illustration of life in a hundred-year-old party sustained by a happy marriage of doctrinal purity and political irrelevance, see Robert Barltrop, The Monument: The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (London: Pluto, 1975). ↩
See George and Weedon Grossmith, Diary of a Nobody (London, 1892). ↩
In April 1963, shortly before his death, Togliatti wrote to Antonin Novotny, general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, begging him to postpone the forthcoming public “rehabilitation” of the victims of the December 1952 trial of Rudolph Slansky. Such an announcement, he wrote (implicitly acknowledging the PCI’s complicity in defending the show trials of the early Fifties), “would unleash a furious campaign against us, bringing to the fore all the most idiotic and provocative anti-Communist themes [i temi più stupidi e provocatori dell’anticommunismo] and hurting us in the forthcoming elections.” See Karel Bartosek, Les Aveux des Archives: Prague-Paris-Prague, 1948–1968 (Paris: Seuil, 1996), p. 372, Appendix 28; and more generally, Elena Aga-Rossi and Victor Zaslavsky, Togliatti e Stalin: Il PCI e la politica estera staliniana negli archivi di Mosca (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997), especially pp. 263ff. ↩
The New York Times, August 23, 2003. ↩
See my “The Peripheral Insider: Raymond Aron and the Wages of Reason,” in The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 137–183. ↩
See Neal Ascherson, “The Age of Hobsbawm,” The Independent on Sunday, October 2, 1994. ↩
For example, Jorge Semprún, The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez and the Communist Underground in Spain (New York: Karz, 1979), first published in Barcelona in 1977 as Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez; Wolfgang Leonhard, Child of the Revolution (Pathfinder Press, 1979), first published in Cologne in 1955 as Die Revolution entlässt ihre Kinder; Claude Roy, Nous (Paris: Gallimard, 1972); Margarete Buber-Neumann, Von Potsdam nach Moskau: Stationen eines Irrweges (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1957). ↩
Note the implied separation between “Soviet” and “Party,” as though local Communists were quite distinct from those in Moscow (and thus not responsible for the latter’s crimes). Eric Hobsbawm knows better than anyone else that this is humbug. The whole point of Lenin’s break with the old Socialist International was to centralize revolutionary organizations into a single unit on the Bolshevik model, taking instructions from Moscow. That was the purpose of the famous “Twenty-one Conditions” of Comintern membership with which Lenin split Europe’s Socialist parties in 1919–1922—not to mention the unwritten Twenty-second Condition, according to the French Socialist leader Paul Faure, which authorized the Bolsheviks to ignore all the other twenty-one when it suited them. ↩
“Mais c’est quoi, la dialectique?” “C’est l’art et la manière de toujours retomber sur ces pattes, mon vieux!” Jorge Semprún, Quel Beau Dimanche (Paris: Grasset, 1980), p. 100. ↩
Arthur Koestler, “The Seven Deadly Fallacies,” in The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1955), p. 50. ↩
Raymond Aron, Polémiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), p. 81. ↩
Evgenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind (Harcourt, 1967), p. 162. ↩