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The Last Romantic


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.

  1. 1

    Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars—A Group Portrait (Random House, 1991), p. 189.

  2. 2

    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.”

  3. 3

    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).

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