A lifelong dance with cloven hoof

Interesting Times

December 6, 2002

"Men," Marx famously wrote, "make their own lives, but they do not make them just as they please, they do not make them under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past" and - as the historian Eric Hobsbawm adds in his autobiography, Interesting Times - "by the world around them". The pressures of time and place certainly explain why Chinese peasants, Ukrainian Jews, Afghan women, South Africans of all colours and many others should have joined, persevered with and often died for the Communist Party.

They do not explain Hobsbawm's steadfast communism. Arriving in Britain as a teenager, he was never really part of the Central European - mostly Jewish - diaspora that made up so much of the postwar communist intelligentsia. He has also frequently had to remind interviewers that he and his family were "not in any sense refugees or victims of national socialism". In fact, Hobsbawm is essentially a British figure: he came to Britain "with a native British passport"; he completed his secondary education here; he went up to Cambridge University as an undergraduate; and he cultivates an ironical detachment from Britain and its traditions that comes easily only to those who belong. He now candidly describes himself as "an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment". Unlike many in the past century of "extremes", therefore, Hobsbawm had a choice and he chose tyranny. That is interesting and it requires explanation.

Hobsbawm's autobiography is really three books. The first is a masterly account of his childhood in Vienna, Berlin and London, which manages to be moving and unsentimental at the same time. He was born in 1917 in Alexandria to an English father and an Austrian mother, both Jews; the family moved to Vienna two years later. The Central European milieu - "multinational but not...multicultural" - in which he grew up is vividly evoked: the formality and quality of his schooling; the vain attempts to keep up appearances; the steady slide into debt; and the ambiguous, often sceptical relationship to Judaism. All this is very interesting, but none of it explains why young Eric became a communist. Hobsbawm himself writes that: "It is only in retrospect that my childhood can be seen as a process of politicisation", and, one might add, perhaps not even then.

It was from 1931-33 in Berlin, where the family spent a period before poverty drove them to Britain, that Hobsbawm became "a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project" of the October revolution. Surveying the political scene shortly before the Nazis took power, Hobsbawm claims that "for someone like myself there was really only one choice" if Hitler was to be stopped. This is as odd a claim today as it was 70 years ago. Why Hobsbawm chose not to back the German or Austrian Social Democrats, whose record of resistance against the Nazis was to be more distinguished and consistent, is not explained.

The second and even more gripping part of the book deals with Hobsbawm's life as a card-carrying communist from the 1930s. Some may find the submergence of the subject's own personality, and the persistence of the collectivist "we" throughout much of this discussion, disconcerting. In fact, it is entirely appropriate. Interesting Times brings back to life the universe of the dedicated party member, a world that we have lost as surely as that of the Ranters and Levellers of the 17th century. The attraction of the party for Hobsbawm lay not so much in any personal vista of social, national or cultural liberation, but in the coherence of Marxist thought in explaining the world as it had been, was and should be. What sustained him and many others was not some romantic passion - the reality was much more likely to be characterised by tedium and discipline - but a total commitment to the "party line" as laid down, ultimately, by Moscow. "The Party," Hobsbawm writes, "had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives... whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed." Among the party lines that Hobsbawm had to swallow were the definition of the German Social Democrats as "social fascists", the Great Purges of the 1930s, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the show trials of the late Stalinist era, many of them with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. And while he was disturbed by the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Hobsbawm did not join the general exodus from the party. In the end, the old British Communist Party left him, when it collapsed, together with its Soviet sponsor, in 1991.

Hobsbawm's career as a professional historian and public figure is covered in the third and least interesting part of the book. There is little insight here into the intellectual development of somebody who is, when all is said and done, still one of Britain's greatest living historians. His genius lies not so much in his style, which is accessible, conversational and somewhat middle-brow, but in his ideas. Even today, such innovative works as Bandits, Primitive Rebels and The Invention of Tradition can be read with profit; on appearance, they were rightly regarded as sensational. Likewise, his two volumes on 19th-century history, The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital , have achieved the status of classics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hobsbawm the historian is at his most convincing the further he moves from 20th-century politics. In his works of contemporary history, such as The Age of Extremes, and what he calls the "flip side" of that book, his autobiography, the cloven hoof of the party line is never far from view. The amateur psychologist might wonder whether the heterodoxy and subtlety of his social history is some sort of protest against the - self-inflicted - straitjacket of communist orthodoxy.

Instead of real intellectual autobiography, the second half of Interesting Times offers an amiable and largely inconsequential reminiscence of his travels, conferences and friendships over the past 40 years. Here, the tedium is relieved only by a lengthy disquisition on jazz, a counter-cultural and superstructural activity that helped to offset Hobsbawm's brutal political orthodoxy in the public mind. Another welcome interlude is the mordantly funny account of his seasonal life as a narodnik in Wales. Here, the absurdity and discomfort of the army of English settlers and holiday-makers, who appear to have had little beyond alcoholism and promiscuity in common with the surly natives, is captured without illusions. Hobsbawm is particularly irritated by Welsh nationalism, which he seems to regard as some form of false consciousness.

At the end, the intellectual void left by the collapse of communism is filled by a generalised and inchoate anti-Americanism. The sympathetic and insightful treatment of American academe and culture that characterises Hobsbawm's professional and musical reminiscences gives way to primitive agitprop. "American values" and "the American dream" are dismissed as "bull**** phrases", not an appellation he allows for his own malodorous reveries earlier in the book. At one point, Hobsbawm mutters darkly about "strategies of US global military empire" that have been "in preparation since the late 1980s". The fulminations against the "snake-oil salesmen of the 'war against terrorism'" sit oddly with a man who had long faithfully peddled some of the most disastrous political quack remedies the world has ever seen. And on the last page, Hobsbawm looks forward to an alleged "American world empireI with more fear and less enthusiasm than I look back on the record of the old British empire". The vision of proletarian revolution has gone; the image of the ugly global - mainly American - capitalist endures, suppurates and mutates into abstruse conspiracy theory. That is the trouble with those who lose their faith: it is not that they believe in nothing, it is that they will believe in anything.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life

Author - Eric Hobsbawm
ISBN - 0 7139 9581 5
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 448

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