Why Hobsbawm remained a Communist
markjones011 at tiscali.co.uk
Wed Sep 18 15:45:27 MDT 2002
At 18/09/2002 21:39, Lou wrote:
>New Statesman, September 16, 2002
>The day when heaven was falling; Eric Hobsbawm saw the October revolution
>as the central reference point of the political universe. In this
>exclusive extract from his memoirs, he explains why, even when the crimes
>of Stalin were exposed, he could not bring himself to break with the
Here's smthg else relevant:
A question of faith
When Eric Hobsbawn came to England in the 1930s he became a Marxist and
began a distinguished academic career. His new autobiography reveals that
at 85 he remains an 'unrepentant communist'. Maya Jaggi on the historian
who made us fall in love with history again An orphan in 1930s Germany,
Eric Hobsbawm came to England where he became a Marxist and began a
distinguished academic career. His books are said to have fuelled the
current popularity of history. At 85, he remains an 'unrepentant
communist', as his new autobiograhphy reveals. Maya Jaggi reports
Saturday September 14, 2002
Eric Hobsbawm was a schoolboy in Berlin when Hitler came to power. He knew
he stood at a turning-point in history. "It was impossible to remain
outside politics," he says. "The months in Berlin made me a lifelong
communist." They may also have shaped his moral universe. When asked on
Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 1995 whether he thought the chance of
bringing about a communist utopia was worth any sacrifice, he answered
"yes". "Even the sacrifice of millions of lives?" he was asked. "That's
what we felt when we fought the second world war," he replied.
Martin Amis in his new book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty
Million, discussing a perceived "asymmetry of indulgence" in attitudes
towards Hitler's crimes and Stalin's Great Terror, characterises Hobsbawm's
"yes" as "disgraceful". Interesting Times, Hobsbawm's autobiography, also
out this month, offers an insight into the adherence to communism of many
of the brightest of his generation, from an "unrepentant communist":
Hobsbawm, who joined the party in 1936, remained in it until he let his
membership lapse not long before the party's dissolution in 1991. His book
- taking its title from the Chinese curse - traces his communist faith in
"the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history".
"I've never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia,
though the sheer extent of the massacres we didn't realise," says Hobsbawm.
"In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears
and horror: revolution, civil war, famine - we knew of the Volga famine of
the early '20s, if not the early '30s. Thanks to the breakdown of the west,
we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going
to work better than the west. It was that or nothing."
He says of Stalin's Russia: "These sacrifices were excessive; this should
not have happened. In retrospect the project was doomed to failure, though
it took a long time to realise this." Yet he appears to argue that some
goals are worth any sacrifice. "I lived through the first world war, when
10 million-to 20 million people were killed. At the time, the British,
French and Germans believed it was necessary. We disagree. In the second
world war, 50 million died. Was the sacrifice worthwhile? I frankly cannot
face the idea that it was not. I can't say it would have been better if the
world was run by Adolph Hitler."
Since coming to Britain in 1933 as a 15-year-old orphan, Hobsbawm has been
both influential and controversial, not least as Britain's best known and
most enduring Marxist historian. His innovative social history on bandits,
revolutionaries and workers inspired a "Hobsbawm generation" of researchers
in the 1960s and '70s. His trilogy charting the rise of capitalism - The
Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital ('75) and The Age of Empire
('87) - became a defining work of his chosen period, the "long 19th
century", from 1789 to 1914. Encylopaedic and determinedly accessible,
Hobsbawm has been credited with a hand in history's current popularity.
Ben Pimlott, warden of Goldsmiths College, London University, says Hobsbawm
- multilingual and steeped in the culture and history of central Europe -
"thinks on a grand scale". While Hobsbawm has described history as a
process of uncovering the patterns and mechanisms that transform the world,
Pimlott says his Marxism has been "a tool not a straitjacket; he's not
dialectical or following a party line". According to Stuart Hall, emeritus
professor of sociology at the Open University, he is one of few leftwing
historians to be "taken seriously by people who disagree with him
The Age of Extremes (1994), which was translated into 37 languages,
extended Hobsbawm's range into the "short 20th century" almost spanned by
his own life, from the first world war to the collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1991. He sees his autobiography as a "flipside" to The Age of Extremes,
being world history "illustrated by the experiences of an individual".
Interesting Times also reveals other sides to a man, who, under the
pseudonym Francis Newton, was the New Statesman's jazz critic for a decade.
His proudest moments were receiving an honorary degree beside Benny Goodman
and meeting the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. He disparaged modernism in
high art, when the "real revolution", he suggested, lay elsewhere, such as
in the movies.
Now 85, and professor emeritus at Birkbeck College, London University,
Hobsbawm lives in Hampstead, on the slopes of Parliament Hill, with his
second wife, Marlene, a recently retired music teacher and writer. They
also have a cottage in Wales "between the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and
the Brecon jazz festival", where, according to the biographer Claire
Tomalin, "they reproduce the urban intelligentsia in a Welsh wilderness".
The couple have a "social circle of immense variety", says Roy Foster, a
former colleague at Birkbeck. "Eric's a European intellectual; he doesn't
allow ideology to infect the ordinary relations of life." While some find
Hobsbawm cold and imperious, for Pimlott he has a great serenity.
Peripatetic as a displaced child then as an academic, Hobsbawm speaks
German, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, and reads Dutch, Portuguese
and Catalan. His reputation is arguably even greater abroad. Official
recognition came slowly in Britain, where he was made a Companion of Honour
in 1998. Hobsbawm insists that "whatever I've achieved has been with
minimum, or no, concessions".
He was born in Alexandria in 1917. His British father, Leopold Percy
Hobsbaum (a clerical error altered Eric's surname), was the son of a
cabinet-maker from London's East End who had migrated from Russian Poland
in the 1870s. Eric's mother, Nelly Grün, was the daughter of a "moderately
prosperous Viennese jeweller". She met Leopold in 1913 in Egypt, a British
protectorate, and they married in neutral Switzerland in 1915, but were
unable to live in either country until the first world war ended.
His parents moved to Vienna when Eric was two, and continued to speak
English at home. Both died during the Depression, his father of a heart
attack at the age of 48, when Eric was 11, and his mother of lung disease
two years later, at 36. In the interim, the family was destitute. Eric,
whose only sibling, Nancy, was two years younger, worked as an English
tutor, then a male au pair, while the social insurance of "Red Vienna" paid
his mother's medical bills. Hobsbawm remembers little of his father, a
tradesman and amateur boxer. "I must have made a conscious effort to
forget," he says. His insecure childhood, he believes, made him "more
self-contained, unwilling to open out", as well as hard-headed: "not having
illusions - facing the situation without trying to kid oneself".
His maternal aunt Gretl and paternal uncle Sidney married, and after Eric's
mother died, he and Nancy lived with them and their son Peter, in Berlin,
where Sidney worked for Hollywood's Universal Films. Arriving in 1931, "as
the world economy collapsed", Eric joined the Socialist Schoolboys.
"In Germany there wasn't any alternative left. Liberalism was failing. If
I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a
German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving
the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless
the world was fundamentally transformed."
He had grown up in an "entirely unobservant" Jewish household, though he
recalls his mother's injunction never to do "anything that suggests you're
ashamed of being a Jew". In Israel later, "people didn't see this as as
sufficient basis for Jewishness, but it is". He was known at school as "der
Engländer", an identity which he believes shielded him from overt
anti-Semitism. It also immunised him - a lifelong anti-Zionist - against
the "temptations" of Jewish nationalism.
In March 1933 the family regrouped in London - not, he insists, as
refugees. Isolated and bored, he retreated into "hot jazz" and the library
near his Marylebone grammar school, reading English poetry and The
Communist Manifesto, and keeping voluminous diaries in German. In these he
listed the basis of his communism as a sense of "mass ecstasy"; "pity for
the exploited"; the "aesthetic appeal of a perfect and comprehensive
intellectual system - dialectical materialism"; a "Blakean vision of the
new Jerusalem"; and "intellectual anti-philistinism".
He joined the Communist party while at King's College, Cambridge, in
1936-39, though he speculates that his overt politics precluded any Soviet
efforts to recruit him as one of the Cambridge spies - Burgess, Maclean,
Philby, Blunt. He edited the student weekly, Granta, and joined the
Apostles, a university secret society which had previously counted Burgess,
Philby et al as members. Vacations were partly spent in France, where he
lost his virginity in a Paris brothel. "It's just what young men did," he
says. Weeks before finals in 1939 (he took a starred first), his remaining
family emigrated to Chile. His sister, who died some 10 years ago, later
married a naval officer and became, he says, a "conventional Anglican
country matron and Conservative Party activist in Worcestershire".
After the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, Hobsbawm followed
the party line that the western powers were more interested in defeating
communism than in fighting Hitler, until the German invasion of France in
1940, when he realised the party line was "absolutely useless". He held it
until the German attack on Russia in 1941. Called up in February 1940,
Hobsbawm had an "empty war" in Britain, first with the Royal Engineers,
then the Educational Corps. Despite speaking German, he was turned down for
intelligence work, whether owing to his party membership or his mother's
nationality. In 1943 he married Muriel Seaman, a "very attractive LSE
communist girl" who became a senior civil servant.
"For 20 years my intimate relationships would invariably be with
communists," he says. Their divorce in 1951 left him wounded. "We separated
in nasty circumstances: she went off with another man." They never saw each
other again, and the new couple died in a car crash in Portugal 10 years
later. Hobsbawm had a son, Joshua, by a married woman, who opted to remain
with her husband. Joshua works in schools drama, as a writer and teacher.
Hobsbawm returned to Cambridge in 1947 to do a PhD on the Fabian Society,
and was a fellow of King's in 1949-55. He became a lecturer at Birkbeck in
1947, fortunate in getting in "under the wire" before the cold war slammed
the door on further Communist appointments. He was then rejected by a
succession of Oxbridge colleges, and despite a growing international
reputation, became a professor of history at Birkbeck only in 1970. It was
1959 before he published his first major work, Primitive Rebels - about
banditry - alongside his collection The Jazz Scene. Yet while the cold war
delayed his career, there was no purge. While teaching evening classes at
Birkbeck, he reviewed jazz for the New Statesman and Nation, thinking he
could more than match Kingsley Amis in the Spectator. From a Bloomsbury
flat he led a late-night lifestyle, sharing the jazz scene of Colin
MacInnes, George Melly and Francis Bacon and becoming drawn into protests
against the 1958 Notting Hill riots.
Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist party historians' group of 1946-56,
which included EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, and in 1952 he co-founded
the influential journal, Past and Present, whose contributors included many
non-Marxists. They pioneered social history from the "bottom up". For Roy
Foster, Hobsbawm "brought British social and labour history into an
intellectually exciting and European-influenced sphere, bringing in culture
from Romantic music to the role of the flat cap and fish and chips in
working-class consciousness. At the same time he was writing about Sicilian
bandits and Chicago gangsters." Unlike fellow British Marxist historians,
Hobsbawm took an international approach, in such works as Industry and
In 1954 he paid the first of only two visits to the Soviet Union , finding
a "dispiriting" absence of intellectuals. The year 1956, with Khrushchev's
speech on Stalin's crimes to the 20th party congress and the Soviet
invasion of Hungary, destroyed the international communist movement, says
Hobsbawm. Yet despite the droves quitting the party - including many
Marxist historians, such as EP Thompson - Hobsbawm weathered the
"intolerable tensions". He recalls being repelled by the idea of being in
the company of those ex-members who turned into fanatical anti-communists
and describes keeping faith with fallen anti-fascist heroes, "because the
movement bred such men and women". Perhaps most crucially, he writes: "I
did not come into communism as a young Briton in England but as a central
European in the collapsing Weimar Republic."
Hobsbawm's decision to stay in the party continues to puzzle even his
sympathisers. Yet the writer and journalist Neal Ascherson, a student of
his at Cambridge in the early 1950s who became a friend, recalls Hobsbawm
being "in great distress and finding it difficult to talk... He said that
you could achieve more by criticising from within." Hobsbawm signed a
historians' letter of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and
was passionately in favour of the Prague spring, arguing against the
"tankies" who backed its crushing by the Soviets in 1968. Yet he remained
in the party, "recycling" himself from militant to fellow traveller, and
resigning himself to interpreting the world, rather than actively changing
it. Pimlott says Hobsbawm remained a member when it was deeply
unfashionable and limiting; "he couldn't travel freely to the US. There was
sacrifice in his position." Hobsbawm remained friends with many who did
leave. Robin Blackburn, former editor of the New Left Review, for which he
wrote, says, "I doubt he had many illusions about the Soviet Union after
1956; he was more hard-headed than many others."
"The [British] party criticised Moscow like mad from 1968," says Hobsbawm.
"Those of us in Britain and elsewhere weren't in it because of anything
happening in the Soviet Union, but because of things we wanted to happen in
Britain and elsewhere." Yet he writes: "I belonged to the generation tied
by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its
original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the
Hobsbawm was prolific, with Bandits (1969) and Revolutionaries (1973). He
co-authored Captain Swing (1969) on the English agrarian uprising of 1830
and reopened the "standard of living debate" by challenging labour
historians who claimed industrialisation was benign for 19th-century
workers. He says, "These aren't my people, and I'm not like them. But there
was sympathy, because these were the poor trying to come to terms with
social injustice. You can't be against social injustice unless you're for
the poor." His grander scale work began when George (now Lord) Weidenfeld
commissioned The Age of Revolution for £500 in 1958, initiating what grew,
unexpectedly, into the trilogy.
He married the Viennese-born Marlene Schwarz in 1962. "She brought me a lot
more happiness than I expected," he says. He traversed South America and
visited Castro's Cuba, though sceptical of the Guevarist guerrilla
strategy. He wrote about music in Havana's black barrios but the
rock-and-roll revolution eluded him (he attributed its appeal to
"infantilism"). He has avowedly never worn blue jeans. In the 1960s he was
visiting professor at Stanford, then MIT, having to apply each time for
exceptions to the US ban on communists.
In Paris in 1968, Hobsbawm found the events welcome "and puzzling to
middle-aged leftwingers". He was enthusiastic yet critical of the
limitations of protests. "I misunderstood the historical significance of
the 1960s," he says. "It wasn't a political or social revolution. It was
more a spiritual equivalent of a consumer society - everybody doing their
own thing. I'm not certain I welcome this." Another movement which some
claim has eluded him is feminism. "His unwillingness to take seriously the
research and concerns of women historians pissed off a whole generation of
feminists in his profession in the '70s and '80s," says Harriet Jones,
director of the Institute of Contemporary British History at London
University. She senses a possible change of heart, however. "It's
interesting that he has now identified women's history in the Communist
party as one of the key gaps in 20th-century British politics."
Hobsbawm espoused Italian Eurocommunism, which distanced itself from Moscow
(he found its late guru Gramsci "marvellously stimulating"). He also played
a controversial role in the emergence of New Labour in Britain, having
canvassed for the Labour party in 1945 ("If there was anything to be done
in this country we knew it would be through the Labour party"). His Marx
memorial lecture in 1978, The Forward March of Labour Halted? pointed to
the inadequacy of Old Labour in the face of social and economic changes.
Dubbed "Kinnock's guru", Hobsbawm reveals that he was depressed about
"[Kinnock's] potential as a future prime minister". Hobsbawm has since
criticised New Labour for going "much too far in accepting the logic of the
free market", and been disparaged in turn as an out-of-touch "special
intellectual" by the Number 10 adviser Geoff Mulgan, in 1998. Hobsbawm
says: "While I share people's disappointment in Blair, it's better to have
a Labour government than not."
His daughter, Julia Hobsbawm, a proponent of "ethical PR", was a
fund-raising consultant for the Labour party before the 1992 election, then
co-founded a public relations company with Sarah Macaulay (now married to
Gordon Brown) in 1993, though they ended the business partnership last
year. Hobsbawm's son, Andy, is an executive for an American internet
advertising firm. Neither has a degree.
"It's very tough on kids to have a father who's an academic and known to be
good at it," Hobsbawm says. "It's something to live up to." Hobsbawm turned
a sceptical eye on nationalism in the ground-breaking co-edited book The
Invention of Tradition (1983), and in Nations and Nationalism (1990). For
Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University,
Hobsbawm's tendency to disparage any nationalist movement as passing and
irrational weakens his grasp of parts of the 20th century. In Ascherson's
view "Eric's Jewishness increased his sensitivity about nationalism. He's
the original happy cosmopolitan, who's benefited from being able to move
freely." After retiring from Birkbeck in 1982, Hobsbawm began a "seasonal
commute" to teach a semester a year at the New School for Social Research
in Manhattan, until 1997.
Hobsbawm says he felt relief at the fall of the Berlin Wall, though he sees
conditions in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union as an
"unbelievable economic and social tragedy". In his new book he declares
that Communism is dead. Looking back, he says, "starting in Russia, this
system would not and could not have worked". But he still believes that
asking Marxist questions is the way to understand the world - to tackle the
big questions, to fit things together into a pattern , "even if it may not
be the right pattern". He adds: "I used to believe you could predict the
direction in which history goes. But contingency is clearly more important
than we used to allow."
Hobsbawm felt freed by the end of the Soviet experiment to write the
history of his own century. He had avoided what he saw as a choice between
being denounced "as a heretic" for openly countering the party line or
compromising "my conscience as an academic". The Age of Extremes involved
the greatest test of his own objectivity, though it is also one his most
highly praised books. Judt argues that on the two great issues of the 20th
century, "Eric's political stance has prevented his achieving the
analytical distance he does on the 19th century: he isn't as interesting on
the Russian revolution because he can't free himself completely from the
optimistic vision of earlier years. For the same reason he's not that good
Hobsbawm, Judt says, "clings to a pernicious illusion of the late
Enlightenment: that if one can promise a benevolent outcome it would be
worth the human cost. But one of the great lessons of the 20th century is
that it's not true. For such a clear-headed writer, he appears blind to the
sheer scale of the price paid. I find it tragic, rather than disgraceful."
Many see Hobsbawm's failed faith as setting the pessimistic tone of The Age
of Extremes, with its insistence on the built-in defects of capitalism. He
also believes the collapse of a rival superpower has ended half a century
of stability. Of the current "war on terrorism" he says, "There's no enemy;
it's an occasion for America to assert global hegemony. There's no
difficulty about winning battles, but what you do afterwards is what
counts. The world cannot be recolonised."
While some might seek a mea culpa in his autobiography, Hobsbawm writes
that he seeks "historical understanding... not agreement, approval or
sympathy". In Ascherson's view, "Eric is not a man for apologising or
feeling guilty. He does feel bad about the appalling waste of lives in
Soviet communism. But he refuses to acknowledge that he regrets anything.
He's not that kind of person."
"I look back in amazement rather than regret," says Hobsbawm, "that not
only I but humanity have made it through the past hundred-odd years."
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm
Born: June 9 1917; Alexandria, Egypt
Education: S chools in Vienna; Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, Berlin; St
Marylebone Grammar School, London; King's College, Cambridge (BA, PhD).
Married: 1943-51 Muriel Seaman; '62- Marlene Schwarz (one son, Andy; one
Career: Birkbeck College, London University: 1947 lecturer, '59 reader,
'70-82 professor, '82- Emeritus professor of history; King's College,
Cambridge: '49-55 Fellow; New School for Social Research New York: '84-97
Some books: 1959 Primitive Rebels; The Jazz Scene (as Francis Newton); '62
The Age of Revolution; '64 Labouring Men; '68 Industry and Empire; '69
Captain Swing; Bandits; '73 Revolutionaries; '75 The Age of Capital; '78
History of Marxism; '83 co-ed The Invention of Tradition; '84 Workers; '87
The Age of Empire; '90 Nations and Nationalism; Echoes of the Marseillaise;
'94 The Age of Extremes; '97 On History; '98 Uncommon People; '99 The New
Century; 2002 Interesting Times .
Some honours: 1973 Honorary Fellow, King's College, Cambridge; '78 Fellow
of the British Academy; '98 Companion of Honour.
· Interesting Times is published by Allen Lane The Penguin Press on
September 30, price £20.00. To order a copy for £17 plus p&p call the
Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.
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