A Communist Life With No Apology

Chris Brady cdbrady at attglobal.net
Mon Aug 25 10:27:32 MDT 2003

A Communist Life With No Apology

New York Times, August 23, 2003

LONDON, Aug. 22 — Born in 1917, the year of the October Revolution, the
historian Eric Hobsbawm has lived through much of “the most
extraordinary and terrible century in human history,” as he describes
it, from the rise of Communism and fascism to World War II, the cold war
and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Recent events, he says, “fit in with the gloomy picture” he has had of
world affairs for the last three-quarters of a century.

But for an unapologetic pessimist, Mr. Hobsbawm is remarkably robust,
bordering on cheerful.

As he describes in “Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life” (Pantheon),
his new memoir, Mr. Hobsbawm has overcome considerable odds, including a
fractured childhood in Weimar Germany, to become one of the great
British historians of his age, an unapologetic Communist and a polymath
whose erudite, elegantly written histories are still widely read in
schools here and abroad.

He turns his analytical historian’s eye on himself, examining with wry,
rich detail the history of the century “through the itinerary of one
human being whose life could not possibly have occurred in any other,”
he writes. The title’s twin meanings — interesting times, according to
the old Chinese curse, inevitably carry tragedy and upheaval, too —
neatly capture the tensions between his personal history and his life as
a historian.

“Do you remember what Brecht said — `Unlucky the country that needs
heroes’?” Mr. Hobsbawm asked. “From the point of view of ordinary
people, uninteresting times, where things aren’t happening, are the
best. But from the point of view of a historian, obviously, it’s
completely different.”

Mr. Hobsbawm, a gangly 86-year-old with thick horn-rimmed glasses and an
engagingly lopsided smile, spoke in his living room in Hampstead, long
the neighborhood of choice for London’s leftist intellectuals, in
between sips of coffee. The room was lined with books; the front hall
was full of the toddler paraphernalia that comes when one’s home is a
destination of choice for grandchildren (he has three). The telephone
rang constantly as various family members and friends called to discuss
plans that Mr. Hobsbawm invariably said would require further
consultation with his wife, Marlene, who was out for the morning.

Mr. Hobsbawm is that unlikeliest of creatures, a committed Communist who
never really left the party (he let his membership lapse just before the
collapse of the Soviet Union) but still managed to climb to the upper
echelons of English respectability by virtue of his intellectual rigor,
engaging curiosity and catholic breadth of interests. He is an emeritus
professor at the University of London and holds countless honorary
degrees around the world, from Chile to Sweden.

Yet he will always be dogged by questions about how he can square his
long and faithful membership in the Communist Party with the reality of
Communism, particularly as it played out under Stalin. In “Interesting
Times,” he denounces Stalin and Stalinism but also praises aspects of
Communist Russia and argues that in some countries, notably the former
U.S.S.R., life is worse now than it was under the Socialist system.

Some people will never forgive Mr. Hobsbawm for his beliefs. In an angry
review of his new book in The New Criterion, David Pryce-Jones said that
Mr. Hobsbawm was “someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into
propaganda” and that his Communism had “destroyed him as an interpreter
of events.”

“Interesting Times” has gathered mostly glowing reviews across Britain.
But the book again raises the problem that even Mr. Hobsbawm’s admirers
find dismaying.

In The Times Literary Supplement, the historian Richard Vinen said that
“Interesting Times” does not give a satisfactory explanation of its
author’s motivations. “The closer that he comes to such questions, the
more confusing he becomes,” Mr. Vinen wrote.

Mr. Hobsbawm does address the issue in a section explaining why he did
not abandon Communism in 1956 when Nikita S. Khrushchev’s electrifying
denunciation of Stalin sent waves of revulsion at Stalin’s crimes
through the worldwide movement. But while many of his colleagues
resigned from the party in horrified protest, Mr. Hobsbawm did not.

He says he was “strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of
those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists.” More
important, perhaps, was the childhood he spent in interwar Germany,
where he was part of the generation “tied by an almost unbreakable
umbilical cord to hope of world revolution, and of its original home,
the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the U.S.S.R.,”
he writes.

Asked the same question in his living room, Mr. Hobsbawm sighed. It is a
question he is always asked. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I didn’t
want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I
thought when I first got into it. I still think it was a great cause,
the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got onto it the wrong way, maybe
we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else
human life isn’t worth living.”

Communism, he said, was much more than Stalinism and meant different
things around the world in Spain, in Italy, in South America, in South
Africa, for instance. “The idea that the only thing about this movement
was that you were for the Soviet Union and that when you then discovered
how awful Stalin was that you should have left is not a historic way of
looking at it,” he said.

Mr. Hobsbawm’s book is about far more than his Communism, though
politics and life to him are symbiotic. Born a Jew in Alexandria, Egypt,
to an English father and an Austrian mother, he lived until his early
teens in Vienna and then in the disastrous dying days of Weimar Germany.
Both his parents died by the time he was 14. His father, struggling hand
to mouth to make a living, collapsed one day on the doorstep of their
home. His mother died after a wasting illness some two years later.

Mr. Hobsbawm fled into himself, finding relief in the life of the mind.
“Clearly it marked me very deeply, but I was covered to some extent
because I had, as it were, my private escape into curiosity, into
fantasy,” he said. “It probably also left me with an unwillingness to be
too outgoing. I kept a lot of my troubles to myself.”

His youth, particularly as Hitler’s fascists began their rise to power,
propelled him into Communism and into a lifelong sympathy for
revolutions, for contrary thinking, for the ideal of revolutionary
utopia. This took root in many ways, from his love of jazz (for a time,
he was the jazz critic for The New Statesman) to the wide range of
subjects in his books.

He is best known for his books surveying the history of the world since
1789: “The Age of Revolution” (1962), “The Age of Capital” (1975), “The
Age of Empire” (1987); and “Age of Extremes” (1994). He commands a loyal
following, particularly in Latin America. The author Julian Barnes
appeared with him at a literary festival in Parati, Brazil, and in a
recent article in The Guardian described how Mr. Hobsbawm was accosted
by fans demanding his autograph as he walked around town.

As a youth, Mr. Hobsbawm moved to England with an aunt, eventually
earning a place at King’s College, Cambridge, on the strength of his
obvious brilliance. He later became a lecturer and then a professor in
Birkbeck College in London.

Famous friends, colleagues and public figures flit in and out of the
pages of his book. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., E. M. Forster, Che Guevara
(for whom Mr. Hobsbawm was once an impromptu interpreter, though he was
no admirer of Che’s guerrilla strategy) all make appearances, along with
scores of others. Mr. Hobsbawm also describes the inner workings of the
Historian’s Group in the British Communist Party; the almost physical
agony that Communists in Britain suffered when the truth about Stalin
became clear; and various debates in the Labor Party, which has
occasionally turned to him for advice.

“If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally
attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labor Party,” he

His travels took him all over the world, and along the way, he picked up
the ability to speak German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and
to read Dutch and Catalan. Mr. Hobsbawm visited the Soviet Union only
twice, finding that it was dispiriting and that he had a much greater
affinity with Communists elsewhere. He remains as busy as ever,
preparing papers for conferences abroad in the next year.

Mr. Hobsbawm wrote his book, he writes, not for “agreement, approval or
sympathy” but for “historical understanding,” as a way to explain
himself and his thinking. It ends on a pessimistic note, with a
discussion of Sept. 11 and America’s thrusting new role in the world.

The Sept. 11 attacks, as horrific as they were, were not comparable as a
crisis either to World War II or to the cold war, he said, and the
United States made a grave mistake in reacting the way it did.

“At present, pessimists like myself look forward to a very disturbed
next 10 or 20 years, very largely because of the present policy of the
people who are in charge in Washington,” Mr. Hobsbawm said.

Over his many years and against considerable odds, Mr. Hobsbawm has
somehow maintained his belief in human resilience, in man’s ability to
live through the most appalling personal and public tragedies and still
go on. Speaking of the blitz, he said that survival during that time
required a suspension of fear, a willful pushing aside of reality.

“Once you actually lived under bombardment, for instance, as Great
Britain did, you recognized that you could survive,” he said. “I think
that human beings can manage to square a lot of things. The truth is
that except for short periods, ordinary life goes on, so long as it’s
allowed to.”

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