The Boston Globe on Hobsbawn

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sun Mar 2 08:55:09 MST 2003

No regrets
In his controversial new memoir, historian Eric Hobsbawm
recalls a lifetime in the British Communist Party

By Matthew Price, 3/2/2003

IN A 1994 BRITISH television interview, the journalist Michael
Ignatieff put a startling question to Eric Hobsbawm, the distinguished
historian and long-time communist. ''Had the radiant tomorrow actually
been created,'' Ignatieff asked, referring to the Soviet Union and its
bloody history, ''the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been
justified?'' Hobsbawm's answer was perhaps even more startling.
''Yes,'' responded the historian. He did not hesitate.

Few figures of Hobsbawm's stature have maintained such a
steadfast devotion to the battered communist project. An
unrepentant member of the Communist Party of Great Britain
from 1936 until shortly before the party closed up shop in 1991,
Hobsbawm soldiered on through the Cold War, often a skeptical,
weary comrade, but a party man nearly to the end; he was
certainly England's most famous communist.

In Britain, the recent publication of Hobsbawm's memoirs,
''Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life'' (forthcoming
from Pantheon in the United States this August) has refocused
attention on his long-lasting party loyalties. Today, Hobsbawm
calls himself ''a lifelong but anomalous communist,'' and while
he has regrets about the past, he offers no apologies for his
beliefs. Is the eminent historian a man of abiding principle
or appalling blindness?

At 85, Hobsbawm is a grandee of the British intellectual
establishment: About the only thing missing from his long
list of honors is a knighthood. Every inch the English don-he
is hardly a fire-breathing revolutionary-Hobsbawm is a man
of fastidious demeanor who enjoys listening to jazz records
(he was jazz critic for the New Statesman in the 1950s)
and has a noted fondness for travel.

Hobsbawm made his name in the `50s as a Marxist historian.
But his idiosyncratic passions took him far beyond the world
of the industrial working classes: He also wrote with sympathy
about the rural poor, urban mobs, Sicilian bandits, American
gangsters, and other ''primitive rebels,'' as he dubbed them.
A vigorous, footloose researcher, Hobsbawm never confined
himself to dusty archives or stale seminar rooms; one could
just as easily find him confirming a fact with a peasant on an
Andean hillside. Later, in a series of panoramic surveys, he
charted the rise of capitalism during the ''long nineteenth
century'' (1789-1914), winning applause from readers of all
political persuasions.

Still, Hobsbawm's politics have raised more than a few eyebrows
during his life-and never more so than since the publication of
''Interesting Times.'' Even the most sympathetic readers, such
as New Left Review editor Perry Anderson, note a troubling silence
about the Stalinist terrors that tested-and broke-the faith of
other ardent Party members.

In The Times Literary Supplement, historian Richard Vinen
bristled at Hobsbawm's omissions. ''There is something
disconcerting about the way in which Hobsbawm veers away
from questions about his own political commitment,'' Vinen wrote.
''Indeed, the closer that he comes to such questions, the more
confusing he becomes.'' In Prospect magazine, the writer Ian
Buruma concluded that Hobsbawm ''is a decent man who
served a blood-soaked cause.''

In his memoir, Hobsbawm stresses the importance of time, place,
and historical circumstance as a powerful catalyst for his beliefs.
He relates that he was born to nonreligious Jewish parents in
1917; his father was an English citizen living in Alexandria,
Egypt, his mother a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Hobsbawm spent his boyhood in Vienna and, after the death
 of both parents in the late `20s, in Weimar Berlin.

Berlin, a left-wing city with a strong workers' movement, would
be a crucible for his beliefs. He watched the disintegration of
Weimar Republic, and the rise of the Nazis. By 1933, with Hitler
in power, the teenage Hobsbawm moved to England to live
with a relative. He entered Cambridge University and joined
the Communist Party soon after.

Reading Hobsbawm's richly textured evocations of Berlin and
Vienna between the wars, one can see the political and psychological
appeal Communism would have had for an uprooted, parentless
young man whose world-both public and private-was falling to pieces
around him. Liberalism and democracy had failed, and ''we were not
liberals,'' he states. The CP gave him a structure and an outlook;
being a member of a vanguard party, he writes, ''was a combination
of discipline, business efficiency, utter emotional identification,
and a sense of total dedication.''

In surveying the 20th century, Hobsbawm's favorite reference
points are the Popular Front of the 1930s and the oft-romanticized
crusade against Fascism-not the grim realities of show trials, forced
collectivization, political murder, man-made famine, censorship,
and the general ruthlessness of Stalin's Russia. About these,
''Interesting Times'' has its contradictions and evasions. Hobsbawm
tells us he is moved by the appeal of anti-fascism; but, on his
own account, he was little troubled by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939,
even though it caused an uproar in Party circles of London,
Paris, and New York.

Khrushchev's speech on Stalin's crimes, and the Soviet invasion of
Hungary, caused two of his close colleagues, E.P. Thompson and fellow
historian Christopher Hill (who died this past Monday at 91), to leave
the party. But not Hobsbawm. He loathed the thought of ''being in the
company of anticommunists'' like Arthur Koestler. The party, for all its
flaws, was his home. ''The reasons for going were not strong enough,''
he writes. ''In practice I recycled myself from militant to sympathizer
fellow-traveler.'' Spiritually, he drifted into the orbit of the
mainstream Italian Communist Party (where he had many personal
contacts), becoming, he tells me, merely an ''ornament'' to the British
Communist Party. He was hardly out in the street flogging copies
of the Daily Worker.

Today, Hobsbawm admits that ''we kept our eyes and ears shut
about things like the trials,'' and that he ''couldn't conceivably
defend the Stalinist terror.'' Still, he repeatedly stresses that
communism was a movement of world revolution. ''The appalling
things that happened in Russia were only one side of the picture
for us-as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Russia and
the power of the Soviet Union were a force for liberation for
colonial peoples.'' He adds, ''You may say that wasn't such a
good idea in some parts of the world. But it was felt to be.''

How did Hobsbawm's politics affect his scholarship? Can a
communist also be a judicious scholar? This is a question which,
at least in some quarters, has been hotly debated. In a New
Criterion essay which savaged the historian this January, journalist
David Pryce-Jones thundered that ''Communism destroyed him
as a thinker or interpreter of events.'' Arguably, Hobsbawm's
failures are most glaring when the topic is the communist world
of the 20th century. In his only full-length work on 20th-century
history, ''The Age of Extremes'' (1994), he dubiously argues
that ''the Soviet system was not `totalitarian.''' His bold description
of the Cold War years as ''The Golden Age'' raised the hackles of
a few critics. ''To refer to the years 1950-1974 as a `Golden Age'
cannot help but sound ironic to someone from, say, Prague,'' the
historian Tony Judt commented in the New York Review of Books.

For Hobsbawm, the Cold War is an object of considerable nostalgia.
He places heavy emphasis on the rising affluence of the Western
working classes, who flourished in the two decades after World
War II, becoming able to afford washing machines and cars.
At the same time, he points out that the Soviet Union outperformed
the West economically in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Cold War
provided the world with a stable system of international relations
(given our present situation, a compelling argument), and the
might of the Soviet Union gave capitalism an ''incentive'' to
reform itself-''fear''-that is lacking today.

Hobsbawm continues to speak fondly of the Brezhnev era.
He recalls that a ''lady from Leningrad who married a close
friend of mine told me in the 1970s: ''You must realize that for
ordinary Russians these are the best times in their or their
father's and grandfather's lives.'''

What of his political convictions today? I ask. ''I was very strongly
committed and I remain committed to collective action for change,''
Hobsbawm says. He tells me how enormously cheered he is by
the recent victory of Lula, Brazil's new left-wing president.
And he cites a recent poll showing that the Vietnamese are
the most satisfied with the prospects for their children. Still,
he is sobered by the 20th century's ugly history. Via e-mail,
he ventures a final assessment: ''It is not for someone who
supported the USSR to minimize the human costs of the Soviet
and Chinese experiments.'' But, he adds, ''It is for others to say
that not only Communism was blood-stained.''

Matthew Price, a Brooklyn-based writer, is a regular contributor
to the Boston Globe.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/2/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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