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Never Sorry

Eric Hobsbawm’s awkward embrace of the Establishment

Eric Hobsbawm at home in London in 2003. Gérard Rondeau/Agence Vu/Redux

In England, listeners Start the Week with the BBC radio program of that name, a superior chat show about new books and whatnot. On Monday, June 9, 1997, one of the guests was Eric Hobsbawm, who was by then perhaps the best-known historian in the country, or even in the world. It was his eightieth birthday, and after the show, despite his half-hearted protestation, a cake was cut and champagne opened. Five weeks earlier, Tony Blair and his New Labour Party had won in a landslide at the general election, and Hobsbawm raised a glass to that. The new government soon repaid the compliment, and the following year Hobsbawm became a Companion of Honour at Blair’s recommendation, kneeling before the Queen at Buckingham Palace as she placed the ribbon round his neck. 

Oxford University Press, 800 pp., $39.95

Although Hobsbawm expressed some disdain for the 1960s, it was then that he first became prominent. Tony Judt once wrote of “a discernible ‘Hobsbawm generation,’” those “who took up the study of the past . . . between, say, 1959 and 1975, and whose interest in the recent past was irrevocably shaped by Eric Hobsbawm’s writings.” The books Hobsbawm published in those prolific years—Primitive RebelsThe Age of RevolutionLabouring MenIndustry and Empire, and Captain Swing—showed the influence of the French ­Annales school, with its emphasis on the longue durée, a broad sweep of social and economic as well as political change. And there was also a new interest in “history from below,” the story, for too long neglected, of the toiling mass of the people, and their struggle against oppression, or sometimes against progress: “Captain Swing” was the mythical leader of riots that swept parts of rural England in 1830, protesting against the introduction of new harvesting machines. 

Over the next two decades, Hobsbawm ascended far beyond the confines of academic history. Although he retired from his chair at London University when he was 65, it was only to become a professor at the New School in New York. The next two volumes of his “Age” trilogy, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, reached a much larger public, and by his seventies he was making a good deal of money. His 1994 coda to the trilogy, The Age of Extremes, on “the short twentieth century, 1914–1991,” was garlanded with praise (if not unanimous), made the British best-seller list, and was translated into an astonishing 30 languages. Hobsbawm became a Fellow of the British Academy, a holder of too many honorary doctorates to list (including Oxford, Chicago, and Vienna), a Commander of the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross, and a member of the Athenaeum Club in London, traditional home of bishops and vice chancellors. All in all, he was not only a media star. He conspicuously belonged to what’s called the Establishment. 

This was the extraordinary culmination to an extra­ordinary story, with an extraordinary beginning. Hobsbawm’s parents were both Jewish. His father, from London, married his ­Viennese mother in Zurich but moved for business reasons to Alexandria, when Egypt was a somewhat ambiguous part of the British Empire. Eric was born there, a British subject, in the fateful year of 1917. The Hobsbawms moved to Vienna, where he spent his early childhood (he spoke German with an audible Viennese lilt all his life) in genteel poverty. One evening his father came home “from another of his increasingly desperate visits to town in search of money to earn or borrow” and collapsed and died. Eric was eleven, and fourteen when his mother also died.

He went to live with an aunt in Berlin, where private sorrow was overtaken by public events. As a schoolboy he was swept up in mass politics, working for the German Communist Party, and bravely distributing its leaflets, even after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 and began his reign of terror. Soon after that, Eric and his sister were brought to England, where several family members lived. Although he found London sadly provincial, he flourished mightily, learning English at remarkable speed, winning highest grades in almost every subject. He went on to King’s College, Cambridge, where more plaudits awaited, graduating in 1939 with a ­double starred First in history, editorship of the undergraduate ­magazine, and membership of the Apostles, the self-­consciously clever elite club. 

But that was only part of his life. Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, the year of the Spanish Civil War and the first Moscow Trials. Many were attracted to communism then, but nearly all those converts later shed party and creed. Hobsbawm almost uniquely remained a party member for 55 years, until communism itself was thrown onto what Trotsky had called the dustheap of history. He was an active Communist until 1956, and although he grew increasingly detached as he watched the decline and fall of Soviet Russia and its empire, he was also completely impenitent.

That story of his early years was brilliantly and succinctly told by Hobsbawm himself in his 2003 memoir, Interesting Times. This authorized biography by Sir Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, is less brilliant, and far less succinct. Evans is an academic historian, former Regius Professor at Cambridge, and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich. His book is thoroughly researched, largely based on Hobsbawm’s own copious papers, but diligence is not matched by a sense of proportion or lightness of touch. 

On occasion before now, Evans’s obduracy has been invaluable. In a famous libel action in 2000, which became the subject of the dramadoc Denial, the extreme right-wing provocateur David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel when she had described him, correctly enough, as a Holocaust denier. Although English libel laws are heavily weighted in favor of plaintiffs, Penguin defended the case in court, and won a famous victory. The crucial witness for the defense was Professor Evans (played by John Sessions in the movie), whose testimony demonstrated not that Irving was a racist and neofascist—which would have been superfluous—but that he was a fraudulent historian. 

Here that same obduracy is a real drawback. The book is far too long, more chronicle than biographical work of art, and Evans writes with plodding earnestness, aggravated by the fact that he is in such awe of his subject. He dedicated his last book, The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914, to Hobsbawm’s memory, and this book is profoundly admiring and almost morbidly defensive; at the same time it’s almost too revealing. One reviewer praised Hobsbawm’s memoir for its reticence about his personal life, a reticence that Evans, for all his humorless manner, doesn’t emulate. Where Hobsbawm merely wrote of his deep unhappiness when his first marriage broke up in the early 1950s, we learn from his biographer that Muriel, Hobsbawm’s first wife, “needed to be fucked all night long.” Could this be too much information? 

And yet Evans discredits Hobsbawm even as he tries to defend him. After the Daily Worker had said in 1937 that the whole British labor movement recognized “the scrupulous fairness” of the Moscow Trials and “the overwhelming guilt of the accused,” young Eric offered his own justification: “The accusations are not intrinsically impossible,” he wrote. “That the Trotskyists should wreck seems clear,” which Evans can only feebly call “unconvincing.” Hobsbawm stuck to the party line after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, and actually co-wrote with Raymond Williams a defense of Stalin’s attack on Finland months later. Reading Evans, unconvincing himself, I was often reminded of H.G. Wells’s saying that the ideal biographer would be a “conscientious enemy”: someone hostile to his subject and what he stood for, but compelled in honesty to try to understand him and his beliefs.

After five years in the army, Hobsbawm returned to King’s as a junior fellow, but he was checked in further academic promotion, and possibly in publication as well, likely for political reasons: Although there was no purge of Communists from universities in England as there was in the United States, to be a known Communist was a disadvantage. He and several others openly formed the Communist Party Historians’ Group after the war, and paid a weird visit to Russia over the Christmas of 1954, “a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals, for we met hardly anyone there like ourselves,” Hobsbawm obtusely said. He did find a post at Birkbeck College, where he spent 35 years, the last 15 of them as a professor. This admirable institution, part of the University of London, is for mature students who often have day jobs, and teaching them in the evenings left Hobsbawm’s own days free for reading. He did little archival research, but his books are founded on a huge breadth and depth of printed sources in numerous languages. 

Having cut his teeth on the laboring poor, the labor movement, and plebeian rebellion, Hobsbawm put that breadth of learning to use in great works of synthesis, depicting the almost unimaginable political, social, and economic transformation of Europe between French Revolution and Great War. He was criticized for paying too little attention to the world outside Europe (as Marx himself had done), but he was a man of his time, and in any case that “age of empire” was inescapably one defined by what Europe did to the rest of the world.

Always with Hobsbawm, the concrete particular illustrates the general. As he narrates revolutions in travel and communication, he tells of the great migrations that transformed the United States, as well as of those forgotten Italian “swallows” who went to and from Buenos Aires every year as seasonal laborers. Almost more remarkably, 200,000 Americans—equivalent to one-twentieth of the American population in the first years of the Republic—were among the million tourists who visited Switzerland in 1879. And he has a gift for apt quotation. Hobsbawm came to love Italy and to be revered there, but he recognized the emptiness of the Risorgimento in a country where in 1860 only one person in 40 spoke anything we would call Italian, and where many people felt like the mother he quotes, telling her son to escape the draft, “Scappa, che arriva la patria” (“Run away, the fatherland is coming”).

From Hobsbawm’s early days as a Communist, the ­British domestic security service, MI5, kept files on him. Evans has seen these files and makes much use—not to say heavy weather—​of them, deploring such surveillance. Most of these reports aren’t especially illuminating, although one eaves­dropper in Cambridge in 1953 recorded a fellow of King’s saying that “Hobsbawm would shoot us with regret,” and another that he “was thoroughly out of date with his Communism and was still in the ‘popular front’ era.”

People of that generation who had been Communists, for whatever length of time, resented the suggestion that they might have served as Soviet agents, but Hobsbawm doesn’t offer them much comfort. Although he said that he didn’t know any of the “Cambridge spies” before the war—Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby et al.—he added, “We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it, and most of us—certainly I—would have taken it on ourselves, if asked. The lines of loyalty in the 1930s ran not between but across countries.” No doubt so, and the same might have been said by John Amery and William Joyce, who helped Germany rather than Russia, and were hanged as traitors.

In early 1940, Hobsbawm was drafted into the British Army but never left English soil during the war, or rose higher than sergeant, despite trying to get a commission, no doubt because the security services had their eye on him. He lamented that he hadn’t been able to make better use of his obvious gifts, maybe at Bletchley Park, the house where numerous Kingsmen, including his colleague, the mathematician Alan Turing, broke the Germans’ Enigma code, shortened the war, and incidentally created the modern computer. But if he boasted that he would have served as a Russian spy had he been asked, then maybe MI5 got it right in his case.

Most of Hobsbawm’s remaining comrades left the Communist Party in 1956, after the Russian invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s secret speech condemning Stalin. Hobsbawm did not. He said that the suppression of Hungary had been “a tragic necessity,” and although he dropped out of party activity, he never renounced or denounced communism. At the very end, he said, “Much of my life, probably most of my conscious life, was devoted to a hope which has been plainly disappointed, and to a cause which has plainly failed: the communism initiated by the October Revolution,” a recognition of the blindingly obvious for which he was nonetheless hailed by some. The best answer came from Robert Conquest. He was Hobsbawm’s exact contemporary, and briefly, in the late 1930s, a fellow Communist, before he became the outstanding historian of the horrors of Soviet communism, beginning with his 1968 book The Great Terror. Conquest pointed out that it wasn’t a question of “a cause which had plainly failed”: It could never have succeeded. 

And yet while acknowledging defeat, Hobsbawm continued to insist that communism had been a noble endeavor. Even if he had known at the time the full extent of human loss, he believed that the “chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing,” and the deaths of 20 million people would have been justified. He said that in an interview in 1995, and in the same year, he told another interviewer that by remaining in the Communist Party all his life, he had “retained the moral high ground.”

He had shown the same grotesque self-righteousness much earlier, as Evans recounts. The writer Neal Ascherson was once a favorite and brilliant pupil of Hobsbawm’s at King’s, but before Cambridge, Ascherson had been drafted into the Royal Marines for National Service, and fought as a subaltern in the British campaign against Chinese communist insurgents in Malaya. Shortly after he arrived at King’s, there was a college festivity to which new undergraduates were invited, and by way of dressing up Ascherson put on his Malaya campaign medal. When Hobsbawm saw it, he said angrily, “You should be ashamed to wear that.” Ascherson went down to the front lawn and “walked around it, weeping,” never to wear the medal again.

This was in October 1952. Two months earlier, on “the night of the murdered poets,” 13 prominent Russian Jews—including the former members of the wartime Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and the country’s best-known Yiddish writers—were arrested, taken to the Lubyanka, tortured, and, after a form of trial, all shot. Although those trials and executions were secret at the time, Soviet anti-Semitism was not. In his own memoir, Hobsbawm sheepishly admitted that ignorance of the reality of Soviet life was not an excuse. He read the Daily Worker as well as the “bourgeois press,” and knew about the campaign that Stalin’s henchman Andrei Zhdanov had launched in 1948 against “rootless cosmopolitans,” Stalin’s way of saying “Jews” when he wanted to shoot a few more of them.

The MI5 report quoted another don who said that Hobsbawm “would probably not survive if the Russians came,” a truth Hobsbawm himself never once seems to have recognized. Maybe the reason why “we met hardly anyone there like ourselves” in Russia was that such people had all been killed by the regime he supported. What conceivable right did he have to tell anyone else to be ashamed of himself? Even at the end of his life, it didn’t seem to occur to him or his admirers that if they insisted on identifying socialism with a system whose salient features were slave labor, judicial torture, gang rape, racial persecution, and mass murder, then most people would find it neither surprising nor indeed regrettable that by the end of the twentieth century what they called socialism was dead.

“I love to read Eric Hobsbawm,” the American economic historian David Landes once began a review, and so do I. As a member of Judt’s “Hobsbawm generation,” I’ve enormously profited from reading him. If only one could enjoy Hobsbawm the historian while ignoring his politics. Evans is no help, as he writhes in defensive contortions, trying to wish away the problem. When someone wonders whether a self-proclaimed fascist would have received the honors that Hobsbawm did, Evans snarls that, “of course, fascism, unlike Communism, was a political creed characterized by anti-intellectualism and made no contribution whatsoever to historical knowledge and understanding.” But surely Evans might have noticed that some of the most famous imaginative writers of the past century were drawn to fascism, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Hamsun, and Céline among them. So what? Yeats’s great late poems make a profound “contribution” to literature and even to our understanding of ourselves, but no one says that on that account we should take a more lenient view of his yearning for an Irish Mussolini.

How much of a contribution communism, as opposed to Marxism, made to historical knowledge may be debatable. ­Indeed, how far was Hobsbawm at his best really a “Marxist historian”? It’s amusing to look back on the way that the Communist Party Historians’ Group divvied up English history—Rodney Hilton the medievalist, Christopher Hill on the seventeenth century, Hobsbawm for more recent times—and attempted to stretch and squeeze each period on the procrustean bed of Marxian technique, with varying degrees of success. Hill made particularly energetic efforts to show that the English Civil War of the 1640s was a class conflict, but this work has been largely discredited, whereas Hobsbawm survives, maybe because he so often managed to transcend ideology.

One of Hobsbawm’s most eloquent admirers is Perry Anderson of the New Left Review, who thinks that The Age of Extremes was his masterpiece. I disagree, and I’m afraid that part of the problem is inescapably political. For all of Marx’s genius in describing his own society in his own time, the fact is that nothing that he said would happen did happen. Hobsbawm wrote that “without the Leninist ‘party of a new type’ of ‘professional revolutionaries,’” it is inconceivable that within 30 years of the October Revolution “one third of the human race would find itself living under Communist regimes.” But such a cadre or cabal carrying out a putsch was one of the developments quite unforeseen by Marx. So were the rise of fascism and the advent of the social-security state, and on all of these Hobsbawm is evasive and unconvincing. 

Even the “Age” trilogy has its problems. Anderson gently chides Hobsbawm for paying too little attention to the bourgeoisie in The Age of Extremes, but just as serious is the way that the preceding trilogy ignores what was, at least numerically, by far the largest class in nineteenth-century Europe: the peasantry. While Hobsbawm was fascinated by agrarian society, his focus was on the Primitive Rebels and Bandits about whom he wrote so well. But rebels and bandits were unrepresentative: Most peasants were devout and submissive, which is of course why Russian and Chinese Communists hated them so much, and waged war against them.

Reading Hobsbawm can be perplexing, because what he thinks he is telling us is not at all what he is best at. Anderson has also said that aesthetics may turn out to have been Marxism’s strongest suit, which is just as well, a cynic might reply, considering how weak its economic and political suits have been, but it’s true that Hobsbawm was marvelous when describing bourgeois culture in its heyday. In his collection of essays Fractured Times, it’s hard not to detect a yearning for that lost world. He writes brilliantly about “Mitteleuropa,” Habsburg Vienna, and his favorite writer, Karl Kraus, who was a critic of that bourgeois society but also a product of it. He relishes art nouveau civic architecture, which he perceptively notes was characteristic not of national capital cities “but of the self-conscious and self-confident bourgeoisies of provincial or regional ones”—Munich, Glasgow, Helsinki, Barcelona. He even has maps, like the one telling us where Wagner’s Siegfried was originally performed, from Riga to Barcelona to Buenos Aires. 

Still more unmistakable is his distaste for modern “commercialized worldwide mass culture.” In later years, Hobsbawm became a pronounced cultural conservative, damning the ’60s for its sex, drugs, and rock, and for its architectural spoliation, while saying very correctly that the most conspicuous artistic development of the late twentieth century was the final and total bankruptcy of the avant-garde (he scarcely needed to cite minimalist music, Jeff Koons, and the “literary novel”). Maybe his conservatism wasn’t just cultural: He praised “the most admirable of human movements, the Enlightenment,” and not long before he died in 2012, Professor E.J. Hobsbawm, Companion of Honour, said to a friend of mine that maybe constitutional monarchy was after all the best political arrangement.

He outlived the dreadful political system he had so long believed in, and his books outlive those beliefs. “Time that with this strange excuse,” as Auden put it, “Pardoned Kipling and his views, / And will pardon Paul Claudel, / Pardons him for writing well.” Eric Hobsbawm too.