Grandpa Red

If it’s possible to suck the marrow out of a century, Eric Hobsbawm’s breath smells like bone juice.

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life

By Eric Hobsbawm

Penguin/Allen Lane, 2002

447 pages

He’s British. He wears big ugly glasses. He is arguably the world’s greatest living
historian. He led one of the most cosmopolitan and intellectually vigorous lives
of the last century. Between 1936 and 1986, he was also a card-carrying member
of the Communist Party.

Old Eric Hobsbawm doesn’t take any shit about his politics, past or present. His
autobiography is not a deathbed mea culpa. Nor is it a sheepish, seen-the-light
paean to market economics. It is something much braver and more important than
that. It’s a ballsy illumination of what it meant to be on the left in the 20th
century, what it felt like and why it mattered.

Born into a secular Jewish family the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm
was raised and converted to Marxism in interwar Vienna. After witnessing and actively
fighting the rise of Hitler, he emigrated to England, where he attended Cam-bridge
and later established himself at the University of London as a world-renowned
master of labor and economic history. He has also written books on jazz, gangsters,
and the history of peasant revolts. Best known for his four-volume economic and
political history of the modern world, at 85 he is a fellow of both the British
Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. By any standard, he is
a giant of letters – Learned with a capital “L.”

And yes, the borderline contemptuous sneer on the cover of Interesting Times
conveys the arrogance that comes with being a super heavyweight with ammo belts
of erudition and ICBMs of pure intelligence. Hobsbawm can crack petty moralizers
about his life like a breath mint, and he knows it.

Hobsbawm tackles the question of his politics early in Interesting Times,
as he has before in countless interviews with journalists eager to unlock the
mystery of this brilliant and relatively unrepentant Soviet sympathizer.

In explaining the pull of Marxism during his youth, he describes how exhausted
the interwar order felt at the time. It was clear it would not survive, he writes,
and only two paths seemed to lie ahead: fascism, led by the brown shirts, and
revolutionary socialism, led by Soviet Russia. A teenage Eric Hobsbawm chose the
left. He says this was not a decision for romantics – party activism was in fact
defined by strict organization and routine – but was the natural political move
for those attracted to the idea of an equal, just and rationally planned society
during the social and economic crises of the 1930s. Hobsbawm wasn’t alone in thinking
that the future lay in communism. At the time, it was on the march.

Through young adulthood, Hobs-bawm dutifully toed the Comintern line handed down
from Moscow. He followed Party orders even when patently stupid, such as the Moscow-orchestrated
alliance between the Communists and the Nazis against the Social Democrats during
the 1932 Berlin transport strike. “[W]hatever [the Party] ordered, we would have
obeyed,” he writes. “If the Party order-ed you to leave your lover or spouse,
you did so.”

After he settled in England, the Party didn’t demand much of the bookish Hobsbawm,
and his radicalism turned inward, finding expression mainly through scholarship.
Unlike other left-wing British academics such as Bertrand Russell and E.P. Thompson,
Hobsbawm avoided high-profile activism and claims he was never approached to spy
for the Soviet Union. Somewhat less believably, he also claims not to have known
the members of the Cambridge Spy Quintet before their unmasking.

By the early 1950s, he had already settled into the role of globe-trotting academic
and typewriter champion of leftist and anti-imperialist movements worldwide. He
attended conferences in Moscow, Budapest and Havana as well as Paris and New York,
but was a “culture group” and “seminar workshop” communist more than a roving
party activist. In this sense he anticipated the academic Marxism that bloomed
in Western universities during the 1970s, but he didn’t anticipate their fashions.
Hobsbawm has no patience for jargon-riddled theorizing in history or narrow, self-serving
“identity histories” such as strict queer or black history. “No identity group
... is alone in the world,” writes Hobsbawm. “The world cannotbe changed to suit
it alone, nor can the past.”

Hobsbawm was a 20-year veteran of the Party when the shock of 1956 hit international
communism, and his chapter “Stalin and After” powerfully conveys the crisis of
the faithful after Kruschev’s dramatic revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the
subsequent invasion of Hungary. “I cannot think of any comparable event in the
history of any major ideological or political movement,” he writes of Kruschev’s
speech. “[T]he October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth
Congress [speech] destroyed it.”

Many of Hobsbawm’s British comrades abandoned the Party in 1956, regrouping in
various Trotskyist splinter parties or gathering around non-aligned critical journals
such as New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review, where the motley ideas
of the early New Left were first hammered out. But Hobsbawm himself remained a
Communist, a decision for which he offers two reasons. The first is respect for
the memory of his many comrades who struggled, fought, suffered or died under
the Party flag for goals in which he still believed. The second reason is more
base. “I could prove myself to myself by succeeding as a known communist ... in
the middle of the Cold War,” he writes. “I do not defend this form of egoism,
but neither can I deny its force.”

And so he stayed in the Party, despite its deepening irrelevance as a political
force in the West, and despite the known failures and crimes of the Soviet bloc.

He participated in the cultural revolution of the 1960s more as an observer than
a participant – “I have never worn blue jeans” – and his chapter on the Sixties
crystallizes the confusion middle-aged left-wingers like Hobsbawm felt when confronted
by a “revolutionary” politics based on sex, drugs and dadaist graffiti. He admired
Ho Chi Minh and the Black Panthers, but as a stodgy old communist was uncomfortable
with the double-helix of messy, inward-oriented counterculture and confused revolutionary
ideology that defined much of the global New Left.

In the 1970s, Hobsbawm became fiercely involved in intra-Labour Party politics.
Surprisingly, he advocated a moderate Labour platform to stop what he correctly
prophesized would be the disaster of nominating the radical Tony Benn as party
leader. He describes the narrow failure of Labour to win in 1992 as the “saddest
and most desperate” election night in his life, and now feels the leadership of
Tony Blair has gone too far toward the center-right. He spent the late ’90s criticizing
New Labour “not because it had accepted the realities of living in a capitalist
society, but for accepting too much of the ideological assumptions of the prevailing
free market economic theology ... namely that the efficient conduct of society’s
affairs can only be by the search for personal advantage, i.e., by behaving like

Over the course of an active and broad lifetime commitment to socialism, Eric
Hobsbawm has known every intellectual and artist of consequence on the left-liberal
spectrum. Sartre, Guevara, Althusser, Marquez, Chom-sky, Lukacs, Calvino, Schlesinger,
Allende – the names and the anecdotes roll off Hobsbawm’s pen so casually that
the author might be suspected of name-dropping were it not so obvious he doesn’t
have to. Beneath this top-tier of public figures lies a thicker strata of minor
figures on both sides of the Iron Curtain the author has known, and these vignettes
of labor leaders and Soviet dissidents are sharp and moving.

Eric Hobsbawm’s memory at 85 is staggering; his intellect is cutting and still
capable of the deep synthesis for which he is famous. At the end of his life,
Hobsbawm is chastened – “I am prepared to admit, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern
was not such a good idea” – but not ashamed. He remains a man of the left, and
will be buried one. The depth and kind of that commitment, however, is uncertain.
Interesting Times ends with a rather mild political exhortation that could have
been taken from a New Labour speech: “social injustice still needs to be denounced
and fought.”

Yet elsewhere one finds lines like the following, which suggest both a harder
bitterness and a flickering flame of radicalism: “The world may yet regret that,
faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism or barbarism, it decided
against socialism.”

The reader need not agree with this suggestion to admire, respect and learn from
Eric Hobsbawm. One could doubt that he himself believes it. But so what? The autobiographer
puts the question:

[I]s not King Arthur right when he says that what is essential is not the grail
but the quest for it? “If we give up on the grail, we give up on ourselves.” Only
on ourselves? Can humanity live without the ideals of freedom and justice, or
without those who devote their lives to them? Or perhaps even without the memory
of those who did so in the twentieth century?

Eric Hobsbawm believes not. In a world on fire and increasingly without memory,
this wise old ex-communist has something to teach us.

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