Eric Hobsbawm: a revolutionary pulse still beats


Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life
By Eric Hobsbawm
Allen Lane, 2002
448 pages, $55 (hb)


It was almost better than sex, thought Eric Hobsbawm during the massive but last legal march of the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1933. The combination of "bodily experience and intense emotion" was much like the ecstasy of sex, only collective. This sensation was never to leave the now 85-year-old Hobsbawm, who has remained a communist, and a Marxist historian, until today.

Hobsbawm's autobiography is the story of a man "seized so young and so long by that typical twentieth century passion — political commitment". Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Egypt to middle-class parents, a British father and Austrian-Jewish mother. He was brought up in Vienna.

In 1931, the Hobsbawms moved to Berlin just in time for the victory of fascism. Young Eric joined the secondary school students' group of the KPD, meeting in the back rooms of bars before the thrill of the KPD's last demonstration. Five days later, Hitler was appointed Germany's chancellor.

With freedom of speech and assembly gone, and thousands of communists taken into "protective custody" in the new concentration camps, Hobsbawm joined the underground resistance. The Communist Party youth group's duplicator found a home under Hobsbawm's bed in his aunt's flat. He dodged police and SS patrols to leaflet workers' flats with KPD pamphlets.

The Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses drove the Hobsbawms to England where Eric entered both Cambridge University and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1936. Hobsbawm was a typical 1930s Western communist — an idealistic fighter for a better world, but also totally dedicated to "the Party" ("we always thought of it in capital letters") and to Stalin, his admiration "sincere, unforced and unsullied by knowledge" of Stalin's terror.

Despite its wartime pact with its domestic Reds, the British army, which had called up Hobsbawm, looked suspiciously at his Austrian mother and kept a file on him. Hobsbawm languished in the Army Education Corps instead of working in intelligence where his knowledge of German would have been an asset.

This was not to be the last case of anti-communist discrimination for Hobsbawm. The Cold War gave free reign to the communist-hunters and Hobsbawm was refused promotion at Cambridge until 1959, had his first book withdrawn by his publisher in 1953 as it was "too biased", and was denied the position of professor until 1971, long after his non-communist peers.

Hobsbawm had the party to fall back on and for 10 years, from 1946, was chair of the influential Historians' Group of the CPGB which included such outstanding historians as EP Thompson and Christopher Hill. By keeping away from Russian history, they could all maintain an historical-materialist integrity without mangling it through the "catechism of Stalinist orthodoxies".

As the reality of Stalinism gradually loomed from the ideological fog shrouding the Soviet regime, doubts and reservations arose in Hobsbawm, to be uneasily swallowed; his visit to the Soviet Union in 1954 proved dispiriting after his encounter with the "career communists" of Stalinist academia.

The year of crisis for Western communists was 1956, with Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev's "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union revealing the crimes of Stalin. 1956 was also the year of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Hobsbawm and his fellow historians in the CPGB became the nucleus of a vocal opposition to the pro-Stalinist leadership of the CPGB, before most of them resigned to produce the New Left Review, an independent Marxist journal. Hobsbawm remained a party member but quietly withdrew from party activism.

He found partial refuge in jazz, writing a monthly jazz column in the New Statesman from 1955 under the pseudonym of Francis Newton (after Frankie Newton, a jazz musician and communist who played trumpet on Billie Holiday's recording of the anti-lynching classic "Strange Fruit"). Shelter was also found in "middle-class academic respectability".

Unfortunately, from here the emotional tension of the personal intersection with dramatic global events tapers off and Hobsbawm becomes "more observer than participant", because "apart from travel, nothing much happens any longer to the subject of [this] autobiography except inside his or her head".

This is not quite true. Hobsbawm took part in an illegal sit-down protest in Trafalgar Square in 1961 during an anti-nuclear protest, and his chance presence in Paris in May 1968 (for a UNESCO conference on "Marx and contemporary scientific thought") lobbed him in the midst of a full-scale student rebellion with a regime-crippling nation-wide general strike just days away.

For a politically semi-retired, middle-aged leftist like Hobsbawm, the French May days, and the rest of the youth-led 1960s radical political upsurge, was "enormously welcome" but also "enormously puzzling" and he remained reserved and sceptical. "These people have not yet learned how to achieve their political objectives", he wrote — a fair enough comment on anarchist students but Hobsbawm was silent on the anti-revolutionary role played by the moderate, Stalinoid Communist Party of France.

Cuba, which Hobsbawm visited several times, and the 1960s Vietnamese resistance to US imperialism, also reactivated Hobsbawm, who was invited to speak at teach-ins on the Vietnam War and at campus occupations.

Hobsbawm's other late political intervention, however, shows an alarming divergence from radicalism. In 1978, Hobsbawm's reputation as a Marxist historian made him the intellectual figurehead of those leftists fast abandoning class struggle and militant opposition to the juggernaut of Thatcherism.

Hobsbawm advocated an electoral alliance with middle-class liberal parties to defeat Thatcher and celebrated the defeat of Labour left-winger Tony Benn by right-wing Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the early 1980s because this supposedly saved the Labour Party from "militant sectarians", militant union leaders and "mistaken" strikes like that of the coal miners in 1984-85.

As a reminder, however, "of ancient and contemporary sympathies", in more recent times Hobsbawm found himself the centre of attention in Porto Alegre, the prize city of the mass left-wing Brazilian labour party, the Workers' Party (PT) and its leader, and now president of Brazil, Luis Inacio da Silva ("Lula"). Inspired by Hobsbawm's histories of the non-European continents, the PT stronghold decided to "organise, and its mayor to preside over, an open-air question-and-answer session for the citizenry with a visiting British historian on the main square, amid the noise of the municipality's efficient trams". These South American radicals were honouring the revolutionary Hobsbawm, not the jaded academic and moderate leftist "bearing the scars of half a lifetime of [political] disappointment".

Hobsbawm has long rejected "the dream of the October Revolution" which was "bound to fail" because it followed the Leninist path (which he simplistically equates with "Bolshevik party dictatorship"). Hobsbawm has always been a "Popular Frontist" communist, attracted to class collaboration and reformism, showing special enthusiasm for the 1980s Euro-communist phase of the Western CPs. Hobsbawm clung to the CPGB, as it galloped towards mainstream reformism, primarily because of his political preference for its Moscow-imposed, then domestically adopted, politics of compromise. He chose not to join any of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary parties that offered an alternative to the CPGB.

Nevertheless, Hobsbawm still exercises his custody rights for his youthful revolutionary Marxism. The October Revolution, which "represented the hope of the world", has "not been obliterated". Its pulse still beats in Hobsbawm's books where history lives as a contest of social forces and material interests, not the conventional account of "kings, ministers, battles and treaties".

Hobsbawm has most definitely not gone over to the enemy — he easily dispatches the "sales pitches of the snake-oil salesmen of the 'war on terrorism'" as shoddy cover for "the establishment of a US global empire". Hobsbawm's conclusion — "social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own" — remains as revolutionary now as it was when it first seized him in Berlin 70 years ago.

From Green Left Weekly, January 29, 2003.

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