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Ol' Grandpa Red

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
11.05.2002 | BOOKS

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 death-bed 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 Cambridge and later established himself at the University of London as a world-renowned labor and economic historian. He has written books on jazz, gangsters, and the history of peasant revolts. Best known for his four-volume 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 does in fact translate as: I'm a super heavyweight bad-ass with ammo belts of erudition and suitcase nukes of pure intelligence, so save your petty moralizing about my life for someone who couldn't crack you like a breath mint.

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, and only two paths seemed to lie ahead: fascism and world war, 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 the future lay in communism. It was on the march.

Through young adulthood, Hobsbawm 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 CP 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 ordered you to leave your lover or spouse, you did so."

After settling in England, the Party didn't demand much of the bookish Hobsbawm, and his radicalism took 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 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. He attended conferences in Moscow, Budapest and Havana as well as Paris and New York, but was a "culture group" and "seminar workshop" communist rather than a roving party activist. In this sense he anticipated the academic Marxism that bloomed in western universities during the 1970s. (But he did not anticipate their fashions. Hobsbawm has no patience for jargon-riddled theorizing among historians or narrow, self-serving "identistories" such as strict queer or black history. "No identity group...is alone in the world," writes Hobsbawm. "The world cannot be changed to suit it alone, nor can the past.")

Hobsbawm was a twenty-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 ideas of early New Left were first hammered out. But Hobsbawm himself remained a Communist. He offers two reasons for this. The first is respect for the memory of his many comrades who struggled, fought and 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 Hobsabawm felt when confronted by a "revolutionary" politics based on sex, drugs and dadaist graffiti tags. 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 was 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 feels the government 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 businessmen."

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, Guevera, Althusser, Marquez, Chomsky, Lukacs, Calvino, Schlesinger, Allende — the names and the antecdotes 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 often moving.

Eric Hobsbawm's memory at eighty-five is staggering; his intellect more cutting and capable of deep synthesis than ten thirty year-old hack Ph.D's put together. 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 — "social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought" — that could have been taken from a New Labour speech. 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.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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