Eric Hobsbawm is no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian. Unfortunately, lifelong devotion to Communism destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events. Such original work as he did concerned bandits and outlaws. But even here there is bias, for he rescued them from obscurity not for their own sake but as precursors of Communist revolution. His longer and later books are constructed around the abstractions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the supposedly pre-ordained class struggle between them, capital and capitalism, empire and imperialism—in short the Marxist organizing principles which reduce human beings and their varied lives to concepts handy to serve a thesis worked up in advance and in the library. This material, needless to say, was derived from secondary sources.
The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, has been to certify the inevitable triumph of Communism. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end—long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach. He loves to describe himself as a professional historian, but someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth, is nothing of the kind, neither a historian nor professional.
It becomes quite a good joke that Communism collapsed under him, proving in the living world that the beliefs and ideas in his head were empty illusions, and all the Marxist and Soviet rhetoric just claptrap. This Hobsbawn cannot understand, never mind accept. His best-known book, Age of Extremes, published as recently as 1994, still attempts to whitewash Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering, glossing with fundamental dishonesty over such integral features as enforced famine through collectivization and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and omitting all mention of the massacre at Katyn, the terrifying secret police apparatus of Beria, and the Gulag. At the same time, Hobsbawm depicts the United States “unfortunately” as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. Presenting him with a prestigious prize for this farrago, the left-wing historian Sir Keith Thomas said, “For pure intelligence applied to history, Eric Hobsbawm has no equal.” Another left-winger, the journalist Neal Ascherson, held that “No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source.” So much for Robert Conquest, Sir Kenneth Dover, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Bernard Lewis, and other genuine scholars.
A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstand- ing example of the type. The overriding question is: how was someone with his capacity able to deceive himself so completely about reality and take his stand alongside the commissar signing death warrants?
Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, conveys the same point, only rather more deviously. On the very last page, it is true, he is “prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea,” though for no very obvious reason (except as a cheap shot) he concludes the sentence by cramming in the comment that Herzl’s Zionism was also not a good idea. Note that slippery use of “Comintern” as a substitute for Communism itself. The concession, such as it is, is anyhow vitiated by an earlier passage when he attacks America and its allies, bizarrely spelled out as India, Israel, and Italy, and referred to as rich and the heirs of fascism. In this passage he predicts, “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism.” (Which leaves Americans as barbarians.) By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains “the central point of reference in the political universe,” and “the dream of the October revolution” is still vivid inside him. He cannot bring himself to refer to Leningrad as St. Petersburg. Learning nothing, he has forgotten nothing.
The key to this limited personality no doubt lies in his background and childhood. His father was an English citizen, though of Central European Jewish origins, and his mother was Viennese. The hazards of his father’s career meant that Hobsbawm was born in Egypt, in 1917, though very soon afterwards the family settled in Vienna. In the aftermath of the First War, the time and the place were unpropitious; his father found it hard to make a living as a businessman in Vienna; his mother helped out by doing some writing, including a novel. Both parents died prematurely, and Hobsbawm was brought up by an aunt and uncle in Berlin between 1931 and 1935. At school in that city, he says, he did not suffer any sort of taunting either as a displaced English teenager or as a Jew, but these years induced “the sense of living in some sort of final crisis” and this made him a Communist. When it suits him, of course, he uses his experience of Germany under Hitler to shelter under the convenient label of anti-fascist or socialist.
One of Stalin’s major mistakes was to order the German Communists to side with the Nazis against the “social fascists” or Social Democrats, thus consummating Hitler’s rise to power. Hobsbawm approved, but he can hardly have understood the implication at the time. A more likely factor determining his Communism, it seems to me, is the remoteness he feels from normal emotions. His parents and their sad lives leave him unmoved. His aunts and uncles are described here with a chilling one-dimensional detachment free from any gratitude for what they did. He also had one sister, younger than he, of whom he says baldly, “She did not share my interests or my life, increasingly dominated by politics.” Elsewhere in the book, this sister is written off as “a demonstratively conventional Anglican country matron and Conservative Party activist.” He is able to say of himself that his “intellectualism and lack of interest in the world of people” gave him protection. The confession does nothing to mitigate the coldness and inhumanity of such a character.
A scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, refashioned Hobsbawm’s life after 1935. An English subject, he was not a refugee, but he was certainly an outsider, and one, moreover, who had the luck to fall into a milieu welcoming to outsiders. King’s is one of the most historic English colleges, and one of the richest. Kingsmen have long been a byword for self-satisfaction, quick to attack the privileges they make sure that they are themselves enjoying. In the college was a semi-secret society known as the Apostles, which in the Thirties evolved from embracing a Bloomsbury aestheticism to Communism. Blunt and Burgess and Maclean—as well as other traitors and Soviet agents—had been Apostles slightly ahead of Hobsbawm. It was from this vantage-point that Hobsbawm applauded the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, another of Stalin’s major mistakes.
As an active and declared Communist, Hobsbawm remained unpromoted in the ranks throughout the war, and was kept stationed in the country. Hardly surprising, though it still rankles with him. He also suggests that his Communism delayed academic preferment, but in fact a telephone call to a colleague at King’s was enough to gain him a fellowship there. After that, he became a professor at Birkbeck College, London, another fortress of the left. It was also always plain sailing for him to obtain his visa to the United States, where eventually he taught regularly. The Cold War saw him become a spokesman for Communism, and a visitor to the Soviet Union and its satellites. In this memoir he continues to glide over Stalin and the criminality of Stalinism. Communists allegedly did not recognize the extent of the Soviet camps. Why ever not? Everybody else did. The United States, he holds, was responsible for waging the Cold War, winning what he considers an undeserved victory. An unfathomable contradiction emerges: the Soviet Union was a superpower inspiring a sixth of the globe yet helplessly weak in the face of the supposedly blind and selfish United States.
For Hobsbawm, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 was a horror. Khrushchev wantonly sullied the October revolution and its dream. (The implication is that if he had only kept his mouth shut Stalinist criminality could have endured indefinitely.) An immediate consequence was the Hungarian uprising that same year, put down by the Soviets with the usual mixture of duplicity and brute force. Most of Hobsbawm’s friends left the Communist Party. He himself made a point of staying, out of pride, the refusal to admit that he might be in the wrong. He has the tiresome habit of quoting at length from his own writings, but he carefully makes sure not to quote the letter he published on 9 November 1956 in the Communist Daily Worker defending the Soviet onslaught on Hungary. “While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.” Which is more deceitful, the spirit of this letter, or the omission of any reference to it?
In the course of his life, the only people Hobsbawm seems ever to have known were Communist intellectuals like himself, a good many of them privileged people with private incomes. For many years he had a cottage in Wales on the estate of Clough Williams-Ellis, a rich landowner and baroque architect whose wife Amabel, born into the Strachey family of Bloomsbury fame, was a salon Communist. In a comic mirror-image of the more usual social snobbery, Hobsbawm lets drop, “I refused all contact with the suburban petty-bourgeoisie, which I naturally regarded with contempt.” That “naturally” is worth a moment’s pause.
Of course some of the people he did know tell a story too, a story of political hysteria and frenzy. He was a friend of Jürgen Kuczynski, an East German Marxist, and his sister Ruth, a Soviet agent who was the contact for Klaus Fuchs, who gave the Soviets the drawings for the atom bomb. He was also the friend of Alexander Rado, who ran a Soviet spy network in Switzerland, and finished up in Hungary. And of the Communist theoretician Louis Althusser, who murdered his wife, and E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, both Communist writers. (With the latter in 1940 he wrote a defence of the Soviet invasion of Finland.) A female comrade called Freddie was trapped by bomb damage during the London blitz. Thinking that she was about to die, she cried out to the helpers, “Long live the Party, long live Stalin.”
Hobsbawm was a contemporary at King’s of James Klugmann, already then a Communist, and later a member of the British party’s Politburo. His full story remains to be told, but what is known already is a striking illustration of the political hysteria surrounding these people, and the harm that this could do. Special Operations Executive was the wartime unit responsible for partisan warfare behind the German lines, and therefore a special target for Soviet infiltration. Security was lax, and Klugmann was able to worm his way into a senior position in the SOE bureaucracy. As the intercepts in the archives now reveal, as a good Stalinist he falsified the reports from agents in the field in Yugoslavia to SOE headquarters, in order to attribute monarchist acts of resistance to Tito’s Communists. This influenced Churchill to switch support from the monarchists to Tito, an essential step facilitating the Communist take-over of Yugoslavia. At the time of the break with Yugoslavia, Moscow forced Klugmann to write a book denouncing Tito whom he had done so much to empower. This book is a collector’s item in the rich library of Communist absurdity, along with the defense by Hobsbawm and Williams of the Soviet invasion of Finland. Hobsbawm’s final judgment on Klugmann is: “He knew what was right, but shied away from saying it in public.” That “shied away” is also worth a moment’s pause. What else did Hobsbawm ever do but shy away from what was right? The Communist Party and its claim to unconditional obedience governed him. “We did what it ordered us to do,” he writes. Besides, “The Party got things done.” The justification is still more childish because he makes sure not to specify or to analyze, and certainly not to criticize, what exactly were these things that the Party got done.
Reduction of human beings and their doings to cerebral figments is the sign of a cold, not to say nasty, character. And Hobsbawm further does himself no favors with his frequent sneering, for instance referring to Orwell not by his literary name but as “an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair” or applying to American jails the phrase “univers concentrationnaire” (originally coined by David Rousset to cover both Nazi and Soviet camps). He multiplies euphemistic observations such as that the odious dictatorship of East Germany was a “firmly structured community” and deserving credit because it held show trials which did not end in executions. He has a passage attacking as “literally senseless” the familiar western Cold War slogan “Better dead than red.” Needless to say, this is an inversion of the words, a pure fabrication. Pacifists and Soviet apologists coined the slogan “Better red than dead” in order to persuade the West not to defend itself with nuclear weapons.
Hobsbawm’s autobiography brings out the further complicating factor of his Jewishness. His mother apparently told him never to do anything that might suggest he was ashamed of being a Jew. But the relationship between Communism and Jewishness does not allow for anything so simple and straightforward. The theoretical internationalism of the former is in conflict with both the nationalism and the religious separatism of the latter. Some Jews turned to Communism as a release from an identity they did not wish to have for all sorts of reasons, some high and some ignoble. Others became Zionists, who were often deviant Marxists to begin with. Hobsbawm shows the consistent Communist animus against Zionism and Israel, losing no chance to sneer on that score about “the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds.” He boasts of a visit to Bir Zeit University on the West Bank to display solidarity with the Palestinians. Why Palestinian nationalism is valid, and Jewish nationalism invalid, is something else Hobsbawm fails to analyze and explain. Quite crudely, he approves of nationalism in countries which proclaim themselves Communist and anti-American, like Cuba or Vietnam, while rejecting nationalism in countries which are not Communist and are pro-American, like Israel. Whatever he may profess about his mother’s recommendation, this make him in practice thoroughly ashamed of being Jewish.
The welcome given to Jewish intellectuals who denounce their identity is far greater than the welcome for those who assert it in whatever form. Hobsbawm’s success is huge. Portentously but for once truthfully, he declares that he is at the center of the establishment. It says much about present-day Britain that the Blair government awarded him the Companion of Honour, a prestigious decoration, and it says much about Hobsbawm that he accepted it. According to Who’s Who, he holds something like twenty honorary degrees, many from distinguished institutions such as the University of Chicago, Bard College, and Columbia University. He is also the recipient of many other honors including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A companion piece to the dishonest Age of Extremes, his memoir has precipitated further cloud-bursts of hyperbole. A history magazine published by the BBC calls him a “key witness” to the twentieth century. Newsnight is a flagship BBC television program on current events, and its anchorman, Jeremy Paxman, makes it his trademark to be abrasive. A suddenly oleaginous Paxman called Hobsbawm to his face the greatest historian of the twentieth century. In The London Review of Books, Perry Anderson (once editor of New Left Review) elaborated in thousands of words on the largeness of Hobsbawm’s mind, and the “complex distinction of the life.” Not content with that, in the subsequent issue of the London Review, Anderson followed up at many times the length with a turgidly Marxoid essay on his hero, criticizing him only for occasional lapses from Party correctness, and—rather surprisingly—for self-importance. (His reward is to be called “remarkably able” in Hobsbawm’s book). Even a conservative reviewer, Niall Ferguson, who found fault with Hobsbawm’s Communism, nonetheless thought it undeniable that he is “one of the great historians of his generation.”
What can be going on? Part of the indulgence shown to Hobsbawm no doubt stems from admirable British civility, and the desire to accommodate even the most unaccommodating Jewish intellectual. And part of it is hagiography, the left on their knees chanting prayers for one another. But more generally here is a hangover from the Thirties, when apologia for Communism swept aside rationality and common humanity. Proof against all evidence, proof against political reality, a fictitious representation of Communism as a benign force retains its hold somewhere in the imagination even of quite intelligent people. The Soviet Union collapsed with hardly a sigh, like gas going out of a balloon, because it was all a lie. Hobsbawm and his supporters will never admit their share in the central intellectual and moral failure of the times. They lost out in the real historical process, but they hope to win the historiography by turning Communism into some spectral romantic myth shimmering tantalizingly above the surface of things, out of range of truth, and therefore fit to be started up all over again. All it takes is what it always took—an unscrupulous character, lack of interest in the world of people, and well-crafted lying to the credulous.
Go to the top of the document.
- Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, by Eric Hobsbawm; Penguin, 464 pages, $20. Go back to the text.