Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans - review by John Gray

John Gray

No Apologies

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History


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The life of Eric Hobsbawm is a study in the making of a reputation. Like many other intellectuals who spent their early years in interwar central Europe, he turned to communism as a means of resisting fascism and Nazism. Unlike many of these writers and thinkers, he never renounced his commitment to communism. Until the end of his long life he continued to assert that killing tens of millions of people could be justified if it led to a communist society. Far from impeding his path to national and international acceptance, his unwavering adherence to this morally eccentric position led him to be seen as an icon of scholarly integrity. He advanced steadily through the ranks of the British Establishment, and by the time of his death in 2012 he was one of the world’s most renowned historians.

Although he admired Marxist historical materialism and applied a version of it to his study of the past in his work, the roots of Hobsbawm’s attachment to communism were emotional rather than theoretical. As Richard Evans writes, ‘The ecstatic feeling of being part of a great mass movement whose members were closely bound together by their common ideals engendered a lifelong, viscerally emotional sense of belonging.’ Early in his life, Evans tells us, Hobsbawm experienced a similar emotion in the boy scouts. His need to belong may have reflected his insecure family life (he became an orphan at the age of fourteen when his mother died of tuberculosis). He remained a member of the British Communist Party until shortly before its dissolution in 1991. But British communism was more like a marginal sect than a mass movement, and he seems to have felt a certain distance from its activists, never becoming one himself.

A powerfully influential figure, Hobsbawm needs a thorough biography. Evans’s, which uses a good deal of hitherto unpublished material, will be definitive. Whether the book had to be so long is another matter. ‘This is a very long book’, Evans writes, ‘not least because Eric Hobsbawm lived for a very long time.’ The reader learns, in greater depth than was possible before, the turning points in Hobsbawm’s life. Born in Alexandria in 1917, he spent his formative early years in Vienna and Berlin after his father and mother – respectively the son of an East End cabinet-maker who had fled to Britain to escape anti-Semitism in Poland and the daughter of a Viennese jeweller – left for Europe two years later. The family stayed in Berlin long enough for the young Hobsbawm to witness Hitler coming to power in 1933, at which point they left for London. He became a member of the Communist Party while at Cambridge in 1936–9. Conscripted into the army in February 1940, he was demobilised in 1946. After debating whether to become a journalist, a communist organiser or an advertising copywriter, he eventually decided to become an economic historian.

Evans’s account of Hobsbawm’s early life is rich and illuminating, and helps to explain why he and so many others became communists when they did. As Hobsbawm himself put it, they were not liberals; it was liberalism that had failed. Like Arthur Koestler, an older figure from a similar background, Hobsbawm believed – correctly – that by the early 1930s Europe was too conflicted and chaotic for incremental reform to be feasible. Only a revolution – or, as it turned out, a world war – could defeat the forces of barbarism. The lesson Hobsbawm learned is that gradual progress is sometimes impossible. Today, when a creaking philosophy of liberal meliorism still shapes politics in the West, it is a crucial insight. But unlike Koestler, who left the Communist Party in 1938 when, after risking his life as a Comintern agent, he realised what the Soviet Union had become, Hobsbawm learned nothing from the history of communism in practice.

Although Evans supplies engaging chapters on Hobsbawm’s early years and a sympathetic portrait of his two marriages, there is not a great deal that warrants such a lengthy and highly detailed account. Much of the second half of the book records Hobsbawm’s occasionally vexed dealings with publishers. Many pages are given over to his ascent into the vanished world of haute bourgeois academia. There are recurrent passages describing how he was put under surveillance by the British security services, which helped give him an attractive aura of persecution. In fact the interest taken in him by MI5 was not surprising, and hardly obstructed his career.

When Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party in Cambridge he was following a well-trodden path. He was not recruited as a spy – unlike contemporaries such as Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt he had no access to secret material – though later he admitted that if he had been approached by the Soviets he would have agreed to become one. He was elected a member of the Apostles, in which (as Noel Annan noted) fifteen of the thirty-one members chosen between 1927 and 1939 ‘were communist or marxisant’. After he fled to Moscow in 1951, Evans reports, Burgess telephoned Hobsbawm to apologise for being unable to attend the annual Apostles dinner. He was kept under surveillance for years and MI5 did its best to prevent him becoming a regular BBC radio broadcaster. Such efforts were not notably severe. He continued to give BBC radio talks: when, in 1954, a talk he proposed on religion and the Labour Party was rejected on the grounds that it would have a Marxist slant, he was compensated for his ‘work and time’ with a payment of 15 guineas, at the time a significant sum.

While Hobsbawm’s unswerving loyalty to communism may have initially hampered his career, its longer-term effect was to enhance it. The fact that he almost never mentioned Soviet repression only solidified his reputation for unimpeachable integrity. Up to the moment the USSR imploded, conventional academic wisdom on the Soviet regime was that it was an essentially progressive one that became tyrannical only under Stalin. Hobsbawm’s view fitted perfectly with the anti-anti-communism that pervaded much of the liberal academy throughout the Cold War. Although this view was overwhelmingly in line with the consensus in universities, Hobsbawm’s insistence that the Soviet Union was progressive cemented his standing as a fearless dissident.

Evans records Hobsbawm’s many prevarications on Soviet terror, while interpreting them in the most positive light possible. When Hobsbawm appeared as a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1995, he was ‘unremittingly’ pressed by Sue Lawley on his attitude to the former Soviet Union. If there had been a chance of bringing about the communist utopia, would it have been worth the sacrifice of millions of lives? Yes, he replied unhesitatingly, just as victory over Hitler had been worth the sacrifice of millions of lives. This was, of course, a thoroughly disingenuous response. Necessitated by a mortal threat to civilisation, the war against Hitler had an achievable goal – the defeat and destruction of the Nazi state. There was no similar need to enslave and murder millions in the pursuit of an ideological fantasy.

Evans defends Hobsbawm on the ground that his ‘apparent defence of the mass murders carried out in Stalin’s name was based on a hypothetical statement, not on what had actually happened’. But that was precisely Lawley’s point: how can mass murder be justified on the basis of a nebulous vision? The question was particularly awkward for Hobsbawm, since he had long since shed Marxist teleology. If communism was not the ultimate end of history, what reason could there be for killing millions? Hobsbawm never explored the question in his writings, he declared in an interview, because doing so would have hurt the feelings of his comrades. Evans suggests we need to think back to the dark days of the 1930s if we are to understand this response. But the interview was given in the 1990s, when so much more was known of the human costs of communism. The abiding impression it leaves is of Hobsbawm’s repellent moral narcissism.

No doubt it will be argued that his politics did not affect the quality of his work as a historian. Evans makes some gestures in this direction. But many of the limitations of Hobsbawm’s work reflected those of his Marxist beliefs. He allowed no historical role to the peasantry, a class that ‘never provides a political alternative to anyone’ other than primitive social banditry. The Holocaust and the Gulag barely appear in his work. Nationalism and religion are underplayed or dismissed as deciding factors in history (inevitably, given this stance, Hobsbawm was a lifelong anti-Zionist). Only towards the end of his life, when the Soviet Union had collapsed, did he allow that they might be powerful forces. Women are notably absent from his work, and America appears chiefly as a hideous example of capitalist excess. Post-Mao China is nowhere systematically discussed. Even more than Marx’s, Hobsbawm’s history is shaped by the examples of 19th-century Europe.

None of these failings prevented him from becoming a national treasure. The dark-suited figure sitting quietly in the Athenaeum, garlanded with honours – he was elected a fellow of the British Academy and was made a Companion of Honour by Tony Blair – imagined himself as a ‘guerrilla historian’. For those who revered and rewarded him, he was the embodiment of respectability.

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