The Bourgeois Eric Hobsbawm

The famed Communist historian had distinctly non-Marxist views of high culture.

September-October 2014

Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: The New Press, 2014), 336 pp., $27.95.

 

IN A FAMOUS exchange in 1994, Michael Ignatieff asked Eric Hobsbawm whether the vast human costs inflicted by Stalin on the Soviet Union could possibly be justified. Hobsbawm replied, “Probably not. . . . because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.” Do you mean, Ignatieff pressed him, that “had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm answered, “Yes.”

Two years after Hobsbawm’s death at the age of ninety-five, his lifelong, unapologetic Communism remains for many the most important thing about him. To his critics on the right, it discredits him, pure and simple. On the left, even some commentators who took more admirable stances on Communist tyrannies treat his steadfast commitment to the USSR as, to quote Perry Anderson, “evidence of an exceptional integrity and strength of character.” They refer with something approaching reverence to the justification he formulated in his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times: “Emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution.”

But in what ways did Hobsbawm’s politics really shape the voluminous writings that made him one of the most famous historians of the past century? Certainly, the dynamic and destructive energies of capitalism constitute the central theme of his most famous work: the grand quartet of general histories that proceed from The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 to The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991. Without whitewashing Stalin’s crimes, the last of these nonetheless argued that the Soviet example led directly to the West’s adoption of Keynesian economics and the welfare state. Yet the books offered anything but a rigidly Marxist interpretation, and generally eschewed sharply polemical language. It is doubtful that a true Stalinist ideologue could have been saluted at his death (admittedly, by the Guardian) as “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind,” or received the title of “Companion of Honour” from Queen Elizabeth II in 1998. Niall Ferguson (hardly an ideological soulmate) called him a “truly great historian.” Among the members of the left-wing student group called the Cambridge Apostles, it was Kim Philby, not Eric Hobsbawm, who actually went to work for Stalin, and lived out his final decades in lonely, crapulous Moscow exile.

Hobsbawm’s posthumous book of essays, Fractured Times, gives considerable insight into the factors other than Communist politics that shaped his outlook—and that shaped it more strongly. Like most such collections it is something of a mixed bag, with forgettable book reviews and superficial lectures jostling for space with several trenchant and beautifully written essays. At first glance it also seems to be detached from the main themes of Hobsbawm’s historical work—namely, capitalism, revolution, war and the “primitive rebels” against the social order whom he examined in his 1959 book of that title (the book that first brought him real fame). Fractured Times deals mostly with high culture in the twentieth century, in an unapologetically elitist tone. But it is precisely this subject matter and this tone that reveal something often overlooked about Eric Hobsbawm. For all his commitment to international Communism, he was also profoundly, if paradoxically, bourgeois, and in a distinctly Jewish way.

 

HOBSBAWM’S UPBRINGING was certainly that of a bourgeois Jew. His father came from a Jewish trade background in the East End of London; his mother was the daughter of a Jewish Viennese jeweler. Born in Alexandria in 1917, Eric spent his childhood in Vienna and then, from 1931, after the death of his parents, with an aunt and uncle in Berlin. Although English was the language of his homes, his larger middle-class milieu was characterized by a deep reverence for German high culture: Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven. In Berlin, amid the misery of the Depression and the turmoil accompanying the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the teenage Hobsbawm was swept into street politics. He later compared the intense experience of “participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation” to sex. But after Hitler’s seizure of power the family relocated to London, where Hobsbawm finished his secondary education at that most middle-class of British institutions, the grammar school, and spent his spare hours reading Romantic poetry and listening to jazz, along with selling Communist Party pamphlets. From there, it was off to Cambridge, and his exceptionally long and productive intellectual career.

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