A Man of Faith

A Man of Faith

Mini Teaser: Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography is a most revealing book--wittingly and otherwise. He turns out to have been a most catholic fellow.

by Author(s): Paul Hollander

Eric Hobsbawm's Interesting Times is a highly readable and
interesting autobiography, providing a wealth of information about
the professional and (to a lesser extent) personal life of its
author, as well as the times in which he lived. There is no shortage
of revelations, intended and unintended.

Born in 1917, Hobsbawm has been a man of the Left throughout his long
life. He has enjoyed an extraordinary global reputation in the
academic world, foremost among left-leaning intellectuals and
liberals. He has been showered with honors as a champion honorary
doctorate recipient, conference invitee and subsidized world
traveler. He has also been a regular commentator in the mass media of
several countries. (A photograph in this volume shows him on Dutch
television in the apparently congenial company of Markus Wolf, former
head of the East German intelligence service. He appears to share
with Mr. Wolf a distaste for expressing regrets about his
longstanding political commitments and convictions.)

Like many leftist Western intellectuals, Hobsbawm managed to be at
once an egalitarian and an elitist. On the one hand, he believes that
his work has considerable historical importance and sees himself
belonging to an international fraternity of enlightened
intellectuals. On the other he is a champion and brother of the
downtrodden. He writes: "The enormous advantage of communism,
especially when reinforced by friendship, that one could simply not
treat a comrade other than an equal."

A considerable amount of name-dropping supports the imputation of the
elitist inclinations. Hobsbawm takes great pleasure in naming his
innumerable distinguished "friends" who achieved high office, renown
or distinguished intellectual status. He relishes his own high-flying
career, as he recalls the good old days when the Rockefeller
Foundation flew him first class to various exotic destinations. He
comes across as a tireless networker affably cultivating his global
connections and heartily enjoying the status he had achieved--after
overcoming earlier difficulties in his career caused by his obstinate
attachment to the British CP. Indeed, this was an attachment that not
only ceased to matter after the 1960s but that had in fact become an

Hobsbawm's global acclaim is not merely a reflection of his
excellence as a historian, however. His fame and reputation rest in
large measure on his successfully personifying a particular political
position and mindset--that of the unrepentant leftist and unrepentant
believer in Marxism who has held on to his convictions in face of a
vast accumulation of historical evidence that should have undermined
them. He has not just been the common garden variety leftist academic
so abundant in our times, but a remorseless member of the British
Communist Party--a "card-carrying communist", as they used to
say--and therein may lie the secret of his acclaim.

Those seeking to retain their leftist beliefs have found
encouragement and comfort in Hobsbawm's steadfast loyalty to what
strike them as noble and idealistic impulses. Hobsbawm has shown such
people how one may admit that all existing communist systems were
deeply flawed, ("it must now be obvious that failure was built into
this enterprise from the start"), concede that the original good
intentions of their creators had horrific unintended consequences,
and yet continue to regard these intentions and the ideas
underpinning them admirable and inspiring. He has thus come to
personify idealism in the face of adversity. His high-minded refusal
to give in to discouragement or yield to disillusionment, and his
unswerving membership in the Party, has come to be seen as an emblem
of pride and courage.

Hobsbawm is no doubt aware of all this. He contrasts the seriousness
of his youthful commitments with the far more frivolous political
play-acting of Sixties radicals: "Unlike the 1968 generation, few
inter-war communists went into the revolution as into a political
Club Med . . . ." He also makes clear that he was never a
Sixties-style radical "cultural dissident." Unlike the radicals of
that decade, his loyalties were firmly anchored in the Party:

"The Party was what our life was about. We gave it all we had. In
return we got from it the certainty of our victory and the experience
of fraternity. . . . It represented the ideal of transcending

Another special bond linked him to the Russian Revolution: "I
belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical
cord to hope of the world revolution and its original home, the
October Revolution."

Hobsbawm insists that:

"people like myself did not remain in the Party because we had many
illusions about the USSR, although undoubtedly we had some. For
instance we clearly underestimated the horrors of what had gone on .
. . under Stalin until it was denounced by Khrushchev in 1956."

Elsewhere, too, he pleads ignorance of the worst Soviet atrocities:

"Of course we did not, and could not, envisage the sheer scale of
what was being imposed on the Soviet people under Stalin at the time
when we identified ourselves with him and the Comintern, and were
reluctant to believe the few who told us what they knew or suspected."

Nonetheless, a few lines later he observes that "it is anachronistic
to suppose that only genuine or willful ignorance stood between us
and denouncing the inhumanities perpetrated on our side", and he
adds: "In the total war we were engaged in, one did not ask oneself
whether there should be a limit to the sacrifices imposed on others
any more than on ourselves." This reminds one not of Marx and Engels
but of Martin Heidegger, who said in 1935 (and had published in 1953):

"in the domain of the essential, half-measures are always more fatal
than the Nothing that is so terribly feared. . . . [W]hat is peddled
about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism . . . has not
the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement."

Of course, the siren of "total war" has been the time-honored excuse
that each and every modern dictatorship has offered for its
repressive policies, and the Soviet one for its campaigns of terror
in the 1930s here rather unoriginally embraced by Hobsbawm. Stalin's
favorite phrase here rises to the mind: "When the forest is cut down,
splinters fly."

The abstract quality of Hobsbawm's youthful affections for the Soviet
Union is also revealed in his negative reactions to his limited
exposure to Soviet realities during the visit he paid in 1954-55, of
which he returned "depressed and without any desire to go there
again." But even the partially chastened, mature Hobsbawm has
retained blind spots of impressive proportions which, for example,
enable him to believe that East Germany (he insists on calling it the
"German Democratic Republic") was not a bad society: work and careers
for all, universal education . . . social security and pensions,
holidays in a firmly structured community of good people doing a
honest day's work . . . open-air leisure and sports, no class

His worldview still requires, too, a perception of the Soviet Union
as having been relatively weak and lacking in the "global ambitions
and aggressiveness of the USA."

These remarks highlight the degree to which Hobsbawm's alignments and
beliefs were predicated on the appeal of good intentions,
potentialities and a future superior to the present. It was the
attribution of these great hopes to the USSR that prevented him from
a proper appreciation of its "severe defects" and that enabled him to
give them little weight in his moral-political accounting. Neither
knowledge nor a certain amount of self-reflection has prevented him
from effortlessly subordinating intellect to emotion--a condition far
from unknown among politically committed intellectuals. Recalling his
teenage years in Germany, he writes:

"The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man
whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the
political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even
though that project has demonstrably failed, and, as I now know, was
bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there
somewhere inside me. . . . To this day I notice myself treating the
memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness."

Such affirmations and reaffirmations are scattered throughout the
volume, which is permeated by a taken-for-granted Marxist view of the
world. He never discusses how Marxism influenced the failed policies
of communist states, and why, if it lent itself to such chronic
misuse, it should still be revered. He seems to equate Marxism with
truth-seeking and with the endemic struggle against injustice. Never
do intentions and consequences really meet.

Hobsbawm has been a student of modern European history and is well
acquainted with the communist systems and movements of the past
century. Hence, an ignorance of their failures could not play a
substantial part in the retention of his early loyalties largely
unrevised in ripe old age; nor is he an unreflective individual, as
this autobiography indicates. How, then, does one reconcile all of
these seeming contradictions?

Hobsbawm's early life offers clues. His childhood and adolescence
were overshadowed by the threat of Nazism, a disorganized family life
and the downward social mobility of his parents. Not only had his
father been a highly unsuccessful breadwinner, but there was a great
deal of social, economic and emotional instability early in his life,
years of what he calls "tragedy, trauma, loss and insecurity." His
father died when he was twelve, his mother when he was 14. He and one
younger sister were raised in different places by relatives.

Essay Types: Book Review