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

It was also the period of the Great Depression. From an early age he
was one of many Jews (and liberal gentiles) who believed that only
the communist movements and the Soviet Union were steadfast opponents
of Nazism and its attempt to take advantage of the Depression. Even
sixty years later in an autobiography full of historical facts,
Hobsbawm could not bring himself to mention the Nazi-Soviet
Non-Aggression Pact of 1939.

He attended seven different "educational establishments" in Austria,
Germany and England before landing at Cambridge University. His
political beliefs and affiliations apparently became the essential
foundation of his sense of identity and provided him with life long
emotional support, coherence and focus. He recalls with great warmth
the mass demonstrations in which he took part as a young man:

"Next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense
emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass
demonstration at a time of great public exaltation. . . . It implies
some physical action--marching, chanting slogans, singing--through
which the merger of the individual in the mass . . . finds
expression. The occasion has remained unforgettable."

Later in life he still found satisfaction in such activities as shown
in the photographs of him protesting nuclear weapons in Trafalgar
Square reproduced in the book. He includes such a "sense of mass
ecstasy" among the five components of his communist disposition in
addition to "pity for the exploited, the aesthetic appeal of a
perfect and comprehensive intellectual system, 'dialectical
materialism', a little bit of the Blakean vision of the new Jerusalem
and a good deal of intellectual anti-philistinism." Elsewhere he
writes that "what made Marxism so irresistible was its

Upon arrival to Cambridge University Hobsbawm was in the position to
join or overlap with what he called "the reddest and most radical
generation in the history of the university", which included some of
the notorious spies of the period such as Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and
Philby. He writes:

"I knew those of my contemporaries who became Soviet agents as
militant members of the student Party. . . . We knew such work was
going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we
respected those who did it, and most of us--certainly I--would have
taken it on ourselves, if asked."

In light of these sentiments it does not shock us to learn that in
1950, while stillassociated with King's College, he made a special
point of inviting Alan Nunn May, "just released from jail for nuclear
espionage, to a King's feast."

Besides the weight of youthful commitments and the rewards he reaped
on their behalf later in life, Hobsbawm also persisted in his beliefs
because he simply disliked those who opposed them: "I was strongly
repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-communists
who turned into fanatical anti-communists." He was also "repelled" by
"Cold War rhetoric and free market liberalism" during the 1980s, and
much disapproved of François Furet's belief that communism was "a
dangerous dream." He further explains that "what made it easier . . .
to maintain the old faith, more than anything else, [was] the
crusading global anti-communism of the West in the Cold War." It
remains his sustaining belief that no matter what the communist
systems have done, or failed to accomplish, the corruptions of
capitalism greatly outweigh their evils and demand undiminished
critical attention.

Hobsbawm reserves his most hostile comments, however, for
Israel--"the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and
politically aggressive nation-state"--that asks, in vain, for his
solidarity on racial grounds. He granted such solidarity far more
readily to the Palestinians during his visits to "occupied Palestine."

Hobsbawm did deviate some from the loyalties sketched above. The
crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 moved him to challenge
the Party line in a letter published in the non-party press.
Elsewhere he muses about living in a land of the blessed: a region
[central and western Europe] without war, without the prospect of
fear of social upheaval, in which most people enjoyed a life of
wealth, a range of choices in life and leisure, and a degree of
social security beyond the reach of all but the very rich in our
parents' generations.

If so, he seems to admit that there is, after all, such a thing as
capitalism with a human face. Toward the end of the book it
unexpectedly emerges that "in some ways the United States represent
the best of the twentieth century . . . [and] promises greater
openness to talent, to energy and novelty than other worlds."
Tributes are also paid to American economic, technological and
scientific achievements. But these tributes are followed, "on the
other hand", by a listing of some of the "human costs" of the system,
including the "unspeakable" prisons and huge prison population.

As an old leftist and old-style Marxist, Hobsbawm is properly
critical of identity politics and intellectual undertakings such as
black, queer or woman's studies. Commendably enough, he favors moving
"beyond one's roots. . . . History needs distance not only from the
passions, emotions ideologies and fears of our own wars of religion
but from the even more dangerous temptations of identity." As to his
own identity, Hobsbawm sees himself as one who "recycled" himself
from militant to sympathizer or fellow traveller, or . . . from
effective membership of the British Communist Party to something like
spiritual membership of the Italian CP, which fitted my ideas of
communism rather better.

But this progression understates his commitments and obscures the
bases of his sizeable self-esteem. Besides pride in his wordly
successes he sees himself as a man of the best possible intentions, a
Candide stripped of naïveté, and a fighter for a better world who has
tried to ensure that humanity will not "live without the ideals of
freedom and justice."

If he is anything, Hobsbawm has been and remains an orthodox man of
faith seeking a new Jerusalem--his words of choice, not mine. As is
the case with all orthodox religion, the devotion to a belief is
praiseworthy the more improbable the belief is, not the less. Had
Hobsbawm not rejected the religious heritage of his birth, it is as
certain as such a thing can be that he might have been not a Reform
or an assimilated Jew, but an Orthodox one. The fulfilment he has
found in Party camaraderie and mass demonstrations he may have found
studying Talmud in a yeshiva and in communal worship. As it happened,
Hobsbawm elected to reject most vigorously the other religion, the
one into whose heritage he was born. Since one cannot believe in two
demanding religions simultaneously, special effort must be made to
put distance between the accepted creed and the renounced one.

It is ironic and sad that a man who devoted much of his life and work
to support, directly or indirectly, some of the most inhumane and
mendacious political systems and movements of modern times is capable
of such self-satisfaction at the end of his long life. Such is life,
however, and human nature.

Essay Types: Book Review