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Eric Hobsbawm:
A Life in History

by richard j. evans
oxford, 800 pages, $39.95

Walter Scott once observed that although astrology, which had enjoyed almost universal credit in the middle of the seventeenth century, had become an object of ridicule by the beginning of the eighteenth, it still retained a number of devotees, even among the learned:

Grave and studious men were loth to relinquish the calculations which had early become the principal object of their studies, and felt reluctant to descend from the predominating height to which a supposed insight into futurity, by the power of consulting abstract influences and conjunctions, had exalted them over the rest of mankind.

So too with Marxism, as it plunged from intellectual prestige in the middle of the twentieth century to virtual ­irrelevance at the start of the twenty-first. Eric Hobsbawm, whose lifetime saw the rise and fall of Marxism, is the epitome of the studious man reluctant to descend from those heights he presumed to occupy. Born in Alexandria in 1917, educated in Vienna, Berlin, London, and Cambridge, Hobsbawm became a professional historian and was a member of the Communist ­Party of Great Britain from 1936 until it folded in 1991. His postgraduate studies were interrupted by World War II, which saw him consigned to the Army Education Corps. (His unconcealed communist loyalties ensured that he would never be allowed anywhere near the sort of intelligence work for which his linguistic and analytical capacities otherwise qualified him.) After demobilization, he returned to Cambridge to complete his doctorate, and became for a while a Fellow of King’s College as well as a lecturer at Birkbeck in London. His career was made at Birkbeck (part of the University of London), where he was belatedly promoted to a professorship in 1970, and he remained associated with that institution until his death in 2012.

Richard Evans offers in this magnificent and monumental biography a fascinating account of a don with a typically long but ­unusually interesting life. Hobsbawm was a man of enviable talent and stupendous learning, widely traveled, ­fluent in a clutch of languages, at home in at least three major ­European literatures, a charismatic lecturer, and the writer of fine though not flawless prose, economical, vigorous, and persuasive. His forte as a historian was high-level synthesis, powered by a sweeping vision that took in all of Europe and indeed the whole world, yet illuminated by a hawkeyed capacity to home in on telling details of minute particularity. This gift was displayed to greatest effect in what became a sequence of four narratives, which we might call the Four “Ages” of Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987), and Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). The first volume made his name, and between them the Four Ages made his fortune, winning him a vast international readership and a reputation that opened to him a parallel career at the intellectual end of political journalism. Hobsbawm himself lived through Interesting Times (the title of his autobiography), and though this study cannot justify the blurb’s boast that it is “a life of the century itself,” it is a major contribution to the “history of history.” There are those who maintain that biography is no proper occupation for a real historian, but it is good to see that Richard Evans is not of their number. History starts with stories, and stories start with human lives.

The well-told story of this life, built up from a massive archive apparently assembled by its subject with an almost Churchillian sense of personal destiny, certainly casts light on the ­intellectual history of Marxism, though that is not the focus of the book. For this is the biography of a man whose life and indeed work turned out to be not so much a contradiction as a refutation of his own principles. This is not the usual cheap shot at the “champagne socialist,” but a serious claim about the extent to which Hobsbawm’s public career and private life demonstrate the true poverty of the philosophy to which, formally, he dedicated himself. He should have seen through it; other people did.

Hobsbawm’s death was met with the customary praise for the scholar who dies full of years and achievement. But the convention de mortuis nil nisi ­bonum was breached by a number of voices still protesting his lifelong and unrepentant Marxism. The nub of the criticism was an exchange in his infamous television interview with Michael Ignatieff in October 1994. Evans adopts a somewhat cen­sorious tone toward such criticism. Like Hobsbawm himself, he sees such critiques as out of date and in less than good taste, the narrow-minded saber-rattling of superannuated Cold Warriors. Yet the critics were right to make this the defining moment of Hobsbawm’s public career. For ­Ignatieff put his finger on a tellingly insensitive portion of Hobsbawm’s moral anatomy, a real dead spot, in challenging him, as a lifelong Marxist and erstwhile supporter of the Soviet Union, on the actual moral record of a regime which, despite everything, he still found difficult to disown:

Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at the time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?

Hobsbawm: . . . Probably not.

Ignatieff: Why?

Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. . . . It turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.

Ignatieff: 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?

Hobsbawm: Yes.

Evans does his best to expiate this. “But of course, as Eric admitted, the radiant tomorrow had not been ­created,” he writes. “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.” This is, to say the least, a curious plea in mitigation. The reader is urged to move along, but it is not so clear that there is nothing to see here. All one can really say is that Hobsbawm was lucky he lived before Twitter (though even in this era of viral social media, what are unpardonable sins on the Right shrink to mere peccadilloes when detected on the Left). His obstinate and willful faith, against all reason and experience, exposes a real moral blind spot. Evans presents all this as the legacy of teenage self-fashioning and tribalism, but in a person of such wide and deep culture, the sin is not so easily absolved.

Evans’s telling of the story rather deftly and subtly brings out the quasi-religious nature of the teenage Hobsbawm’s conversion to Marxism and his abiding loyalty to it. Evans sows the seed of this interpretation for many pages before making the point explicitly. Of course, the interpretation of Marxism as a kind of secular religion or Messianism is familiar enough. Its enduring appeal as a “doctrine of salvation” (in the words of Joseph Ratzinger) was its “grand moral promises” of “justice for all.” And Hobsbawm’s lifelong sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden shows that this was its appeal to him. But the second half of the twentieth century is measured out by milestones on the path away from Marxism, which led through Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The apostasies were many. The God That Failed (1950), a book of essays by half a dozen ex-communists from André Gide to Richard Wright, appeared after the first Stalinist betrayals of freedom and democracy in the postwar years. Yet in all his travels Hobsbawm never came to Kronstadt. His loyalty to Marxism really was an act of faith, a metaphysical commitment such as is truly merited only by the divine or at least the spiritual, and utterly inconsistent with the materialism that, as a Marxist, he avowed.

This all matters because, as G. K. Chesterton insisted, “The most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” To soft-pedal Hobsbawm’s Marxist allegiance is to risk missing the main point about him. After identifying someone’s philosophy, the crucial questions are: Can it be lived? Can it be believed? Hobsbawm tried to live his Marxism. His first marriage (1943–1951) was a sad and even horrible story as Evans tells it, a doomed attempt to conduct personal life on the principles of the party of which both spouses were then members. (When the first Mrs. Hobsbawm started to signal her disaffection, she did so by perusing the highly conservative Daily Telegraph at the breakfast table.) After the divorce, Hobsbawm gradually came through various amorous vicissitudes and relationships to settle into a long, happy, and fulfilled marriage. “Bourgeois convention” proved a better guide to life than Marxist ideology.

Hobsbawm’s development as a historian bears even more effective witness against his philosophy. Doctrinaire Marxists, of course, make dreadful historians, and Hobsbawm was far too good a historian to become a party hack. He did his best to be a Marxist philosopher, but the history was always breaking in. Yet, equally, the Marxism was prone to distort the history. He shaped his historical constructions along Marxist lines, privileging relations between capital and labor and developments in production and communication in the great task of explaining the past. Mere politics tended to be pushed aside, as perceptive reviewers noted, and Hobsbawm was somewhat tone-deaf to the power of nationalism, undoubtedly the most potent ideology of the last two centuries. Yet even his own life showed the power of politics. As he knew full well, his conversion to Marxism had arisen from his experience of life in Germany during the early years of Nazism. His historical career was a partial but incomplete emancipation from this youthful commitment. An early effervescence of Marxist pretension licensed him, as a historian of modernity, to pontificate on the English Civil War of the seventeenth century as the first “bourgeois revolution” and a milestone in the “transition from feudalism to capitalism.” This brashness faded as his career marched on. Already in the 1970s, reviewers were noting that his account of The Age of Capital (which opens with a ritual invocation of Karl Marx, who features more ­prominently in it than Bismarck or Darwin) was less truly Marxian in analysis than its author’s public image might suggest.

Hobsbawm’s trajectory is nicely captured by his attitude to the ­Fabian Society, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. The Fabians invoked with their name the memory of Quintus Fabius Maximus ­Cunctator (whose delaying tactics frustrated ­Hannibal’s invasion of Italy), and they advocated socialism by gradualism rather than revolution. For the young Hobsbawm, they stood condemned by their own lack of faith in Marx and the class struggle. Thirty years later, in the run-up to the 1983 conference of the British Labour Party, he gave an invited lecture at an event organized by the Fabian Society. His appearance there can only be seen as a retreat from the ironclad certainties of his Marxist youth, but it would have been more graceful of him to acknowledge the shift by tearing up his party card, however belatedly.

Hobsbawm’s intellectual strengths and weaknesses are most evident in his best idea, “The invention of tradition,” with which he managed simultaneously to produce a profound insight, encapsulated in a lapidary phrase, and to miss the point. The insight is that traditions have origins, and often deliberate origins at that. Hobsbawm traced this intuition to his ­experience at King’s College in Cambridge, where he found out that their famous Christmas Eve tradition, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, had been celebrated for the first time only a few years before in 1918, when the dean, Eric Milner-White, decided that the traditional liturgy of the Church of England needed enrichment. Of course, traditions have to start somewhere. But the historical perspective of modernity equips us to see “tradition” in a manner we like to think of as “objective,” to trace its origins, its adjustments, its evolutions. The disenchantment this perception can engender is, though a tempting response, mistaken. It is easy to assume, as so many modern philosophers have assumed, when the traditions have been exorcised by historicist analysis, that a new society can be built on new, rational principles. But building those new societies has not proved so easy.

Hobsbawm had the same misconception about nations, those now famously “imagined communities,” and Evans shrewdly observes the way he instinctively contrasted nations, as such, with the “real communities” that he never defined or explained. But all communities need to be imagined, and then realized, from the family upward. No family simply exists; all families have to be brought into being. This fact does not make them any less “real.” We cannot be human without traditions, and we cannot be human without communities. ­Communities are the vehicles of traditions, and ­traditions are the matrices of community. The recurrent delusion of Western culture, from ­Luther through Descartes, ­Robespierre, Comte, and Marx to myriad would-be prophets and gurus, is that we can cast aside tradition in the name of some foundational dogma on the basis of which a healthy and flourishing society can be assembled from scratch, as unproblematically as a Ford Focus.

In Hobsbawm’s own life, good things were built around cultural traditions that people inherited and inhabited. They were not built anew on first principles, Marxist or otherwise. Although when he was barely a teenager he had sought to renounce Judaism as a religious commitment, he had taken to heart his mother’s plea that he should never be ashamed of being a Jew. That promise doubtless lay behind his having the Kaddish recited at his otherwise ­entirely secular memorial service. Even his hopeless and indefensible loyalty to Marxism has about it neither the rationality nor the materialism of the Enlightenment, but a sort of traditional faithfulness. Hobsbawm understood many of the liberal truths and all of the radical half-truths, but not many, if any, of the conservative truths.

Though Hobsbawm was a lifelong Marxist, he was not, as Evans is at pains to emphasize, a very good one, and he was aware of his shortcomings in this regard. For Marx, the point of philosophy was not to understand the world but to change it. But Hobsbawm was an intellectual, a man of ideas and not a man of action, and he knew that this made him a rather sorry communist. It is hardly surprising that, like so many Western Marxist intellectuals, he was drawn more to the “revisionism” of Gramsci than to strict Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. He was always too much an intellectual not to think for himself. And the party did not approve of people thinking for themselves. The Communist Party of Great Britain reckoned him highly suspect. Yet if Hobsbawm’s somewhat heretical Marxism renders him a more ­sympathetic figure, it also renders his loyalty to that misguided cause all the more baffling.

His obstinate adherence to Marxism perhaps came down to one simple trait. He did not like making mistakes, and still less did he like to admit or correct them. On the back of an anecdote told by Neal Ascherson, Evans notes, “Eric never liked being bested in matters of knowledge.” But like all of us, he did make mistakes. And like all of us, he was prone to be misled by his preconceptions and predilections. It was doubtless his sympathy with the downtrodden (his first major book bore the title Primitive Rebels) that caused him to assign the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell to the peasantry. O’Connell, scion of a Catholic gentry family, became a wealthy barrister. But in the umpteenth reissue, in 1997, he remained, as he was in 1962, the “golden-voiced lawyer-demagogue of peasant stock.”

In the final analysis, Hobsbawm’s socialism was very much of the “practical” variety delineated by P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal ex-­Etonian, Psmith: “I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.” As a highly successful author and journalist, Hobsbawm was a celebrity socialist, and Marxism was his unique selling point. He was as professional, unsentimental, and frankly commercial in his business dealings as ­Wodehouse. Advances and royalties received minute scrutiny, and when it was a question of placing his last great book, Age of Extremes, he was ­unmoved by any fanciful notion of disloyalty in taking his business away from Weidenfeld, who had done so much for him, in favor of the better deal offered by ­Michael Joseph. In his last years he took particular care to minimize the portion of his personal estate (over £1.8 million) that would be ­appropriated by the Inland Revenue after his death. His lovely ­Victorian house at 10 Nassington Road was a substantial asset. (A three-bedroom ground-floor flat in that road was recently put on the market at £1 million.) Not to mention the cottage in the Wye Valley. All well and good, of course, and no cause for shame—but as an option for the poor, not exactly Francis of Assisi. Hobsbawm’s ­Marxism, in the end, was rather like the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat. Yet this ghostly presence, devoid of all substance, was still capable of leading him astray. Toward the end of his life, with the subprime crash of 2008, he finally thought he had lived to see the much-predicted failure of ­capitalism. He seems not to have appreciated that he had lived to see the failure of ­Marxism.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge.