A question of faith

Linked with Eric Hobsbawm – England.

Published on the Guardian, September 14, 2002.

3 excerpts: When Eric Hobsbawn came to England in the 1930s he became a Marxist and began a distinguished academic career. His new autobiography reveals that at 85 he remains an ‘unrepentant communist’. Maya Jaggi on the historian who made us fall in love with history again.

Eric Hobsbawm was a schoolboy in Berlin when Hitler came to power. He knew he stood at a turning-point in history. “It was impossible to remain outside politics,” he says. “The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist.” They may also have shaped his moral universe. When asked on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1995 whether he thought the chance of bringing about a communist utopia was worth any sacrifice, he answered “yes”. “Even the sacrifice of millions of lives?” he was asked. “That’s what we felt when we fought the second world war,” he replied …

… Now 85, and professor emeritus at Birkbeck College, London University, Hobsbawm lives in Hampstead, on the slopes of Parliament Hill, with his second wife, Marlene, a recently retired music teacher and writer. They also have a cottage in Wales “between the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and the Brecon jazz festival”, where, according to the biographer Claire Tomalin, “they reproduce the urban intelligentsia in a Welsh wilderness”. The couple have a “social circle of immense variety”, says Roy Foster, a former colleague at Birkbeck. “Eric’s a European intellectual; he doesn’t allow ideology to infect the ordinary relations of life.” While some find Hobsbawm cold and imperious, for Pimlott he has a great serenity.

Peripatetic as a displaced child then as an academic, Hobsbawm speaks German, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, and reads Dutch, Portuguese and Catalan. His reputation is arguably even greater abroad. Official recognition came slowly in Britain, where he was made a Companion of Honour in 1998. Hobsbawm insists that “whatever I’ve achieved has been with minimum, or no, concessions” …

… “It’s very tough on kids to have a father who’s an academic and known to be good at it,” Hobsbawm says. “It’s something to live up to.” Hobsbawm turned a sceptical eye on nationalism in the ground-breaking co-edited book The Invention of Tradition (1983), and in Nations and Nationalism (1990). For Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, Hobsbawm’s tendency to disparage any nationalist movement as passing and irrational weakens his grasp of parts of the 20th century. In Ascherson’s view “Eric’s Jewishness increased his sensitivity about nationalism. He’s the original happy cosmopolitan, who’s benefited from being able to move freely.” After retiring from Birkbeck in 1982, Hobsbawm began a “seasonal commute” to teach a semester a year at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, until 1997.

Hobsbawm says he felt relief at the fall of the Berlin Wall, though he sees conditions in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union as an “unbelievable economic and social tragedy”. In his new book he declares that Communism is dead. Looking back, he says, “starting in Russia, this system would not and could not have worked”. But he still believes that asking Marxist questions is the way to understand the world – to tackle the big questions, to fit things together into a pattern , “even if it may not be the right pattern”. He adds: “I used to believe you could predict the direction in which history goes. But contingency is clearly more important than we used to allow.”

Hobsbawm felt freed by the end of the Soviet experiment to write the history of his own century. He had avoided what he saw as a choice between being denounced “as a heretic” for openly countering the party line or compromising “my conscience as an academic”. The Age of Extremes involved the greatest test of his own objectivity, though it is also one his most highly praised books. Judt argues that on the two great issues of the 20th century, “Eric’s political stance has prevented his achieving the analytical distance he does on the 19th century: he isn’t as interesting on the Russian revolution because he can’t free himself completely from the optimistic vision of earlier years. For the same reason he’s not that good on fascism.”

Hobsbawm, Judt says, “clings to a pernicious illusion of the late Enlightenment: that if one can promise a benevolent outcome it would be worth the human cost. But one of the great lessons of the 20th century is that it’s not true. For such a clear-headed writer, he appears blind to the sheer scale of the price paid. I find it tragic, rather than disgraceful.” (full long text).

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