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Red Eric

A worthy new biography of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm shows the ardent communist in the crucible of the 20th century

Adam Kirsch
May 01, 2019
Original photo: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Eric Hobsbawm in London, 1999Original photo: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Original photo: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Eric Hobsbawm in London, 1999Original photo: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

When the historian Eric Hobsbawm died in 2012, at the age of 95, his family arranged for him to be buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery near the grave of Karl Marx. It was an appropriate resting place for one of the 20th century’s leading Marxist historians, whose work focused on the emergence of capitalism from feudalism and the rise of the modern working class. Hobsbawm made his reputation in the 1960s with books on the history of labor, including influential studies of how bandits, Luddites, and other “primitive rebels” articulated working-class resistance to power. He went on to win a broad readership with a series of broad-gauge histories—The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes—that synthesized the political and economic history of the modern world from 1789 to 1991. By the turn of the century, Hobsbawm was possibly the best-known English-language historian in the world.

But many historians learned from Marx; fewer could say, like Hobsbawm, that they were actually communists, committed not just to studying the class struggle but to furthering it. And still fewer could claim to have remained communists till the end of their lives. Many intellectuals who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, at a time when it seemed like the only bulwark against fascism, were eventually shocked out of their allegiance by one or another of the Soviet Union’s crimes and betrayals. There were exoduses from the party in the late 1930s, following Stalin’s purge and show trials; in 1939, after the USSR declared an alliance with Nazi Germany; in the late 1940s, after Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe; and in 1956, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest.

While the Soviet invasion of Hungary marked the end of Hobsbawm’s active engagement with the Communist Party of Great Britain, he never actually quit it. Indeed, Hobsbawm’s communism was longer-lived than the CPGB itself, which dissolved in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. When asked why, late in his life, Hobsbawm replied that he would rather be a communist than an ex-communist: “I don’t like being in the company of the sort of people I’ve seen leaving the Communist Party and becoming anti-Communist. … I don’t wish to be untrue to my past or to friends and comrades of mine.”

No one who knew him would have been surprised, then, to hear that Hobsbawm wanted to be buried close to Marx. What did surprise his friends, Richard Evans writes in his new biography Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, was that Hobsbawm had asked for the Kaddish to be recited at his funeral. When his fellow historian Ira Katznelson rose to say the prayer, he recalls in Evans’ book, “there as a kind of—you could see some intake of breath … perhaps people were taken aback by the introduction of a Jewish prayer into a ceremony that Eric had intended to be resolutely secular.” What would a dialectical materialist want with the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead?

But of course, this kind of atavism—this turn toward Jewish tradition, at the end of a life estranged from Judaism—is itself a familiar 20th-century story. In virtually ignoring the subject of Jewishness for most of this long and detailed biography, Evans—himself an eminent historian of Nazi Germany—is being faithful to Hobsbawm’s own self-understanding. Jewishness did not interest him, and his life can be seen as a flight from it, in several senses. By citizenship he was British; his historical work focused on Britain, Europe, and the whole globe. By intellectual conviction he was a communist, which to him meant a universalist and a rationalist. While he of course never denied being Jewish, it seems he only avowed it in the context of criticizing Israeli policy or, oddly, explaining why he wrote so little about the Holocaust in his bestselling history of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes: “there can be no doubt what a Jewish historian feels about the Nazi genocide.”

Yet the trajectory of Hobsbawm’s life, and much of his intellectual sensibility, only makes sense in the context of 20th-century Jewish history. Certainly his life was shaped by the cosmopolitanism of Jewish Europe. Hobsbawm was born a British citizen, because his father had been one: The family, originally named Obstbaum, had emigrated to London from Poland in the 1870s. But his mother was Viennese, and his parents met in Alexandria, Egypt, just before World War I, when she was there as a tourist and he was working for the colonial postal service. Trapped in Egypt during the war—Eric was born in Alexandria in 1917—they decided when peace came to live in Vienna rather than London. This proved to be a disastrous choice: Beset by poverty and illness, both of Eric’s parents would die before he reached the age of 14, leaving him and his sister to be raised by relatives in Berlin.

Arriving in Berlin as a Jewish teenager in 1931, at the height of the crisis that would bring down the Weimar Republic, was decisive for Hobsbawm’s political evolution. Capitalism had been discredited by the Great Depression and Nazi stormtroopers were marching with impunity in the streets; only the Communist Party, it seemed, had the strength to fight back and achieve a better future. For a lonely, uprooted orphan, the party promised comradeship; for a Jew, it promised a future free from anti-Semitism; for a boy who had known destitution firsthand, it promised a society free from want. No wonder Hobsbawm began to entertain romantic fantasies about the Soviet Union and the glorious communist future.

But in 1933, just weeks after Hitler took power, Hobsbawm’s life took another sharp turn, when his aunt and uncle decided to flee Germany for Britain, where they still had citizenship. Oddly, Evans seems to endorse Hobsbawm’s own view that this move did not place him in the category of Jewish refugees from Nazism: “Eric was not a political or any other kind of exile,” Evans writes, echoing Hobsbawm, who said, “I came not as a refugee or emigrant, but as someone who belonged here.” That Hobsbawm would want to believe this makes sense—it is more comfortable to be a returning Briton than a stateless Jew—but it is obviously untrue; a Jewish family fleeing Germany just after the Nazis came to power was quite clearly motivated by fear of persecution, in the Hobsbawms’ case as in thousands of others. Certainly, had the family not fled when it did, Hobsbawm would likely have ended up a teenage victim of the Holocaust.

Young communists were everywhere in Berlin, but in Britain, Hobsbawm discovered a very different political climate. Not only was there no mass communist movement, but as Evans shows, the small Communist Party of Great Britain was a workers’ party, hostile to the middle-class intellectuals who flocked to the party in other European countries. This changed somewhat when Hobsbawm went to Cambridge in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Popular Front. Indeed, Evans writes, “Cambridge student Communism subsequently became notorious as a nursery for Soviet agents,” such as the spies Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, who graduated shortly before Hobsbawm arrived.

But already at Cambridge, the split or paradox that would define Hobsbawm’s adult life showed itself. Ideologically, he was committed to overthrowing the established order; but in real life, he was highly adept at joining it. As a student, he received a top degree and was recruited to join the elite Apostles club. Late in life, he turned down a knighthood on the grounds of his republican principles, but accepted the Companion of Honor award, granted by the Crown to a small number of eminent artists and humanists. Evans quotes one colleague who observed that Hobsbawm had “always been an institutions man.”

Evans shows that Hobsbawm’s career was slowed, if never halted, by his communist views. During WWII, he was conscripted into the army but remained under official surveillance. In the army, Hobsbawm was denied promotions and overseas assignments for security reasons, though he was never told the truth about why. After the war, he was able to get a job at Birkbeck College, a London-based college for adult students where he remained for his entire career; but he was blackballed from Oxford and Cambridge, where a historian of his gifts might well have expected a chair. His BBC radio talks were carefully vetted, though he continued to record them.

Evans implies that these obstacles in Hobsbawm’s path were petty and unjust. But it is hard to fault the representatives of Britain’s liberal order for being hesitant to embrace someone openly dedicated to its overthrow. It is true that, compared to actual Soviet spies like Philby, who were entrusted with important positions in British intelligence, Hobsbawm had little power to harm his country. But a popular and influential historian wields another kind of influence, and it is worth asking to what extent Hobsbawm used his writing to promote a political vision that was responsible, during his lifetime, for at least as much oppression and death as fascism.

‘There can be no doubt what a Jewish historian feels about the Nazi genocide.’

Evans’ view is that Hobsbawm was a historian first and a communist second. He did not take his allegiance to the party to the extent of lying, distorting evidence or using his professional work for propaganda, the way many communists in other fields certainly did. Indeed, Evans makes good use of the transcripts of MI5’s wiretaps of CPGB’s London headquarters, which reveal that the party bosses saw Hobsbawm as more of a problem than an asset; for instance, he stubbornly refused to follow the party line on Hungary in 1956. Hobsbawm himself acknowledged that as a communist “you were supposed to write a straightforward line, and whatever I said did not fit in.” He noted that “not a single one of my books was ever published in Russia in the Soviet period”: His defenses of bandits as freedom fighters hardly matched the Soviet vision of total state control.

At the same time, Evans tends to discount—precisely because it is so obvious—the way that Hobsbawm’s communism informed his vision of modern history, particularly in his bestselling Age series. For Hobsbawm, capitalism was the great evil and disaster of the modern world, and communism a noble and necessary, if sometimes misguided, attempt to cure it. No amount of communist atrocity could change this equation. Late in life, Hobsbawm was interviewed by the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff, who asked him whether “the loss of fifteen, twenty million people” would have been justified if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating a world revolution; he unhesitatingly answered “Yes.” Unlike the repentant ex-communists he despised, Hobsbawm never gave up the barbaric doctrine that the end justifies the means.

This core conviction of the essential goodness of communism colors Hobsbawm’s interpretation of key moments in modern history, particularly when the Soviet Union is involved. When he comes to write about the Russian Revolution in The Age of Extremes, for instance, Hobsbawm romantically praises communist revolutionaries, who were responsible for untold amounts of suffering and death, as “the necessarily ruthless and disciplined army of human emancipation.” He chastises England and France for appeasing Hitler at Munich, but barely mentions Stalin’s alliance with Hitler to divide Poland between them. And he blames the origin of the Cold War, not on Stalin’s actual aggression in Eastern Europe, but on a putative American attempt to “turn an exhausted and impoverished U.S.S.R. into yet another client region of the U.S. economy.” Hobsbawm’s history may be legitimate left-wing interpretation rather than culpable communist propaganda, but clearly the line is a thin one.

Of course, there was more to Hobsbawm’s life than politics, and even more than writing history. Evans documents his turbulent first marriage to a party comrade, which ended in misery, and his happy second marriage to a woman who was less interested in the cause. In between came a footloose period in which Hobsbawm followed his love of jazz through the clubs of London, including some seedy places where he befriended prostitutes and drug addicts. And of course, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History meticulously tracks his many publications, reviews, awards, and occasional feuds and controversies—the usual milestones in the life of an academic historian. But a life “in history” as a profession is seldom very dramatic. What makes Evans’ book worth reading is his account of a life in the crucible of the 20th century, from which Hobsbawm emerged physically, if not intellectually, unscathed.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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