Eric Hobsbawm is the closest we have in Britain to a public intellectual, to compare with Noam Chomsky, Edward Said or Pierre Bourdieu. He is a historian whose peerless intelligence and range of scholarship, coupled with great verbal felicity, have often been deployed in the service of contemporary political and cultural debate. Yet he is a prophet recognised more abroad than at home (only recently was he made a Companion of Honour). He could fill a stadium in many parts of the world, but in Britain he has to be content with lecture halls. He appears more often in the feuilletons of Europe or America (North and South) than in those of London. His opinions are sought out more by Italian radio than by the BBC.
His books are available everywhere in the English-speaking world, and they cross innumerable political boundaries beyond. Age of Extremes, his history of the 20th century, has been translated into Arabic and Hebrew, Croatian and Serb, Albanian and Macedonian, Taiwan and mainland Mandarin. Now in his ninth decade, describing his public image as that of "an eccentric elderly grandee of the historical profession, who happened to insist that he was a Marxist", he has finally produced his long-awaited autobiography, a magnificent work that looks back quizzically on his historical and political trajectory.
In a review for the New Statesman, it is fitting to record that Hobsbawm was once this paper's jazz critic, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton. Indeed when I first met him circa 1960 in Oxford, where he came as a visiting speaker to a history society meeting, those of us detailed to have supper with the great man talked as much about jazz as about history. Jazz, he now perceives, enabled him to visit parts of the body politic that other historians were not able to reach so easily. Exploring the outer reaches of Notting Hill and Soho in the 1950s, or of Greenwich Village and San Francisco in the 1960s, was to provide an alert historian with an understanding of contemporary and historical reality not available elsewhere. Earlier, in the 1930s, to be a jazz fan was not only "to be against racism and for the Negroes . . . but to gobble up all information about the USA even faintly relevant to jazz". From an early acquaintance with jazz practitioners, it was easy for a historian to move on to sympathetic studies of other societal outsiders - gangsters, bandits, guerrillas and "primitive rebels", the title of his first, and perhaps most influential book. (His other most resonant title must surely be The Invention of Tradition.)
Although jazz has been a lifelong interest, history and politics are his passion. Yet there will be no surviving Hobsbawm school of history. His capacity to view the world in terms of the great and continuing clash of class and culture, coupled with an ability to summon up the obscurest detail to illuminate his argument, and a prose style comparable with the greatest historians of the past, marks him as a one-off, with many admirers, but few disciples.
His intellectual tradition, owing much to 20th-century historical debates in Europe, is still carried on in the formidable pages of the journal Past and Present, but even in his lifetime, British historians of a leftist persuasion have veered more towards the indigenous English nationalism reflected in the (increasingly heritagised) pages of History Workshop Journal - the legacy of Raphael Samuel and E P Thompson. Hobsbawm has kind but unappreciative words to say about this development: "its object was not so much historical discovery, explanation or exposition, as inspiration, empathy and democratisation". He perceives the danger of the History Workshop position, arguing that it "undermines the universality of the universe of discourse that is the essence of all history as a scholarly and intellectual discipline". While Samuel and Thompson, as members of the old Communist Party Historians' Group of the 1950s, shared Hobsbawm's universalist vision, many of their disciples - notably those involved in making television programmes - have veered towards the antiquarian. Hobsbawm rightly complains that "more history than ever is today being revised or invented by people who do not want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose". The defence of history by its professionals, he argues, is more than ever necessary.
Hobsbawm is often grouped mistakenly with that great influx of Jewish intellectuals who arrived in Britain from central Europe in the 1930s, fleeing from Nazi persecution and helping to change the cultural climate of 20th-century Britain in the process. In fact, although he did not come to England until 1934, at the age of 16, he was by birth a British citizen, improbably the son of an East End boxing champion.
Born exotically but irrelevantly in Alexandria in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution, he left Egypt when he was two and moved to Vienna, the home of the family of his Austrian mother. When both his parents died in quick succession, he went to Berlin to live with an uncle. After Hitler came to power, he was sent to his father's family in London.
With his personal experience of many cultures, and his wide learning, it would be easy to think of Hobsbawm as a rootless cosmopolitan. He has certainly been a globe-trotter, being a communist usefully opening doors in distant parts, just as being a Catholic would have done in the Middle Ages (and still does for Irish foreign correspondents today). Yet Hobsbawm has put down the deepest of roots in innumerable places - the Austria and Germany of his youth, the France and Italy (especially) of his middle age, the North and South America of more recent decades - and not least in England. If not an openly declared English nationalist, Hobsbawm, like the other British communist historians of his era, is imbued with a great love of England, its traditions, its peculiarities, and above all the heroic and isolated stance of its people during the anti-fascist struggle of the Second World War.
Perhaps the only countries in which he does not feel at home are Russia and Israel. In the winter of 1954, he went to Moscow for the first time, with a delegation of communist historians, and remembers that "of Russia and Russian life we saw little except the middle-aged women, presumably war widows, hauling stones and clearing rubble from the wintry streets". He returned home "without any desire to go there again".
He seems to have avoided Israel altogether, although he was nearly posted to Palestine in 1946. Communist Jews, he points out, were anti-Zionist in principle. His mother, in Vienna when he was ten, had told him firmly that he was never to do anything "that might suggest you are ashamed of being a Jew", and he has obeyed her commandment. But he regards himself as "a non-Jewish Jew", a formula he credits to Isaac Deutscher, and distances himself from both religion and nationalism. He explains that he has "no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds". Jews, he concludes, should be content with their contributions to humanity in the diaspora, and he gives thanks that Theodor Herzl's dream of all Jews ending up in a tiny state has no chance of coming true.
Interesting Times is political rather than intensely personal, but everything is explained in Hobsbawm's rueful style, with an agreeably octogenarian outlook that remains mostly optimistic. He remains irritated by journalists who feel obliged to ask him why he remained, for so long, on the burning deck of the Communist Party "whence all but he had fled". He feels under no obligation here to explain himself for the umpteenth time. Elsewhere, most recently in Age of Extremes, (Michael Joseph, 1994, page 388) he has written that "Marxist socialism was for its adherents a passionate personal commitment, a system of hope and belief, which had some characteristics of a secular religion." In The New Century (Abacus, 2000, page 160), he explained to an interviewer how he had no regrets: "I know very well that the cause that I embraced has proved not to work. Perhaps I shouldn't have chosen it. But, on the other hand, if people don't have any ideal of a better world, then they have lost something. If the only ideal for men and women is the pursuit of personal happiness through the attainment of material assets, then humanity is a diminished species."
Now, in his autobiography, he devotes a chapter ("Stalin and After") to the year 1956, and to the personal and political upheavals it caused in the life of British communists - "the storms in our British teapot". Hobsbawm has no difficulty in denouncing Stalin, about whom he appears to have had reservations long before, but his explanation for his continuing membership of the party after 1956 is inevitably convoluted. He falls back on the (rather weak, but understandable) argument that he was "repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-communists who turned into fanatical anti-communists". More cogently, he recalls that, as someone who converted to communism in the particular circumstances of Berlin in the early 1930s, he was tied not just to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front (which informs his politics to this day), but to the hope of world revolution and its original home, the October revolution.
For leftists of my generation, post 1956, Hobsbawm's continuing adhesion to the British Communist Party was of little more than anecdotal interest. We shared the general view in the late 1950s that the Soviet Union was discredited, not so much by Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about the iniquities of Stalin as by the invasion of Hungary, and, later, by the Soviet support for the "workers' Bomb". The "new left" of that era was motivated by dissident upheavals in eastern Europe (especially in Poland), by the anti-colonial struggle and, above all, by the Bomb. Its ideological outlook might be characterised as left-wing nationalism, or Little Englanderism of the progressive, liberal, pre-1914 version - of which CP deserters such as Thompson and Samuel were the early exponents, though their principal work and influence was to come in later decades. Its spiritual home was the Partisan coffee house in Carlisle Street, London, a bizarre venture for which Hobsbawm improbably had some responsibility.
This agreeable politico-philosophic mush, with which I myself had much sympathy, was replaced in the mid-1960s by the emergence of Trotskyism in all its varieties, as the huge protest movement of the time moved seamlessly from the Bomb to Vietnam and came to fruition in the political and cultural explosion of 1968. Marxism - labelled "western Marxism" by the editors of the re-created New Left Review, to distance it from the discredited "eastern" Marxism of the Soviet Union - was fashionably rediscovered. The works of Karl Marx, hardly mentioned at Oxford in the 1950s (except by Isaiah Berlin, in lectures designed to be dismissive), were now published by Penguin as essential paperback reading for students. Isaac Deutscher's three-volume biography of Trotsky (to be republished this autumn by Verso) became a vital text. So it was Yes to the Russian revolution and Trotsky, a definite No to Stalin and the "deformed capitalist state" that the Soviet Union had become.
Personally, having been lured to Latin America by the charismatic appeal of the Cuban revolution, and become disillusioned by the "Stalinist" line of the local communist parties that opposed Che Guevara's variant of permanent revolution, guerrilla-style, I missed out on the Trotskyist enthusiasms of the 1960s and 1970s that affected Britain and western Europe. As an enthusiast of the third world, I explored instead the wilder shores of Maoism (much excoriated by Hobsbawm, perhaps because of the fierce arguments once associated with the now forgotten Sino-Soviet dispute) and even what the French called "le polpotisme". But that is another story.
The Trotskyists, briefly hegemonic on the left, were soon challenged in the 1970s by revived communist parties inspired by the revisionist "Euro-communism" of the Italian CP, which sought a new road independent of the Soviet Union. This was much more to Hobsbawm's taste, and he tells the story here of how he re-emerged with a fresh political message at the end of the 1970s. His lecture of 1978, "The forward march of labour halted", was a powerful indictment of the Wilson years, and a Cassandra-like warning of what was to come. The influential voice of British Euro-communism in the 1980s was the CP's journal Marxism Today, which relied much on the intellectual authority of Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall (who noted very early that "Thatcherism", a term he coined, was no passing fad but was here to stay) as well as the entrepreneurial brilliance of its editor, Martin Jacques.
Although in ideological opposition to the journal's line, I played a small part in its success by "lifting" some of Hobsbawm's more noteworthy contributions and republishing them in the Guardian. In my role as features editor, I also published the works of the Social Democratic Gang of Four, as well as disaffected right-wingers such as Enoch Powell and Alfred Sherman. As a result, much of the intellectual ferment of the early Thatcher years passed through the pages of the Guardian.
This history of small sects would be of little interest, were it not that new Labour arose from the political atmosphere thus created. Although the organisational triumphs of the party arose largely from copying the methods used by the Democrats in the United States, the ideology, such as it was, emerged from the communist and Trotskyist debates of the 1970s and 1980s, in which a surprising number of today's cabinet ministers, and their advisers, were youthful participants. Hobsbawm tells his part in this story with paternal pride, tinged with regret that new Labour in government has proved to be a monster that neither he nor Marxism Today had expected or hoped for.
Something else that could not, perhaps, have been foretold, was the fresh outbreak of McCarthyism that followed the disappearance of the Soviet Union, not in the United States but in Britain - and France in particular. Hobsbawm describes how, "as communist parties declined, the cold war ended and the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed, the tone of anti- communist and anti-Marxist polemic became more embittered, not to say hysterical". Stalin had died four decades earlier, but now Trotsky and Lenin were also in the frame. Not just the Russian revolution was a free-fire zone, but the French revolution as well. For a brief moment, anyone who looked favourably on the legacy of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century was regarded at best as a dupe, at worst as a moral criminal.
Hobsbawm has long been a champion of the intellectual left, and now, in a fresh century, he feels compelled to defend the positions of a lifetime. He is not quite as optimistic as he once was, and he concludes, bleakly, that "faced with Rosa Luxemburg's alternative of socialism or barbarism", the world may yet regret that "it decided against socialism". Those who still relish a sturdy defence of the Enlightenment will read this book with huge enjoyment.
Richard Gott is a former literary editor of the Guardian