Show Hide image

The contradictions of Eric Hobsbawm

The great historian’s life was defined by a tension between his status as an outsider and his eventual acceptance into the establishment.

After recounting his childhood years, from his birth in Alexandria in 1917 until his arrival in Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1936, Eric Hobsbawm ended the first part of his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), with a volley of self-abuse:

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, a tall, angular, dangly, ugly, fair-haired fellow of eighteen and a half… Has no sense of morality, thoroughly selfish. Some people find him extremely disagreeable, others likeable, yet others (the majority) just ridiculous. He wants to be a revolutionary but, so far, shows no talent for organisation. He wants to be a writer, but without energy and the ability to shape the material… He is vain and conceited. He is a coward. He loves nature deeply. And he forgets the German language.

This was about as soul-searching as Hobsbawm got when reflecting on his “Twentieth-century Life”. Born just a few months before the October Revolution to an Anglo-Jewish father and Austrian-Jewish mother, Hobsbawm spent the early part of his childhood in Vienna. Both his parents died by the time he was 14 and in 1931 he and his sister, Nancy, moved to live with their aunt and uncle in Berlin. It was there, in the crucible of revolutionary agitation, as the economy collapsed and Hitler was on the threshold of power, that Hobsbawm discovered communism. The children were then moved to London and within two years he had won a scholarship to read history at King’s College, Cambridge. It was around that time that he travelled to France, where he witnessed the Popular Front’s Bastille Day celebrations, and to Catalonia during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.

After the Second World War, during which he served in the Education Corps (the security services blocked intelligence postings owing to his membership of the Communist Party), Hobsbawm resumed his academic career, writing a PhD thesis on the Fabians and running the local Communist Party cell from the college rooms beneath Wittgenstein’s study. Compared to most British historians, Hobsbawm was a cosmopolitan in excelsis: polylingual and travelling widely throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America, where he once translated – extempore – for Che Guevara.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he was, by day, Eric Hobsbawm, lecturer at Birkbeck college. By night, however, he was “Francis Newton”, the New Statesman’s jazz critic, writing on Soho’s cultural netherworld, where intellectuals such as him found relief from the norms of propriety and restraint. When the editor Kingsley Martin asked him to provide more “thrills” for the magazine’s mainly middle-aged male readership, Hobsbawm penned a sociological study on London’s strip clubs, recommending the Nell Gwynne club on Dean Street, since the “head girl relies on movement rather than a big bust”.

As a member of the Communist Party Historians Group, Hobsbawm was part of that formidable generation of scholars, including EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, who transformed British historiography from its parochial fetish for monarchs and the military to social and economic history. Hobsbawm’s own works, such as Primitive Rebels (1959), Bandits (1969) and his epic tetralogy on the modern world – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987), and The Age of Extremes (1994) – were international bestsellers and remain unequalled in their fusion of polymathic detail, sweeping synthesis and cool exposition.

While promotion came slowly to begin with, academic success eventually carried Hobsbawm into the highest chambers of the British establishment (he refused a knighthood but did accept the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1998, much to the chagrin of his comrades on the left). Showered with honorary degrees, academic chairs and awards, and receiving at his Hampstead home tributes from across the world, Hobsbawm was, by the time of his death in 2012, the best known and most lauded historian of his time.

Interesting Times chronicled much of this, but it is an impersonal memoir, and Hobsbawm did little to breach the surface of his public eminence. The great accomplishment of Richard J Evans’s brilliantly crafted Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History is how he takes us into the private, inner world of the master historian.

Evans focuses primarily on Hobsbawm’s “personal experiences”: the orphan, cast adrift into semi-alien lands in Germany and then England; the bored and lonely sapper in the war, confined to Norfolk, Dorset and the Isle of Wight; the lover, whose affair with a married student led to the birth of a child, Joshua, in 1958; the devoted husband and father who read Tintin books aloud to his kids, shouting “Blistering barnacles!” as Captain Haddock, and who, according to his daughter Julia, “could really veg out” in front of the TV; or the “cranky, warrior-like” teacher who insisted students must always choose a side, so long as it was the right one. Evans also gets behind the magic of Hobsbawm’s literary output, detailing the messy business of book contracts, agents and editors, as well as the (almost unbelievable) instances when manuscripts were rejected or projects were left unfinished.

Evans doesn’t traffic in gossip or salacious details for the sake of it – the kind of Islington dinner party banter that Hobsbawm himself rather enjoyed. There are some deeply moving revelations, such as Eric assisting his first wife, Muriel, with an at-home abortion in 1949, which left him severely traumatised, or his near-suicidal depression that began after Muriel asked for a separation not long after (one MI5 dossier from 1951 recorded that Hobsbawm “is reputed recently to have had an emotional breakdown”).

More important to Evans’s overall portrait of Hobsbawm is showing how this private world shaped his public and intellectual life. So, it was childhood poverty – the threadbare clothing and rickety bicycle – as much as it was the starkness of political choices in the 1930s that informed his teenage embrace of communism. It was the heady atmosphere of interwar Berlin that gave him a lasting belief that intellectual debate was something of a contact sport and really mattered. It was his love of literature that furnished him with the ear for narrative and a well-turned sentence. And it wasn’t Marx but Marlene, his second wife, whom he began dating in 1961, who was the towering figure in his life and whose love and support constituted the stabilising force behind Eric’s later success.

What stands out from Hobsbawm’s life above all, something that often defined the experience of 20th century Jewish immigrants to Britain, was the tension between his status as an outsider and his eventual acceptance into the establishment. His contrasting heritages and ideological affinities always seemed to put him in slight relief from his peers. In Berlin he was Der Englander, while the pupils at St Marylebone Grammar School found this Alexandrian-born, Viennese-accented Berliner something of a curio. As a self-conscious communist he was in a minority at Cambridge and he had very little in common with the mostly uneducated working-class soldiers in his army regiment. Surrounded by crusty bachelor dons, he was lonely in Cambridge as a graduate student, and although membership of the Apostles (a society whose former members included John Maynard Keynes and several of the Cambridge Five) brought temporary camaraderie, he soon felt isolated from the younger members by his age.

Even writing on jazz among the nonconformist denizens of Soho, “Francis Newton” never really belonged to the world of “cool cats” and “crazy chicks”. As a fellow of august institutions such as the British Academy and the Athenaeum Club – Hobsbawm could never resist the entryways to high society – he always, according to the historian Roy Foster, “liked his outsider status” and was most comfortable at a “self-imposed distance”.

As a communist, too, with an enduring faith in the redemptive virtues of 1917, he was, as he put it, “an outsider in the movement”. Yet Hobsbawm’s uncompromising faith in the Soviet project, defending millions of deaths in the name of its imagined utopia, is the greatest stain on his legacy. Evans does his best to mount a partial defence, pointing out that in later life Hobsbawm admitted that the suffering Stalin inflicted was “shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification”. Evans argues that “people need to think themselves back into the dark days of the 1930s, when the choice seemed increasingly to be communism or fascism, and in that situation, nobody who thought rationally could have preferred the latter”. But this hardly explains why Hobsbawm remained loyal to the cause when so many others – intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone and Manès Sperber – ditched their illusions. Evans is too easy on his subject here, and doesn’t clinch the debate in the way he perhaps thinks.

Though being a communist was always central to Hobsbawm’s identity, he hardly conformed to what the Communist Party of Great Britain thought an active member should be like – for one thing, he wrote for that most unforgivably bourgeois of rags, the Times Literary Supplement. Nor was his work dependent on what Perry Anderson called “clanking… theoretical armour”. His writings were clear in their left-wing sympathies, and each volume of the Age Of series is classically Marxist in its arrangement, beginning with economics and ending with culture. But the imprint of his ideology was always light and, as Evans says, grounded in a “respect for the facts”. If Hobsbawm’s commitment can be located anywhere on the ideological spectrum, it is the kind of politics embodied by the Popular Front, that hopeful yet ultimately doomed alliance of misfit radicals, socialists and communists that governed France between 1936-38, in the revolutionary spirit of 1789.

Through Hobsbawm, then, Evans’s book is a timely celebration of the outsider, the ambivalent and marginal cosmopolitans who have a sense of home but are citizens of everywhere; those who have a gift for friendship and solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, when fraternity is not just a watchword but a condition of life. As Tony Judt, often critical of Hobsbawm, wrote: “The thin veneer of civilisation rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it.” Few have done that with as much decency and intelligence as Eric Hobsbawm. 

Gavin Jacobson is working on a book about the history of the 1990s

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
Richard J Evans
Little Brown, 800pp, £35

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe