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11 October 1999

Did France censor Hobsbawm?

Age of Extremes came out in 1994 and was soon translated into many languages. Yet only now

By David Lawday

When Jean-Paul Sartre observed that “all anti-communists are dogs”, it was broadly accepted among French intellectuals that those who rejected Marxism were indeed dogs. How things have changed. The French intellectual we thought we knew, pouring black-sweatered scorn on capitalism, is nowhere to be heard. France’s thinkers have swung violently from one pole to the other, from radical Marxism to neo-Blairism. And thereby hangs, well, a tail.

The philosophical about-turn in France might be seen merely as the pursuit of fashion, but not so by the veteran British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has tumbled straight into the ideological chasm left behind. Hobsbawm’s latest work, Age of Extremes, his grand rundown on the 20th century, was published in Britain five years ago. Since then it has been published in almost every language in the world. Even the Chinese have translated it (both Beijing and Taiwan). Yet only now is it being published in French, and then only with the help of a Belgian publisher.

Is literary censorship at work in the land of liberty? To lay the charge of censorship against the French is serious in view of their open-minded publishing record. Hobsbawm, though, is no Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov out to administer carnal shock. Age of Extremes rather precisely covers the time from the rise of communism to its fall, and Hobsbawm, given his ideological sympathies, has a lot to say about the century-long struggle in which capitalism confronted Lenin’s upstart. While his reservations concerning free-market capitalism are apparent, he certainly gives the winning side its due. Nor is his history an apology for communism, which he back-handedly applauds for providing capitalism with the incentive to reform itself and thus prevail. This is sporting of Hobsbawm.

France’s intellectual elite has not been as sporting. Although Hobsbawm is well known in France, its leading publishing houses, including Fayard, his regular publisher, rejected Age of Extremes – despite the fact that it had sold well in most countries.

A glimpse at the fortunes of the French Communist Party may shed some light on the matter. It is a unique outfit, still existing under its original name. Down to 7 per cent of the vote, it is also an emaciated and rather sad outfit, stirring itself at present to make a fuss about unemployment but embracing through clenched teeth the liberal market economy as the price of sharing as a very junior partner in Lionel Jospin’s government of the left. The loss that has crippled the party is the defection of Sartre’s heirs.

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It was the support of France’s most illustrious minds in literature, the media and the universities that gave the party its enormous postwar cachet. Never mind Stalinist horrors, leading thinkers settled on Marxism as their creed in the 1950s and 1960s not only because of certain social ideals it still advertised but because (as Hobsbawm underlines) it was the Soviets who won the war against Hitler. The Soviet Union’s prestige, not to mention Moscow’s control, characterised the French Communist Party. To support it was to help assuage intellectual guilt over France’s collaboration with the Germans. With few exceptions Marxism became and remained the orthodoxy of French philosophers; the masterful Louis Althusser rammed it into the student body while Louis Aragon joined Sartre with the pen to exhort public opinion.

Not until communism’s collapse appeared inescapable did Andre Glucksmann, a current media philosopher, feel able to venture with all prudence that “it is possible to be a philosopher and an anti-Marxist.” This was held to be an amazing public utterance. Oh, how the intellectual class has gathered round! The switch from one orthodoxy to another is complete, as the direness of Soviet communism’s social legacy casts its shadow in the 1990s.

Enter Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes. The book was proposed to French publishers at roughly the time they were coining it in from various rival French-authored histories of our times, the tone of which Sartre would have taken for a bark. The most notable is Le Passe d’une Illusion (The Passing of an Illusion) by the late Francois Furet, a historian who personifies the swing of the intellectual pendulum. Furet started out as a disciple of Marxism; his best-selling history of the century is a vigorous assault on his old flame. The intellectual current now sparking France’s political, media and literary opinion-making machine is fed by the Furet history.

It would almost certainly be wrong to pretend there has been a formal publishing conspiracy against Hobsbawm. Rather, word was put around from on high that his history was inopportune. That the climate in France was unfavourable. The word came principally from Pierre Nora, one of France’s most eminent historians and the author of Lieux de Memoire (Places of Memory). In an influential highbrow journal, he asked: “Why Hobsbawm’s success elsewhere and the reticence in France? Because France was the most profoundly and longest Stalinised (western) country, and the release when it came was the strongest, accentuating hostility to anything recalling the age of philosovietism . . . ” (This is an exaggeration: France wasn’t “Stalinised”, apart from the Communist Party and its highest-minded adherents.)

Nora contends that Hobsbawm’s attachment to Marxism is a point of pride, a conceit, and he acknowledges it does not govern the book. But French resistance, he writes, is intrinsic. The responsible editor at Fayard, Hobsbawm’s regular publisher, won’t wear talk of ideological censorship. “I refused his book because I do not think it is good,” the editor says bluntly. “The interpretation is unoriginal.”

None the less, French publishers feel uneasy over their stand. Nora won’t discuss it further; others argue that Age of Extremes is too high a commercial risk, given the translation costs.

Yet Furet’s rival book and others in the same anti-Marxist vein are prized for having enriched the publishing fraternity – which hardly buries the censorship issue.

But wait. A belated way out of this embarrassment is provided by a scandalised bystander, the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. In its first book venture it has joined a Belgian publisher in bringing Hobsbawm out in French. “There is a blindness of the elite in France which holds that everyone shares the same ideas,” observes the magazine’s Alain Gresh. “This is censorship not in the formal sense, but de facto censorship.” He wagers the French version of Age of Extremes appearing on 18 October will confound the Paris publishing houses and sell nicely.

This would be fitting, though one wonders whether Hobsbawm didn’t play his hand wrong from the start with France. In his opening chapter he asserts, with regard to the horrors of 20th century, that there is no truth to the familiar but mistaken French axiom tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner (to understand all is to forgive all).

What surer way to offend the French than to tell them their philosophy is wrong.

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