Commentary Magazine


Interesting Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life
by Eric Hobsbawm
Penguin. 464 pp. £25.00

Anyone who has been a lifelong Communist has a great deal to answer for: at least for the implicit endorsement of Lenin’s “Red Terror,” which initiated the 20th century’s mass murder of civilians; the man-made famine of 1932-33 that killed between 7 and 9 million Ukrainians; Stalin’s massacres (“purges”) of 1937-38; the Gulag empire; the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, which unleashed World War II; Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution,” which caused tens of millions of deaths; and Pol Pot’s systematic slaughter of one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. All this and much more lies on the conscience of an unrepentant Communist: by recent estimates, Communist regimes in the 20th century claimed between 85 and 100 million lives. On the survivors, they inflicted unprecedented misery, the dimensions of which are only now coming to light.

Eric Hobsbawm (originally Hobsbaum), the English historian who, until his retirement, taught at Birk-beck College of the University of London, is such an unrepentant Communist. The author of numerous books, mostly on modern history, and a man with a worldwide reputation, he is also a man of immense ego, for whom Communism is not so much a blueprint for a better world as a personal creed that exists apart from its reality and is validated by its intent rather than by its performance. Interesting Times, published in England last year and to be released here by Knopf in August, is his autobiography.

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Born in 1917 in Egypt, the son of a Jewish cabinet-maker from London, Hobsbawm spent his childhood and adolescence in Austria and Germany He witnessed Hitler’s rise to power and reacted to it by turning Communist. His memoirs suggest that he knew little about Marx and Lenin, but found attractive, as did many others before him and since, the certitude that Marx’s doctrine claimed to supply to perplexed spirits:

What made Marxism so irresistible was its comprehensiveness. “Dialectical materialism” provided, if not a “theory of everything,” then at least a “framework of everything,” linking inorganic and organic nature with human affairs, collective and individual, and providing a guide to the nature of all interactions in a world in constant flux.

As these recollections make clear, he also found in Communism a means of gaining acceptance, within the tightly-knit brotherhood of its devotees, in a world that treated him as an outsider—a foreign Jew in Nazi Germany, and then a German-Jewish refugee in England. Such self-centered motivation alone explains his otherwise inexplicable lack of interest in what in the Soviet Union came to be known as “real socialism.”

Hobsbawm formally joined the Communist party in 1936 while a student at Cambridge, when the USSR stood on the brink of Stalin’s Great Terror. Yet there is no evidence in his memoirs that he had any inkling of what was happening there: thus, he ignores the show trials of the mid-1930′s, never alludes to the fate of Lenin’s close associates Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, and indeed has no entry in his index for either the Cheka or the KGB. The horrors of Stalinist Russia seem to have been irrelevant to one who treated Communism as a kind of private religion that required not knowledge but only total faith and commitment.

Hobsbawm remained a Communist through thick and thin, refusing to opt out, as did many other intellectuals, whether in reaction to the Nazi-Soviet pact (which goes unmentioned in his memoirs), Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in the 1956 “secret speech” (which, Hobsbawm relates, had a shattering effect on him), the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, or any other outrage. He spent his life in a world populated by other Communists or fellow-travelers and felt at home only in their company. He confesses that in his youth he could not conceive of marrying a woman who did not share his political faith, adding that when, later in life, he arrived at the point where he could contemplate “a real relationship” with a person who was not a potential recruit for the party, he realized he was no longer a true Communist.

And yet he seems to have concluded some time ago that Communism had no future. “Communism is now dead,” he writes at one point, leaving behind “a landscape of material and moral ruin.” It has “collapsed so completely . . . that it must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start.” In The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, his most popular work of history, published in 1994, Hobsbawm goes even further, saying that the tragedy of the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power was “that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism.” In Interesting Times, he hails Gorbachev for destroying the Soviet Union.

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Why, then, did he join the party, and how does he explain his remaining a faithful follower?

To the latter question, Hobsbawm provides several muddled answers. One, familiar from apologists for another totalitarian regime, is that he did not know. Thus, he admits to feeling “genuine grief” on Stalin’s death, a grief “unsullied by knowledge.” “Of course,” he adds, “we did not, and could not [!], envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet people under Stalin.” Until Khrushchev revealed them, he had “underestimated” the horrors of Stalin’s Russia.

On another occasion, he justifies his Communism by reference to his sympathy for the world’s poor. But if that really were his concern, then he should have been an enthusiastic apologist for capitalism. In the Soviet Union in the 1980′s, after six decades of the command economy, 57 percent of the population had to live on less than $10 a month. In North Korea, the last truly Communist dictatorship left on earth today, the annual GDP is less than $1,000 per capita; in its unabashedly capitalist southern neighbor, it is $18,000.

At other points, Hobsbawm argues, without much conviction, that he remained an active Communist from fear of nuclear war, or from admiration for the Soviet Union’s “titanic achievements” and for its contribution to the world’s decolonization.

But a more convincing answer is to be found in something Hobsbawm writes (admiringly) about a fellow-Communist, Andrew Rothstein: “I had the impression that for him, as for others like him, the test of his devotion to the cause was the readiness to defend the indefensible.” It was such loyalty for loyalty’s sake, and the unwillingness to concede that one had been wrong, which bring to mind Hitler’s SS, whose device was “Unsere Ehre heisst Treue”—“Our honor is called loyalty.” They, too, defended the indefensible, and not only with words but with their lives. Indeed, Hobsbawm shows an understanding for Nazism that he refuses any liberal, democratic society. In an interview with the BBC last October, he casually admitted that had he been a German in the 1930′s, “Obviously [!] . . . I might have become a Nazi.”

Throughout this book, Hobsbawm reveals neither a moral conscience nor any empathy for human suffering: he is not so much immoral as amoral, and supremely detached. At the age of nineteen, he was aware of this character flaw, confiding to his diary in the third person: “[He] has no sense of morality, [is] thoroughly selfish.”

Having moved to England and enrolled at Cambridge, Hobsbawm became active in the local chapter of the Communist party, which turned into a breeding ground for Soviet spies, including Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and Kim Philby. He was not personally involved in these treasonous activities, but only because no one had recruited him. As he confesses with breathtaking nonchalance:

We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it, and most of us—certainly I—would have taken it on ourselves, if asked.

He was thus quite prepared to betray to Stalinist intelligence organs some of the most sensitive secrets of the country that had given him refuge and whose citizenship he claimed by reason of his parentage.

Loyal as he has been to Communism and indifferent to Communist crimes, Hobsbawm feels little if any allegiance to his own, Jewish people, and shows nothing but contempt for Israel, whose government he links to “fascism.” At the very beginning of this book he recalls his mother’s enjoining him “never [to] do anything, or seem to do anything, that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew.” “I have tried to observe [her injunction] ever since,” he comments,

although the strain of doing so is sometimes almost intolerable, in the light of the behavior of the government of Israel. . . . I have 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.

This, from a man who turned a blind eye to the Gulag. Suffice it to say that his major historical study, The Age of Extremes, has no entry in its index for “Holocaust,” proceeding directly from “Holliday, Billie” to “homosexuality.” Auschwitz, too, goes unmentioned. The murder of 6 million of his coreligionists, widely regarded, and not only by Jews, as a unique crime in history, does not even rate a paragraph in that book of 600 pages.

The United States, like Israel, also fills him with disgust. He has spent much time in this country—four months every year between 1984 and 1997—yet he displays no curiosity about it. His main interests in the U.S. are jazz and gangsters. He provides no evidence that he has ever talked to or visited an American worker to learn why socialism, not to speak of Communism, has failed to gain a foothold in the leading power of what he derisively refers to—invariably in quotation marks—as the “free world.” He delights in every foreign-policy defeat of the United States, hailing Ho Chi Minh, for example, as the “liberator of Vietnam.”

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For all the feeling of beleaguered virtue that Hobsbawm derives from his allegiance to Communism, it has cost him nothing. On the contrary: it was and is widely interpreted by his liberal admirers as a form of idealism at a time when saner Communists were jumping ship, and he was rewarded for it with grants and invitations from all over the world. Where did he not teach and lecture! At MIT and Stanford (a “superb university” but “embedded in Palo Alto,” a “nowhere space of empty streets in which cars visited each others’ owners in beautiful homes”), the New School for Social Research in New York, the Getty Center in Santa Monica, the prestigious “Sixth Section” of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. The Rockefeller Foundation granted him money to study anarchism in Latin America. The British Academy made him a member, and so did the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All his books have been translated into foreign languages. He has certainly known how to take advantage of the world he openly scorns.

Yet, for a politically engaged intellectual, Hobsbawm shows surprisingly little curiosity. Apart from the fact that he never analyzes the cause of Communism’s dismal failures, he relates with evident disapproval the mass defection in the 1980′s and 1990′s of French intellectuals from left-wing causes, referring to the “increasingly militant and ill-tempered anti-Communism of so many of the formerly left-wing ‘intellocrats.’ ” He condemns them, regretting that their betrayal has “complicated” his relations with one-time friends, but does not try to understand why they defected. Then there is the Great October Revolution of 1917, which, in his own words, “inspired” his conversion to Communism and which he describes ecstatically as a kind of epiphany, “the central point of reference in the political universe.” Yet for all the importance he attaches to it both in modern history and in his own political evolution, he makes no effort to learn anything about it beyond the trite formulas found in standard Soviet manuals.

This is as true of Hobsbawm the historian as it is of Hobsbawm the memoirist. In The Age of Extremes, he writes that Lenin’s “extraordinary achievement” was to “transform [the] uncontrollable anarchic popular surge into Bolshevik power”; in reality, it was to exploit the power vacuum created by the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and seize dictatorial powers under the spurious populist slogan, “All power to the Soviets.” The Bolsheviks in 1917, he informs us in the same book, were “essentially a workers’ party”; in fact, only one Russian worker in twenty belonged to Lenin’s organization at the time, and not a single worker qualified for membership in its Central Committee, which was made up entirely of intellectuals. “The new [Communist] regime did little about socialism except to declare that this was its object.” The truth is the very opposite: on October 25, 1917, Lenin removed the words “Long live socialism” from the draft of his proclamation deposing the Provisional Government, but he promptly proceeded to nationalize the land and other productive assets.

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To judge by the stress laid in this book of memoirs on Hobsbawm’s political commitments, friendships, and activities, it seems to have been intended as a sort of apologia pro vita sua. This impression is reinforced by the scant attention he pays to his scholarly work, which, after all, is his métier: he mentions his principal historical books, but only in passing, as it were, saying next to nothing about their genesis, contents, or place in his intellectual development.

But if apologia was indeed Hobsbawm’s objective, then he has not succeeded: he emerges as too smug and too callous about the world in which he has spent his 85 years to make the reader care about him, his thoughts or his feelings. Interesting Times is a confused and unattractive work by a confused and unattractive man.

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About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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