Was the omelette really worth cracking so many eggs? The number of deaths due to famines, mass murders and other man-made catastrophes under communist regimes is something between 85m and 100m. In Cambodia, almost the entire educated population was liquidated. Mao Zedong was responsible for about 30m deaths in the lunatic great leap forward alone. Stalin’s gulag swallowed millions in its dark, frozen maw. And North Koreans are still dying of hunger.
To have remained a member of a communist party until the late 1980s, there must have been a residue of belief somewhere, deep down, that it might have been worth it, or at least would have been worth it, if things had not been so badly handled by the tyrants who ruled in the name of communism. Not many British intellectuals stuck it out for so long. Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent author of The Age of Extremes, among other well-known history books, is one who did—not always as an active member, indeed for a long time as a sceptical one, but as a comrade none the less. In The Age of Extremes, he writes of the “unprecedented inhumanity” of Stalin’s Russia and he now says that the communist project “has demonstrably failed and, as I now know, was bound to fail.” But this makes his tenacity all the more puzzling.
In his latest book, a memoir entitled Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, Hobsbawm tries to explain why. Why he fell in line, in 1939, when Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union; or during the show trials in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and even after 1956, year of the Hungarian uprising. Words such as “background,” “generation” and “anti-fascism” abound. But also “pride”: a cussed refusal to give up on a course once embarked on with noble intent.
Whatever one’s views on communism, Hobsbawm’s memoir is a fascinating personal account of an ideal which attracted many people for the best of reasons, and provided an excuse for some of the most appalling crimes in the last century. Hobsbawm was, as he says in the preface of his book, “a participant observer,” an historian as well as a political activist. He is a decent man who served a blood-soaked cause. Reading his book is an interesting, rewarding, but also, for me, frustrating experience. I wanted to know more. Too many questions remained incompletely answered. So I decided, in hope of further enlightenment, to visit the author at his north London house.
Hobsbawm appears a little weary of questions about communism. He has been asked them too often already. People like to hear a mea culpa. And that is where his pride kicks in. He wanted to know whether communism was all that interested me about his book. There are chapters, after all, about jazz, cottages in Wales, and travels in Latin America, but I had to admit I found the communism most compelling. Yes, he sighed, well, it was probably the hardest thing to understand. It was a generational thing. You had to “have been there.”
“There,” in Hobsbawm’s case, was Berlin, 1932. Born in Alexandria, the son of an Austrian mother and a British father, both non-religious Jews, he spent his earliest years in Vienna, before going to a Gymnasium in Berlin. It was not a good time to be Jewish in Germany, even if you were protected by a British passport. The Weimar Republic was in tatters. Hitler would come to power a year later. SA men were already rounding up people for their torture chambers with impunity. Hobsbawm was spared their violent attentions, partly because he was “the Englishman” rather than “the Jew.” None the less, as he writes in his book, he felt he was living on “the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” German nationalism held no appeal for an English schoolboy. Nor did Zionism. Social democracy was dead. Communism, he thought, was the only choice for someone like him.
Hobsbawm likes to see things in terms of time and place. In a different time or place, he probably would not have become a communist. But surrounded by Nazis in Berlin, he was in thrall to the promise of world communism. This is why, despite everything, he can write that he feels a “tenderness” for the memory and tradition of the USSR. To some people of his age it had once represented the hopes, not only of the Russians, but of mankind.
I asked whether his Jewish background had anything to do with his embrace of internationalism. After all, Karl Marx thought his communist dream would solve the Jewish problem. National and racial differences would disappear in the workers’ paradise.
“No,” he replied, that was not it, for he “never had any personal trouble with the Jewish problem. One was aware of being Jewish. How could one not be, in the circumstances?” His mother had taught him never to be ashamed of it. “Of course, we believed that what Marx said would happen. But that wasn’t why I became a communist. I couldn’t sympathise with nationalism, because it reserved for small groups what should have been kept for humanity. I had an 18th-century belief in humanity.”
Humanity consists of groups, and groups are made up of individuals. One sentence in Hobsbawm’s book had struck me as particularly revealing. Writing about himself in Berlin at the time of his communist initiation, Hobsbawm observed: “Human beings did not appear to interest him much, either singly or collectively; certainly much less than birds.” Was this still true? “Well,” he replied, “one likes certain peoples more than others: the Scots, the Italians, the Brazilians… how could one not like them?” Yes, but what about individual people? “I don’t really know what it means: to like individuals. Does it mean gossiping about them? I sometimes do that, I suppose.”
He paused, then said: “I don’t really like reading biographies.” The point of writing his own appears to have troubled him. He asked me whether I thought there was any point in it. I said of course there was. But there is something impersonal about Hobsbawm’s style, even as a memoirist. He has affection for individual people. His wife is mentioned many times. But no one is much described, apart from physical appearance. Character doesn’t count. Ideas do. He told me that, although he loved France, because of the revolution, he didn’t care much for the French. This seems rather typical.
Hobsbawm’s style has the advantage of unsentimentality—even though he can be sentimental about collective entities, mere abstractions: the Vietnamese “had fought for us,” against America. Did they really? But his approach also contains a rather chilling intellectual ruthlessness. We talked about Pol Pot—barely mentioned in the memoir—and Mao’s carnage in China. Hobsbawm was never a Maoist. He described the murder of tens of millions as being “beyond cost-effectiveness.” This struck me as an odd phrase. Later, when Hobsbawm was shown this text, he objected that the phrase had been “tongue in cheek.” The Asian carnage, in any case, was not in the logic of communism. But the Soviet attempt to “liquidate whole classes probably was, in a primitive sort of way… We knew it was brutal in the Soviet Union. We had read Babel. We never believed it was a workers’ paradise. But we believed it was better, and knew the costs were enormous. There were no solutions in the 20th century which did not imply catastrophes and suffering.”
Hobsbawm went on to describe various popular movements in history, such as the extremely violent Dutch reformation in the 16th century, without which the 17th-century Dutch golden age would not have been what it was. “When you have a mass popular movement, you get a certain rebarbarisation, which is inevitable.” Popular movements allow people to drive things to an extreme. For they are made up of common people, not intellectuals. I suggested to him that Pol Pot and his crew were intellectuals. Intellectuals often support and encourage violence. He repeated that he didn’t really understand Pol Pot.
Hobsbawm had hoped that things would liberalise in the Soviet Union after the iron age of Stalin. “This might have happened, but it didn’t.” When did he realise this? The last straw appears to have been in 1968, with the end of the Prague spring. “We lost hope after 1968. Prague was a terrible shock. We didn’t want to believe they would do such a thing.”
But there had been earlier shocks that changed Hobsbawm from an activist believer in world revolution to a lapsed communist, as it were. In his book, Hobsbawm uses a peculiar phrase to describe Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s crimes in 1956. He calls it a “brutally ruthless denunciation”—strong language for an unsentimental historian who could describe mass murder as not cost-effective, even in jest. But de-Stalinisation ripped open the communist church. And after 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, Hobsbawm “stopped being a communist who devoted his life to world revolution.”
Why, then, did he stay in the party? It was partly a question of pride. He did not like to be like “those Frenchmen who go about beating their breasts. It had been part of one’s life.” He hates the way former believers become fierce anti-communists. He feels he owes a loyalty to his own past. It appeals to his British sense of tradition. He calls himself a “Tory communist.” The loss of tradition pains him. It is one reason for his hatred of Margaret Thatcher: her populist attacks on traditional institutions. Speaking of his national loyalties, Hobsbawm says he “got to assimilate emotionally his état civil” as a British citizen, but “didn’t like giving up my various identities. I remained loyal to my German cultural identity, and my Austrian identity, without taking them very seriously.” Englishness lies in that last clause.
There was one other reason, however, for his loyalty to the communists. He remains convinced that the Soviet Union, however reprehensible, was “a necessary counterweight to the US.” In this, Hobsbawm is not alone. Deep mistrust of the US is often all that remains of the left. Hobsbawm loves many things about America, especially New York and jazz music, and he has taught for many years at various American universities, but the US remains the enemy of everything he had once hoped for, the enemy of his faith. That is why he can still claim, as he does in his book, that he looks forward to “an American world empire… with more fear and less enthusiasm than I look back on the record of the old British empire.”
Even if one can easily agree that the current US administration does not inspire confidence, there is a problem with the necessary counterweight theory. He rightly points out that many regimes in the American camp during the cold war were nasty military dictatorships. But US support for them began to dwindle as the cold war neared its end. Hobsbawm mentioned the liberalisation of South Korea as an example of what he had hoped for in the Soviet bloc. But democracy came to South Korea (and Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and other “client states”) with US backing, precisely because the old communist counterweights were no longer seen as a threat.
I put this to Hobsbawm. He said something about South Korea proving the superiority of a planned economy, which had produced a liberal middle class. When I mentioned other new democracies in the American camp, he paused, and said: “You mean the Americans support elections. Is that necessarily a good thing?” Perhaps this is part of his traditionalism, but Hobsbawm—although he professes to be “deeply committed to a world governed in the interests of ordinary people and not elites”—is not a natural democrat. He seems to have a limited trust in what people will do when they decide their destinies through the ballot box. He mentions various countries where democracy didn’t work. “Look at Turkey,” he says. “If civilised values survive there, it is because the army protects them against democracy, which would vote for Islamic fundamentalism.”
This fits with his other suggestion that the savagery of popular movements comes from the mobs rather than the intellectuals who lead them. It is as though he had an almost religious fear of the apocalypse without a disciplined church to save mankind from disaster. The October revolution represented a dream of universal equality and justice. But the trouble with the US, in Hobsbawm’s words, is that “it has no project other than global hegemony and getting its presidents elected.” Islamist terrorists, whatever else they represent, do have a project. It is a project Hobsbawm abhors, but he does not believe that “any rational person believes in that stuff about fighting terrorism. Iraq does not provide a serious danger.”
To see the US, with all its faults and swagger, as a greater danger than revolutionary terrorist organisations, which regard mass murder as a legitimate means to their religious end, is to remain in thrall to a world view I find baffling. But then I am of a different generation. I have lived in less interesting times. I never saw the brownshirts on the streets of Berlin. For a time, communism appeared to be the only counterweight. I can understand why a man would join because of that. But only a very conservative Tory communist would have stayed true to the faith ever since.