Revolution in the head: how Eric Hobsbawm became a communist national treasure

He ended his life a British national treasure but Eric Hobsbawm never lost faith in his youthful communism
January 29, 2019

As a bookish grammar school boy in north-west London in the mid-1930s, described by his cousin as “ugly as sin but a mind,” Eric Hobsbawm fantasised in his diary about bringing about a communist revolution in Britain. Based on his reading of Russian and Irish history, he thought the best chance would be for dedicated revolutionaries to orchestrate a coup, preferably following a general strike. There was a reasonable prospect, he calculated, that part of the army would join the cause. But first the revolutionary vanguard would have to act decisively: blowing up railway lines; blockading the Thames; building barricades in the slums; seizing the factories and banks; cutting telegraph wires and taking control of the radio. Once the capital fell, the rest of the country would shortly follow.

By the time of his death in 2012 at the age of 95, Hobsbawm had never seen anything approaching a revolution in Britain. But he had lived through and commented on some of the major events of world history since his birth in 1917, fittingly the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. In that time, he had also become one of the best-read historians in the world. His fame stretched far and wide—from India, where his death was front-page news, to Brazil, where his friends and admirers included the future socialist president, Lula da Silva. His books became international bestsellers, bequeathing the world enduring concepts—“primitive rebels,” the “invention of tradition”—and epoch-defining titles like the “age of revolution” and the “age of extremes.”

Unusually for an academic, Hobsbawm eked out a place in popular culture. In 1986, he was alarmed to find a character with his surname appear in a John le Carré novel as a British intelligence asset (though le Carré insisted this was a coincidence). His scholarly work was cited by a character in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, and he was rumoured to be the inspiration for the Oxford don in Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play, Rock ‘n‘ Roll, about a Marxist academic struggling to reconcile his Soviet idealism with the Prague Spring. “I believe I have become probably the internationally best-known British historian, at least since Arnold Toynbee,” the aging Hobsbawm reflected proudly.

A major biography of this totemic figure is overdue, particularly as new sources have come to light since Hobsbawm’s 2002 autobiography Interesting Times, notably the release of his MI5 files. But what sort of biography? Richard Evans, one-time colleague of Hobsbawm at Birkbeck and former Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, stresses that he has not written the conventional intellectual biography you might expect of a figure who was known as an intellectual above all else. Instead, he explains that his book, “while not neglecting Eric’s intellectual and political development, focuses above all on his personal experiences and indeed on his inner life.”

Evans is at pains to point out that he has never been personally sympathetic to communism but is instead a “social democrat.” While versed in the rudiments of Marxist theory, he is not consumed with the defining controversies of the communist world. Hobsbawm’s old comrades would find some puzzling gaps. Debates on subjects as important as Maoism and Lysenkoism (the pseudo-scientific agenda of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko) hardly merit a mention. The French philosopher Louis Althusser, a controversial but consequential figure, is breezily dismissed in two paragraphs: one in which his re-reading of Marx is “rumbled” by the less doctrinaire Hobsbawm; another in which the mentally unstable philosopher visits the Hobsbawm family, ordering a grand piano before returning to Paris to murder his wife. The exasperating Trotskyites and their constantly sub-dividing “groupuscules” are also given a high hand by Evans, although Hobsbawm’s later admiration for Antonio Gramsci—which helped cement his influence on the Italian Communist Party—is taken more seriously. Gramsci and Eurocommunism retain a sort of radical chic that sits more easily on the progressive palate than the austere alternatives emanating from behind the Iron Curtain.

This, at its core, is a matter of sensibility. Hobsbawm’s Marxism is acknowledged as ever present but the truth is that it rather fades into ambient music as the subject makes his journey from the wild side of mid-20th century politics to safer terrain: the sophisticated leftism of a grand 21st-century don. Thus, we are taken on a journey to a different mental world than the one in which Hobsbawm spent most of his life before 1989: where a lifelong investment in the Soviet Union could be explained away as an idiosyncratic residue of an exotic past, and the esteemed scholarly veteran would delight a dinner party with a filleting of Thatcherism or Tony Blair.

There is no doubt that Hobsbawm the emeritus professor found peace in this world and Evans, whose interviews tend to be with the aging Marxist’s non-Marxist late-career associates, captures the milieu well. And yet one wonders what he would have thought of his life being read almost back to front: a story primarily of professional success (with page after page on book deals, royalties, Swiss bank accounts and income-tax savvy accountants) with his defining ideological credo flapping about his personage awkwardly, sometimes as plumage and sometimes as pockmarks from a troubled adolescence.

The Hobsbawm that Evans more readily identifies with is the founder of journals and shaper of scholarly agendas, public intellectual and commercially successful author. More than that, he sees his subject as the embodiment of a truly cosmopolitan mind. Both in his scholarly work and in his private life—as a multi-lingual jazz-loving scholar and (somewhat bumbling) bohemian—Hobsbawm is presented as a living antidote to provincialism, parochialism and narrow nationalism. Once the Marxism is downgraded, these are surely things that any self-respecting left-liberal would embrace.

*** Evans tells the story of Hobsbawm’s emotional formation deftly and movingly. By a twist of fate, he was born in Alexandria where his East Ender English father, the son of second-generation Polish Jews, met his Austrian Jewish mother. As the First World War came to an end, his parents moved to Vienna, where his mother’s extended family were based. Eric grew up in the world of the Viennese bourgeoisie, although his family’s financial status was far from secure. His upbringing was “cosmopolitan by definition”; he was soon fluent in English, German and French. Although his mother insisted that he remain conscious of his Jewish heritage, he was both instinctively secular and assimilationist. He was later criticised for not fully engaging with the Holocaust (in which he lost family); his reply was that it was too difficult for him to confront in great depth while retaining the emotional detachment he regarded as essential to his work.

In 1929, he lost his father—a merchant and talented amateur boxer who struggled to relate to his bookish son—and then two years later his mother, from tuberculosis. Orphaned at 14, it was harder still that the only thing he shared with his sister Nancy was mutual disdain. His sexual coming of age was slow and clumsy. It was not until his forties, following the breakdown of his first marriage, that he had something of a second adolescence. There was a hazy interlude in the Soho jazz scene, a relationship with a beautiful but troubled prostitute and two affairs with married women (one produced an illegitimate son).

Hobsbawm’s political awakening came in July 1931, when he and his sister were sent to live with their uncle in Berlin, a cauldron of radical politics as the Weimar Republic entered its death throes. He was spurred by the poetry of Bertolt Brecht—and already had a working understanding of Marx and Lenin—but it was the Communist Party’s willingness to take the fight to the Nazis in the beer halls or on the streets that really drew him to their ranks.

By March 1933, the family recognised there was no future in Hitler’s Germany and moved back to London, where his aunt and uncle raised him in a mildly left-wing family. But much of Hobsbawm’s lifelong commitment to the communist cause can be explained by the friendships he made in Berlin. Another factor was that he had seen the curtain raised on what he presumed would be the century’s defining ideological struggle. For Hobsbawm, communism did not recommend itself as a luxury or idealised choice—the perfect vision of the good life—but as the only historical force capable of defeating fascism, as the old capitalist order collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. In a famous Late Show interview in 1994, Hobsbawm told Michael Ignatieff that he would still have held the same position, even if someone had told him in advance that it would have cost 20m lives.

At the same time, he was neither purist nor doctrinaire when it came to political action. He believed that the acrimony between the communists and the Social Democrats in Germany had proved fatal to the left. In London, he was happy to attend Labour Party meetings, even if he was exasperated by the arcane proceduralism and hoped other communists would radicalise it from the inside.

Compared to the excitements of Berlin, for Hobsbawm Britain was a “terrible let-down…  provincial, boring and predictable.” He immersed himself more deeply in Marxist scholarship, which sparked in him “an interest in the great macro-historical question of how human societies evolved.” Hobsbawm won a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge, where he was delighted to find himself in the company of the first generation of communists, such as Margot Heinemann, whom he idolised.

The start of the Second World War coincided with the end of Hobs-bawm’s undergraduate degree. He was drafted into the Royal Engineers under the National Service Act and drilled in expectation of a German invasion. He was transferred to the Army Educational Corps, avoiding the fate of his former comrades in the 560 Field Company who found themselves prisoners of the Japanese in Singapore. In 1940, at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, his loyalty to the party was a secondary consideration and he believed that Britain must be defended at all costs. Aided by a listening device in party headquarters in London, MI5 opened a file on him. While Evans thinks this was unduly Orwellian, the spies’ actual assessments were mostly fair-minded, acknowledging that he had a certain affection for his country. Hobsbawm thought the party line “hopeless” in 1940, and understood the “justifiable” suspicion of the Soviet Union.

More could have been said on Hobsbawm’s muted British patriotism. Thinking back on being a child in Vienna, collecting stamps, he described “the contrast between the unchanging continuity of George V’s head on British stamps and the chaos of overprints, new names and new currencies elsewhere.” Evans does quote the Sri Lankan President of the Cambridge Union, Pieter Keuneman, who saw in Hobsbawm a “large and vulgar patriotism for England, which he considered as his spiritual home.” But this “vulgar” Hobsbawm remains submerged. Tellingly, unlike many friends on the hard left, Hobsbawm wanted the Labour Party to stay within the wartime coalition to the end because he believed that the Tory old guard had insufficient fibre to defeat Nazism.

Hobsbawm’s continued membership of the Communist Party until it was dissolved in 1989 threw up a series of dilemmas that tested his integrity. The record is a mixed one. While never a hardline Stalinist, he uncritically parroted Moscow’s propaganda in 1937 when the first evidence of the show trials had come to light in the west. He was asked, along with Raymond Williams, to concoct an apologia for the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 and duly complied. It was certainly fortunate for his career and place in British society that Moscow ended up as London’s ally after 1941. He was able to join with many Britons in cheering on the bravery of the Red Army—asking his fellow soldiers to sign a football to be sent to their Russian comrades on the frontline.

As the Cold War took shape, Hobsbawm was at odds with the Communist Party hierarchy on a number of issues, beginning with Moscow’s handling of the split between Stalin and Tito in 1948 (making his objections to the party line known “privately”). The first open dispute came in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech condemning the “cult of personality” under his predecessor. Hobsbawm and a number of his colleagues in the Communist Party Historians’ Group insisted that Stalin’s record must now be subject to greater scrutiny, something which the political hierarchy of the party resisted. The intra-communist acrimony intensified when the Red Army deposed the Imre Nagy regime in Hungary later that year. As tanks rolled into Budapest, he resigned as chairman of the historians’ group but remained with the party. Another potential watershed came in 1968, following the Soviet invasion of Prague to depose the moderate reforming government of Alexander Dubek. Evans notes that Hobsbawm was much more distant from the party at this point, but it was not until 1978, in an article in Marxism Today, that he made public his support for Dubek’s model of democratic socialism.

Frankly, as Hobsbawm settles into a don’s life, the sense of drama in the book dissipates. It is beyond question that Hobsbawm was passed over for prestigious positions in the decade after the war because of his political views, although he did not feel in any way persecuted for his political beliefs after the 1950s. Notably, some of the resistance came from social democrats like RH Tawney, or traditionalist scholars who thought him a dilettante, rather than those on the right. Opportunities were also plentiful, from a research fellowship at Cambridge, a permanent job at Birkbeck, regular airtime on the BBC to the beneficence of American institutions, including the Rockefeller Foundation, during and after the Cold War. Predictably, in a book about the life of a distinguished don by a distinguished don, a sense of academic hierarchy begins to make its presence felt, along with the occasional catty comment about less distinguished scholars or the stuffy reactionaries of Oxbridge high table.

*** Piece by piece, the jagged edges of the early Hobsbawm are smoothed off, setting the scene for his unlikely return to political fashion in the 1980s, just as the Soviet Union entered its dotage. Having barely bothered with domestic politics since 1945, he wrote a series of essays on the future of the Labour Party in Marxism Today beginning with “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” in 1978. These argued that it needed to look beyond its working-class base towards white-collar support, including intellectuals. Evans credits Hobsbawm with “undeniable influence” on the New Labour project—for which he was made a Companion of Honour in 1997—but this is most likely overstated, despite some brief exchanges with Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown.

Evans writes that there were “predictable howls of protest on the political right” at the announcement of the Companion of Honour but Hobsbawm was no doubt more conscious of the criticism from the left. If Jack Jones, the veteran volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and one-time trade union leader, was willing to kneel before the Queen for the same honour, that was good enough for Hobsbawm. It wasn’t a knighthood, after all. These fine distinctions become more important as Hobsbawm edges into the status of a “national treasure”: as if there was an ideological chasm between Oxbridge high table and a radical north London dinner party; or that it was particularly interesting to distinguish between Blair (“Thatcher in trousers”) and the more cerebral Brown.

In the final assessment, Evans identifies three blind-spots in Hobsbawm’s work: he knew little about Africa; he had a narrow conception of culture that was too dismissive of popular or modernist tastes; and he had little to say about the experience of women. These types of thing might be anathema to the modern history department, but they are oddly 21st-century standards to hold as a flame to the gnarly old communist’s feet. There were other blind-spots that might have been mentioned. One was the failure to subject Soviet science and other fads from Moscow to the same critical standards he applied to the west. Another was a banal and unreflective anti-Americanism.

As history washed away the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm’s brilliance meant that he did not go out with the tide. While he gained a place in the heart of the progressive wing of the establishment, however, the things that made him so interesting in the first place—the sharp edges and lifelong ideological bets concerning the very future of civilisation—drifted from view. Reading this book, one is reminded of a verse penned by Clement Attlee in 1938 in response to his intellectual critics on the hard left: “The people’s flag is palest pink/It’s not red blood but only ink.”

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans is published by Little, Brown, £35