| Aye but eyeless
There are men who grow easily into an overblown reputation. Eric Hobsbawm is one of them. His best books of historical scholarship, Bandits and Primitive Rebels, never touched the heights of greatness of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class or of Christopher Hill’s work on Milton, and the English radicals of the 17th century. I deliberately choose Thompson and Hill since they were Hobsbawm’s ideological peers.
Hobsbawm is best known, outside the world of historians, for his survey of European history from 1789 to 2000, divided into four ages — Revolution, Capital, Empire and Extremes. The word survey is used advisedly since the books were marked more for their grand sweep than for their solid research and analytical rigour. Yet, these volumes have made Hobsbawm the best known of that remarkable group of historians associated with the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Marxist historians who set up the journal Past and Present. It is this reputation that has perhaps tempted Hobsbawm, at the age of 85, to try his hand at autobiography (Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life, Allen Lane, £ 15), something which neither Hill nor Thompson attempted even though their work as historians is far more significant than Hobsbawm’s.
Hobsbawm has had an interesting life even though it is doubtful if his memories and reflections would arouse any interest among those who do not share his commitments and interests. He was born in Alexandria, had a Viennese childhood and in his teens he became a communist when he saw in Berlin the rise of the Nazis. He has remained a lifelong and proud communist as well as a member of the CPGB till its dissolution in the early Nineties. The autobiography is informed by this pride and the memories of this commitment.
The owl of Minerva, Hegel remarked, flies only after dusk. The observation is important for the autobiographer-historian. There is a thin and blurred line between recollecting responses and emotions of the past and seeing and evaluating them with the wisdom of hindsight. Both are important. Readers are eager to know how Hobsbawm reacted to some of the great events that occurred in the interesting times that shaped his life and experiences. They are equally keen to know what he feels now about those responses with all his accumulated erudition as a historian and an intellectual. There may be an element of disingenuousness in avoiding the latter responsibility. Thus Hobsbawm writes, “Within little more than thirty years of Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station, one third of the human race and all governments between the Elbe and the China Seas lived under the rule of Communist Parties. The Soviet Union itself, defeating the most formidable war machine of the 20th century ...emerged from the Second World War as one of the world’s two superpowers.”
Many communists felt the same way as Hobsbawm. But in 2002, there is a palpable insincerity (if not utter dishonesty) in not admitting the horrible brutality of the communist regime in the Soviet Union which made it equal in the deployment of terror to the war machine it helped destroy in World War II. From all that has been revealed about the Soviet Union, it is clear that its status as a superpower had no economic basis and its military achievements were at the cost of the complete deprivation of the Russian people whom the communist regime was ostensibly meant to serve.
Hobsbawm refers in passing to the “landscape of material and moral ruin” produced by the collapse of the USSR. How did this come about' Why did a “superpower” fall like a house of cards' He writes tantalizingly that “it must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start”. He leaves it at that. Why from the start' Why is it obvious only now' There were people — even within the Marxist tradition — who believed that failure and brutality were inherent in the Leninist project, even as it was begun. Why wasn’t it obvious to as perceptive and as learned a person like Hobsbawm' The answer is simple: because of his blind loyalty to the communist party to which he belonged and thus to the Soviet Union and Stalin.
Large parts of Hobsbawm’s autobiography is an elaborate justification of why he, despite many reservations, remained loyal to the Soviet Union and even to the CPGB when all his comrades in the Historians’ Group had left after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The reasons for the loyalty to the Soviet Union are at times risible. For example, despite serious resentment at Stalin’s excommunication of Tito, “we [this collective used again and again in the context of blind loyalty to the official party line, but never quite spelt out] stayed loyal to Moscow, because the cause of world socialism could dispense with the support of a small, if heroic and admired, country, but not with that of Stalin’s superpower.” There is no reckoning here of what Stalin’s dominance meant for communism and its future. The loyalty, or its hangover today, leads to the description of Stalin’s History of the CPSU (b): Short Course as a “pedagogically brilliant’’ text: an approbation which makes one doubt Hobsbawm’s credibility both as teacher and historian.
Hobsbawm remained a party member because, he says, his communist roots were central European; communism meant “not simply fighting fascism but the world revolution’’. But this was true of the entire generation who turned communist in the Thirties yet some of them did leave the party after Hungary and later. So, in fact, Hobsbawm has explained nothing about an extremely important question of his life.
This superficiality is reflected in the complete absence of the world of ideas in an autobiography of a man who, one presumes, dabbled with ideas all his life. We are told that at a very young age he tried reading Capital and failed. When did he read it' What was his reaction' When did he read and grapple with the other Marxist classics' Similarly, Antonio Gramsci. There is no sense of serious engagement with the formidable intellectual apparatus that informs Marxism. One could easily run away with the impression that this is the autobiography of a man who, despite being a communist, had only a passing interest in the intellectual currents within Marxism. Alas, this is not the case. This is the autobiography of a leading Marxist historian.
There is an air of complacency in Hobsbawm’s recollections. There is a refusal to reckon with past errors and misjudgments. This is reflected elsewhere. In The Age of Capital, he referred to “Satyadjit [sic] Ray’s beautiful film Pather Panchali based on a 19th century Bengali novel”; he made Bankimchandra the author of India’s national anthem. I know for a fact that these errors, enough to make a sixth former blush, were pointed out to Hobsbawm. But the book continues with the howlers. (May be readers from other parts of the world have noted similar instances of Hobsbawm’s shoddy research.) This speaks of a mindset which has a certain fit with the blindness that engendered loyalty to the official party line.
Hobsbawm’s anti-Americanism will strike a chord in most of his readers. But many of them will do a doubletake when they read on the last page that Hobsbawm believes that the British Empire was saved from megalomania by Britain’s modest size. Really Professor Hobsbawm' An empire which believed in its high noon that the sun would not set on it, an empire most of whose proconsuls had nothing but contempt for Indian culture did not suffer from even a whiff of megalomania' Indians can only smile at the blindness of the historian.
The call to change the world invoked in Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feurbach and which Hobsbawm advocates, retains its charge and its importance. But to carry out the task there is the need for greater doubt and less faith than displayed by men like Eric Hobsbawm.