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Outliving his own ideology but not his insight

Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life, Eric Hobsbawm, Pantheon Books: 464 pp., $30

September 07, 2003|David Rieff | David Rieff is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of several books, including "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

In the late 1950s, English poet Stephen Spender visited Warsaw under the aegis of the British Council tour. Stalin was dead, but the ruling Polish Communist Party was still operating very much along Stalinist lines. Still, even in these savagely repressive conditions, Spender made a huge success of his visit. Shortly before he was due to return home, a reception was given in his honor. At it, the head of the Polish Writers' Union rose to thank Spender and to make what was at the time a daring offer. "Tell us whom you want to meet, no matter how controversial, and we'll arrange it," he said. "And don't worry; we won't say the person's ill or out of the country." Spender thought for a moment and replied, "I want to meet a communist." But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than he heard a voice from somewhere in the crowd -- he never found out who it was, he later told me -- retort in French: "Alas, sir, you've come too late."

I found myself thinking of this story more than once as I read Eric Hobsbawm's simultaneously brilliantly lucid and perversely obscurantist memoir, "Interesting Times."

Hobsbawm, one of the most remarkable historians of the 20th century, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 and grew up in Vienna and Berlin before moving to Britain in the early 1930s. Unlike Spender's Polish interlocutors, he formally joined the Communist Party as a student at Cambridge University, and he remained a loyal Communist until the demise of the British party in 1991. Although many of Hobsbawm's colleagues in the legendary Historian's Group of British Marxist academics, notably the great historian E.P. Thompson, left after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and many younger Marxist academics and intellectuals abandoned the Communist Party after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, Hobsbawm stayed on to the bitter end.

In a sense, Hobsbawm outlived his own ideology without ever having repudiated it -- a curious and doubtless disconcerting destiny, particularly for so ideological a man as Hobsbawm, and one of which he is clearly painfully aware. Indeed, much of the interest of Hobsbawm's memoir lies in the way he treats (and refuses to treat) his own ideological trajectory.

Instead of titling the book "Interesting Times," with its reference to the Chinese saying that to live in such epochs is a curse, Hobsbawm might as well have borrowed a title from English writer Christopher Sykes and called it "a study in loyalty" -- in this case, his own. And anyone in any doubt about the truth of the cliche that communism was a secular religion for people of Hobsbawm's generation need only read his book to have those doubts assuaged.

He writes eloquently of how his experience of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism bound him to the ideals of the Communist-dominated Popular Front and the fight against fascism, but for a writer as sardonic and, above all, as allergic to all forms of sentimentality as Hobsbawm, the passages in his book about his abiding allegiance to the Communist Party have a depressingly sacerdotal ring. One fairly typical passage reads as follows: "the Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first, or more precisely, the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the line' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it, although we made heroic efforts to convince ourselves of its intellectual and political 'correctness' in order to 'defend it,' as we were expected to." He goes on to add, in a book that is almost ostentatious in its refusal to go into personal matters, that "to have a serious relationship with someone who was not in the Party or prepared to join (or rejoin it) was unthinkable."

To be sure, Hobsbawm now describes his post-1956 years in the party as a species of internal exile. But his continued apologia for the party, or, more precisely, for his refusal to leave the party, will strike many readers as putting such claims in doubt. A historian of Hobsbawm's distinction deserves the benefit of the doubt, but what is one to make of a writer who now concedes the horrors of Stalin's Russia but nonetheless somewhat blithely insists that he stayed in because "nobody forced me out and the reasons for going were not quite strong enough." Not quite strong enough! This from a man who freely admits that he was aware of the Stalinist show trials of the late 1940s, of the imposition in the USSR of the bogus scientific doctrine of Lysenkoism and of the anti-Semitic excesses of Stalin's last years.

And what was on the other side of the ledger, apparently outweighing these crimes?

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