A review of Richard J Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown, 2019), £35
Breadth and verve made Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) the most sold and most translated of socialist historians ever to write in English. Compared with his near-contemporaries Edward Thompson (the most-quoted) and Christopher Hill, he was also the least period-bound.
Hill’s 1947 Stalinist pilgrimage to Lenin and the Russian Revolution soon served as Awful Warning. Hobsbawm, by contrast, first moved towards prominence via a controversy on the depth of Europe’s “crisis of the 17th century” along, in 1959, with an international comparison between Primitive Rebels. “Primitive” might be condescending, but he was no less open-minded than Thompson or Hill towards revolt among the oppressed and exploited, towards Bandits (1969) or towards industrial or rural machine-breakers at any time. Between 1962 and 1989, he published four volumes entitled The Age of… . The quadrilogy proclaimed his ability to swoop down on seemingly tiny examples from a vast range of sources. It opened boomingly with The Age of Revolution and ended, some say disappointingly, with The Age of Extremes. The latter treated his own “short 20th century”, covering 1914-89: he had lengthened his “long 19th” from 1789 till 1914. It is easy now to criticise him for focussing too narrowly on Europe, but he was right to see the “dual revolution” of Britain’s industrialisation and France’s political upheavals as making that continent the fulcrum of worldwide transformations—the subtitle of his Age of Revolution is 1789-1848.
Politically, Hobsbawm’s main difference from nearly all other British Marxist historians was that he remained in the Communist Party, for six decades till it collapsed in the late 1980s. Amid the Cold War, that allegiance powered a further focus: on Britain’s economic history. In the “standard of living debate”, apologists for capitalism were keen to exonerate Britain’s “industrial revolution”: it had not impoverished the working masses seriously, if at all. From 1957, Hobsbawm was among the “pessimistic” historians who countered that it had, for roughly a century into at least the 1850s. For both sides, explicitly or not, the contrast was with Soviet industrialisation. “Pessimists” about Britain’s past tended to be pro-Soviet, “optimists” pro-capitalist.
The stakes were still larger: how should all ex-colonies be told to “develop”? From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walt Whitman Rostow prescribed them his 1960 Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. His model was absurdly over-reliant on 18th and 19th century Britain, and downplayed the profits from imperialism. He was soon among President Lyndon B Johnson’s advisers on how to stop the Communists in Vietnam: the more bombing, the better. After the “loss” of Indo-China, he argued that America had nonetheless won that war: it had secured the rest of South-East Asia for his same market-model of economic development. Ironically, MIT did not give him back his old job, whereas it had awarded Hobsbawm a visiting professorship from as early as 1967, despite weeks of apoplexy somewhere within the FBI. Only a few months earlier, that soon-to-be visiting prof had grinned with relief at a remark from one fresh research student that the standard of living debate “bored me stiff”: evidently, he saw that engagement as an ideological chore. So a Rostow-Hobsbawm comparison suggests that obsessive economism came more smoothly to “optimists” than to “pessimists”.
Thanks to Richard Evans’s 662-page text and 80 pages of footnotes, the long life of “Eric” becomes one of the liveliest of any period. Cynical readers would be grossly wrong to compare it with the compendious tomes of Life and Letters where breathless acolytes memorialised some late-Victorian grandee, often burying him (they were almost all men) deeper. Evans is anyway no acolyte, either personally or politically, but a fellow historian and personal friend of Hobsbawm. Eric and Marlene Schwarz (they married in 1962) had thousands of friendships, and agreement seems to have been a far smaller criterion than stimulus.
Rather, the book’s length comes from two very different factors: general and personal. First, MI5 has taken to releasing the older files of those it targets once those targets die. Whether or not such release is total, it can at least enrich biographers’ suspicions. Hobsbawm was targeted from at least 1942, while based in the Army Education Corps. For many years, MI5 also had a crackly microphone in the Communist Party’s headquarters, where most of the rare mentions of Comrade Hobsbawm were in tones of exasperation or contempt. Second, Eric himself was frequently a voluble diarist. Long letters and many other personal documents also survive. Divergence between state and personal sources would have been interesting enough. But, via Evans at least, they seem to harmonise. This may boost some activists’ paranoia. They may, for example, shudder at how intimately Big Brother was watching him; his diary shows him as near suicidal at the break-up of his first marriage (circum-1950) and MI5 confirms this.
Evans is the first to see and gauge both kinds of source, hence his massively detailed footnotes and 37-page index. Although that index federates confusingly-demarcated haystacks bristling with needles, the book makes Eric seem one of the most transparent of individuals, even more so than his 2002 autobiography Interesting Times. His diary often mercilessly outlined his own contradictions. Evans can thus orbit eccentrically between biography and autobiography: he tries, as he says in the preface, “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words”.1 So Hobsbawm is allowed to sing solos of many kinds.
True, Evans’s voice is often indispensable, as when he confirms Eric’s instincts about a summer 1936 foray into a small town in Republican Spain, that the anarchist militiamen he encountered were trigger-happy. Evans takes his “real story” from historian Paul Preston: their local boss, was more of a murderous kidnapper than a liberator. So, particularly when Eric blurted that he was an “English Communist”, he was courting more dangers than he could know.2 We also learn how lucky the timing of his wartime transfer from the Engineers to the Education Corps may have been. Of course, anyone might find themselves living dangerously during those years: before that transfer, Private Hobsbawm had rightly found carrying dynamite along a railway viaduct, 20 metres above Breydon Water near Yarmouth “terrifying”.3 But most of his original fellow soldiers were shipped to Singapore, perishing as slave labourers on the Burma Railway.
Yet the personal complexities fascinate. Whether as “the English bloke“ to his schoolfellows in Vienna and Berlin or as an intellectually omnivorous competitor to his friends at Cambridge, where he arrived on a scholarship during the autumn of 1936, he not only felt an outsider: he was, and proudly. Any wish to integrate deeper was aborted by experiencing London as “provincial”—his word—after Berlin. Cambridge added insularity to that. An orphan since 1931 and international in his self-image, Eric was rare among at least the English of his and surrounding generations in his freedom from class hang-ups, whether deference/resentment from “below” or condescension/guilt from “above”. Intellectually, this may have encouraged him into what some others, including on the left, saw as byways: the author of Primitive Rebels was not merely a polyglot but also intrigued by the ideological world of almost anyone he bumped into.
When he shocked his contemporaries, he could respond with “damn-your-eyes” defiance. For a year or two around 1960, his interest in Soho jazz clubs extended to strip-clubs and also to a prostitute, two decades younger, who shared his love of jazz, between her mothering of a tiny daughter with a woman-friend in a small room on Cromwell Road and drugging herself. Luckily, she felt soothed when sitting around in his Soho flat while he wrote. Here, this relationship’s relevance is that he did not conceal it. Rather, as a lecturer nearby at Birkbeck College on economic and social history he would occasionally refer to “my friend the prostitute”. Lecture-wise, he was signalling how not all his sources were written or printed. For the rest of his life, he occasionally sent “Jo” money. And she remained a friend of his, and later of Marlene and their children too.
There was sometimes a sexual dimension to this, though “Jo” seems to have been disappointed when he first took the initiative. In Evans’s words, “Eric’s narrative of this relationship is couched in an idiom which gives the impression that it is an alter ego that is writing”.4 We can now understand better why neither ego ever replied to Ruth Richardson’s rightly blistering onslaught on his History Workshop Journal article about “Man and Woman in Socialist Iconography”.5 Such a reply might have forced him, if we may speak electrically, to “short” himself by bringing together too many aspects of his conscious character that he normally, for underlying reasons, held separate. Instead, in one of the anthologies of his articles, he simply reprinted the offending piece without any changes: this seems like defiance of another kind, but may have had even deeper roots.
Politically in a conventional sense, the contours of Eric’s life are now well known. His first political “time” was as a schoolboy Communist activist in Berlin (demonstrating, flyposting, hiding a duplicator under his bed). There he experienced the effect of the Comintern’s sectarian “Third Period” in widening the splits within the German labour movement, thereby helping the Nazis towards power. Safely transferred to London in 1933 on his British passport, he inevitably reflected on this. Unlike the slightly younger cohort of Thompson or John Saville, he had himself been a microscopic part of that catastrophe. Along with nearly all the more experienced activists he reacted in the opposite direction: towards a Popular Front of the working class and progessives of all classes as the sole alternative to any repeat of his Berlin trauma. This formed his second political “time”, from which he never emerged. His logic remained: if you criticised Popular Front strategies from the left, you had by definition learned nothing from the 1933 catastrophe. So much for Trotskyists and anarchists.
Throughout all those decades of CP membership, he was always a semi-detached intellectual in ways not available within organisations further to the left. He is not known ever to have sold a single Daily Worker or Morning Star on a street or factory gate anywhere. True, during the general elections of 1935 and 1945 (there were none in between), he did canvas—for Labour. But that was partly for local reasons, and he gives dire descriptions of the one or two Labour branch meetings he sampled: to someone of his age, near-senile with formalities.
From the start, he published in periodicals he chose independently of the party. Usually he also chose his own research foci, before arguing their party relevance where required. During 1938-9 he expected to do research on the French-dominated parts of North Africa, which he visited on a travel grant. But from 1946 he instead began researching on British economic and labour history. As with the party, so with most other party-minded historians: with them too, he interacted very much on his own terms.
His growing identification as an intellectual brought him suspicion from many working class comrades. And as a Communist intellectual he sometimes underestimated how interesting he had become to the security Establishment (the very same Establishment the real Cambridge spies were running rings around) and to its avid nodders-and-winkers in academia. Despite his glittering exam results at Cambridge, his career long stagnated. So, why did he persist so defiantly with his party membership? Over decades, whenever asked, his answers were usually very much in terms either of his own early 1930s or of the heroism of Communists imprisoned or killed by the Nazis. His reasons never moved on with the rest of his sometimes highly mobile life and times. So I surmise his main motive was some need to justify his existence to himself. The more plausibly (and indeed correctly) his pariah status could explain the setbacks and rejections he had experienced, the more gratifying the crescendo of praise and honours (such as being made a “Companion of Honour” at Buckingham Palace in 1997), once it became audible. By then, any boos enriched that crescendo. What other Marxist, let alone British one, has enjoyed a standing ovation after lecturing the French Senate (2008)? But, however massive and intercontinental the recognition, he seems not to have changed his internal narrative, the story he had long told himself about himself: of personal isolation and ideological discrimination surmounted by sheer erudition and intellectual independence.
So, who was the Hobsbawm so honoured? Till at least 1991 and the eviction of Mikhail Gorbachev (who had become one of his idols), the post-1934 nature of Eric’s Communism kept his overall politics within a Stalinist, and in Britain “Fabian” or “delayer”, spectrum. Whatever the human cost, Soviet socialism was fulfilling the criteria of the ageing Fabian pioneers Beatrice and Sidney Webb for “a New Civilisation”. It brought superior organisation which would somehow, some time, overwhelm capitalism while, in some indefinable way, adding internal democracy to this epochal achievement. Till those “somes” matured, you could swoon at (bogus) production statistics: class struggle shrivelled into econometrics.
Though we have seen Hobsbawm focussing more widely than nearly all historians of his or surrounding generations, he could also seem one-eyed. Even though he agonised over the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face” in 1968, he seems to have accepted rose-tinted spectacles from those whose estimates of the Soviet empire he most trusted. “Whatever their own problems”, he burbled to the “Socialist Society” at Birkbeck, “socialist economies, however imperfect they may be, do not have the problems which leave the capitalist economies in crisis. And I think it is important to remind ourselves and to remind everybody of this today”. At first sight, his two qualifiers (“own problems” and “however imperfect”) would date this economism to soon after 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev had blamed the hecatombs of Soviet planning and purging-by-quota on one man: surely a stunning method, worthier of Babylonian scribes than of Marxists. But Hobsbawm was burbling this during 1975.
By then, he had for some years been pinning his political hopes on Eurocommunism. Of course, that may raise many questions about the latter’s relationship to Stalinism. But for now, we can merely notice Eric’s particular paradox: he offered class analyses of many generations and continents but, between the Iron Curtain and Kamchatka or Beijing, his one-party econometrics just had to smother the social history of power, not least in the workplace. Of course, as I discovered this clincher myself (the talk was published as a cyclostyled pamphlet The Crisis and the Outlook) in the British Library, I may wish to overemphasise it.6 But I did alert Evans here and, apart from including me among the many his preface graciously thanks (anyway perhaps also for some pages on Eric as my supervisor), he seems to ignore it.
From the 1980s, Hobsbawm was one of the gurus of Labour’s sometime leader, Neil Kinnock. His Companionship of Honour came via that route, not via Kinnock’s successor Tony Blair, who he sharply diagnosed as “Thatcher in trousers”. Readers of International Socialism will share his bitterness against neoliberalism while suspecting his alternative to be delusory. From the late 1970s, he realised that his post-1933 Popular Frontism—leftish official leaders disciplining working class militancy so as to appeal to “progressives“ in other classes against common enemies—was in crisis, given a decline in militancy and in the demographic weight of the industrial working class itself. But his remedy was more of the same: further moderation. It depended on mass mobilisation for—demobilisation.
Soviet Stalinism may seem like a flesh-ripping tyrannosaurus compared with the plant-browsing brontosaurus of gradualist Labour reformism via the existing state—if you ignore the latter’s imperialist dimensions (Sidney Webb, aka “Baron Passfield” served as Colonial Secretary during 1929-31). But our two long-necked species shared a top-down approach. From the crucial early 1990s—when the collapse of the anyway delusory Stalinist alternative removed much remaining pressure on capitalist states to respect concessions their labour movements had won—Eric became a prophet of going round in circles. True, the speed may vary from sector to sector: many aspects of the NHS have survived from the 1940s into the 2010s. But brontosauri waltz clumsily at any speed.
Evans unforgettably narrates the psychological and intellectual development of one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most brilliantly convoluted lefties. Many reviewers are grumbling that the book is too long. Maybe they are jealous: would any publisher fell so many trees for, say, me? But Hobsbawm’s creativity and self-documentation cry out for this fresh type of book: the often blow-by-blow semi-autobiography. Assuming your Great British neoliberals have diverted your local library funding to some planeless aircraft carrier to patrol their tax havens, just wait till Evans’s Hobsbawm is paperbacked.
Logie Barrow is a former member of the International Socialists, 1964-75; coincidentally, supervised by Eric Hobsbawm during most of those years; based since 1980 at Bremen University, Germany.
1 Evans, 2019, pviii.
2 Evans, 2019, pp113-114 and, Preston, 2013, referred to in footnote 243.
3 Evans. 2019, pp203-204.
4 Evans, 2019, p379.
5 Hobsbawm, 1978; Richardson, 1982.
6 Hobsbawm, 1975, p14.