Top critical review
A donnish interpreter for the working class
Reviewed in the United States on September 12, 2004
After a slow 150 pages in which Hobsbaum tells of his birth in 1917 in Alexandria to a Jewish father, son of an émigré cabinet-maker, and a Viennese jeweller's daughter followed by his youth in Austria and then Weimar Berlin and his stint at Cambridge, his story gains energy, if intermittently. Certainly Hobsbaum has led, after a rather tenuous period of living hand-to-mouth via the courtesy of relations and friends, a life more comfortable than that gained by many, communist or capitalist. His adherence to the Communist Party for so much of his life, from his profession in 1932 in Germany to his joining in 1936 and his allegiance throughout Stalinism and after the Hungarian revolt of 1956 motivates his four-hundred page apologia. Balancing his ideological commitment to a concomitant refusal to accept dogma results in a curious tension. How can a securely employed, well-travelled, multi-lingual, and nimbly minded individual stay loyal to a cause that rallied the poor and the intellectual while committing so many murders in its name?
Hobsbaum argues well his reasoning. Surprisingly, little of his book recapitulates his scholarly mission, the fame of which derives first from his popularising of the earlier century's "primitive rebels," those who resisted capitalisation and globalisation and their own redundancy. Far too many pages provide lists of luncheons, flights, and friends. Hobsbaum warns the reader that little of his private life will emerge here, and his sons gain only a couple of sentences here and there, for example; their half-brother, apparently the result of an affair in-between his two marriages, is mentioned in half-a-sentence. Instead, as the blurb and the cover images trumpet, Hitler, Che, and the Soviet Man of Steel gain attention, and even more the milieu in which he and his internationalists roamed in between seminars and scholarship-again, little of the classroom to be found here. Hobsbaum actually gives little insight into the Great Men, but much on his mates.
Idiosyncratically, the book's form skips about. Most of it tracks his own career, while latter chapters sum up his thoughts and chats in France, Italy, Spain, the Third World, and the U.S. One chapter, fascinating to me for its oblique mirroring of recent Ireland, takes on the land of his holiday home in Wales near the eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, builder of among other wonders, the seaside resort of Portmeirion, later the site of the 1960s television series The Prisoner. In this chapter, the author carefully analyses the resurgence of Welsh separatism in that decade, to the point that it drove him to a safer and more anglicised portion of the principality in which to vacation. Hobsbaum dismisses "ethnolinguistic nationalism" and has little time for the 1960s legacy of individualism that led to the promotion of non-conformity at the expense of the social ideal for which earlier revolutionaries had struggled.
Hobsbaum pinpoints the crucial difference between himself and later radicals. He is one of the last living intellectuals inspired to hoist the Red flag by the events in the year of his birth. A teenager when he cast his lot with the German communists just before Hitler's consolidation of power, Hobsbaum defends his faith in Marx. While later converts recanted once the allure of the anti-fascist crusade dimmed, Hobsbaum emphasises that he remained a believer after Khrushchev's decision to undermine the monolithic power of the CPSU in 1956-the second time that "ten days shook the world." "To put it in the simplest terms," he summarises, "the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it." (201) Because Hobsbaum and his CP allies had been lied to, "something that had to affect the very nature of a communist's belief," the concealment of the truth about Stalin led to the instability of an presumed solid façade of political and cultural endurance, and foreshadowed the fall of the Wall.
Which perhaps was a Potemkin village, but one where, Hobsbaum claims, protection against the harsh blows of capitalism and unrestrained greed did enable Soviets and those under their subjection to pursue a laudable goal of communist equality and worldwide fraternity. Hobsbaum cautiously tiptoes around the conflict of the dream with the reality.
He acknowledges that communists like himself and their western parties never had to govern from a position of actual power, and therefore mitigates the decisions made by those who did rule in the name of the working class. No creed since Islam in the seventh century, he reminds us, spread so rapidly and so far across our planet.
Speaking of this takeover, Hobsbaum elides complications. He compares the removal of communist ministers in western governments circa 1947 with their inclusion in non-communist administrations "in the countries under communist rule." (180) He laments the establishment of the Orwellian-monikered Cominform before continuing: `The Eastern regimes, deliberately not set up as communist, but as pluriparty "new" or "peoples' democracies" with mixed economies, were now assimilated to the "dictatorship of the proleteriat", i.e. the standard Communist Party dictatorships.' The author seems to skip over how a country can be "under communist rule" with a mixed economy and a pluriparty regime for long, before being standardised as a CP one-party dictatorship, given the logic of communist consolidation of power within a single party model. And, from my admittedly non-specialist understanding of those nations soon to be mortared into the façade of the Eastern bloc, such a pluriparty system was never seriously intended to survive, given the 1943 Tehran conference and the Cold War's surrender to the USSR of those Central and Eastern European nations as a buffer zone to defend Stalin's empire.
Hobsbaum confused me with a statement about one of those buffer nations with which I have some familiarity, Hungary. Discussing an intellectual who claimed to be a victim of Soviet repression post-1956 who in fact was a Party organiser after the revolt, the author states: `Unfortunately in the course of those years, under the benevolent eye of the Kadar government, the sympathizers with the 1956 movement, that is to say the bulk of the communist intellectuals and the academics, quietly re-established their positions.' (145)
Those less informed about Hungary at this time might misconstrue this passage, intended to contrast the fake refugee from the revolt with his comrades who remained, as praising the regime of Kadar, who pretended to side with the rebels only to turncoat to the Soviet invaders as they returned to crush the revolt, and to imply that the majority of those who were sympathisers with the rebellion suffered no harm under the Kadar regime. Although a communist revolt, the Hungarians sought neutrality apart from the Warsaw Pact and a mixed economy. These aims, Hobsbaum agrees, could not have been tolerated under Soviet domination, but he diminishes the struggle of those who sought a more human face for socialism by too often defending the Russian bear's slashes across the face of those who defied its imperial might, feigned as a blow for people's equality.
Throughout his book, Hobsbaum distances himself from Judaism and Zionism, in the name of a greater identity with the oppressed everywhere. Yet his early identification with the position of the outsider, the alien, and the non-conformist (witness too his long championship in scholarship and avocation of an appreciation for jazz) could only have been gained by his Judaic stance, secular as it was, and his similar oppositional decision to embrace communism at fourteen. I find his lack of sympathy for Israel predictable therefore, but still would like to know what alternatives could have existed for his relatives who did not survive the camps, or those who did survive in a hostile Europe.
His detachment from issues like these when they effect the individual may be attributed to his rather distanced position as that outsider, whether in Wales, in London, in Berlin, or in Alexandria (although his lectureships at the New School in New York City, at Stanford and the Getty Center, or his frequent global trips in search of like-minded companions sounded quite enjoyable to me). He claims that after his forties, whatever happened of note in his life was inside his head, and these transatlantic odysseys merely widened his intellectual horizons. Or maybe not, as he remained loyal to the Cause throughout the Cold War, despite New Labour, and now in spite of Bush. His chapters on the rest of the world outside the dons' room and the overseas seminar open up many intriguing insights, but I never felt that Hobsbaum was quite on the same level as us proles.
A sample, taken from a discussion of the Party's `cultural group' protesting in 1956: `The Indo-Scandinavian intellectual Palme Dutt, one of those implausibly tall upper-class figures one occasionally meets among Bengalis, belonged through his mother to an eminent Swedish kindred-Olaf Palme, the socialist premier assassinated in 1986, was another member.' (208-9) This, like his analogy of labeled decanters in "the combination room" at Cambridge to keep dons from confusing their port and their sherry, speak of a privileged world in which Hobsbaum has earned his eminence, and one where, his communism to the contrary, he continues to thrive. It is natural for any of us to write from the position we know, so I don't mean to criticise the laurels which Hobsbaum has earned, but I do wish to point out that, as he confesses, `somewhere inside of me there is a small ghost who whispers: "One should not be at ease in a world such as ours." As the man said when I read him in my youth: "The point is to change it."' (313). However, he interprets the world marvelously--if evasively.
[Review edited from an on-line essay for the Belfast-based journal The Blanket.]