Interesting Times: A Twentieth-century Life, by Eric Hobsbawm

Stefan Collini salutes the life of a great historian, and loyal Communist, who found the pattern of our past - and present

Saturday 14 September 2002 00:00 BST

Interesting times is that curious hybrid, an impersonal autobiography. One learns from it rather more about the society and politics of the 20th century than about the inner life of Eric Hobsbawm. He largely writes as the analytical historian, pointing out how the relatively insignificant details of his life have been shaped by the great forces of modern history, rather than as the suffering subject, dwelling on the texture of intimate experiences.

Still, the bare biographical facts are interesting in themselves. Born in Alexandria in 1917, the son of an English-Jewish father and an Austrian-Jewish mother, he grew up in Vienna. He spent two politically formative years in Berlin in his mid-teens, followed by three years at school in London, before going to Cambridge. There he carried off the trophies of intellectual success: a starred first, editor of Granta, elected to the Apostles, and so on.

After a dull war, he became a lecturer and professor at Birkbeck College, London, while launching out into his extra-mural career of intellectual jet-setting, becoming what the French call "un turbo-prof". For some years he moonlighted as jazz critic of the New Statesman, publishing a book on jazz under the pseudonym of "Francis Newton". He went on to publish a dozen works of history, including his massive trilogy on the period from 1789 to 1914.

But Eric Hobsbawm is also a failed revolutionary. He became a Communist in Berlin in 1932, on the eve of Hitler's seizure of power. He joined the British Communist Party when he went to Cambridge, and remained a member until its dissolution in 1991. In retrospect, he describes his earlier self as "a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project" of world revolution. Everything, from love affairs to career choices, was subordinate to party discipline. "The Party was what our life was about."

A brief flirtation with Communism was not unusual among the concerned young of his generation: in the Thirties, especially in central Europe, it could seem like the only serious option. But the intensity and longevity of Hobsbawm's commitment has been extremely unusual, at least in Britain; nearly all his peers left the Party after the earthquakes of 1956. In so far as this book is any kind of apologia pro vita sua – and in its quiet, rueful way it is – it returns with revealing frequency to trying to justify this unfashionable attachment.

The difficulty of "breaking with" old comrades played a part, and Hobsbawm is clearly a man of admirably strong loyalties. But he also touches on a more intriguing, if less flattering, explanation: a perverse pride in success in conventional society despite being known as a card-carrying Red. Such self-analytic honesty is one of the appealing qualities of Interesting Times, though one wonders how this explanation would have been received by those friends who argued for the indefensibility of Party membership after Soviet tanks had rolled into Hungary.

Fortunately, Hobsbawm never gave up his day job. He seems to have had as precocious a sense of his intellectual as his political vocation: the point was not merely to change the world, but also to interpret it. Here there can be no talk of failure: he has become one of the most wide-ranging, as well as widely read, historians of the late 20th century, despite not publishing his first monograph until be was 42. His work has never been confined to professional sheep pens. His bailiwick has been the modern world as it has evolved since the upheavals of the French and Industrial Revolutions.

In effect, he turned himself into a world-class kibbitzer, looking at events as though from a small café table at the edge of the square, always ready to throw in his two pennyworth about what's really going on. He has been a historian of the world, and the world has reciprocated his interest. His history of the "short 20th century", Age of Extremes (1994), has now been translated into 37 languages.

Interesting Times gives us all this and much more: portraits of old comrades, political analyses, short histories of local micro economies, and so on. Only occasionally is the reader allowed a glimpse of a less public life. The plum here must be his one-sentence record of how, in Paris in the late Thirties, "in the course of a night on the town with a Hungarian communist, I lost my virginity in an establishment – I can no longer recall its address – with an orchestra of naked ladies and in a bed surrounded on all sides by mirrors". It's a delightful memory, but characteristic that the historian feels obliged to mention the missing evidence; and that, even here, he was keeping good Party company.

For all its restraint and public focus, the book does suggest a man who for the first 40 years of his life struggled with unhappiness, and social and emotional awkwardness. His prose can still betray a certain wariness: he describes himself as "someone who does not wholly belong where he finds himself". This quality has sharpened his perceptions and protected him from the temptations of parochialism, but one can't help wondering whether a little more comfortableness, with himself and his world, might not have issued in an autobiographical voice at once fonder and more evocative.

Instead, this book is, indirectly, a vindication of the Enlightenment ideal of rational enquiry (albeit constrained by Party discipline in his earlier years). It could have been sub-titled "How to be an intellectual", for Hobsbawm possesses several constitutive qualities of that role: above all, curiosity, a tireless search for pattern and meaning allied to an unyielding respect for the awkward facts that don't fit. And, beyond that, a belief in and gift for exchange, collaboration and stimulation, whether in writing a pamphlet with a leading figure in the Italian Communist party, being an animating presence in the group which founded the journal that became Past and Present, or in welcoming students from all quarters of the globe (and every degree of advantage or disadvantage) at Birkbeck and the New School, New York.

Perhaps he has penned his own ideal self-description when he reports how in 1999 he spoke (to a packed auditorium at the Sorbonne, characteristically) "frankly, critically, sceptically, but impenitently and not without pride for those who stood for a left in which the old distinctions of party and orthodoxy no longer counted". "Not without pride" (double negative and all) might be the motto of this autobiography, and rightly so. He is, in his own words, one of "those who insist on looking at the world the way it is", and he grimly concludes that the world of 2002 "needs historians more than ever, especially sceptical ones".

Amen to that. Or, rather, the evidence suggests that, on balance, he may not be wholly wrong.

Stefan Collini is professor of English and intellectual history at Cambridge University

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