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Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life
Eric Hobsbawm
London: Allen Lane, 2002
£20.00, xv-448 pages, ISBN 0713995815 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

At times, reviewers are bound to ask themselves questions about their task, especially when confronted with ‘difficult’ books. One such instance is Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, and this for two reasons: (a) Autobiography (b) Hobsbawm.

Autobiography: ‘personal account of one’s own life, esp. for publication’ (COD). Two things can theoretically be submitted to criticism here: (a) the quality and interest of the life being described (b) the author’s way of going about the description. But both are ruled out, or at least fraught with such dangers that only the boldest of reviewers will tread that path with equanimity.

For who is to say that somebody else’s life is interesting or uninteresting ? Thank God, the human species displays an enormous variety, and incidents, anecdotes or even tragedies which will gain one reader’s empathy will be seen as the most boring stuff by the next. A priori, great men’s lives are ‘interesting’, but great men are not ‘great’ at all times: there are plenty of commonplace periods in their lives, and while the description of these periods will attract some readers by showing that their social or intellectual superiors are not totally unlike them, others will feel short-changed, as they bought the book to fly in the higher spheres of the human intellect, or in the world of high politics, or high society—as the case may be. Memoirs, especially political memoirs, are different in that the reader knows that he will only get the professional aspect, the routine elements of everyday life not being part of the tacit contract (though a recent female politician could not resist the sales-boosting element of ‘revealing’ her past affair with a living former Prime Minister).

In any case, since at least Rousseau’s Confessions (1781-88), the genre has been subject to the accusation of self-justification. It is already hard enough for an outside biographer to select what should be published among the vast collection of incidents accumulated during a lifetime—it becomes more than suspicious when the selection is made by the ‘hero’ of the book. If the autobiography is judgmental, either the author settles old accounts, or he tries to ‘set the record straight’ by showing himself in a favourable light—or so the reader is tempted to believe, in view of his knowledge of human frailty. If it is not, it runs the risk of being seen as pap—a pot-boiler which is sooner or later going to be ‘remaindered’ in low-class bookshops. So, autobiography is a clear case of ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ for the author, with few, if any, objective standards for the poor reviewer, who cannot apply the usual canons of scholarly criticism to that hybrid genre.

Hobsbawm: a world-famous intellectual, arguably the greatest British historian still in activity today. Who is to apply the above criteria to his life? To his ‘personal account of his own life’? The humble reviewer does not have to be a sycophant or an adept of hero-worship to immediately recognise the limits of his art. Hobsbawm is beside the point when he writes in his Preface: ‘The question arises why someone like myself should write an autobiography and, more to the point, why others who have no particular connections with me, or may not even have known of my existence before seeing the jacket in a bookshop, should find it worth reading’. It is doubtful whether anybody would acquire the book in a fit of ‘impulse buying’: most buyers and readers (one must not forget libraries) will have a ‘connection’ with Hobsbawm. Not a personal connection, of course, but the familiarity born of reading his work, listening to his lectures, hearing of his action for or against such and such a cause—in short, though he argues in the same Preface that he is not among the ‘personalities’ or ‘celebrities’ of the age, a ‘connection’ born of his fame among that (admittedly rather narrow) section of the public which is interested in the things of the mind. It is perhaps from that angle that his autobiography can be submitted to a discussion here.

The title is not modest: Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life promises some ‘action’ in the narrative. Hobsbawm did not of course make the mistake of calling his autobiography An Interesting Life (probably for the reasons indicated above). We are instead given to understand that we will see the ‘interesting times’ of the twentieth century through the eyes both of a major historian of the period (1) (on the assumption made above that potential buyers and readers perfectly know who and what he is) and of a witness of these ‘interesting times’ (only those already reasonably familiar with his background knowing in advance that he was in fact also a major witness of twentieth century events) (2). The device is extremely effective, as a sort of critical distance vis-à-vis ‘straight’ autobiography is immediately taken, with the suggestion that the usual suspicions (see above) perhaps need not apply in his case.

As a ‘citizen of the world’ in that agitated twentieth century, Hobsbawm has unequalled credentials: born in Alexandria (Egypt) in the year of the Russian Revolution of Jewish parents who met there in 1913, with an English father whose name was spelt Hobsbaum and an Austrian mother, young Eric followed his parents to Vienna immediately after the war and was educated in a Gymnasium there until 1931, when his mother died of a lung disease (his father had died of a heart attack in 1929), and he moved to Berlin, to live with his uncle and aunt. From 1931 to the spring of 1933, when he left for London and later (1936) Cambridge, Hobsbawm attended another Gymnasium ‘in the conservative Prussian tradition’, seeing the last days of the Weimar Republic at first hand. The rest of his life was quieter, as one would expect in the British academic world, but not without its ‘interesting’ incidents, as when he found himself on a lorry filming the great Front Populaire demonstration on Bastille Day, 1936 in Paris. As one might expect for a man with Internationalist convictions like him, he went to many parts of the world in his long career—notably the Soviet Union, Cuba, India, South America on top of Eastern and Western European countries, and of course the United States—and the reader gets a retrospective account of his impressions and reflections at the time, supplemented by his present-day commentaries with the benefit of hindsight

Two elements are constantly present throughout the book to inform his reflection: his Jewishness and his membership of the Communist Party, and the reader somehow feels that he finds it hard to come to terms with both.

Hobsbawm tells us that ‘around the age of ten’ he acquired from his mother ‘a simple principle’ which guided his attitude regarding his Jewishness for the rest of his life, when she told him: ‘You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew’. In his narrative, he never loses an opportunity to denounce Herzl, Zionism and the State of Israel, and he rejects the accusation of ‘the miscellaneous regiment of religious or nationalist publicists’ that he belongs with the category of the ‘self-hating Jew’. Since he is not a religious Jew, he describes himself, after Isaac Deutscher, as a ‘non-Jewish Jew’.

His rejection of Zionism as contradictory with Communism is very clearly explained in a passage in which he quotes Julius Braunthal (3): ‘the smaller aim has to give way to the bigger’—in other words, as Hobsbawm puts it, ‘obvious as the sufferings of the Jews were, they were only part of universal oppression’. Many pages are devoted to his conversion to Communism (‘I became a Communist in 1932, though I did not actually join the Party until I went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1936’) and to an explanation of his support for the Soviet Union during the Cold War:

To most of the world, it did not seem to be the worst of all possible regimes, but an ally in the fight for emancipation from western imperialism, old and new, and a model for non-European economic and social development. The future of both communists and the regimes and movements of the decolonized and decolonizing world depended on its existence. As far as communists were concerned, supporting and defending the Soviet Union was still the essential international priority.
  So we swallowed our doubts and mental reservations and defended it.

Then came the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1956, which ‘destroyed’ the world communist movement born of the October Revolution: ‘In Britain’, Hobsbawm writes, ‘the main effect of the great 1956 earthquake was that it made some 30,000 members of the Communist Party feel terrible’. He himself of course ‘felt terrible’, as the chapter devoted to the question, ‘Stalin and After’, indicates. In a later chapter, he tells us that he engaged in ‘little political activity’ after 1956, adding: ‘I did not even take any active part after 1968 in the bitter political struggle within the small Communist Party between the Soviet hardliners and the Eurocommunists, which finally killed the party in 1991’. The crumbling of the Soviet bloc therefore left him unmoved since ‘By the 1980s the idea that the socialism of the USSR or its followers was what those of us inspired by the October Revolution had in mind was dead’.

It is curious that Hobsbawm, who mentions Raymond Aron twice in his autobiography, should not refer to his L’opium des intellectuels (1955), a severe critique of the kind of romantic Marxism which, at bottom, seems to have inspired Hobsbawm’s action. The ‘blurb’ describes Hobsbawm as ‘peripatetic, sceptical, endlessly curious’—but how can one be ‘sceptical’ and follow the Party line for so long ? This is one of the great unanswered questions of the twentieth century—a question which of course also applies to many other great intellectuals of the time. His tentative, feeble implicit answer is that he always felt he lived in an either/or world: either you supported the USSR, warts and all, or you supported the hypocritical talk of the American-led ‘free world’ – there was no way out of this stark choice, and you knew with whom you instinctively sided if you cared for ‘the poor of the world’. His final RIP for the Soviet Union is indeed impregnated with this unrepentant Manichaeism: ‘The world may yet regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism or barbarism, it decided against socialism’.

Why so ? Because ‘the danger today comes from the enemies of reason: religious and ethno-tribal fundamentalists, xenophobes’. His last chapter provides a link between this personal view of current affairs and his professional judgement as an Internationalist historian, who deprecates ‘in-group history written only for the group (“identity history”)—black history for blacks, queer history for homosexuals, feminist history for women only’—a truly Voltairian (4) profession of faith which makes it even more puzzling why he should have subscribed to the Marxists’ rigid, reductive ‘historical materialism’ for so long.

So the book can be read at several levels: certainly for the ‘interesting times’, both personal and of world significance, which the author has witnessed and very skilfully reports; also no doubt as a portrait gallery, with many percipient vignettes of prominent littérateurs, historians and politicians (mostly of the Left); and of course for the wealth of witty remarks which pepper the narrative. Still, whether the author intends it or not, any autobiography contains its dimension of self-justification (here of course generally in connection with Hobsbawm’s Communist Party days – some readers will be sympathetic: those with unshakeable Leninist inclinations, whilst others, not all of them on the Right, will remain uncomprehending) and self-revelation (this time mostly found in Hobsbawm’s repeated allusions to his Jewishness, an aspect of his personality which non-Jews can only respect, since they have no way of understanding what it can mean for a Jew to have been brought up in post-1918 Vienna and pre-Hitlerite Berlin).

‘Interesting times’, an obviously ‘interesting man’: these can only be the ingredients of an ‘interesting book’, read at whatever level.

(1) Cf. The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century.

(2) Readers familiar with French and French cultural references may have come across what is generally termed the ‘Fabrice à Waterloo’ syndrome, whereby Fabrice del Dongo, the hero of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), who participates in the Battle of Waterloo, has no idea of what is happening and therefore no notion that he his living through an historic event. The reader of Hobsbawm’s autobiography of course expects the reverse.

(3) Readers familiar with the Left Book Club and Gollancz books generally will recognize a familiar figure here.

(4) Among the many carefully thought-out asides of the book, one may note that when Hobsbawm discusses ‘the defeat of the language of Voltaire’, he makes sure that the man who ‘defeats’ Voltaire is not a Briton (he could have chosen Hume) but an American, Benjamin Franklin (‘the world triumph of the language of Benjamin Franklin’).

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