Semi-Impenitent Communist, Magnanimous to the Last

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, by Eric Hobsbawm. Pantheon, 448 pages, $30.

The great English historian Eric Hobsbawm-jazz fiend, Karl Kraus acolyte, omni-cosmo-politan, honorary New Yorker and semi-impenitent Bloomsbury communist-has written a remarkable auto-biography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life . His primary qualification? “I have lived through almost all of the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history.” He was born in 1917, the year Lenin arrived at the Finland Station; and he takes us up to the year Mohammed Atta arrived at Tower 1.

For almost 50 years, Mr. Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist Party-that’s right, Ms. Coulter, the Communist Party-and though he was as wrong about the Russian Revolution as Burke was about the French Revolution, he has lived to be every bit as magnanimous. About the failure of socialism, he’s mostly unapologetic; about the United States’ new status as lone global hyperpower, he’s bitterly pessimistic. But this is hardly surprising. Mr. Hobsbawm is of that generation of pioneering British cultural historians who united behind a simple belief: History should not be written exclusively by and for the winners.

Eric Hobsbawm is most familiar to American collegians as the author of the Age of … trilogy, the survey-course classic that traces the rise of capitalism through what Mr. Hobsbawm calls the “long nineteenth century” stretching from the French Revolution in 1789 to the Russian Revolution in 1917. To those first three volumes, The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987), Mr. Hobsbawm later added a fourth, The Age of Extremes (1996), a history of the “short twentieth century” that started with the Russian Revolution and ended with the fall of international Communism in 1991.

In England and on the continent, Mr. Hobsbawm is more widely recognized as an eminence grise ; he belongs to a generation of great English Marxists who revolutionized the study of history, while essentially creating what came to be known as culture studies. The cohort includes, most prominently, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Christopher Hill; their work blessedly lacks the streak of grim-spirited, intransigent utopianism of the theoretical Marxisant left of continental Europe and the United States. As Mr. Hobsbawm tells us, “[we] began, more often than not, as young intellectuals who moved to historical analysis from, or with, a passion for literature. “

As a result, his prose is conversational and direct, his attitude urbane at the cost of ideological purity. (Once asked about his relations with Isaiah Berlin, in many ways his great political opposite, Mr. Hobsbawm replied with a proper Oxbridge murmur: “I liked Isaiah Berlin-we used to lunch together. We got on very well. He was a marvelous fellow and he had enormous charm and warmth. But, it’s a funny thing, we didn’t actually discuss controversial matters much.”) The Oxbridge manner was hardly his birthright: He was born in Egypt a few months before the Bolshevik Revolution to a father with a talent mostly for destitution-a “false idealist” with a “tendency to dream,” as one of his confessional albums reads. Eric’s mother was a chronically underpaid novelist and translator. After the First World War, the family moved to Vienna, only to slide deeper into poverty; and by 1931, the 14-year-old Eric found himself orphaned. First sent to Germany to live with an uncle on the fringes of the movie business, he ended up two years later in London-which was then, as he beautifully describes it, “a vast shapeless polyp of streets and buildings stretching its tentacles into the countryside.” The only diversion strong enough to thrill him in England the way politics had in Germany was hot jazz, whose fandom was then still a “quasi-underground international freemasonry” not unlike the Communist Party.

His nomadic youth seems to have had two lasting effects. As an adolescent with no obvious home country, he was perpetually treated with suspicion, a fact that made him a lifelong-if somewhat melancholy-cosmopolitan. As he tells us towards the end of Interesting Times, “For most of my life this has been my situation: typecast from a birth in Egypt … as someone from elsewhere.” And then, after witnessing Hitler rise from the ashes of the Treaty of Versailles, Mr. Hobsbawm became a nearly lifelong Communist. “I did not come into communism as a young Briton in England,” he says, in an explanation that, by the way, distances him from the notorious Cambridge spies, “but as a central European in the collapsing Weimar Republic.” As a young man, Mr. Hobsbawm watched as the liberal, bourgeois world of his early childhood lurched into total catastrophe. This is the backdrop to Mr. Hobsbawm’s Communism: “It was easy enough in Europe during and between the world wars to conclude that only revolution could give the world a future.”

Reviewers in Britain have, understandably but somewhat narrowly, focused on Mr. Hobsbawm’s politics. Thumbing through Interesting Times in search of sufficiently abject contrition for his half-century of party membership-an affiliation that survived Stalinism, show trials and the excommunication of Tito-they’ve found sentiments too mild for their tastes, more apologia than apology. “Communism is now dead,” runs his least equivocal renunciation. “The USSR and most of the states and societies built on its model … have collapsed so completely, leaving behind a landscape of material and moral ruin, that it must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start.” He certainly downplays the degree to which a vigorously anti-Stalinist left would have welcomed his defection from the party as far back as the 50’s; and he also downplays the degree to which both the English and American non-Communist left fought for the better ideals of the October Revolution, while conceding nothing to its bureaucratic tyranny.

Nonetheless, this is a larger book: not an apologia, but a companion volume to the extraordinary literary memoirs that came out of World War I, most especially Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That , and Stefan Zweig’s unjustly overlooked World of Yesterday . To begin with, there’s some lovely portraiture, conveyed mostly in asides: the ossified Cambridge of senescent dons, amateur theatricals and punting on the Cam, where Ph.D.’s were regarded as either a “German peculiarity” or a “lower middle class affectation”; of his run-ins with the great: Italo Calvino (“I recall him still, shortly before his untimely death, on his green roof terrace above the Campo Marzio in Rome, with a skeptical half-smile on his dark face, full of wit and tactful learning”); Jean-Paul Sartre (the only “‘great French intellectual’ I ever met who seemed totally lacking in [his] sense of public status”); and the grandfather of the computer, Alan Turing (“a clumsy-looking, pale-faced young fellow given to what would today be called jogging”).

Above all, this is a book that measures the drift of a peculiar century, one that began in cataclysm and ended in John, Paul, George and Ringo. “What has really transformed the western world,” Mr. Hobsbawm argues, is not politics, but “the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.” He derides the 60’s, amusingly, as a slurry of “Pink Floyd, ‘The Dialectics of Liberation,’ Che Guevara, Middle Earth and acid.” The artifact that most exercises him is blue jeans: In a Larkin-style repine, he admits he decided “never to wear this gear, and I have never done so.”

Mr. Hobsbawm is not a crank-quite the opposite. He’s simply everything we currently are not: historically mindful, patient, intellectually honest and, in his own way, deeply, almost religiously, un-American-a kind of living monument to Old Europe. This is a book of breadth, and conversational equanimity; a few Wild Strawberries –style lamentations aside, there’s very little deep introspection here. For example, there’s no sense of what a just society would look like precisely, though it seems, from the evidence of Mr. Hobsbawm’s own tastes, that it ought to be built on liberty, equality, fraternity, red wine, bicycles and jazz. “Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought,” he says in closing. “The world will not get better on its own.”

Stephen Metcalf reviews books frequently for The Observer.

Semi-Impenitent Communist, Magnanimous to the Last