- Devoted member of the Communist Party
- Professor of history in European and American universities
- “To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.”
- Died on October 1, 2012
Eric Hobsbawm was born to middle-class Jewish parents in Alexandria, Egypt on June 9, 1917. His father was an English citizen, though of Central European Jewish origins, and his mother was Viennese. In Hobsbawm’s early childhood, his family relocated to Vienna. When his father found it difficult to make a living there as a businessman, Hobsbawm’s mother helped out by earning some money as a writer. Both parents died prematurely, and Hobsbawm was thereafter brought up by an aunt and uncle in Berlin between 1931 and 1935. At school in that city, he says, he did not suffer any sort of taunting either as a displaced English teenager or as a Jew, but these years induced “the sense of living in some sort of final crisis,” and this made him a devoted member of the Communist Party beginning in his early teens..
A scholarship to King’s College in Cambridge refashioned Hobsbawm’s life after 1935. An English subject, he was not a refugee, but he was certainly an outsider, and one, moreover, who had the luck to fall into a milieu welcoming to outsiders. King’s is one of the most historic English colleges, and one of the richest. In the college was a semi-secret society known as the Apostles, which in the 1930s evolved from embracing a Bloomsbury aestheticism to Communism. Blunt and Burgess and Maclean—as well as other traitors and Soviet agents—had been Apostles slightly ahead of Hobsbawm. It was from this vantage-point that Hobsbawm applauded the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939.
Hobsbawm suggested that his openly declared Communism delayed his academic preferment, but in fact a telephone call to a colleague at King’s was enough to gain him a fellowship there. After that, he became a professor at Birkbeck College, London, another fortress of the left. It was also quite easy for him to obtain his visa to the United States, where eventually he taught regularly. The Cold War saw him become a spokesman for Communism, and a visitor to the Soviet Union and its satellites. He continued to casually overlook the criminality of Stalinism, holding that Communists did not recognize the extent of the Soviet labor camps, and that the United States was responsible for the distrust, the ominous gloom, and the fear of annihilation that characterized the Cold War – the American victory of which he considered underserved.
For Hobsbawm, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 was a horror that sullied the October revolution and its dream. (The implication was that if Khrushchev had only kept quiet, Stalinist criminality could have endured indefinitely.) An immediate consequence was the Hungarian uprising that same year, put down by the Soviets with the usual mixture of duplicity and brute force. Most of Hobsbawm’s friends left the Communist Party, but he himself made a point of staying, out of pride, refusing to admit that he might be in the wrong. He remained a Party member until just after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, when he let his membership card lapse.
Notwithstanding the fact that his writings were apologetics for his Marxist worldview, Hobsbawm ranked among the most revered of all professional historians in European and American universities. His longer and later books were constructed around the abstractions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the supposedly pre-ordained class struggle between them – in short, the Marxist organizing principles.
The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, was to further the delusional goals of the Marxist movement. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end—long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach.
In 1995 (four years after the fall of Communism), Hobsbawm published his last historical work, The Age of Extremes; this treatise may have been the most lauded effort to understand the events of the Twentieth Century. Translated into 37 languages, the book condemned capitalist democracies as inherently evil, while it praised the humanitarian promise of socialism, a promise never realized in its 200-year history. In his 2002 autobiography, Hobsbawm wrote, “To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.”
On a popular television program, Hobsbawm once explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography conveyed the same point: “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism.”
Hobsbawn died on October 1, 2012 in London, England.