When Eric Hobsbawm died in 2012, he was not just one of this country’s most eminent historians; he was the most famous British historian in the world. His death was front-page news in India. For decades, his books had been non-stop bestsellers in Brazil.
And yet, as his biographer Richard Evans rather plaintively notes, the British media were quick to concentrate on his communist past, “to the virtual exclusion of his historical works”.
You can understand Evans’s frustration. Hobsbawm was no mere political pamphleteer; he had written impressive, thought-provoking books, on topics ranging from the industrial revolution to the nature of banditry.
Was all this to be discounted, just because he had expressed some unacceptable political opinions? Isn’t that rather like what happened to another famous historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose obituaries were full of gloating about his one big mistake, over the “Hitler diaries”, at the expense of all the much bigger contributions he had made?
Well, yes and no – but mostly no. Certainly there was much more to Hobsbawm than his communism. This superbly researched biography covers his very long life (he died aged 95) in 785 pages, with many – some will think, too many – hitherto unknown details at every stage.
But the most interesting thing about it is the way it enables us to trace the red political thread that runs through the entire story. Trevor-Roper’s mistake was an untypical moment of foolishness. Hobsbawm’s was the organising principle of his life.
His commitment to communism began when he was 14 or 15, at a school in Berlin. As Evans shows, all the psychological conditions were in place. Young Eric was an outsider there, twice over: he was an “English” boy, born to a British father (in Egypt) and always speaking English at home; and he had been brought up in Vienna, where his mother’s family lived, moving to Berlin only in 1931. The reason for the move was that both parents had died; to this orphan, a close-knit radical political movement gave a sense of belonging that he could not easily find elsewhere.
A third reason for outsiderhood was his Jewish identity. Eric’s grandfather was a Polish Jew who had settled in London (with the name “Obstbaum”, meaning fruit-tree, mangled into “Hobsbawm” by boneheaded English officials).
Yet Eric’s move to Britain in early 1933 was only for family reasons, just before the systematic oppression of German Jews began. He was slotted into a London school, then got a scholarship to Cambridge, and soon gained a reputation as the cleverest student in the university.
He was also one of the most political. His schoolboy diary had declared: “I want to love Marxism passionately, and yet spiritually. Like one loves a woman.” Now he loved it intellectually too, honing his mental skills on defending the indefensible. Stalin’s show trials, which so revolted Arthur Koestler, did not trouble him: as he wrote to a friend, “like it or not, the Soviet authorities must clean up the country thoroughly”.
As for the Hitler-Stalin Pact, signed soon after his graduation: it was thoroughly “correct”, because it “isolated” Hitler and “limited his freedom of action”. (Richard Evans, whose general sympathy comes peppered with pertinent criticisms, comments: “Of course, the Pact did not isolate Hitler at all.”)
Hobsbawm had a dull war, drafted into the Royal Engineers and then moved to the Army Educational Corps. His hopes for more interesting postings were dashed repeatedly, for reasons he never understood, but which Evans’s research among declassified papers now documents in detail: he was being monitored by MI5. The Communist Party’s headquarters in London were bugged, and Hobsbawm’s name was often mentioned there. He was one of their rising stars.
Gradually, as he developed his academic career after the war, he became disenchanted with the Party – not because he lost faith in a communist future, but because he thought their strategy for getting there was faulty. In 1956 he disagreed with the Party line on the Soviet invasion of Hungary, though only to some extent: he said he approved of the Soviet action, “but with a heavy heart”.
Many British intellectuals left the Party then. Hobsbawm did not, and four years later he was making large donations to it. But he became an unusually detached member, going on to embrace “Eurocommunism” and the Labour Party while never tearing up his old Party card.
Does this matter to those who read his history books? It depends. His basic assumptions were always Marxist: long-term economic change was primary. Yet many historians thought that, without ever being Party members. His interest in rebels and bandits took him, fruitfully, into areas where Marxist doctrine had surprisingly little to offer.
It’s true, on the other hand, that his major studies of 19th-century history were skewed by his Marxist reluctance to accept the importance of religious or political beliefs.
But it’s only his work on the 20th century that is seriously corrupted by his communist allegiance, with its doctrinaire view of the Bolshevik revolution and its many ideologically-induced blind spots. He once wrote that nationalists should not write the history of their nations, as they were already committed to something other than historical truth. And, extraordinarily, he half-admitted that something similar should apply to him: he said he had mostly avoided discussing the 20th century, as he didn’t want his historical duty to clash with his political one.
Which brings us to the statements that so tarnished his reputation towards the end of his life, when he told interviewers that the deaths of many millions would indeed have been justified if they had led to the creation of a truly communist “new world”.
Evans points out that this was not a direct defence of Stalin’s mass murders, only a hypothetical statement. That may be technically correct, but the problem with such methods of utopia-inducing is that unfortunately you have to do your mass murders first, before you know whether you will achieve the utopia or not.
Many of Hobsbawm’s wide-ranging historical works will be of interest for a long time to come. But the guiding principle of his life – his communism – will be of interest only in the way that most readers will see it here: as a psychological case-study in wishful self-identification and pitiful self-deception.
Eric Hobsbawm by Richard J Evans 800pp, Little, brown. Buy now for £26 (RRP £35) at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514