Why does Britain still revere the unrepentantly Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm?

Class warrior? Eric Hobsbawm 
at home in Hampstead, 1999
Class warrior? Eric Hobsbawm 
at home in Hampstead, 1999 Credit: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Simon Heffer reviews Eric Hobsbawm by Richard J Evans (Little, Brown)

Eric Hobsbawm died unrepentant in his belief that the political project of Lenin and Stalin was justified, and that the deaths of all who suffered during it would have been worth it if only the workers’ paradise had been achieved. As a 22-year-old in late 1939, he and another overindulged Cambridge intellectual, Raymond Williams, put themselves at the service of the Communist Party of Great Britain and wrote a propaganda pamphlet justifying the Russian invasion of Finland. Only when Hitler himself broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by invading Russia did Hobsbawm, by then conscripted into the Army and proving a predictably useless soldier, write that “at last we were, at least officially, on the right side”. No wonder MI5 took such an interest in him.

This biography, by one of Hobsbawm’s acolytes, which it is as well to say outright is tedious almost beyond endurance, stops short of hagiography but is clearly designed to boost the posthumous reputation of a man who cared nothing for the wreckage caused by the political system that he worshipped. Hobsbawm – nauseatingly referred to as “Eric” throughout – exemplifies the moral degeneracy of so many British intellectuals who still hold that Stalinists are cosy and comprehensible, undeserving of the pariah status rightly accorded to anyone claiming there was something to be said for Hitler. But then Evans makes the grotesque assertion that “of course, fascism, unlike communism, was a political creed characterised by anti-intellectualism”. Stalin, “of course”, had a regard for intellectuals. One wonders why he had so many thousands of them shot.

Evans cites the poverty of Hobsbawm’s upbringing in Vienna and Berlin – though he was born British, in Alexandria, in 1917 – and the popularity of the Communist Party in the Weimar Republic as the reasons he identified with the party as a teenager. He calls it “a substitute family, giving him a sense of identity that was to prove over the long run a central part of his emotional constitution”. His beliefs gained what Evans calls “intellectual depth” when he moved to London in 1933, not a refugee from Nazism, but because of an economic decision made by his guardians. “So he filled his head with Marxism,” Evans writes. “It would become a substitute for sexual love.”

If only Miss Right had come along to spare us what then happened. Evans says Hobsbawm “felt he was turning his repulsive appearance into a virtue by becoming a Marxist intellectual”. He appears to have had an insatiable appetite for substitute families. Evans says his interest in jazz, and its milieu of dingy clubs full of drug-addled tarts, was also one; not to mention the occasional women he borrowed from their husbands.

“I got all my historical interests from or through Marx,” Hobsbawm said, in a testament to the breadth of his grounding. He was interested in how human societies evolved, a legitimate scholarly interest, but Marx is not the only means of explaining that. He said that, after reading a dozen pages of Lenin, it was “astonishing how that cheers me up and clears my mind”. Yet England, when young Eric arrived, was a disappointment, the Labour Party “ill-prepared for the revolution”. But then, as he himself said, “socialism is a series of constant defeats and deep disappointment – and some day the victory”.

Lenin and Stalin by Pyotr Vasilyev, c1949-50 Credit: Heritage Images 

He developed exceptional talents. Unlike many supposedly serious historians he excelled in a range of languages – obviously German, but also French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese – using them to research often recondite subjects and acquire oral evidence. (His mind was compartmentalised, and not in a healthy way: he wrote his diary in German, as if retreating into an inner self too easily undermined to be exposed.) His interests in jazz, film and literature developed in him a critical faculty that served him well in all except his judgments about politics. He liked Marx Brothers films, which along with an admiration for the Soviet Union was all he had in common with Enoch Powell.

To be fair to Evans, he does indicate at times the ludicrousness of his subject. Hobsbawm reflected, he writes, that he had built his political views on a class not a single member of which he knew. “Years were to pass before Eric was to encounter real English proletarians, and, when he finally did, he found their culture and morals rather shocking.” Having been an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, so full of practising homosexuals at the time that their activities were described as “the sport of King’s”, it is notable that Hobsbawm remained able to be shocked by the proles.

When war came, and despite his craven obedience to “the Party”, he began to have the odd doubt – not about communism, but about how the Communist Party of Great Britain worked. “It became clear to me that the Party line was absolutely useless.” Yet it was “wonderful news” when in June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States, though, as Evans points out, the arrests and murders that followed were hardly “progressive” – indeed, it was a notable example of the slaughter of intellectuals Evans seems to think communism revered so much. Hobsbawm also wanted “to sing and dance” when he heard Stalin had annexed Romanian territory.

In 1947, he was “re-educating” Germans in Lüneberg Heath, claiming of one of his students that “I taught him democracy” – which, given Hobsbawm’s devout Stalinism, is rather like having a psychopath expatiate on the sanctity of human life, and shows his breathtaking lack of self-knowledge. He gave up, or so he said, participation in mainstream party activities when moving to Cambridge as a don in 1950; from then on, he confined himself to “academic or intellectual groups”. Yet, according to Evans, “Eric insisted that his role as an academic historian could be separated from his role as a Communist”. That, though, would be in spite of his using “the Marxist analysis” for his method. Again, the lack of self-knowledge is awesome.

It is common in even the supposedly best history faculties to hear Hobsbawm described as the foremost historian of Britain in the past century, an assertion whose preposterousness becomes evident by reading the works of others. One longs to learn from this biography why Hobsbawm is viewed as so influential; one waits in vain. Evans says Hobsbawm abandoned the convention of the “political narrative”, and wrote a holistic form of history, covering the arts, sciences, economy and society. That is indisputably valuable. But how accurate was that analysis and synthesis?

The Age of Revolution, the first book in which Hobsbawm used this method, allies the Industrial Revolution in Britain with the French Revolution. Evans praises his “profound originality” in attributing the Industrial Revolution to Britain’s command of the seas, but surely its roots are really in the Reformation, and the Protestant ideal of members of a society working, enriching themselves, and buying a place in heaven through charitable works?

But there was much Hobsbawm couldn’t be bothered to recognise. Religion does not figure greatly in his writings; and as Evans admits, and quotes at length Hobsbawm’s reviewers complaining, he never accounts for the pressures of nationalism affecting the course of history: Marxists can’t “do” nationalism. And, because of his obsession with a class struggle that (insofar as it occurred) was largely composed of working men, he is not adept at writing about women.

He may have brought Europe into the previously narrow canon of English history (though a reading of Seeley, to pluck an earlier English historian at random, would show it had not always been so narrow), but his omissions are glaring. Yet when The Age of Revolution came out in 1962, Evans says it met with “an ecstatic reception from fellow historians on the Left” because it brought “Marxist interpretations to a wide readership”.

Hobsbawm’s “achievement” was in leading the sectarianisation of the profession of history, and of creating a legion of disciples who shared his interpretation, and marginalising those who disagreed with them. Evans himself maintains the sectarian tone, sneering at those who had the temerity to doubt “Eric’s” wisdom, such as Andrew Roberts and Daniel Johnson. A  J  P Taylor, “characteristically opinionated”, is accused of “often” not “really” reading any book he was reviewing.

Evans’s own book is no elegant literary masterpiece. His earnest style has too many lapses. He is fond, for instance, of the vulgarism “falling pregnant”, as if the expectant mother has caught a disease; but perhaps he is paying an unconscious tribute to the proletariat. Above all, at nearly 800 pages, it is excessive, bloated with sometimes ludicrous detail, such as at what time Mrs Hobsbawm would put the pasta on in the evenings. Evans is also obsessed with the money Hobsbawm made, cheerfully detailing sums to make most capitalists happy, and how successfully Hobsbawm avoided the taxation of which one would have thought he would approve.

But then Hobsbawm, in his parallel universe awaiting the revolution, became an Olympic-class hypocrite – a house in Hampstead, a cottage in Wales, stocks and shares (excused as being something Marx himself dabbled in). “If you are on a ship that’s going down,” the old fraud once said, “you might as well travel first class.” In the end, he happily admitted monarchy was the form of constitution that worked best in England.

Halfway through the narcoleptic morass of this book, one realises one has missed its point: it is actually a comic masterpiece. The avalanche of Pooterish detail should have prepared the reader for this; but suddenly all becomes obvious. Hobsbawm, himself buried by devotion to the dialectic, neglected his first wife; she sought consolation elsewhere. “Even then he was not unduly upset,” Evans writes. “He was more concerned about the fact that the man was not a member of the Communist Party than about the fact of his wife’s adultery.” One wades through much to reach a gem like that, and one wishes one could say it was worth it.

Eric Hobsbawm by Richard J Evans
800pp, Little, Brown, 
£35, ebook £12.99. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit to order a 
copy from the Telegraph for £26