The Jewish Chronicle
AN UNREPENTANT Marxist and anti-Zionist who proudly owned up to being “a non-Jewish Jew” – Eric Hobsbawm was a self-styled intellectual who succeeded in spite of his ethnic identity, not because of it. Yet when his death was announced his life was celebrated by no less an establishment edifice than the BBC, which seems to have encountered little difficulty in finding literati only too willing to sing his praises.
And why not? Hobsbawm had not only appeared on Desert Island Discs. He was not only a Fellow of the British Academy. In 1997 he had been admitted as a Companion of Honour – an Order which boasts the Sovereign as its head. Hobsbawm naturally accepted the honour but later publicly damned monarchy in general and the British monarchy in particular.
Yet this was the man who justified the genocidal excesses of Josef Stalin. In 1994, in a British TV interview, Hobsbawm was asked whether, supposing the Communist enterprise had succeeded in its aim of creating a classless utopia, but at the cost of 20 million or so lives, he would still have supported it. He calmly answered ‘yes.’
In his later years, Hobsbawm admitted that Stalinism had been “disillusioning.” But in his survey of the 20th century entitled The Age of Extremes (1994), he apologised for Stalin’s attack on Finland. Dealing with Stalin’s refus- al to intervene against the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising (1944) Hobsbawm opined that the Jews had simply paid the price for launching their revolt prematurely.
For him the collapse of Communism was a defeat, and not a victory.
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm’s father Leopold, then a minor official, was born in England to Polish-Jewish parents. His mother Nellie (née Grün) came from a comfortable AustrianJewish background. After the First World War the family moved to Vienna, but following the death of both parents the young Hobsbawm and his sister Nancy, fostered by an aunt and uncle, lived for a while in Berlin until, in 1933, they moved to London. Hobsbawm became a paid-up member of the German Communist Party, and on reaching the UK he transferred this allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), from which he never formally resigned.
Progressing from St. Marylebone Grammar School to King’s College Cambridge, Hobsbawm gained a First in history (1939) and, following war service in the Royal Engineers, completed a doctorate on the Fabian Society. In 1947 he secured a teaching post at Birkbeck College, then the adult-education arm of London University. He remained at Birkbeck until his retirement, as Emeritus Professor, in 1982.
I n t e r ms o f s h e e r v o l u me Hobsbawm’s published output was certainly impressive. He authored some 30 books as well as numerous articles. His work on popular movements in the 18th and 19th centuries displayed a critical objectivity sadly lacking in his writings on the century that followed. But even here his judgment could be selective. Although acknowledging that the notion of a monolithic ‘working class’ was ludicrously false he obstinately refused to recognise the depth of British working-class opposition to socialism. He persistently declined to accept that his hero Harry Pollitt (secretary-general of the CPGB, 1929-56) was an antisemite.
Hobsbawm was an accomplished linguist and an authority on jazz, on which he wrote under a pseudonym. But even the volumes of his formidable historical tetralogy – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) – are dangerously selective in the facts they present and the interpretations they offer, while his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), was breathtakingly lambent in its disingenuous amends for past mistakes. Of Stalin’s crimes he wrote: “These sacrifices [sic] were excessive … (and) … should not have happened”. He should have added that it took a long time for him to realise this.
In 1943 Hobsbawm married Muriel Seaman, a fellow Communist. The marriage was dissolved in 1951 and in 1962 he married Marlene Schwarz, by whom he is survived together with their son and daughter, and a son from an earlier relationship.