I studied briefly with Eric Hobsbawm, the English Marxist historian who died October 1st at the age of 94. I studied with him in the early 1990s at The New School for Social Research in New York City. Hobsbawm was just completing his book The Age of Extremes, the third in a trilogy that included The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. Hobsbawm was not an inspiring teacher. He would shuffle into the classroom in his baggy suit and sit down at a table at the head of the class. Then he would open up a folder and begin to read us chapters from the book he was trying to finish. That was it. Hobsbawm didn’t read very well. A strange-looking man, his mouth was always screwed up to the right. He mumbled out of the side of his face. The great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas would sometimes show up for a lecture or a conference at The New School during those days as well. Due to Habermas’ severe lisp, you could barely understand him either. I suspect a generation of grad students formed the opinion that academic greatness and the inability to speak were somehow related.
I recently read a passage from one of Hobsbawm’s books where he reflects on his love of jazz. The book is called Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life. In it, Hobsbawm wrote:
Like the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who has written better about it than most, I experienced this musical revelation at the age of first love, 16 or 17. But in my case it virtually replaced first love, for, ashamed of my looks and therefore convinced of being physically unattractive, I deliberately repressed my physical sensuality and sexual impulses. Jazz brought the dimension of wordless, unquestioning physical emotion into a life otherwise almost monopolised by words and the exercises of the intellect.
Thinking back to the man in his early 70s reading to his students from his then soon-to-be-published book, it occurs to me that Hobsbawm was still that 16- or 17-year-old kid. I ran into him once at the A&P supermarket on Union Square. He had a few items in his shopping cart and was wandering around in the aisles. When I spoke to him he looked at me shyly from under his brow. I asked him a few questions about the Third International. He looked relieved. Yes, let us speak of the Third International.
Why is it that I will forever associate Eric Hobsbawm with the feeling of embarrassment? It can’t be his fault alone. It must have to do with me, too. It must touch on my own youthful Marxism and the naïve idealism it entailed, memories of conversations in smoky apartments during another time. Memories that now make me wince. What did any of us actually mean by “permanent revolution?” Hobsbawm never recanted his communism though, not like I did, not like the rest of us. I remember wishing that he would. It was embarrassing for the rest of us that he kept up his support for the Soviet Union even after its demise.
But I’ve come to understand that it was different for him. He was born in 1917, after all. He was a 20th century man. Mass political movements are one thing that defines the 20th century. The working class arrived as a political entity in the beginning of the 20th century and died as one by the end. The Soviet Union represented the idea — though as Hobsbawm himself admitted, never the reality — that the working class could take political power and fashion a new society. He once said, in his typically laconic manner, “I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world.” Generations, millions of people, lived out their lives under the umbrella of that dream. Over time, Eric Hobsbawm became a human symbol of that dream. And he was aware that this made him fully an anachronism by 1989.
Hobsbawm claimed that he was never much of an idealist. His support of the Soviet Union was not fired by romantic enthusiasm. And so, he could witness the passing away of the Communist regime he never really liked on a personal level with the same reserve with which he supported it. In an interview with Tristam Hunt of The Observer in 2002, Hobsbawm explained it like this:
Why I stayed in the Communist Party is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century.
That is an interesting thing for an historian to say, that the passion aroused by communism was specific to the twentieth century. As a historian, Hobsbawm was forced, in his analysis, to take an objective stance, to look at history from a position above the fray. But he also seems to have realized that real history only happens when people are within the fray. History had made him a communist and he was going to stay that way. Hobsbawm didn’t try to be wiser than his own times. He didn’t believe he could out-think the 20th century. He was content to be a living document of one of the defining forces of his era. Self-aware all the way to the end, he was never embarrassed. He never shirked from the implications. He never wanted anyone else to be embarrassed for him.
In a review of Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life for The New York Times, Christopher Hitchens admitted a grudging admiration for Hobsbawm. Given Hitchens’ usual disgust for figures of the communist Left, who he generally dismissed as apologists for Totalitarianism, it was a surprising position. “Hobsbawm’s vices,” Hitchens wrote, “mutate into his virtues.” Hitchens too was struck by the trudging stubbornness of Old Man Hobsbawm. Maybe Hitchens saw in Hobsbawm a perfect foil to himself. It was always Hitchens’ fantasy that he could stay one step ahead of the march of history. Here in Hobsbawm was a man who practically reveled in the fact that he had been left behind. Ahead or behind, history has managed to make both of them look foolish. Hobsbawm had decided it was best to be exactly what he was. He was a shy and strange-looking kid who loved jazz and communism. A 20th century man.• 9 October 2011