Hobsbawm: Man of the extreme century
Source Dave Anderson
Date 02/09/22/11:04

from the London Observer
Man of the extreme century Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain's greatest historians. His long, eventful life has mirrored the great events of the twentieth century. The rises of imperialism, fascism and communism are as much components of his life as subjects of his books, and have turned Hobsbawm into a 'lifelong communist'. Now, he has published his autobiography. In this wide-ranging conversation with Tristram Hunt, one of Britain 's new generation of historians, he reveals how he continues to believe in a spirit of progress as the surest route for happiness

Tristram Hunt
Saturday September 21 2002

Tristram Hunt: Much of your work as a historian has consciously appealed to a broader audience beyond the academic establishment. There is a dramatic resurgence in the popularity of history: more people are reading history, visiting monuments, watching TV programmes than ever before. But you have recently warned of a 'permanent present' - the creation of a new generation who might know a great deal about the past but have little sense of continuity or identity with it. Has history become simply a consumable product in a deeply transient age?

Eric Hobsbawm: Well, choosing to write for a broad public isn't only my personal choice. I regard it as part of a long English tradition. After all, this is a country in which even the most important thinkers have expressed their views for the broad public, going back to Adam Smith via Charles Darwin to name but two. For me, the sort of ideal reader may be a construct of the educated but non-specialist reader who wants to find out about the past - is curious about the past and wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today. And where it's going. This is also part of the Marxist Historian Movement. We reacted against a tradition of historians between the wars who were suspicious of talking to the public for fear of talking down. And there were only very few people, G.M. Trevelyan or A.J.P. Taylor, who were courageous enough to do this, even at the risk of people saying well, of course, he's talking down, you know.

There is also today a huge upsurge of do-it-yourself history. It's mostly about the past of people's own families. Family history and the study of genealogy has become democra tised. This may or may not help to explain the enormous passion for biographies and autobiographies which is very marked here. What it shows to me is that history is an essential part of human life.

It's a critique of the two basic principles on which the modern society appears to be run. First, the problem-solving approach of technology which means the past is absolutely irrelevant to it. Second, the buy-it-now approach of the consumer society. For practical purposes, history doesn't come into this except as a sort of decoration. Well, people know that this isn't the case. They're stuck in the past, they grow out of the past. And I think this - without their knowing it - is a protest against the kind of society which wishes to cut them off from the past and cut them off from each other.

TH: So much of the current surge in history has to do with English and British identity. What came out from your autobiography was a strong affection for England and your own sense of Englishness. Do you think the public obsession with British roots and identity illustrates a fallow intellectual retreat? We seem to be returning to nation-state history and an insecurity about our identity.

EH: Nation-state history is probably the most damaging part of history today since the world cannot be understood in terms of nation states. On the other hand, it's very difficult to know how to break away from it since schools are essentially geared to states.

This business about English history ... I can understand it, but I'm a bit worried about it as I'm worried about all kinds of identity history. Identity isn't a good basis for history. It's a new problem for the English, partly because of globalisation but chiefly because of devolution and the end of empire. Both of these have left the English with a need to define themselves as such.

Part of the British tradition was that unlike so many others, we were actually proud of being a mongrel race. Everybody said, oh well you see my grandmother was Irish and my auntie is Welsh and all the rest of it. There was no sense you had to pick and choose - you could do both. But I think this is a similar problem to the one which in the past faced Spaniards and Russians. It's a pre-nationalist political consciousness.

TH: One of your most important academic contributions was your work on the invention of national traditions. In an age of resurgent nationalism and new concern with identity there seems to be a whole wave of traditions being invented for naked political, sectarian and ethnic reasons. Does that make the role of historian more crucial as an exposer of myth?

EH: The worrying thing at the moment is that history - including tradition - is being invented in vast quantities. In the past 30 years there's been an explosion of heritage sites and historical museums. On top of this, particularly since the end of communism, there's been the foundation of new states which need to invent histories to show how important they are. And the way you do this is that you invent or collect yourself a past. The extreme example of this is in Croatia where the man who actually created the new state, Franjo Tudjman, was a professional historian who invented a phoney tradition. So, the world is today full of people inventing histories and lying about history and that's largely because the people who do this are not actually interested in the past. What they are interested in is something which will make the punters feel good. At present it's more important to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before.

TH: Martin Amis's new book, Koba The Dread, has impugned the British Left - and you personally - for not condemning Stalin's atrocities. In your autobiography you vividly bring out the mindset of a believing Communist in the 1940s and 1950s: the party discipline and a reluctance 'to believe the few who told us what they knew' of Soviet Russia. Yet you also bring out the historical context for joining the Communist Party - the battle against fascism on the streets of 1930s Berlin and a strong sense of the idealism of the October Revolution. There also remains the broader historical context that the Soviet Union remained a viable economic and political model to many in the West right up to the 1970s. Do you think this historical context seems absent in the current debate about 'Communist guilt'?

EH: I must leave the discussion of Amis's views on Stalin to others. I wasn't a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I've written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it's reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR - I don't want to be critical of a book which brings out some of the horrors of Stalin. It isn't an original or important book. It brings nothing that we haven't known except perhaps about his personal relations with his father. But I don't want to say anything that might suggest to people that I'm in some ways trying to defend the record of something which is indefensible.

TH: Amis has criticised those on the Left who deny any moral equivalence between Nazism and Communism because the latter committed atrocities in the cause of a higher social ideal as opposed to racial genocide. The majority of deaths in the Soviet Union came not from political or racial persecution but famine caused by economic policies. As you have written of Stalin: 'His terrifying career makes no sense except as a stubborn, unbroken pursuit of that utopian aim of a communist society.' I want to tease out this issue of idealism. You stayed in the party after 1956 partly because of solidarity to the fallen and partly because of a belief in a societal ideal. Are you still drawn to an Enlightenment ideal of societal perfectibility or have you come to accept the limits of the human condition - what your friend Isaiah Berlin called, 'the crooked timber of humanity'?

EH: 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. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares.

I don't think that this particular movement is likely to revive, certainly not as a global movement of its kind because its particular historical moment has passed.

TH: Did you ever discuss these ideas with Isaiah Berlin?

EH: I liked Isaiah Berlin - we used to lunch together. We got on very well. He was a marvellous fellow and he had enormous charm and warmth but, it's a funny thing, we didn't actually discuss controversial matters much.

I think the main difference is that I don't actually believe he was an Enlightenment liberal. On the contrary, he could see the world as individuals and as groups. He couldn't see the world. I believe that whatever the limitations of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment it was the only principle on which it is possible to demand improvements or rights for every human being. And I think this is what he couldn't believe. He believed that this would lead to very bad results. Well, he was right, of course. It can, among other things, lead to very bad results. And it did, for instance in the case of Soviet Union.

TH: What struck me in your autobiography was that despite your lifelong Communist Party membership, you were deeply hostile to Militant Tendency attempts to take over the Labour Party during the 1980s. Indeed, to the fury of your comrades you became a committed supporter of Neil Kinnock's modernisation of the party - describing the 1992 general election night as the 'saddest and most desperate in my political experience'. Yet you have spoken out against Tony Blair, branding him 'Thatcher in trousers'. Surely New Labour was the inevitable conclusion of Kinnock's modernisation process?

EH: Most communists and indeed most socialists disagreed at the time "1980s" with the few of us who said it's absolutely no use, the Labour Party has got to go in a different direction. On the other hand, what we thought of was a reformed Labour Party not a simple rejection of everything that Labour had stood for. Obviously, any Labour Government, however watered down, is better than the right-wing alternative as the USA demonstrates. But I'm not absolutely certain that Labour Prime Ministers who glory in trying to be warlords - subordinate warlords particularly - are a thing that I can stick and it certainly sticks in my gullet.

TH: Yet in the wake of Lionel Jospin's defeat in France is there any other progressive way for centre-Left administrations than the Third Way? Do you think the concept of the Third Way has any intellectual validity?

EH: The Third Way is a topographical and not a political term. It means between two arbitrary points. Ideally, there's the totally centralised command economy and the complete anarchism of a non-state free market. Now, we know everybody's against the first and it doesn't exist and when they tried to introduce it, it didn't work, so that's no longer around. Now, instead of being halfway between these two, the so-called Third Way is considerably skewed towards the free-market segment. I think perhaps they can now revise things a bit. But they haven't done enough in the past.

TH: In that context, given his radical socialist heritage and his academic work on Jimmy Maxton "Independent Labour Party MP for Glasgow during the Red Clydeside era", have you been at all disappointed by Gordon Brown's chancellorship?

EH: I recognise where Gordon Brown comes from. I recognise where he wants to go to and for that I give him confidence. I don't recognise either of those things in some other people in the Government - including some that were much further to the left than I was.

TH: This is an interesting point. The way you characterise Communist Party behaviour - the need for party discipline, the importance of the 'line to take' and the hostility to criticism - some people will find an echo of in New Labour's control-freakery. Do you find ironic those aspects of Communist Party behaviour in New Labour?

EH: CP people have never been able to get anything done in politics. The only field where they got anything done and which fitted in very much with the CP is the unions. The unions also believe in discipline: unions believe that even if you don't like it, if the decision's taken, you don't cross a picket line. Which is where you still find the ultra-left today, which has no political presence at all now. It still has a presence in unions.

As for all the people who once were Trotskyists of varying descriptions or CP people, they were all able people who found themselves in movements which didn't provide enough scope for able people and I don't blame them for looking after their political interests - for going where the action is.

TH: The 11 September attacks and the crusade of al-Qaeda against America marks a break from the certainties of the twentieth-century military and diplomatic world. We are seeing a return to pre-nation state fundamentalism where religious and cultural orthodoxy overrides 'national' interests. In your autobiography, you hint that the growth of groups like al-Qaeda is partly the result of a weakening of social democracy and the collapse of communism. Do you believe like Terry Eagleton that the threat from such religious fundamentalists is far greater than socialism ever was to the capitalist world? The West seems to have chosen barbarism above socialism?

EH: Well, they obviously chose barbarism above socialism in Afghanistan. They financed the al-Qaeda guys "the Taliban", specifically, because they thought communism was worse than that. I don't believe communism was worse than that.

I don't believe that al-Qaeda or fundamentalism is the main danger to capitalism. Capitalism will live with it; will make money out of it. Fundamentalist Islam isn't a danger, if only because it can't win any wars. The basic element to understanding the present situation is that 9/11 did not threaten the US. It was a terrible human tragedy which humiliated the US, but in no sense was it any weaker after those attacks. Three, four or five of those attacks will not change the position of the US or its relative power in the world. An example of collapsing social democracy and growing fundamentalism is in India where there is a government breaking with a westernising, secular, tolerant democratic society, a socialist society, in order to create a kind of exclusive Hinduist society.

TH: Much of it built on spurious historical foundations.

EH: Oh, completely spurious. They are re-jigging the entire textbooks of India in order to make a more saffron past. What more saffron means is pogroms against Christians and Muslims and no further belief in democracy and truth and a secular society.

TH: You characterised the short twentieth century as a period of unprecedented brutality. As the twenty-first century gets under way, America bestrides the world like few other hegemonies in history. You have spoken before of how the US revolutionary heritage gives it a certain domineering impulse. In the hands of President Bush is this now the most pressing danger to world stability?

EH: Any great power with the capacity to conquer the world is a danger to those other than itself. The US was such a power but for 50 years it was kept in check to some extent. But it was kept in check by a power "USSR" which most people in the Western world didn't like on good grounds. The only people who maintained the view that almost any great power not kept in check is a danger were the French. The French are now too weak to do much about it, but they have maintained their rational traditions.

America is a world propagandist power. That's what happened to the French in 1789, it happened to communist powers and now to the US, which is a revolutionary regime. When you get the chance to spread your influence, you end up becoming an empire. That is what happened to the French under Napoleon. They said they were doing a lot of good to the countries they conquered, but they were regarded by the rest of the world as a conquering empire. The difference was that unlike the German Empire, which didn't aim to do good to anybody, the French, like the Russians and now the Americans aim to do good to the world by introducing their own ideas. The Americans are in a position to do what the French did after the Napoleonic period, and the arguments for and against are similar to those. But they are not arguments about spreading the "ideals of the" French Revolution any more.

The Americans have used 9/11 as an occasion to assert that they are the only power in the world which can dominate. What they want to achieve other than establish this assertion is by no means clear. The Iraq war has no rational justification at all. The United States would have to learn that there are limits even to its own power and I think with some luck this may happen, but right now the learning process has only just begun.

TH: One of the leading causes of diplomatic instability is the actions of Israel under Sharon. You have always identified yourself as a pre-Second World War cosmopolitan Jew - in contrast to the Zionists of the later 1940s. Despite the strong ties between the Left and early Zionism, you never seem to have felt a great loyalty to Israel. Did you differ on this point with Isaiah Berlin?

EH: I was never a Zionist. Once Israel was in existence or Jews were settled there then the idea they should disappear was not on. I have never been in favour of destroying or humiliating Israel. I am a Jew, but being a Jew does not imply being a supporter either of Zionism and even less of the particular policies now being pursued by the government of Israel, which are disastrous and evil. They are policies logically leading to the ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories - the official policy of those Jewish parties now governing says that Judaea and Samaria are part of what God gave the Israelis. I am very strongly of the opinion that Jews must say it is possible to be a Jew and not to support Israel.

I know that Isaiah was desperate about the direction that Israel was going under Likud. In some ways, it was to him what the discovery of the nature of what Stalinism was to me. I told him, now you probably understand how I feel. Because it was a terrible thing for a man who believed in humanity and the humanist idea of Judaism to see "the direction Israel was taking", but he believed he could not tear himself away from that identification "with Israel". His Jewish identity implied identity with Israel because he believed that the Jews should be a nation.

TH: Finally, would an Eric Hobsbawm of the future born in 2017 see the same degree of 'interesting times' that you witnessed in the twentieth century?

EH: I hope not. I don't look forward to the next 30 to 40 years with any kind of pleasure (although I won't see very much of them), but then I think most people today share my pessimism about the immediate future.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

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