An Understandable Curiosity

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This is a massive biography of an economic historian whose popular fame rests on his having been made one of 65 Companions of Honour by the Queen while remaining a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

It suffers from many of the difficulties encountered by biographers of men of thought.  Like William Howard Taft, Hobsbawm “hunted no grizzlies, assaulted no San Juan Hills, took no Panama, broke with no political party, cried for no wars, explored no veldts, and searched for no Rivers of Doubt.”

The usual means of circumventing this difficulty is to try to convey the excitement of a subject’s ideas and the flavor of his personality by generous quotations in order to give the subject what Justice Holmes described as “the secret rapture of a postponed power, which to his prophetic vision is more real than that which commands an army.”  This was my approach to a book about five University of Chicago legal scholars (The Common Law Tradition, 2011) as well as that of an Englishman, William Twining, in preparing an admirable account of the life of Karl Llewellyn.

Professor Evans, the definitive historian of Nazi Germany and also a writer on cultural history, has chosen instead to inquire into Hobsbawm’s marriages, sex life, negotiations with publishers and universities, and his public reputation and attendance at conferences.  As a former associate and acolyte of Hobsbawm at Birkbeck College, a London institution for part-time students, Professor Evans has indulged an understandable curiosity about the life of a mentor and friend who left an enormous personal archive.  His book will be of interest to fellow historians, but will not lead the young or general readers to take a greater interest in Hobsbawm’s notable histories of Western economic development or even that of Third World countries.

Hobsbawm’s communism, excessively emphasized by writers on the right, was a sentimental attachment deriving from participation in street demonstrations in Berlin in the early 1930’s, engendering “a lifelong visceral sense of belonging.”  Hobsbawm was no servile follower of the party line, even though his ashes were buried in Highgate Cemetery, slightly to the right of the grave of Karl Marx, and his funeral concluded with the strains of “The Internationale.”  He deplored the suppression of the revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, gave credence to Khrushchev’s secret speech, and acknowledged the failure of bureaucratic communism as a political and economic system, ending as a proponent of a vaguely defined utopian socialism.

The real significance of his career is as an exemplar of a breed whose numbers have been declining even more rapidly than the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain: the ranks of academic economic historians.  It is said that none of the leading hundred economics journals are today centered on economic history.  The notable recent books in the field are by nonacademics: Niall Ferguson, Liaquat Ahamed, Ron Chernow.

For today’s academic economists, the neighboring discipline is mathematics, not history or social psychology.  Nobel Prizes have been awarded to economists who totally failed to foresee the crash of 2008 and who designed some of the practices that accentuated it.  Although Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz must be given credit for their Monetary History of the United States and Ben Bernanke for his studies of the Depression, among academic economists they were the exception, not the rule.

Hobsbawm nonetheless was not innocent of all the political sins of the left.  He frequently romanticized revolution and banditry and reflected Lenin’s view that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” though he acknowledged that in Russia, no omelet resulted.  Not for him was Lord Acton’s “injunction against murder” or the conception that political movements are to be judged by means and not ends.  In the late 1960’s, the University of Chicago’s Edward Levi, quoting Hannah Arendt, cautioned that

The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.  A further likely outcome is the imposition of new controls.  The likelihood is not dissipated by warnings against it.  These warnings contribute to the unsureness of society’s reaction at early but not at later stages.  Society is not that patient.

Hobsbawm’s appeal as a person and as a writer rests on his compassion for the losers in the process of economic change and his interest in the Third World, especially the Maghreb and Latin America.  He was a man with a hinterland, with a considerable interest in jazz and in Afro-American and Latin American culture; his publications have been best sellers in Brazil.  He shared the view of Edward Hallett Carr’s Soviet Impact on the Western World that ideological competition restrained the excesses of capitalism.  One of his insights into the consequences of 1989 is not to be lightly dismissed: The political energies once deployed in restraining the excesses of neo-liberalism have now been diverted into social rather than economic grievances.  Hobsbawm is impatient both with feminism and with identity politics.  His biographer regards this as a failure of judgment and understanding, but Hobsbawm may have seen more deeply than today’s “liberals”; he “regarded feminism as an irrelevant diversion from the struggle for a social revolution”; the “new social movements . . . were ‘the opposite of marxist’ since what they offered was ‘radicalisation, mindless, libertarian and often basically individualist (i.e. anti-social).’”

As for populist nationalism, “no good will come of it but it won’t last forever . . . the political project of the left is universal.”  He shared the view of Sir Horace Rumbold, Britain’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, that nationalism was “patriotism plus inferiority complex.”  To this Evans properly adds,

[T]he most successful supranational bodies have not been those that obliterated national sovereignty but those, like the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe or the twentieth-century European Union, that have shared it,

a comment which perhaps underestimates the tendency of higher levels of government in both the U.S. and Europe to become overbearing.  Hobsbawm was no enthusiast for the pax americana, regarding America’s post-September 11 pursuit of terrorists as a poor excuse for the pursuit of something resembling world conquest.  The late journalist William Pfaff similarly pointed out that the September 11 plot required no sanctuary and could as easily have been hatched, not in Afghanistan, but on a ranch in Utah or, for that matter, in a warehouse in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Hobsbawm’s last essay collection, Fractured Times, is described by Evans as “a requiem for a vanished world” of bourgeois culture.  His last major book, The Age of Extremes, is the best introduction to him; the American edition is marred by an extraordinary number of typographical errors, not fairly to be blamed on a nonagenarian author.  Evans’s book, by contrast, is almost flawless in this respect, and is equipped with an exemplary and massive Index.

 

[Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, by Richard J. Evans (London and Boston: Little, Brown) 800 pp., £35.00]

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