The Life of the Party
It is an ambiguity well illustrated by this memoir. Born in Alexandria eighty-six years ago, the son of a literary Austrian mother and the offspring of a London working-class family, Eric Hobsbawm was brought up in Vienna, moved to Berlin as a schoolboy while Hitler was scrambling into the Reichstag, and in 1933 fled from there to London, where, astonishingly, he won a scholarship to Cambridge only two years later. He has lived and worked in London ever since. He was not, he insists, a refugee, having arrived in England as a British subject; but he is certainly a citizen of the world, who knew as a young man how to keep enough money about his person for a speedy departure, and who is still conscious that it is possible to feel not quite at home absolutely anywhere. His parents, with suitably internationalist symbolism, were married in a Zurich inhabited at the time by Lenin, James Joyce and the Dadaists.
A polyglot Englishman in Vienna and Berlin, a Jewish immigrant in Britain and a maverick among Communists, Hobsbawm is today almost as much at home in France, Italy and Latin America as he is in Hyde Park. For more than half a century now he has been circling the globe from Santiago to Seoul, teaching, arguing, investigating and befriending in a pentecostal babble of tongues. He has knocked around with Cuban revolutionaries and Chilean novelists, New York jazz musicians and San Francisco bohemians, in the global intellectual village that stretches from Lima to Mysore. Visiting the United States has not always been as simple for him as dropping in on La Paz or acting as an informal translator for Che Guevara in Havana, since the US government, as internationally minded as ever, made him apply for a special visa each time he taught there. He was, one might claim, mightily lucky to get through JFK at all, considering that Iris Murdoch was kept out of the United States for years on account of a surreally short sojourn in the British Communist Party.
In a coruscating cameo of the 1930s in this book, Hobsbawm portrays a turbulent world of frontier-crossing and meetings in back rooms in Berlin, of refugees and resistance fighters, Yugoslav partisans and death camp survivors, louche poets and secret agents, courageous Communists and squalid betrayals. If he was never a Zionist, without a shred of emotional attachment to "the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds," it is not only because emancipated middle-class Viennese Jews of his generation rarely were; it is also because his life has bred in him a deep-seated aversion to all brands of ethnic particularism. He is uneasy with new history-writing centered on gender, ethnicity and the like, and has made some notoriously negative comments about Third World revolutionary nationalism, sometimes of an unpleasantly de haut en bas kind. Nationalism for him meant Hitler, not Ho Chi Minh.
Hobsbawm has been a lifelong Communist, having first joined a Communist organization as a Berlin schoolboy and later hitching up with the party as a student at Cambridge. A good many political leftists in Britain, from the Soviet spy Kim Philby to Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson, have hailed from a cosmopolitan background--often, as with all three of these figures, as a result of empire. (Hobsbawm knew some of the notorious English Soviet spies at Cambridge, and tells us that he would most certainly have become one himself had he been invited. He did, however, lack that vital prerequisite for membership in the British Intelligence Service, an ability to complete the London Times crossword puzzle with preternatural speed.) Unlike many of his émigré colleagues, and to his perpetual credit, he did not indulge in the venerable expatriate game of becoming more English than the English, appropriating the Tory politics of the natives along with their plummy accents. On the contrary, he perversely remained a member of the Communist Party long after others had abandoned it in disgust.
He has been, even so, an English Communist, and English Communists are in one sense as much a part of the Establishment as the House of Lords. This, then, is the more sedate, traditionalist side of the citizen of the world. In Hobsbawm's day, a good number of prominent English Communists were donnish, patrician figures who combined an interest in dialectics with a passion for collecting Victorian bric-a-brac. It is not entirely surprising that Hobsbawm once met with a Chinese guerrilla leader in the Atheneum, one of the stuffiest of London's upper-class clubs. He describes himself in this memoir as "an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment"; and although he is suitably enjoying life quite as robustly as he does, he also clearly feels the pleasure of someone taken in from the cold. In fact, he discreetly plays down the degree to which he is a paid-up member of the London literary set, a kind of latter-day Bloomsbury sage in the tradition of Bertrand Russell.
He has never, he confesses, been much of a political activist, being temperamentally more preoccupied with books and birds. Like several members of the pioneering Communist Historians Group, to which he belonged, he came to history from an interest in the literary arts, and it still shows in the stylish, subdued elegance of his prose. E.P. Thompson also started out as a literary student. But literary types are rarely the most eager to get out of bed in order to go leafleting. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that one reason Hobsbawm lingered so unseasonably in the Communist Party after Hungary and the Prague Spring was because, by that time at least, it didn't really mean much more to him than lingering in the pub.