The Life of the Party
Hobsbawm arrived at Cambridge University's King's College in the halcyon days of Noel Annan, Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster, and clearly flourished there. He actually took Forster to a performance by Lenny Bruce, an encounter of which one would dearly love to have the transcript. There were still plenty of Darwins, Ricardos, Huxleys and Stracheys among the undergraduates; but though Hobsbawm came, unusually, from a lowly grammar school rather than a posh private school, he was elected a member of the celebrated Apostles' Club, which numbered Tennyson, Russell and Wittgenstein among its former luminaries. The émigré Jewish leftist Hobsbawm was not entirely bedazzled by Cambridge; in a masterly little pen-portrait of the then-provost of King's, he sketches the malice and bitchery "behind the mask of camp senile benevolence." Even so, he had arrived among the English upper-middle classes, and was never to betray any particular discomfort in this suave, soft-toned company.
The Communist Party that Hobsbawm joined in the 1930s was the kind of outfit in which you would abandon your spouse if the Central Committee instructed you to. Indeed, Hobsbawm realized that he was no longer a pukka Communist when he was able to contemplate having a sexual relationship with someone who was not a potential party recruit, a feeling one might still find today among recovering Mormons or repentant Jehovah's Witnesses. He seems to have had few illusions about Stalinism from the outset, while apparently feeling few qualms about belonging to a Stalinist party whose record was littered with sordid betrayals of working-class militancy. Like most of his political tendency and generation, he was mostly bemused by 1968, though open-mindedly so. It was his passion for jazz that lent him a touch more sympathy for youth subcultures than most of the reactionary old party hacks of the day. He was for ten years the jazz critic of The New Statesman, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton, in homage to Frankie Newton, a renowned Communist jazz trumpeter of the 1930s. To remain a party member, he tells us, was to stay true to the memory of the October Revolution and the struggle against fascism; but these admirable sentiments were scarcely a monopoly of the CPs. In fact, it was in the name of the October Revolution that a good many socialists fought against what the Communist Party stood for.
Hobsbawm has been, all along, a Popular Frontist--even as late as the 1980s, when he campaigned against "extreme" leftists in the Labour Party and for an anti-Thatcherite alliance with the Liberals. Inexplicable for a man who lived through the rise of Hitler, he tells us that Labour's electoral defeat at the hands of Thatcherism was "the saddest and most desperate [moment] of my political experience." He does not add that his own efforts to turn the Labour Party to the political right (hardly the most gargantuan of tasks) finally resulted in the advent of the very Blairism he detests--"Thatcherism in trousers," as he dubs it.
Hobsbawm has a good deal to feel gratified about. He is a historian of formidable influence, erudition and stylistic grace; a public figure feted from Bologna to Beijing, yet a man skilled in the subtle arts of personal friendship; a politico who has survived the most bloodstained century known to humanity, yet who has managed to relish his life in the process. He still retains his insatiable energy for parties, debate, travel and ideas. He is one of Aristotle's "men of virtue"--which is not to say that he is a saint, simply that he has thrived, excelled and exercised his prodigious talents to the full. Or, as he himself puts it in less grandly Aristotelian language, "It has been a lot of fun."
Even so, Interesting Times concludes on a sobering note. Hobsbawm is fond of the United States, but glad that he and his children do not live in a society that acknowledges no limits on its willingness to use its strength. The twenty-first century, he observed, "opens on twilight and obscurity." It is greatly to our loss that we shall not have his wisdom to guide us through it.