The lives of historians are generally a bore. After all, any historian worth writing about spends most of his time - like Gibbon - just scribble, scribble, scribbling. Yet Eric Hobsbawm's life is the exception that proves that rule. For his life helps us to answer one of the most puzzling historical questions of the 20th century: why did so many otherwise intelligent people become Communists?
That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable. His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution (1962) and ending with The Age of Extremes (1994) constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history. Nothing else produced by the British Marxist historians will endure as these books will.
Though I cannot claim to know him well, Hobsbawm is also a man I cannot resist liking. Politics aside, I find we have an uncanny amount in common: like me, he reveres the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, is devoted to jazz, as I am, and for most of his career spent four months a year in New York, as I am about to do. We even come close to agreeing about the value of "what if" questions in history. Hobsbawm saves for his very last page the revelation that he too thinks "that the German Europe that would have emerged from the Kaiser's victory [in the First World War] might have been a better proposition than the world of Versailles".
Knowing all this, I found myself gripped by the central paradox that dominates this autobiography. How could such a brilliant and congenial scholar be so politically wrong for so long - for 50 years, to be exact, the period of his membership of the Communist Party? And how can he continue to believe, as he clearly still does, that something can be salvaged from the ghastly enterprise of Lenin and his cronies? "The dream of the October Revolution", he writes, "is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay rejected it, but it has not been obliterated."
Interesting Times is, in some measure, an Apologia pro vita sua. It would be easy to read it and conclude: "Well, who would have done otherwise in his situation?" Born in 1917 - just months before the Bolshevik Revolution - Eric Hobsbawm's formative years were spent in Vienna and Berlin. As a half-English Jew (his grandfathers were a London cabinet-maker named Obstbaum and a Viennese jeweller named Grun) he already had two good reasons for feeling an outsider. What a time for a teenager to be reading the Communist Manifesto - with Hitler on the brink of power. Although it is worth remarking that there were plenty of people in much the same situation who did not rush to join the Communist Party.
Even after his arrival in England in March 1933, he remained in some measure a "natural" Communist. From St Marylebone Grammar School he won a scholarship to that greenhouse of the English Left, King's College, Cambridge. Being a Communist was almost obligatory for the scholarship boys of those days - the likes of John Cornford, the handsome great-grandson of Darwin, who later fought and died in Spanish Civil War. And what fun it all was later, in the 1960s, by which time Hobsbawm was one of the established stars in the Marxist intellectual firmament, egging on the students at Birkbeck College to revolt like their counterparts at the Sorbonne.
Yet there is a need to look a little more closely at all this. The Far Left will always be chic while the Far Right is irredeemably repulsive. But was there really such a great moral difference - as Hobsbawm insists there was - between being a fascist and being a Communist?
The essence of Communism is the abnegation of individual freedom, as Hobsbawm admits in a chilling passage: "The Party. had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it.We did what it ordered us to do.Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed. If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so."
Consider some of the "lines" our historian dutifully toed. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in the great Berlin transport strike of 1932. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.
In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.
In the end, the only way to understand this extraordinary trahison d'un clerc is precisely as a succession of acts of quasi-religious faith. In a surprising aside, Hobsbawm himself refers to "the Party" as the "Communist Universal Church" and later admits: "For young revolutionaries of my generation, mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics."
But what a curiously flexible faith this was in practice. On the one hand, Hobsbawm continued - and has continued - to "favour. insurrection or guerrilla conquest" wherever these seemed to be "realistically on the agenda", while denouncing "global neo-liberalism" and "[free] market fundamentalism". On the other, he has enjoyed all the imaginable benefits which free capitalist democracies have to offer.
Apart from being excluded from intelligence work during the war - which he rather bizarrely complains about - and having to wait rather longer than expected to be given a chair, his long allegiance to a hostile power has never been held against him here. Nor has it in the United States, where he spent a third of every year between 1984 and 1997. As for his continuing broadsides against "market fundamentalism" - as personified, of course, by Margaret Thatcher - these ring distinctly hollow coming from a man who has been substantially enriched by the publication of his books by a host of commercial publishers around the world.
But then, Communism always was a schizophrenic kind of faith, preaching equality for all, while preserving la dolce vita for the Party elite. Italian Communism, Hobsbawm confesses, was always his favourite variant. Where else do the Communists have Tuscan farmhouses, where one can "stretch out.on the terrace overlooking the Val d'Orcia after lunch, listening to the voice of Callas singing 'Casta Diva'.?" It's a far cry from the storming of the Winter Palace.
Can humanity live without the ideals of freedom and justice, asks Hobsbawm, "or without those who devote their lives to them?" The tragedy of Communism - and it was a tragedy that cost the lives of tens of millions - was that a man of Eric Hobsbawm's intelligence could not see, and still cannot see, that Communism was the negation of both freedom and justice, for the sake of a spurious and ultimately bogus egalitarianism.