The history of Western fashion in the 20th century will be very much impoverished if those who come to write it fail to emphasize the seminal importance of something I like to call “U. Marxist chic.” You know what I mean: three-piece tweeds, baggy elbow-patched cardigans, white oxfords with or without patterns (never colored), green or brown wool ties, simple brown loafers. I remember a professor of mine, nothing short of a fashion guru in his billowing, tentlike sweaters and threadbare trousers, who argued that, 60-plus million dead or nay, the Soviet experiment had been vindicated by the USSR’s female-literacy rate, which he assured me had been extraordinarily high. Why do only unrepentant Stalinists wear such fine old clothes?
I thought of my professor and his unpleasant political views, which still seem to me at odds with his very agreeable getup, when I attended a memorial service last month for Eric Hobsbawm, the perpetually tweeded and bespectacled English Marxist historian, university lecturer, sometime jazz critic, and card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who died last year at age 95. When the Hobsbawms of the world die, either the best or the very worst tends to be brought out in people. Thus, Bruce Bawer and A. N. Wilson were in fine form, in FrontPage and the Daily Mail, respectively, laying into Hobsbawm for, among other things, his championing of the Nazi–Soviet pact, his strange omission of Katyn and the Warsaw uprising from his account of the Second World War in The Age of Extremes, and his meh response to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Even the obituary that ran in the New York Times took the trouble to point out that his allegiance to the party was nothing short of fanatical, faltering not even when Peter Fryer, foreign correspondent for the CPGB’s own house rag, the Daily Worker, was booted out in 1956 for reporting accurately on the Hungarian uprising. Hobsbawm’s affiliation with the CPGB simply withered away in 1989. (According to Christopher Hitchens, no renewal form came in the mail, and Hobsbawm didn’t bother to ask after one.) Meanwhile, on the website of The American Conservative, Paul Gottfried praised Hobsbawm for not being a “fashionable, politically correct leftist,” as if being out and proud about one’s support for state-sponsored mass murder were somehow comparable to opposing affirmative action publicly. Age of Extremes indeed!