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Eric the Red

by Matthew Walther

A report from Professor Hobsbawm’s memorial service

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!

I’ve always had a hard time making up my mind about Hobsbawm. There is no denying his intelligence and erudition. He spoke five languages fluently, and read at least three more. He wrote or edited nearly 30 books and hundreds of essays about everything from bandits, tenant farmers, and trumpet players to the origins of fascism, the death of the British Empire, and the emergence of youth culture in the West. The Invention of Tradition (1983), a collection of essays he co-edited, is organized around the notion that traditions, whatever their value, often arise out of arbitrary, indeed sometimes outright venal circumstances. His cultural criticism of so-called late capitalism calls to mind the work of, say, Irving Kristol, who could muster only two cheers for it. Toward the end of his life Hobsbawm worried, presciently, about entire generations growing up with no sense of history, a development that he saw leading to an age of unfettered narcissism and vulgarity. While he dismissed much of popular culture as an aesthetic blind alley, heaping scorn upon such “popular divinities” as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, he had even less patience for the postmodern avant-garde and reserved especial contempt for performance art (“a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks”).

Hobsbawm’s personal conduct was in some respects admirable. Born in Egypt in 1917 to an English father and an Austrian mother, both of whom were Jewish, Hobsbawm was an orphan in Vienna by the age of 14, the same age at which he became a Communist. After the death of his father, he worked for some time as a tutor of English — the language spoken in the Hobsbawm household — to support his mother, his sister Nancy, and himself. He and Nancy were eventually adopted by his maternal aunt and uncle in Berlin, a city from which their family fled in 1933 hoping to escape both Hitler and (a bigger threat at the time, according to Hobsbawm) the German economic slump. Despite his craven pamphleteering on behalf of a Nazi–Soviet alliance, he eventually served Britain in a dogged if undistinguished manner during the war, which is more than can be said for some of his avowedly anti-fascist contemporaries, such as W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, both of whom sailed for America in 1939. His 1951 divorce from his first wife notwithstanding — to say nothing of an affair that led to a son, Joshua, born out of wedlock the same year — he seems to have been keenly devoted to family life, especially during his last years.

Yet surely he believed many things that anyone half as clever as the winner of the 2003 Balzan Prize for European History (purse: 1 million Swiss francs) would rightly dismiss as at best risible and at worst simply evil. “Communist Parties were not for romantics,” he wrote in his memoir Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2003). “The appeal of the Party was that it got things done when others did not” — which is certainly one way of putting it. As a young immigrant in Britain, he told us, he “refused all contact with the suburban petit bourgeoisie which I naturally regarded with contempt.” This disdain for the ordinary English middle class would eventually extend to Nancy, who became a parochial Tory.

And often worse than what he said was what he failed or refused to say. Only Hobsbawm could have begun an essay by correctly asserting that “the 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history” and then wrapped up some 4,000 words later without having made a single reference to the central role that the Communist regimes he had spent decades defending played in bringing about this miserable state of affairs.

The memorial service took place in Greenwich Village at the New School, where Hobsbawm taught from 1984 to 1997. Before the service began, those who arrived early watched a slideshow consisting mainly of family photographs: Hobsbawm alone on horseback or in his library, with his second wife at parties and in generic Central European capital scenes, with numerous grandchildren sitting on a sofa alongside a stuffed version of Bullseye, the Target Corporation’s bull-terrier mascot.

For the most part the service was a dullish affair. David Van Zandt, the New School’s president, spoke warmly but vaguely about “Eric’s achievements.” (For reasons that were never made clear to me, all the speakers, even the music professor who claimed never to have been introduced to him, referred to Hobsbawm as “Eric.”) Colleagues praised Hobsbawm’s authoritative but informal teaching methods and his flashy — by the standards of British academic Marxists, anyway — prose style. Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s longtime president and a former comrade himself, spoke via a recorded message, reading from a sheet of paper without looking up at the camera. (He and Hobsbawm had met — once — in 1977.) A dean, lapsing into academic bureaucratese, lamented that the New School may never again have “an Eric-type hire.” Still, I learned a few things that one wouldn’t necessarily have gleaned from Hobsbawm’s memoirs. He was a great fan of Cel-Ray, the, ahem, flavorful vegetable soda, and a bit of a handyman. Ira Katznelson, one of Hobsbawm’s New School associates, recounted that his daughter once came home from Horace Mann and announced that a funny thing had happened at school that day: In her history class they had read an essay by a man with the same name as that carpenter who was always coming over for dinner.

Most of the goodwill I felt toward him after hearing about what a loving grandpa he had been was erased, however, when I remembered that he is supposed once to have said, at a dinner at which David Pryce-Jones (who reported the conversation in the October 29, 2012, issue of  National Review) was present, that he hoped a nuclear bomb would fall on Israel. It would be, he seems to have claimed, worth the deaths of some 5 million Jews to prevent the deaths of at least 200 million people in some unspecified future world war. At best this is what some psychiatrists call “asyndetic thinking”; at worst, a perverse kind of anti-Semitism coming from a man who, oddly enough, asked that Kaddish be said for him, a request that was granted at his funeral last fall.

How did someone as intelligent and cultivated as Hobsbawm believe such nasty things? Bertrand Russell, who held any number of such views himself, famously decried the pervasiveness of opinions “so absurd that only very learned men could possibly adopt them.” Hobsbawm was a very learned man, and many of his opinions were absurd. Frequently they were immoral and vicious as well. It is far too early to say which, if any, of his writings — Primitive Rebels, the Ages tetralogy, his jazz columns — will survive, but I will say that if Hobsbawm is read 50 or 100 years from now, it will probably be despite rather than because of his politics.

– Mr. Walther is the assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has appeared in The American Conservative, the Daily Beast, and numerous other publications.

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