Monday, 28 September 2020

Book review: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, Eric J Evans (2019)

On a whim I bought this book in Glebe one day in the middle of September. I had gone to the shop to pick up an order and saw Evans’ book and thought of a friend who reads a lot of history, and thought to myself: “This looks interesting ..”

In the event I turned out to have been right in my assumption, which is remarkable as a biography about a dead historian might not, to most people, seem like fertile ground for analysis of larger themes. But born in 1917 (a little after my grandmother) Hobsbawm was part of a generation that saw the major events of the 20th century at first hand, including WWII, the aftermath of the October Revolution, and the Cold War.

He subsequently wrote at length about a range of eras, though he concentrated on the period extending from about 1750 to 1900. Evans asserts rather glibly, at the end of the book, that Hobsbawm “was never a Stalinist” and flirts with irrelevancy by using the ridiculous term “Hobsbawmian”. He never seems to address the problem of categories – something that must be, for any historian, a central issue – and accepts the prima facie importance of terms such as “Marxism” in a way that Hobsbawm must’ve been unable to do – if he was honest (though I’ve never read any of his books).

Evans makes the point well that Communism was a way for Hobsbawm to find community – something he needed early on as both his parents died before he reached his majority. In his youth he was a dedicated Communist. His parents were British subjects of Polish Jewish extraction. 

He was bookish and aspired to write – it’s evident from surviving sallies he penned as an adolescent – so drew inspiration from others, such as Shakespeare, Shelley, Coleridge, and Rimbaud. Which is a good place to go to look for such things (you can easily do a lot worse). Evans keeps the ball rolling – by about page 100 you’re at the time Hobsbawm went up to Cambridge – and as, himself, an authority on Germany in the 20th century, he is well-placed to make cogent observations about the environment in which his subject lived and learned though there’s a lack of information about Eric’s sources and curricula for these years, which isn’t remedied until Evans starts talking about books Eric wrote in the 1960s and 70. And I wasn’t sure that Evans grasped the significance of sentiments Eric expressed in his early writings; I often felt a good deal of boyish innocence behind strongly worded statements, a strong hint of uncertainty lying behind the bravado, but Evans seems not to have seen such things. 

What’s remarkable however is the fact that so much material survives for historians to ponder. Such a trove of riches enabled by the subject’s scribbling propensity. He was also hypercritical, with an opinion about everything – often, as it turns out, wrong, as when he predicted the demise of pop music – complementing a keen eye for the telling detail. His biographer’s equally quick condemnation of poetry – which Hobsbawm tried on various occasions, including when he was in the Army – is regrettably of the same stripe as his subject’s incisive discernment though considering the number of things Hobsbawm got wrong, perhaps a bit more reflection might’ve leavened the mix. On the other hand, you want someone to make people think, someone with a solid commitment to a particular line of reasoning is probably more likely to deliver pithy, memorable phrases than someone who goes the more round-about way to arriving at his or her goal or who is liable to qualify everything with reservations. In any case, being right all the time is probably not as important as regularly participating in public debates. So, for example, Hobsbawm’s dismissal of the environment and nationalism in favour of economic factors as explanations for specific phenomena that everyone agreed had become manifest in different places at different time. So what if Eric’s approach was contradicted by later scholars? 

If you demand 100% correctness all the time you’re going to end up with such stupidities as Stalinism specialised in. Other people on the left have expressed a similar kind of abhorrence of dogma and conformity, notably the Australian novelist Vance Palmer (one of whose books I reviewed recently). Hobsbawm solved the problem by being successful in a way that allowed him to survive on the proceeds of his own labours – he taught at a tertiary education institution for most of his adult life at the same time as he wrote and published books. 

Mao was equally pithy in terms of his written output, so Hobsbawm was following in the footsteps of greatness. An intelligent youth who wants to overturn all old institutions and structures and uses his natural abilities toward achieving that aim: the world has paid a high price for this characteristic of the species where still, today, we live with the consequences of the mistakes of past generations. When are the old going to be allowed to set the tone? Perhaps never. So we must fix problems that endure due to the triumph of the young by using patience in a way that Hobsbawm – soon tiring of the discipline that poetry needs in order to produce quality verses – was able to do only by dint of consistency. In the end, Eric prevailed in his chosen profession due to the fact that, over the course of many decades, he remained true to a single political line. His political views were cemented in the 1930s but financial security didn’t arrive until the 1970s.

It’s just disappointing that Evans’ loyalty to his subject allowed him to unthinkingly take sides in a contest that Hobsbawm refused to enter into all those years ago. It seems strange that Evans would reward Hobsbawm for a signal failure, but Eric’s other failures of the period in question – he was refused access to the cypher program due to that fact that his mother was not English – seem to have made Evans lose control of his critical faculties at an important moment in his narrative. English chauvinism is, to be sure, a poisonous elixir and Hobsbawm was right to have felt aggrieved (though he didn’t express such feelings to the officer who informed him of the decision), but surely it’s not necessary to forgive him everything (including his failure to persist with poetry, regardless the low quality of his youthful productions) just because you’re studying his life in exhaustive detail. 

It seems that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. In fact it’s astonishing that Evans neglects Hobsbawm’s German-language poetry considering how liable the young man was to start writing at the slightest pretext, since he wrote reviews of films and other cultural products, and since he clearly considered himself to be educated. Hobsbawm’s reception among peers – visible in the critiques offered by people who were sent his essays and theses for comment – reveal that he was happy to accept others’ reviews as valid, but Evans seems to think that Hobsbawm’s poetry is exempt from the same kind of scrutiny his academic work received.

While pretending to offer a comprehensive view of the historian’s life, Evans still leaves out critical clues to his subject’s approach to the world in terms that a reader could easily grasp. I find this failure a severe one, and deeply regret it. 

It’s possible to see Hobsbawm’s reluctance to use poetry to achieve agency as a reflection of his disenchantment with the creative arts in the light of the economic burdens society places on the proletariat. Artists had been writing, painting, and composing for generations but things were still bad (notably after 1929) so: what’s the point? The failure of the mainstream to take the hint might be seen as having convinced people like Hobsbawm that art wasn’t the best way to achieve their goals. Linked to this feeling of ennui was Hobsbawm’s need to get involved in committees and to run educational activities for students; in other words, to belong. The dream of finding a place for himself that would both satisfy strict ideas about relevancy as well as his appetite for sophisticated thinking drove him to participate in activities that brought him into contact with others. Once his writing and publishing led to financial security and acclaim from peers, however, Hobsbawm was happy to accept sinecures and memberships that had previously been withheld from him. He became a notable part of the same Establishment that he had, in his youth, rejected outright.

A shortcoming of Evans’ book is the absence, for most of the first 300 or so pages, of any indication for the layman of how Hobsbawm’s scholarship fit into contemporary society. What kind of academic was he? Was he fashionable? Unnecessarily biased (considering his Marxist leanings)? Good? Bad? Indifferent? The contents of the curriculum during his BA are also not detailed very comprehensively, so it’s hard to understand formative influences leading to choices later made.

Until things became clearer at about page 350 I felt that Evans considered the average reader able to know such things – unlikely unless they were a truly committed history buff (and even if that was the case, they might know little about Hobsbawm) – or else likely go and find out for him- or herself. Fortunately, once Eric travels to Russia and once he starts becoming involved in the journal ‘Past and Present’ – and especially once the USSR invaded Hungary – it became easier to see how his ideas fit into the magazine of global Marxism and into broader debates about values, economics, and politics. He was less a doctrinaire Communist – though he tried to stay active in bodies affiliated with the Party – than a fellow traveller; ideologically sound rather than slavishly toeing the Party line.

Evans is right to criticise the intelligence services on account of the scorn they expressed, in reports, with regard to Hobsbawm’s political allegiances, especially after WWII. During the war, young Eric was clearly unsuited to secret work – in fact he abused his privileges on several occasions when given freedom to use his discretion, compromising the war effort for ideological reasons – but if anything their alarm grew once hostilities had ended in 1945. Hobsbawm had predicted that this would happen. Again, we must be grateful that so much survived to furnish material for a book such as this.

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