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Culture

Eric Hobsbawm

Translated by Bill Scoble

Translated Thursday 26 January 2006, by Bill Scoble

MEETINGS

Eric Hobsbawm: " I have observed and listened and tried to understand history."

The autobiography of the famous British historian has finally been translated into French. Claude Mazauric has read the text of the great specialist, whose very existence became part of the fabric of his era.

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A STRAIGHT SHOOTER (Ed: This is a translation of the French title; the English title is: Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life.)

By Eric Hobsbawm, Paris, Ramsay, 2005, translated from the English by Dominique Peters and Yves Coleman, 521 pages, 23.50 euros

For historians of the generations that followed his, Eric Hobsbawm has always seemed to embody, even more than the watchful eye of the master, that of the Muse. He was the one who managed a double exploit: not only as narrator of history with perspective, but also as engaged historian, passionate militant—in a word, a "Marxist" historian who never separated his investigations into the world from his desire to transform it.

Three years ago, Eric Hobsbawn reached the age of eighty-five, and his autobiography was published in London. It was a major intellectual and political event, and it seems likely that the French translation, now that the author is almost ninety, will only prolong the effect—perhaps even more here (in France) than elsewhere, in light of the special rapport that the French public has with history as well as with Communism.

Wonderful subtitle, (Autobiographie d’un Franc-tireur) moreover, given to the autobiography: Straight Shooter—Straight—as in free and sincere, Shooter—as in someone whose aim is true. And in the five hundred pages of this analytical retrospective narration of a life of creative labor and engagement, spread over twenty-three chapters, the author never seems to beat about the bush with his passions or his ephemeral certainties. If a part of his precocious involvement with Communism today seems to him out of date, it is simply that the carpet of history has slipped under his feet. But Hobsbawm remains constant in his opposition to what he has fought against all his life: fascism; exploitation of the lower classes; colonialism; social oppression and inequality; ethnocentric nationalism—which he likens to Zionism; the hypocrisy of the wealthy; the arrogance of the self-proclaimed elite, etc.

All of that, in this great book, he skewers with his caustic pen, with his inimitable eloquence and devastating, veddy British humour, which has been the hallmark of his talent as a writer since his first books. His readers have wondered for forty years where Hobsbawm got that aptitude to seize with so much depth and height—not only the theoretical, but also the reality of movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, to which he has devoted the main body of his work in books such as The Age of Revolution (translated into French in 1970) right up to The Age of Extremes (1999). A reading of his autobiography suggests an answer: it shows how Marxism has nourished his critical mind, guiding his constant effort at unmasking the structural foundations of large historical tendencies—superficially unrelated—in the evolution of societies and nations.

But this technique, common to many historians of his century, does not take into account the true genius of Hobsbawm’s observations, coupled with a constant concern for extended information, and consolidated with a perpetual taking of notes in the field. It is that passion for documentation that invigorates him—a passion that is supported by his impressive multilingualism, since Hobsbawm speaks, reads and writes fluent German, English, French, Italian and Spanish—and he understands other languages as well. He is the very antithesis of the historian chained to his desk. The reader of his autobiography is invited to follow him everywhere—across Europe, the Americas and Asia—to London, New York, Naples, Berlin, Algiers or Lima. And everywhere— conversations, sources, friends, places to discover, newspapers to read, questions to resolve.

X X X

Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917, in Alexandria, Egypt, into a family of impoverished Jewish petit bourgeois, of British nationality on the father’s side,
Austrian on the mother’s. After his earliest days, the family relocated to Vienna, which in those days was nothing more than the capital of a small nostalgic, unhappy nation. It was there that he spent a penniless youth and received his primary education. After the disappearance of his parents, he was guided by his aunts and uncles, and we we see him next as an adolescent in Berlin where he discovers not only the monumental German culture, but also Communism, to which, at age 15, he is attracted. It is the revolutionary workers’ movement which, almost alone, opposes the rise of Hitlerism and addresses the ever-present struggle between the classes.

Then, through Paris on 14 July 1936 at the time of the triumph of the Front Populaire, he leaves for England, where his uncle hoped for a better situation for the boy (fleeing Nazi Germany was not part of the equation!). Finally, with brilliant results in the entrance exams, he is admitted to King’s College, Cambridge, where he meets a dynamic group of "red" students devoted to the struggle against international fascism and the support of the Soviet Union. Four of the most brilliant among them adhere to the Soviet doctrine until they disassociate
themselves from the Communist party to become intelligence agents.

A researcher with insatiable curiosity and a militant writer, when his military service is over, Hobsbawn is slowly revealed, under the influence of the economic historian Postan, to be an intellectual with a bright future, and to possess a widely admired gift for the theoretical. Very British in his acute sense of the realities of empire, very cosmopolitan in his upbringing, but an internationalist by conviction. Although held back in his university career like so many others in the West during the period of the Cold War (his friend George Rude suffered particularly on this account), Hobsbawn, whose reputation was growing, finally succeeded in establishing himself, especially after the publishing of his first book: Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. There would follow a dozen major works, including one on jazz, which he adored, and from this success came prestige, material ease—all of which made it possible for him to overcome some difficult moments in his personal life. And finally international acclaim, which would make him the most famous historian in the second half of the twentieth century. (If you can imagine such a thing, Fernand Braudel asked Hobsbawn to use the familiar ’tu’ form of address with him, and to call him "Fernand"!)

I still remember the lavish praise accorded him by hundreds of historians gathered in the Royal Palace of Oslo on August of 2000 at the time of the international congress of historical sciences. If the great art of life consists in managing to hold on, as Goethe is held to have said, then Hobsbawm was a great artist whose existence was an integral part of his time, but also, as he admitted, someone who had the good fortune to be able to live through the "century of iron" without becoming mired in it—he who had always belonged to atypical minorities. Whence comes no doubt his love of life as seen in his autobiography, and the adjective that surfaces most often in his book, whether referring to a countryside (Tuscany or Wales, for example), to his friends or to a particular struggle: "marvelous". And that is why we in turn are incited to marvel at his story.

But the most important thing is this: Hobsbawm’s autobiography is, from one end to the other, a political work. The author justifies his communist affiliation to which he remains faithful (just like his friend Albert Soboul), in spite of the crises of 1956 and 1968. He recalls having joined the British Communist Party in 1936, and resigning shortly before the self-destruction of the party in 1991. But the difference between his and so many other insipid and spiteful "confessions" that one still sees, is the fact that Hobsbawm never retrospectively criticizes the level of earlier debate, nor the personalities and positions of his erstwhile colleagues. And he despises flattery as much as self-flagellation.

His brand of Communism, it is true, was of a kind that took in the whole world: Italy, Spain, the Soviet Union, a divided Germany, Hungary, the Americas as well as England, the United States, London and New York—these are the places where he spends the great majority of his time, casting his trained and critical eye over unfolding events. France (especially Paris—a microcosm of all of France for Hobsbawm, which is not true for his friend Richard Cobb, who adored the provinces)—France, for which he shows such unique tenderness, deploring botched architecture, which led, according to him, to the (excessive) ambitions of Pompidou followed by the megalomania of Mitterand. And yet, it seemed to me, that France is the country he understands the least: he is disheartened by the massive decline of spoken French throughout the world, and by the provincialism and the narrowness of the "intellectual elite". This undoubtedly stems from the fact that he spent so much of his time with the most sophisticated and brilliant of those on the left, among whom, irony of history, those who tried to suppress the publication in France of his Age of Extremes!

But what a huge cast of characters in his memoirs: more than 800 people mentioned— historians, communist or union leaders, statesmen, editors, barons of capital—rubbing shoulders with his "everyday" friends, such as E.P. Thompson, historian of the origin of the British working classes, Rosario Villari, Pierre Bourdieu and so many more...

As an observer of present times, Hobsbawm is hardly optimistic: "The 20th century opened on twilight and obscurity." As proof: the liquidation of the Soviet Union, whatever its faults and missteps resulting from its origins, has for him the sour taste of a victory of the wealthy; the "Thatcherization" of the West, and the presence of Bush have assumed for him a sense of counter-revolution without the preceding revolution. The failure of the Italian Communist party seems to him exactly like an assassination: he sees all of Europe burdened by its submission to individual capitalism. But Hobsbawm doesn’t despair, and does not flinch from pointing out the adversary, and believing his time has come: he bets that the world—notably Asia and Latin America (just like Europe) "will see the end of the American century (sic)," because, in his view, the worst outcome is no more likely to occur than the revolution to which he has devoted—not in vain, but without current success—his youth and his talent.

Eric Hobsbawm will forever be among us! Let us not miss the chance to read the story that he gives us of his beautiful life as intellectual and militant.


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