- "The strange and often alien world of the past"The Year in the United Kingdom
What relationship should a biographer have to their subject's politics? Which produces most insight: objective distance or sympathetic identification? Richard J. Evans's Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (2019) describes its subject adopting—or being adopted by—Communism as a Jewish teenager in Berlin 1931 and 1932, and persisting with it until his death in 2012. He stayed when many left the party after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and the revelation of the extent of Stalin's crimes in 1956; he even remained a Communist after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. In Evans's telling, the movement filled the gap left by early orphanhood and then, though he did not consider himself a refugee, displacement from Europe to England.
For Evans, this need to belong explains what would otherwise seem an incompatible enthusiasm for the British establishment: Hobsbawm joined the British Academy in 1976, and the Athenaeum Club in 1983. Towards the end of his life, he became president of the Hay Literary Festival, where he spoke in the Barclays Wealth tent. In 1998 he accepted the order of the Companion of Honour from the Queen herself, even if he turned down a knighthood. But as Hobsbawm was afforded the genre of retrospective interview associated with National Treasure status, he was not allowed to forget the contradictions of his position. Evans transcribes an exchange asked on BBC TV by the Canadian interviewer Michael Ignatieff in full:
In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?HOBSBAWM:
… Probably not.IGNATIEFF:
Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world [End Page 171] being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing … the sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure.IGNATIEFF:
What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?HOBSBAWM:
Yes.(Evans, Eric Hobsbawm, 590)
The same line of questioning was taken, a few months later, on "Britain's longest-running radio show" (Midgely), that normally gentle and unadversarial institution of Middle England Desert Island Discs (589). It presupposes an unreflexive historical self-satisfication: the "sacrifices" involved in the "Soviet experiment" were not be forgotten, but the millions of deaths involved in achieving the "today" of living standards, radiant or otherwise, in Britain or the United States do not come into the equation, because they generally happened in colonies. Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire, which also appeared in 2019, had more to say on how—contrary to the usual narrative—dissent at the Imperial "periphery" on such issues had shaped dissent at its heart. Tony Judt's critique, however, was that Hobsbawm "refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works" (qtd. in Evans, Eric Hobsbawm 618). On this front, Evans was happy to defend Hobsbawm: "there was something of the Inquisition about Judt's shrill exhortations to Eric to recant or be damned" (618).
Evans, who accepted his knighthood in 2012 and the Regius Professorship of Modern History at the University of Cambridge in 2008, knew Hobsbawm personally. Although he broadly endorses Hobsbawm's project as a historian, he makes a disclaimer early on: "I have always been a social democrat in my political convictions" (ix–x). Evans stops short of referring to himself as a biographer when he adds that "the task the historian has to fulfil above all others is to enter into an understanding of the strange...