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Hobsbawm interview in the Observer
by Threehegemons
22 September 2002 17:41 UTC
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Thought people might find interesting this interview with the only one of his 
generation of great British Marxists to really adopt a global perspective.

Steven Sherman



Man of the extreme century 

Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain's greatest historians. His long, eventful life 
has mirrored the great events of the twentieth century. The rises of 
imperialism, fascism and communism are as much components of his life as 
subjects of his books, and have turned Hobsbawm into a 'lifelong communist'. 
Now, he has published his autobiography. In this wide-ranging conversation with 
Tristram Hunt, one of Britain 's new generation of historians, he reveals how 
he continues to believe in a spirit of progress as the surest route for 

Eric Hobsbawm special: listen to audio clips 

Sunday September 22, 2002
The Observer 

Tristram Hunt: Much of your work as a historian has consciously appealed to a 
broader audience beyond the academic establishment. There is a dramatic 
resurgence in the popularity of history: more people are reading history, 
visiting monuments, watching TV programmes than ever before. But you have 
recently warned of a 'permanent present' - the creation of a new generation who 
might know a great deal about the past but have little sense of continuity or 
identity with it. Has history become simply a consumable product in a deeply 
transient age? 
Eric Hobsbawm: Well, choosing to write for a broad public isn't only my 
personal choice. I regard it as part of a long English tradition. After all, 
this is a country in which even the most important thinkers have expressed 
their views for the broad public, going back to Adam Smith via Charles Darwin 
to name but two. For me, the sort of ideal reader may be a construct of the 
educated but non-specialist reader who wants to find out about the past - is 
curious about the past and wishes to understand how and why the world has come 
to be what it is today. And where it's going. This is also part of the Marxist 
Historian Movement. We reacted against a tradition of historians between the 
wars who were suspicious of talking to the public for fear of talking down. And 
there were only very few people, G.M. Trevelyan or A.J.P. Taylor, who were 
courageous enough to do this, even at the risk of people saying well, of 
course, he's talking down, you know. 

There is also today a huge upsurge of do-it-yourself history. It's mostly about 
the past of people's own families. Family history and the study of genealogy 
has become democra tised. This may or may not help to explain the enormous 
passion for biographies and autobiographies which is very marked here. What it 
shows to me is that history is an essential part of human life. 

It's a critique of the two basic principles on which the modern society appears 
to be run. First, the problem-solving approach of technology which means the 
past is absolutely irrelevant to it. Second, the buy-it-now approach of the 
consumer society. For practical purposes, history doesn't come into this except 
as a sort of decoration. Well, people know that this isn't the case. They're 
stuck in the past, they grow out of the past. And I think this - without their 
knowing it - is a protest against the kind of society which wishes to cut them 
off from the past and cut them off from each other. 

TH: So much of the current surge in history has to do with English and British 
identity. What came out from your autobiography was a strong affection for 
England and your own sense of Englishness. Do you think the public obsession 
with British roots and identity illustrates a fallow intellectual retreat? We 
seem to be returning to nation-state history and an insecurity about our 

EH: Nation-state history is probably the most damaging part of history today 
since the world cannot be understood in terms of nation states. On the other 
hand, it's very difficult to know how to break away from it since schools are 
essentially geared to states. 

This business about English history ... I can understand it, but I'm a bit 
worried about it as I'm worried about all kinds of identity history. Identity 
isn't a good basis for history. It's a new problem for the English, partly 
because of globalisation but chiefly because of devolution and the end of 
empire. Both of these have left the English with a need to define themselves as 

Part of the British tradition was that unlike so many others, we were actually 
proud of being a mongrel race. Everybody said, oh well you see my grandmother 
was Irish and my auntie is Welsh and all the rest of it. There was no sense you 
had to pick and choose - you could do both. But I think this is a similar 
problem to the one which in the past faced Spaniards and Russians. It's a 
pre-nationalist political consciousness. 

TH: One of your most important academic contributions was your work on the 
invention of national traditions. In an age of resurgent nationalism and new 
concern with identity there seems to be a whole wave of traditions being 
invented for naked political, sectarian and ethnic reasons. Does that make the 
role of historian more crucial as an exposer of myth? 

EH: The worrying thing at the moment is that history - including tradition - is 
being invented in vast quantities. In the past 30 years there's been an 
explosion of heritage sites and historical museums. On top of this, 
particularly since the end of communism, there's been the foundation of new 
states which need to invent histories to show how important they are. And the 
way you do this is that you invent or collect yourself a past. The extreme 
example of this is in Croatia where the man who actually created the new state, 
Franjo Tudjman, was a professional historian who invented a phoney tradition. 
So, the world is today full of people inventing histories and lying about 
history and that's largely because the people who do this are not actually 
interested in the past. What they are interested in is something which will 
make the punters feel good. At present it's more important to have historians, 
especially sceptical historians, than ever before. 

TH: Martin Amis's new book, Koba The Dread, has impugned the British Left - and 
you personally - for not condemning Stalin's atrocities. In your autobiography 
you vividly bring out the mindset of a believing Communist in the 1940s and 
1950s: the party discipline and a reluctance 'to believe the few who told us 
what they knew' of Soviet Russia. Yet you also bring out the historical context 
for joining the Communist Party - the battle against fascism on the streets of 
1930s Berlin and a strong sense of the idealism of the October Revolution. 
There also remains the broader historical context that the Soviet Union 
remained a viable economic and political model to many in the West right up to 
the 1970s. Do you think this historical context seems absent in the current 
debate about 'Communist guilt'? 

EH: I must leave the discussion of Amis's views on Stalin to others. I wasn't a 
Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I've written can 
be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member 
for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about 
which it's reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR 
- I don't want to be critical of a book which brings out some of the horrors of 
Stalin. It isn't an original or important book. It brings nothing that we 
haven't known except perhaps about his personal relations with his father. But 
I don't want to say anything that might suggest to people that I'm in some ways 
trying to defend the record of something which is indefensible. 

TH: Amis has criticised those on the Left who deny any moral equivalence 
between Nazism and Communism because the latter committed atrocities in the 
cause of a higher social ideal as opposed to racial genocide. The majority of 
deaths in the Soviet Union came not from political or racial persecution but 
famine caused by economic policies. As you have written of Stalin: 'His 
terrifying career makes no sense except as a stubborn, unbroken pursuit of that 
utopian aim of a communist society.' I want to tease out this issue of 
idealism. You stayed in the party after 1956 partly because of solidarity to 
the fallen and partly because of a belief in a societal ideal. Are you still 
drawn to an Enlightenment ideal of societal perfectibility or have you come to 
accept the limits of the human condition - what your friend Isaiah Berlin 
called, 'the crooked timber of humanity'? 

EH: Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about 
communism, it's a one-off biographical question. It wasn't out of idealisation 
of the October Revolution. I'm not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself 
about the people or things one cares most about in one's life. Communism is one 
of these things and I've done my best not to delude myself about it even though 
I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the 
passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination 
of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human 
improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the 
bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work 
and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it 
did collapse and generated awful nightmares. 

I don't think that this particular movement is likely to revive, certainly not 
as a global movement of its kind because its particular historical moment has 

TH: Did you ever discuss these ideas with Isaiah Berlin? 

EH: I liked Isaiah Berlin - we used to lunch together. We got on very well. He 
was a marvellous fellow and he had enormous charm and warmth but, it's a funny 
thing, we didn't actually discuss controversial matters much. 

I think the main difference is that I don't actually believe he was an 
Enlightenment liberal. On the contrary, he could see the world as individuals 
and as groups. He couldn't see the world. I believe that whatever the 
limitations of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment it was the only principle 
on which it is possible to demand improvements or rights for every human being. 
And I think this is what he couldn't believe. He believed that this would lead 
to very bad results. Well, he was right, of course. It can, among other things, 
lead to very bad results. And it did, for instance in the case of Soviet Union. 

TH: What struck me in your autobiography was that despite your lifelong 
Communist Party membership, you were deeply hostile to Militant Tendency 
attempts to take over the Labour Party during the 1980s. Indeed, to the fury of 
your comrades you became a committed supporter of Neil Kinnock's modernisation 
of the party - describing the 1992 general election night as the 'saddest and 
most desperate in my political experience'. Yet you have spoken out against 
Tony Blair, branding him 'Thatcher in trousers'. Surely New Labour was the 
inevitable conclusion of Kinnock's modernisation process? 

EH: Most communists and indeed most socialists disagreed at the time [1980s] 
with the few of us who said it's absolutely no use, the Labour Party has got to 
go in a different direction. On the other hand, what we thought of was a 
reformed Labour Party not a simple rejection of everything that Labour had 
stood for. Obviously, any Labour Government, however watered down, is better 
than the right-wing alternative as the USA demonstrates. But I'm not absolutely 
certain that Labour Prime Ministers who glory in trying to be warlords - 
subordinate warlords particularly - are a thing that I can stick and it 
certainly sticks in my gullet. 

TH: Yet in the wake of Lionel Jospin's defeat in France is there any other 
progressive way for centre-Left administrations than the Third Way? Do you 
think the concept of the Third Way has any intellectual validity? 

EH: The Third Way is a topographical and not a political term. It means between 
two arbitrary points. Ideally, there's the totally centralised command economy 
and the complete anarchism of a non-state free market. Now, we know everybody's 
against the first and it doesn't exist and when they tried to introduce it, it 
didn't work, so that's no longer around. Now, instead of being halfway between 
these two, the so-called Third Way is considerably skewed towards the 
free-market segment. I think perhaps they can now revise things a bit. But they 
haven't done enough in the past. 

TH: In that context, given his radical socialist heritage and his academic work 
on Jimmy Maxton [Independent Labour Party MP for Glasgow during the Red 
Clydeside era], have you been at all disappointed by Gordon Brown's 

EH: I recognise where Gordon Brown comes from. I recognise where he wants to go 
to and for that I give him confidence. I don't recognise either of those things 
in some other people in the Government - including some that were much further 
to the left than I was. 

TH: This is an interesting point. The way you characterise Communist Party 
behaviour - the need for party discipline, the importance of the 'line to take' 
and the hostility to criticism - some people will find an echo of in New 
Labour's control-freakery. Do you find ironic those aspects of Communist Party 
behaviour in New Labour? 

EH: CP people have never been able to get anything done in politics. The only 
field where they got anything done and which fitted in very much with the CP is 
the unions. The unions also believe in discipline: unions believe that even if 
you don't like it, if the decision's taken, you don't cross a picket line. 
Which is where you still find the ultra-left today, which has no political 
presence at all now. It still has a presence in unions. 

As for all the people who once were Trotskyists of varying descriptions or CP 
people, they were all able people who found themselves in movements which 
didn't provide enough scope for able people and I don't blame them for looking 
after their political interests - for going where the action is. 

TH: The 11 September attacks and the crusade of al-Qaeda against America marks 
a break from the certainties of the twentieth-century military and diplomatic 
world. We are seeing a return to pre-nation state fundamentalism where 
religious and cultural orthodoxy overrides 'national' interests. In your 
autobiography, you hint that the growth of groups like al-Qaeda is partly the 
result of a weakening of social democracy and the collapse of communism. Do you 
believe like Terry Eagleton that the threat from such religious fundamentalists 
is far greater than socialism ever was to the capitalist world? The West seems 
to have chosen barbarism above socialism? 

EH: Well, they obviously chose barbarism above socialism in Afghanistan. They 
financed the al-Qaeda guys [the Taliban], specifically, because they thought 
communism was worse than that. I don't believe communism was worse than that. 

I don't believe that al-Qaeda or fundamentalism is the main danger to 
capitalism. Capitalism will live with it; will make money out of it. 
Fundamentalist Islam isn't a danger, if only because it can't win any wars. The 
basic element to understanding the present situation is that 9/11 did not 
threaten the US. It was a terrible human tragedy which humiliated the US, but 
in no sense was it any weaker after those attacks. Three, four or five of those 
attacks will not change the position of the US or its relative power in the 
world. An example of collapsing social democracy and growing fundamentalism is 
in India where there is a government breaking with a westernising, secular, 
tolerant democratic society, a socialist society, in order to create a kind of 
exclusive Hinduist society. 

TH: Much of it built on spurious historical foundations. 

EH: Oh, completely spurious. They are re-jigging the entire textbooks of India 
in order to make a more saffron past. What more saffron means is pogroms 
against Christians and Muslims and no further belief in democracy and truth and 
a secular society. 

TH: You characterised the short twentieth century as a period of unprecedented 
brutality. As the twenty-first century gets under way, America bestrides the 
world like few other hegemonies in history. You have spoken before of how the 
US revolutionary heritage gives it a certain domineering impulse. In the hands 
of President Bush is this now the most pressing danger to world stability? 

EH: Any great power with the capacity to conquer the world is a danger to those 
other than itself. The US was such a power but for 50 years it was kept in 
check to some extent. But it was kept in check by a power [USSR] which most 
people in the Western world didn't like on good grounds. The only people who 
maintained the view that almost any great power not kept in check is a danger 
were the French. The French are now too weak to do much about it, but they have 
maintained their rational traditions. 

America is a world propagandist power. That's what happened to the French in 
1789, it happened to communist powers and now to the US, which is a 
revolutionary regime. When you get the chance to spread your influence, you end 
up becoming an empire. That is what happened to the French under Napoleon. They 
said they were doing a lot of good to the countries they conquered, but they 
were regarded by the rest of the world as a conquering empire. The difference 
was that unlike the German Empire, which didn't aim to do good to anybody, the 
French, like the Russians and now the Americans aim to do good to the world by 
introducing their own ideas. The Americans are in a position to do what the 
French did after the Napoleonic period, and the arguments for and against are 
similar to those. But they are not arguments about spreading the [ideals of 
the] French Revolution any more. 

The Americans have used 9/11 as an occasion to assert that they are the only 
power in the world which can dominate. What they want to achieve other than 
establish this assertion is by no means clear. The Iraq war has no rational 
justification at all. The United States would have to learn that there are 
limits even to its own power and I think with some luck this may happen, but 
right now the learning process has only just begun. 

TH: One of the leading causes of diplomatic instability is the actions of 
Israel under Sharon. You have always identified yourself as a pre-Second World 
War cosmopolitan Jew - in contrast to the Zionists of the later 1940s. Despite 
the strong ties between the Left and early Zionism, you never seem to have felt 
a great loyalty to Israel. Did you differ on this point with Isaiah Berlin? 

EH: I was never a Zionist. Once Israel was in existence or Jews were settled 
there then the idea they should disappear was not on. I have never been in 
favour of destroying or humiliating Israel. I am a Jew, but being a Jew does 
not imply being a supporter either of Zionism and even less of the particular 
policies now being pursued by the government of Israel, which are disastrous 
and evil. They are policies logically leading to the ethnic cleansing of the 
occupied territories - the official policy of those Jewish parties now 
governing says that Judaea and Samaria are part of what God gave the Israelis. 
I am very strongly of the opinion that Jews must say it is possible to be a Jew 
and not to support Israel. 

I know that Isaiah was desperate about the direction that Israel was going 
under Likud. In some ways, it was to him what the discovery of the nature of 
what Stalinism was to me. I told him, now you probably understand how I feel. 
Because it was a terrible thing for a man who believed in humanity and the 
humanist idea of Judaism to see [the direction Israel was taking], but he 
believed he could not tear himself away from that identification [with Israel]. 
His Jewish identity implied identity with Israel because he believed that the 
Jews should be a nation. 

TH: Finally, would an Eric Hobsbawm of the future born in 2017 see the same 
degree of 'interesting times' that you witnessed in the twentieth century? 

EH: I hope not. I don't look forward to the next 30 to 40 years with any kind 
of pleasure (although I won't see very much of them), but then I think most 
people today share my pessimism about the immediate future. 

 Observer sections _______________________ 
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