Turning away from history

Eric Hobsbawm, 'Interesting times: a 20th century life', London 2002, pp 448, £20

"Writers of autobiographies have also to be readers of autobiographies," the celebrated historian, Eric Hobsbawm, writes in the opening to his memoirs of the 20th century - or the "age of extremes", as he has called it. The "short 20th century" is not only broadly equated with the birth and death of the Soviet social formation, but also with Hobsbawm's own life. His autobiography bears witness to, amongst other things, the Soviet experiment, the intellectual life of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the emergence of jazz as a mode of experience, and the new reformation of the social and historical sciences under the guidance of Hobsbawm and other Marxist and structural historians. It is the autobiography of a Marxist, jazz fanatic, cosmopolitan, intellectual, non-jewish jew who was present at some of the 20th century's most significant moments. It is deeply unsatisfying as an autobiography, however, and leaves at least this reader with a sense of despair at the kinds of intellectual and political solutions and prescriptions he draws from the experience of the last century - solutions which are simply capitulations to the extended rule of capital. The question of Marxist biography and autobiography is central to any understanding of the ways in which social and historical forces are refracted through the individual. As Marx says in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living" (K Marx CW Vol 11, London 1979, p103). So a truly Marxist biography has to engage in a twofold process - the elucidation of the investment of the historical forces in the individual and the transformation of those forces in turn by the individual and the social class from which they emerge. The Marxist biographer and autobiographer has to clearly understand the historical balance of forces in any period, and the traditions of the dead, which are brought to bear on the subjective wills of history. The counterposing dialectic of circumstance and subjectivity should be the relentless passion of the Marxist biographer - each pause in the life of its subject should be examined using the methodology of Marxism - from the concrete to the abstract and back again. This clearly does not mean the kind of sterile diamat, Stakhanovite biographies of great Soviet heroes and so on, but a clear assessment of history and the people who make it. At the same time there should be a clear distinction between Marxist autobiography and biography. Of course autobiographical writings give us great insights into the actions and circumstances of Marxists participating in the struggles of the working class, but they are often written without the clarity and objectivity of distance. Biographies give us that measure and distance, but often discard the kinds of vibrant, subjective assessments of history made in the heart of the struggle. Thus Trotsky's autobiography is understandably both a masterly and a flawed work. Certainly it is one of the great memoirs of history, but compared to the three-volume biography by Isaac Deutscher it is clearly insignificant. Deutscher's biography is perceived by many Marxists as the greatest work of non-fiction of the last century, but of course it lacks the vitality of Trotsky's first-hand account. What is puzzling in the realm of Marxist biography and autobiography is, despite the sheer diversity in terms of quality and scope of these works, there has been no definitive biography of Marx, for example, published in English - the most substantial being that by David McLellan. The recent work by Francis Wheen is the biographical equivalent of Will Young telling Smash Hits readers that he was a follower of Marx, as he did recently. Wheen adds nothing to Marx, the individual, and does a great disservice to his ideas, which are dismissed in three lines. Trotsky's biographies of the youthful Lenin and of Stalin are deeply flawed, whilst non-Marxist biographical attempts, such as those by Dmitri Volkogonov on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, are useful, but have a different ideological project inscribed into them. Perhaps the two most successful biographies over recent years have been Cathy Porter's excellent biography of Alexandra Kollontai and the superb biography by Stephen Cohen of Bukharin. The latter, in particular, is crucial to our understanding of the philosophy and tragic role of Bukharin of which most Trotskyists still remain unaware. We are faced with different problems when we look at the Marxist autobiography in more depth. Bukharin's fictionalised autobiography How it all began began recently emerged from the KGB archives, as have some of Isaac Babel's diaries and writings. In the British context Harold Heslop's Out of the old earth is a recent addition to the genre - the fact that you are probably thinking 'who?' is the reason you should be reading it. Fictionalised autobiographies such as Vasily Grossman's unparalleled Life and fate and Edward Upward's trilogy on the Communist Party, The spiral ascent, are also important. Perhaps the greatest autobiography of the last century is Victor Serge's Memoirs of a revolutionary. It is superior to Trotsky's comparable account in that it is more clear-sighted than Trotsky on the nature of the Soviet experience and because, in simple terms, he died later. More clearly than Trotsky he delineated that complex relationship between the social forces and the individual which Trotsky was incapable of truly understanding. He also gives the lie to any idea of a 'Trotskyist' left opposition incidentally and, as Serge was really the only oppositionist to witness the camps, his testament is all the more important. So how does Hobsbawm fare in relation to these other witnesses of the disaster of the 20th century? In short, not very well - and not just because his political recipes are so ill thought out. The book is a reflection on the 20th century and the author's relationship to it. The rationale of the book is that he was there at some of the most important moments and that he met some of the most important people. Now the latter cannot be denied and part of the interest of the book is Hobsbawm's meetings and greetings with a range of personalities - good and bad: Isaiah Berlin, Harry Pollitt, Paul Baran, Guevara, Althusser, Raphael Samuel and so on. His talks with these people are as illuminating as any other subjective biography. I would probably include in my own future memoirs a brief chat I may once have had with Che Guevara or whoever. In substance though these accounts are slight - largely because the conversations are so facile and superficial as to add nothing to the historical record. In terms of his experience of witnessing great events - it is somewhat inferior to most individual's experiences in the last century of war, migration and genocide. Pick on the average person from all the millions and their experiences of those great events will have more moment. Firstly, because they experienced them from the inside, as Hobsbawm clearly did not (he makes a virtue of having no sympathy with the ordinary mass of people), and secondly, because the life of an academic historian, even one of the left, is not likely to leave you breathless with anticipation for the next chapter. Yes, Hobsbawm lived in the 20th century, but didn't we all? Even more problematic is his abdication of Marxist history-writing and self-elucidation in his adoption of the petty 'who I met and where' mode so beloved of members of the British establishment. In his introduction he argues that, "If you do not want to understand the 20th century, read the autobiographies of the self-justifiers, the counsels for their own defence, and of their obverse, the repentant sinners" (pxii). Yet the book manages exactly to excuse his Stalinist, past whilst at the same time repenting of Marxism and totally abandoning any hopes for profound social change and human liberation. At the close of his book, watching the attacks on the twin towers, he explicitly states of capitalism that he "no longer believes in our alternative to it" (p414), adding that "I am prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin's Comintern was not such a good idea" (p418). One can only laugh at his abdication of any kind of political judgement on our Marxist history, even if only to provide some kind of comprehensive obituary of 20th century Marxism - which he patently does not and cannot. The book is structured chronologically until the last five chapters, which deal respectively with the themes of the historical profession, globalisation and his experiences of France, Italy, Spain, the third world and the United States. The book ends with a hymn of triumph for democratic American capitalism as the only route for a labouring humanity. From his birth in Egypt through to his schooling in Vienna and Berlin, Hobsbawm, a child of a Viennese mother and English jewish father, recounts the gradual permeation of Marxist ideas into his consciousness. By the early 1930s the experience of nationalism, anti-semitism and poverty led Hobsbawm into a communist school students' group. As he notes of his experiences in Berlin, it is difficult now to "see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional way-station between a dead past and a future not yet born, unless perhaps in the depth of revolutionary Russia" (p47). His commitment to 'official communism' lasted for over half a century: disillusioned, sceptical and of course, no longer a revolutionary - he remained a member of the 'official' CPGB until its demise in 1991. Condemning third period Stalinism and the 'social-fascist' policy, Hobsbawm fondly remembers and still justifies the popular front in France as the only viable tactical option of the period. After his emigration to Britain he was never again active in the communist movement at either national or branch level apart from his chairing of the Communist Party Historians Groups - he is justly proud to have worked with Christopher Hill and AL Morton. Even though he retained his party membership and engaged in dissident activity after the crisis of 1956 with Hill, John Saville and EP Thompson, he had already come to abandon the revolutionary convictions of his youth in a period of stability, prosperity and academic success. As he says of himself, he became "an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment" (p40). Hobsbawm makes some interesting points about the Annales school of historiography in the 50s, about his tutor, the medievalist Mark Postan, and also about Piero Sraffa. The problems of this work are exposed by another recounting of Sraffa in Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, in which there is a much clearer assessment of the relationship between Sraffa and the imprisoned Gramsci. There are some interesting vignettes on James Klugmann, JD Bernal, Margot Heinemann and other CP luminaries, but they add little to already existing accounts of the cultural life of the party. His greatest praise is reserved for Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern functionary whom he describes in heroic terms for his resistance to the Nazi ideological onslaught against the German communists. As an aside he also mentions his intellectual debt to the Austrian Marxist, Ernst Fischer, who, incidentally, is the subject of a truly outstanding short Marxist biographical study by John Berger. Although personally friendly to EP Thompson, he does pass a rather critical judgement on Thompson's historical work after the latter left the party in 1956. As Thompson is the better historian and (for all his idiosyncrasies) the better Marxist, this is rather unfair. Hobsbawm's historical work is undoubtedly of importance, particularly as regards primitive rebellion and pre-capitalist social and economic formations, but his four-book project on the 19th and 20th century develop no new substantial understanding of capitalism, as in Maurice Dobbs's or Robert Brenner's work. Neither does it add much to the elaboration of history from below, cultural history and working class history, as does the great work of Thompson, Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel. As a structural historian he is certainly outgunned by Victor Kiernan and his great work on imperialism. Hobsbawm's enduring fame will largely rest on the comfort he has given to the British establishment in his journey from revolutionary to doubting neoliberal. After the publication of 'The forward march of Labour halted' in Marxism Today Hobsbawm recounts the way in which he became an advisor to Neil Kinnock, particularly welcoming the expulsion of the Militant Tendency from the Labour Party. He is sanguine about the collapse of the Soviet Union and simply sees it as the final judgement upon Marxist revolutionary politics. His chapters on globalisation and the United States simply reaffirm the reality of Fukuyama's vision of an endless, self-sustaining capitalism without competitors. The degenerated, Stalinised concepts present at the birth of his revolutionary politics are transformed into justifications for the abdication of any proper intervention in the historical process. The tragedy of his biography is its sheer lifelessness in political and emotional terms. The listing of events and people, the pandering to the establishment, the turning away in practice from any kind of human project, the embracing of a bizarre cosmopolitanism - all point to the political bankruptcy of 'official communism' and its rapprochement with capital. The fate of Hobsbawm is a clear signal to us all to remember what a truly Marxist life should be - one of struggle for consistent democracy, theoretical elaboration and revolutionary practice. Autobiographies of people leading such a life are needed, not those of complacent and smug academics, whose rotten politics brought us to this impasse in the first place. As Victor Serge said in his autobiography, "For my part, I have undergone a little over 10 years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing. On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression: those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before" (Memoirs of a revolutionary London 1984, p10). The clarity of Serge's vision stands in stark contrast to those who were not only complicit with Stalinist barbarism, but those like Hobsbawm who, in flinching from the future, capitulated to the past. Martyn Hudson