Review Essay: Hobsbawm’s Hidden Self

Robin Melville

As I read Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography* I found myself sometimes puzzled, sometimes irritated, and eventually saddened. Over the years I have appreciated the works that brought him his reputation as a left historian. Unfortunately, his autobiography does not enhance that reputation.

Hobsbawm’s has certainly been a life crowded with incident. There cannot be many whose political life spans participating in the last legal Communist demonstration in Berlin on 25 January 1933 (p. 73) and watching the build-up to the 2002 invasion of Iraq from a London hospital bed (p. 412. But with so much to tell, the telling of it obviously posed problems of form and content as well as of aesthetic and moral judgement that in my estimation Hobsbawm has failed to come to grips with.

Autobiography must satisfy certain expectations while observing certain limits. The account of anyone’s life cannot merely be a collection of facts, for the facts attaching to anyone’s life are, roughly, infinite in number. Second, the revelation of even the most intimate minutiae of anyone's life are likely to seem boring or in poor taste unless carefully chosen for their significance. An account of even an eventful life must, therefore, be artfully crafted if it is to be judged praiseworthy. And if the autobiographer claims to be contributing to our understanding of his era, we should be able to detect that which would encourage us to believe that we are engaging with someone thinking carefully and critically about his encounters with people and events.

Hobsbawm’s autobiography is problematical in these respects. It is in three parts: a “roughly chronological” account of his life, a section on his scholarly career, and a concluding section on his visits to countries other than his “native Mitteleuropa and England” (p. xiv). Thus, he covers sections of his life several times over, each time with a different focus. The somewhat arbitrary way in which Hobsbawm does so raises the question, whether he has actually sought to arrive at a coherent understanding of his own development as a person and as an intellectual. His Mitteleuropean/English self has always been somewhat separate from his French/Spanish/American selves, and these selves seem to have had little to do with his historian self. Such a division of himself is hardly satisfying, especially from one we would expect to be inclined to self-reflection and responsive to the experiences that make the world an interesting puzzle. An attempt to interweave these selves together would have been welcome, not least because that would have helped us appreciate his understanding of history.

An autobiography must surely also convey to those acquainted with its subject a recognizable likeness--or else suggest how the one they thought they knew came to wear a mask. [Incidentally, Hobsbawm notes just such a case. His boyhood acquaintance Rudolf Leder--aka Stephan Hermlin, the East German poet--who recruited him into a Communist student organization, may have invented an entire autobiography for himself, only to be exposed by a vengeful West German literary bloodhound (pp. 62-65).] To those of us unacquainted with its subject, it must connect with our notions of humanity, or instruct us how our notions ought to be modified. Beyond this, since an autobiography is necessarily a work of selection and presentation, it will prove praiseworthy if it suggests to all of us more about the author than he has specifically chosen to tell. But such windows into his life and character must be born of his artistry and his willingness to reveal himself. We must beware of mistaking for windows what are actually accidental gaps in the wall within which he has sought to conceal himself. If he intimates things about himself he has asserted he would conceal, this would constitute a flaw in his artistry—perhaps even flaws in his personality.

Hobsbawm confesses he has sought to keep much concealed, even much that those closest to him deemed important (p. xiv). Even so, his courage in revealing what he does deserves our respect. For autobiography is surely among the most dangerous of the literary arts. To undertake one is to undertake to reveal something of oneself and one’s circumstances during various stages of one’s life with considerable honesty, requiring one to explore in public one’s thoughts, goals and emotions. It may also bring one face to face with thoughts and emotions one has resisted acknowledging even to oneself. And even if one chooses not put it all down, can one be sure traces of these self-discoveries will not find their way into the finished work? Just such traces are, I believe, to be found in Hobsbawm’s self-portrait. And his failure to address what these traces intimate about his engagement with life vitiate what he has presented to us.

It would also be a very odd autobiography that excluded interactions with other people. For human interaction is crucial to our becoming fully human. So we would expect to learn how others significantly affected the author. Moreover, we need to be told something about these others as people in their own right, for how otherwise are we to gauge the autobiographer’s connection with them. In the case of the autobiography of an intellectual--this is how Hobsbawm delimits his project (pp. xii-xiv)--we expect to learn something about the formation of his intellect through his engagement with teachers and scholars and their works; mere mention of them tells us nothing. Also, even an intellectual autobiography must, I think, tell us something about the human side of the “public man,” for the furniture of our minds surely comes to us through informal as well as formal educational channels. Also, we surely want to learn about the larger horizons within which he thinks, about what really matters to him and why.  Otherwise, why attend to anything other than his scholarly works?

Hobsbawm's intentions are not at odds with these expectations:

To write an autobiography is to think of oneself as one has never really done before. In my case it is to strip the geological deposits of three-quarters of a century away and to recover or to discover and reconstruct a buried stranger. As I look back and try to understand this remote and unfamiliar child, I come to the conclusion that, had he lived in other historical circumstances, nobody would have forecast for him a future of passionate commitment to politics, though almost every observer would have predicted a future as some kind of intellectual (p. 56).

But consider Hobsbawm's “historical circumstances.” They are most specific:

[I]f I were to make the mental experiment of transposing the boy I was then into another time and/or place--say, into the England of the 1950s or the USA of the 1980s--I cannot easily see him plunging, as I did, into the passionate commitment to world revolution (p. 57). 

Is it his passion or his politics he is trying to explain here? In either case, is it only one's own immediate experiences that count? Certainly, many individualistic autobiographers have undertaken just such a recovery and presentation of their selves. But surely some additional expectations attach to the autobiography of a self-avowed Marxist? Yet despite the fact that class society long predated his entry into the world and will long survive him and that its injustices still require to be denounced and fought (pp, 410, 418), Hobsbawm seems to believe his own politics could only have sprung from that Berlin of 1931-3. Had he been young in another place or time he would not have become a Communist? Can this be the self-understanding of an internationalist Marxist? It certainly does not seem to provide much of a basis for solidarity with anyone whose formative experiences were different. Were such an explanation of political commitment to be generalized, the revolutionary movement to which Hobsbawm belonged would never have coalesced into anything more coherent than, say, the variously instigated and rooted Movement of the Sixties, a movement which Hobsbawm viewed negatively because the participants “did not seem much interested in a social ideal, communist or otherwise, as distinct from the individualist ideal of getting rid of anything that claimed the right or power to stop you doing whatever your ego and id felt like doing” (p. 250)--in other words, in Hobsbawm’s estimation, rooted only in themselves and their unique experiences, their politics lacked any common foundation. But even if so, did they then differ from Hobsbawm and his politics?

But to resume my point: surely, given his politics, Hobsbawm must believe that he has been significantly shaped and reshaped by the weightiest, most widely prevailing features of the world system he still believes he inhabits as well as by that system's most cutting local variations upon a particular person? Indeed, he almost asserts as much in his Preface:

[T]here is a more profound way in which the interweaving of one person's life and times, and the observations of both, helped to shape a historical analysis which, I hope, makes itself independent of both.

            That is what an autobiography can do. In one sense this book is the flip side of The Age of Extremes: not world history illustrated by experiences of an individual, but world history shaping that experience, or rather offering a shifting but always limited set of choices from which, to adapt Karl Marx's phrase, 'men make [their lives], but they do not make [them] just as they please, they do not make [them] under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past' and, one might add, by the world around them (p. xiii; brackets in the text).

That is to say, Hobsbawm envisages his autobiography as providing an account of how Hobsbawm became Hobsbawm. It is also, it seems, an explanation of the self-awareness he brought to his scholarly work and is intended to augment that (pp. xiii-xiv). It is “about his ideas, attitudes and actions,” it is not a piece of advocacy or an apologia (p. xii).

But is it carping to note that Hobsbawm indicates that it is only the historical analysis (independent, he hopes, of experience in a particular social context) that has been so shaped? Even the most committed Marxist must surely know that he still, despite all his efforts, bears within himself the contradictions that mark the society he inhabits. And would not such an autobiographer have to explore and then convey how he has always had to struggle to extirpate from himself and his scholarship those bourgeois characteristics the dominant society shoveled into him via the family, the educational system, the job, etc. Given what Hobsbawm tells us about himself it is at least questionable whether he has ever subjected himself to such self-criticism; further, he seems to have been frozen in time, out of touch with and analytically unresponsive to the developments of and responses to capitalism after 1956.

What more ought its readers expect of the autobiography of a lifelong Marxist (p. xii)? Whatever else, surely it would be intended to affect the future of the world, if only by teaching us the ways of a left intellectual and warning us of the difficulties in trying to live such a life even while encouraging us to make the attempt. More ambitiously, it might constitute a political intervention in its own right, as did, for example, Trotsky’s autobiography. The closing sentences of Hobsbawm's book suggest that he, too, conceived of his autobiography as part of the struggle to make the world of tomorrow (p. 418). Unfortunately, he has just revealed that he only hopes his book will help him pass “the test of a historian's life” (p. 417).

Turning to some more detailed aspects of his work, how Hobsbawm has written about those who populate his pages is particularly striking.  Be they family, friends, colleagues or comrades, they are for the most part merely briefly, coldly sketched. A good caricaturist can, of course, suggest much with a few strokes of the pen. But Hobsbawm does not seem to possess that skill. He provides little more than a list of notable academic and political personalities he has met in the course of his long life. The distant stance is even evident in the first and perhaps most important instance in the case of his parents. Of his father, who died when Hobsbawm was only eleven, he has, he says, almost no memories (p. 28). His mother, who died when Hobsbawm was fourteen, did make a lasting moral impression on him. He particularly remembers her telling him, “You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew” (p. 24)--an injunction he has always sought to honor, although he regards himself as a “non-Jewish Jew” (p. 24). Her approval is something Hobsbawm has always sought: “[I]f somewhere across the Styx we were to meet . . . I would expect her to ask me what I had done with my life . . .” (p. 40). Hobsbawm's summing up of the dissolution of his family is particularly telling:

In retrospect the years between my parents' deaths appear a period of tragedy, trauma, loss and insecurity, which was bound to leave deep traces on the lives of two children who passed through it. . . I have no doubt at all that I must also bear the emotional scars of those sombre years somewhere on me. And yet I do not think I was conscious of them as such. That may be the illusion of someone who, like a computer, has a 'trash' facility for deleting unpleasant or unacceptable data. . . However, I do not believe that this is the only explanation why , though not particularly happy, I did not experience these years as specially distressing. Perhaps the realities of the situation passed me by because I lived most of the time at some remove from the real world . . . (p. 41).

--then he quickly hurries on to mention building a radio set, only to return a moment later to acknowledge his embarrassment over his mother's last birthday present to him: “a very cheap second-hand bike” (p. 42) which would cause him shame when he had to ride it across Berlin to school (p. 60), and which he would manage to lose when he had to leave Berlin for London (p. 77). Clearly, that bicycle and what it stands for still agitates him. Yet he does not begin to explore that. Other family relationships receive even terser acknowledgement. In the very little he tells us about his sister there seems to be a strong urge to protect her, yet the way she lived her life seems not to have interested him much (pp. 59-60, 79). About his first and, especially, his second wife, he is even less forthcoming--it is almost as if they did indeed occupy an entirely separate sphere of existence from the one Hobsbawm is determined to tell us about. Only in one other place does Hobsbawm indicate that he experienced anguish:

The darkest period of public anti-communism . . . coincided with a dark moment in my own life. In the summer of 1950 my first marriage, rocky for some time, broke up in circumstances which left me wounded and for some years acutely unhappy (p. 185).

But here too the mask of imperturbability, barely lowered, is quickly resumed.

That we have no right to be made privy to his pain is not what is at issue here. But if Hobsbawm has indeed throughout his life tended to bracket off in the manner he does here the emotional dimensions of his engagements with others, that is surely relevant to understanding him as a person and as a historian. For his intellectual engagements have surely also incorporated emotional aspects. He is certainly aware that the emotions of others are intimately linked to their political--and their chess-playing--judgement (p. 207). Yet he repeatedly seeks to suggest his intellect and his passions are disconnected.

Perhaps it is stretching matters to detect in his accounts of his most intimate familial relationships clues to Hobsbawm's impersonal autobiographical style? To be sure, his rejection of what he terms the “confessional mode” is explicit (p. xii). But what he does tell us about the traumatically pivotal moments in his early life does suggest that his detachment may not be something over which he exercises much control. (His “trash facility” is not so much an explanation as an excuse.) One can infer deep, unresolved pain that may well render certain sorts of self-reflection difficult.

This brings us to another, related problem so far as an intellectual autobiography is concerned. For whom did Hobsbawm encounter on his intellectual and political journey? Certainly a very great many. But what do we learn of them? Their names; a brief physical description; an ethnic identification; the identification of their political or scholarly role. But we do not learn how they and Hobsbawm interacted, we do not learn how they contributed to Hobsbawm's political or intellectual development. This oddity is highlighted by the fact that the only person other than members of his family who is described quite fully--and with affection—is the Welsh landowner and architect, Clough Williams-Ellis (pp. 233-43). There is, less fully, the economic historian, M. M. Postan, who figures as one of the few Cambridge scholars whose lectures Hobsbawm bothered to attend (pp. 110-111), described as something of a friend (pp. 183-4), but also, like Williams-Ellis, as something of a character (pp. 282-5). Moreover, Hobsbawm is at pains to emphasize that Postan was not his teacher (p. 283). Even more briefly, there is the school teacher who “pressed a volume of the philosopher Immanuel Kant”--which one? to what effect?-- into Hobsbawm's hands (p. 93). In sum, then, we are led to believe that in his scholarly as in his personal life no one really touched him, that Hobsbawm is a self-made man. Or if anyone did help shape him, personally, politically or intellectually, it is too private a thing to be discussed.

Ordinary people, working-class people fare even worse. Most of them are unnamed and undescribed.--Did not Raymond Williams observe that “there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses?”--Those that do emerge from the mass are, for the most part, those whom Hobsbawm encountered during his wartime service.  Of them Hobsbawm writes,

By and large in my days as a Sapper I lived among workers--overwhelmingly English workers--and in doing so acquired a permanent, if often exasperated, admiration for their uprightess, their distrust of bullshit, their sense of class, comradeship and mutual help. They were good people. I know that communists are supposed to believe in the virtues of the proletariat, but I was relieved to find myself doing so in practice as well as in theory (p. 159).

“They were good people?” Who is Hobsbawm writing for? Who needs such reassurances? Why do I find myself remembering Robert Graves' anecdote in Goodbye To All That of a British military officer expressing his surprise that the skins of his working-class troops were so white? Hobsbawm does not depict himself as having learned anything from what he terms his “proletarian experience” (p. 158), though the lads did amaze him with their “instinctive sense or tradition of collective action” (p. 158)--my god, there really was a working class! And then there was the named, described Bert Thirtle, with whom he had to share a room, who even “lacked the social reflexes which I found so striking in my otherwise politically disappointing mates, and which explains so much about British trade unionism” (p. 157). It is, it seems, not only the poor stockinger who needs to be rescued from condescension.

With the War’s end, despite having been made aware that he had lived in only marginal contact with the great majority his fellow citizens (p. 157), working class people disappear from Hobsbawm's recorded life. The parade of names of scholars, intellectuals and Party notables resumes, signaling his re-immersion in the British and international academic and left elites. But since no one seems to have affected his political or historical understanding, such isolation from those his politics was intended to benefit was perhaps of little consequence?

Hobsbawm's disinclination to explore his relationships in any depth has another, awkward, consequence which would be of no relevance if it did not unfortunately emphasize his lapses into gossipy prurience in places. For instance, should not one who rejects the confessional mode (p. xii) have exercised more care when writing of his comrade James Klugmann? Initially, his remarks are unexceptionable, but then for no apparent reason he remarks,

As far as I know he continued a monastic existence as an unattached man for the rest of his life, surrounded, when the occasion arose, by admiring juniors I am told he made sexual jokes in the company of intimates--of whom I was never one--and since he had been at Gresham's School, the nursery of more than one eminent homosexual of his day, he may very well have been queer (p. 123)

Neither is this the only occurrence of gratuitous sexual speculation. Does it convey anything of substance to note (parenthetically) that Paul Baran’s connections with San Francisco’s longshoremen came about because for a time he was the lover of a Californian Japanese woman (pp. 391-2)? Do we really need to be told that 'Peter Bratt' was not only a “wonderfully cultured, soft faced, . . . relative of Bismarck” but also homosexual (p. 168)? I suppose it is de rigueur to mention the “atmosphere of cultured homosexuality” of pre-War Cambridge, But I fail to see how it advances our understanding of the historian and his analyses to be told that in passing or to be told that the post-War Cambridge students had other sexual inclinations. If, on the other hand, the sexual orientations of his acquaintances were really relevant to his life and thought, Hobsbawm fails to explain how.

To be fair, Hobsbawm is occasionally personally indiscrete (pp. 221, 315). But Hobsbawm's comments on sexuality strike me as of a piece with his seeming disinclination to explore his family traumas. It would have been better had he left these things unmentioned given that the mention he does make of them only serves to suggest that he has never applied himself to understanding such matters, or at least that he has never been able to talk comfortably about them. As it is, these traces running through his bowdlerized autobiography suggest that there may be much more than discomfort involved.

Let me now turn to Hobsbawm's politics, which are not, it turns out, so remote from the matters just discussed.  Indeed, given what he does say about the passionate foundations of his political activism, his determination to exclude intimacies from his autobiography seems even more peculiar. Seventy years after that 1933 demonstration in Berlin, he describes that and similar events thus:

Next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation. Unlike sex, which is essentially individual [sic], it is by its nature collective, and unlike the sexual climax, at any rate for men, it can be prolonged for hours. On the other hand, like sex it implies some physical action . . . through which the merger of the individual in the mass, which is the essence of the collective experience, finds expression (p. 73)

Later, in Britain, he came to see that that sense of “mass ecstasy” was one of the things that led him to Communism (p. 74). What else led Hobsbawm to his political commitment? “Pity for the exploited, the aesthetic appeal of a perfect and comprehensive intellectual system,  . . . a little bit of the Blakean vision of the new Jerusalem and a good deal of intellectual anti-philistinism” (p. 74). Despite his desperately insecure childhood he did not see himself as one of the exploited? Had he done so he might have confessed to anger, not pity. Or is it that he could not admit his own vulnerability and so projected his sense of victimization onto others in order to be able to engage with it? That from 1935 on he considered dialectical materialism to be perfect and comprehensive may have provided him an unconquerable defense against a personally traumatic world (p. 420, n. 5.6). No wonder, then, that he was not swayed by 1956, that he held true (p. 218). A moment later, however, he adds that his adherence to the Party after 1956 may have been motivated by egotism (p. 218). After 1956, he became rather disengaged from political activity (p. 263). So perhaps he was more affected than he lets on by the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. As to the more general reaction of the British Communists to the revelations of that conference, Hobsbawm’s summary conclusion mirrors that dismissive stance towards things British as compared with things continental for which Edward Thompson took Anderson et al. to task (pp. 210, 217-8).

After 1956, his personal and professional life also began to change for the better. He remarried and his immediate world became much more domestically oriented (pp. 220, 222). He found life more pleasant than he'd imagined possible; at least for those like him who had a “career”  “postwar life was an escalator which, without any special effort, took us higher than we had ever expected to be”; it was “a Golden Age” (pp. 222-3). But even if we accept that the very great many who only had jobs, not careers, also generally found their standard of living improving over the longer term, shouldn't a Marxist economic historian have viewed these changes more critically? After all, had not his comrade Edward Thompson argued quite convincingly that there had been another painful side to a previous over-all advance in the British standard of living?

Perhaps his newfound sense of well-being made him rather complacent in the face of new occurrences of inhumanity and injustice? I do not mean that he ignored them, for he did not. But he seems not to have been moved to try to understand what was going on in all its ramifications. To be sure, he does say that for leftists of his generation the Sixties were enormously welcome, if enormously puzzling (p. 249). But he doubted those in movement knew “how to achieve their political objectives” (p. 250) or,even if they had any politics (p. 248). So where, in Hobsbawm’s estimation, did it all lead?

In politics, nowhere much. Since a revolution was not on the cards [sic], the European revolutionaries of 1968 had to join the political mainstream of the left, unless, being very bright young intellectuals, as so many of them were, they escaped from real politics into the academy, where revolutionary ideas could survive without much political practice. Politically, the 1968 generation has done well enough, especially if one includes those recruited into civil services and think tanks and the burgeoning numbers of advisers in politicians’ private offices . . . (p. 261).

‘Twas ever thus for the lucky some, I suppose; even for the lucky some among those of Hobsbawm’s generation, as his own career trajectory suggests. But--to introduce here Hobsbawm’s treatment of things American-- he simply does not attend to the right-wing reaction against the Sixties which began even before the Sixties were over and which continues down to the present day. Admittedly, Hobsbawm writes from a European perspective. But he has been a regular visitor to the United States since 1960 (pp. 391, 402), and he has taught at a number of American universities. So surely he is aware of the efforts of a series of administrations to roll back the Sixties? And surely he has encountered the culture wars and the political correctness campaign designed to curb those of a progressive persuasion who did find refuge in the American academy? Again, oddly, although he acknowledges the once-Communist historians of slavery (p. 289), the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent reactions against it go unremarked, Hobsbawm’s great interest in jazz notwithstanding (e.g., pp. 389, 391, 394-402).

But let me leave it to Hobsbawm himself to illuminate the limits of his engagement with and understanding of the United States during one of the most conflicted eras in its history:

Looking back on forty years of visiting and living in the United States, I think I learned as much about the country in the first summer I spent there as in the course of the next decades. With one exception: to know New York, or even Manhattan, one has to live there (p. 403)

--perhaps New York chauvinists would agree with him; as a Briton who has resided in several different regions of the United States, I find Hobsbawm’s dismissiveness too familiar an expression of a certain sort of European superciliousness. Since the United States has constituted such a significant place in Hobsbawm’s life story, it is unfortunate that he has not chosen to engage with it in a more reflective, comprehensive fashion. Again he seems to have opted to remain frozen in his own particular past with its own limiting prejudices.

What is most puzzling is that he seems content to be baffled by the Sixties. He seems not to have been moved to try to understand what was going on. While he himself would appear to have been politically sustained throughout the rest of his life by his ecstatic moment of collective action in 1933, all he seems to feel for those whose moment came a generation later (many of whom have remained politically sustained by their experiences) is satisfaction that they were at last forced to face up to the dominant reality: 

[A]s soon as the dense clouds of maximalist rhetoric and cosmic expectation turned into the rain of every day, the distinction between ecstasy and politics, real power and flower power, between voice and action, became visible once more. Jericho had not fallen to the sound of Joshua's collective trumpets. The political young had to consider what action was needed to capture it (p. 259).

What they should have learned was the need for “disciplined vanguard organizations” and the necessity of contemplating what Marxist parties “should do, indeed what their function could be, in non-revolutionary countries” (p. 259).

Political discipline would in fact appear to be Hobsbawm's watchword. His most notable intervention in actually existing politics began with his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture. His message, that the British Labour Party should behave as a disciplined broad-based organization to accommodate to socio-economic and cultural change, led to his involvement in a strident debate (p. 263-4). Broadly, the question was, how to challenge the emerging forms of conservative politics--a question that assumed pressing significance once Thatcher and her colleagues captured the Conservative Party. At risk of overly simplifying Hobsbawm's position in the late 1970s and thereafter, his advocacy of a broad alliance approach, to include all those from the traditional right to the far left in a coordinated effort to block the radical right, will sound familiar to those contemplating the ‘anyone but Bush’ campaign. Labour was to become a catch-all party--wasn't it always that?--rather than a socialist party. But just who were those “sectarians”--the term occurs frequently in this part of his autobiography (pp. 263-277)--Hobsbawm was arguing against? Those driven from the Party in 1956, those who had come to left politics in the Sixties, militant workers, left-wing union leaders, hard-line Communists, and those others who saw that all that glittered in the Golden Age was not gold; in short, all those Hobsbawm's autobiography suggests he had always been distant from.

While he hopes his arguments influenced the Labour Party to become a party of “the political realists and the technicians of government,” who “must operate in a market economy and fit in with its requirements” (pp.276-7), Hobsbawm is nevertheless eager to dissociate himself from New Labour: New Labour has erred by going beyond accepting the realities of living in a capitalist society to “accepting too much of the ideological assumptions of the prevailing free market economic theology” (p. 277)--”We wanted,” he complains, “a reformed Labour, not Thatcher in trousers” (p. 276). Too bad. William Morris, or Morris's biographer, Hobsbawm's former comrade, Edward Thompson, could have warned him that the struggle to change things often followed just this pattern, and that the struggle had to be renewed again and again. Of course, they were advocating efforts to undo capitalism, not to get along with it while merely repudiating its ideological aspects.

In conclusion, it seems fitting to quote back at Hobsbawm his own words concerning Klugmann, “What did one know of him? He gave nothing away” (p. 123). Hobsbawm, I have urged, does give some things away. But what he does inadvertently reveal about himself raises the question, does Hobsbawm himself know or dare to know how he became Hobsbawm? Perhaps. But he certainly does not want to reveal it to his readers.


*Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (New  York: Pantheon, 2002; first published London: Allen Lane, 2002).