Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History


Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2019), 117, (1), 213–246.


BOOK REVIEWS Book Reviews Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). pp. xiii + 785. AU $70 cloth. “At the time of his death in 2012, at the age of ninety-five, Eric Hobsbawm,” his biographer Richard J. Evans declares, “had for some years been the best-known and most widely read historian in the world” (vii). Born in Alexandria and raised as a child largely in Vienna and Berlin, Hobsbawm lost both parents by age 14. Influenced by the poems of Bertolt Brecht more than The Communist Manifesto, young Eric declared himself a communist at age 15, just before Hitler became chancellor. In his own words, he was “more a Romantic rebel than a true intellectual” (37). Bitter, unforgiving reality soon set in. “I grew up at the most sectarian point of the socialist–communist split. It was now clear to everyone that that was a disaster. It was my most formative political experience” (43). Evans contends that the party was a surrogate family for Hobsbawm: “Communism offered the sense of identity and belonging that he so craved, combined with a way of overcoming his embarrassment of his poverty, threadbare clothing and rickety bicycle, and dosed with a heavy admixture of political adventure and excitement” (44). Arriving in England in the spring of 1933, already by birth a British subject, he felt like “a sort of extra-terrestrial,” but soon consumed the classics of “the apostolic succession of Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin” (47, 58). “To be a socialist means to be an optimist,” Hobsbawm confided to his diary. The answer to the boredom of bourgeois democracy and economic depression of Britain was the USSR. Somewhat flippantly, Evans writes, “Eric’s faith in the Soviet Union had all the uncompromising absolutism of an adolescent crush” (59). Evans sees Eric’s Marxism as a substitute for sexual love, for he felt he was ugly and unattractive to women, except, perhaps, to the prostitutes in Hyde Park. Committed to a Manichaean binary between capitalism and communism, teenage Hobsbawm rejected stories of the Ukraine death famine, credulously accepted the falsehoods of Walter Duranty’s reporting, and embraced the vision of Nikolai Ekk’s brilliant film, The Road to Life (1931) and Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel, Quiet Flows the Don (1934). He defended both the Great Purges and the Nazi–Soviet Pact, though when it came to the Soviet–Finnish War he (and his co-author, Raymond Williams) “managed to preserve at least some political and intellectual integrity” (181–82). He chose being a leftist intellectual rather than a party activist. “Intellectuals,” he told himself, “are the chorus in the great drama of class struggle” (87). When World War II began, Hobsbawm Labour History, Number 117 (November 2019): 213–46 © 2019 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History ISSN 0023-6942

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