Even his most vociferous opponents would not deny that Eric Hobsbawm has lived through, as the title of his autobiography put it, interesting times. Born to a Jewish family in Egypt and orphaned at the age of fourteen, he was a young Marxist activist in Berlin in the early 1930s. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he and his family fled to England where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, graduated from Cambridge and subsequently went on to become one of the best known intellectuals on the 20th century British left. He was also a pretty good writer too.
As a teenager discovering 'real' history for the first time, as opposed to the mind-numbing learning of dates which we were all forced to endure at school, I was won over by his trilogy on what he called the 'long nineteenth century' and the follow-up Age of Extremes which explored the so-called 'short twentieth century'. The aforementioned Interesting Times remains one of the finest autobiographies I have ever read. Although I was never overly taken with his work on jazz, his 1969 book Bandits was a fascinating study of what he described as "peasant outlaws... considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice." Indeed, the book was so fascinating that one of my own local bandits decided to steal it from me when I briefly used the toilet on the Belfast-Derry train about ten years ago (the opportunistic theft in question took place somewhere on the rail line between Ballymena and Ballymoney; it was sort of reassuring to think that in the heart of Ian Paisley's constituency there were folk that considered stealing Marxist history books a worthwhile activity).
Last Saturday night I settled down with a cup of tea and a chocolate chip muffin to listen to Simon Schama chat with the 95 year old historian at his home in London on Radio 4's Archive on 4 programme. It was, to again borrow that word from the title of Hobsbawm’s autobiography, interesting. Unlike Schama, EJH is not the sort of historian you see make media appearances all that much nowadays so to have an hour devoted to the man himself was something quite special. It did have its flaws though. Simon Schama is a fantastic writer. In my experience of the few programmes I have seen or heard him take charge of, he is also quite a good radio and TV presenter. But as an interviewer he is, on the evidence of this show, just not up to scratch. Last weekend's Archive on 4 sounded more like a chat between two old friends rather than an actual interview. It isn’t that I was expecting a Paxman-like performance where Hobsbawm would be subjected to one almighty grilling, but rather just a couple of questions designed to make the aging historian feel slightly uncomfortable. For the vast majority of the programme, Schama simply let Hobsbawm tell his story. It was indeed a very fine story and the old communist stalwart was not always uncritical of himself.
For instance, on his days in Berlin he accepted that there was an element of adventurism - "cowboys and Indians" as he termed it - in his activities inside the youth wing of the KPD (one of his tasks for the party was to hide a printing press in his bedroom). He also readily admitted to his own political naiveity in this period, relating the story of how on being asked about his politics by a teacher he informed the man of the need for a "communist revolution"; the teacher told the young Eric that he clearly did not know what he was talking about and that he should visit the library and do some reading.
This mild self-criticism was not enough though. When it came to the big questions Schama either did not ask them or else he put them across in a manner that made him seem almost apologetic for asking them. One item which it would have been nice to see Hobsbawm questioned on more was the prediction made in a clip played from a 1970s discussion show in which several historians debated the future of the communist world. One of them suggested that in the coming years the regimes in China, Vietnam and North Korea would probably survive but that the east European Stalinist states would likely move away from communism and towards something more nationalistic in nature. It was a prediction that was remarkably accurate. Hobsbawm, however, disagreed with this and suggested that he felt advances could be made in the communist countries which could be taken on board in the rest of the world. His response in 2012 was merely that perhaps he was at this time overoptimistic. Quite.
The elephant in the Hampstead room though was clearly Hobsbawm and his views on the horror story that was the USSR. I am not suggesting that EJH is some sort of Harpal Brar-type crank who is prepared to do everything from denying the existence of the Katyn massacre to claiming the terror famine in the Ukraine never took place. He is infinitely better than that. In fact, he openly admits that he has "never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia." Yet the fact remains that Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in his teens and remained in it right up until its dissolution in 1991.
In fairness to Schama he did press his guest on this subject but the response he got was remarkably short - "a Cold War question" was how Hobsbawm dismissed it. It was the only time in the one hour programme that the interviewee got a little stroppy. He appeared tired at being asked the same question yet again. That would be entirely understandable if it weren't for the fact that in all the times I have come across the question being put to him I have never heard it answered in an adequate fashion. One old recording that was played back was particularly staggering. A clip from a Desert Island Discs show broadcast in 1995 showed Hobsbawm as having something of a crass and indifferent attitude to the millions slaughtered Soviet Russia. When asked if the sacrifice of millions of lives would have been worth it had it led to the establishment of a socialist utopia he replied "yes", and continued on to state with remarkable callousness that "dead is dead." There followed a short, cold silence before Sue Lawley suggested that maybe it was time to move on to his next choice of record.
His common response to the question of his Communist Party membership is made all the more surprising when one looks at his comments over the years - an unthinking party parrot he most certainly was not. While he didn't join the mass of people who left the CPGB following the invasion of Hungary in 1956 nor did he stay quiet or uncritical, describing this and the crushing of the Polish uprising earlier that year as "revolts of workers and intellectuals against bureaucracies and pseudo-communist political systems." Twelve years later he supported Alexander Dubček and the Prague Spring until it too was crushed by Russian tanks. He was one of the moderates in the CPGB who advocated a Eurocommunist path in the seventies.
However, in my view at least, all of these positives are virtually wiped out when he trumpets the line that people like him did not know 'the full story' of what was going on in the Soviet Union. It is, at best, naive. At worst it is a blatant lie. Had Hobsbawm not read the newspaper reports of Gareth Jones from Ukraine? Had he not read the writings of George Orwell from Spain? Had he not read anything by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet prison camps? Was Khrushchev's speech of 1956 not even enough for him? Indeed, had he not read anything of credibility that spoke about the crimes being committed by the Moscow regime? Or did he brush it all off as little more than the propaganda of imperialists and Trotskyists? My own guess is that Eric Hobsbawm did indeed know 'the full story' but instead chose to ignore it in the belief that it would all be worth it in the end. The answer he gave Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs seventeen years ago is probably as close to him admitting the truth as we will ever get.
Eric Hobsbawm's embarrassing bumbling answers on this "Cold War question" should not undo all the good work he has contributed to the field of history. It certainly blots his copybook but it would be ridiculous to suddenly claim that Ages of Extremes is an appalling piece of work simply on the basis of his own personal political views. I don't do it when Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, two of the best conservative historians writing today, excuse the crimes of the British Empire; I won't do it when it comes to Hobsbawm either. But it should act as a wake-up call to the budding historians of the future. At one point in last Saturday's programme Hobsbawm quoted Ernest de Ramon when he said that one of the tasks of historians is "to become a danger to nationalists." I concur, though I would add that it is also the responsibility of a historian to perform an even more basic task: to be honest. On this test Hobsbawm has, unfortunately, failed miserably.