The Age of EJH

Perry Anderson

  • Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life by Eric Hobsbawm
    Allen Lane, 448 pp, £20.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9581 5

What apter practitioners of autobiography than historians? Trained to examine the past with an impartial eye, alert to oddities of context and artifices of narrative, they would appear to be the ideal candidates for the difficult task of the self-description of a life. Yet strangely it is not they but philosophers who have excelled at the genre – indeed all but invented it. In principle, autobiography is the most intimately particular of all forms of writing, philosophy the most abstract and impersonal. They should be oil and water. But it was Augustine and Rousseau who gave us the personal and sexual confession and Descartes who offered the first ‘history of my mind’: in modern times Mill and Nietzsche, Collingwood and Russell, Sartre and Quine, all left records of themselves more memorable than anything else written about them. The number of historians who have produced autobiographies of any distinction, on the other hand, is remarkably small. In the 19th century, the self-serving memoirs of Guizot and Tocqueville, rarely consulted today, are of interest mainly as testimonials of political evasion. Closer to hand, Marc Bloch’s post-mortem on 1940, with its mixture of personal report and general requisitory, is a poignant document, but too circumscribed for more than flashes of self-revelation. More recently, we have the eccentric cameos of Richard Cobb and causeries of A.J.P. Taylor, of which he said they were evidence that he had run out of historical subjects. In all, in the genre for which it seems so well designed, the craft of the historian has yielded perhaps only two classics – Gibbon’s graceful mirror at the end of the 18th century, and Henry Adams’s eerie Wunderkammer at the beginning of the 20th.

In this generally disappointing field, Eric Hobsbawm has entered the lists with a work he invites us to read as the ‘flip side’ of Age of Extremes, his great history of the 20th century: ‘not world history illustrated by the experiences of an individual, but world history shaping that experience’ – and the life-choices it offered him. Published at the age of 85, in its energy and trenchancy Interesting Times could have been written at 40. Its qualities are such, in fact, that it is almost impossible to read without being drawn back to his work as a historian, so many insights does it offer, casually or deliberately, about what he has achieved as a whole. We are dealing with a kind of fifth volume, in more personal register, of a continuous project. This one could be called simply ‘The Age of EJH’.

As such, it offers an autobiography composed of three quite distinct parts. The first of these, which covers the author’s early years up to the threshold of university, has many claims to be the finest piece of writing this famously accomplished stylist has ever produced. With delicacy and reserve, yet also a tense candour, Hobsbawm takes us from his accidental birth in Alexandria to a precarious childhood in postwar Vienna; brief but exalted adolescence in the last days of Weimar Berlin; removal from Nazism to England and final ascent towards Cambridge, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Touching portraits of his parents – hapless English father and fragile Austrian mother, both dead by the time he was 14 – sketch one psychological background; Jewish descent on both sides in the most anti-semitic city in Europe, another. He explains the kind of loyalty to family origins he learned from his mother, and his corresponding ‘lack of any emotional obligation to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds’.

Shifted to Berlin, where a rackety uncle (on the English side) was working in the film business, Hobsbawm describes his discovery of Communism at the age of 15, in a traditional Prussian Gymnasium, with Hitler at the gates of power. There have been few such vivid evocations of the electric atmosphere of the revolutionary Left in Germany in those months. It is little wonder that memories of the final, guttering parade of a doomed KPD through the twilight of Berlin should have marked him more deeply than schooldays in the becalmed London of the National Government. Of his subsequent experience at St Marylebone Grammar School he writes with affectionate good humour (‘I took to examinations like ice-cream’). In the composition of these contrasting scenes, the historian’s intelligence is always at work, setting the accidents of an individual life in the cross-currents of a graphically delineated space and time. The picture that emerges, with considerable artistry, is of a boy unlike conventional images of the man: solitary, initially drawn to nature rather than politics, somewhat abstracted and introspective, gradually more confident of his powers. The tone of the self-portrait with which he wound up his adolescence recalls something of Kepler’s horoscope of himself:

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, a tall, angular, dangly, ugly, fair-haired fellow of 18½, quick on the uptake, with a considerable if superficial stock of general knowledge and a lot of original ideas, general and theoretical. An incorrigible striker of attitudes, which is all the more dangerous and at times effective, as he talks himself into believing them himself . . . Has no sense of morality, thoroughly selfish. Some people find him extremely disagreeable, others likeable, yet others (the majority) just ridiculous . . . He is vain and conceited. He is a coward. He loves nature deeply. And he forgets the German language.

So ends the first part of Interesting Times. From a literary point of view, it could well have stopped there. We would then have had something close to those masterpieces of calm truncation, moving and tantalising in equal measure, that Constant or Sartre have left us – journeys to the age of reason, or passion, that leave us at their threshold. If this thought is not incongruous, it is because, rather than preparing the way for a portrait of the historian as a young man, the passage quoted above closes the door on further exploration of the self of this kind. A deeply felt, imaginative re-creation of the youth he once was abruptly gives way to another kind of enterprise. We never glimpse the same inner landscape again. Without notice of any change of gear, the next chapter shifts us into the second part of Interesting Times, which covers Hobsbawm’s membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the late 1930s to its dissolution in the early 1990s. Here he recounts his time at Cambridge, at the zenith of its student Communism; his beaching during the war as suspect to the authorities; his outlook as a Party member and his semi-marginalisation as an academic during the Cold War; his reactions to the crisis that engulfed the Communist movement with Khrushchev’s revelations and the Hungarian Revolt in 1956; the reasons he stayed in the Party after most of his fellow Marxist historians had left, and believes his choice was more fruitful than theirs; how he eventually helped, in his own eyes, to save the Labour Party even as the CPGB itself went under.

These chapters mark a complete alteration of register. The difference begins from the very first page, in which – before even attempting to describe his own experience of Cambridge – Hobsbawm feels obliged to explain how little was his acquaintance with Burgess and Maclean, Philby and Blunt, all of whom preceded his time at the university. Honourably enough, he adds that had he later been asked to carry out the same kind of mission, he would have done so. But a sensation of discomfort remains, as if another sort of reader is starting to hover in the background of the narrative. The depiction of Cambridge that follows offers deft sketches of the archaism of tutors and institutions, and of the motives and character of student radicals. Pointing out that the Left at its peak numbered perhaps a fifth of the undergraduate body, of which the Communist contingent in turn was no more than a tenth, Hobsbawm stresses the informal influence the Party nonetheless exercised in the university – a product of its energetic campaigning and commitment to academic success, and the buoyancy of its budding activists. The scene so presented is convincing, but essentially generic. Of Hobsbawm’s personal path through it we are told very little: nothing at all of his intellectual development, virtually nothing of his emotional life, scarcely a hint even of his political ideas. The persistent pronoun is now the anonymous, generational ‘we’. The first person singular is reserved for less charged moments, as when a more conventional cursus is touched on: ‘My last term, May-June 1939, was pretty good. I edited Granta, was elected to the Apostles and got a starred First in the Tripos, which also gave me a Studentship at King’s.’

Just how misleading this suppression of a subjectivity must be can be seen from the curious displacement of decisive episodes of this phase of the author’s life to much later chapters, separated by hundreds of pages from his account of these student years. Towards the end of his chapter on Cambridge, summer vacations spent in Paris, working with James Klugmann for a front organisation of the Comintern, and the future historian Margot Heinemann are casually mentioned. Of the former, Hobsbawm delphically remarks, ‘What did one know about him? He gave nothing away’; of the latter, he says simply, ‘she probably had more influence on me than any other person I have known,’ after which terse tribute she never appears again. It is not until one reaches a set of concluding reminiscences of different parts of the world Hobsbawm has visited, at the very end of the book, that – under the objective headings of France and Spain – a sense slips through of what private feelings might lie behind such clipped phrases.

For there is nothing in his account of Cambridge to touch the passion of his description of Bastille Day in the first year of the Popular Front, when he drove round a celebrating Paris on the truck of a newsreel team of the French Socialist Party – ‘It was one of the rare days when my mind was on autopilot. I only felt and experienced’ – then drank and danced till dawn: a different sort of trance from the funeral march in Berlin. It would be strange if these sojourns in Paris, working as a translator in what was then the hub of all Comintern networks in Europe, surrounded by the ferment of the Popular Front, did not mean more to him than Party chores in the Socialist Club at Cambridge. Perhaps by some unconscious association, in this other setting he even – in a memoir otherwise rigorously tight-lipped on such matters – uncharacteristically confides sexual initiation, ‘in a bed surrounded with mirrors’, in a brothel near the boulevard Sébastopol. Earlier, venturing an illegal entry into Spain soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, around the time John Cornford enrolled in Barcelona, did he consider taking up arms for the Republic? Again, the page in which he retrospectively questions himself about that possible crossroads has an enigmatic depth and beauty that stands out against the drabber English story. What is missing – deliberately averted – is an attempt to bring these scattered elements of a youthful revolutionary together in any interior synthesis. As the narrative proceeds, the cost of increasing externality is dispersion.

Chronologically, after Cambridge came the war: a relatively empty experience for Hobsbawm, as he complains with legitimate bitterness. The War Office confined him to a sapper regiment until it was sent to Singapore, and then to mock-duties at home in the Education Corps, probably as much because he came from Austria as because he was a Communist. But from his time with the Engineers, he learned to appreciate at first hand the traditional qualities of English workers, for whom he formed a ‘permanent, if exasperated admiration’, the beginning of an imaginative sympathy that has marked everything he has since written about popular classes. The acute economic insecurity, at times close to penury, of his own background in Vienna would anyway have brought him closer to the proletarian experience than most English intellectuals of his generation. It was also during the war that he got married for the first time, to a fellow Communist, a civil servant, about whom he says scarcely anything. Once belatedly demobbed, he started to work as a historian, soon getting a job at Birkbeck. But then he found what should have been a brilliant career – after such a flying start at King’s – deflected from its natural path by the Cold War, when all Communists were frozen out of advancement. He implies, in a dignified way, his hurt at the denial of the permanent posts he might in due course have expected at Cambridge.

But reading between the lines, his account of this bend in his career contains some mysteries. He reveals that not only did he take part in the reconstitution of the Apostles – a coterie of insiders, if ever there was one – after the war, but was actually the society’s organiser, and continued to recruit new undergraduates to it into the mid-1950s. Was there any connection between this role and the fellowship he was granted at King’s in 1949, not before but at the height of the Cold War, or the dispatch with which he was accorded congenial lodgings, on which he comments himself, when his marriage broke up? An inkling that there might be more to this story than appears is suggested by a puzzling absence: the name of Noel Annan, fellow and later Provost of King’s, a close friend, does not figure in it.

If in principle such matters have their place in an autobiography, they are of slight moment otherwise. The main burden of Hobsbawm’s treatment of these years is political. Three substantial chapters are devoted to explaining what it meant to be a Communist in this epoch, out of power or in power; what problems were posed for British Communists by the evolution of the Soviet system during the Cold War; and how de-Stalinisation detonated a crisis in the CPGB that left him one of the few intellectuals remaining in the Party. Throughout, he returns to the question: why did he stay to the bitter end? The effect of these extended reflections is mixed. Viewing the choice for Communism on a very general level, from the October Revolution to the end of the war, Hobsbawm offers an eloquent defence and illustration of what it meant for those who made it, alternating social observation and individual examples, heroic or humdrum. His emphasis falls on an ethos of selfless obedience and practicality – ‘business efficiency’, as he puts it – as the real hallmark of the Third International.

Communist Parties were not for romantics. On the contrary, they were for organisation and routine . . . The secret of the Leninist Party lay neither in dreaming about standing on barricades or even Marxist theory. It can be summed up in two phrases: ‘decisions must be verified’ and ‘Party discipline’. The appeal of the Party was that it got things done when others did not.

Historically, it must be said, this picture is strangely lopsided. A movement that counted revolutionaries like Serge or Trotsky, Roy or Mariategui, Sneevliet or Sorge, not for romantics? For that matter what of Mao, for better or worse a somewhat larger figure in the history of Communism than any of the loyal European functionaries or militants to whom we are introduced here? Elsewhere, indeed, Hobsbawm has precisely condemned him as a ‘romantic’. The reality is that a counterposition of barricades and theory to business efficiency and getting things done is ex post facto rhetoric that at best indicates something of the self-image of the Stalinised European Comintern, post-1926, in which Hobsbawm himself was formed, but does not adequately capture even its ambiguities. The cult of hard-headed routine and practicality, as expressed here, was often just another form of romanticism, and by no means always the most effective. Fortunately, Hobsbawm himself does not consistently live up to it, as his affecting portrait of the Austrian revolutionary Franz Marek, the moral centrepiece of his reflections on ‘Being Communist’, makes clear.

What then were his own convictions as an individual, in the time no longer of the Comintern, dissolved in 1943, but of the Cominform assembled by Zhdanov in 1947 for duty in the high Cold War? It is not easy to say. In part this is because Interesting Times skirts any too meticulous chronology in its discussion of his own Communism. His general meditation on the Communist experience, which extends more or less datelessly from Lenin all the way to Gorbachev, is placed immediately after his account of Cambridge, before even the war. When he resumes the topic in his personal history, it is to evoke the attitude of intellectuals in the British Party to the developments of the Cominform period that troubled them: the excommunication of Tito, the show trials of Kostov, Rajk and Slansky. Here too the reference is insistently collective: ‘what were we to think?’ – ‘none of us believed’ – ‘we clearly underestimated’ – ‘people like myself’ – ‘we too recognised’.

Of Hobsbawm’s personal views, we learn little, beyond the fact that he was sceptical that Basil Davidson could have been a British agent as charged along with Rajk, since his career had suffered in the Cold War. There is no clue to his opinion of the Moscow Trials that destroyed the Old Bolsheviks and set the pattern for the sequels in Sofia, Budapest and Prague after the war. He never mentions any reading of the considerable literature surrounding these events. The gist of his account is that British Communists, or at any rate Party intellectuals, did not believe the official versions of any of them. This is not quite the same thing as knowing they were a pack of lies, since unofficial versions circulated too. When Khrushchev finally laid bare the foundations of the whole grotesque edifice of confessions in Stalin’s torture chambers, Hobsbawm stresses the shock that these revelations – containing, of course, little not already widely known outside it – caused the international Communist movement. ‘The reason,’ he writes, ‘is obvious. We were not told the truth about something that had to affect the very nature of a Communist’s belief.’ Even if, once again, the pronoun leaves a margin of ambiguity, the implication must be that Hobsbawm himself had in some way continued to believe in Stalin’s honour. In what way? The construction of the narrative makes it impossible to guess. What is clear is that, not independent sources critically checked, but the word of authority was expected to deliver the truth. To all appearances, militant and historian had remained separate identities.

The crisis that Khrushchev’s speech in April 1956 – followed within months by the Hungarian Revolt – set off in the CPGB is described by Hobsbawm with an image of agitated emotion. ‘For more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’ The Party Historians’ Group, of which he was then chairman, became the centre of opposition to officialdom, and virtually all its members, with the exception of himself, had left the Party by the summer of 1957. Why did he stay? He offers two answers, and a postil. ‘I did not come into Communism as a young Briton in England, but as a Central European in the collapsing Weimar Republic. And I came into it when being a Communist meant not simply fighting Fascism but the world revolution. I still belong to the tail-end of the first generation of Communists, the ones for whom the October Revolution was the central point of reference in the political universe.’ It was therefore, he writes, ‘for someone who joined the movement where I came from and when I did, quite simply more difficult to break with the Party than for those who came later and from elsewhere’.

This is surely the plain biographical truth, well stated. But if both the emergency and the hope that brought him into the Communist movement were more intense than was typical of his English contemporaries, it is less clear that the chronological contrast would have been more significant than the geographical, as he goes on to suggest. Was the October Revolution peripheral for Christopher Hill, who joined the Party in the mid-1930s, learned Russian – as Hobsbawm explains he never did – and wrote a book on Lenin? At all events, in spelling out what he takes to be the larger difference, of time rather than space, Hobsbawm offers another illuminating remark about himself. ‘Politically’, he says, having joined the CP in 1936, he belongs to the era of the Popular Front, committed to an alliance between capital and labour, which has determined his strategic thinking to this day; ‘emotionally’, however, as a teenage convert in the Berlin of 1932, he remained tied to the original revolutionary agenda of Bolshevism. This is a dichotomy with more than one bearing on his work as a whole.

Yet if such were the deeper biographical reasons why Hobsbawm remained a Communist after 1956, one would still have expected some more ordinary political assessments to have been at work as well. For after all, de-Stalinisation did not stop in that year. With the defeat of Malenkov and Molotov in the summer of 1957, Khrushchev pursued it more vigorously in the USSR than before. The labour camps were emptied, living standards improved, intellectual debate revived, solidarity extended to the latest chapter of world revolution in the Caribbean. Further steps to cleanse the record of the past were taken at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961. Such developments persuaded many Communists shaken in 1956 that the legacy of the October Revolution was, if with zig-zags, being gradually redeemed rather than irretrievably abandoned. It would be surprising if Hobsbawm never thought along these, perfectly understandable, lines. But if he did, there is no trace of it here. As throughout his treatment of the Communist experience, there is no discussion at all of the actual political history of the period, stricto sensu. Instead, he concludes his reasons for staying in the Party by appending a ‘private emotion: pride’, explaining that had he left it, he would have improved his career prospects, but just for that reason he stayed, to ‘prove myself to myself by succeeding as a known Communist – whatever “success” meant – in spite of that handicap’.

Hobsbawm calls this combination of loyalty and ambition a form of egoism, which he does not defend. Most people would see in it evidence of an exceptional integrity and strength of character: a courage to take unpopular positions all the more striking in one for whom success has plainly mattered so much. Interesting Times records the different forms – we can take that airy parenthesis as a propitiatory gesture – that success has assumed: a worldwide readership in scores of languages, simultaneous chairs in three countries, academies and honorary degrees ad libitum, interviews and audiences galore, homages from the front bench and the Viminale. Still others are omitted: English readers will think of the Company of Honour, to which he belongs, alongside Lords Tebbit, Hurd and Howe. Early on in this account of his life, Hobsbawm explains that he has ‘accepted at least some of the signs of public recognition’ that have made him a ‘member of the official British cultural establishment’ because nothing would have given such happiness to his mother in her last years – adding, with a disarming smile securing all exits, that in saying this he ‘would be no more honest or dishonest than Sir Isaiah Berlin who used to excuse taking his knighthood by saying he had only done it to give pleasure to his mother’.

Great men have foibles for which they can be forgiven, including an occasional failure to see where their greatness lies, or what might diminish it. In Britain an inability to resist gewgaws is anyway as common among eminent scholars – historians of all stripes foremost among them – as once African agents of the slave trade. In Hobsbawm’s case, its interest lies not in any dissociation, but in the connection between political loyalty and social accommodation. Just because he remained so steadfast in an execrated cause, entry into the acceptance world seems to have acquired all the more value. Inwardly, each advance in the one could be chalked up as refracted lustre for the other. Psychologically, such intricate balance-wheels are normal enough. But they come at a cost. At the heart of Interesting Times is a sustained effort to explain the meaning of a Communist life. But explain to whom?

If there is something painful in the repeated, nervous adversion to that quest, it is because – not consistently, but too often for comfort: from the first swivel to the Cambridge spies, to the last swell of satisfaction that Heath and Heseltine should have adorned Marxism Today – the unspoken addressee is as if an established order to which an accounting of the self is due in exchange. This appears to be the logic of that absence of close political discussion, or any real intellectual engagement with the issues that haunted the trajectory of European Communism, which is so unexpected a feature of these pages. ‘It must now be obvious’, he writes of the Russian Revolution, that ‘failure was built into the enterprise from the start.’ He offers no reason for a conclusion so entirely at variance with his insistence on the practicality of the Stalinist tradition. But since such failure is self-evident for the readership in mind, why bother explaining it? To do that would require another style of orientation, and a different set of references, starting with some names and clairvoyant ideas – Kautsky, Luxemburg, Trotsky – this memoir chooses to avoid.

Nevertheless, after all qualifications or demurrers have been entered, Hobsbawm’s elegy to the political tradition to which he dedicated his life has a dignity and passion that must command anyone’s respect. His treatment of the traditions of others is much less impressive. Here a lack of generosity disfigures too many judgments. The problem starts at the very moment he seeks to explain why he did not leave the Party in 1956. Before reaching the valid biographical reasons for his own decision, he sets out, as if it were a necessary preliminary to justify himself, to disparage those who made the opposite choice. A profile of Raphael Samuel – ‘this eager vagabond figure, the absolute negation of administrative and executive efficiency’ – devotes itself principally to berating his ‘hare-brained project’ for a coffee house in London, and lamenting his own indulgence in this ‘lunatic enterprise’, with an arresting lack of any sense of proportion. Reading it, no one would guess that Samuel, after six years in the CPGB, produced a political anthropology of the Party, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, whose riches make Hobsbawm’s recollections of it, after a membership eight times as long, look a touch skeletal.

Of Edward Thompson, we are likewise given to understand that he lacked an ‘inbuilt compass’, and after writing The Making of the English Working Class – a work of genius, albeit ‘aggressively’ brief and narrow in focus – essentially wasted his time, with a ‘criminal’ diversion of energies into theoretical dispute rather than empirical research, against which Hobsbawm warned him. Thompson would have been surprised to find himself described as ‘insecure’ in these pages. No doubt this can be said in some measure of all human beings. But we can be fairly sure that in this case he would have thought the boot on the other foot. ‘In practical terms’, Hobsbawm continues, the various New Lefts that emerged from the crisis of 1956 were negligible. Worse were the student radicals of North America or Europe of the 1960s – to whom his ‘generation would remain strangers’ – responsible not even for ‘a botched attempt at one kind of revolution, but an effective ratification of another: the one that abolished traditional politics, and in the end the politics of the traditional Left’. As for the ‘ultra-left in and outside South America (all of whose Guevarist attempts at guerrilla insurrection were spectacular failures)’, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, ‘they neither understood nor wanted to understand what might move Latin American peasants to take up arms’, unlike the Farc in Colombia or Sendero Luminoso in Peru.

Scarcely an item in this rather sour retrospect withstands careful scrutiny. The New Left of the late 1950s was integral to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which did not achieve its objectives, but was rather less negligible as a force for change than the unreconstructed CPGB. The student movements of Europe and America not only, as Hobsbawm himself in a forgetful moment remembers, helped to cripple the regimes of De Gaulle and Nixon, but – as he does not recall – were critical in bringing the war in Vietnam to an end in the US, and setting off the most powerful working-class mobilisations of the postwar period in France and Italy. In Latin America, the only successful revolution, in Nicaragua, was not only directly inspired, but assisted by Cuba. As for Peru and Colombia, Hobsbawm tells us he could not but welcome the crushing of Sendero by Fujimori; why not now the Farc by Uribe?

Counterpointing such exercises in futility, Hobsbawm recounts another and – in his eyes – more fruitful enterprise under way by the early 1980s. This was the campaign he waged in the pages of Marxism Today to rescue the Labour Party from the perils of Bennery. Here legitimate pride and fatal delusion are curiously interwoven. Before the fall of the Callaghan Government, Hobsbawm rightly pointed out that the militant trade-unionism of the 1970s, for all its striking industrial successes, was not being carried by any underlying expansion of working-class strength or organisation; and after Thatcher came to power, that capture of a weakened Labour machine by the Left would not suffice to defeat the new Conservatism. But the conclusions he drew from these correct observations were surprisingly simple-minded: essentially, that the overriding task was to ensure the restoration at any cost of a ‘moderate’ leadership capable of attracting middle-class voters back to the Party – regardless of the obvious fact that it was just the exhaustion of this kind of traditional Labourism, demonstrated at dismal length through the 1970s and late 1960s, which had led to the rise of the Left in the first place.

Hobsbawm recounts with relish, but overestimates, his role in the media outcry that finished off Benn and put the pitiable figure of Kinnock in office. Since the whole of Fleet Street, from the Sun and Mirror through to the Guardian and the Telegraph, was baying for Benn’s head, it is doubtful how much difference his personal bark made. He assures us that once Kinnock had conducted the necessary purges of the Party, ‘its future was safe.’ Alas, even with Thatcher out of the way, the new leader proved a fiasco at the polls in 1992. ‘I am not alone,’ Hobsbawm writes mournfully, ‘in recalling that election night as the saddest and most desperate in my political experience.’ So much for March 1933. Such inflation is a measure of the loss of contact with reality that his crusade to ‘save the Labour Party’ – Gaitskell’s old slogan dusted off again – seems to have temporarily induced in the historian. For, of course, far from being saved, in the sense he wanted, it was turned inside out to produce what he himself now calls a ‘Thatcher in trousers’.

Remarking that, since his rescue-operation of the Party, a Labour Left no longer exists, he seems unable to grasp that just this was one of the conditions of the rise of Blairism he now deplores. It is obvious enough that on a minor scale Marxism Today – journalistically lively, but with no intellectual or political stamina (it disappeared in 1991 with the Party that kept it) – played the role of a sorcerer’s apprentice, not least in preparing the cult of Thatcher as a model of radical government that was taken over with a vengeance by New Labour. Hobsbawm ends by grieving that the Blair regime ‘drove us out of “real” politics’, and sadly cites the admonition to him of an MT stalwart now ensconced in Downing Street, that critique is no longer enough, since New Labour ‘must operate in a market economy and fit in with its requirements’. To which all he can reply is, ‘True enough’ – adding to such humble minimalism only a protest that still, the leadership does have excessive faith in neo-liberal ideology. This episode is not the whole Hobsbawm, by any means. What it shows is only what had become of that side of his background that he says has always guided his strategic thinking. The Popular Front could once awaken masses to political life and mobilise genuine enthusiasm, but even at its height, in France and Spain in the 1930s, it lacked any realistic calculus of power, and ended in disaster. The transference of its freight of sentimental illusions into postwar conditions, where there was never any comparable popular mobilisation behind it, had more banal outcomes: the bewildered ejection of one Communist Party after another from Continental governments in 1946-47, the futile quest for a Historic Compromise in Italy in the 1970s, finally – cold cinders of the glowing hopes of 1936 – the forlorn attempt to put the cracked shell of Labourism together again in the 1980s.

The last third of Interesting Times shifts register again, dropping any narrative sequence for surveys of Hobsbawm’s profession and travels. Here the pace slows down and the book appears to become more conventional, though the same sharp intelligence flashes even through flatter stretches. He gives a good account of the rise of the analytic social history associated with the Annales and Past & Present at the expense of earlier high-political narratives, regretting its later retreat with the cultural turn of the 1980s. The historians who pioneered it he describes as ‘modernisers’: a term too vague and bureaucratic, quite apart from its other connotations (‘the main railway network along which the trains of historiography would roll had been built’), to be of much theoretical use. Here he sells himself short. To see how original his own thinking about the study of the past has been – more than Braudel’s, by whom he says he was somewhat overawed – one needs to turn to his collection On History. For what this part of Interesting Times brings home again is how little direct account this autobiography offers of Hobsbawm’s engagement with the world of ideas. From beginning to end, scarcely a work of thought is mentioned as having seriously impinged on him. Of his Marxism, virtually all we are told is that he read The Communist Manifesto at high school in Berlin. Noting that literature was the substitute for philosophy in English sixth forms, he associates himself with other British Marxist historians in coming to history through an initial passion for the arts. But beyond saying that St Marylebone Grammar School introduced him to ‘the astonishing marvels of English poetry and prose’, we are no wiser as to what his reading actually was. When he comes to politics, lines from Brecht and Neruda are quoted, but conceptually there is a blank.

Perhaps this abstention is no more than an eye to a public uninterested in such questions. Travel is another matter. The book ends with Hobsbawm’s experiences of France, Spain, Italy, Latin America and the United States. Of the first four he writes with consistent affection, without claiming any special insight into them. He confesses, in fact, that in different ways he has been disconcerted or disappointed at the development of each, finding the politics and culture of the Fifth Republic an uncongenial sequel to the France of the 1940s and late 1930s; caught by surprise at the speed with which capitalism has transformed Spain; flabbergasted by the success of Craxi and Berlusconi in Italy, and the shrivelling of the Communist movement to which he felt closest; resigned to the lack of any real political progress in Latin America, amid sweeping social changes. But in other respects, these chapters are agreeable enough records of pleasures and friendships in societies of which he is fond.

The United States, where Hobsbawm has spent more time than in all the other countries combined, is another matter. Manhattan excepted, by his own account he learned more about the country from a few months exploring the jazz scene in 1960 than from a dozen years of seasonal teaching in the 1980s and 1990s. These seem, if anything, to have reinforced a sense of distance from it – an antipathy without his usual quotient of curiosity. However impressive its achievements, he writes, American social inequality and political paralysis, self-absorption and megalomania, are traits that make him glad to belong to another culture. The remark is a reminder that the country which has meant most to Hobsbawm does not figure in this survey. After describing boyhood impressions, Interesting Times – though it contains a brief intermezzo on holidays in Wales – never returns to England. This is certainly not a sign of indifference. It is clear from contemporaries that already at Cambridge he felt more British than they expected, patriotic sentiments that later found expression in a strong defence of the integrity of the United Kingdom, and perhaps mixed feelings about the Falklands War. His relationship to his legally native, but culturally adopted, country is an area of complication he leaves aside in this self-portrait.

Interesting Times comes to a close with a magnificent coda on 11 September, and its political exploitation – above all ‘the sheer effrontery of presenting the establishment of a US global empire as the defensive reaction of a civilisation about to be overrun by nameless barbarian horrors unless it destroys “international terrorism”’. In a historical perspective, he remarks, the new American imperium will be more dangerous than was the British Empire, because run by a much larger power. But it is unlikely to last longer. Indeed capitalism itself, Hobsbawm suggests, is once again earning the distrust of the young, as vaster forces of social change bowl the world beyond all known horizons. Defining himself as a historian who benefited from never wholly belonging to any one community, whose ideal is ‘the migrant bird, at home in arctic and tropic, overflying half the globe’, he calls on newer generations to shun the fetishes of identity, and make common cause with the poor and weak. ‘Let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.’ On closing these pages, for all the differences of form within them as a memoir, and of the reflections these suggest, the abiding impression is of the largeness of this mind, and the complex distinction of the life it reports. They are a fitting accompaniment to the achievement of the historian. A brusque vitality has defied the years.