College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Reviews Interesting Times: A Twentieth-century Life
Eric Hobsbawm
New York: Penguin, 2002

Reviewed by Howard Doughty

Among the historians of modern Europe, few can approach the work of Eric Hobsbawm for depth, breadth, diversity and prolificity. Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1917, of Jewish parents (his father English, his mother Austrian), he spent his childhood in Vienna and his schooldays in Berlin. At 14, he had read The Communist Manifesto and campaigned for the party in the last free elections to be held until after Hitler was defeated. Fleeing the Nazis, he landed with his family in England in 1934, where he went up to study history at Cambridge. He has held prestigious university positions at the University of London and the New School for Social Research in New York ever since. His books range over an enormous swath of time and topic. Among his major comprehensive contributions are The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1973), The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (1975), The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987), and The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 (1994). As well, he has contributed more controversial but no less widely read studies of insurgent peasants and artisans such as Primitive Rebels (1959), Bandits (1969), and Captain Swing (1968) with George Rudé. He co-founded the now legendary journal Past and Present and has contributed to the education and inspiration of students around the world. I heard him lecture only once, at Rutgers University in 1973. It was formidable.

What’s more, Hobsbawm is also a celebrated music critic. His chosen field? American jazz, to the understanding and appreciation of which he wrote The Jazz Scene (1960), Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (1998), and innumerable shorter commentaries and reviews.

Interesting Times (the title reflecting the ancient Chinese prayer that the gods spare us from living in interesting times) is apt to be his concluding major work. It is an autobiography that details his extraordinary life in the twentieth-century. Unlike most of his comrades who parted ways with official communism (many after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956), Hobsbawm remained loyal almost to the end. His loyalty was, however, peculiarly diffident; his politics were decidedly intellectual. He was rarely active in practical politics and spent his time contentedly as an academic, and a rather powerful one at that.

That his reflections on a life on the left should cause interest is no surprise, nor is the fact that his memoirs have been received with less than whole-hearted enthusiasm by the press. What does fascinate, however, is the diversity in the roots of the hostility. Even ostensibly liberal journals such as the New York Review of Books cannot get past his fealty to communism through Stalinist and, more importantly, post-Stalinist times. In Britain, such concerns have been minimal as people have asked why he didn’t do more. He appears a bit embarrassed that he did not join the anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. Although he seems to have lost faith in party orthodoxy in the early 1950s and opposed the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (seeming willing to be expelled but never deciding to quit the Communist Party of Great Britain) he was a very quiet communist. Unlike his contemporary and equally prominent former comrade, Edward Thompson, he lived at or near the centre of the British intellectual establishment and refrained from involvement in popular causes out of devotion to his profession.

Hobsbawm, as has been pointedly pointed out—sometimes with curiosity, sometimes as accusation—tends to finesse queries about ideology, but no one can dismiss his contribution to our understanding of how we have found ourselves in the world we now inhabit. He remains insightful whether discussing modern industrialism, the MAFIA or his own long and honourable career. A self-described unbending communist, he has also been a meticulous historian, an elegant writer, a warm, engaging and often very funny man.

Anyone from amateur “history buffs” to serious students of modernity should enjoy and profit from reading the sometimes bittersweet reflections of this extraordinary scholar whose life gave testimony to the eruptions and repairs of the twentieth century.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.

Reviews

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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology