Eric Hobsbawm: Marxist and…

Eric Hobsbawm, the late British historian, ardent communist, and Stalin apologist, was as unflinching in his authoritarian utopianism as any. From a recent article on “The Bourgeois Eric Hobsbawm” by David Bell:

IN A FAMOUS exchange in 1994, Michael Ignatieff asked Eric Hobsbawm whether the vast human costs inflicted by Stalin on the Soviet Union could possibly be justified. Hobsbawm replied, “Probably not. . . . because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.” Do you mean, Ignatieff pressed him, that “had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm answered, “Yes.”

Bell then goes on to note, however, that Hobsbawm was himself a bourgeois elitist when it came to culture. Take a wild guess as to what aspect of his Self fueled this:

Fractured Times deals mostly with high culture in the twentieth century, in an unapologetically elitist tone. But it is precisely this subject matter and this tone that reveal something often overlooked about Eric Hobsbawm. For all his commitment to international Communism, he was also profoundly, if paradoxically, bourgeois, and in a distinctly Jewish way

HOBSBAWM’S UPBRINGING was certainly that of a bourgeois Jew. His father came from a Jewish trade background in the East End of London; his mother was the daughter of a Jewish Viennese jeweler. Born in Alexandria in 1917, Eric spent his childhood in Vienna and then, from 1931, after the death of his parents, with an aunt and uncle in Berlin. Although English was the language of his homes, his larger middle-class milieu was characterized by a deep reverence for German high culture: Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven. In Berlin, amid the misery of the Depression and the turmoil accompanying the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the teenage Hobsbawm was swept into street politics. He later compared the intense experience of “participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation” to sex. But after Hitler’s seizure of power the family relocated to London, where Hobsbawm finished his secondary education at that most middle-class of British institutions, the grammar school, and spent his spare hours reading Romantic poetry and listening to jazz, along with selling Communist Party pamphlets. From there, it was off to Cambridge, and his exceptionally long and productive intellectual career…

The essays in Fractured Times that deal with Hobsbawm’s formative bourgeois Jewish milieu do so not just with insight, but also with respect. They take as a starting point the intense identification that middle-class European Jews of the late nineteenth century felt with their countries’ high cultures: French, Russian, Hungarian and especially German. Throughout Central Europe, Jews seeking emancipation from the “self-segregation” of the shtetl (it was not, of course, entirely the Jews’ own choice) found in German culture a path toward professional and social distinction. Embracing it, Hobsbawm notes, also proved the most effective way of separating themselves, in their own eyes as well as those of their gentile neighbors, from the uneducated, religious, Yiddish-speaking Jewish masses to the east. Hobsbawm also makes, quite keenly, another point: “The passion of emancipated Jews for the national languages and cultures of their gentile countries was all the more intense, because in so many cases they were not joining, as it were, long-established clubs but clubs of which they could see themselves almost as founder members.” What we now see as German high culture, at least in philosophy, literature and the visual arts (Kant, Goethe, etc.), took shape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, just as German Jews were first gaining civil rights and prominent positions in gentile society. In the great multilingual stew of Austria-Hungary, the Jewish passion for everything German was unrivaled (although in Hungary itself, some Jews did prefer the local vernacular). Hobsbawm offers as an example (twice!) the heavily Jewish town of Brody, in Galicia, once Austro-Hungarian, and subsequently Polish, Soviet and Ukrainian. In the nineteenth century, its principal languages were Yiddish and Ukrainian, but the Jewish town fathers nonetheless insisted that its schools adopt German as their language of instruction.

In these essays, Hobsbawm dwells on past Jewish achievements with something approaching ethnic pride. He enumerates Jewish Nobel Prize winners, and gives long lists of Jews who dominated their respective fields (“Heine, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Ricardo, Marx, Disraeli. . . . Modigliani, Pascin, Marcoussis, Chagall, Soutine, Epstein, Lipchitz, Lissitzky, Zadkine”). He speaks of the “enormous oilfield of [Jewish] talent . . . waiting to be tapped by the most admirable of all human movements, the Enlightenment.” And this refugee from Hitler says of German culture: “Only those who have experienced the force, the grandeur and the beauty of that culture, which made the Bulgarian Jew Elias Canetti write in the middle of the Second World War that ‘the language of my intellect will remain German,’ can fully realise what its loss meant.” It is no wonder that Hobsbawm was a devotee of Joseph Roth, the Jewish novelist who composed that piercing elegy for the German-speaking Habsburg Empire, Radetzky March.

Hobsbawm also perceptively notes that in many cases, Jews did not simply embrace high culture, but also ended up giving it a distinctly Jewish flavor. In Vienna, where the Jewish population soared from less than four thousand in 1848 to 175,000 in 1914, Jews played an outsized role in shaping middle-class institutions, artistic genres and forms of humor (the same, it might be noted, was true of Budapest and, later, New York). By the twentieth century, Jewish writers and artists were weaving more and more recognizably Jewish themes into their work. Hobsbawm muses that when it comes to Jewish cultural creativity, “a certain degree of uneasiness in the relationship between them and non-Jews has proved historically useful,” pointing out that the end of the nineteenth century—the years of the Dreyfus Affair in France and the anti-Semitic Mayor Kurt Lueger in Vienna—was in fact a time of “maximum stimulus for Jewish talent.”

Bell notes that, unlike Marx himself, Hobsbawm does not situate nor contemplate ‘the Jewish Question’ within the larger, historical-materialist framework of Marxism itself:

IN NONE OF these essays does Hobsbawm let drop even a hint of contempt for the bourgeois settings in which the cultural developments in question took place. Unlike, say, Karl Marx, he does not poke beneath the surface of Enlightenment philosophy in search of a rancidly selfish “bourgeois ideology.”

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