With the recent death of Eric Hobsbawm passed away the last great intellectual marked by the rise of Nazism and the II World War. To be honest his disappearance left me with no feeling of emptiness. I was never too fond of him, as I was of Isaiah Berlin or Ernst Junger. Without understanding exactly why, his two best known works, The Invention of Tradition and the Era of Extremes, didn’t convince me. Despite finding them well written and intelligent, I seemed to detect a very subtle hypocrisy that I couldn’t quite explain then. So, I received his death with a certain relief. Was as if with his disappearance the last phantom of the Cold War had gone and was finally possible to bury the Twentieth Century.
In Reappraisals Tony Judt creates a fair portrait of Hobsbawm. Judt develops an idea that I saw touched upon in a column from The Guardian, after his death, saying that the author of the Era of Extremes was a better historian than thinker. Hobsbawm lacked empathy, says Judt, after praising his memory, erudition and prose. Taking into account that history demands that you put yourself into the skin of other people from other ages, the remark is a slap in the face, even though it is made with delicacy. I think that Judt was right. Despite having specialized in rebels and social revolutionary movements, Hobsbawm consistently avoided asking himself complicated questions. He wrote from the armchair, contradictions of common life didn’t interest him. He had the typical totalitarian tics of the abstemious intellectual that trades sex for books. In the end, as many thinkers of his age, he never understood the relationship between tradition and modernity, nor between localism and cosmopolitism. He defended his subjectivity but he had too many fears and immediate interests to take distance from his own time. Maybe that’s why in my home I have books by Berlin and Junger, but not one by him.
Sometimes it has been remembered that Hobsbawm foresaw the crisis of capitalism after the sinking of the Berlin wall, but no one remarks that he didn’t foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union nor the failure of euro-communism. It’s worth mentioning, that he also never revised his teenage opinions as did other communists who have enriched the European culture. Orphaned, from a Jewish family, he was born in Alexandria, he lived in Vienna and Berlin and he was exiled to Great Britain after Hitler’s rise to power. The portrait that he made of the 20 century was conditioned by his harsh personal biography and has become a standard view of this age. But it’s a shallow portrait that uses the demon of Nazism to romantize the Soviet Union and to avoid autocriticism. Hobsbawm lived like a communist mandarin enjoying all the advantages of belonging to the official establishment in a country as liberal as is Great Britain. Despite having initially hindered his career, in the end his ideology favored him and even folklorized him. It could also be said that his figure represents, to the European intellectual panorama, what the anti-franquist intellectuals meant to Barcelona.
In the Era of Extremes he wrote: “The possibility of dictatorship is implicit in any regime based in a single, irremovable, party.” Judt, in the portrait of Reappraisals, asks, discarding any irony in the sentence: “Possibility?”Hobsbawm’s obituary, in The Times, includes some lines from his memories, published in 2002, where he wrote referring to the Stalin regime: “Those sacrifices were excessive...They shouldn’t have happened. Looking back the project was damned to fail, although some time was still needed in order to see it.” Time? Why didn’t Hobsbawm put distance between himself and communism when the Soviet tanks invaded Hungary in 1956? Or in 1968, when they invaded Prague? When journalists asked him these questions he hid behind generational reasonings and, entered into 21st century, he insisted upon saying that inside he still carried the dreams of the Revolution of October. In the end I think he must have believed that the sacrifices were worth it. Despite sweetening his militancy with sentimentalism, sometimes his writings have these disturbing moments, when he seems to suggest that the suffering of so many people would have been justified if Stalin and his men had obtained better results. Sometimes the Spanish democrats have similar short circuits.