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A Twentieth-Century Life

by Eric Hobsbawm

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-42234-X
Publisher: Pantheon

The noted British historian’s tough-minded autobiography.

Born in 1917, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna as a child of the polyglot, multinational Jewish middle class. His parents were both dead by the time he was 14; he spent a few years in Berlin, where he began his 50-year engagement with communism, before moving to England with an aunt in 1933. His father had been an English citizen, and young Eric won a scholarship in 1935 to Cambridge, where he formally joined the CP. Hobsbawm doesn’t write much here about his personal affairs, concentrating instead on lucid historical analysis of places and institutions with which he was associated and brief sketches of his comrades in political activism. A chapter on “Being Communist,” in contrast to the passionate, often embittered memoirs of many American radicals, depicts the party in unsentimental, unglamorous terms, stressing the “discipline, business efficiency . . . and a sense of total identification” that inspired him and his fellows to serve an organization they understood was dedicated to armed revolution, not democratic procedures. This may explain why he did not leave the party after the revelations of Stalin’s barbarism in 1956, though he took advantage of his position as one of England’s most prominent Marxist historians to openly criticize it. Admirers of such groundbreaking books as Primitive Rebels and The Age of Revolution will be disappointed that Hobsbawm says little about his work as one of the generation of remarkable scholars who transformed the study of history by insisting on the importance of ordinary people’s experiences, though there are brief character sketches of such peers as Fernand Braudel and E.P. Thompson. Neither of his two wives gets even that much space, and chapters on France, Spain, Italy, Latin America, and even the Wales community in which he vacationed for many years discuss their social and political structures more than his personal reactions to them.

Not for readers seeking an emotional account of the inner life, but a bracingly frank look at the realities of being a 20th-century radical.