Part II

Another element of Professor Hobsbawm's personality comes through in Interesting Times. He likes to cite the revolutionary "toughness" celebrated in Berthold Brecht's famous lines:

    We who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
    Could not be kind ourselves.

He goes on to explain:

    Of course we did not, and could not, envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet peoples under Stalin at the time when we identified ourselves with him and the Comintern.... However, it is anachronistic to suppose that only genuine or willful ignorance stood between us and denouncing the inhumanities perpetuated on our side.... In the total war we were engaged in, one did not ask oneself whether there should be a limit to the sacrifices imposed on others any more than on ourselves.

One cannot help noticing the delicate language in which the word "sacrifices" for example, stands for the Great Terror and the Gulag. But, as Professor Hobsbawm says, he was ready to accept sacrifices imposed on himself too. What were they? Britain is a more level-headed society than the USA, so Communist professors were rarely in danger of losing their posts. As Professor Hobsbawm candidly recalls: "I was lucky to teach at a college which provided a built-in, unforced protection against the pressures of the Cold War outside."

What, then, are those sacrifices of his own of which, like the sacrifices Communism imposed on others, there could be no limit? This too, he explains candidly:

    That is why my most resented memory of the Cold War is not of jobs lost, or letters obviously opened, but of my first book. I had proposed it in 1953 to the publisher Hutchinsons.... The proposal was accepted, but when I submitted the finished manuscript, it was turned down on the advice of an anonymous but presumably authoritative reader or readers. It was, they said, too biased, and therefore unacceptable under the contract. No suggestions for modifications were made. I protested. The firm agreed that I had put in a good deal of work, and therefore offered me a good-will payment of 25 guineas. What stuck in my gullet was not only the contemptible amount of the sum.... but also the knowledge that the book had almost certainly been turned down on the advice of some senior colleague.

There it is. In the struggle to reconstruct the human species, some people had to make little sacrifices like 10 or 25 years in the Gulag, or their lives. But the scales are nicely balanced: our academic steely-eyed revolutionary actually had a book turned down. Cue up the lower strings, under Brecht's dark, rich elegiac lines:

    You, who will emerge from the flood
    In which we have perished...

I am afraid that what really makes Hobs, despite his likeability, so much akin to Scotty and Bert Brecht is a taste, persisting long after age twelve, for playing dressup. That and, of course, simple chutzpah.

--- Dr. Phage
Go back to Part I


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