KOBA THE DREAD: LAUGHTER AND TWENTY MILLION
by Martin Amis
Cape, £16.99, pp. 306, ISBN 0224063030
Eric Hobsbawm is arguably our greatest living historian – not only Britain’s, but the world’s (as the torrential translation of his oeuvre tends to confirm). The global reach of his knowledge and culture, his formidable linguistic armoury, his love of jazz (although the saxophone was banished by Stalin), and his acute readings of personalities (though not Stalin’s) are invariably conveyed in a prose measured yet fluent. Perhaps there is no substitute for an ZmigrZ background, for schooling in Vienna and Berlin before arriving at Marylebone Grammar School and King’s College, Cambridge. Even the drawback of having an expatriate English father more interested in boxing than ideas was offset by an early death, sad and penurious.
Hobsbawm (like Isaac Deutscher) bucks the trend in one notable respect: as Perry Anderson pointed out, the main impact of immigrant scholars in Britain has been conservative or ‘Cold War liberal’: think of Namier, Popper, Isaiah Berlin and all the other knights. Having witnessed the rise of Nazism at close quarters while on the tram to school, and having fervently embraced communism during its most sectarian phase, the young Hobsbawm, Jewish on both sides and now orphaned, was sent to absorb the mild charms of English culture, including schoolmasters with a sense of humour. Elected to the elite Apostles, he was a year or two too young to have expanded the famous spy-ring known as the Cambridge Five into the Six, although he mentions that a little spying in a good cause might not have been rejected had it come his way. What really annoyed him, one gathers, is that British Intelligence would not have him and his linguistic skills for a war in which he did not believe (until Hitler attacked Russia), consigning him to the Royal Engineers and the excitements of shoring up East Anglia’s coastal defences.
He loved Cambridge and King’s, where he was later awarded a fellowship, and remained a loyal Apostle; Hobsbawm comes across as a sociable man who has known everyone worth knowing, happy at conferences and congresses, never more so than when addressing a lecture audience under Orozco murals, with a network of close friends around the world and a keen interest in sex – he offers a bemusing comparison of political demonstrations and the male orgasm. With affectionate wit he recalls his rapt, undergraduate attendance at the Cambridge lectures of the economic historian M. M. Postan, an immigrant of earlier vintage and later a loyal friend with the endearing habit of mentioning that his former pupil was a party member whenever recommending him for academic posts during the Cold War. To what extent Hobsbawm’s career did and did not suffer during that time is an interesting topic fully discussed. Better England than America is the verdict; Hobsbawm’s liking for New York and academic America’s admiration for Hobsbawm meant that almost annually he had to apply for exemption from the anti-communist provision of US visa regulations.
Chapter 17, ‘Among the Historians’, interested me the most, although the author modestly advises the uninterested reader to ‘skip’ it. I could have done with more. Here one finds Hobsbawm, along with Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Lawrence Stone, joining the then unstoppable tide of ‘social history’ – not G. M. Trevelyan’s kind, which passes unmentioned, but the broader, interpretative, social-anthropological approach associated with Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and the Annales, later to flourish in the British journal Past & Present. These ‘modernisers’, as he calls them, were busy sweeping away ‘kings, ministers, battles and treaties’ – though Hobsbawm’s own Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century is not short of these redundant entities.
Hobsbawm’s synoptic overview of history-writing in his own time seems to miss one central point, the revival of personality, psychology and power as crucial factors for the historian, and with it the revival of narrative. The problem of power, largely neglected by Marx, remains largely neglected by Hobsbawm, although it is hard to ponder the history of the USSR under Lenin and Stalin without it flitting across one’s mind. Power and personality tend to be called, almost between the lines, ‘contingency’ – always a dubious character much given to gambling. Two of the modern era’s most penetrating observers of power, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, go unmentioned; does Animal Farm remain a potato too hot and rotten to deserve a word? Himself deeply versed in theory, Hobsbawm remains oddly reticent about it – perhaps not surprising given that he remained a member of the British Communist Party even while vigorously recommending in Marxism Today that the Labour Party should abandon its ‘sectarians’ and ‘extremist’ trade union leaders, come to terms with ‘reality’, and ‘operate in a market economy and fit in with its requirements’.
Moving from Interesting Times to Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread is a somewhat vertiginous passage, but I have to report an observed bridge. When this reviewer succeeded young Amis as literary editor of the New Statesman, he noticed that Hobsbawm, John Berger and several other brilliant voices had been lured away by Paul Barker’s rival New Society. Much telephone dialling followed: Berger replied tenderly, pleading loyalty, while Hobsbawm simply named his price as £100 per review, more than double our then going rate. Amis himself recalls the New Statesman of that Great Turnstile era (late Seventies) chiding Christopher Hitchens for using the word ‘comrade’ with a smile, and thus (insists Amis) exposing a soft spot for Soviet communism. Worse, the British Left betrayed its residual affection for Uncle Joe by telling communist jokes on the Jewish or Irish model. Actually, Amis cannot resist doing the same, including a good one about a Brezhnev-era nightclub. But why, he asks insistently, were there no jokes about Nazis? Why do we refuse to put Stalin’s 20 million on a par of depravity with the Holocaust? Good question, but jokes about ‘comrades’, surely, have nothing to do with Stalin’s famine, slave labour and mass deportations, everything to do with the baffled stoicism of the typical Russian, or, further west, the paradox of progressives submitting themselves to rigid discipline even when, as eventually in Hobsbawm’s own case, head and heart, thought and utterance, went separate ways. Tommy: ‘Anyone in Britain is free to criticise Churchill.’ Ivan: ‘In Soviet Union also.’
Martin Amis makes no scholarly claims on his own behalf, generously acknowledging his debts to Szamuely, Pipes, and above all Robert Conquest, mentors and friends inherited from his father Kinglsey Amis. Clearly Amis has read voraciously, ‘several yards of books’, but frailties keep surfacing, as when Gorky’s journal of 1918, Novaia zhizn’ (New Life) is given as Novaia zhin (New World). Even so, he does succeed where Hobsbawm does not: in banging home, hammer and sickle, the sheer scale of Soviet crimes. It’s not news but it’s new in the telling.
Hobsbawm visited the Soviet Union only twice and didn’t particularly like it. To what cause did he think he was remaining loyal? I did not care for his sole, anecdotal mention of Isaac Deutscher, ‘the biographer of Trotsky, but in his heart a frustrated political leader’, who, we are told, advised Hobsbawm to remain inside the Communist Party when everyone else was leaving it during the turmoil of 1956-7. Deutscher was also the author of an authoritative and devastating biography (1949) of Stalin, and far more than Hobsbawm a genuine victim of discrimination on the British academic ladder. One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn’t you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn’t you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the gulag? As Orwell himself documented, a great deal of evidence was reliably knowable even before 1939, but Hobsbawm p
leads that much of it was not reliably knowable until Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956.
Amis, by contrast, tosses everything into the Stalin pot, sadism, megalomania, cynicism, anti-Semitism, the suicide of his wife, certainties and speculations, a limitless list. This said, Amis is right: his obsessive defacement of ‘Koba the Dread’, set against Hobsbawm’s brief and distinctly unemotional criticisms of the Great Helmsman, suggests that there is a place for intelligent pop history, even if Amis’s many autobiographical digressions bring an uncomfortable twist to the cult of personality.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 19, 2002