Portrait of a Communist as a young man

(Unpublished, 2002)

The decline of both organised religion and mass political activism would seem to suggest that the ‘isms’ from Communism to Catholicism, have been confined to history. With such ideologies swept away by the march of time it would seem the only ‘ism’ left is cynicism.

Some have found in the anti-globalisation movement a refuge from the consumption-driven lifestyle of the west but the nascent movement contains no discernible objective, or philosophical rationale, other than engaging in aimless protests. The attitude seems to be let’s storm the Bastille now and somebody is sure to come with some ideas afterwards.

The voices of protest against the craven use of power for the benefit of a single country or even a single class within a country were not always so incoherent. Half a century ago many of the most intelligent and socially conscious were captivated by a particular ideology – Communism. The ideology that sprang from the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin’s October Revolution.

In this light, it was with particular interest that I read the autobiography of the self-confessed Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm, Eric – Interesting Times A Twentieth Century Life, Penguin, 2002). Although some French will be sure to disagree, I do not think it inaccurate to portray Hobsbawm as the greatest historian of the twentieth century. What distinguishes Hobsbawm is not the fluidity of his prose, which can, in truth, be quite turgid, but the breadth of his vision.

If Martians were to come down from earth and they wished to learn about the human species since the French Revolution one would not be doing a disservice to inter-galactic relations to recommend Hobsbawm’s four Ages (the Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, the Age of Empire and the Age of Extremes).

Hobsbawm’s greatness lies in an ability to view the world three dimensionally; the acute eye for detail is never distracted from the overall view. Furthermore, as a peripatetic polyglot, and a Jew by ethnicity, Hobsbawm was a first hand witness of many of the pivotal events of the last century.

Born in Alexandria in 1917 the same year as the October Revolution from which he draws so much inspiration, his parents (his father was British and his mother Austro-Hungarian) soon settled in Vienna where their son Eric was reared. Vienna, the imperial capital of a decaying multicultural mitteleuropean empire was a city where the seeds of two of the most damaging racial ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Zionism, were sown.

Losing his parents, the orphaned teenage Hobsbawm moved to Berlin where he spent his formative political years witnessing the demise of Weimar Germany and the advent of Nazism. It was in this atmosphere of highly charged politicisation that Hobsbawm was converted to Communism.

On its face, the idea of reading the autobiography of an historian sounds uninteresting; suggeting a collection of anecdotes drawn from the often sterile world of academia? Is it not the case that the material of the historian is of interest rather than the historian him or herself? This book escapes tedium and is at times fascinating because it contains an invaluable insight into why such a patently rational and intelligent human being should cling to a seemingly utopian ideology such as Communism.

Communism is an ideology that views the world in terms of historical stages of development, with the ultimate stage, the end of history, being a celestial worker’s paradise where the injustice of material inequality comes to an end. Communists fought and campaigned for their cause with what can be described as a religious fervour, reminiscent of the early stages of Islam.

Like most faiths it involved personal sacrifice for the common good. A virtuous communist was unconcerned by his own life and livelihood because he was working towards the greater good of humanity. He or she was on the side of history.

What is striking about Hobsbawm’s philosophical self-portrait is the almost religious tone of his recollections. ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics’.

Hobsbawm also describes his disgust for relapsed communists in similarly confessional tones ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’.

While Hobsbawm feels no shame in his Communism it is clear that the events of 1956 when Khrushchev revealed the true depravity of Stalin’s rule, and when the Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed, were deeply wounding on a personal as well as a political level. He recounts ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

The experience can be likened to the situation of devout Catholics having to come to terms with revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics of today, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by the truth of their revelation Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’ – ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

For Hobsbawm and many others, Communism served a proto-religious function. Leo Tolstoy writes ‘Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death.’ In communism the infinite meaning can be found in the maturation of the historical process which would give rise to the communist utopia or heaven.

The outlook of the Communist as described by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramango contains the same religious leitmotif, but also contains an element of distrust for all ideologies:


What hasn’t been taken into account is that it is possible to be a hormonal communist. I carry inside me a hormone that means that I have no other choice than to be a communist. You can ask, ‘against everything? What about the barbarities and crimes committed?’ My answer is that there is probably no difference between the negative, criminal horrendous, horrible things done in the name of communism and everything that the human being has done throughout human history in the name of the best intentions. Christianity is a good example: millions of people have been sacrificed for a doctrine which is its opposite, a doctrine that promised forgiveness, love and compassion. Forgiveness, love and compassion are things we have been able to show now and then, but they have ended up being submerged by the mass of badness that we also carry. That is why I logically continue to be what I am.


Poignantly, Hobsbawm identifies a loss of faith in higher ideals that haunts many young people today. Comparing his youth to contemporary times, he writes ‘we avoided the strain of unhappiness which today frustrates people whose instinct it is to feel about world affairs exactly as we did then, but who find it impossible to translate their feelings into action as we did.’

Who is to say that a new ideology will not emerge to fill this moral vacuum and harness the instincts of this generation of malcontents? Or perhaps it is better that ideology should be caste aside, as Saramango seems to suggest, because of its legitimisation of “the mass of badness that we also carry.”

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