Most people know at least two things about the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm. First, that he is, or was, a Marxist who believed in communist world revolution for his entire adult life. Second, that the 90-year-old has become as he disarmingly put it himself, "an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment", and something of a national teddy bear.
Though born abroad, Hobsbawm has always been an essentially middle-class British figure. He completed his secondary education here and went up to Cambridge as an undergraduate. He has worked hard to cultivate an ironical detachment from Britain and its traditions which comes easily only to those who truly belong.
All this distinguishes him from erstwhile comrades, such as Chinese peasants, Ukrainian Jews, Afghan women and South Africans of all colours. It is no surprise that they should have joined, persevered with and often died for the Communist Party. Unlike many in the past century of "extremes", however, Hobsbawm had a choice and he chose tyranny.
It was in Berlin, where he spent his adolescence, as Hobsbawm put it in his autobiographical Interesting Times , that he became "a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project" of the October Revolution.
Surveying the political scene shortly before the Nazi takeover of power, Hobsbawm claimed that "for someone like myself there was really only one choice", if Hitler was to be stopped. In fact, there was an alternative open to Hobsbawm: he could have backed the German or Austrian Social Democrats, whose record of resistance against the Nazis was to be more distinguished, and certainly more consistent. Not for the first or last time, Hobsbawm's historical judgment is clouded by ideological blinkers.