In his new collection of essays, On History(New Press), Eric Hobsbawm writes: "Much of my life, probably most of my conscious life, was devoted to a hope which has been plainly disappointed, and to a cause which has plainly failed: the communism initiated by the October Revolution. But there is nothing which can sharpen the historian's mind like defeat." If the astonishing success of The Age of Extremes, the British Marxist's chronicle of the twentieth century, is any indication, much of the world's reading public heartily agrees. Translated into twenty languages and acclaimed by reviewers of virtually every political stripe, The Age of Extremes was voted one of the ten best books of 1996 in dependably anticommunist Taiwan and has recently gone into its fifth printing in Germany. Next year, the citizen of formerly communist Albania will have an opportunity to read Hobsbawm in a translation subsidized by the billionaire financier George Soros.

There is, however, one country that has all but declared The Age of Extremes unpublishable: France. Not a single French publisher -- not even Fayard, Hobsbawm's longtime imprint -- wants to translate his book. Since The Age of Extremes has proved itself an instant classic elsewhere, the absence of a French translation has caused a fair amount of consternation among French intellectuals. This past January, Pierre Nora, one of France's most powerful editors, issued a public explanation of his decision not to go ahead with the book, while Le Monde Diplomatique, the left's flagship journal, accused French publishers of McCarthyism -- an ironic choice of pejorative in view of the warm welcome the book received in the States.

While it's true that the French are notoriously slow to discover scholarship in other languages -- E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class did not meet their exalted standards for decades -- the rejection of The Age of Extremes is a rather different matter. Hobsbawm has long been an honored figure on the French intellectual scene. Most of his books are translated, and Nations and Nationalism was recently placed on the programme d'agrégation for college students. Moreover, the importance of The Age of Extremes has not gone unacknowledged in France: This past January, Le Débat, the renowned intellectual journal edited by Nora, featured a nearly hundred-page symposium on Hobsbawm's interpretation of the twentieth century. "Twenty-five years ago," observes Tony Judt, an historian at NYU, "The Age of Extremes would have been translated in a week." So what's changed? Three forces have apparently conspired to keep the book out of translation: the growth of a vituperative anti-Marxism among French intellectuals; a budget squeeze in humanities publishing; and, not least, a publishing community either unwilling or afraid to defy these trends.

Though the French may view The Age of Extremes as an apologia for Soviet communism, this ironic, detached work has little to recommend it to propagandists pining for a return to the Iron Curtain. A member of the British Communist Party since his days at Cambridge in the late 1930s, Hobsbawm continues to consider the Bolshevik triumph in 1917 a genuine social revolution rather than a putsch. And he does think the revolution called into being a qualitatively new, and not altogether undesirable, state of affairs, as developing nations discovered an alternative strategy for planning their economies and Western elites scrambled to create social safety nets to avoid popular upheaval. Yet Hobsbawm unblinkingly describes what he calls the "unprecedented inhumanity" of Stalin's terror, as well as the increasingly poor performance of socialist command economies. He is also a great admirer of the man who, as much as any individual, helped bury the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev.

France, however, is a land where fashion ;is religiously observed, in intellectual affair no less than in others; and intellectual fashion in France frequently comes down to single-issue politics. At least for the moment, Hobsbawm's lingering pro-Sovietism is decidedly passé. Shortly after The Age of Extremes appeared, the late historian François Furet published The History of an Illusion, an equally ambitious treatment of twentieth-century history -- and considerably closer to current Paris taste in its treatment of Soviet communism as "an anti-democratic and illiberal reaction" akin to fascism. Following the success of Fret's book, French publishers were apparently wary of coming out with a work like Hobsbawm's. Strangely enough, it did not occur to them to market Hobsbawm as the anti-Furet to modern history aficionados.

In his introduction to the symposium in Le Débat, Nora justified his decision by portraying himself as at the mercy of market dictates. The financial strains of publishing a book of its length (627 pages in English; 750 in French), even with help from the state, were too great and the losses almost certain. According to New Press head André Schiffren, who has edited a number of Hobsbawm's books and knows Nora, it's not simply a cop-out: "Nora has lost an enormous amount of money on translations." Still, for all his fastidious bookkeeping, Nora also understood the importance of maintaining appearances. Editors, he wrote in Le Débat, "are obliged, for better or for worse, to take into account the intellectual and ideological conjuncture." Hobsbawm's unapologetic Marxism, he went on, "doesn't play well" with French readers.

It's not inconceivable that the French get a certain satisfaction in going it alone, even if that means absenting themselves from the international conversation. "They're putting up the drawbridges, and imagining themselves the embattled center of civilization," says Hobsbawm. "Not translating my book simply underlies the uniqueness of the French."

But the triumph of such nombrilisme, or navel gazing, is the French public's misfortune. Although Hobsbawm's magnanimous assessment of the Soviet experience might infuriate conservatives, his pungent critique of the free market would almost surely resonate with the men and women whose concerns about globalization led them to vote the Juppé government out of office. What, then , is to be done? "Novices to dissident points of view," Serge Halimi wryly advised in Le Monde Diplomatique, "will have to learn English. Or one of the nineteen other languages that editorial McCarthyism has not yet contaminated."

The again, those novices might have another option: Hobsbawm's agent is at last in negotiation with a French-language publisher who wishes to bring out an edition of The Age of Extremes. There's one surprise though. The willing publisher isn't French -- it's Belgian.


  •  February, 2000: Read an update on this article.

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