When you call a thinker a “conservative communist”, you sound as if you are making a weak joke. To understand the late Eric Hobsbawm’s peculiar genius, however, you must see him as just that, and accept there is no contradiction. Hobsbawm stayed loyal to the Soviet disaster to the very end. But long before the Berlin Wall fell, he told the British left that socialism was dead and put his formidable authority behind the movement that led eventually to Tony Blair. In theory, he believed in the overthrow of the British state. In practice, he accepted that most refined of honours, the Order of the Companions of Honour, from no lesser personage than Her Majesty the Queen.