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Eric Hobsbawm, Marxist historian who grasped our world and hoped for another

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2014-03-07

An unrepentant communist for over 70 years, British historian Eric Hobsbawm drew on his extraordinary life, insatiable curiosity and unrivalled power of synthesis to explain the political, economic and social upheavals that shaped the modern world.

The first and last time I saw Eric Hobsbawm, who died at a London hospital on Monday aged 95, was on a wet autumn day in Paris, where the renowned Marxist historian was attending the defence of a doctoral thesis on 19th century machine breakers -- one of several fields he had helped establish over the course of his outstanding career.

When I asked him whether he would like a cab to return to his hotel, the then 90-year-old historian politely remarked that he felt “more at home” in the Paris metro. After all, here was a man who had ridden a Socialist Party newsreel truck during the 1936 Bastille Day celebrations at the height of France’s Popular Front.

I went on to bother him with my own, fruitless quest for a research proposal, and by the time we had reached the Palais-Royal station, he had supplied me with a fine subject for a PhD.

As it turned out, I never did carry out the research on bilingual communities in the Italian Alps. Hobsbawm, on the other hand, went on to add another two books to his impressive body of work, most of which has been translated into dozens of languages.

News of his death on Monday drew tributes from around the world, including from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, a former communist, and Brazil’s Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, both of whom Hobsbawm had befriended during his frequent travels around the world.

Indeed, there are few places where this most cosmopolitan of historians was not “at home”.

The dream of October

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt (then a British protectorate), on June 9, 1917, just four months before Lenin and his comrades stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.

The grandson of a Polish Jew, he grew up in 1920s Vienna, before moving to Berlin, where he joined the doomed German Communist Party (KPD) and witnessed the rise to power of Adolph Hitler.

As he wrote in his compelling autobiography, Interesting Times (2002): “I came to Berlin in the late summer of 1931, as the world economy collapsed. [It was] the historic moment that decided the shape both of the twentieth century and of my life.”

By the time he moved to Britain in late 1933, he had developed the cosmopolitan outlook and unwavering loyalty to left-wing ideals that would define his later work.

Perhaps because of those ideals, or because of his mother’s Austrian nationality, he was turned down for intelligence work during the war, despite his fluent German (by the end of his life, Hobsbawm was equally at ease in French, Italian and Spanish, and could read Portuguese and Catalan).

Controversially, he became a long-standing member of the now-defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), a group he could not bring himself to leave: not when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, nor when they crushed the Prague Spring 12 years later -- although in both cases he spoke out against Moscow.

Years after the collapse of the USSR, Hobsbawm wrote in his memoirs: “I belonged to the generation tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR."

"The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me (…) I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated.”

Out of the ivory tower

Ironically, Hobsbawm’s own success evolved in the opposite direction to that of the Socialist ideal he supported throughout his life. By the time the Cold War had ended, Hobsbawm was Britain’s best known historian and one of only a handful in his profession to enjoy worldwide recognition.

In 2002, the right-leaning Spectator magazine described him as “arguably our greatest living historian -- not only Britain’s, but the world’s”. That same year he was quoted in Lula’s inauguration speech, thereafter becoming the most read English-speaking writer in Brazil.

Starting with his Primitive Rebels (1959), a seminal study of millenarian rural communities in southern Europe, Hobsbawm published a long list of groundbreaking works in such fields as nationalism, the labour movement and jazz -- a topic he wrote about using the pseudonym Francis Newton, after the name of Billie Holiday’s communist trumpeter.

Along with fellow Marxist historians Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, he was a co-founder of Past and Present, arguably the most influential postwar historical journal in the English language.

At a time when many of his peers were embracing ever narrower subjects, Hobsbawm remained a firm believer in the importance of broader histories, which he tackled with both unrivalled scope and remarkable detail, blending the bigger, socio-economic picture with telling anecdotes and micro-histories of eating fashions, mountain-climbing or sex.

To this day, the first three volumes in his Age of... series remain textbook reading for anyone wishing to grasp the “long nineteenth century” -- as Hobsbawm coined it -- that stretched from the French Revolution to World War I.

His encyclopaedic knowledge and power of synthesis were matched only by his literary skills, which made all of his books a delight to read. As the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said on Monday, “he brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives”.

‘Slept through the terror and shame of the age’

But to some, Hobsbawm’s radical politics inevitably led to bias in his work as a historian, and never more so than in his most famous book, The Age of Extremes (1994), a breathtaking account of what he called “the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history”.

Discussing Hobsbawm’s take on the 20th century, the late British historian Tony Judt said: “Eric’s political stance has prevented his achieving the analytical distance he does on the 19th century: he isn’t as interesting on the Russian revolution because he can’t free himself completely from the optimistic vision of early years. For the same reason, he’s not that good on fascism.”

Nor did his 2002 memoirs -- in which he sought “historical understanding (…) not agreement, approval or sympathy” -- satisfy critics eager for a word of repentance.

Seeking to explain his lifelong struggle, Hobsbawm returned to the collapsing world of the early 1930s and the rise of fascism: “It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.”

He later added: “It is impossible to understand the reluctance of men and women on the left to criticise the USSR (…) without this sense that in the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were (…) fighting for the same cause.”

In a part-admiring, part-scathing review of Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Judt wrote: “Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.”

Not the end of ‘interesting times’

Provoking praise and bewilderment in equal measure, Hobsbawm remained to the last a keen observer of our times.

In his last book, How to Change the World (2011), he mounted a vigorous defence of the Marxist critique that had inspired his work and, he claimed, been vindicated by the latest meltdown of global capitalism.

Undaunted by the failure of communism, he wrote: “The supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me.”

Yet for a man of such unwavering loyalty to a cause, Hobsbawm was a remarkably unorthodox Marxist with a passion for debate, whisky and London nightclubs.

In one of his most enduring legacies, he was instrumental in pressing the argument that the European labour movement had exhausted the transformational role assigned to it by earlier Marxists, urging left-wing parties to focus their efforts on the growing middle classes.

More recently, his interest in the role played by a modernising middle class led him to draw parallels between the 2011 Arab Spring and the short-lived revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848.

“The most effective mass mobilisations today are those which start from a new modernised middle class, and particularly the enormously swollen body of students,” he told the BBC, adding that such movements were more effective in places, like Arab countries, with a young demography.

“It was an enormous joy to discover once again that it’s possible for people to get down in the streets, to demonstrate, to overthrow governments,” said the veteran historian and advocate of revolution, before cautioning: “We know it won’t last.”

Date created : 2012-10-03


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