Professor Eric Hobsbawm: Historian acclaimed as one of the finest of the 20th century


Eric Hobsbawm was one of the leading historians of the 20th century, perhaps even more highly regarded outside than inside the British Isles. He was a Marxist throughout his adult life and a member of the Communist Party for most of it, but his influence as an historian and political thinker far transcended those allegiances. He was a major figure in the creation of the discipline of social history, and the Age of... trilogy introduced and illuminated modern European history to a wide audience. In the 1990s he became, perhaps somewhat to his surprise, one of the major intellectual influences on Neil Kinnock and later on New Labour.

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, grew up in Vienna, Berlin and London, studied at Cambridge and taught at universities throughout the world, but principally at Birkbeck College, London. His formative years were marred by the death of his father when he was 12 and his mother when he was 14, but his early life helped to give him a breadth of vision and experience, and a facility with languages, which benefited his later writings. He coped with those early tragedies in the 1930s, when the world was crashing around him, by a devotion to study and intellectual affairs.

Leopold Percy Hobsbaum, Eric's father, came from a lower middle-class Jewish family in London's East End, his mother, Nelly Grü*, from a similar family in Vienna. They met in Egypt but moved to Austria at the end of the First World War. There, Percy and his family – Nancy, Eric's sister, was three years his junior – experienced increasing privation; a number of business ventures failed and, though Nelly attempted to develop a career as a writer, by 1929 they were living hand to mouth. As Hobsbawm wrote in his fascinating autobiography Interesting Times, "Few people I know have been as unsuited to earning their living in a pitiless world as my father."

After his death Nelly, temporarily destitute, lived with her mother and she and Eric earned money by giving English lessons. But she soon became ill; Nancy was sent to Berlin to live with her uncle Stanley and by 1931 Nelly, too, was dead. In the most intensely personal passages of Interesting Times, Eric expresses his love for her but also recalls that he lived then "most of the time at some remove from the real world – not so much in a world of dreams, but of curiosity, enquiry, solitary reading, observation, comparison and experimentation..."

From 1931 Hobsbawm's family was that of his uncle Stanley, initially in Berlin and then, after the rise of Hitler, in London. But even that family life was short-lived. Stanley's wife, Gretl, died and Stanley moved in 1939 to Chile. Hobsbawm was completing his degree at Cambridge. It was there that he first formulated the topic that, he wrote, "permanently shaped [his] work as an historian ... the social influences which determine the form and content of poetry (and more generally of ideas) at different times."

Cambridge was "a strange new country", Noel Annan's "intellectual aristocracy", but for most a continuation of their boarding schools. Hobsbawm's time at King's College was dominated by the Communist Party, within an intellectual milieu he recalled as introverted, in which research played little part and work stopped every afternoon for games. He was recruited into the Apostles, following Russell, Keynes, Wittgenstein, Moore and Forster.

War service represented six wasted years – he became a Sergeant Instructor but was denied interesting postings, probably because of his European background and open Communism. Having married a fellow Communist, Muriel Seaman, he returned as a research student and then research Fellow to King's, and began to teach at Birkbeck, which would form the centre of his professional life; only the New School for Social Research in New York rivalled it in his mind.

He failed to obtain a number of posts at Cambridge – perhaps because of the milder British form of McCarthyism which affected a number of careers; the same cause is said later to have delayed his promotion to a Professorship at Birkbeck. His first marriage failed, and in 1950 and, after a relationship which produced a son, Joshua, in 1962 he married Marlene Schwartz.

"A Viennese-born girl in an ocelot coat" as Hobsbawm introduced her in Interesting Times, she simply made him happy. Their life together – with their children Andy (a digital media consultant) and Julia (CEO of Editorial Intelligence and a Professor of Networking) – in Hampstead and cottages in Wales, together with north London dinner parties, provided the stability missing in his earlier life.

It did not, however, remove his pessimism about world events which characterised lunchtime discussions at Birkbeck – made more convincing, and depressing, to his colleagues by his encyclopaedic knowledge of the arcane details of the politics of Italy, central Europe or Latin America.

The research and writing of an historian cannot but be affected by the personal background, the intellectual milieu and the public events of his or her life. In Hobsbawm's case, growing up in a Europe tending towards Nazism and fascism interacted with his desire to explain history, finding its overall expression in his Marxism. As an explanatory schema it imbues all his writings, as does the rationalism of the European enlightenment of the 18th century, an essential precursor of Marx. He gained from it, and from his own experience, an emphasis on economic interests as causal factors in human behaviour, often expressed in terms of class consciousness.

In the process, he helped historians understand the motives of men and women in social movements – Primitive Rebels – written off as hopelessly utopian. He helped to rescue such movements from the "enormous condescension of posterity", to borrow a phrase from his friend and colleague, EP Thompson. It was this research which perhaps most enhanced his reputation in Italy, the Iberian peninsula and Latin America, where he was fêted by historians and presidents.

Marxism led Hobs-bawm to look sceptically at other constructs such as national or ethnic identity, which might conflict with or impede the recognition of underlying economic or class interests. He was responsible, with Terence Ranger, for organising for the journal Past and Present the conference which must rank as the funniest, as well as profound, consideration of – in the words of their 1983 book – The Invention of Tradition. It contains descriptions by Hugh Trevor-Roper of the invention of the Scottish kilt in the 18th century by an English Quaker, and that by Prys Morgan of the development of an homogenised Welsh costume for women – in the Mother Goose style – by Lady Llanover in 1834. But Hobsbawm drew from this and other examples a sense of the danger of the misuse of history, exemplified more recently in the conflict in the Balkans. It was this sense that national identity, constructed too often to serve the interests of politicians, could mislead peoples into disaster, that led him to a long-standing hostility towards Zionism.

Historians praise his contributions in the 1950s to the "standard of living debate" and in the 1960s and 1970s to the creation of the discipline of social history. Since Engels and Macaulay, historians have argued about whether the Industrial Revolution improved the condition of the working class. Hobsbawm used a range of historical sources to suggest that economic welfare declined in the middle of the 19th century, as a result of the rise of factories and industrial cities.

In his 1971 essay "From social history to the history of society", he provided a theoretical basis for the relatively new discipline of social history. Rooting himself, as always, in Marxism, he was also open to contemporary sociology – though he deplored its unhistorical nature. He urged historians, and himself, to break away from the early identification of social history with the history of labour. Social history should be concerned with behaviour and consciousness in a range of areas, including his beloved jazz. He also emphasised the importance of an internationalist outlook.

Historians recognise that Hobsbawm's greatest contribution to their subject lies in the trilogy which brought him and his topic to the attention of the history-reading public. The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes: the short 20th century, 1914-1991 appear on bestseller lists. They also demonstrate Hobsbawm's extraordinary knowledge of historical scholarship, his linguistic skills, retentive memory and, above all, his ability to synthesise and generalise from telling example.

It would be overly cynical to suggest that Hobsbawm's success as an historian stimulated jealousy. But the esteem in which he was held evoked hostility from those who could not forgive his Communism. An intellectual adherence to Marxism can, some argue, be explained in terms of the times in which he grew up; but to continue to defend the Communist Party long after the evidence of atrocities became known, is to some inexcusable.

Historians do not exist to make moral judgements, but to explain. Hobsbawm's adherence to the Communist cause stems from the circumstances in which, as a Jew, he was recruited in Berlin in 1932. It became later a consuming passion in a world of chaos and impending disaster. Living in different times, the extremity of that passion sometimes seems hard to understand. Today, few would be able to write of their politics – though they might of their religion: "The Party was what our life was about. We gave it all we had. In return, we got from it the certainty of our victory and the experience of fraternity."

It is possible that some part of his reluctance to disavow Communism even when it was failing stemmed from a wish not to betray the memory of former comrades. To be a Communist in the 1930s and '40s was dangerous. As he wrote: "We were not liberals. Liberalism was what had failed. In the total war we were engaged in, one did not ask oneself whether there should be a limit to the sacrifices imposed on others any more than on ourselves. Since we were not in power, or likely to be, what we expected was to be prisoners rather than jailers." Like many others before and since he believed that the cause – in his case a utopian socialist society – justified the sacrifice that he and his comrades were willing to make – and also the loss of innocent lives.

Hobsbawm's clear-sighted analysis of the realities of contemporary politics made him attractive to Neil Kinnock, and later to New Labour when they were seeking an intellectual foundation for social democracy after the individualism of the Thatcher years and the failure of command socialism. Although his later scepticism about the Blairite project and his opposition to the Iraq war diminished his popularity with New Labour politicians, his influence as a commentator continued. It is marked by a deep allegiance to, and concern for, Britain, and it was no surprise to his friends that he became a Companion of Honour in 1998. He was proud of that, of his honorary fellowship of King's College, of his many honorary degrees, and perhaps above all of his presidency of Birkbeck College.

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian: born Alexandria, Egypt 9 June 1917; married 1943 Muriel Seaman (divorced 1951), one son, 1962 Marlene Schwarz (one son, one daughter); died London 1 October 2012.

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