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Eric J. Hobsbawm: 1917-2012

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Washington Post, that den of the left-wing, notes:

Eric J. Hobsbawm, whose upbringing amid the rise of European fascism provoked loyalty to the Communist Party long after it had been discredited and shaped his scholarly career as an influential chronicler of sweeping historical forces such as democratization, industrialization and nationalism, died Oct. 1 at a hospital in London. He was 95.

He died of complications from pneumonia and leukemia, his daughter Julia Hobsbawm told the Associated Press.

The Cambridge-educated Dr. Hobsbawm spent most of his prodigious literary career in England after an early life set against the backdrop of cataclysmic events. He was born in Egypt to European Jews in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He passed his formative years in Austria and, after being orphaned, in Germany during the rise of the Nazis.

“It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed,” he later said about being drawn to Marxism as a teenager.

In an academic career spanning five decades, Dr. Hobsbawm wrote extensively about the intersections of politics and social foment, and his output was distinguished by precision and clarity. Versed in many languages, he pored over sometimes-obscure source material to demonstrate how ideas as well as economics shape an age. He did not limit himself, as many contemporaries did, to culling information from government documents and political tracts.

“Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption,” the British history scholar A.J.P. Taylor once wrote. “Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades.”

The rabid red NYT wrote:

His masterwork remains his incisive and often eloquent survey of the period he referred to as “the long 19th century,” which he analyzed in three volumes: “The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848,” “The Age of Capital: 1848-1875” and “The Age of Empire: 1874-1914.” To this trilogy he appended a coda in 1994, “The Age of Extremes,” published in the United States with the subtitle “A History of the World, 1914-1991.”

“Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of narrative history,” Tony Judt, a professor of history at New York University, wrote in an e-mail in 2008, two years before he died. “On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.”

Unlike many of his comrades, Mr. Hobsbawm, who lived in London, stuck with the Communist Party after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Czech reform movement in 1968. He eventually let his party membership lapse about the time the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern bloc disintegrated in 1989.

“I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I thought when I first got into it,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I still think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”

Since news sources in the US make a lot of his association with communism, it seems fair to quote Hobsbawm himself on this subject from schoolnet.uk:

Why I stayed in the Communist Party is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares.

BBC notes:

Eric Hobsbawm was remarkable among historians in being proud to call himself a Marxist long after Marxism had been discredited in the West.

To his admirers he was one of the greatest historians of the 20th Century. To his critics he was an apologist for Soviet tyranny who never fully changed his views. But he was too shrewd, too open-minded to pursue a narrow Marxist approach in his work or his politics.

In his trilogy, the Age of Revolution, the Age of Capital and the Age of Empire, he wrote the history of the 19th Century. In the Age of Extremes, he wrote the history of his own times. As a Marxist he believed historical events were driven by economic changes but his interests were broad.

He was a 19th century historian in two senses. The “long 19th Century” from the French Revolution to WWI was his particular area of expertise. But his best work also had a scope reminiscent of the great historians of the century before last.

His best-known works were the three-volume history of the 19th Century and his book the Age of Extremes which covered the eight decades from WWI to the collapse of communism in Europe.

He published his final book, How to Change the World, in 2011.

The Nation has an instructive obituary entitled Remembering Eric Hobsbawm, Historian for Social Justice which starts:

Eric Hobsbawm, who died on October 1 at the age of 95, was perhaps the twentieth century’s preeminent historian and a life-long advocate of social justice. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 to a British father and Austrian mother, he was educated in Vienna and Berlin. His family sent him to London in 1933 when Hitler came to power and he lived for the rest of his life in England, where he taught for many years at London’s Birkbeck College.

Eric Hobsbawm's writing room … 'May his books be read for many years to come.' Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

As a teenager, Hobsbawm not only witnessed the rise of Nazism but was present in 1936 at the massive popular demonstration in Paris that celebrated the electoral victory of the Popular Front. The events of that turbulent time led him to join the Communist party and he remained a member until its disappearance in the 1990s, mostly, he wrote, out of respect for the memory of comrades who had suffered persecution or death for their political beliefs.

Hobsbawm’s historical writings brought to bear a sophisticated Marxist analysis that saw class conflict as a driving force of historical change but rejected narrow economic determinism and teleological frameworks. Like Marx himself, Hobsbawm saw capitalism as a total social system, which had to be analyzed in its entirety, and rejected notions of historical inevitability. He insisted that people must strive to envision a more humane social order, but that history had no predetermined trajectory. His 1978 essay “The Forward March of Labor Halted?” offered a prescient and disturbing warning that the postwar expansion of social democracy and the power of organized labor, considered irreversible by many leftists, had reached a crisis point. His writings on the history of British labor helped to launch the “new social history” that dominated historical scholarship in Britain and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in an influential 1971 essay, “From Social History to the History of Society,” he warned that studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.

Hobsbawm’s books cover an amazing range of subjects. He first came to prominence in the 1950s with his contribution to what was then a lively debate over the “general crisis” of seventeenth-century England. Along with E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Hobsbawm’s writings such as Labouring Men (1964) and Primitive Rebels (1959) helped to inspire the expansion of labor history from studies of trade unions to the examination of workers’ lives, and sparked an interest in banditry, rural anarchism and other forms of what he called “prepolitical” protest. His economic history of modern Britain, Industry and Empire (1968), remains a brilliant account of an epic economic transformation. He also wrote a wide-ranging study of nationalism in the modern world, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1991).

Makes you think; was Hobsbawm perhaps a distant ancestor of the book “The Name of the Rose”?

Sunil Khilnani writes warmly of his once older colleague in Birkbeck in the Hindu:

Eric Hobsbawm was a master of the historical profession; but he was much more than a professional historian. He literally lived history — his own life, which stretched from his birth in Alexandria, Egypt in 1917 to his death on October 1, 2012 in Hampstead, England, made him witness to the rise and fall of empires and nations, ideologies and ideals, of all hues.

Perhaps it was that rush of momentous events — events that both destroyed and remade the world in which he had grown up — that gave him such a profound historical perspective.

He had an acute grasp of, and commitment to, the present-day and its politics; but in every conversation, no matter how trivial, he would summon a historical example or fact that would subvert the narcissism of the present moment. Hobsbawm’s almost instinctual connection to the past left us younger historians at Birkbeck College (where I began my teaching career) awestruck. I remember discussing this once over lunch with my colleague the great Irish historian Roy Foster, and coming to the conclusion that Eric didn’t just study and write history, in his sleep he actually dreamed historically too — something we could never aspire to.

It is well known that newspapers keep ready obituaries of notable people. This created an interesting situation in that Hobsbawm outlived his younger biographer for the Guardian, the industrial sociologist Dorothy Wedderburn, by a few days. This insider’s obituary, which appears in the Hindu, ends with:

By 1983, when Neil Kinnock became the leader of the Labour party at the depth of its electoral fortunes, Hobsbawm’s influence had begun to extend far beyond the CP and deep into Labour itself. Kinnock publicly acknowledged his debt to Hobsbawm and allowed himself to be interviewed by the man he described as “my favourite Marxist.” Though he strongly disapproved of much of what later took shape as “New Labour,” which he saw, among other things, as historically cowardly, Hobsbawm was without question the single most influential intellectual forerunner of Labour’s increasingly iconoclastic 1990s revisionism.

His status was underlined in 1998, when Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour, a few months after Hobsbawm celebrated his 80th birthday. In its citation, Downing Street said Hobsbawm continued to publish works that “address problems in history and politics that have re-emerged to disturb the complacency of Europe.”

In his later years, Hobsbawm enjoyed widespread reputation and respect. His 80th and 90th birthday celebrations were attended by a Who’s Who of left wing and liberal intellectual Britain. Throughout the late years, he continued to publish volumes of essays, including On History (1997) and Uncommon People (1998), works in which Dizzy Gillespie and Salvatore Giuliano sat naturally side by side in the index as testimony to the range of Hobsbawm’s abiding curiosity. A highly successful autobiography, Interesting Times, followed in 2002, and Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism in 2007.

Eric Hobsbawm as a young man: BBC

More famous in his extreme old age than probably at any other period of his life, he broadcast regularly, lectured widely and was a regular performer at the Hay literary festival, of which he became president at the age of 93, following the death of Lord Bingham of Cornhill. A fall in late 2010 severely reduced his mobility, but his intellect and his willpower remained unvanquished, as did his social and cultural life, thanks to Marlene’s efforts, love and cooking.

That his writings continued to command such audiences at a time when his politics were in some ways so eclipsed was the kind of disjunction which exasperated right-wingers, but it was a paradox on which the subtle judgment of this least complacent of intellects feasted. In his later years, he liked to quote E.M. Forster that he was “always standing at a slight angle to the universe.” Whether the remark says more about Hobsbawm or about the universe was something that he enjoyed disputing, confident in the knowledge that it was in some senses a lesson for them both.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

October 2, 2012 at 4:50 am

Posted in history, people

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on vikatakavi.


    October 2, 2012 at 10:55 am

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