The Guardian assembles a panel of historian all-stars to remember Eric Hobsbawm
It may surprise readers of the Guardian to know that Eric Hobsbawm and I were friends.
We were poles apart politically, of course. I still remember the disappointment I felt when I read his autobiography, Interesting Times, which I had hoped would contain some expression of remorse for his decision to remain a member of the Communist party even after the exposure of Stalin's crimes. Indeed, we disagreed about most contemporary political questions.
But his politics did not prevent Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian. I continue to believe that his great tetralogy – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) – remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.
Of all the British Marxist historians, Eric Hobsbawm is probably the most read today, and that is a mark of his extraordinary intellectual flexibility.
[T]hrenodies are not an argument, and memories are definitely not facts (Hobsbawm's pithy condemnation of oral history, delivered at a conference where I was due to speak, was terrifying). Like the students who thumb through his books, we historians would do well to learn from this dazzling professional, though we need not read him for facts. Our lesson lies in his unflinching sense of engagement, his responsibility.
Most historians are by nature either short-story writers or novelists; Eric Hobsbawm was both. While his organising framework was Marxian (beginning as "an attempt to understand the arts", as he said himself), the subjects included mountain-climbing, opera, jazz and sartorial and eating fashions as well as work patterns, class solidarity and the movements of international finance – all delivered in a marvellously flexible and pungent style.
comments powered by Disqus