Remembering Eric Hobsbawm, Historian for Social Justice





Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

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....

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....

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