Eric Hobsbawm's Brilliance ... and His Blindspot


Kelsey McKernie is an HNN intern and a graduate of Berry College in Floyd, Georgia.

Eric Hobsbawm in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few days after Eugene Genovese’s passing, another prominent Marxist historian has died. Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential British historians of any political persuasion, lost his battle with pneumonia and leukemia on Monday, October 1, at the age of 95. He leaves behind a large family, well over a score of books, and a very controversial legacy -- for unlike Genovese, who left behind his Marxist beginnings and moved toward Catholic traditionalism, Hobsbawm remained an unrepentant Marxist to the very end.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to a Jewish father of Polish heritage and a Viennese mother, Hobsbawm was raised first in Vienna and then in Berlin. He joined the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (“Socialist Schoolboys”) at the age of twelve, and the Communist Party in 1936, three years after his family moved to Britain.

Hobsbawm’s lively intelligence was noticed early on, and he received a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he quickly fell in with a group of other young Communists. When the Second World War broke out a few years later, he volunteered for intelligence work but was rejected due to his political leanings. Instead he was sent to the Royal Engineers, where he interacted with the working class for the first time. It proved to be a formative experience, and for the rest of his life Hobsbawm considered himself a champion of the British working class.

After the war, Hobsbawm returned to Cambridge to complete his doctorate, and received his first teaching position as a lecturer of history at Birkbeck College, London in 1947. He was to remain on the faculty there for nearly the rest of his career, eventually becoming president. In 1948 he published his first book, entitled Labour’s Turning Point, a collection of edited documents on the socialist Fabian Society. He was by this time a member of the Communist Party Historians Group (and would remain so until 1956), and in 1952 he helped found the Past & Present, a journal on social history that remains well-read today.

Hobsbawm did not truly come into the spotlight until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which led most of his fellow Communist historians to leave the party in disgust. He remained, however, though he wrote publicly about his distaste for the event and signed a "historians’ letter of protest" against it. This was the first great controversy in his professional life, but far from the last.

In 1962, he published The Age of Revolution, the first in what would later become his famous series which spanned the years 1789-1991 and included The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes (1994). These works brought him quickly to fame and established his reputation as one of the most highly respected historians in Britain. They exemplified his best qualities as a writer and scholar: his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, his skillful mix of anecdote and sweeping narrative, and what one writer called his "unrivalled powers of synthesis."

Over the long and prolific career that followed, Hobsbawm became known as a master of social history and what he called “the long nineteenth century” (1789-1914), and though many disagreed with his political views -- of which he made no secret, and which heavily informed his work -- no one could deny his erudition. He received over a dozen honors and awards throughout his long career, including being made a Companion of Honour in 1998. He was also highly influential in the British Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s. Even his autobiography, Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (2002), was highly successful, as was his final book, published last year, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism.

As is clear by the title of his last book, Hobsbawm never abandoned his socialist ideals. While in the last few decades of his life he became more and more disappointed with the failures of socialism, and allowed his membership in the British Communist Party to lapse in 1991, he remained loyal to its principles. By that time he considered himself a sympathizer rather than a militant, though he continued to defend his earlier beliefs and never gave up hope that one day socialism would succeed.

For some scholars, his political agenda did not detract at all from his work. Historian Ben Pimlott considered it "a tool, not a straightjacket," and did not believe that Hobsbawm stuck too closely to the party line. The late Tony Judt, while critical of Hobsbawm’s work, nonetheless stated that he "doesn’t judge know more than other historians. He writes better, too," and called his books "intelligible history for literate readers."

Others, however, saw the influence of Hobsbawm’s politics too clearly in his writings to ignore it. Brad DeLong felt that Hobsbawm allowed it to "get in the way of his judgment, and twist his vision." British historian David Pryce-Jones admired his intelligence and attention to detail, but condemned him as "neither a historian nor professional" for “corrupt[ing] knowledge into propaganda, and scorn[ing] the concept of objective truth.”

Hobsbawm himself did not deny the socialist bias of his historical writing and made no apologies for it or for his continued loyalty to socialism. On at least two occasions he publicly agreed that had the socialist utopia been achieved, the millions of lives lost in the process would have been justified; however, in later years he was quick to emphasize that since the utopia had not been created, there was no justification at all. In any case, as he wrote in his autobiography, all he desired was "historical understanding… not agreement, approval or sympathy."

Whether or not Hobsbawm ultimately receives such understanding, he will be remembered as one of the single most gifted and knowledgeable historians of his time, and without question the most influential Marxist historian. In the words of Niall Ferguson, "nothing else produced by British Marxist historians will endure as these books will."

Perhaps Hobsbawm would be content with that. A few months before his death he expressed a hope that he would be remembered as "somebody who not only kept the flag flying, but who showed that by waving it you can actually achieve something, if only good and readable books."

On that score, at least, it seems safe to say that he succeeded.

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