Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm obituary

Eric Hobsbawm obituary

Historian in the Marxist tradition with a global reach

Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn

The Guardian, Monday 1 October 2012


Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain's most
distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death at the
age of 95, he had achieved a unique position in the country's intellectual life. In his later years he
became arguably Britain's most respected historian of any kind, recognised if not endorsed on the right as
well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown.
unlike some others, Hobsbawm achieved this wider recognition without in any major way revolting against
either Marxism or Marx. In his 94th year he published How to Change the World, a vigorous defence of Marx's continuing relevance in the aftermath of the banking  collapse of 2008-10. What is more, he achieved his culminating reputation at a time when the socialist ideas and projects that animated so much of his writing for well over half a century were in historic disarray, and worse - as he himself was always unflinchingly aware.

In a profession notorious for microscopic
preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such
a wide field in such detail or with such authority. To
the last, Hobsbawm considered himself to be essentially
a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and
other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad and
unusually cosmopolitan.

The sheer scope of his interest in the past, and his

exceptional command of what he knew, continued to

humble many, most of all in the four-volume Age of...

series, in which he distilled the history of the

capitalist world from 1789 to 1991. "Hobsbawm's

capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a

scale normally approached only by large archives with

big staffs," wrote Neal Ascherson. Both in his

knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary

powers of synthesis, so well displayed in that

four-volume project, he was unrivalled.

Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, a good place for a

historian of empire, in 1917, a good year for a

communist. He was second-generation British, the

grandson of a Polish Jew and cabinet-maker who came to

London in the 1870s. Eight children, who included

Leopold, Eric's father, were born in England and all

took British citizenship at birth (Hobsbawm's Uncle

Harry in due course became the first Labour mayor of


But Eric was British of no ordinary background. Another

uncle, Sidney, went to Egypt before the first world war

and found a job there in a shipping office for Leopold.

There, in 1914, Leopold Hobsbawm met Nelly Gruen, a

young Viennese from a middle-class family who had been

given a trip to Egypt as a prize for completing her

school studies. The two got engaged, but the first

world war broke out and they were separated. The couple

eventually married in Switzerland in 1916, returning to

Egypt for the birth of Eric, their first child.

"Every historian has his or her lifetime, a private

perch from which to survey the world," he said in his

1993 Creighton lecture, one of several occasions in his

later years when he attempted to relate his own

lifetime to his own writing. "My own perch is

constructed, among other materials, of a childhood in

the Vienna of the 1920s, the years of Hitler's rise in

Berlin, which determined my politics and my interest in

history, and the England, and especially the Cambridge,

of the 1930s, which confirmed both."

In 1919, the young family settled in Vienna, where Eric

went to elementary school, a period he later recalled

in a 1995 television documentary which featured

pictures of a recognisably skinny young Viennese

Hobsbawm in shorts and knee socks. Politics made their

impact around this time. Eric's first political memory

was in Vienna in 1927, when workers burned down the

Palace of Justice. The first political conversation

that he could recall took place in an Alpine sanatorium

in these years, too. Two motherly Jewish women were

discussing Leon Trotsky. "Say what you like," said one

to the other, "but he's a Jewish boy called Bronstein."

In 1929 his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Two

years later his mother died of TB. Eric was 14, and his

Uncle Sidney took charge once more, taking Eric and his

sister Nancy to live in Berlin. As a teenager in Weimar

Republic Berlin, Eric inescapably became politicised.

He read Marx for the first time, and became a


He could always remember the day in January 1933 when,

emerging from the Halensee S-Bahn station on his way

home from his school, the celebrated Prinz Heinrich

Gymnasium, he saw a newspaper headline announcing

Hitler's election as chancellor. Around this time he

joined the Socialist Schoolboys, which he described as

"de facto part of the communist movement" and sold its

publication, Schulkampf (School Struggle). He kept the

organisation's duplicator under his bed and, if his

later facility for writing was any guide, probably

wrote most of the articles too. The family remained in

Berlin until 1933, when Sidney Hobsbawm was posted by

his employers to England.

The gangly teenage boy who settled with his sister in

Edgware in 1934 described himself later as "completely

continental and German speaking". School, though, was

"not a problem" because the English education system

was "way behind" the German. A cousin in Balham

introduced him to jazz for the first time - the

"unanswerable sound", he called it. The moment of

conversion, he wrote some 60 years later, was when he

first heard the Duke Ellington band "at its most

imperial". He spent a period in the 1950s as jazz

critic of the New Statesman, and published a Penguin

Special, The Jazz Scene, on the subject in 1959 under

the pen-name Francis Newton (many years later it was

reissued with Hobsbawm identified as the author).

Learning to speak English properly, Eric became a pupil

at Marylebone grammar school and in 1936 he won a

scholarship to King's College, Cambridge. It was at

this time that a saying became common among his

Cambridge communist friends: "Is there anything that

Hobsbawm doesn't know?" He became a member of the

legendary Cambridge Apostles. "All of us thought that

the crisis of the 1930s was the final crisis of

capitalism," he wrote 40 years later. But, he added,

"it was not."

When the second world war broke out, Hobsbawm

volunteered, as many communists did, for intelligence

work. But his politics, which were never a secret, led

to rejection. Instead he became an improbable sapper in

560 Field Company, which he later described as "a very

working-class unit trying to build some patently

inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of

East Anglia". This, too, was a formative experience for

the often aloof young intellectual prodigy. "There was

something sublime about them and about Britain at that

time," he wrote. "That wartime experience converted me

to the British working class. They were not very

clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were

very, very good people."

Hobsbawm married his first wife, Muriel Seaman, in

1943. After the war, returning to Cambridge, he made

another choice, abandoning a planned doctorate on north

African agrarian reform in favour of research on the

Fabians. It was a move that opened the door to both a

lifetime of study of the 19th century and an equally

long-lasting preoccupation with the problems of the

left. In 1947 he got his first tenured job, as a

history lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, where he

was to remain for much of his teaching life.

With the onset of the cold war, a very British academic

McCarthyism meant that the Cambridge lectureship which

Hobsbawm always coveted never materialised. He shuttled

between Cambridge and London, one of the principal

organisers and driving forces of the Communist Party

Historians Group, a glittering radical academy which

brought together some of the most prominent historians

of the postwar era. Its members also included

Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, AL Morton, EP

Thompson, John Saville and, later, Raphael Samuel.

Whatever else it achieved, the CP Historians Group,

about which Hobsbawm wrote an authoritative essay in

1978, certainly provided a nucleus for many of his

first steps as a major historical writer.

Hobsbawm's first book, Labour's Turning Point (1948),

an edited collection of documents from the Fabian era,

belongs firmly to this CP-dominated era, as does his

engagement in the once celebrated "standard of living"

debate about the economic consequences of the early

industrial revolution, in which he and RM Hartwell

traded arguments in successive numbers of the Economic

History Review. The foundation of the Past and Present

journal - now the most lasting, if fully independent,

legacy of the Historians Group - also belongs to this


Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and

always thought of himself as part of an international

communist movement. For many, this remained the

insuperable obstacle to an embrace of his writing. Yet

he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker

within the party's ranks. Over Hungary in 1956, an

event which split the CP and drove many intellectuals

out of the party, he was a voice of protest who

nevertheless remained.

Yet, as with his contemporary, Christopher Hill, who

left the CP at this time, the political trauma of 1956

and the start of a lastingly happy second marriage

combined in some way to trigger a sustained and

fruitful period of historical writing that was to

establish fame and reputation. In 1959 he published his

first major work, Primitive Rebels, a strikingly

original account, particularly for those times, of

southern European rural secret societies and

millenarian cultures (he was still writing about the

subject as recently as 2011). He returned to these

themes again a decade later in Captain Swing, a

detailed study of rural protest in early 19th-century

England co-authored with George Rude, and Bandits, a

more wide-ranging attempt at synthesis. These works are

reminders that Hobsbawm was both a bridge between

European and British historiography and a forerunner of

the notable rise of the study of social history in

post-1968 Britain.

By this time, though, Hobsbawm had already published

the first of the works on which both his popular and

academic reputations still rest. A collection of some

of his most important essays, Labouring Men, appeared

in 1964 (a second collection, Worlds of Labour, was to

follow 20 years later). But it was Industry and Empire

(1968), a compelling summation of much of his work on

Britain and the industrial revolution, that achieved

the highest esteem. It has rarely been out of print.

Even more influential in the long term was the Age of...

series, which he began in 1962 with The Age of

Revolution: 1789-1848. This was followed in 1975 by The

Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and in 1987 by The Age of

Empire: 1875-1914. A fourth volume, The Age of

Extremes: 1914-91, more quirky and speculative but in

some respects the most remarkable and admirable of all,

extended the sequence in 1994.

The four volumes embodied all of Hobsbawm's best

qualities - the sweep combined with the telling

anecdote and statistical grasp, the attention to the

nuance and significance of events and words, and above

all, perhaps, the unrivalled powers of synthesis

(nowhere better displayed than in a classic summary of

mid-19th century capitalism on the very first page of

the second volume). The books were not conceived as a

tetralogy, but as they appeared, they acquired

individual and cumulative classic status. They were an

example, Hobsbawm wrote, of "what the French call

'haute vulgarisation'" (he did not mean this

self-deprecatingly), and they became, in the words of

one reviewer, "part of the mental furniture of educated


Hobsbawm's first marriage had collapsed in 1951. During

the 1950s, he had another relationship which resulted

in the birth of his first son, Joss Bennathan, but the

boy's mother did not want to marry. In 1962 he married

again, this time to Marlene Schwarz, of Austrian

descent. They moved to Hampstead and bought a small

second home in Wales. They had two children, Andrew and


In the 1970s, Hobsbawm's widening fame as a historian

was accompanied by a growing reputation as a writer

about his own times. Though he had a historian's

respect for the Communist party's centralist

discipline, his intellectual eminence gave him an

independence that won the respect of communism's

toughest critics, such as Isaiah Berlin. It also

ensured him the considerable accolade that not one of

his books was ever published in the Soviet Union. Thus

armed and protected, he ranged fearlessly across the

condition of the left, mostly in the pages of the CP's

monthly, Marxism Today, the increasingly heterodox

publication of which he became the house deity.

His conversations with the Italian communist - and now

state president - Giorgio Napolitano date from these

years, and were published as The Italian Road to

Socialism. But his most influential political work

centred on his increasing certainty that the European

labour movement had ceased to be capable of bearing the

transformational role assigned to it by earlier

Marxists. These uncompromisingly revisionist articles

were collected under the general heading The Forward

March of Labour Halted.

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 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, he

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 leftwing

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


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 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

rightwingers, 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 EM 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.

He is survived by Marlene and his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian, born 9 June 1917; died 1 October 2012

* Dorothy Wedderburn died on 20 September 2012
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