Eric Hobsbawm R.I.P. — A Life Well Led, a Life Well Read

Martin Kettle & Dorothy Wedderburn

THE GUARDIAN (October 1, 2012)   This is an excerpt, the complete article can be found in the newspaper or at the website http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian, born 9 June
1917; died 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
Paddington).

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

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
period.

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
Englishmen”.

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
Julia.

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
2007.

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.

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