Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012)

Marc Mulholland on the death of the twentieth century’s greatest historian.

(john brown / flickr)

Eric Hobsbawm was widely acknowledged as the outstanding historian working in the English language of the postwar period. He was never, however, simply a “radical historian,” seeking parallels in the past for his own convictions. Often, he worked against the grain.

A Marxist, he was peerless as an anatomist of the nineteenth century bourgeois social order. A loyal foot-soldier of Communist “democratic centralism,” he wrote perceptively of the anarchical “social bandit.”  A refined intellectual, he dug deep into the study of workers’ lives and proletarian autodidacts. A historian of society and impersonal economic “long waves,” he composed a classic of autobiography. An aficionado of traditions of labor, jazz, and Marxism, he helped create a virtual sub-field in the modernist construction of “invented traditions.” Even as a holiday-home owner in Wales, mystified by local resentment of interlopers, he produced a masterpiece on the phenomenon of nationalism.

Born under British rule in Alexandria, Egypt, he grew up in Austria and Germany, where he was drawn into the maelstrom of the Weimar Republic’s crisis politics. In central Europe it was difficult for a young man to believe that liberalism, deserted by its traditional middle class supporters, could long resist the rising appeal of stern dictatorship, whether of the fascist or the proletarian variety. Being of Jewish descent, and foreign to the cult of the German nation, Hobsbawm as a schoolboy gravitated to the Communist Party. He took part in the last legal Communist demonstration in Berlin before the Nazi regime crushed the Left.

Moving in 1933 to Britain, Hobsbawm was a precocious student. He discovered jazz, which he embraced partly as a social crutch fitting, he thought, for an ugly teen. This desire to find sociability amongst a fiercely committed, like-minded minority may well have been a factor in his continuing adherence to the Communist cause. Over his life, he certainly made good use of the movement’s international networks to form connections and find friends. It was to give his historical work a particularly rich texture, as comrades brought him into direct contact with the “organic intellectuals” of many counties.

In Britain, politics was less of a stark choice between fascism and proletarian revolution, and Hobsbawm had no difficulty in accepting the Comintern’s 1936 turn to Popular Frontism, which counselled the broad left to find allies amongst those patriotic bourgeois parties prepared to confront the militaristic revisionism of Germany, Italy and Japan. Like most British Communists of his generation, while he acknowledged the inspirational romance of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Hobsbawm defined the Popular Front as the defining legacy of international Communism.

The Popular Front’s new-found patriotism doubtless eased his way into the elite student institution of the Apostles at Cambridge University. As a well-known Party member, he was of little use to Soviet intelligence. He was never asked to spy for Russia, but made clear in later years that he would have been prepared to do so. He did not, however, join comrades to serve in the Spanish Civil War.

Hobsbawm accepted loyally the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Popular Frontism was abandoned for appeasement of Nazi Germany. He even wrote a pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939.  In a titanic world confrontation between decaying capitalism with all its morbidities, and humanity’s ultimate hope, Communism, Hobsbawm accepted the necessity for subservience to orders in the army of revolution.

Once Germany attacked the Soviet Union, he enlisted in the army. As a known Communist, he was retained as a sapper and kept within Great Britain. As such he got to know British workers for the first time, and found much to admire in their stolid moderation and intense self-consciousness as a class apart. His dogmatism frayed, and there began his detachment from the extreme rigours of Moscow orientated discipline.

After the war, Hobsbawm found an academic posting at Birkbeck College in London, while participating in the Communist Party Historians’ Group. The Historians’ Group was charged with developing an academically rigorous form of people’s history, whereby the English Civil Wars of the 1640s were depicted as a bourgeois revolution with democratic undertones and a proto-communist wing in the Levellers. In the centuries following, the line went, this progressive alliance of bourgeoisie and democracy morphed but held together, with the popular and socialist component always growing in strength. It eventuated in the Popular Front and the Communist Party’s postwar “British Road to Socialism,” which saw the march to the promised land taking place through parliamentary institutions and broad coalitions against declining capitalism.

Hobsbawm, however, was relatively allergic to the more sucrose iterations of people’s history, and preferred hard-core work on workers’ conditions of existence, their standard of living, and varieties of political expression that were either archaic, or prosaically integrated into bourgeois politics. His 1968 book, Industry and Empire, was a tightly argued work on the economics of “British decline,” and set the standard for subsequent debates.

Hobsbawm was by 1956 disillusioned with the reality of the regimes of “actually existing socialism,” but he was amongst the small minority of the Communist Party’s British intellectuals who refused to break from the party over Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. He valued loyalty to the cause through thick and thin, and he disliked the idea of deserting under fire. Moreover, he was temperamentally disinclined to identify with the emergent New Left, which he largely dismissed as ultra-leftism divorced from the common sense of the working-class.

Between 1962 and 1987, Hobsbawm published three volumes on the history of the nineteenth century: Age of Revolution, of Capital, of Empire. These began with a focus on the “dual revolutions” of industrialization in Britain and Jacobinism in France, but progressively extended out as his survey advanced to take in ever-wider parts of the globe transformed by capitalism.

The bourgeoisie was the equivocal hero of this work: he doubted their political audacity in the face of reaction, and bemoaned their hostility to the rising working-class, but he had no doubt of their significance as the “ruling” if not “governing” class. His Marxism was lightly worn, and he wrote in the popular-academic style, but Hobsbawm’s explanation of the origins of the First World War insistently located it in the rise of “imperialism,” a stalwart if not entirely convincing attempt to rescue the Leninist analysis of this phenomenon.

These volumes did not have the same transformative effect on young  left-wing scholars as had E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class(1963), or even Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972). Hobsbawm had little of the New Left’s enthusiasm for counter-cultural history, or “history from below.” He was not so much interested in recovering lost traditions, than in putting them in their proper place in the past.

His trilogy, ironically, was perhaps less in tune with ’68 activism than with re-emergent bourgeois self-confidence that grew in the 1970s and blossomed in the 1980s. He became, perhaps, the Marxist historian with the most mainstream acceptance.

Hobsbawm’s final addition to his series, The Age of Extremes (1994), on the “short twentieth century,” was written in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Perry Anderson noted, the bourgeoisie as such nearly altogether fell out of the picture in this volume. Instead, the big theme was that of Communism, by chastening bourgeois hegemony, saving Western states from the excesses of divisive capitalism. This, the defeat of Nazism, and the Soviet Union’s ultimate rationality in helping to keep the Cold War mostly cold, was for Hobsbawm the historic justification for Communism. As a positive alternative to capitalism, however, it had proven to be a dead end. Notoriously, however, he told an interviewer that had Stalinism proven to be the fount of a new, higher civilization, its body-count would have been justified.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hobsbawm had argued that trade union militancy and sectionalism threatened to break apart the democratic alliance that had tamed capitalism since World War II. As the industrial workforce was in chronic decline, he argued, modern day Popular Frontism could only be reconstructed on lines that gave middle class and “consumer” interests increasing priority.

In the 1970s, he championed Eurocommunism, especially in Italy – which definitely abandoned any remaining notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – and in the 1980s he encouraged the British Labour Party to slough off its radical left-wing around Tony Benn and the Militant Tendency.

Hobsbawm was disappointed in the 1990s, however, by social democracy’s apparent capitulation to the supremacy of the market. Moreover, his long-standing Cassandra predictions of the “re-barbarization” of western society was in his view vindicated by the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, and the ”war on terror.”

He remained aloof from the “decent left,” who sunk their revolutionary passions into the neocon struggle for liberal democracy against Islamist fundamentalism. Though he had often taught in the US, Hobsbawm clearly never took to the country, and he feared the consequences of unleashed American unilateralism in conjunction with market triumphalism.

To his end, Hobsbawm still believed in the pan-class politics of the Popular Front, though with the proletariat now reduced to a subordinate role. Capitalism, in the long run, he believed, remained unstable.

Hobsbawm outlived most of his generation and when in 1998 he accepted the Companion of Honour from the British Crown, it was, he said, so that the contribution of Communist militants to the survival of liberal democracy would be recognised.  He was pessimistic regarding prospects for the future, but indomitable in conviction that a better life must be struggled for, with all the attendant moral risks. It is as a courageous, enormously accessible, and ground-breaking historian that he will be remembered.