Eric Hobsbawm’s Century
As the world’s premier Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm’s intellectual range was unrivaled. Never one to pander to conventional politics, he was often a brave voice of dissent. Today more than ever, Hobsbawm’s work deserves serious examination.
Were the British Marxist historians a coherent lot, congealed in the sameness of their affiliation to historical materialism? How like-minded were Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, Rodney Hilton, Maurice Dobb, George Rudé, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, Dona Torr, and Margot Heinemann? Conventional wisdom tends to lump these figures together; recent discussion gestures lightly toward differentiation.
There was, of course, mutual regard among these dissident historians. All shared a certain outlaw status during the Cold War years in which their research and writing largely first appeared. Commonality registered in their project of injecting a strong dose of class inequality into the weak tea of High Table histories preoccupied with the bland fare of one-class societies and their longue durée continuities. But to assume that the British Marxist historians produced histories out of some common template obscures important distinctions relating to research methods, stylistic sensibilities, and analytic orientations. The Marxisms of these distinguished practitioners of historical materialism parted ways intellectually and, over time, politically. Many left the Communist Party in 1956; some did not. Contentions simmered below the surface of an apparent, always uneasy, consensus.
First among equals in this extraordinary Marxist contingent was Eric J. Hobsbawm. Widely recognized as the world’s premier Marxist historian, Hobsbawm’s intellectual range was unrivaled. Never one to pander to prevailing considerations, he was often a brave voice of dissent challenging convention. Well received throughout the Global South, where his writings were eagerly translated and sold exceedingly well, Hobsbawm’s influence and regard was resolutely international. There were few Marxists accorded the respect Hobsbawm garnered in distinct layers of the literary marketplace; his histories were embraced by disparate publics, among whom were many not especially committed to a radical reconstruction of the status quo.
Hobsbawm was early anointed a “chosen one.” The Cambridge student weekly, Granta, with Hobsbawm as editor, profiled him in 1939, declaring, “There’s a freshman at King’s who knows about everything.” Eric was elected to the Cambridge Conversazione Society, a secretive body known as the Apostles, whose supper meetings he enjoyed attending. Eventually, Hobsbawm would rub shoulders in these Apostolic gatherings with the likes of John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and the later-to-be notorious Russian agents Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess.
Decades later, Hobsbawm’s unparalleled capacity to synthesize capitalism’s development earned him accolades from his counterparts. They appreciated his project of producing a totalizing “history of society,” where recognition of economic determination did not end up slighting “art, science, religion, ideology, and even social psychology.” Hobsbawm’s insistence on approaching history as a holistic narrative came at a time, moreover, when many soi-disant leftists were succumbing to the faddish particularism of postmodernism. As Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones conclude, “[P]erhaps one of Hobsbawm’s outstanding and least commented upon achievements has been his ability to bring together the propositions of classical Marxism and the empirical preoccupations of social and economic historians into a virtually seamless web.” This meant that the transition from feudalism to capitalism, class formation and industrial capitalist development, protest and rebellion, unionization, urbanization, left-wing parties, and insurgent mobilizations became, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, “almost part of the ‘common sense’ of academic inquiry and research.”
Like the jazz he so loved, Hobsbawm’s historical improvisation encompassed hot and cool, notes of swing and blues, a call-and-response engagement with conventional understandings that served as a stage for dissonant arguments. In the polyphonic orchestration of his presentation of the past, Hobsbawm delivered a sweeping periodization of capitalism’s economic, political, and social rhythms, harnessing development’s discords in ways that never forgot the price of “progress.” Modern historical experience, Hobsbawm insisted, necessitated “the expectation of apocalypse.” Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (1994), an account of “the short twentieth century, 1914–1991,” ends with an admonition:
If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.
A recent biography of Hobsbawm by a politically conventional European historian and one-time colleague of “Eric the Red,” Richard J. Evans, provides an opportunity to take the measure of this preeminent Marxist historian. Something of an “official” account of Hobsbawm’s life, Evans obviously had the support of the Hobsbawm family. His generous rendition of a twentieth-century man of left letters relies on an extensive personal archive, including a diary Eric kept for much of his youth and sporadically thereafter. A previously published autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), concentrated on the public man of ideas and politics, offering Hobsbawm’s self-presentation. It was as unrepentant as it was often unreflective, at least for the period of his adulthood. In delving deeply into the private person, Evans elaborates on what Hobsbawm appeared reticent to reveal. Yet in confronting the politics and publications of his fascinating subject, it is difficult not to see Evans as Hobsbawm’s handler. A Life in History is an orchestrated attempt to mainstream a Marxist, revealing how distant Evans is from the left-wing milieu in which Hobsbawm was immersed and where he often created oppositional waves.
Evans also produced this biography quickly. Unforced errors inevitably creep into the text. Was a seventeen-year-old Eric really reading “an early work by the American Communist Farrell Dobbs”? Unlikely, for by the year cited, Dobbs had published little, if anything, that Hobsbawm could have come across, was never a member of the Communist Party, and was involved in a 1934 Teamster insurgency that would lead to him becoming a Trotskyist. Evans must have misread Hobsbawm’s diary, which likely referred to writing by the British Communist Maurice Dobb. He also errs in dating Eric’s gift of Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course to a cousin in 1935, the book not being published until later in the 1930s. Labor history, Hobsbawm’s original field of study, is not something Evans is particularly attuned to (he mistakenly refers to the West Coast leader of the American International Longshore and Warehouse Union as Harry Bridge). Yet he is altogether too quick to offer pronouncements — on the basis of little appreciation for the nuances of historiographic judgment — that the study of the working class had “entered a period of crisis — terminal crisis” in the 1980s. Sheila Rowbotham, identified as a coauthor of a feminist critique of a 1978 Hobsbawm essay on socialist iconography and images of women, was not involved in the publication of the rejoinder Evans references. Slipups aside, and notwithstanding the accent Evans places on the intimate sphere, it is the political that is paramount in conveying the meanings of Hobsbawm’s life and critically engaging with the study of that history.
(Over)Determinations: A Life in History
Born in the year of the Russian Revolution, Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm would live in the shadow of Soviet Communism’s experiment for his lengthy adulthood. A Central European by upbringing, Hobsbawm’s Austrian mother was an aspiring novelist, his father a piteous English man’s-man type who enjoyed Rudyard Kipling, music hall songs, and sports, and valued masculine physicality. Both parents were Jews, but neither was “observant.” His far more influential mother conveyed to Eric the necessity of never doing anything that suggested shame in being Jewish. Hobsbawm later associated Jewishness with a domestic “network stretching across countries and oceans [and] that shifting between countries was a normal part of life.” Orphaned at fourteen, his father succumbing to what was vaguely described as “heart trauma” and his mother falling prey two years later to pulmonary tuberculosis, Hobsbawm lived for the rest of his youth with relatives and his sister, Nancy, in Berlin and London. A decade later, his Marxism a substitute for sexual love, his affiliation to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) a replacement for the nuclear family he had lost, Hobsbawm was, in spite of his political certainties, “alone, drifting, with an uncertain future.”
“I grew up at the most sectarian point of the socialist-communist split,” Hobsbawm recalled in the mid-1980s. He added, “It’s now clear to everyone that that was a disaster. It was my most formative political experience.” At the time, however, Hobsbawm’s diary echoed the Comintern’s tragically defeatist view that Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany would pave the way for revolutionary breakthroughs: “Perhaps fascism will bring some good — it will be the school through which the proletariat passes, then to emerge victorious under the leadership of the c.p.” A few years later, Hobsbawm participated in the 1936 Paris Bastille Day parade. He rode on the lorry filming the day’s inspiring events, his privileged, exhilarating placement secured through an uncle’s status in the official camera unit of the Socialist Party. Hobsbawm later wrote that he “belonged to the era of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front. It continues to determine my strategic thinking in politics to this day.”
It might be possible to square this circle of political origins and influences, explaining two quite different formative moments in affiliation to Communism: the sectarianism of the Third Period and the subsequent ecumenical Popular Front. This demands a certain accounting. Hobsbawm never delivered it. To claim that one’s politics were forged, for specific reasons and with quite particular consequences, in both Berlin in 1932–33 and the Paris of the Popular Front in 1936 is difficult. This juxtaposition is all the more problematic if you allude to each formative moment as an explanation of why you have remained affiliated with the Communist Party through the thick and the increasing thin of Stalinist degeneration and depressing denouement. Yet this is what Hobsbawm does, and what Evans accepts at face value. In failing to interrogate rigorously, let alone challenge, Hobsbawm’s allusions to how his seemingly contradictory, if telescoped, history determined an ongoing allegiance to the Soviet Union and a politics of Stalinism, Evans never seriously scrutinizes the life inside history that he is presenting. As Perry Anderson has commented trenchantly, there are dichotomies evident in Hobsbawm that are layered in all aspects of his work, intellectual and political. They cry out for serious analytic and political cross-examination. The assertions of the subject of study are, in the end, no substitute for a more detached dissection of what too often seems to be a convenient, even self-serving, sense of inevitability. Evans is either ill-equipped or unwilling to take up this kind of surgical incision into Hobsbawm’s body politic. He wields nothing like an analytic scalpel, instead serving up his treatment of the making of a Marxist with a cake lifter.
A Life in History does, at times, give us detailed, and sometimes insightful, commentary on Eric’s private thoughts and intimate life, drawing especially on the Hobsbawm diary. Evans provides accounts of youthful sexual encounters, among them an escapade in a brothel that Hobsbawm first recounted in his 2002 autobiography. More important is the slow death of Hobsbawm’s 1943 marriage to his first wife, Muriel Seaman, a fellow Communist about whom Interesting Times is surprisingly silent. Something of a union of political convenience, Muriel and Eric’s match weakened, the two growing apart; by 1950, their differences, at least in Muriel’s assessment of the situation, were irreconcilable. Sexually unfulfilled for some time, she told Eric, for whom she still had considerable affection, that she needed to be “fucked all night long.”
Tough love, indeed. Hobsbawm found the news difficult to take; engulfed in depression, he considered suicide. He managed to find his way out of this personal malaise, and companionship was not lacking. His sister, Nancy, understated Eric’s attractions, which included being a riveting conversationalist and an iconoclastic wit, blessed with physical vigor if not conventionally good looks. “He’s such an ugly man,” Nancy proclaimed in wonderment, “I just can’t understand why all these women are attracted to him!” In Paris, Eric sustained an intense affair with a married woman who traveled in circles of unorthodox Marxists, Hélène Berghauer; her husband (with whom Eric was also very friendly) was a student of Henri Lefebvre. Evans labels this a ménage à trois, with Hobsbawm acknowledging that his time with the couple in the aftermath of the dissolution of his first marriage provided him with “the closest thing to a family I had.” Later, as the CPGB fractured in 1956–57, he took up with a mature student studying psychology at Birkbeck, Marion Bennathan. This liaison lasted a few years, with Marion giving birth to a son fathered by Eric. She would not leave her somewhat psychologically fragile husband, however, and the relationship inevitably petered out, Eric venturing on to new terrain in Soho’s jazz clubs.
As Evans necessarily grapples with the politics of the far left that Hobsbawm’s political development drew him into, he finds himself treading on unfamiliar terrain, where each interpretive step demands careful consideration. Most serious is the balancing act evident in Evans’s approach to Hobsbawm’s relationship to Stalinism. Evans acknowledges, on the one hand, the regard with which Hobsbawm and his circle held the Soviet líder máximo while, on the other, ultimately downplaying the extent to which Joseph Stalin and/or Stalinism were influential in Eric’s emerging wordview and the later politics of the Marxist historian.A 1934 diary entry, for instance, records Hobsbawm’s admiration for Stalin, whom he regarded as one of “the great statesmen of this century,” ostensibly a man of principle who was flexible enough to utilize a variety of means to achieve his important ends. Yet Evans follows this with the assertion that “Eric’s intellectual formation owed little to Stalin.” Hobsbawm’s faith in the Soviet Union “had all the uncompromising absolutism of an adolescent crush.”
Perhaps. Yet as Hobsbawm made unambiguously and routinely clear, this youthful infatuation lasted a lifetime. Hobsbawm defended the absurd Moscow Trials allegations that the leading Bolshevik cadre aligned with Leon Trotsky to subvert the Revolution, going so far as to work in concert with Hitler’s Germany to deliver the Soviet Union to fascist aggression. During the Popular Front class struggles that rocked Paris in 1936 and 1937, Hobsbawm reduced the role of Trotskyists to that of “provoking risings & riots among strikers.” He insisted, to the end of his days, that in the Spanish Civil War, there was no alternative to standing with the USSR, whitewashing the role played by the Comintern in suppressing revolutionary initiatives and caricaturing Catalonian anarchist and other non-Communist militants as little more than saboteur. When the Soviet Union finally imploded as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Marxist historian found it one of the most devastating blows suffered in the slide into the political abyss of the late twentieth century.
Never drawn to the activist component of Party membership, Hobsbawm developed, from his time at Cambridge, a disdain for the “humdrum, everyday tasks” that Evans suggests it was the tedious “lot of ordinary rank-and-file Communist Party members to carry out.” “I had no natural taste or suitable temperament” for orthodox Party activities, Hobsbawm later confessed, noting that after 1950, he “operated entirely in academic or intellectual groups.” Hobsbawm’s place within the CPGB was increasingly that of a convenient hybrid, the insider-outsider. Evans does not so much interrogate this dualism, asking how and why Hobsbawm was able to straddle certain awkward fences of belief and identification, as he tailors it in his ongoing effort to fit his subject into what he considers the best possible political presentation.
We are told, through citation of a 1990s recollection, that Hobsbawm came to the conclusion early in his World War II soldier’s training that “the Party line was absolutely useless.” A few pages later, however, Eric is writing to his cousin Ron that “Stalin’s speech means a people’s war in every sense — technical and political,” and he organized the sending of a football, signed by his entire unit, to fraternal counterparts in the Red Army. “Every day that they hold out, every victory they win, every plane they bring down,” thought Hobsbawm, “brings the English and Soviet people closer.” His boredom with his war training palpable, Hobsbawm promoted the Communist view that a Second Front should be opened up, echoing the official position of the CPGB, in pieces written for the wall newspaper he edited in his camp. This brought him to the attention of the secret service, Section 5 of British Military Intelligence. MI5 considered Hobsbawm’s postings and their espousal of the Soviet line, however logical, as subversive.
Described by security state spooks as “a keen and very active member of the Party and well thought of at Party Headquarters,” Hobsbawm was now a man marked for close watching by the authorities, who deemed him sufficiently dangerous to warrant keeping him on English soil and restricting deployment overseas. Tired of the charade, Hobsbawm applied to be a research student at Cambridge, and he was released from the Army early in 1946. Privately, Hobsbawm was supposedly questioning the Party leadership’s capacities, suggesting that the membership needed the revitalization of democratic discussion, prompting Evans to claim that “Eric’s independence of mind was rubbing up against the Stalinist rigidity of the Party leadership.” Hobsbawm recalls in Interesting Times that he, like many fellow Communist intellectuals in Britain, was growing increasingly skeptical about the immediate postwar Soviet assault on Josip Broz Tito and his Yugoslavian revisionism. Also apparently troubling was the onslaught of Stalinist show trials in Eastern and Central Europe between 1949 and 1952, many of which targeted Jews and put on display a repugnant antisemitism. Yet at the time, Hobsbawm was contributing articles to the Communist-controlled journal New Central European Observer, defending the Soviet orientation to the “people’s democracies,” something that Evans skirts. Along with Christopher Hill and others, Hobsbawm was in sufficiently good standing with Party officialdoms in both Britain and the USSR to be invited to Moscow by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, although the trip, his first to the cherished socialist fatherland, left him dispirited and in no hurry to return. It is but a short step for Evans to claim that Eric Hobsbawm was one of the leaders, if not the principal inspiration, behind a 1956 mobilization of dissent in which the Communist Party Historians’ Group he chaired figured prominently. This began as criticism of the CPGB leadership’s failure to respond adequately to the revelations of Stalin’s crimes, aired publicly in Nikita Khrushchev’s February 1956 speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It ended with Hobsbawm’s ambivalent, at best, relationship to the subsequent New Left, which emerged in part out of the Party crisis of 1956. In his presentation of Hobsbawm’s role in these late-1950s and early-1960s developments, Evans largely misconstrues where Eric was situated and why.
Soviet repression of a liberalization initiative in its satellite Hungary brought things to a head. As student protests erupted amid workers’ strikes and anti-Soviet protests in Poland, Red Army tanks rolled into Budapest. Hungary’s reform-minded prime minister, Imre Nagy, was sacked on Moscow’s orders and later executed; more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops died in ensuing street battles, and 200,000 Hungarians fled their country. This was the final straw for many CPGB members. When the smoke cleared inside the British party, in 1957, one-quarter of the ranks had resigned; one-third of the staff of the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, walked away from their desks; and virtually the entire corps of intellectuals won over to the ostensible party of the revolutionary left in the 1930s and 1940s refused to be affiliated with the cause of their youth. The Historians’ Group was divided, but the bulk of its leading figures could no longer work under Party auspices. Hobsbawm could and did, albeit with reservations and regret. He resigned as chair of the Historians’ Group, which, in any case, was now fractured beyond repair.
Evans’s contribution to an extensive historiography on these events of 1956 is to situate Hobsbawm within the intra-Party conflict. He does this by drawing extensively on MI5 transcripts of bugged conversations inside the CPGB’s King Street offices. His account illuminates how the Marxist insider-outsider pushed the envelope of dissent in 1956, with Hobsbawm clashing with the Party hierarchy. Yet Evans exaggerates significantly Hobsbawm’s leadership role among the dissident communist anti-Stalinist critics and obfuscates the limits of Hobsbawm’s political opposition in the 1956 crisis of British communism. Many regarded Eric’s stance as lacking resolve. He was seen as waffling, tending to justify Soviet actions, especially with respect to the intervention in Hungary. There is also an important downside to Evans relying so heavily on state evidence that accents testy, if cloistered, conversations taking place within British communism’s inner sanctum, where private exchanges clandestinely recorded by MI5 were never meant to be part of public discussion. Privileging this behind-the-scenes dispute between Hobsbawm and Party leadership, Evans looks only superficially at the groundswell of CPGB members’ public opposition that was decrying Stalinism outside the Party. In this more open and rancorous discussion, historians such as E. P. Thompson and John Saville played a role very different than what Christopher Hill dubbed “Ericism.”
Evans, as Hobsbawm’s handler, presents Eric as a go-between linking the rebels and the Moscow loyalists, elevating this into a primacy within the opposition. Hobsbawm genuinely embraced de-Stalinization, but to depict him, as Evans does, as a “dangerous” opponent of the bureaucratic CPGB regime, largely because this was the view inside the increasingly hunkered-down King Street party officialdom, misses much of what was going on. It fails to address how Hobsbawm was negotiating a political crisis that others saw as irreconcilable. Hobsbawm managed, in the aftermath of 1956, to present himself as a critic of Party bureaucracy and the worst excesses of Stalinist retrenchment, while remaining associated with the official Soviet-aligned Communist movement, both in Britain and in other countries around the world. Hobsbawm thus had his cake, and he was able to eat some of it as well. This could be regarded as an achievement of sorts, but it might also be seen as a mark of Eric’s appetite for political accommodation that would ensure self-preservation, even self-advancement. For the rest of his life, Thompson considered the struggle of 1956 as a badge of anti-Stalinist honor to be worn proudly by all those who fought dissident communism’s difficult battles. Hobsbawm’s understandings were entirely different. He regarded the CPGB crisis as an occurrence that left thirty thousand British Communists troubled, a regrettable event best relegated to the category of “bad memories.”
Evans grapples with little of this. In the aftermath of 1956, he situates Hobsbawm in the New Left that emerged out of the dissolution of that year similarly. This new movement consolidated in clubs and publications, which evolved from the Thompson-Saville edited Reasoner and New Reasoner, broadening in the parallel formation of Universities and Left Review and the eventual fusion of these currents in the New Left Review. Eric, according to Evans:
remained personally and politically close to his friends in the New Left, including Edward Thompson, John Saville, Rodney Hilton and many others. They had no real political differences beyond the merely symbolic one of membership in the Party, and they were engaged in a common enterprise to build a new kind of radical social and political history “from below.”
This is simply not true. Historiographic sympathies and congruencies aside (and these are easily exaggerated), to suggest that Thompson and others would have regarded ongoing membership in the Communist Party in the late 1950s as “merely symbolic” exposes how removed Evans is from any understanding of the heated politics of the time.
In the aftermath of 1956’s convulsions, Hobsbawm’s relationship to the emerging New Left was one of distanced involvement, to be sure, but it contained too much fence-sitting, not a little condescension, and even some questionable sleuthing for the Party that he continued to support. Hobsbawm thus contributed to the odd New Left publication, but he also offered up “intelligence” to the CPGB leaders about meetings and mobilizations of his former comrades now engaged in struggling to build an alternative politics. In his reports to King Street, Hobsbawm presented the New Left as being in an organizational shambles, a kind of political chaos that nonetheless attracted progressive and rebellious people in ways the CPGB no longer could. Hobsbawm, however, was never a major builder of any of these initiatives. His insider-outsider status within the CPGB was in some ways replicated in the New Left, allowing him to mount political fences without the feet of activist involvement touching ground. If Evans attempts to situate Hobsbawm at the crossroads of the New Left’s formation, Interesting Times is a more reliable account of its author’s jaundiced assessment of this political experiment.
The first British New Left, Hobsbawm concluded in 2012, reformed neither the Labour Party nor the Communist Party; it failed to establish new organizations, lasting institutions of significance, or even national leaders of prominence. Evans acknowledges that Hobsbawm was indeed skeptical of the otherworldliness within which the New Left incarcerated itself, but he implies that Eric was influential and involved, citing the case of the movement’s Partisan Coffee House, in which he notes Hobsbawm was a “company director.” But the Coffee House endeavor, the brainchild of one of Eric’s PhD students and future founder of the History Workshop movement, Raphael Samuel, was not really something that Hobsbawm had anything to do with. The Partisan needed some “suitable left-wing personalities” to preside over it, and Hobsbawm let himself be “talked into one of these directorships, against my better judgement.” So did some well-heeled ex-Communists. Like Hobsbawm, they were to find that “Raph took not the slightest notion of any of us.” The scheme was “designed for disaster,” condemned by Samuel’s allergic reaction to anything smacking of commonsense practicality. “Only nostalgia and the need to maintain contact between the pre- and post-1956 generations of the left can explain why I found myself in this lunatic enterprise,” concluded Hobsbawm illuminatingly, if uncharitably. Politically, Hobsbawm ultimately wrote off the New Left that emerged out of 1956 as a “half-remembered footnote.”
If Hobsbawm was an outsider within British Communism, his marginalization within mainstream academic life at mid-century was arresting. Evans provides an understated if devastating indictment of the petty and nasty anti-communist intolerance that infused an ostensibly value-free scholarly environment in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. It was at this time that Hobsbawm, always drawn, like so many of the British Marxists, to literature, opted to study history, concentrating his first researches on Fabian reformers and the condition of the working class. Hobsbawm’s quickly produced doctoral thesis, highly critical of the Fabians, sailed through examination, even as some of its readers thought the study “too severe on the Society’s leaders.” R. H. Tawney scotched its publication, damning it as “slick, superficial, and pretentious.” Eric was turned down for a junior research fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, on his first application because a don there declared that his “memory of the Fabians bore no relation to Hobsbawm’s analysis.” Enough said! Undaunted, Hobsbawm rewrote the fellowship dissertation demanded of all applicants, using his knowledge of the printed material Sidney and Beatrice Webb amassed for their late-nineteenth-century study The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and its subsequent revised editions, the last appearing in 1920. In what would be a defining methodological decision, Hobsbawm focused on a body of published sources to produce a “structural, problem-oriented history” that broke decisively with the conventional wisdom in the field. Entitling his “preliminary sketch” “Studies in the ‘New’ Trade Unionism, 1889–1914,” Hobsbawm tackled the question of why a new form of labor organization surfaced in Britain after 1870 and how it registered successes among previously largely unorganized workers in the ways that it did. Tawney (again!) was asked to assess the project and offered it some backhanded compliments, recognizing that it had been written under pressures of time. A second reader, the conservative economic historian T. S. Ashton, dismissed it more categorically. Eric nonetheless managed to secure the junior fellowship, which, while poorly paid, provided meals and rent-free accommodation at King’s College. It was a beginning.
Hobsbawm’s labor history found its way into the pages of the Economic History Review. He landed a teaching appointment at Birkbeck, where all instruction was in the evenings. Eric managed to structure his teaching into three, eventually two, nights. In 1954 the Hutchinson Library commissioned him to produce a study called “The Rise of the Wage Worker,” part of a series edited by the eminent libertarian socialist and prolific political-theorist-economist-historian G. D. H. Cole. Submitted in 1955, the book was rejected. It supposedly contained “objectionable” material. Acceptable scholarship had to “be written without any point of view,” an assertion Hobsbawm rightly thought absurd, easily disproven by examination of Hutchinson’s list. Hobsbawm was becoming a controversial figure, clashing with conservative historians in public disputes. One of these was Hugh Trevor-Roper. They argued over Karl Marx’s significance in academic circles, although Trevor-Roper was sufficiently liberal in his Cold War postures to recommend that his co-combatant in the culture wars of the 1950s be admitted to the United States to deliver a series of lectures at Stanford University. MI5 was aghast that Hobsbawm slipped through the cracks of the international anti-Red brigade: his visa application had not been vetted by the British security apparatus, and the Americans were caught off guard, unaware of Eric’s Communist record.
Small successes aside, Hobsbawm’s 1950s were years of ennui. The personal (Muriel’s departure) and the political (the crisis of 1956, the increasing precariousness of his insider-outsider status in both the CPGB and the New Left, and the Cold War’s constraint on his academic career) dovetailed in discontent. As an antidote to unhappiness, Hobsbawm turned to the work of ideas and the pleasures of the sensual realm. One of the best parts of Evans’s account of Hobsbawm’s private life explores how these spheres came together in the jazz scene, where Eric’s outsider political self could range free. Most people with a passing knowledge of Hobsbawm are aware that he published The Jazz Scene in 1959 under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowing the nom de plume from a Communist trumpeter featured on the Billie Holiday recording “Strange Fruit.” Newton/Hobsbawm authored well over one hundred articles on jazz for the New Statesman from 1956 to 1966, bending his pen as well around the business essence of the Soho strip club. A jazz lover from his teenage years, when he discovered Duke Ellington, Hobsbawm had no time for the Soviet disdain of jazz evident throughout the Stalin years (saxophones were banned by the USSR in 1949, thousands of the instruments confiscated, and some musicians marched off to the gulag). With Stalin dead, however, the official Communist attitude toward jazz softened in the mid-1950s, emboldening Hobsbawm to record a program for the BBC on “The Art of Louis Armstrong” in December 1955. Dutiful detectives at MI5 let the broadcasters know that Eric was an active Communist, promoting cultural relations with the Soviet Union. The show went on. Still, Hobsbawm kept his jazz writing and night crawls through the London clubs somewhat to himself, in both Communist and academic circles.
Eric’s conviction was that jazz, especially its more orthodox variants, offered a radical aesthetic as an antidote to the crisis of an artistic modernity overtaken by mass consumption. This was congruent with his Communist beliefs. He also found the Soho clubs liberating, and he enjoyed frequenting “places where the day people got rid of their inhibitions after dark.” The booze, the drugs, the music, the dropping of racial guards, the “chicks” — in short, the scene — obviously captivated Eric. He was an observer, but he was also a participant, willingly and happily so. Hobsbawm, now in his forties, consummated an ongoing relationship with a twenty-two-year-old part-time sex worker and jazz aficionado he met in a Wardour Street club in 1958. Jo, as Evans names her, worked the streets to support herself and her young daughter, as well as to feed her drug habit. Hobsbawm, whose relationship with Jo commenced as a friendship, eventually suggested, “I’d like to make it with you,” eliciting the resigned reply: “Well, sooner or later it had to come.” The affair, never quite a blaze of sexual passion, was destined to run its course, but while it lasted, Jo and Eric played off of each other’s needs and provided each other companionship, sealed less with a kiss than with a mutual attraction to jazz and the ways it could transcend differences in age, background, politics, and character. For Hobsbawm, it certainly was not love, but it was never boring. They parted company when Jo and her daughter relocated to Brighton, and the two lost contact. When they reestablished a connection, Hobsbawm supported Jo with occasional funds and introduced her to his second wife, Marlene, who was welcoming and friendly to her husband’s old girlfriend.
Hobsbawm’s writings on jazz were conservative and uneven, subject to criticism from those who found his intolerance of innovations such as bebop tiresomely stodgy. Jazz for Eric was a traditional genre, drawing on African rhythms, a folk idiom that expressed the trauma experienced by the black poor. He had little time for anything that diluted and displaced this essentially political history, regarding the rising stars of the jazz firmament of the 1940s and 1950s — figures like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk — as disappointingly narrow. His obituary of Billie Holiday, a tragic but towering talent, conveyed what was best about Hobsbawm. Nothing that he wrote captured so succinctly Hobsbawm’s passionate feeling for the oppressed. In confronting the vicious and violent unfairness that burdened and disfigured the great singer, Hobsbawm looked to the root causes of what destroyed human potential. This elicited a hatred of the system, capitalist at its core, stacking the deck so brutally against masses of people: “To be born with both beauty and self-respect in the Negro ghetto of Baltimore in 1915 was too much of a handicap, even without rape at the age of ten and drug-addiction in her teens. But, while she destroyed herself, she sang, unmelodious, profound and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to weep for her, or not to hate the world which made her what she was.”
Hobsbawm remained an insider-outsider within the British Communist Party for decades after these late 1950s Cold War academic put-downs, King Street clashes, and Soho excursions and encounters. If the latter provided solace, the former clarified his relationship to socialism. Isaac Deutscher apparently told Hobsbawm in 1957 that he had erred in allowing himself to be expelled from the Polish Communist Party. Regretting that he had not stayed inside the Comintern, the better to struggle for a politics of revolutionary rejuvenation, Deutscher supposedly convinced Eric not to leave the Party. Yet Hobsbawm was not animated by the same political intent as Deutscher. His relationship to the Party, in the decades following 1956, involved little, if any, disciplined involvement.
Hobsbawm’s affiliation with the CPGB registered largely in intellectual contacts, about which more will be said below, as well as in MI5’s interest in his travels abroad, which included, throughout the 1960s, trips to the United States, Cuba, continental Europe, and elsewhere. When the anti–Vietnam War protests surged to the forefront in 1967 and 1968, Hobsbawm cast his lot, predictably, with the anti-imperialist forces, and he marched with his wife, Marlene, and their small children. Conscripted into teach-in duty, Hobsbawm struggled to convey to student radicals that the examples and lessons of nineteenth-century protests might have some relevance to their cause, now known as another, second New Left. Hobsbawm’s anti-war positions, almost instinctual, seemed to involve little direct connection with the CPGB — he apparently went to demos as an individual, not so much as part of Party contingents. His marriage to Marlene and the births of a son, Andy, and a daughter, Julia, in 1963 and 1964, along with his increasing prominence as a particular kind of historian, situated Hobsbawm in a more settled relationship to his place in British society than he had ever before experienced. This, as well as his age, placed him outside of the youth revolt of the mid-to-late 1960s, an effervescence of rebellion that, if he later came to appreciate it, left Hobsbawm puzzled and politically discombobulated at the time. Bluntly put, “Whatever the appearances, my generation would remain strangers in the 1960s.” Hobsbawm later confessed, “I am surprised how little direct political activity there was in my life after 1956.” He took no part in a bitter conflict inside the CPGB in 1968, his Marxism largely confined to “writing books and articles.” These would establish his reputation as the world’s most accomplished Marxist historian of synthetic transnational histories, characterized by their grandiose, metropolitan vision.
Hobsbawm’s status on the Left in Italy, where Eurocommunism was sinking significant roots, was given a bump by his publishers’ promotions of his writings and the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI’s) receptiveness to his commentaries on British politics. They appeared regularly in the Italian party’s monthly journal. Hobsbawm was also routinely cited in L’Unità, a Communist daily, and he regarded Italy and its anti-fascist traditions as something of a political home, more congenial than Britain. Cultivating a friendship with leading PCI intellectual Giorgio Napolitano, who would later serve two presidential terms, Hobsbawm saw the road to socialism paved with intermediate solutions rather than decisive anti-capitalist ruptures. The political imperative demanded the creation of broad progressive alliances reaching beyond class to create the possibility of parliamentary majorities. Italian Communism seemed to be working to this end, and Hobsbawm cast his lot with the reform impulse, albeit with some trepidation, worrying that the PCI was turning itself into “just another reformist, gradualist party, into a new type of Fabianism.”
Hobsbawm’s trial run with Eurocommunism coincided with what would be his last, and perhaps most ill-fated, political intervention. On March 17, 1978, Hobsbawm delivered the Marx Memorial Lecture. Titled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” and later published in Marxism Today and by Verso, the lecture elicited strong opposition and critical commentary. Its argument was analytically uncomplicated. The advance of the British working class, evident in the rise of a respectable trade union movement, had wound down by the mid-twentieth century. Because of a changing economy, the classical industrial proletariat, which had led the labor movement for decades, was now diminished and divided. It could not “realize the historic destiny once predicted for it.” Political parties, most emphatically the Labour Party, that staked their all on the traditional working class, now faced the necessity of reconsidering long-standing policies and expectations. Soon after Hobsbawm’s warning, preceded by what he referred to as the “strike-happy 1970s,” Labour suffered a massive defeat in the 1979 election. This ushered in a new era of class war from above, Thatcherism being the ruling ideology of the 1980s. The Labour Party was now in a mess, split by secessions and struggling to survive.
Something of an external brain trust for the Labour Party, Hobsbawm took his stand against “the Left,” composed of Tony Benn, “entryist” Trotskyists, and industrial militants whose experience bridged the Communist and Labour parties, such as Arthur Scargill. Dubbed “Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist,” Hobsbawm proved useful in vanquishing the Labour left in the 1980s, his arguments posed against what he regarded as an extremism that threatened to concede the terrain of actually existing politics to Thatcherite reaction. Central to this supposedly rational choice was denial of the primacy of class, and, of course, class struggle. The need was to orient the Labour Party to wider constituencies (that had never really been all that marginalized), in which intellectuals and “new classes” would have prominence. Martin Jacques, editor of the revamped Marxism Today, which often showcased Hobsbawm in these years, christened him “an intellectual guru in the Labour Party … From being a Communist intellectual he became the intellectual of the Left.” The question, of course, was which Left Hobsbawm served. In pushing the Labour Party to revive and reconstitute itself as a “broad people’s party” dedicated to “a fair, free, socially just society,” Hobsbawm certainly helped to thwart any advance within Labour of the Bennite left.
After the 1992 electoral collapse of front-running Labour under the leadership of the hapless Kinnock, a radical reordering of Labour Party politics was on the agenda. With the arrival of Tony Blair’s New Labour, socialism’s obliteration within the Labour Party was assured. Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times is far more cogent in its abject assessment of what happened than is Evans, who sidesteps the extent to which Eric bore some responsibility for Blairism’s ascent, which Hobsbawm bemoaned. Looking back on what happened, Hobsbawm counted the failure of Kinnock and Labour to win the 1992 election as “the saddest and most desperate” political experience of his life, a rather astounding confession for someone who had lived through 1933, 1937, 1956, 1989–1990, and other milestones of disappointment. Anderson rightly comments that “Such absurd inflation is a measure of the loss of contact with reality that his ‘crusade to save the Labour Party’ — Gaitskell’s old slogan dusted off again — seems temporarily to have induced in the historian.”
The politics of the Left had undoubtedly stalled at the end of the twentieth century. But the idea that class had been stopped in its tracks at mid-century, as Hobsbawm suggested and as the most significant political intervention of his twilight years highlighted, was unconvincing analytically and a conservative retreat politically. A young Eric first aligned with workers in the early 1930s, and in Hobsbawm’s subsequent development into the world’s best-known Marxist historian, the working class had been his initial subject of study, a pivotal social force as well as a vitally important analytic category. To indicate that its forward march had been halted was not necessarily wrong as a description of the political situation, however simplified and historically premature the argument may have been. But to imply that this disappointing reality was now etched irreversibly in the stone of a hard politics of reversal, necessitating an entirely new orientation displacing the politics of class struggle, was to stop the related project of conceptualization and politics at precisely the point where a deeper scrutiny was demanded.
Assimilating Hobsbawm to his own moderate social-democratic politics, Evans insists that Hobsbawm was always “closer to the British Labour Party” than he was to anything resembling a communist organization. This claim, asserted rather than demonstrated convincingly, rests on the untenable proposition that Hobsbawm broke definitively from communism in 1956, even though Evans acknowledges that Eric transferred his political loyalties from the British to the Italian Communist Party. A look at the histories Hobsbawm wrote suggests another way of understanding his relationship to international Communism, the forces that controlled it, and the politics that factored so forcefully into his life within history.
Agency and Determination: Politics and the Making of a Metropolitan Marxist
If Evans falters in situating Hobsbawm and his politics within history, his commentary on his subject’s written histories is also lacking. A bourgeois sensibility pervades A Life in History, with Evans even providing a graph plotting Hobsbawm’s salary and pension, freelance income, and declared expenses over the course of the years between 1962 and 1987. Since Hobsbawm kept fairly meticulous records of his book contracts, earning his living in the last three decades of life from royalties, lecture fees, and teaching stints in the United States, Evans has a treasure trove of detail on sales, advances, and earnings, supplemented by access to a literary agent’s archived records. He revels in retailing this accounting data. It conveys well how one British Marxist went from being an author with disappointing sales in the late 1950s and early 1960s to a publisher’s star, commanding advances in excess of £100,000. Yet it also establishes that even Eric, with his record-keeping and his eye on the prize of payment, might slip up. When Hobsbawm contributed to Verso’s best-selling list by writing a lengthy introduction to a slick reissue of the Communist Manifesto, the left-wing press failed to pay Eric his contractually stipulated royalties. After twelve years, as Hobsbawm’s agent ascertained, Verso owed him a whopping £20,678.19.
Such information, and there is a great deal of it on offer, tends to overwhelm actual discussion of the substance of Hobsbawm’s writings, which get rather short shrift. Most of what Evans has to say about Hobsbawm’s books takes the form of summaries and quotes of reviews, rather than any insightful, engaged reading. It is the volume and monetary value of Hobsbawm’s pages that captivate Evans, not their analytic contribution or methodological approach. This is unfortunate, because Hobsbawm’s contribution and distinctiveness as a historian can be related to his political life within history and to his capacity to address historical interpretation in particular, often unique, ways.
Hobsbawm’s written histories, from the beginning of his writing in the 1940s and 1950s, grappled with the bifurcation of agency and determination that animated much writing within the Communist Party Historians’ Group. In his original forays as a labor historian, he explained agency through recourse to determination. Articles gathered together in what was his most influential contribution to working-class history, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), often situated particular class practices and labor mobilizations within trade cycles and other economic determinants. In an original and impressive labor history essay, “Custom, Wages, and Work-Load in Nineteenth-Century Industry,” Hobsbawm explored the changing rhythms of the labor process. As capitalist rationalization established itself, imprinting on the consciousness of both employers and employees that work was a commodity, both its product and its remuneration came to be determined through struggles increasingly codified in industrial relations as “rules of the game.” This wide-ranging essay, touching down in continental Europe, the United States, and (mainly) Britain, rested almost entirely on printed primary sources and a wide canvassing of secondary literature; it contained virtually no archival research. Hobsbawm’s method was to survey class experience from the vantage point of what printed material could be assembled out of a metropolitan library system, focusing not so much on new and fresh discoveries of obscure peoples and happenings as building a broad overview that targeted a problem, addressing it in ways culminating in historical reinterpretation.
Hobsbawm, of course, was never simply a labor historian narrowly conceived, and one of his most impressive and painstakingly argued essays of the 1950s was an excavation of the crisis of the seventeenth century, the resolution of which cleared the way for capitalism’s subsequent triumph. In this analytically sweeping article, once again orchestrated by an interpretive problem to be resolved and drawing on published sources in English, French, Portuguese, and German, Hobsbawm outlined how an older European feudal economy collapsed in upon itself, a victim of its internal contradictions. Progressive new economies emerged, strengthening absolutism and its continental metropolitan centers, expanding home markets, especially in socially transformed England, and spawning a new colonialism, whose twin pillars were the plantation productions of the New World and the slave trade that both sustained its harvests and stimulated the eventual rise of mainstays of the Industrial Revolution, such as the cotton manufactory.
Hobsbawm’s wrestling with agency and determination understandably took its most voluntaristic turn in the late 1950s. His discontents with King Street Marxism’s bureaucratic ossifications were peaking, and his personal life was saturated with the sounds of rebellious jazz, reverberating in a willingness to challenge conventional behaviors. His labor histories ran into something of a brick wall of Cold War animosity. This was reinforced by publication rejections that probably had something to do with Hobsbawm’s metropolitan method, distanced as it was from immersion in original archival research. All of this, perhaps, prompted Eric to look for and justify a new approach, one in which agency, at first granted an upper hand, would gradually be confined within the boundaries of determination.
Italian connections pushed Hobsbawm toward a study of peasant cultures, especially as they intersected with stands of rebellion, however “pre-political.” An early engagement with the voluminous, if opaque, prison writings of Antonio Gramsci (decades before it was fashionable to cite the Italian revolutionary) piqued his interest in the subaltern. As much as any advice from Deutscher, retrospectively alluded to by Hobsbawm as decisive in his resolve to remain affiliated with the CPGB, this new research interest may well have impressed upon Eric a pragmatic reality. His Communist connections provided access to people, even places, that he would be restricted from and shut out of if he broke all connections with Moscow and its affiliated parties.
Primitive Rebels, written and published at the same time as many of his New Statesmen Francis Newton pieces and The Jazz Scene, followed Hobsbawm’s metropolitan method, relying mainly on printed sources. It complimented this body of published texts with many discussions and talks (if not formal interviews) with people knowledgeable about and, in some cases, directly involved with the bandits, mafias, millenarians, anarchists, fasci, mobs, and labor sects he addressed, not a few of them being Communists. The book also allowed Hobsbawm’s historical framework to be enriched by his attractions to anthropological sensibilities. Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels took pains to have readers “think and feel themselves into the skins” of the archaic agitators he found so appealing. Christopher Hill, reviewing the book in History Today, thought Primitive Rebels inspired “by a humanity and a deep sympathy for humble people.” In this, it resonated with Hobsbawm’s obituary for Billie Holiday and, as such, explored agency through a tribute to the resilience of the oppressed. This analytic accent was also evident in Bandits, published in 1969, an accessible if wide-ranging text that extended Hobsbawm’s reach into Mexico, Brazil, Peru, China, and other non-European countries — writing that had taken Hobsbawm to Latin America and impressed upon him the revolutionary possibilities of the region. From this point on, Hobsbawm’s attraction to countries like Brazil, Peru, and Colombia was pronounced, and he traveled there over the course of the 1960s and into the 1970s. As much as any of his writings, Primitive Rebels and Bandits helped establish a field of study, “social banditry,” of great consequence in the Global South, solidifying Hobsbawm’s international reputation and ensuring future sales of his books in populous marketplaces where the dispossessed predominated. MI5 was its usual worried self, especially when Hobsbawm was featured on BBC broadcasts, while the CPGB, although apprised of the peripatetic partisan’s views on Latin America, paid Hobsbawm no heed. When a Popular Front government under Salvador Allende promised a peaceful transition to socialism in Chile, Eric thought this a “thrilling prospect.” The subsequent bloodbath no doubt left him demoralized.
Hobsbawm thus grappled with agency and determination in his writing as he did in his politics. His metropolitan Marxism, in which the conceptualization of capitalist development provided a coherent scaffolding of economies, politics, and ideologies, as well as developments across cultural and social life, suited Hobsbawm’s vociferous appetite for consuming available writings and his methodological penchant for generalization. Interpretive problem-solving was the raison d’être of historical writing. He clearly enjoyed the view of any chosen historical subject from a perch in the British Museum, the Widener Library at Harvard, or Rome’s Giustino Fortunato Library. From this vantage point, determination was always going to overshadow agency. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, in the early 1960s, Hobsbawm opted for a specific kind of history, one in which his talents of analytic distillation and sweeping synthesis, developed out of a wide reading of available printed sources, were put to good use. Like his politics, his writing proved to be overdetermined. Hobsbawm’s method was destined to come down on a particular side of the agency/determination dualism.
In the preface to The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962), Hobsbawm described his approach as an example of what the French termed “haute vulgarisation.” Written for the educated reader rather than the scholar, books conceived in this vein would not be burdened by excessive citation of relevant literatures. In Hobsbawm’s hands, such studies were Marxist in their concerns and ordering assumptions at the same time that they refused to elaborate on anything that might be construed as theoretical posture. Decades in the making, the cumulative result would be Hobsbawm’s signature Age series, a tetralogy of modern history that expanded from an original focus on Europe to a widening, ostensibly global, reach. Base and superstructure clearly ordered Hobsbawm’s original presentations on the long nineteenth century (1789–1914), but the concepts were not so much dominating the narrative as they were embedded within it. Even class struggle was presented in ways that suggested its limitations rather more than its transcendent striving to reach beyond the determinations of the times. In The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), Hobsbawm concluded his remarks on 1848 and the revolutionary “Springtime of Peoples” with a sober insistence that constraint, not challenge, prevailed:
As for the labouring poor, they lacked the organization, the maturity, the leadership, perhaps most of all the historical conjuncture, to provide a political alternative. Strong enough to make the prospect of social revolution look real, they were too weak to do more than frighten their enemies.
The Age of Capital never lost sight of capitalism’s hegemonic hold over the momentous developments of the mid-nineteenth century, opting not to end the narrative class arc of accumulation and its accomplishments with a theater of resistance, however attractive. “The demands of drama and reality are, as so often, not the same,” Hobsbawm declared, eschewing the impulse to bring his study to a close on the class-struggle high note of the Paris Commune.
Hobsbawm’s treatments of the ages of revolution and capital, respectively, commenced with developments (economy, politics, and large changes) and concluded with results (on the land, in cities, through class activities and ideologies, and within science and the arts). The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987) dissolved this heuristic structuring into a single sequence of chapters that, while they continued to privilege the economy, retained broad coverage of politics, society, and culture. A settled comfort and confidence of mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois society gave way, in The Age of Empire, to new forms of corporate organization and threatening social movements. This expanded the facade of equality in ways that cracked the foundations of patriarchal power, ushering in a crisis of liberalism. Hobsbawm attempted, for the first time, in The Age of Empire to address women, but the effort fell flat in the eyes of many feminists, who saw his gesture of inclusion as too little, too late, and too uninformed about the now vast literature relating to gender. The result is a book that, in its anticipation of an event beyond its boundaries, 1917, takes satisfaction in seeing the bourgeoisie hoisted on its own revolutionizing petard. “[W]e observe the curious phenomenon of a bourgeoisie, or at least a significant part of its youth and its intellectuals,” plunging “willingly, even enthusiastically, into the abyss,” concluded Hobsbawm.
Determination had clearly triumphed. It largely overwhelms any serious scrutiny of working-class agency. Globalization, well before the term gained a stranglehold on the politics of defiance, ran through The Age of Empire like a jolt of electric current. When it came to the treatment of “The Workers of the World,” this left out much in the way of meaningful engagement with working-class life. Even conservative commentators were a bit surprised that Hobsbawm paid so little attention “to the proletariat.”
In Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994), Hobsbawm darkens this narrative of determination. Wars and famine; revolutions and depressions; cultures of hedonism and the cult of personality; welfare and working-class entitlements won but invariably lost; the end of socialism and the acceleration of mayhem — over it all looms the threat of social death and impending demise. From the sundering of the bourgeoisie presented in The Age of Empire, Hobsbawm proceeds, in Age of Extremes, to outline the dissolution of civilization. The bourgeoisie as a class features barely at all. Workers, of course, come on to the stage of this disturbing tragedy periodically, but their agency can hardly hold a candle to the impersonal forces railing against their struggles to sustain the light. Class politics is largely extinguished — save for the advances registered with the creation of the Soviet Union — as the world “stumbled from one calamity to another” between 1914 and 1945. The ruthlessness of Stalin’s leadership aside, the Soviet Union defeated fascism militarily during World War II. Thereafter, it was nothing if not a Cold War foil necessitating the kinds of reforms the advanced capitalist economies of the West offered workers and wide swaths of the dispossessed, the better to keep them chained to acceptance of their lot, seemingly superior to anything imaginable under Communist “totalitarianism.”
Evans presents Age of Extremes as Hobsbawm’s most successful book: its translation into more than thirty languages and its phenomenal sales, not to mention its prestigious awards, helped canonize Hobsbawm internationally. Yet reviews were often less than laudatory. Many are unconvinced that Hobsbawm has a sufficiently global reach. The Eurocentric focus of Hobsbawm’s analysis was evident in The Age of Revolution’s choice of geographic focus, but this inevitably relegated crucial developments in Haiti to the margins. Subsequent volumes, less restricted spatially, nonetheless push China and Japan somewhat to the sidelines, passing over large swaths of Africa and even giving the United States less than its developments warranted. Few of those familiar with studies of nationalism consider that Hobsbawm gave this subject its due. Feminists continue to hammer Hobsbawm on a failure to integrate women and gender into his analysis, at least in ways they think reflect a broad reading and awareness of contemporary insights. These and other criticisms aside, Age of Extremes solidified Hobsbawm’s stature as a public intellectual; no other historian commanded either his readership or his global relevance. In Brazil, where Eric achieved celebrity status and became friends with the Workers’ Party leader and eventual president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, sales of the book surpass 300,000. If all of his publications are considered, with well over a million of his books bought, Hobsbawm outsells any other nonfiction writer in the country.
How to explain this ascendancy in the public arena? As Marxism was being dismissed, and actually existing socialism was seemingly on the skids almost everywhere, an undeniably communist historian remained a revered and internationally acclaimed public intellectual. Certainly, Hobsbawm’s talents warrant the kind of recognition he rightly received. Erudition, clarity of argument, and insistence on the primacy of material considerations are enhanced by a cosmopolitan reach across the spectrum of artistic and scientific developments. Couple this fusion of form and substance with a convincing and impressive marshaling of empirical evidence, orchestrated by conceptual rigor and sober reflection, as well as a metropolitan mastery of extensive and multilingual writings, not only in history, but in economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science, and the result cannot but be impressive. This considerable bank of extraordinary features in Hobsbawm’s later publications necessarily elevated him to preeminence among late capitalism’s chorus of critics.
It was also the case that, in his relentless drive to detail determination’s descent into evil, Hobsbawm’s moral outrage tended to dwarf his Marxist analytic framework. In his later years, Hobsbawm often wrote, as Terry Eagleton has remarked, as if “History itself” was speaking “in its wry, all-seeing, dispassionate,” albeit increasingly dark, “wisdom.” The result is analysis less attentive to the kinds of challenging explanation evident in previous Age volumes. Hobsbawm’s publications of the 1990s and 2000s do not so much press his readers with the kind of historical materialist interpretation that demands a stretching of their interpretive muscles, as they abstain from addressing the causality of capitalist crisis, the anvil on which determination resolutely pounded the world’s peoples into the shapes that limited and conditioned their agency. In conjunction with his undeniable strengths as a writer and chronicler of modern times, this downgrading of Marxism goes some way to explaining how Hobsbawm’s stature soared with what is possibly his least Marxist book, elevating him to what Evans designates a “National Treasure.”
The chaotic brutality and vicious inequality of the late twentieth century lent itself easily enough to a justifiable anger at barbarism’s balance sheet, registering in the 187 million deaths that Hobsbawm attributes to the short twentieth century’s wars, famines, massacres, and executions. As understandable as Hobsbawm’s animus was, this translated into a kind of interpretive retreat. Explanation was replaced by recourse to bewilderment, as irrationality, absurdity, and incomprehension are appended to historical events, leaving them “beyond the ken of the historian.” With the publication of Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm was writing as a passionate advocate of humanity, but one increasingly unable to articulate capitalism’s trajectory or explain socialism’s demise. As determination devolved into destruction, the hounds of the apocalypse seemed, to Hobsbawm, unleashed by the implosion of the Soviet Union. What Anderson considered a variant of the “end of history” that left acquisitive individualism’s “feral instincts” unfettered, Hobsbawm bemoaned as “tragedy,” the “true magnitude” of which was little understood on the eve of a new century. This undoubtedly provided a mass readership with a comfort zone in which the demanding analytic rigor of Marxism receded. Hobsbawm’s evolution as a writer and his later publications tended to substitute a one-sided depiction of historical process as degeneration that appealed to progressive indignation, but they sidestepped the more difficult multidimensional, historical materialist responsibility to address capitalism and the structural inevitability of crisis as the raison d’être of socialism’s necessity.
Just to the Right of Marx
Hobsbawm outlived his Communist Party Historians’ Group contemporaries, staving off death until, at the age of ninety-five, he fought his last uphill fight in 2012. His remains reside in a plot secured for him by his wife, Marlene, in Highgate Cemetery. “Just to the right of Karl Marx” was the wry comment of his son-in-law, Alaric Bamping, a former Trotskyist and now Brexiteer. Ironies abound in Hobsbawm’s life, but the greatest of them all is perhaps that, as much as determination ordered his existence, he did a great deal to keep its limitations at bay. He made histories — not always as he would have chosen, but make them he did. We live in his shadows. Few manage to cast their adumbration as widely, as influentially, and almost certainly as continuously as did Hobsbawm.
Evans provides the final irony. Hobsbawm resisted handlers all his life, but he has succumbed to one in death. If he had any choice in naming his biographer, Hobsbawm may well have given Evans his blessing in taking up the task, for he could probably intuit that Evans would do little to disturb his reputation as a “National Treasure.” Such a designation, for a Marxist of Hobsbawm’s internationalist sensibilities, would surely have elicited public mockery from “Eric the Red,” who treasured no identification with any national entity, considering himself always “someone who does not wholly belong to where he finds himself.” Yet at the same time, the Hobsbawm we have come to know better through Evans’s account would undoubtedly have taken a certain private pleasure in being fêted in this way.