BORN in Alexandria, Eric Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, which experience, even in his teen-age, committed him to opposing fascism and supporting communism as the viable alternative. A scholarship to Cambridge brought him together with a group of extraordinary historians – Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, E.P.Thompson and others. They formed the British Historians Group, later associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. They introduced social and economic history into a previously rather arid political and diplomatic history, and thereby turned the subject around. Labour movements, industry and the ideology of dissenting groups came to be studied. Marxism was broadly their method of analysis although how they used it varied from one to the other.
The journal, Past and Present, was started in 1952 largely at their initiative. Initially focusing on Marxist history, it gradually included other analyses and also became more inter-disciplinary. In recent decades, there were debates on narrative history and history from a Post-Modern perspective.
The 1950s was the era of McCarthy and the Cold War. Communists were excluded from prestigious academic positions even in countries other than the USA. Hobsbawm chose to remain at Birkbeck College, a working people’s institution located in London University, which hosted some of the best minds of the time, such as J.D. Bernal.
Hobsbawm’s earlier writings focused on labour history and the Fabian movement. From this he moved to studies of what he termed as primitive rebels and social bandits, as indicated by the titles of his books. These were mainly small, localized rural protests, in Europe and Britain, involving secret societies and cults of opposition, often laced with a chiliastic ideology of the coming utopia. In Hobsbawm they found their historian.
His interest in economic history focused on industrialization and he wrote on both labour and capital, linking the two ends of the spectrum. I recall his lucid analysis of the colonial economy at a seminar in Aligarh in 1968, his first visit to India. His collections of essays reveal the mind of a meticulous historian with a stunning intellectual ability to link ideas and actions.
His magisterial work was the four volumes that narrated the history of modern Europe: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, which covered the period from 1789 to 1914, and the last, The Age of Extremes, which was substantially on the twentieth century. The first three focus on the history of Europe, the fourth broadens the canvas, although perhaps not enough is said about the non-European world, given that his purpose was to explain the change brought about through modernization and capitalism and the resulting social confrontations. A fuller discussion of the Soviet and the Chinese regimes from the perspective of economic equity and political democracy would have enriched the history. Nevertheless, it has been described, even by those historians who write history very differently, as the best introduction to the history of modern Europe.
His memoirs, Interesting Times, capture many of the major questions that faced left intellectuals in the twentieth century. He was asked why he did not resign from the CPGB, as many other intellectuals did, when Soviet tanks entered Hungary in 1956. His answer was that it was not that he did not wish to deviate from the party line (which in fact he did often), nor his supposed loyalty to the Soviet Union (which was so doubtful that the Soviets never allowed his books to be translated into Russian), but rather that he saw these as minor compared to the main issue which was the coming of a socialist world. Whether one accepts this explanation or not, it is as well to remember that his generation, having faced fascism, believed firmly that the answer lay in socialism.
As a man of many parts he was also a jazz enthusiast. Writing under the pseudonym of Francis Newton, he was for many years the jazz critic for the New Statesman. Going with him to Ronnie Scott’s in London was a unique experience.
He was keenly interested in every part of the world and especially where there were revolutions. If there were demonstrations in Tierra del Fuego or in Vladivostok, one could be sure that Eric would know the context. Evenings spent with him and his wife, Marlene, in their London home always meant meeting the most thoughtful people from everywhere.
At his 95th birthday celebration in July this year, he made a short, witty speech reflecting on his life, ending with the statement that he was born in the year of the Soviet revolution, saw its collapse, and was now witnessing the crisis of global capitalism. What a memorable life-span for a historian. One awaits the next collection of his essays, which will be published posthumously, with the title of Fractured Times.