Eric Hobsbawm: A British internationalist

Prospect Magazine

Eric Hobsbawm: A British internationalist


One of Britain’s greatest historians, he influenced academics across the world—but his political beliefs hampered his later works

Eric Hobsbawm’s books demonstrate that Marxists can write with flair and feeling

In 1980, as a beginning graduate student in Kolkata, I was directed by my thesis supervisor to a short, pungent piece by Eric Hobsbawm that had just appeared in the journal Past and Present. This was a response to a previous essay in the same journal by Lawrence Stone, which celebrated the “revival of narrative” in historical writing. In Stone’s view, this was a welcome departure from the arid, analytical, social-scientific and (not least) Marxian trends that had previously dominated the discipline. Hobsbawm, who died in the first week of October at the age of 95, saw Stone’s triumphalism as misplaced; to be sure, historians needed to write well, but they had also to analyse and synthesise, to explain events and processes in terms of what they meant to human values and institutions.
I first read Hobsbawm in 1980; I last read him in 2011, when seeking to understand an armed insurgent named Kishenji, much written about in the Indian press. The man saw himself as an Indian Mao Zedong, who would one day capture state power in New Delhi; but he seemed rather to be what Hobsbawm called a “social bandit,” raiding the rich and killing policemen while being given refuge by the peasants and tribals with whom he identified. From Hobsbawm I learnt to see Kishenji as a figure of romance and daring but—despite his inflated self-image and the paranoia of the right-wing press—of no real historical or political significance.

I never met Eric Hobsbawm, yet he has kept me company throughout my working life. I suspect my experience is representative: other Indian, African and Latin American historians who never saw the man in the flesh likewise read his work very closely. And there was a great deal for us to read: some 30 books published over seven decades of a very long life and very active career.

The output was impressive, as was the range. Hobsbawm’s works fell broadly into three categories. The books most widely prescribed in university courses were his broad-brush histories of the 19th century: The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987). These were macro-histories covering a wide spatial scale, written within a classically Marxist framework; strong on economics and technology with some (if not excessive) room for culture.

The books by Hobsbawm best known to the non-academic reading public are The Age of Extremes (1994) and Interesting Times (2002). The first book is a history of what he called the “short twentieth century”—from the onset of the first world war in 1914 to the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The second covers the same period, but in more personal terms. Wars, states and technological innovations are viewed from the vantage point, and individual experience, of a boy born in Alexandria and growing up in Vienna and Berlin before settling down in Britain, from where, as an established and ever more influential academic, he travels across Europe, North America and other continents.

The majestic 19th century trilogy and the two, very differently cast, 20th century histories are abundantly available in bookshops. Yet the works by Hobsbawm that had the most enduring intellectual impact, and are most admired by scholars, live on only in libraries. These are his studies of the struggles of workers, craftsmen and peasants in early industrial Europe—books such as Primitive Rebels (1959), Labouring Men (1964), Captain Swing (1969—written with George Rudé) and Bandits (1969). These books demonstrate (pace Lawrence Stone) that Marxists too can sometimes write with real flair and feeling, sensitively probing the emotions, ambitions, failings and hopes of ordinary individuals seeking to challenge new or established structures of power and authority.

In these books, Hobsbawm helped invent what is called “history from below.” To be sure, the invention was not his alone—his fellow British Marxists George Rudé and EP Thompson can claim an equal share of credit. Rudé had come to the subject even before Hobsbawm, while Thompson was a finer stylist, bringing a passion and grace to his prose that was in part (but only in part) due to the fact that English was his first (and more or less his only) language.

Growing up, intellectually speaking, in the 1980s, I read EP Thompson with as much attention (and marginally greater admiration) than I did Eric Hobsbawm. History, as much as historians, will remember them together as unquestionably the greatest British practitioners of a scholarly craft that no other nation, not even France, has treated with such respect and even deference. From Gibbon and Macaulay through GM Trevelyan and AJP Taylor, on to Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, historians have been public figures in Britain. In the 19th and 20th centuries they often outsold popular novelists while being quoted respectfully in parliament and being granted peerages and masterships of Oxbridge colleges. In the 21st century, they have done all this and anchored television series—and had their personal lives discussed in the tabloid press, too.

There were, and are, British historians who were, and are, more famous and powerful within Britain than Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson. But in global terms the influence of Hobsbawm and Thompson massively outranks that of their predecessors, peers or successors. This may be because they knew that history was both a social science and a branch of literature. Hobsbawm talked a great deal to economists and political scientists and learnt much from them. Thompson had productive friendships with anthropologists, sociologists and literary scholars. As a consequence, their histories were rigorously researched—brimming with primary materials gathered in the archives—but also analytically robust, reaching beyond the how and when to the why and to what purpose.

Hobsbawm and Thompson were both internationalists. A European by birth, Hobsbawm had travelled extensively in Latin America. Thompson’s father worked for many years in India, while his American mother grew up in the Middle East. Later, his involvement with the peace movement brought him in close contact with other parts of Europe. In either case, personal biography reinforced an instinctively capacious intellectual vision, producing histories that were more analytically broad minded than was (and often still is) the norm.

In a pure, technical sense, Hobsbawm may have been the more skilled historian. He knew more languages, and he had a surer grasp of technology and economics. But Thompson was the more evocative writer and, in political (and dare I say moral) terms, the more courageous man. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Thompson left the Communist party, but Hobsbawm stayed, a loyal party man till the end.

The costs of this political obstinacy were not insignificant. His orthodox Marxism did not allow Hobsbawm to engage with exciting new trends such as cultural history and environmental history. When, in the late 1980s, Past and Present began publishing essays on the history of forests and wildlife, he grumbled to a mutual friend, the Catalan polymath Joan Martinez-Alier, that the radicalism of the journal was being diverted and diluted by mere fashion.

A more substantial cost of this dogmatism was manifest in Hobsbawm’s later writings. Here, he never squarely confronted the violence and brutalities of communism. His books on the 20th century skate over the Nazi-Soviet pact and the horrors of collectivisation while providing the reader with the pathetic consolation that fascism was worse than communism.

Hobsbawm’s friends, in appreciations printed the day after he died, boasted that his own works were never published in the Soviet Union. This seems a conspicuously weak defence. The question, surely, is not what the Soviets thought of him, but what this famous intellectual thought or wrote of the persecution of Boris Pasternak, Andrei Sakharov and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; of the gulag and the purges; of the economic and human costs of planning by state fiat; of the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. On these questions, so crucial to the politics and public life of his own time, Hobsbawm was alternately silent, evasive and euphemistic.

By any standards, Eric Hobsbawm’s intellectual achievements were staggering. His books on the 19th century and his precocious studies of popular protest will continue to be read, and reread, in countries far distant from his own. But his later works illustrate that still valid and still widely dishonoured dictum of George Orwell’s: no writer must be a loyal member of a political party.

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A Tory communist: On the publication of Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times, Ian Buruma met with him to ask about his beliefs and decades-long support for the communist party

The global order in the 21st century: In 1999, Hobsbawm joined a roundtable that included Francis Fukuyama and Timothy Garton Ash to discuss the prospects for the decades ahead

Where now?: James Purnell reviews Hobsbawm’s 2011 collection of essays, How to Change the World

Long live the Queen?: Hobsbawm’s thoughts on the monarchy

  1. October 4, 2012

    The Sanity Inspector

    Eric Hobsbawm, in an interview for the progressive webzine In These Times earlier this year, marveled at the Arab Spring, thus:

    “The Arab Spring is encouraging. I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime a genuine, old-fashioned revolution with people going on the streets and overthrowing regimes, something like the 1848 revolution, which is actually the origin of the name Arab Spring.”

    He obviously developed a defensive mental block about communism, and its victims whom he sided against during his long career. I’m sure he saw the anti-communist revolutions of 1989-91. But just as victims of emotional trauma sometimes lose their memory of disturbing events, so too did he seem to blot out the end of the Cold War, when his side lost.

    • October 5, 2012


      Nice try. Perhaps this Stalinist ought to be blotted out. How can anyone sane make excuses for someone who doggedly supported one of the most murderous political systems in human history. Or is this yet another instance of British nostalgia for their weirdly perverted schooldays in which they were spoon fed Marxism, Stalinism and the wonders of the Soviet state. When do they ever grow up? Even my late friend Christopher Hitchens clung to his baffling allegiance to this bloody religion.

  2. October 6, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    What may writer wrote history, anthropology fiction or any subject on social sciences he expressed his unconscious autobiography..We have no freewill.Mankind is bondage of of his unconscious mind.Philosopher Spinoza very accurately stated “Men believes themselves to be free,simply because they are conscious of their actions,and uncouscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined”
    Communism is illusory mimicry of Christianity..Hobsbqwn was brought up most religious Christian family, how can he changed his mind?Few words on Naxlite movement and their so called leaders they are blind followers of communism ,they never understand the simple truth that communism is based on community living on brotherhood that one you could not imposed on caste divided Indian people. That movement never be successful in India.what may they do.Now that movement converted as a dacoity and plunders

  3. October 6, 2012

    Marc Latham

    I think that Eric Hobsbawm should be remembered as a great historian and contributor to twentieth-century thinking, but agree with RAPProds that ‘left-wing’ authoritarianism has been, and can be, as bad as ‘right-wing’, and it should be a matter of right or wrong rather than right or left.

    ‘Lefties’ like George Galloway were supporting the Arab governments before the revolutions, and then presumably became supporters of the revolutionaries trying to depose them, as he likened his campaign in Bradford to the Arab Spring.

    The treatment of women in the Arab countries continues to be totally unequal, sometimes to the point of bullying oppression, with many women losing freedom and rights since the ‘Spring’, which Marx would surely object to if he was still alive; whereas there is more gender equality, as well as other equalities, in the ‘right-wing’ UK, USA and Israel, so who’s the more socialist?

    As I have previously written:

    When I started studying at university I focused my attention on how right-wing elite society did this, before the political, banking and media scandals brought it all to the surface.
    But by then I had widened my scope to all of humanity, as I had seen ‘left-wing’ New Labour involved in those scandals, and the ‘counter-culture’ lying, spinning and censoring as much as those they criticised.
    I used to think that the left and ‘counter-culture’ were the goodies, but now I just see them as the other side; one half of a self-perpetuating human whole that lives off competition, division, power and greed. When ‘rebels’ gain power it usually corrupts them, and they become like those they considered not fit to rule.
    I saw the documentaries of Adam Curtis between writing the poem and this book, and they seem to provide a good overview of the competition at the heart of humanity and society.

  4. October 6, 2012

    Padraig Colman

    How can anyone sane make excuses for Hitchens’s support of the Iraq invasion?

    • October 7, 2012


      Per contra, how can anyone sane make excuses for the left’s/Islamofascists’ support of the Butcher of Bagdhad ?

      • October 7, 2012

        Padraig Colman

        I AM sane. I do not make excuses for the Butcher of Bagdhad. I do not make excuses for Islamofascists. I do not make excuses for the left whether that means Hitchens or Hobsbawm,.

  5. October 7, 2012

    Garreth Byrne

    Did a brilliant academic researcher like Hobsbawm believe in the ‘scientific’ dogma of historical determinism to the end of his days? Surely in his long eventful lifetime he must have observed the ups and downs, the quirks and whirls, the diversionary loops, roundabouts and U-turns, the advances and reverses, of human history. Never again should that word be spelt with a capital H.

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