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
October 17, 2012

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.

Follow Prospect on Facebook and Twitter

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