One of Britain's greatest historians, he influenced academics across the world—but his political beliefs hampered his later worksby Ramachandra Guha / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…