He ended his life a British national treasure but Eric Hobsbawm never lost faith in his youthful communismby John Bew / January 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
As a bookish grammar school boy in north-west London in the mid-1930s, described by his cousin as “ugly as sin but a mind,” Eric Hobsbawm fantasised in his diary about bringing about a communist revolution in Britain. Based on his reading of Russian and Irish history, he thought the best chance would be for dedicated revolutionaries to orchestrate a coup, preferably following a general strike. There was a reasonable prospect, he calculated, that part of the army would join the cause. But first the revolutionary vanguard would have to act decisively: blowing up railway lines; blockading the Thames; building barricades in the slums; seizing the factories and banks; cutting telegraph wires and taking control of the radio. Once the capital fell, the rest of the country would shortly follow.
By the time of his death in 2012 at the age of 95, Hobsbawm had never seen anything approaching a revolution in Britain. But he had lived through and commented on some of the major events of world history since his birth in 1917, fittingly the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. In that time, he had also become one of the best-read historians in the world. His fame stretched far and wide—from India, where his death was front-page news, to Brazil, where his friends and admirers included the future socialist president, Lula da Silva. His books became international bestsellers, bequeathing the world enduring concepts—“primitive rebels,” the “invention of tradition”—and epoch-defining titles like the “age of revolution” and the “age of extremes.”
Unusually for an academic, Hobsbawm eked out a place in popular culture. In 1986, he was alarmed to find a character with his surname appear in a John le Carré novel as a British intelligence asset (though le Carré insisted this was a coincidence). His scholarly work was cited by a character in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, and he was rumoured to be the inspiration for the Oxford don in Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play, Rock ‘n‘ Roll, about a Marxist academic struggling to reconcile his Soviet idealism with the Prague Spring. “I believe I have become probably the internationally best-known British historian, at least since Arnold Toynbee,” the aging Hobsbawm reflected proudly.
A major biography of this totemic figure is overdue,…