Publication Date

November 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Eric Hobsbawm. Photo by John Moore, courtesy Birkbeck College.Inimitable, Polymathic Modern Historian

Eric Hobsbawm's achievement as a historian was to "de-provincialize" the story of the rise of the West, putting it in its proper global context, linking it to the uneven surges of capitalism and class formation, grasping the force of nationalism, exploring and even appreciating the cultural dimension of bourgeois civilization while remaining aware of its often vicious exclusions.

These successes owed much to the clarity of Hobsbawm's prose, his wonderful eye for detail, his power of synthesis and his willingness to allow readers to draw their own conclusions, rather than preach to them or regale them with methodology. A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the age of 16 until the party dissolved itself, he was happy to be described as a "Marxist historian" (though it is often forgotten that he scathingly condemned Stalin from 1956 on). His collection On History furnished a detailed and discriminating account of his intellectual debts—to Marx but also to the Annales, structuralism, and cultural anthropology. The grandeur of his historical vision allowed him to become an extraordinarily perceptive, prophetic—and hard-headed—interpreter of the spirit of the times.

Hobsbawm first made his influence felt with an essay on the "Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in 1954 in Past and Present, a journal he had helped to found. In an argument that owed something to Keynes as well as Marx, he explained that the 17th-century surge of commercial agriculture in Eastern and Central Europe was undermined by its roots in a “second serfdom” that boosted luxury display but failed to generate “mass demand.” The serflords might give work to “scores of chefs, stucco artists and perruquiers” but this was too narrow a basis for real growth, which would have to await the broader market of an emergent capitalism based on wage labor. This argument provoked an important debate and it continued to have a certain contemporary resonance. The American Historical Review, 50 years after the essay’s first publication, deemed Hobsbawm’s argument to be worthy of a round table reassessment, a tribute to which few could aspire.

Hobsbawm established himself as the indispensable modern historian with his great trilogy on the long 19th century, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, books that focused on the European core states and how their industrial advance and global ascendancy was facilitated by colonial markets (elaborating an argument he had already broached in Industry and Empire, 1964). While stressing the importance of colonies like India, Hobsbawm’s abiding concern was with “the triumph and transformation of capitalism in the historically specific form of bourgeois society in its liberal version.” But Hobsbawm also warned that despite its apparent universalism, race and gender powerfully shaped bourgeois class formation, and economic liberalism often spelled disaster for peasant populations.

The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (1995) was a splendid achievement that offered a central puzzle. What had happened to the bourgeoisie whose ascendancy had been so vividly portrayed in the trilogy? How had it survived the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the devastating dislocations of the interwar, the rise of fascism, and World War II? In this grim landscape a progressive bourgeoisie struggled to be reborn in the Popular Front and the New Deal, while the allied victory and the dynamics of the Cold War paradoxically promoted a “Golden Age” of regulation, growth, social security, and even decolonization.

Hobsbawm believed that the alliance of antifascism and anticolonialism represented a continuation of the values of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, but he stresses that the alignment was contingent and fragile, even if also progressive and coherent. Ultimately, the progressive alliance lacked the will to regulate capitalism and the heroic bourgeoisie and its labor-reforming allies were replaced with bankers and economists scurrying with their laptops through a pseudomodernist world of airports, international hotels, business schools and institutes of statistics.The Age of Extremes warned of looming catastrophe.

In his youth Eric witnessed Nazi bully boys attacking trade unionists, Jews, and Communists. In Britain he found himself in his army unit thrown together with a group of British workers whose outlook astounded him. For him the Nazi's sweeping victories and British military unpreparedness were deeply disheartening. But his new comrades remained cheerful and confident. Things might look bad but Britain would win out in the end, just as she always did. Hobsbawm was both impressed and exasperated, seeing proletarian stoicism allied to national feeling. Eric thereafter had a soft spot for British nationalism, but not for nationalism more generally, something that pitted him against some New Left writers, notably Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn. The debate between them led to widely read books, including Hobsbawm'sNations and Nationalism (1988).

The author of a landmark account of the modern period, Hobsbawm would seem the arch exponent of a "master narrative." Yet Hobsbawm was meticulous in registering contingencies, accidents and paths not taken. He also had great sympathy for those marginalized by the mainstream as he showed in Primitive Rebels (1957) and Bandits (1969). His writings on jazz and blues (published under the name Francis Newton); the collection he coedited, The Invention of Tradition (1984); and his lectures on the failure of the Avant-Garde,Behind the Times (1998) displayed his insight into the arts and the wider cultural ethos. His last writings, collected inHow to Change the World (2011), offered proof that the Marxist historian had not mellowed and remained as radically engaged as ever.

Eric Hobsbawm was not only an eminent scholar but also a public intellectual, speaking out on issues of the day—opposing the Vietnam War and its "humanitarian" successors, addressing teach-ins and labor-movement events. His death on October 1, 2012, was prominently reported on the main British TV news channels and in the London newspapers. Listening to the paeans of praise one could not help wondering why Hobsbawm, the great communicator, had been denied the British historian's ultimate accolade, a TV series.

The passing of this outstanding and engaged historian leaves a gaping hole yet his inspiration will live on in so many fields.

University of Essex

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