Online shopping from a great selection at Books Store. Dividing the century into the Age of Catastrophe, –, the Golden Age, –, and the Landslide, –, Hobsbawm marshals a vast array of . Eric Hobsbawm was a rare bird himself: “the last living Communist”, as he was teased at his 90th birthday party, and one of the last committed.
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Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death at the age of 95, he had achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life. Unlike some others, Hobsbawm achieved this wider recognition without in any major way revolting against either Marxism or Marx. In a profession notorious for microscopic preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority.
To the last, Hobsbawm considered himself to be essentially a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad and unusually cosmopolitan. Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, a good place for a historian of empire, ina good year for a communist.
But Eric was British of no ordinary background.
Another uncle, Sidney, went to Egypt before the first world war and found a job there in a shipping office for Leopold. There, inLeopold Hobsbawm met Nelly Gruen, a young Viennese from a middle-class family who had been given a trip to Egypt as a prize for completing her school studies. Inthe young family settled in Vienna, where Eric went to elementary school, a period he later recalled in a television documentary which featured pictures of a recognisably skinny young Viennese Hobsbawm in shorts and knee socks.
Politics made their impact around this time. Eric’s first political memory was in Vienna inwhen workers burned down the Palace of Justice. The first political conversation that he could recall took place in an Alpine sanatorium in these years, too. Two motherly Jewish women were discussing Leon Trotsky. Two years later his mother died of TB. Eric was 14, and his Uncle Sidney took charge once more, taking Eric and his sister Nancy to live in Berlin.
He could always remember the day in January when, emerging from the Halensee S-Bahn station on his way home from his school, the celebrated Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, he saw a newspaper headline announcing Hitler’s election as chancellor. Around this time he joined the Socialist Schoolboys, which he described as “de facto part of the communist movement” and sold its publication, Schulkampf School Struggle.
He kept the organisation’s duplicator under his bed and, if his later facility for writing was any guide, probably wrote most of the articles too. The gangly teenage boy who settled with his sister in Edgware in described himself later as “completely continental and German speaking”. School, though, was “not a problem” because the English education system was “way behind” the German. A cousin in Balham introduced him to jazz for the first time — the “unanswerable sound”, he called it.
Learning to speak English properly, Eric became a pupil at Marylebone grammar school and in he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. But, he added, “it was not. When the second world war broke out, Hobsbawm volunteered, as many communists did, for intelligence work.
But his politics, which were never a secret, led to rejection. Instead he became an improbable sapper in Field Company, which he later described as “a very working-class unit trying to build some patently inadequate defences hobsbau, invasion on the coasts of East Anglia”.
This, too, was a formative experience for the often aloof young intellectual prodigy. They were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people. Hobsbawm married his first wife, Muriel Seaman, in After the war, returning to Cambridge, he made another choice, abandoning a planned doctorate on north African agrarian reform in favour of research on the Fabians.
In he got his first tenured job, as a history lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, where he was to remain for much of his teaching life. With the onset of the cold war, a very British hosbaum McCarthyism meant that the Cambridge lectureship which Hobsbawm always coveted never materialised.
He shuttled between Cambridge hobsbajm London, one of the principal organisers and driving forces of the Communist Party Historians Group, a glittering radical academy which brought together some of the most prominent historians of the postwar era. Whatever else ohbsbaum achieved, the CP Historians Group, about which Hobsbawm wrote an authoritative essay incertainly provided a nucleus for many of his first steps as a major historical writer.
Hobsbawm’s first book, Labour’s Turning Pointan edited collection of documents from the Fabian era, belongs firmly to this CP-dominated era, as does his engagement in the once celebrated “standard of living” debate about the economic consequences of the hobssbaum industrial revolution, in which he and RM Hartwell traded arguments in successive numbers of the Erjk History Review.
The foundation of the Past and Present journal — now the most lasting, if fully independent, legacy of the Historians Group — also belongs to this period. Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement. For many, this remained the insuperable obstacle to an embrace of his writing.
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm | British historian |
Yet he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks. Over Hungary inan event which split the CP and drove many intellectuals out of the hobsbbaum, he was a voice of protest who nevertheless remained. Yet, as with his contemporary, Christopher Hill, who left the CP at this time, the political trauma of and the start of a lastingly happy second marriage combined in some way to trigger a sustained and fruitful period of historical writing that was to establish fame and reputation.
These works are reminders that Hobsbawm was both a bridge between European and British historiography and a forerunner of the notable rise of the study of social history in post Britain.
By this time, though, Hobsbawm had already published the first of the works on which both his popular and academic reputations still rest. It has rarely been out of print. This was followed in by The Age of Capital: A fourth volume, The Age of Extremes: The four volumes embodied all of Hobsbawm’s best qualities — the sweep combined with the telling anecdote and statistical grasp, the attention to the nuance and significance of events and words, and above all, perhaps, the unrivalled powers of synthesis nowhere better displayed than in a classic summary of midth century capitalism on the very first page of the second volume.
The books were not conceived as a tetralogy, but as they appeared, they acquired individual and cumulative classic status.
Eric Hobsbawm – Wikipedia
They were an example, Hobsbawm wrote, of “what the French call ‘haute vulgarisation'” he did not mean this self-deprecatinglyand they became, in the words of one reviewer, “part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen”. Hobsbawm’s first marriage had collapsed in In he married again, this time to Marlene Schwarz, of Austrian descent.
They moved to Hampstead and bought a small second home in Wales. They hobsbam two children, Andrew and Julia. In the s, Hobsbawm’s widening fame as a historian was accompanied by a growing reputation as a writer about his own times.
His conversations with the Italian communist — and now state president — Giorgio Napolitano date from these years, hobbsaum were published as The Italian Road to Socialism. But his most influential political work centred on his increasing certainty that the European labour movement had ceased to be capable of bearing the transformational role assigned to it by earlier Marxists. These uncompromisingly revisionist articles were collected under the general heading The Forward March of Labour Halted.
Bywhen Neil Kinnock became the leader of the Labour party at the depth of its electoral fortunes, Hobsbawm’s influence had begun to extend far beyond the CP and deep into Labour itself. Kinnock publicly acknowledged his debt to Hobsbawm and allowed himself to be interviewed by the man he described as as “my favourite Marxist”.
Eric Hobsbawm obituary
Though he strongly disapproved of much of what later took shape as “New Labour”, which he saw, among other things, as historically cowardly, he was without question the single most influential intellectual forerunner of Labour’s increasingly iconoclastic s revisionism.
In its citation, Downing Street said Hobsbawm continued to publish works that “address problems in history hosbbaum politics that have re-emerged to disturb the complacency of Europe”. In his later years, Hobsbawm enjoyed widespread reputation and respect. His 80th and 90th birthday celebrations were attended by a Who’s Who of leftwing and liberal intellectual Britain. Throughout the late years, he continued to publish volumes of essays, including On History and Uncommon Peopleworks in which Dizzy Gillespie and Salvatore Giuliano hobdbaum naturally side by side in the index as testimony to the range hobsbahm Hobsbawm’s abiding curiosity.
A fall in late severely reduced his mobility, but his intellect and willpower remained unvanquished, as did his social and cultural life, thanks to Marlene’s efforts, love — and cooking. That his writings continued to command such audiences at a time when his politics were in some ways so eclipsed was the kind of disjunction which exasperated rightwingers, but it was a paradox on which the subtle judgment of this least complacent of intellects feasted.
In his later years, he liked to quote EM Forster that he was “always standing at a slight angle to the universe”. Whether the remark says more about Hobsbawm or about the universe was something that he enjoyed disputing, confident in the knowledge that it was in some senses a lesson for them both.
He is survived by Marlene and his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.