I was saddened to hear of the death of Eric Hobsbawm, one of the great Marxist historians writing in the English language of my lifetime. Hobsbawm died Oct. 1 in London at age 95.
I met Hobsbawm on a number of occasions when he came to Rutgers University in the 1970s and 1980s: the first time with his friends and fellow British Marxist historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson; the second, at the end of the 1980s, when he gave some lectures under odd circumstances once more at Rutgers.
First, Eric Hobsbawm the man. He was a little persnickety, something of a putdown artist when I first met him. I was taken aback when he said that he had heard about my dissertation, hadn’t read it and probably wouldn’t read it. I thought that he was some kind of British aristocrat, maybe even like some careerist leftists at the time that I called “Gucci Marxists,” but I was very wrong. I hadn’t read his work, which was not about U.S. history, but I began to read it.
The next time I saw him was a decade later at Rutgers, where he had come as a distinguished lecturer. Felix Browder, Rutgers’ academic vice president and the son of former Communist Party USA leader Earl Browder, had signed off on the lecture, which was held in a very noisy area attached to a dormitory, with people going in and out, banging doors, etc. I was mortified, told Hobsbawm that he shouldn’t stand for such conditions, but Eric kept his cool – I now knew a great deal about his work and saw him as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman in the best sense.
Although he was a longtime member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (now the Communist Party of Britain) which he joined in 1936, Hobsbawm did not suffer the fate of U.S. communist historians like Philip Foner and Herbert Aptheker, not to mention many other scholars associated with the CPUSA: firing, blacklisting, becoming in the language of George Orwell “unpersons.” Hobsbawm kept his position at London’s Birkbeck College, but like Foner, Aptheker and others, he also continued to write and edit major general works for the people.
Niall Ferguson, a leading historian of the contemporary Anglo-American right who is the exact opposite of everything that Eric Hobsbawm was – hip defender of imperialism, former Thatcherite, adviser to McCain in 2008, writer for Newsweek and Time, opponent of the Obama administration and supporter of Mitt Romney today – actually wrote that Eric Hobsbawm’s four-volume general world history (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Empire, The Age of Capital, The Age of Extremes – also published collectively as The Making of the Modern World) was “the best starting point for anyone I know to begin studying modern history.”
The Eric Hobsbawm I remember would have smiled at that and suggested that Ferguson take his own advice.
Eric Hobsbawm loved jazz, which the great CPUSA critic Sidney Finkelstein long ago rightly called “a people’s music.” Hobsbawm wrote about it under the name of Frankie Newton (Billie Holliday’s Communist trumpeter) for the left British publication The New Statesman.
He wrote as prolifically as Foner or Aptheker and continued to do so for the rest of his life, as they did.
For what might be called the academic establishment (work that graduate students are supposed to remember on examinations) his best known works were probably Primitive Rebels (1959) and, with George Rude, Captain Swing. I have long used two of the general histories that Ferguson alluded to, The Age of Empire (1875-1914) and The Age of Extremes (1914-1991), in courses that I teach on the history of socialism and communism. Along with the first two volumes in the series, The Age of Revolution (1789-1848) and The Age of Capital (1848-1875), they are more than an introduction to modern history. They provide a framework for understanding history.
Eric Hobsbawm was involved in many battles within the Communist Party of Great Britain over the decades and as a scholar and an activist took positions that I and many readers would both agree and disagree with. Up to his death he was still active, still reading and still writing, fighting his last battle against leukemia. To the end, from my readings and personal acquaintance, he was both his own man and a man of the left. He lives on through his work and through all who knew him.