Eric Hobsbawm, great Marxist historian who kept his cool

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.

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  • Hobsbwam's consistent critique of nationalism , identity politics went with his unflinching confidence in the working class as driving force of history and mass revolutionary parties as the best agents of change even in
    what he called ' the world without communism'.

    Posted by N. Madhavan Kutty, 10/15/2012 5:01am (2 years ago)

  • I thank Norman for his fine appreciation of the historian who, I have always thought, should be the first inductee into the much-needed Historians Hall of Fame. I first heard of Hobsbawm as an undergraduate at Boston University in the early 1960s. One day in class, my mentor, Professor Herbert Moller, a conservative German emigre and inspiring teacher, recommended "The Age of Revolution" as an interesting book "although written by a Marxist." In the fall of 1964, as a first-year graduate student at Rutgers, none other than Eugene Genovese assigned "The Age of Revolution" as my book-review project for his course in Historiography. So began my love for Hobsbawm's scholarship and admiration for his example of how to live a life that means something. I met him only once, a brief encounter at a book signing for "Age of Extremes." He was very gracious.

    Posted by Stephen Gosch, 10/08/2012 12:14pm (2 years ago)

  • The commenter makes a good point and the list could be expanded extensively. Also Hobsbawm did deal with different kinds of nationalism and in the late 20th early 21st century the emergence of all sorts of separatist, fragmenting nationalisms, religious, ethnic, cultural, based on "invented" pasts. I was remiss in not mentioning this work. I was also remiss in not mention two other important late works, Eric Hobsbawm, On Empire, America War and global Supremacy(2008) and his last published work, a series of essays, Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World, Marx and Marxism, 1848-2011(2011)
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by norman markowitz, 10/04/2012 12:54pm (2 years ago)

  • I feel "The Invention of Tradition" is the theory most suited to this era of fundamentalism based on various identities rooted in one or the other tradition. Fascism is a good example of the artificially created tradition. Hidutwa and Muslim fundamentalism are other examples alongwith Zionism. Hobsbawm will be remembered for this by all secular , peace loving people of the world for this contribution.

    Posted by cp aboobacker, 10/03/2012 11:48pm (2 years ago)

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