Renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm died this morning aged 95. Lindsey German pays tribute to the man who, despite his later political revisions, wrote definitive Marxist history for our time
The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died earlier today aged 95, was born in the year of the Russian Revolution, 1917. His birthplace of Alexandria in Egypt was the home of a large Jewish population. His childhood spent in Vienna and then Berlin following his parents’ deaths politicised him. He always said that he could remember exactly when he heard the news of Hitler coming to power; at the time he was part of a clandestine group of socialist school students.
These factors motivated Hobsbawm to be at the very centre of 20th century politics. He was an extremely intelligent and scholarly historian, but he was also someone who experienced directly the rise of fascism in Germany, and who as a teenager committed himself to Communism, a cause from which he never wavered. He was one of the last of a generation of Middle European, often Jewish, intellectuals whose cultural and political experience made such a major contribution to modern thought.
He moved to Britain in 1934 and eventually went to Cambridge, but Cold War hostility to Communism prevented him from being offered an academic post there. He spent most of his academic career was at Birkbeck College, London, which specialises in evening courses for mature students. Hobsbawm started writing history in the 1940s and continued until last year, when he also appeared on BBC Newsnight talking about Marxism. He last book has yet to be published.
The legacy for which he will be rightly remembered are his four part ‘Age of…’ series. His breadth of knowledge and his use of cultural and social history mark them as very special and important works which have had a profound impact on generations of Marxists, and also on those very distant from Marxism. The first three cover 19th century history through The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. They are essential reading for anyone who wants to look at this key period from a Marxist point of view. The fourth volume, The Age of Extremes, published in 1994, is much less good, although still a powerful overview of the ‘short 20th century’ from 1914 to 1989.
Perhaps the main reason for this was Hobsbawm’s own politics, and his failure to come to terms with the impact of Stalinism on the working class movement in this period. He was therefore much less clear about the course of working class struggle in his own lifetime. His forays into domestic politics, through the influential but rightward moving Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today and his essay The Forward March of Labour Halted?, reinforced a rightward moving Labour Party and suggested that the militant history of the British working class, of which he had written so eloquently, was now in the past. No wonder that former Labour leader Neil Kinnock described Hobsbawm as his favourite Marxist, and that he was awarded the Companion of Honour on the recommendation of Tony Blair’s government.
Yet, for all that, he did stick to Marxism throughout his life, albeit a form of Marxism of which many of us would be critical. He also strengthened our understanding of history and of how human beings change it. At a time when we are offered the vile prejudices of Starkey, the imperialist boostering of Ferguson and the history-lite of Shama, Hobsbawm stands out. He was a member of the celebrated Communist Party Historians’ Group, which brought together some of the finest historians of the post Second World War period: Christopher Hill, EP Thompson, AL Morton, Rodney Hilton and John Saville. Any of them repay serious reading, which is why revisionist historians and academic history departments have spent the past 30 years trying to minimise their achievements and wipe out their influence.
Of these historian, Hobsbawm alone stayed with the Communist Party to the end, while many others left; especially over the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. That too was a sign of his political loyalty to a system which was becoming increasingly and obviously indefensible and which collapsed in 1989.
His legacy should be -and will be- his books, not just the series but also his early collection of materials from the 1880s and 90s, Labouring Men, and his Industry and Empire. Hobsbawm was an extremely cultured man, writing on jazz as well as labour history. He brought a wider focus to the history of the working class movement through his understanding of imperialism and its relationship to capitalism.
His political role at a crucial period of defeat inside the British working class movement was not good. But we should not allow that to obscure the very great contribution he made towards understanding our history, which hopefully will be remembered for generations to come.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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