Remembering Eric Hobsbawm, Historian for Social Justice
Eric Hobsbawm, who died on October 1 at the age of 95, was perhaps the twentieth century’s pre-eminent historian and a life-long advocate of social justice. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917 to a British father and Austrian mother, he was educated in Vienna and Berlin. His family sent him to London in 1933 when Hitler came to power and he lived for the rest of his life in England, where he taught for many years at London’s Birkbeck College.
As a teenager, Hobsbawm not only witnessed the rise of Nazism but was present in 1936 at the massive popular demonstration in Paris that celebrated the electoral victory of the Popular Front. The events of that turbulent time led him to join the Communist party and he remained a member until its disappearance in the 1990s, mostly, he wrote, out of respect for the memory of comrades who had suffered persecution or death for their political beliefs.
Hobsbawm’s historical writings brought to bear a sophisticated Marxist analysis that saw class conflict as a driving force of historical change but rejected narrow economic determinism and teleological frameworks. Like Marx himself, Hobsbawm saw capitalism as a total social system, which had to be analyzed in its entirety, and rejected notions of historical inevitability. He insisted that people must strive to envision a more humane social order, but that history had no predetermined trajectory. His 1978 essay “The Forward March of Labor Halted?” offered a prescient and disturbing warning that the postwar expansion of social democracy and the power of organized labor, considered irreversible by many leftists, had reached a crisis point. His writings on the history of British labor helped to launch the “new social history” that dominated historical scholarship in Britain and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in an influential 1971 essay, “From Social History to the History of Society,” he warned that studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.
Hobsbawm’s books cover an amazing range of subjects. He first came to prominence in the 1950s with his contribution to what was then a lively debate over the “general crisis” of seventeenth-century England. Along with E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Hobsbawm’s writings such as Labouring Men (1964) and Primitive Rebels (1959) helped to inspire the expansion of labor history from studies of trade unions to the examination of workers’ lives, and sparked an interest in banditry, rural anarchism and other forms of what he called “prepolitical” protest. His economic history of modern Britain, Industry and Empire (1968), remains a brilliant account of an epic economic transformation. He also wrote a wide-ranging study of nationalism in the modern world, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990).
But Hobsbawm is best known for his magisterial four-volume series The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994), which together chronicles world history from the beginning of the French Revolution to the end of the Soviet Union. Long before the current vogue for “internationalizing” the study of history, Hobsbawm insisted that capitalism is a global system, which must be studied in a global context. The books drew on events in every region of the world, and on sources and scholarship in multiple languages. Hobsbawm was comfortable discussing subjects as far afield from Great Britain as the Latin American wars of independence, the Meiji Restoration in Japan and the rise to global power of the United States, yet he was able to merge local details into a coherent account of global political, economic and social change. The account also delves into art, culture, science, technology and other realms of human creativity and experience. These books remain the starting point for anyone who seeks a comprehensive history of the modern world.
In 1952, Hobsbawm helped to found Past and Present, which became the world’s most influential English-language historical journal. Its board included many Marxist scholars—Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and others—who left the Communist party in the wake of 1956. Hobsbawm, as noted above, did not follow them out of the party, but he made his intellectual home with them. He remained on the editorial board until his death.
A polymath, Hobsbawm was also a noted jazz critic, for many years writing music reviews under the name Francis Newton. He was an accomplished essayist on current affairs, whose writings had a wide readership among those interested in British politics. In whatever genre, his works were lucid and powerful, and always carried a moral inflection.
Personally, Hobsbawm was a gregarious, open-minded and generous person, whose large circle of friends ranged across the political and social spectrum. I first met him in 1973 when, soon after receiving my doctorate, I spent a year conducting research in England. Hobsbawm invited me to attend the seminar on social history he directed at the Institute of Historical Research in London; in those meetings his sparkling intellect was on full display. Last summer, I attended his ninety-fifth-birthday party in London. This unforgettable occasion brought together family members, historians, political commentators, musicians and others. Confined to a wheelchair because of a fall, Hobsbawm’s mind was as alert as ever. He delivered moving reminiscences about his life, dwelling especially on his long marriage to his wife, Marlene.
Hobsbawm’s final book, How to Change the World, was published last year. His life and writings will long serve as an inspiration to those who believe that a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current world, and to the struggle to create a better one.