The Man Who Knew Almost Everything
I first read Eric Hobsbawm as a doctoral student in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in the 1980s. I started with his books on popular protest, Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969), before moving on to his trilogy on the ages, respectively, of revolution, capital and empire. In October 2012, when Hobsbawm died at 95, I happened to be in London. Curious to see how a historian of such enormous influence was remembered, I picked up every paper at the newsstand next to my hotel. The Guardian had a large photograph of Hobsbawm on the front page, a fulsome full-page obituary (by two writers associated with the Communist Party), and an editorial saying that his death was a “shared national loss.” Another news report in the same paper carried the heartfelt homage of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (whose father, the Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband, had been a friend). Hobsbawm was “an extraordinary historian…who brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives,” Miliband the younger proclaimed.
The Guardian is, of course, the standard-bearer of left-liberalism in Britain (and beyond). Meanwhile, the centrist Times and Independent both ran long and respectful obits. However, the conservative Daily Telegraph carried a skeptical signed piece by the distinguished anti-communist historian Michael Burleigh. Captioned “A believer in the Red utopia to the very end,” it overlooked Hobsbawm’s contributions to history from below; dismissed the synthetic global histories, such as The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, with faint praise (“dazzles readers with the author’s apparent fluency as he zigzags from First to Third World contexts—unless you happen to be an expert on Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela”); and ended by saying that “Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his [Marxist] views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left.”
Clearly, even as The Guardian composed its editorial, the national consensus was under stress—and would break down completely when the Daily Mail’s assessment appeared with the headline “He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was hero of the BBC and the Guardian, Eric Hobsbawm a TRAITOR too?” The paper went on to assert that “Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace. His books will not be read in the future. They are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.”
A year after his death, many of Hobsbawm’s books are still in the stores, still read by history buffs, still assigned in university courses. And new ones have begun appearing, composed of lectures and essays in scattered publications that have never before appeared in hardcover. Just before he died, a collection of his writings on Marx and Marxism, titled How to Change the World, was published. The posthumous collection Fractured Times followed, dealing chiefly with culture and the arts. It is likely that more thematic anthologies will appear in the months and years ahead. Evidently, the hard-nosed capitalists at the helm of today’s global publishing conglomerates think that the works (and words) of this Marxist can still make them some money.
One can see why. Hobsbawm was a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but because his historical works dealt chiefly with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his political commitment did not really disfigure his scholarship. (It was only late in his career, when he came to write on the events of his own lifetime, that one could see his biases more clearly.) As a historian qua historian, he was without equal among his contemporaries.
In both disciplinary and geographical terms, Hobsbawm was an anti-chauvinist. He had paid his dues in the archives, but he’d also read widely in sociology, anthropology and philosophy. He had a keen interest in the arts and a keener interest in music, being especially knowledgeable about jazz. (He wrote a jazz column for the New Statesman under the pseudonym “Francis Newton.”) And while most other British historians concerned themselves exclusively with their home (or Home) country, Hobsbawm—born in Alexandria, raised in Vienna, a high school student in Berlin before fleeing Hitler for Britain—was fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish (and could read in Portuguese, Dutch and Catalan). He was familiar with the intricate details of nearly every European nation: their ethnic composition, their political parties’ programs, their wars won and lost, their most renowned (or most notorious) artists and writers. Furthermore, he had taught for long periods in the United States and traveled a great deal in Latin America.
Hobsbawm’s best-known books focused on the material side of human life, or on what Marxists term “the forces and relations of production”—namely, technological trends, wealth creation, class formation and class struggle. But on the evidence of Fractured Times, inside this materialist there was an aesthete waiting to come out. The collection is a fascinating and intensely observed history of the cultural twentieth century, and a worthy complement to Hobsbawm’s economic, political and social histories.
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The book begins with Hobsbawm recalling the imperial center of the Vienna of his boyhood—dominated by a ring of great public buildings housing the stock exchange, the theater, the university, the art and natural history museums, “and, of course, the heart of every self-respecting nineteenth-century bourgeois city, the Grand Opera.” However, despite the occasional note of nostalgia, this is an excavation of, rather than a paean to, the era of European cultural hegemony that was eclipsed by the rise of a more generalized mass culture with an American inflection.