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).