Eric Hobsbawm, leftist historian of grand sweep, dies at 95
By Adam Bernstein,
Eric J. Hobsbawm, whose upbringing amid the rise of European fascism provoked loyalty to the Communist Party long after it had been discredited and shaped his scholarly career as an influential chronicler of sweeping historical forces such as democratization, industrialization and nationalism, died Oct. 1 at a hospital in London. He was 95.
He died of complications from pneumonia and leukemia, his daughter Julia Hobsbawm told the Associated Press.
The Cambridge-educated Dr. Hobsbawm spent most of his prodigious literary career in England after an early life set against the backdrop of cataclysmic events. He was born in Egypt to European Jews in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He passed his formative years in Austria and, after being orphaned, in Germany during the rise of the Nazis.
“It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed,” he later said about being drawn to Marxism as a teenager.
In an academic career spanning five decades, Dr. Hobsbawm wrote extensively about the intersections of politics and social foment, and his output was distinguished by precision and clarity. Versed in many languages, he pored over sometimes-obscure source material to demonstrate how ideas as well as economics shape an age. He did not limit himself, as many contemporaries did, to culling information from government documents and political tracts.
“Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption,” the British history scholar A.J.P. Taylor once wrote. “Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades.”
Dr. Hobsbawm, an emeritus professor of economic and social history at Birkbeck College in London, initially made his name as a chronicler of working-class British history. He also was among a generation of left-wing historians, including Christopher Hill, who helped launch Past and Present, a British journal that charted new intellectual territory by writing with empathy about the working class, women and people who were colonized.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, that publication had greater clout in history departments throughout the English-speaking world than any other,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor and an authority on U.S. social and political history. “It was the most exciting and prestigious outlet for fresh approaches to subjects ranging from heresy during the Renaissance to the origins of World War I.”
In his books and papers, Dr. Hobsbawm harnessed Marxist ideas of how class relations unfold to better understand tradition, language and other noneconomic factors. “Eric and the others used Marxist theory, but not in a mechanical or orthodox way, so they could understand things as varied as the English peasant revolt of the 14th century and Viennese architecture in the 19th century,” Wilentz said. “It illuminated history for everyone.”
Writing in The Washington Post, historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University once described Dr. Hobsbawm as “the pre-eminent Marxist historian in the English-speaking world. . . . Instead of letting the undeniable drama of wars, revolutions and the phantasmagoria of gushing culture (its music, art and intellectual currents) speak for themselves, he explains why and how they occurred, thus soaring over the predictable — if vividly rendered — narratives that fill the history sections of mall-hugging bookstores.”
Dr. Hobsbawm explored the impact of proletariat uprisings to protest agricultural working conditions (“Captain Swing: The English Farm-Labourers’ Rising of 1830,” 1969, co-written by historian George F.E. Rude). He limned the transformation from the “lower poor” into the working classes by the mid-20th century (“Workers: Worlds of Labor,” 1984).
He was best known for a quartet of volumes tracing world history from the French Revolution of 1789 to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991: “The Age of Revolution” (1962), “The Age of Capital” (1975), “The Age of Empire” (1987) and “The Age of Extremes” (1994).
Collectively, the books delved into the political, social, economic and cultural upheavals that transformed Europe and the rest of the world, examining violent rebellion, economic depression, capitalism, colonialism, industrialization, immigration and other concepts. In “The Age of Empire,” Dr. Hobsbawm wrote that the rise of colonization spawned new classes of literate and middle-class people to develop and sustain the distant territories.
A hallmark of Dr. Hobsbawm’s mordant style was to pull back from broad historical forces and find an intriguing, little-known subject that breathed vivid life into the narrative. In “The Age of Capital,” he described a 19th-century Chinese rebel, the “obsessed, perhaps psychopathic prophet, Hung Hsiu Chuan . . . one of those failed candidates for the imperial Civil Service examination who were so readily given to political discontent.”
Dr. Hobsbawm retired from Birkbeck in 1982 but continued to teach for many more years at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan and contributed to publications that included the New York Review of Books.
He remained a thought-provoking writer in volumes that continued to pour out with regularity: “Nations and Nationalism since 1780” (1990); “On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy” (2008); a memoir, “Interesting Times: A Twentieth- Century Life” (2002); and others.
Dr. Hobsbawm found in communism the solution to what he considered the inequities of capitalism. As the years passed, his refusal to completely disavow an ideology that so warped the era in which he lived seemed on the face of it to diminish his interpretation of world events.
“Hobsbawm, who had a fine taste for paradox, was himself something of a paradox: a brilliant historian, one of the giants of his day, who could also justify state repression and the deaths of millions in the name of a better world,” Wilentz said.
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born June 9, 1917, in Alexandria in Egypt, then a British protectorate. His father, Leopold Hobsbaum (a clerk misspelled Eric’s surname at birth), was a cabinetmaker’s son from London. His mother, the former Nelly Grun, was the daughter of a Viennese jeweler.
The family resettled in Vienna after the end of World War I, and Leopold struggled to find work as a salesman. Eric was 12 when his father died from an apparent heart attack. His mother died two years later from lung disease.
The children — Eric and a younger sister — were handed off to various relatives. Eric wound up in Berlin and joined a socialist youth organization. Within a few years, he joined his sister in London. He joined the British Communist Party in 1936 while attending King’s College at the University of Cambridge.
He graduated with highest honors in 1939 and received a master’s degree in 1943 and a doctorate in 1951, all from Cambridge. He served in a British army engineering unit during World War II.
His first marriage, to Muriel Seaman, ended in divorce. In 1962, he married Marlene Schwartz. Besides his wife, survivors include three children; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Dr. Hobsbawm remained a stalwart of the British Communist Party even after many leading intellectuals abandoned membership after the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not to mention the atrocities and show trials of the Stalin era and beyond. He stayed with the British party through its demise in 1991.
“In the early days, we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine,” he told the London Guardian in 2002. “Thanks to the breakdown of the West, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”
Acknowledging that Stalin was “doomed to failure,” he added that essentially the whole 20th century is filled with examples of large-scale brutality and sacrifice.
“I lived through the First World War, when 10 million to 20 million people were killed,” he told the Guardian. “At the time, the British, French and Germans believed it was necessary. We disagree. In the Second World War, 50 million died. Was the sacrifice worthwhile? I frankly cannot face the idea that it was not. I can’t say it would have been better if the world was run by Adolph Hitler.”
A habitue of London’s night clubs, Dr. Hobsbawm wrote “The Jazz Scene” (1959) under the pseudonym Francis Newton. He chose the name to honor Virginia-born jazz trumpeter Frankie Newton, a communist.