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.”