Age of Hobsbawm

Published : Nov 02, 2012 00:00 IST

Eric Hobsbawam, when he visited New Delhi on December 14, 2004.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Eric Hobsbawam, when he visited New Delhi on December 14, 2004.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) remained loyal to communism even in testing circumstances, but it is as a historian who captured the histories of humanity that he is well known.

Seldom in recent years has the death of a communist been mourned by so many. Eric Hobsbawm passed away on October 1 at the age of 95. He was born in 1917 and lived far longer than the short twentieth century that he described in Age of Extremes (1994), a history told, as he described it, by a participant observer. The historical professionwe who were in denial of human mortality when it came to this gentle and powerful personification of our collective consciencemust now awaken to a post-Hobsbawmian era, perhaps commemorated by a new calendar for which this is the beginning of the Year One AH (After Hobsbawm).

All our formative moments in which he accompanied us, from undergraduate explorations to iconoclastic graduate research to cynical revisionism, in which he was so often our main interlocutor, must now be faced again alone. From his early studies of social banditry and anti-capitalist mobilisation in Primitive Rebels (1959), Bandits (1969) and Captain Swing (1969), to his trilogy on the long nineteenth century from the French Revolution to the First World War (1962-1987), to his brilliant short introduction, with Terence Ranger, to The Invention of Tradition (1983), which transformed the way historians thought about all things that made claims to antiquity and, therefore, legitimacy, to his Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990), which warned us that no serious student of nationalism could afford to be a nationalist, Hobsbawms voice has long been with us, the debates he set in motion central to our professional and political lives.

He died, ironically, just when the style of history-writing he pioneered is back in fashion, in the hands of superficial and inferior imitators who pretentiously call themselves global historians. Hobsbawms breadth of vision, his histories of humanity captured in their collective grandeur, idealism and delusions, remain unmatched. He was able to move seamlessly from the abstract to the particular, from the era to the event, from narratives of power and descriptions of the dizzy heights of intellectual achievement to the intimate banalities of the everyday lives of the working class. He wrote about visions of revolutionary transformation with as much brilliance and ease as he wrote with affection of the foibles of jazzmen and bandits, and of the vanities of the bourgeois drawing room. To see the world as the world unfolds, on a scale invisible and incomprehensible to those whose lives it transforms, was what Hobsbawm did best. To see the world from the perspective of those whose lives it transforms was also what Hobsbawm did best. The Spectator, the voice of British conservatism, not particularly known for lionising communists, called him our greatest living historiannot only Britains, but the worlds. He still is.

Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in June 1917 to Jewish parents, one British, the other Austrian, who had had to obtain special permission to marry each other two years earlier in neutral Zurich, because their countries were at war. The clerk at the British Consulate registering his birth spelled the name wrong, replacing a u with a w, also getting the birthday wrong for good measure. His father, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum, the son of an immigrant Jewish cabinetmaker in London, had been a talented amateur boxer in the East End, and in Egypt; his mother, Nelly Grn, daughter of a Vienna jeweller, was a translator, published one novel in her lifetime and left another unpublished. His father died young, aged 48, ending his financially disastrous attempts to live a bourgeois life in Vienna; and his mother died not long after.

Hobsbawm spent the years 1931-33 in Berlin, living with his uncle and aunt, completing his schooling, and witnessing the end of Weimar and the coming of the Nazis, before moving to England, fortuitously armed with a British passport in his own (misspelled) name, in 1933. Hobsbawms early life and conditioning were Central European, his emotional and intellectual engagements fitting in with the concerns of those years.

In 1935, Hobsbawm passed the scholarship examination for Oxford and Cambridge universities, and proceeded to Kings College, Cambridge; he completed a PhD (on the Fabian Society), and after the interruption of the Second World War and military service, began an academic career in 1947 at Birkbeck College, London, which pioneered evening classes to accommodate the needs of working people with a desire for higher education, and with which he was associated until his death. Hobsbawm later noted that he was fortunate to have started at Birkbeck before the Cold War had taken definitive shape and communists found it hard to secure academic positions; as it was, despite a growing international reputation, he was not promoted until 1959, and he only became Professor in 1970. His colleague and sometime collaborator, George Rude, was not so fortunate; he taught in secondary schools while publishing, his membership of the Communist Party making it impossible for him to find a university post until he emigrated to Australia and took up a post at the University of Adelaide in 1960.

The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist, Hobsbawm wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), which appeared when he was 85. He added that he now realised that the project of the Russian Revolution was always bound to fail; but in 1931, for a boy of Jewish and English background in Berlin on the eve of Hitlers seizure of power, the only viable political choice was communism.

Eric Hobsbawm remained loyal to his choice in testing circumstances. He did not leave the party, which he formally joined at Cambridge, in 1956 after the Hungarian episode, when many of his comrades, among them fellow historians Raphael Samuel and E.P. Thompson, did, nor in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when many more did, though he was critical of the Soviet Union in both cases (the wisdom and integrity of a communist intellectual was often gauged by the year in which they left the party). In the years after 1989, as the Left in Britain split into a bewildering gallery of minuscule factions, a number of sympathetic intellectuals who hadperhaps opportunisticallyaligned themselves with the Left now scrambled to denounce their previous selves as deluded or misledexcept for Hobsbawm, who refused to do any such thing. Commenting on an attack on him by fellow historian Tony Judt in a posthumous tribute to Judt in April 2012, Hobsbawm characterised Judts criticism of him as make a public confession that your god has failed, beat your breast and you may win the right to be taken seriously. No man who doesnt think socialism equals Gulag should be listened to. And Hobsbawm was not willing to play along with that game.

Some of his autobiographical comments come, therefore, as a slight surprise to those who remember the lifelong communist: the dream of the October Revolution is still, he said, somewhere inside me, although he has abandoned it, nay, rejected it. I remember him, a sprightly young man of 77, as a cautiously pessimistic speaker, assessing the state of the world after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of what he called the short twentieth century, at the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road in 1995; in his article on Art and Power, accompanying the exhibition of that name at the Haywards Gallery in London that same year, he wrote perceptively of the shared aesthetic of Nazism and Stalinism. His abandonment of the dream, if there was an abandonment, was a very slow process. The dream of the October Revolution somewhere inside him: this, then, might well be the best way to describe Eric Hobsbawm; it is a dream that drove his politics and his history-writing.

But a long career on the Left, and a set of careful criticisms and comments, in an environment overwhelmingly conditioned by the Cold War, was not always susceptible to subtle readings, and he was often seen by political opponents as well as by more critical left-wingers as an apologist for the Soviet Union; for those who have been associated with communist politics, it is easy to see him as one whose criticisms would be voiced within his own political circles and not outside them.

It is as a historian that Hobsbawm is known, as well as for his political sympathies and his sometimes unwise choice of causes (the relevance of which are more often discussed in British politics than elsewhere). Hobsbawm was of course one of the members of the Communist Party of Great Britains (CPGB) Historians Group, which included Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel, all of whom were pioneers of what came to be called history from below, replacing the histories of dynasties and elites with the histories and perspectives of those who were until then seldom seen as the main protagonists of history. Together, the group founded the journal Past and Present. It is probably this group, among whom Hobsbawm easily stands out as the most wide-ranging of writers, that will be remembered as the CPGBs main contribution to history. Ironically for Marxists, they introduced a long-standing culturalism to the writing of history. E.P. Thompsons working class made itself through significant symbolic and practical acts of cultural significance rather than coming into being through the structural contradictions of capitalist production. Christopher Hills work based itself on R.H. Tawneys English adaptation of Max Webers thesis on Protestantism and the rise of capitalism: in Hills adaptation, the Puritans, though using a language of religious radicalism, attacked royal privilege and monopolies in an English revolution that was the prototypical bourgeois revolution, paving the way for the ascendancy of mercantile capitalism. And Raphael Samuel was centrally concerned with the ways in which people experienced their own histories. It is Hobsbawm whose works resolute internationalism stands out from the relatively parochial interests and focusses of his fellow CPGB historians.

Again, as compared to them, Hobsbawm, with his resolute centring of the importance of economic history, appears to be the most conventional Marxist; and yet, in his writing, the stolid narrative of the dependence of cultural superstructure on economic base is happily conspicuous by its absence. An essay in the Marxist Quarterly in January 1955 entitled Where Are British Historians Going? spells out his discomfort: as a Marxist, he wrote, he should be the one to welcome an approach to history based on establishing the importance of economic interest as a motivation for politics; but the tendency to refuse to see anything but self-interest, which conservative and left-wing historians were beginning to share, left no room for anything other than ignoble human motivations.

Social banditry

Social history, as it was then called, was considered both innovative and radical in the days of its beginnings. The focus on ordinary people as the protagonists of history, paraphrasing Marxs comment in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that men make their own history, though not in circumstances of their own choosing was an approach which Hobsbawm pioneered.

In Primitive Rebels, Hobsbawm coined the term social banditry to describe persons who live outside the law but are seen as part of their societies, seen at times as champions of justice and liberation, an idea he further explored in Bandits. Captain Swing (written with George Rude) explores the destruction of threshing machines in England in 1830 by the rural poor; the title refers to the alleged author of threatening letters sent to gentry and clergy setting out the demands of the movement.

Hobsbawm had written, the year before, Industry and Empire, which sets the British Industrial Revolution in a world context from 1750 to 1960, showing his mastery of the small and large scale of history, as he did with the long nineteenth century trilogy: The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962), The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987). Memorable phrases mark the interpretative brilliance that framed an understanding of world history for students and colleagues alike: India and Ireland were perhaps the worst countries to be a peasant in between 1789 and 1848, but nobody who had the choice would have wished to be a farm labourer in England either. He had no patience for reactionaries: Compared to these relatively coherent ideologies of progress, those of resistance to progress hardly deserve the name of systems of thought.

The internationalism of Hobsbawms historical canvas was in consonance with his politics. In The Invention of Tradition, the crucial argument is that a claim to tradition is part of a legitimising bid on the part of a movement or group that wishes to make a claim to a collective political or social existence, most often nationalism. This is the crucial insight that is central to our studies of identity and difference, nations and nationalism, and the gamut of subjectivities that became the everyday concerns of histories and historians since the late 1980s. It sits consistently with Hobsbawms claim, in Nations and Nationalism, that one cannot be a serious historian of nationalism as a nationalist; for then one has had to swallow the myths of invention as genuine truths. Hobsbawm and Ranger, however, chose to say that not all traditions were invented; a more sceptical view of truth, as it developed through the 1980s and 1990s, would see all narratives as myths, for their connections are arbitrary. Solidarities and affinities, too, were not predictable: despite official communisms aversion to jazz, Hobsbawm noted in a 1979 essay, that its most active and passionate admirers, champions and supporters in the Anglo-Saxon world included a disproportionately large number of communists and their sympathisers. Is this accurate? Here again, personal experience is probably the central source.

Eric Hobsbawm was for several years the jazz critic of New Statesman, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton. He borrowed the name from a trumpet player who was among the sidemen of the singer Billie Holliday, and recorded on the blues legend Bessie Smiths last sessions, Frankie Newton (1906-1954), who was also a communist, or at least a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of the United States of America.

Biographies end with the subjects death. Autobiographies have no such natural termination. Thus begins the last chapter of Hobsbawms memoirs. But historians lives, too, have no natural termination. We shall miss you, Comrade Hobsbawm, but the arguments will continue.

Benjamin Zachariah author is Professor of History, Presidency University, Kolkata.


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