Eric Hobsbawm: The age that went by

Eric Hobsbawm: The age that went by

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Obituary

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

By Shreya Goswami

[D]efining an ‘Age’ isn’t a difficult job: it is the length of time that a person has lived and also a distinct period of history. Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm’s life marked an ‘Age’ in both these senses. For all those who are students of the Social Sciences, his name has been a reference point for the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century. For those who are not acquainted with his works will not know what a loss his passing is. It is true that historians are fixated on the tiniest details of history (the general idea inIndiais history is all about mugging up dates), but there has always been more to this profession than that. For most historians, history is a way of life. And this was the underlining feature of Hobsbawm’s life.

Born in the same year as the Russian Revolution, to a British father of Polish descent, Leopold Hobsbawm, and Viennese mother, Nelly Gruen, Hobsbawm lived in Vienna, Berlin under the Weimar Republic, and then in England. In 1936, he went to study History at King’s College,Cambridgewhere he became a member of the illustrious Cambridge Apostles and got a double-starred first in his subject. He was a lifelong communist, a reason behind his rejection from intelligence work with the British government during the Second World War. He was appointed as a history lecturer at Birkbeck College, London in 1947, and gained his professorship twenty-three years later. He was also a Fellow of Kings College,Cambridgefrom 1949 to 1955.

One of the chief members of the British Communist Party Historians Group with other prominent historians like Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Victor Kiernan, he was the only remaining card holding member of the Communist Party of Britain after all his colleagues left in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He continued to be supportive of the USSRthrough almost all his works, never moving away from his belief that Marxism and Socialism would one day triumph over Capitalism. He wrote in The Age of Extremes (1994, p.498): “The failure of Soviet socialism does not reflect on the possibility of other kinds of socialism.”

When interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire (New Statesman) in 2011 on the occasion of the publication of How to Change the World (which was his last work), he said: “(…) you’ve got to remember that Marxism, as a political as well as an intellectual phenomenon, depends on the political atmosphere. And all socialists were hurt to some extent by the fall of theSoviet Union, simply because the example of having some part of the world which claimed to be socialist inspired them, and had inspired them for most of the 20th century.” It seems he was waiting for another revolution all his life, while his books continue being revolutionary for readers across the world.

[pullquote]Hobsbawm, with his lifelong loyalty to the Marxist ideal, probably failed to accomplish this mission completely and was criticised time and again for his unwavering beliefs. But he remains a man entrenched in our memories as a historian of the nineteenth century, brain child of the twentieth century and a legend for eternity.[/pullquote]My familiarity with Hobsbawm’s works started in school, when the title Age of Extremes caught my eye at the British Library, Ahmedabad. Once I had read that book, I continued referring to his works throughout my academic life. The four ‘Age of’ books (The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848; The Age of Capital: 1848-1875; The Age of Empire: 1875-1914; The Age of Extremes: 1914-91) along with Bandits (1969), Captain Swing (co-authored with George Rude), The Invention of Tradition (1983), The Jazz Scene (1989), Echoes of the Marseillaise: two centuries look back on the French Revolution (1990), Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1991), On History (1997), Behind the Times (1998), Interesting Times (2002) and How to Change the World (2011) are only some of his books that I have read, and have been constantly struck by his easy, sometimes eccentric, but completely honest style of writing.

For example, in The Age of Empire, while explaining why ‘imperialism’ is such a touchy topic, he says: “Unlike ‘democracy’, which even its enemies like to claim because of its favourable connotations, ‘imperialism’ is commonly something to be disapproved of, and therefore done by others.” While this was true during the age of Empire, isn’t this a fact of current politics too? This was probably the reason why the media always sought him out for his opinion regarding current affairs. He put his mission in life as a historian to the students of the Central European University, Budapest in 1993-94 (Article ‘Outside and Inside History’ in On History):

“History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what people learned from priests, schoolmasters, the writers of history books and the compilers of magazine articles and television programmes. It is very important for historians to remember their responsibility, which is, above all, to stand aside from the passions of identity politics – even if we feel them also. After all, we are human beings too.”

Hobsbawm, with his lifelong loyalty to the Marxist ideal, probably failed to accomplish this mission completely and was criticised time and again for his unwavering beliefs. But he remains a man entrenched in our memories as a historian of the nineteenth century, brain child of the twentieth century and a legend for eternity.

Shreya Goswami, in M.Phil at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

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