ONE could have been excused for assuming that Eric Hobsbawm would always be around to shine a perspicacious light on the ways of the world — a light powered by a depth and breadth of historical knowledge arguably unparalleled among his contemporaries.
And this despite the fact that few other historians could have boasted such a wide range of contemporaries. In the 1930s, he is said to have operated a Communist Party cell in Cambridge from rooms situated beneath those of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the 1950s, he was bracketed with the likes of E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill. In the past decade or so, his considerably younger friends and admirers in the field ranged from Tristram Hunt to Niall Ferguson.
It is a relatively minor measure of his longevity, then, that Hobsbawm lived long enough to obituarise one of his obituarists. An appreciation of his life and work in The Guardian was co-credited to the sociologist Dorothy Wedderburn. Less than two weeks ago, the same newspaper carried what may well have been the last words Hobsbawm wrote — an affectionate tribute to Wedderburn.
Hobsbawm, who died this week at the age of 95, will best be remembered for his magisterial quartet, begun in 1962 and concluded in 1994, that covered world history from the French Revolution of 1789 to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. “These books,” writes American labour historian Eric Foner in The Nation, “remain the starting point for anyone who seeks a comprehensive history of the modern world.”
The sentiment echoes that of the ideologically very different Ferguson, who describes the books as “the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history”. “We were poles apart politically, of course,” Ferguson says, adding that “we disagreed about most contemporary political questions”. It could hardly have been otherwise. But: “The fact that he side with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship.”
That bears testimony to Hobsbawm’s tolerance. Ferguson says he was disappointed to discover that Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times, did not “contain some expression of remorse for his decision to remain a member of the Communist Party even after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes”.
It’s a valid, albeit hardly original, point. After all, several of his notable comrades did dissociate themselves from the party in the 1950s, if not in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s condemnation of his predecessor, then in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
“I was,” Hobsbawm confessed in an interview 10 years ago, “a loyal Communist Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it’s reasonable not to be silent.”
But there’s an engaging explanation to be found in Interesting Times of why he was reluctant to part ways with the party until it dissolved itself in the early 1990s.
“Hobsbawm,” says the obituary co-written by Wedderburn, “was born in Alexandria, a good place for a historian of Empire, in 1917, a good year for a communist.” He lived in Vienna with his parents, but was orphaned by the time he was 14, with his father and mother dying within two years of each other, and went to live with his uncle in Berlin — before moving to London shortly after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
“The months in Berlin,” he writes in his autobiography, “made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and, as I now know, was bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers. I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated.
“To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and a tenderness which I do not feel towards communist China, because I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbolised it.”
Notwithstanding his reputation as a leading Marxist historian, to Hobsbawm’s credit, not one of his books was published in the USSR.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was considered something of a guru by some Labour Party reformists — Neil Kinnock called him “my favourite Marxist” — but he was often scathing in his comments about Tony Blair, saying in 2002: “Labour prime ministers who glory in trying to be warlords — subordinate warlords particularly — certainly stick in my gullet.”
Among his varied interests, Hobsbawm was also a noted jazz critic, a genre that entranced him after exposure as a teenager to a live performance by Duke Ellington’s band. “Jazz,” he says, “brought the dimension of wordless, unquestioning physical emotion into a life otherwise almost monopolised by words and the exercises of the intellect.”
It wasn’t always wordless, though. He concludes a moving obituary of Billie Holiday, penned pseudonymously for The New Statesman, by saying: “It is impossible not to weep for her, or not to hate the world which made her what she was.”
Hobsbawm became better known, and more widely read, as he entered the winter of his life. Just last year he published a collection of essays enticingly titled How to Change the World, in which he dilates, inter alia, on the latest crisis of capitalism, bringing the book to a close with the admonition: “Economic and political liberalism … cannot provide the solution to the problems of the 21st century. Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.”
His eloquence as a writer and lucidity as a thinker remained more or less undiminished until the end. It is said to have been common among his communist friends at Cambridge in the 1930s to wonder: “Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?”
It is a question that, one imagines, will be repeated for a long time by readers sensible enough to partake of his erudition.