The late Eric Hobsbawm lived through Interesting Times (the title of his 2002 autobiography, subtitled A 20th Century Life) and wrote some of the greatest works of modern history. But he did not lead a particularly interesting life and, as a successful academic, spent most of his time attending conferences, writing drafts, wrangling with publishers, supervising research students and fending off criticism from professional peers and seniors.
Richard J. Evans, in his 800-page long biography, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, appears to have missed this point almost entirely. Hobsbawm’s autobiography — which is half the length and reads like a personal reflection on the times he lived through — is eminently readable, engaging and intellectually enriching. Evans’s biography, in contrast, is so full of minutiae and so devoid (relatively speaking) of serious discussion of Hobsbawm’s ideas and major works, that one can only wonder what the editors and publishers were thinking when they decided to release this into the public domain.
If the intention was to demonstrate how not to write the biography of an intellectual, then Evans has succeeded admirably and, hopefully, Hobsbawm’s next biographer will take heed. That said, Evans, like the Red Army in the Second World War, does manage, through sheer attrition, to score some worthwhile points.
First, Eric Hobsbawm can be read as a social micro-history of middle-class European and British life in the previous century. Hobsbawm’s personal struggle to find a place for himself after the untimely death of his parents is told in a deeply empathetic and moving fashion. The development of his interest in history, his formative experiences, struggles in college and adherence to communism are all elaborated in considerable detail.
What is intriguing in this respect is that, while Hobsbawm was a thinking Marxist, he remained true to his original programming until the end of his life. One can see how, amidst the multiple uncertainties he faced growing up, the confident, linear, Augustinian certainty of Marxism provided him with a sense of purpose and meaning.
A long biography of one of the greatest historians of our times, focusing on the banality of his everyday life rather than his towering intellectual output, does him a great disservice
Second, there is great detail about Hobsbawm’s involvement with the British communists as a would-be party intellectual. Obviously not a man of action, and too intellectually honest to digest the Stalinist somersaults imposed on the communist faithful by Moscow, Hobsbawm struggled to convince the British communists to take less doctrinaire positions.
Ironically, Hobsbawm seemed to think that communist movements could only succeed when an alliance between the working class and the intellectuals emerged — ordinary people being, well, too ordinary, to bring about revolutionary change. Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet variant of communism succeeded precisely because intellectuals led the way, and British communism was doomed to failure because it was too proletarian in its thought processes.
Hobsbawm, of course, had a point. But he didn’t seem to connect it to the emergence of elitism within communist regimes, which replaced hierarchies based on power differentials emerging from variations in socioeconomic circumstances with even harsher hierarchies based on official position and ideological purity. The British establishment — while keeping Hobsbawm under MI5 surveillance — seemed to have realised that he was vocal, but harmless.
He was not your typical academic historian, buried in the archives and emerging periodically to write esoteric monographs for an audience of 20.
Third, Hobsbawm’s professional career suffered from many mundane challenges that are testament to the inherent pettiness of academia. This is all the more remarkable in light of Hobsbawm’s standing in the profession. From having a brilliant manuscript rejected because of nasty peer reviewers, to facing delays in securing a full professorship, to incurring the wrath of the great and good defenders of Fabianism for criticising their complacent attitude towards capitalism, to antagonising defenders of capitalist progress by pointing out the rather inconvenient fact that life for most people got considerably worse for several generations as a result of industrialisation, Hobsbawm had his fair share of detractors. And when they could, they did get in his way. It also goes to show that politics and intrigue are very much part of academia everywhere.
And last, there is some discussion of Hobsbawm’s thematic approach to writing history and his processing of information and statistics to sharpen his analysis. It’s comforting to know that Hobsbawm had two terrible habits as a writer. One was an addiction to travel and conferences, and the other was taking on too many writing projects at the same time.
Hobsbawm’s reliance on published sources facilitated his research and helped make it more accessible, but his travels added to his perspective; he was not your typical academic historian, buried in the archives and emerging periodically to write esoteric monographs for an audience of 20 people.
The length of Evans’s biography, combined with the banality of middle-class life it describes, should deter all but the most committed fans although, on balance, those familiar with Hobsbawm’s work will find bits and pieces that are illuminating. But what is most disappointing is that so much of Hobsbawm’s thought has been glossed over, or dealt with inadequately.
Clearly, Evans was not pressed for space, so this reflects a conscious choice on his part — and it is a choice that does a great disservice to Hobsbawm. The positive take-away from this is that there is still room for a definitive intellectual biography of Hobsbawm. One can only hope that the publishers find someone a bit more disciplined to write it.
The reviewer is most recently the author of The State During the British Raj: Imperial Governance in South Asia, 1700-1947.
He tweets @IlhanNiaz
Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
By Richard J. Evans
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 2nd, 2021