Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm
1917-2012

Biography

From the age of two Hobsbawm lived in Vienna and once adopted by his uncle, he lived in Berlin. As a teenager in Weimar Republic Berlin, he became politicised, where he read Marx for the first time, and became a communist. At the age of sixteen he moved to England.[1] Hobsbawm stated that “my own perch is constructed, among other materials, of a childhood in the Vienna of the 1920s, the years of Hitler's rise in Berlin, which determined my politics and my interest in history, and the England, and especially the Cambridge, of the 1930s, which confirmed both"[2] He considered himself to be essentially a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad. As a Marxist historiographer he has focused on the "dual revolution" (the political French Revolution and the British industrial revolution) and looked at the impact which these revolutions had on liberal capitalism, which exists today. Though he had a historian's respect for the Communist party's centralist discipline, his intellectual distinction gave him an independence, which proved to win the respect of communism's toughest critics, such as Isaiah Berlin.[3] His recent autobiography revealed that at 85 he remained an 'unrepentant communist’.

Education and Life Events

Education: King's College, Cambridge (BA, PhD).

Career: Birkbeck College, London University: 1947 lecturer, '59 reader, '70-82 professor, '82- Emeritus professor of history; King's College, Cambridge: '49-55 Fellow; New School for Social Research New York: '84-97 visiting professor.

Noted Works

Key works:

Most famous for his Age of… series- In the collection he concentrated the history of the capitalist world from 1789 to 1991. The initial trilogy of books covered what is known as the "the long 19th century".

  • The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, (1962) – looks at the dual significance of the British Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution.
  • The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, (1975)- assessed the period of modernisation in the 19th and 20th century.
  • The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, (1987)- looks at Western Imperialism and examines the outbreak of World War One, and the impact on modern society.
  • The Age of Extremes: 1914-91, (1994) which was translated into 37 languages, and extended Hobsbawm's range into the "short 20th century", by spanning almost his own life, from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

·       How To Change the World (2011) makes a strong claim that Marx has a central relevance for anyone wanting to understand the world of the 21st century, proposing that capitalism was doomed to recurrent crises, such as the financial crash, thus his work should be welcomed.

He is also a prolific essayist. Hobsbawm published a series of his widely read articles in the journal Past and Present.

Reputation and Impact

  • Hobsbawm has been both influential and controversial, he has proven to be Britain's best known and most enduring Marxist historian.[4]
  • In his later years he became arguably Britain's most respected historian. He recognised the right as well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy a genuine global recognition.
  • By the time of his death at the age of 95, he had achieved a unique position in the country's intellectual life.
    Despite his honour and support towards the communist cause, none of his book were ever published in the Soviet Union.
  • Hobsbawm’s refusal to retract his views about communism even when being faced with their outrageous consequences highlights the confrontational mind set of the wider British Left. Nonetheless, he protested against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the actions of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968.[5]
  • He joined the Communist Party Historians Group. A radical academy which brought together some of the most prominent historians of the postwar era, with members which included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, AL Morton, EP Thompson and John Saville. In 1952 members of the group founded the journal, Past and Present. The journal founded the study of working-class history.
    Today British historians are among the most outward-looking sections of the academy, which is in large part due to the work of the CPHG. After 1946, the members created to change, from the study of constitutionalists and lives of those at the top, to the study of ordinary people, with a specific focus on social and economic at the core of the profession.[6]

Other historians’ interpretations of Hobsbawm

Other historians’ interpretations of Hobsbawm

Hobsbawn’s work provoked strong reactions across the political and academic spectrum right up until his death.

Niall Ferguson

‘But his politics did not prevent Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian. I continue to believe that his great tetralogy… remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language.’

Mark Mazower

‘One of the hardest things for a historian is to make an argument readable; he does it better than anyone. Not for Hobsbawm, the turn to narrative, the urge to tell stories. He had plenty of his own. But his histories are about trends, social forces, large-scale change over vast distances. Telling that kind of history in a way that is as compelling as a detective story is a real challenge of style and composition: in the tetralogy, Hobsbawm shows how to do it.’

‘His legacy continues in the shape of a thriving and outward-looking historical profession, a legacy the more impressive for emanating from a man uninterested in founding any kind of school of his own.’

Michael Burleigh

‘Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945.’

‘Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left.’[7]

Bibliography/Reading List

Endnotes

[1] Daniel Snowman, ‘An Interview with Eric Hobsbawm’, History Today, Volume 29 Issue 1 January 1979.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm: a life in quotes’, Guardian, Monday 1 October 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-quotes.

[3] ‘Eric Hobsbawm obituary’, Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm-quotes.

[4] Maya Jaggi, ‘A question of faith’.

[5]Michael Burleigh, ‘Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end’, The Telegraph, 01 Oct 2012.

[6] Mark Mazower, ‘Eric Hobsbawm: the history man’, Guardian, Monday 1 Oct 2012..

[7] Burleigh, ‘Eric Hobsbawm: A believer in the Red utopia to the very end’.

 

Laura Foord