Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
By Richard J. Evans
Oxford University Press
This article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
When I was in graduate school, I had the good fortune to hear Eric Hobsbawm lecture on nationalism. The year was 1992. Hobsbawm had just published his widely read and sharply debated book on the theme, and in the aftermath of the implosion in communist Central and Eastern Europe and the revival of the so-called captive nations, everyone wanted to hear his take on the subject. Hobsbawm’s talk was packed. Edward Said, the esteemed Columbia University professor of literature, arrived late and found a spot only on the floor in the back. With Hobsbawm at perhaps his reputational apogee, the event felt more like an Event, a happening of unusual significance.
Richard Evans’s appreciative and deeply researched biography of the Marxist historian and intellectual, only a handful of years since Hobsbawm’s passing, is an event in itself. Clocking in at nearly 800 pages, it is an imposing summation and a contribution to a boutique subgenre: historical biography of major historians by practicing historians.
In a university age where disciplines punish scholars for moving off-script, Hobsbawm was an old-fashioned person of letters. Trained in Cambridge, Hobsbawm ranged far and wide, disallowing the strictures of disciplinary pressure to confine his intellectual reach. No subject was too remote, no idea un-germane. Devoted to a general approach that prized economic explanation, it was never an economics at the expense of culture, politics, or ideology, even if the economic “base” generally would have primacy. There was a logic to history for Hobsbawm, a materialist logic, yet contingency was never sacrificed at its altar.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in what was then an outpost of the British Empire, Hobsbawm spent his youth in Vienna and Berlin. Orphaned by the age of 14, he bounced between uncles and aunts before ending up in the United Kingdom, where he would begin to consume books the way mere mortals take in liquids; the range of volumes Hobsbawm vacuumed up as a gangly and sometimes solitary teen is nothing short of remarkable. His first language, German, became the voice of his diaries that Evans uses to great effect, Hobsbawm’s family giving him unparalleled access. Hobsbawm would later learn Spanish and Italian so proficiently that he would effectively lecture in both.
Pellucid and gently ironic, each paragraph embroidered by a blizzard of erudition, Hobsbawm’s prose is instantly recognizable. His masterwork—an economic history tetralogy spanning from the French Revolution through the long 20th century—remains required reading for graduate student orals, and is a constituent part of the literature on Europe. Hobsbawm wrote additionally on the outsider in history, whom he dubbed the “primitive rebel,” which turned his attention away from Europe and to the developing world. And, not to be neglected, under the pseudonym Frances Newton, Hobsbawm penned magazine essays for a number of years on one of his great passions, jazz. The name chosen was taken from the only jazz musician, trumpeter Frankie Newton, known to have been a Communist Party member.
Hobsbawm was part of an eminent circle of left historians that in the early 1950s founded the journal Past & Present. The academic publication would be instrumental in helping burnish Hobsbawm’s reputation. For Hobsbawm, Past & Present was the British companion to the Annales, the French historiographical school which insisted on a long-term social lens to its subjects, and deployed social-science methods in its analysis. His opening salvo for the new journal was an Annales-esque piece on the Luddites in the early Industrial Revolution, in which Hobsbawm gave the group a stirring, revisionist defense. Rather than the customary interpretation which impugned them for being a nonrational bunch of anti-progressives, Hobsbawm re-read the Luddites into the history as creatively conceiving an early form of industrial bargaining.
Hobsbawm’s instinctual sympathy for those challenging the excesses of industrial power would be witnessed time and again in his economic history. He had a particular affinity for those left behind, victims of a menacing and no-holds-barred capitalism. This brief for the common person is seen in his fascination with social banditry in Latin America. A resistance to political power that economic degradation inspired remained the lens through which he understood fundamental social change. The headlong rush toward industrialism brought in its wake a misery beyond words—whether in Europe or outside of it. This was a historical position he would hold close despite the clear working-class gains of the postwar period.
Hobsbawm’s appeal was such that he was, at once, a historian’s historian and a scholar prized by a popular audience. That he was a Communist, or more accurately, a card-carrying member of the Party if never an adherent to the latter’s catechisms, meant Hobsbawm was unable to secure a job as an Oxbridge don. Though he was recognized as a young historian of startling brilliance, he spent his career teaching at Birkbeck College in London, a school for men and women who could afford to take classes only after dark.
Left out of Hobsbawm’s voluminous writings is anything distinctly interior about the person himself, despite the almost Zelig-like aspects of his life: present at more than a few world-historical moments, whether in the late Weimar period watching Hitler’s rise, engaging Spanish Republicans, or translating for Che Guevara in Havana. Hobsbawm’s own memoir, Interesting Times, had few mentions of his personal or psychological history, a corrective that Evans’s book neatly turns around. A first marriage, we learn, was less for love and more for lust and party discipline but left him nonetheless discombobulated, obsessive, and meditating on suicide. In the end, Hobsbawm’s comme il faut emotional register won out as the historian wondered what ached him more—the ending of his marriage or the execution of the Rosenbergs. By the early 1960s, he would find his true love, Marlene Schwarz, and remain together until the end.
Hobsbawm became a member of the British Communist Party in 1935 and continued so until the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a half-century later. This fact, perhaps more than any other, presented him with the greatest pushback from those unforgiving of his loyalty. Hobsbawm faced a bien-pensant liberalism that neither tolerated nor stomached that the great historian would stay true to the party after the horrors of 1956, the latter year, of course, when others of his cohort—historians E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, most notably—left the party in disgust after the Soviets crushed Budapest’s uprising.
Hobsbawm’s reasons for retaining his membership are well known by now and Evans’s biography does little more than detail them. The crucible of Weimar, the substitution of a family for the orphaned boy, the ferocious struggle against national socialism are all adduced as explanations for the historian’s fealty. Evans’s important contribution, however, is to underscore through abundant evidence how detached and often dismissive Hobsbawm was of the U.K. CP. Seeing it as orthodox, dogmatic, and unyielding on issues relevant to the cause and to the USSR, Hobsbawm had a tenuous relationship to it, not once angering the party’s top brass by his out-of-step behavior. The alleged revisionism in his historical writing or his sensitive appreciation of an apolitical jazz were fodder for the CP’s ire. Tired of the simple-mindedness of the party’s tastes, Hobsbawm saw jazz as an inspirational and radical alternative to “the bankruptcy of most orthodox arts in our time.” And his unwillingness to bow to any sectarian party line made his history writing often politically haram. Hobsbawm was uninterested and unwilling to write for party organs or spew party propaganda, his commitments far less “to the Communist Party as the broad cause of socialism in general.” He was interested in the solidarity of the left, tout court, not necessarily the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat.
The insistently barbed questions of why Hobsbawm remained a party member were scarcely helped by Hobsbawm’s sometimes clipped explanations. On a BBCradio show, Desert Island Discs, the petulant host, Sue Lawley, asked how Hobsbawm could excuse the deaths of so many at the hands of the Soviet Union: “Dead is dead,” Hobsbawm brusquely replied. Yet having to explain himself time and again could have been nothing short of enervating.
Were I to have guessed who was chosen as Hobsbawm’s authorized biographer, Richard Evans’s name would not likely have tripped off the tongue. A prominent liberal historian of Nazi Germany, Evans’s talents are less in the practice of “immanent critique” or in the sweeping prose trademarked by his subject. Yet upon reflection, the choice reveals itself to be understandable. Both Evans and Hobsbawm are purveyors of a traditional historical method wherein facts count. Evans even penned a long historiographical essay—In Defense of History—that makes the claim explicitly. Although he would likely depart from some of the economic arguments Hobsbawm specifies and likely does not share his hardcore leftism, Hobsbawm’s approach to historical writing mirrors Evans’s own. Hobsbawm’s own late collection of essays succinctly titled “On History” begins with his contention that “I strongly defend the view that what historians investigate is real.” That “without the distention between what is and what is not so, there can be no history.” Amid the truth-skeptical nostrums of postmodernity, Evans and Hobsbawm are true modernists at heart.
Hobsbawm would surely have been tickled by the unlikely reappearance of socialism as presented by Bernie Sanders, or the breakout popularity of the socialist journal Jacobin. Historical patience has its virtues, he might have counseled. In a period where truth is called into question as a matter of course, Hobsbawm’s stubborn appeal to evidence and the accumulation of knowledge could seem out of place. But the great 20th-century Marxist historian, who may have stayed too long at the party, left us with a corpus of scholarship that will undeniably stand the test of time.