Like the best artists and writers who live their art, British historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died on Monday at the age of 95, lived his history. That means that he was inspired to study history by the tumultuous events transpiring around him and also that he took historical reflection out of the ivory tower and into the turmoil of daily life. He believed deeply that history matters.
For my generation of historians, trained during the social turbulence and political upheavals of the 1960s, Hobsbawm was a model citizen. His early books on peasants, bandits and the labouring poor were celebrated not just because they were about the otherwise forgotten urchins of history, but because they opened windows and brought a rush of fresh air to a discipline that had grown stodgy with its emphasis on the wielders of power, political above all.
In so doing, he broadened the scope of the discipline immeasurably, forcing us to think more intensely about the social foundations of political power. He was not the only one to accomplish this; he was joined in the enterprise by a group of historians associated with the political left, including E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and George Rudé. In France, the Annales School achieved much the same result. But Hobsbawm would in time rise above the rest because of his breadth, power of synthesis and particularly, to my mind, literary skill. His trilogy on the 19th century, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, brought him to the attention of a wide public. His subsequent exciting appreciation of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes, made him a bestseller.
Hobsbawm’s books are wonderfully readable. This literary talent stemmed in part from his contrarian instincts. He loved juxtaposition and contradiction. He was the proverbial outsider who revelled in his role as intellectual provocateur. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, a few months before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, of Jewish Polish-Austrian lineage, he grew up in Vienna, Berlin and London; by the time he was 14, both his parents were dead, one from a heart attack, the other from TB. An uncle brought him and his sister to England in 1933, just after Hitler took power in Germany. In 1936, he, a young communist since his days in Berlin, won a scholarship to Cambridge, at the time a den of subversive instincts that had nourished the likes of Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, the future Soviet spies. There, Hobsbawm performed brilliantly, but his supervisor would later say: “He was unteachable. Eric already knew everything.”
He never left the Party when so many others did, not after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, not after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, not after the extirpation of the Prague Spring in 1968. Because of his heritage and his own experience, he kept working toward some synthesis of communism and capitalism, and in The Age of Extremes he celebrated the Grand Alliance of the Second World War between the Soviet Union and the West as a shining achievement of an otherwise calamitous age. Here, in the co-operation of seemingly antithetical systems, was a beacon for the future. And in one of his later contributions, written at the height of the recent financial crisis, he urged his readers to think of capitalism and socialism not as two mutually exclusive visions but as potentially complementary.
In the last decades of his life, this outsider had become the pre-eminent insider, feted by the political establishment and decorated by its elite intelligentsia. British Labour leader Neil Kinnock called him “my favourite Marxist,” and Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour.
Hobsbawm’s view of history, like that of Karl Marx, was inspired by a moral vision, a quest for harmony and peace, not in any afterlife but here and now. As compelling as this inspiration remains, history, in Hobsbawm’s hands and those of the Marxist school as a whole, was always in danger of surrendering its integrity to teleology. Hobsbawm turned history and historiography, at times quite demonstrably, though always with artistic aplomb, into a handmaiden of the present. He saw in the past what he wanted to see, not necessarily what was there. We all do that, but some try harder than others to be fair to the evidence. That said, Hobsbawm presented his view of the iniquitous implications of unrestrained free enterprise with enormous vitality and often elegance.
Yet, despite the hope implicit in this engagement, Hobsbawm’s more immediate appreciation of his world was gloomy. The last word in The Age of Extremes is “darkness.” The last sentence of his more recent plea for a grand coalition of intellectual and economic forces in order to avert ecological catastrophe is, “Time is not on our side.” A collection of essays to be published posthumously next year will be titled Fractured Spring. In his last years, the old communist could sound like an Old Testament prophet. We shall miss his stentorian voice, rousing rhetoric and remarkable range of reference
Modris Eksteins, professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto, reviewed The Age of Extremes for this newspaper in 1995.