Stuart Anderson-Davis reviews the latest biography on Eric Hobsbawm, the intellectual powerhouse who changed how we view history
An 800-page book about a dead historian isn’t the most obvious Christmas present.
But while you won’t find Sir Richard Evans’ doorstopper on any ‘Gifting Guides’ this December, his biography of legendary “Marxist historian” Eric Hobsbawm is nevertheless the most interesting book I’ve read in 2019.
Full disclosure: I am a sucker for a historical biography. I can still recall the feelings of giddy excitement as I unwrapped this book as a present from my wife. Hurrah – truly romance is alive and well! But while the gift was somewhat left-field (a reflection of my nerdy tastes, not my wife’s present buying acumen), I devoured this account of an extraordinary and unusual man who revolutionised the way we “do” history.
But why would you bother reading about a historian? Well, books like this can deliver vital insights into an individual’s work and motivations. This is particularly true for someone as important and controversial as Hobsbawm – a man who survived a traumatic childhood to became one of the world’s most influential intellectuals. Bouncing between Austria, Germany and Britain as a child in the inter-war period, he witnessed first-hand the poisonous power of oppressive nationalism and the perils it held for a Jewish family like his. Hobsbawm’s perspectives were largely shaped during these early years – from growing up poor in “Red Vienna” and being orphaned aged fourteen, to reading Marx in his teens and marching with the Communist Party in Berlin. In 1936 this perennial “outsider” eventually settled down to university life in Cambridge – having already packed in more “life experiences” than most of his upper-crust peers would manage in their lifetimes.
At Cambridge, Hobsbawm’s brilliance and scholastic achievements were counterbalanced by suspicion of his unapologetic Marxism. Despite concerted efforts to sabotage his progress (hatched by everyone from conservative ‘dons’ to MI5), he quickly established a reputation for innovative and ambitious work. He demonstrated an unusual ability to present coherent and compelling narratives that were truly global in scope – from studies on Mexican “social banditry” to models of Tunisian peasant labour, researched on a decidedly serious trip that puts modern “Gap Yahs” to shame. This was a polyglot with an outrageous memory. One former student remarked that nobody else could “match his overwhelming command of fact and source… capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staff.”
Hobsbawm is best remembered for his epic ‘Age of…’ series, which explored global historical themes from 1789 to 1991. These four books established his reputation as a writer who both shaped historical scholarship and engaged the wider public. Following in the footsteps of historians like A.J.P Taylor, Hobsbawm used popular journalism (written and broadcast) to amplify his views beyond the academic echo chamber. Indeed, his emphasis on making history “accessible” must surely be viewed within the context of his political mission (a conclusion strangely unconsidered in Evans’ account) – educating and persuading a non-academic audience using Marxist historical explanations.
As Hobsbawm later reflected, “this was a time when British academic historians would have been shocked to think of themselves as potential paperback writers, i.e. writers for a broad public… Many of them even shied away from writing books of any kind, hoping to make their reputations with learned articles in specialist journals and savage reviews of other colleagues unwise enough to bare themselves between hard covers.” This quote epitomises Hobsbawm’s approach: a man unafraid to propose novel or controversial views, no matter the career-limiting consequences.
His principal concerns were originality, interest and authenticity. As he quipped to one doctoral student, “PhDs don’t have to be boring!” This philosophy is borne out in his lesser-known works, including ‘Primitive Rebels’ and ‘Bandits’, which told swashbuckling stories of working class rebellion long overlooked by the mainstream historical fraternity. Indeed, ‘Bandits’ is today the perfect book for student communists and self-satisfied hipsters to ostentatiously peruse over a jar of Kombucha.
Of course, this man of seemingly impeccable principles was far from perfect himself. Although ‘A Life in History’ delivers more colour on Hobsbawm’s personal life than did his autobiography, Evans’ respectful acquaintance with his subject appears to have influenced the parts he chooses to illuminate in this generous portrayal. Evans uses extracts from Hobsbawm’s diaries to reveal a man riddled with insecurities – from suicidal thoughts triggered by a cheating wife to depression about his appearance (not helped by one uncle uncharitably describing him as “ugly as sin”). However, indiscretions are largely glossed over – none more shockingly than in a sequence where Evans devotes just three paragraphs to Hobsbawm impregnating a student, before exploring his interest in jazz over six excruciating pages. The book also suffers from an obsession with the minutiae of the British Communist Party, liberally quoting MI5 transcripts to detail the monotonous internal politics that hampered this organisation’s efforts to rally the British proletariat.
As a fellow historian, Evans is more confident in outlining the criticisms of Hobsbawm the scholar than Hobsbawm the man. Particularly pertinent are the attacks on Hobsbawm’s work from a feminist perspective, with Evans arguing that feminist history made Hobsbawm “ill at ease, because he thought [it] was challenging the labor movement and challenging Marxism”. It seems that for all Hobsbawm’s revolutionary politics, he remained staunchly conservative when it came to gender. Some critics believe that Hobsbawm never fully recognised the role of women as historical changemakers – a flaw that led one reviewer to label ‘Age of Empire’ as “Victorian history-for-boys” – and today his views on women can appear as dated as his politics.
And so to Marxism, the constant tenet of Hobsbawm’s career that would become his legacy’s most enduring feature. He once quipped that “losers make the best historians” and this was just as well because the conclusion of the Cold War did nothing to change his outlook. Indeed, Hobsbawm was fated to spend his later years explaining why exactly he maintained his political beliefs despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the repudiation of everything for which it stood. He became something of a public curiosity – a brilliant thinker inexplicably tethered to a debunked doctrine.
So why does the story of Eric Hobsbawm inspire today? One reason is because he was the complete antithesis of the complacent ‘Ivory Tower’ academic. Hobsbawm pioneered new ways of “doing history” and engaging different audiences. From broadcast journalism and best-selling books to developing progressive institutions like Birkbeck and the New School, he was at the vanguard of scholarship in the 20th century. Hobsbawm championed the concept of “history from below” alongside left-wing peers like E.P. Thompson – rejecting fixations on “Great Men” to delve into the working-class experience and tell stories about “normal people”.
He was also prepared to actually leave his university – a quality rarer than you might imagine in a scholarly grandee. Hobsbawm travelled the world – from the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa to the metropolises of South America – to meet people, gather evidence and develop theses. He understood that the impact of seismic changes like the Industrial Revolution were not restricted to single countries and so wrote history unconstrained by artificial boundaries. This commitment to scale and adventure has inspired countless others to produce better, more innovative works.
Finally, Hobsbawm was a principled activist who proved that historians need not be passive observers of contemporary events. Harnessing his vast historical knowledge, he illuminated the pressing issues of the day – from the Bush/Blair war in Iraq to genocide in the former Yugoslavia. He was adamant that historians had a responsibility to truth and decency. Having personally witnessed the rise of fascism, Hobsbawm urged historians to “resist the formation of national, ethnic and other myths” that empower the opportunistic and malicious. He had seen only too clearly where that path leads.
So as we look back on a particularly wild and unpredictable decade, we’d be well served to remember Hobsbawm’s warning. This was not a perfect man by any stretch, but his principles of truth and internationalism will be needed more than ever in years to come.
‘Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History’ by Prof. Sir Richard J. Evans (London, 2019)