Tuesday, October 02, 2012
By ROBERT BARR, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong socialist and one of Britain's most eminent historians, has died at the age of 95, his daughter said Monday. Julia Hobsbawm said her father died overnight at a London hospital. He had been suffering from pneumonia. "He'd been quietly fighting leukemia for a number of years without fuss or fanfare," Julia Hobsbawm said. "Right up until the end he was keeping up what he did best, he was keeping up with current affairs, there was a stack of newspapers by his bed."
Hobsbawm was one of Britain's most distinguished historians, his works on the 20th century read by generations of students, despite an allegiance to the Communist Party that he retained long after many supporters left in shame and disgust. Hobsbawm's reading of Karl Marx and his experience living in Germany in the 1930s formed his views. He joined the Communist Party in England in 1936 and stayed a member long after Soviet military force crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968, although he publicly opposed both interventions. Hobsbawm is best known for three volumes, spanning the period from 1789 to 1914: "The Age of Revolution" (1962), "The Age of Capital" (1975) and "The Age of Empire" (1987). A later volume, "Age of Extremes," took the story forward from 1914 to 1991.
His last book, "How to Change the World," published in 2011, was not a revolutionary tract but a collection of essays dating back to the 1960s on Marx and Marxism. The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor said Hobsbawm's work was distinguished by precise explanations of what happened and his interest in ordinary people. "Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption," Taylor wrote. "Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades."
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born June 9, 1917, in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was British, descended from artisans from Poland and Russia, and his mother's family were cultured, middle-class Viennese. The family moved to Vienna when he was two. Following the deaths of his father and then his mother, he moved to Berlin in 1931 to live with relatives, and joined the Socialist Schoolboys. "In Germany there wasn't any alternative left," he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. "Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed."
He once said he was "lucky — yes, lucky enough — to live in Berlin before Hitler came to power." "And if you don't feel that you are part of world history at that time, you never will." As a student in Berlin, Hobsbawm informed his schoolmaster that he was a communist and that a revolution was needed. "He asked me a few questions and said, 'You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Kindly go to the school library and see what you can find,'" Hobsbawm said in an interview broadcast by the BBC in 2012. "And then I discovered The Communist Manifesto, and that was it."
In 1933, he moved to London, where he found life boring. Britons "didn't grasp this extraordinary end of the world atmosphere, but in Berlin you had it, and you thought you had to do something about it," Hobsbawm said. During World War II, Hobsbawm was assigned to an engineering unit which introduced him, for the first time, to the working class. "I didn't know much about the British working class, in spite of being a communist. But actually to live and work among them, I thought they were good eggs," he said in a BBC radio interview in 1995.
He approved of their "solidarity, a very strong feeling of class, a very strong feeling of being together, a very strong feeling of not wanting anybody to put them down. "But alas, they were not democrats. They did not believe they were as good as the next man," he said. Hobsbawm's first book, "Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels," published in 1959, was a study of what he called "pre-political social agitators" including Sicilian peasant leagues, city mobs and bandits, an early example of his interest in the structural history of working-class organizations. The same year he published "The Jazz Scene," using the pseudonym Francis Newton, and writing about jazz continued to be an outlet.
"He defined the term 'intellectual polymath,'" Julia Hobsbawm said, adding that she'd asked him last week what advice he would give his grandchildren. "He said he would like them to be curious. Curiosity was the biggest asset anybody could have." He also recommended three books: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," the poetry of W.H. Auden, and the "Communist Manifesto," a final recommendation she said he delivered "with a twinkle in his eye." Hobsbawm defended his allegiance to the Communist Party as born of hope, of ignorance and a fear that leaving the party might be seen as an attempt to secure some advantage.
"I belonged to the generation tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the" Soviet Union, he wrote. But in an interview on the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" in 1995, Hobsbawm said he had been disillusioned by a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. "I still believed in the movement, but I had stopped being a militant for a very long time. As it were, from about 1956 I carefully recycled myself as a sympathizer rather than a militant," he told the BBC.
Hobsbawm was appointed a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London, spending his entire career on the faculty and eventually being appointed president. In 1998, he was made a Companion of Honor, a rare award for a historian, placing him in the ranks of luminaries Stephen Hawking, Doris Lessing and Sir Ian McKellan. It is limited to 65 living people at any one time. Hobsbawm was first married to Muriel Seaman in 1943; they divorced in 1951. In 1962 he married Marlene Schwarz. He is survived by Marlene, two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Eric Hobsbawm obituary/// Historian in the Marxist tradition with a global reach// Writes Martin Kettle & Dorothy Wedderburn in The Guardian
Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain's most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death at the age of 95, he had achieved a unique position in the country's intellectual life. In his later years he became arguably Britain's most respected historian of any kind, recognised if not endorsed on the right as well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown.
Unlike some others, Hobsbawm achieved this wider recognition without in any major way revolting against either Marxism or Marx. In his 94th year he published How to Change the World, a vigorous defence of Marx's continuing relevance in the aftermath of the banking collapse of 2008-10. What is more, he achieved his culminating reputation at a time when the socialist ideas and projects that animated so much of his writing for well over half a century were in historic disarray, and worse – as he himself was always unflinchingly aware.
In a profession notorious for microscopic preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority. To the last, Hobsbawm considered himself to be essentially a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad and unusually cosmopolitan.
The sheer scope of his interest in the past, and his exceptional command of what he knew, continued to humble many, most of all in the four-volume Age of... series, in which he distilled the history of the capitalist world from 1789 to 1991. "Hobsbawm's capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs," wrote Neal Ascherson. Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis, so well displayed in that four-volume project, he was unrivalled.
Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, a good place for a historian of empire, in 1917, a good year for a communist. He was second-generation British, the grandson of a Polish Jew and cabinet-maker who came to London in the 1870s. Eight children, who included Leopold, Eric's father, were born in England and all took British citizenship at birth (Hobsbawm's Uncle Harry in due course became the first Labour mayor of Paddington).
Eric Hobsbawm: A life in quotes
On his academic career: "Every historian has his or her lifetime, a private perch from which to survey the world. 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." 1993 Creighton lecture
On history: "History is being invented in vast quantities … it's more important to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before." 2002 Observer interview
On communism: "I was a loyal Communist party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it's reasonable not to be silent." 2002 interview
On socialism and capitalism: "Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in what amounts to a pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt. The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left." 2009 Guardian article
On Tony Blair: "Labour prime ministers who glory in trying to be warlords – subordinate warlords particularly – certainly stick in my gullet." 2002 interview
On nations: "Nations exist not only as functions of a particular kind of territorial state or the aspiration to establish one … but also in the context of a particular stage of technological and economic development. Most students today will agree that standard national languages, spoken or written, cannot emerge as such before printing, mass literacy and hence, mass schooling. It has even been argued that popular spoken Italian as an idiom capable of expressing the full range of what a 20th-century language needs outside the domestic and face-to-face sphere of communication, is only being constructed today as a function of the needs of national television programming." Nations and Nationalism since 1780, published in 1990
On war in the 20th century: "I lived through the first world war, when 10 million to 20 million people were killed. At the time, the British, French and Germans believed it was necessary. We disagree. In the second world war, 50 million died. Was the sacrifice worthwhile? I frankly cannot face the idea that it was not. I can't say it would have been better if the world was run by Adolf Hitler." 2002 Guardian profile
On war in the 21st century: "A tentative forecast: war in the 21st century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the 20th. But armed violence, creating disproportionate suffering and loss, will remain omnipresent and endemic – occasionally epidemic – in a large part of the world. The prospect of a century of peace is remote." 2002 Counterpunch article
On his writing room's bookshelves: "Most of them, however, are filled with the foreign editions of my books. Their numbers amaze and please me and they still keep coming as new titles are translated and some fresh vernacular markets – Hindi, Vietnamese – open up. As I can't read most of them, they serve no purpose other than as a bibliographic record and, in moments of discouragement, as a reminder that an old cosmopolitan has not entirely failed in 50 years of trying to communicate history to the world's readers." 2008 Guardian article
Eric Hobsbawm: the history man./// 'To anyone who loves history Eric Hobsbawm's death is very sad news' Says Mark Mazower in The Guardian:
'To anyone who loves history Eric Hobsbawm's death is very sad news'
The death of Eric Hobsbawm at the age of 95 leaves us bereft of a great historian, a masterly writer of muscular readable prose, and a scholar whose intellectual curiosity and range had few if any equals. He was already well past retirement age when I came to know him – first at Birkbeck College, the old workingmen's college in whose ideals he always took enormous pride, and then at meetings of Past and Present, the journal he had helped found. But despite being well on the wrong side of 80, he was still very active.
He had taught at Birkbeck since the late 1940s, and as he kept a small office at Birkbeck 50 years on, I think it was in the narrow corridor outside it that I first saw him, lean, slightly stooping. The already frail shoulders under the sportsjacket made one feel protective of him but that feeling disappeared as soon as he began to talk. Hobsbawm needed no protection, and his mind retained a quite extraordinary energy and clarity up to the very end. And then there was his voice – crisp, almost military, the characteristic barked interrogative – "Not really a first-class mind, what?" – that summoned up a vanished mid-century Britain that was as much a part of Hobsbawm as the endlessly commented on Marxism.
Certainly, it is hard to think of another Marxist who more richly deserved the Companion of Honour bestowed on him in 1998, for what Hobsbawm gave this country was more than it gave him. He had arrived as a schoolboy in 1933, having spent most of his life till then in Vienna and Berlin (a story he would recount in his wonderful autobiography Interesting Times), where he had already witnessed the rise of the Nazis and discovered Karl Marx. At Cambridge, where he studied in the 30s, he had a reputation for omniscience. Running the local Communist party cell from the set of college rooms beneath Wittgenstein's, the youthful Hobsbawm was invited to join the exclusive Apostles society. His was the anti-fascist generation, and once he had made his political choice, he stuck with it his entire life and never apologised for it.