Celebrated Marxist historian of worldwide eminence

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

ERIC HOBSBAWM:IF ERIC Hobsbawm had 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, Hobsbawm had a achieved a unique position in that country’s intellectual life. In his later years he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian, 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.

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.

But Eric was British of no ordinary background. Another uncle, Sidney, went to Egypt before the first World War and found a job there in a shipping office for Leopold. There, in 1914, Leopold Hobsbawm met Nelly Gruen, a young Viennese from a middle-class family who had been given a trip to Egypt as a prize for completing her school studies. The couple eventually married in Switzerland in 1916, returning to Egypt for the birth of Eric, their first child, in June 1917.

In 1919, the young family returned to settle in Vienna.

In 1929 his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Two years later his mother died of TB. Eric was 14, and his Uncle Sidney took charge once more, taking Eric and his sister Nancy to live in Berlin. As a teenager in Weimar Republic Berlin, Hobsbawm read Marx for the first time and became a communist.

The family remained in Berlin until 1933, when Sidney Hobsbawm was posted by his employers to live in England.

The gangly teenage boy who settled with his sister in Edgware in 1934 described himself later as “completely continental and German speaking”. School, though, was “not a problem” because the English education system was “way behind” the German.

A cousin in Balham introduced him to jazz for the first time – the “unanswerable sound”, he called it. The moment of conversion, he wrote some 60 years later, was when he heard the Duke Ellington band “at its most imperial”.

He spent a period in the 1950s as jazz critic of the New Statesman, and published a Penguin Special, The Jazz Scene, on the subject in 1959 under the pen name Francis Newton.

Learning to speak English properly for the first time, Hobsbawm became a pupil at Marylebone grammar school and in 1936 he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. It was at this time that a saying became common among his Cambridge communist friends: “Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?”

When war broke out, Hobsbawm volunteered, as many communists did, for intelligence work. But his politics, which were never a secret, led to rejection. Instead he became an improbable sapper in 560th Field Company, which he later described as “a very working-class unit trying to build some patently inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of East Anglia”.

Hobsbawm married his first wife, Muriel Seaman, in 1943. In 1947, he got his first tenured job, as a history lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, where he was to remain for much of his teaching life.

His first book, an edited collection of documents from the Fabian era, Labour’s Turning Point, published in 1948, belongs firmly to this Communist Party-dominated era. Hobsbawm was never to leave the party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement. Yet he remained a free-thinker within the party’s ranks. On the revolution in Hungary in 1956, an event that split the party and drove many intellectuals out, he was a voice of protest who, nevertheless, remained. In 1959 he published his first major work, Primitive Rebels, a strikingly original account of southern European rural secret societies and millenarian cultures. He returned to these themes again a decade later, in Captain Swing, a detailed study of rural protest in early 19th-century England co-authored with George Rude, and Bandits, a more wide-ranging attempt at synthesis.

By this time, though, Hobsbawm had already published the first of the works on which his popular and academic reputations still rest. A collection of some of his most important essays, Labouring Men, appeared in 1964. But it was Industry and Empire (1968), a compelling summation of much of Hobsbawm’s work on Britain and the industrial revolution, that achieved the highest esteem. For more than 30 years, it has rarely been out of print.

Even more influential in the long term was the “Age of” series, which he began with The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, first published in 1962. This was followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and in 1987 by The Age of Empire: 1875-1914.

A fourth volume, The Age of Extremes: 1914-91, more quirky and speculative but in some respects the most admirable of all, extended the sequence in 1994.

Hobsbawm’s first marriage had collapsed in 1951. During the 1950s he had another relationship that resulted in the birth of his first son, Joshua Benathan, but the boy’s mother did not want to marry. In 1962 he married Marlene Schwarz, of Austrian descent. They moved to Hampstead and had two children, Andrew and Julia.

By 1983, when Neil Kinnock became the leader of the Labour Party, Hobsbawm’s influence had begun to extend far beyond the Communist Party and deep into Labour. He was the single most influential intellectual forerunner of Labour’s increasingly iconoclastic 1990s revisionism.

His status was underlined in 1998, when Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour.

In his later years, Hobsbawm enjoyed widespread reputation and respect. Throughout the late years he continued to publish volumes of essays and a highly successful autobiography, Interesting Times, in 2002, followed by Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism in 2007.

He was more famous in his extreme old age than at any other period of his life and broadcast regularly, lectured widely and was a regular performer at the Hay literary festival, of which he became president at the age of 93. A fall in late 2010 reduced his mobility, but his intellect and his willpower remained unvanquished.

He is survived by Marlene and his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian: born June 9th, 1917; died October 1st, 2012