Celebrated Marxist historian of worldwide eminence
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