Eric Hobsbawm brought to life lost voices…
…and placed reality centre stage
Hobsbawm was not only one of Marxism’s finest scholars, he was an Enlightenment giant whose passing leaves us all poorer
In the foothills of Hampstead Heath, where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used to take their afternoon strolls, stands the home of Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm. To enter the Nassington Road drawing room for a conversation with Hobsbawm was to be transported back to the great ideological struggles of the extreme 20th century. Here was where ideas mattered, history had a purpose, and politics was important. And one could have no more generous, humane, rigorous, and involved a guide than the late Eric Hobsbawm.
The breadth of his work and the reach of his intellect was always startling. Right to the end of his days, he stayed up to date with scholarship, never failed to flay an opponent, and continued to write. Afternoon tea with Hobsbawm could range from the achievements of President Lula of Brazil to the limitations of Isaiah Berlin as an historian, the unfortunate collapse of the Communist party in West Bengal to what Ralph Miliband would have made of his boys, David and Ed.
But his lifetime’s achievement was to transform the study of history in Britain. He was part of a postwar generation that rescued the subject from parochialism and dry-as-dust empiricism to shed new light on the past – from the history of social protest to the invention of tradition and the impact of jazz.
For Hobsbawm, history had to be part of the conversation of the present. He fitted well into the English historical tradition of writing popular history books for an educated public. He was part of the practice of historical writing stretching back to Thomas Babington Macaulay and GM Trevelyan, alongside his peers AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. His 19th-century series on industry and empire and his bestselling account of the 20th-century provided the kind of global history for a broad readership few scholars have been able to match.
His most important contribution was to open up the study of class and economy within the British academy. His membership of the Communist party historians group and his involvement with the French Annales school of historians led him to emphasise the role of social history and structure in any comprehensive account of the past. Social history, for Hobsbawm, had to be part of the broader political project of the left – bringing to life lost voices and placing the lived reality of the people centre stage. But Hobsbawm was never a crass materialist – he always believed in the importance of the history of ideas. None more so than Marxism.
Hobsbawm was one of Marxism’s finest scholars. On day one, week one of any course I teach on Marxism, I give the students Hobsbawm to read. He explained its intellectual origins, historical function and 20th-century failings like few others. Of course, he was a believer – writing at the end of his life that “the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me”. And the recent crisis of capitalism only gave his ideological commitment more fervency. As he told me in one of his final interviews, “a different combination, a different mix of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out … It may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States”.
When it came to his own continued membership of the Communist party after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Hobsbawm refused to play the apologist game. As a historian, he demanded to be understood in his own context – someone whose political identity was forged in the 1930s when the struggle against fascism took place on the streets of Vienna and the Communists were on the right side of history. He never sought, as he put it, “agreement, approval or sympathy”. It was part of who he was and that was that.
If all of this makes him sound a dour, Marxist professor then it could not be further from the truth. He loved to talk politics and academic wrangling over a vodka and tonic; he enjoyed a good book launch; he was an adept performer at history festivals (after a nip of whisky); and revelled in his large and adoring family.
I last saw Hobsbawm at a lunch organised for himself and Hugh Thomas, the great scholar of Spain, at the House of Commons. There he expressed his great affection for Britain for adopting him in the 1930s, reflected with brio on the general correctness of his lifetime’s historical work, and affirmed his conviction in a “proper” understanding of the past. Over coffee, Ed Miliband came to pay his regards and in the mix of history and politics, an appreciation of the past in the actions of the present, there was an affirmation of Hobsbawm’s work.
But, Hobsbawm being Hobsbawm, he immediately complained that Ed wasn’t being nearly radical enough. There was always more work to be done, more criticism needed, more understanding shared. Hobsbawm was an Enlightenment giant whose passing marks a sad pulling away from the 20th century and all it entailed.
• Tristram Hunt is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. He teaches and lectures on modern British history at Queen Mary, University of London