RIP, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am very sad to report that the eminent British historian has passed away at 95.  He lived an amazing life, as recounted in the Guardian‘s lengthy obituary today.  Here is a snippet:

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 the country’s intellectual life. In his later years Hobsbawm 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.

I had the pleasure of taking European history with Hobsbawm when I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in the early 90s — when he was already in his 70s.  He was an amazing lecturer, a very nice person, and could drink his students under the table with ease.

I’ve been planning for some time to re-read Hobsbawm’s magisterial “Age” series: The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962); The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975); The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987); and The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (1994).  They are phenomenal books; I can’t recommend them highly enough.

He will be missed.

4 Responses

  1. I re-read The Age of Capital a few years ago, when getting ready to start teaching corporations again and I wanted to refresh myself on the Industrial Revolution in relation to the problem of assembling large pools of investment capital.  It certainly retained its vigor, and I think the Guardian obituary is right in identifying EH as a 19th century synthesist – which, in a world of hyper specialization in history, is certainly a big part of his appeal to me.  He will be missed.  I’ve not read The Age of Extremes, but I think I should.

  2. The Age of Extremes is a remarkable book that I return to regularly. One of the interesting things about Hobsbawm, and something that adds a certain complication for his admirers, is his unflinching refusal to apologize for Stalin’s murders, notwithstanding the Black Book. In an age defined by Tim Snyder, this is disturbing. One can admire the man and his work, as I do, and still recognize his deep flaws as an essential part of his work.

  3. In addition the those cited above, among his many books I recommend:

    Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movements in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1959)
    Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964)
    Workers: Worlds of Labour (1984)
    Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (2nd ed., 1992)
    Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion, and Jazz (1998)
    How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (2011)

    And I like the following from the conclusion to what appears to be his last book:

    “Once again it is manifest that the economic system’s operations must be analysed both historically, as a phase and not the end of history, and realistically, i.e., not in terms of an ideal market equilibrium, but of a built-in mechanism that generates potentially system-changing periodic crises. The present one may be one of these. Once again it is evident that even between major crises, ‘the market’ has no answer to the major problems confronting the twenty-first century: that unlimited and increasingly high-tech economic growth in the pursuit of unsustainable profit produces global wealth, but at the cost of an increasingly dispensable factor of production, human labour, and, one might add, of the globe’s natural resources. Economic and political liberalism, singly or in combination, cannot provide the solution to the problems of the twenty-first century. Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.”

  4. Primitive Rebels was my bible in grad school…

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