Hobsbawm, whose three-volume economic history of the rise of industrial
capitalism established him as Britain’s pre-eminent Marxist historian, died on
Monday in London. He was 95.
The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter, Julia Hobsbawm.
Mr. Hobsbawm, the leading light in a group of historians within the British
Communist Party that included Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and Raymond
Williams, helped recast the traditional understanding of history as a series of
great events orchestrated by great men. Instead, he focused on labor movements
in the 19th century and what he called the “pre-political” resistance of
bandits, millenarians and urban rioters in early capitalist societies.
His masterwork remains his incisive and often eloquent survey of the period he
referred to as “the long 19th century,” which he analyzed in three volumes: “The
Age of Revolution: 1789-1848,” “The Age of Capital: 1848-1875” and “The Age of
Empire: 1874-1914.” To this trilogy he appended a coda in 1994, “The Age of
Extremes,” published in the United States with the subtitle “A History of the
“Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of
narrative history,” Tony Judt, a professor of history at New York University,
wrote in an e-mail in 2008, two years before he died. “On everything he touched
he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler
understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong
Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the
Unlike many of his comrades, Mr. Hobsbawm, who lived in London, stuck with the
Communist Party after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956
and the Czech reform movement in 1968. He eventually let his party membership
lapse about the time the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern bloc disintegrated in
“I didn’t want to break with the tradition that was my life and with what I
thought when I first got into it,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I still
think it was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it
the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race,
or else human life isn’t worth living.”
Eric John Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, where a confused clerk
at the British consulate misspelled the last name of his father, Leopold Percy
Hobsbaum, an unsuccessful merchant from the East End of London. His mother,
Nelly Grün, was Austrian, and after World War I ended, the family, which was
Jewish, settled in Vienna. The Hobsbawms were struggling to make ends meet when,
in 1929, Eric’s father dropped dead on his own doorstep, probably of a heart
attack. Two years later Nelly died of lung disease, and her son was shipped off
to live with relatives in Berlin.
In the waning months of the Weimar Republic, Mr. Hobsbawm, a gifted student,
became a passionate Communist and a true believer in the Bolshevik Revolution.
“The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as
deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the
hard disks of computers,” he wrote in “Interesting Times,” a memoir published in
Mr. Hobsbawm, a cool introvert, found exhilaration and fellowship in the radical
politics of the street in Germany. As a member of a Communist student
organization, he slipped party fliers under apartment doors in the weeks after
Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and at one point concealed an illegal
duplicating machine under his bed. Within weeks, however, he was sent to Britain
to live with yet another set of relatives.
Forbidden by his uncle to join either the Communist Party or the Labour Party
(which Mr. Hobsbawm hoped to subvert from within), he concentrated on his
studies at St. Marylebone Grammar School in London and won a scholarship to
Cambridge. There he joined the Communist Party in 1936, edited the weekly
journal Granta and accepted an invitation to joint the elite, informal society
of intellectuals known as the Apostles.
“It was an invitation that hardly any Cambridge undergraduate was likely to
refuse, since even revolutionaries like to be in a suitable tradition,” he wrote
in “Interesting Times.” He described himself as a “Tory communist,”
unsympathetic to the politics of personal liberation that marked the 1960s.
Mr. Hobsbawm graduated from King’s College with highest honors in 1939 and went
on to earn a master’s degree in 1942 and a doctorate in 1951, writing his
dissertation on the Fabian Society. In 1943 he married Muriel Seaman, a civil
servant and fellow Communist. That marriage ended in divorce in 1950. In 1962 he
married Marlene Schwarz, who survives him. In addition to his daughter, he is
survived by his son Andrew; another son, Joss Bennathan; seven grandchildren;
and one great-grandchild.
Mr. Hobsbawm served in the British Army from 1939 to 1946, a period he later
called the most unhappy of his life. Excluded from any meaningful job by his
politics, he languished on the sidelines in Britain as others waged the great
armed struggle against fascism. “I did nothing of significance in it,” he wrote
of the war, “and was not asked to.”
He began teaching history at Birkbeck College in the University of London in
1947, and from 1949 to 1955 he was a history fellow at King’s College.
Mr. Hobsbawm and his colleagues in the Historians’ Study Group of the Communist
Party established labor history as an important field of study and in 1952
created an influential journal, Past and Present, as a home base.
The rich dividends from this new approach to writing history were apparent in
works like “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the
19th and 20th Centuries,” “Laboring Men: Studies in the History of Labor” and
“Industry and Empire,” the companion volume to Christopher Hill’s “Reformation
to Industrial Revolution.”
During this period, Mr. Hobsbawm also wrote jazz criticism for The New Statesman
and Nation under the pseudonym Francis Newton, a sly reference to the jazz
trumpeter Frankie Newton, an avowed Communist. His jazz writing led to a book,
“The Jazz Scene,” published in 1959.
If his political allegiances stymied his professional advancement, as he argued
in his memoir, honors and recognition eventually came his way. At the University
of London, he was finally promoted to a readership in 1959 and was named
professor of economic and social history in 1970. After retiring in 1982 he
taught at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cornell University and the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.
The accolades for works like his “Age of” trilogy led to membership in learned
societies and honorary degrees, but to the end of his life the Communist
militant coexisted uneasily with the professional historian.
Not until his 80s, in “The Age of Extremes,” did Mr. Hobsbawm dare turn to the
century whose horrific events had shaped his politics. The book was an anguished
reckoning with a period he had avoided as a historian because, as he wrote in
his memoir, “given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the 20th
century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the strong
likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic.”
Mr. Hobsbawm continued to write well into his 90s, appearing frequently in The
New York Review of Books and other periodicals. His “How to Change the World:
Tales of Marx and Marxism” was published last year, and “Fractured Times,” a
collection of essays on 20th-century culture and society, is scheduled to be
published by Little, Brown in Britain in March 2013.
Although increasingly on the defensive, and quite willing to say that the great
Communist experiment had not only failed but had been doomed from the start, Mr.
Hobsbawm refused to recant or, many critics complained, to face up to the human
misery it had created. “Historical understanding is what I’m after, not
agreement, approval, or sympathy,” he wrote in his memoir.
In 1994, he shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the
BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would
have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.
“The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the
historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian,” Mr. Judt
said. “It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.”
has been revised
to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 1, 2012
An earlier version of the obituary
of the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm
name incorrectly in several passages.
We know what
was written in the first telegram, sent by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844: “What
hath God wrought?” We know the words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell when he
made the first telephone call in 1876, to his assistant, Thomas Watson: “Mr
Watson — come here — I want to see you.” (The “polite telephone manner” had not
yet been invented.) But we have absolutely no idea what was said in the first
e-mail, just 35 years ago.
The digital age brought with it the false promise that everything written,
filmed, photographed or recorded might now be preserved, for ever. The “save”
key would eliminate the need for filing and storage. Since 1945 we have gathered
100 times more information than in the whole of human history up until that
point. Entire libraries could be preserved on disks that fitted into a pocket.
Paper was dead.
It has not quite worked out that way. Digital information may be impossibly
voluminous and convenient, but it is also vulnerable and dangerously disposable.
Already a vast amount of information has been lost. CDs disintegrate in just 20
years, whereas the Domesday Book, written on sheepskin in 1086, will still be
with us in another millennium. Few people still write regular letters, but their
replacement, the ubiquitous e-mail, is so easily deleted and forgotten, to say
nothing of the fleeting text message.
Technology has already left behind the forms of electronic storage once expected
to be eternal: the laser disk, the 5¼in, the 3.5in floppy, the Amstrad
all-in-one word processor have all been flung into obsolescence, often taking
their information with them. Only a small fraction of government bodies and
companies even bother to archive their digital material. Who, save the most
fastidious self-chronicler, takes the trouble to embalm their own e-mails
electronically? Historians of the future may look back on the 1980s and 1990s as
a black hole in the collective memory, a time when the historical record thinned
alarmingly owing to the pace of technological change. Future biographers may be
reduced to trying to extract personality from whatever electronic fragments
survive, cheque stubs and those few ritual moments (birth, death and overdraft)
when a subject still puts pen to paper.
I have recently spent many hours in the National Archives, ferreting through the
wartime records of MI5.
The sheer richness of written material is overwhelming: letters, memos,
telephone transcripts, diaries, scribbled notes in the margins. You can smell
the pipe smoke and personalities wafting off the pages.
When MI5’s current files are released decades hence, historians will have a far
drier time of it. Electronic messages not deemed to be of “archival” value are
routinely deleted by civil servants, simply as an insurance policy — significant
or potentially damaging information is strictly verbal, particularly since Jo
Moore’s attempt to “bury bad news” by e-mail.
Arguably, the most important and reliable real-time histories of places such as
Iraq and Iran are currently being written on weblogs, the online journals and
discussion forums that are, by definition, mutable and impermanent. A historian
50 years hence would probably get the most accurate picture of life in Baghdad
today by collecting and studying the blogs of the moment, but it may already be
too late. The average life expectancy of a website is about 44 days, roughly the
same as the common house fly.
Just as importantly, by committing to erasable electronic memory the things we
once committed to paper, we may be denying future generations the chance to
witness the warp and weft of our lives. Our ancestors were writers and hoarders.
I have a collection of my grandfather’s letters in the attic, describing the
life of a sheep farmer in New South Wales in the 1930s. They are of interest, I
suspect, to no one but me, but to me they are invaluable, a chronicle of where I
come from. What will we bequeath to our grandchildren? At best a bunch of
antiquated disks that they may well be unable to open and read.
Anyone (with a magnifying glass and patience) can read letters, but there is a
real danger that technology will leave much of the electronically written record
marooned and illegible. The BBC’s Doomsday Project of 1986, intended to record
the economic, social and cultural state of Britain for all time, was recorded on
two 12in videodisks. By 2000 it was obsolete, and rescued only thanks to a
specialist team working with a single surviving laser disk player.
When Nasa sent two Viking Lander spacecraft to Mars in 1975, the data was
carefully recorded on magnetic tape. Two decades later, no one could decode it.
The original printouts had be tracked down, and typed out again on paper.
And that, ironic as it seems, may be the answer. The Digital Preservation
Coalition, a group encouraging governments, businesses and individuals to curate
and preserve electronic information, recently published a report stating that
“storage of printed copies of important documents is generally accepted as a
reasonably failsafe method of preservation”.
This, then, is a plea for paper. So long as it is stored properly and acid-free,
paper endures. Leave the ephemera to the electronic ether, but if you value
certain words and images, preserve them on paper. The “print” button is a more
faithful saviour than the “save” button.
Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent his message to the fleet by raising
flags using Sir Home Popham’s telegraphic code (a rather newfangled form of
communication, which not everyone approved of) — whereupon the words were
written down for posterity, on paper.
Today the same message would probably be sent by text — instant, easy, and
instantly perishable: “UK xpx dat evry man wll do his duT.”