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Expert Comment: Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

Eric Hobsbawm Tuesday 2 October 2012

Professor Bill Jones, from the Department of Politics History Media and Communication at Liverpool Hope, looks at the life and work of historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died this week.

The writing of history in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by an emphasis on politicians, institutions and, in Britain, the empire. Eric Hobsbawm represented a major shift from such obsessive concerns. His natural interest in how ordinary people lived, combined with his Marxist orientation, was reflected in his book, Primitive Rebels, on south European secret societies and sects. His Captain Swing focused on rural protest in the 19th century.

His Industry and Empire  established his reputation as a major new voice among British historians. He followed up with The Age of Revolution, which I remember reading for my A level history in 1963- my history master was impressed to see I was reading it: I did not realise his relative notoriety as an activist on the far left. Then came The Age of Capital and Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes was produced as recently as 1994. By this time Hobsbawn was accepted as a major voice and acute observer of how people and nations had contributed to the world in which we live.   

Hobsbawn was the product of a Jewish background; his father Leopold was born in England, though Eric was born in Alexandria where his father worked in a shipping office. Leopold married a Viennese girl and they both then settled in that city. When his parents died within two years of each other in the late 1920s, Eric’s uncle Sidney arranged for him to move to Berlin. When Hitler came to power in 1933, German Jews were fearful but Eric’s migration to London was in consequence of Sidney’s transfer back to England. Here this thoroughly German Jewish teenager quickly learnt English, attended Marylebone grammar school and won a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge where he established a reputation for a luminous brilliance.

His membership of the Communist Party precluded any wartime the work on intelligence he favoured but he served as a sapper instead, along with working class British lads.  He remained true to the Communist Party to the end, being allowed licence to disagree with a number of the actions by the Soviet Union.  Anyone who knew the man attest to his warmth and sharp intellect. Ed Miliband, who knew him well was no stranger to the Hobsbawm household and paid tribute to his passion for debate and for the left wing cause. It remains a fact that despite his devotion to communism not one of his books was ever published in the USSR.

His scholarly output continued well into the new millennium with Interesting Times in 2002, his autobiography plus Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism in 2007. A truly great historian and influential commentator, he lived to a very ripe old age, intellectually alert to the end. He will be sorely missed, especially in the Labour Party, where he was much revered.



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