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Remembering Eric Hobsbawm, Historian in ‘The Age of Extremes’

Anjan Basu

  Widely regarded as the greatest British historian of the 20th century, Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm  passed away on 1 October, 2012. Here is a look at the themes that he consistently engaged with in his long career.

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Though his early specialization was in economic history, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) liked to think of himself as a historian of human society in the broadest possible sense. His interest, in his own words, lay in tracing “how humanity got from the cavemen to modern industrialism or post-industrialism, and what changes in society were associated with this progress, or necessary for it to take place, or consequential upon it”. This all-embracing curiosity, combined with the breathtakingly wide sweep of his scholarship, made Hobsbawm the compelling chronicler of the 19th century that he is most likely to be remembered as. He could be pigeon-holed neither as a social historian, nor as a practitioner of cultural or anthropological or religious or even economic history (despite his strong Marxist roots). Thus, the man who came to be acclaimed as “arguably our greatest living historian – not only Britain’s, but the world’s” never created a ‘school’ of his own. Eric Hobsbawm’s history-writing could not be a template, not least because he knew, as few other historians did in recent memory, how to combine personal histories of individuals with those of communities, indeed of whole historical epochs in which past and present blend seamlessly and yet manage to present a perspective for the future.

In the prologue to his Age of Empire, Hobsbawm tells us how a young Viennese woman and a Polish-Russian immigrant man in England happened to find themselves in 1913-14 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. There, they met by chance and fell in love. “It is extremely improbable that such an encounter would have happened in such a place, or would have led to the marriage between two such people, in any period of history earlier than the one with which this book deals. Readers ought to be able to discover why”. The two, it turns out, were Hobsbawm’s parents, eventually married in Zurich because, as citizens of two combatant nations in the Great War, their marriage could not be solemnised either in Austria or in England. Hobsbawm thus launches on his narrative of a fascinating period (1875-1914) of European history by an audacious plunge into the personal. When the book is ended, however, Hobsbawm has completed his magisterial trilogy on 19th-century Europe, now considered compulsory reading for every serious history enthusiast.

In another piece of inspired history-writing, Hobsbawm begins his Age of Revolution, the first part of the trilogy, by reminding his readers that many of the commonest words in our current-day  vocabulary are all coinages or adaptations of the period (1789-1848) with which the book deals. He cites such examples as ‘industry’, ‘factory’, ‘working class’, ‘middle class’, ‘socialism’, ‘journalism’, ‘railway’, ‘scientific’, ‘strike’, ‘engineer’ and ‘liberal’. “To imagine the modern world without these words (i.e. the things and concepts for which they provide names) is to measure the profundity of the revolution which broke out between 1789 and 1848...”, he says in his introduction. After this insight, when the reader goes on to be met in the first chapter with the piquant observation that “(t)he first thing to observe about the world of the 1780s is that it was at once much smaller and much larger than ours”, followed by an adroit exposition of the ‘smaller-larger’ duality, he knows he is in the presence of an extraordinary feat of history writing. It is easy to see why The Daily Telegraph once commented thus: “For sheer intellectual firepower and analytical skill, Hobsbawm remains unsurpassed”.

Born on 9 June, 1917 in Alexandria, Eric’s most formative young years were spent in Vienna and Berlin. By age 14, he had lost both his parents. Care of the two siblings, Eric and the younger Nancy, was  taken over by their uncle Sydney Hobsbawm, but their life in Berlin in the 1930s was interrupted  by the rise of Nazism in Germany. Eric heard of Hitler’s appointment as the Chancellor while on his way home from school, with his sister, one bleak January afternoon in 1933 as it snowed endlessly in Berlin. “I can see it still, as in a dream”, he was to write about that day seventy years later. Jewish, also already a young communist activist, there was no way Eric could continue to live in Berlin, a city to which he had grown passionately attached. They moved to England, the country they ‘belonged to’ by virtue of his father’s British passport but “spiritually, I still lived in Berlin, a newly isolated teenager uprooted from the environment in which he had felt happy and at home”. The British Isles were destined to be his home for the rest of his life, but for teaching assignments that took him away off and on to several cities around the world, notably to New York at The New School for Social Research. After grammar school in London, Eric won a prestigious scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where in due course he earned a Double-Starred First Class in Economic History, to be followed a few years later by a Ph D on Fabian Socialism. While still a student, he had acquired a quite enviable reputation for his amazingly wide, and also deep, knowledge of many disciplines (“Is there anything that Hobsbawm does not know?”, mused many famous contemporaries, as one of them was to write later) and was elected to the elite Cambridge Apostles Group. Later, he was made a Fellow at King’s, also Fellow of the British Academy as well as the Royal  Society of Literature and Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A polyglot, he spoke fluently and wrote in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian and could also read Portuguese and Catalan. He co-edited, from the start, Past and Present, perhaps the most influential social sciences journal in the English language, and was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century in any academic discipline. Despite these very formidable credentials, however, Cambridge repeatedly denied him a position on its History Faculty, though she retained him year after year to examine her graduate students of Economic History. Instead, Hobsbawm taught virtually all his life at Birkbeck College, University of London, but here also, his career progression was painfully slow, with a Readership taking 12 long years in coming and a full Professorship eluding him till 1970, by when he was at the pinnacle of academic and literary fame. This perhaps was the price he had to pay for being a communist and staying one through the glacial Cold War years. In the event, he remained a member of the CPGB until the time the party disbanded itself, although he had ceased to be an Old Faithful since the Soviet Union’s suppression of the  1956 Hungarian uprising, openly opposing the Party line on dissidence and democracy. He castigated the Stalinist model of ‘truly existing socialism’ but refrained till the end from equating Marxism/Communism with Stalinism.

The range of subjects Hobsbawm dealt with in course of his career as historian is stunning: the Industrial Revolution, western capitalism, societies in transition, nationalism, ‘social banditry’, the history of Socialist thought, the October Revolution, Labour movements, historiography, tradition and culture, social rituals, the entire gamut of the literary, aural and visual arts, even Jazz ( a life-long passion) – the list is unending. His work on 19th century’s ‘dual revolution’ (spread over his famous The Age of...trilogy) is widely acknowledged as the most perceptive introduction in any language to modern European history. The sequel to the trilogy, The Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century, is a tour de force of analytical virtuosity and imaginative synthesising of the most diverse –even seemingly disparate – elements. Industry and Empire, Labouring Men, and Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are classics in the fields respectively of the Industrial Revolution, the history of the working-class and nationalism, still unrivalled in the scope of their research and the quality of insights they provide on their subject-matter. Hobsbawm’s work on ‘social banditry’, or grass-roots social resistance movements not guided by any political ideology, was  seminal: in Primitive Rebels, Bandits, and also in parts of Uncommon People he examines the lives and exploits of, and also the social milieus giving rise to, rebels who, in their own anarchic ways, are avengers or primitive resistance fighters for social justice. Another path-breaking work that Hobsbawm guided and widely collaborated on was in the area of ‘invented traditions’. The 1983 collection of studies -- The Invention of Tradition -- that Hobsbawm edited and wrote extensive portions of, is fascinating  in its analysis of how so  many ‘traditions’ which “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented”. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the modern development of the nation and of nationalism, and in the legitimisation of institutions or cultural phenomena such as Zionism, the Bible and the martial arts of Japan, establishing the fact that the sharp distinction we tend to make between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ is often illusory. On History, a dazzling collage of historiographical studies, Revolutionaries, thumb-nail sketches of revolutionary individuals/epochs, and Interesting Times, his magnificent autobiography, are all monuments to a brilliant mind.

Hobsbawm the historian’s point of departure was Marx’s great generalisation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. Though a communist, Marxism was not for him an act of faith; it provided him with the philosophical apparatus with which to analyze past and present, weld the various facets of man’s life together into a big picture, and anticipate the likely future course of human civilisation. This, together with encyclopaedic knowledge, a phenomenal command of detail and source, and a finely-chiselled prose that rivals the narrative power of some of the greatest writers of English prose, made it possible for him to synthesise the most diverse materials with surprising elan. Hobsbawm’s multicultural identity, his central European – rather than an exclusively British – background also played an important part in making his canvas such a richly varied one. This multiculturalism is present most tellingly in his essays, book reviews and seminar/festival talks. A case in point is Fractured Times, the posthumously-published book of essays, that features themes such as manifestos, art nouveau, J D Bernal, public religion, ‘mitteleuropean destinies’, ‘the last days of mankind’ and the American cowboy. “With a power of decision that commands terrified admiration”, the Guardian wrote about Hobsbawm, “he selects basic themes, (and) illustrates them with a wealth of reference, European and global.”

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But, in the end, Eric Hobsbawm was much more than an exceptionally brilliant 20th century intellectual. He wrote and analyzed history with the hope that his work would contribute to mankind’s overall progress towards a more enlightened, more rational, more humane world. The concluding paragraph of his autobiography validates his commitment to this cause: “(L)et us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times. Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own”. It was not for nothing that he defiantly called his 2011 book of essays,  How to Change the World.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He has published a book of translations from the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com

Frontier
Sep 7, 2018


Anjan Basu basuanjan52@gmail.com

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