history, marxist, Age, Revolution, Capital, Empire, Extremes
[Eric Hobsbawm, historian]
marxist historian, biography, historiography, Karl Marx, Marxism

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Eric Hobsbawm
Marxist historian

  Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria to a middle-class Jewish family in June 1917. Between the world wars, the family moved first to Vienna and then to Berlin.
  He long retained a memory of himself as a 14-year-old boy who read on a newspaper board the headline announcing the accession of the Third Reich. 'Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first-hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically,' he said. 'This is still there in me. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be.'

  Hobsbawm's parents both died during the Depression and he and his sister were taken in by his uncle, who worked for a Berlin branch of a Hollywood, USA, based firm. Soon thereafter, the family moved to England, following his uncle's job, and for three years, Hobsbawm experienced what he has rarely felt since - that history was happening without him. He was bored and dislocated by the transition from the intensities of pre-war Germany to the complacencies of a south London grammar school. It was not until he got to Cambridge that he sensed he could carry on with the conversations that he'd started in Berlin.

  Hobsbawm has defined and explained the progress of the last century as mankind learning to 'live in expectation of apocalypse'. He responded to those intimations in himself by joining the Communist Party. He would, he says, certainly have become a member earlier, but that his uncle was 'rather stiff' on the subject. 'He used to say, "You kids don't know what you are letting yourselves in for".' Hobsbawm smiles now, seeing his life unspooling in that prophecy. 'He was right, of course.'

  You could imagine that the gangling young émigré, uprooted and orphaned, might have been attracted to the certainties of the party as a surrogate family and consequently begin to explain the strength of the attachment as a powerfully emotional as well as an intellectual one. Looking back, he suggests that 'probably that kind of security was one of the appeals', but also that he 'never felt short of family... it was more that you just felt things were going to pieces, and you felt it needed a revolution to re-create it, to put it back together'.

  After the war, these political commitments no longer seemed quite so innocent. Hobsbawm applied for a series of Oxbridge jobs, and was 'turned down right, left and centre' He fetched up instead, happily, at Birkbeck where the student body was part-time, lectures were held in the evenings and the challenge among the faculty was to keep its audience awake in the graveyard slot between eight and nine. Hobsbawm, by all accounts, achieved this effortlessly and sustained his intellectual energy after hours.
  Hobsbawm considered that, given his sympathy for communism, he got into academia 'under the wire'; a year later, after the Berlin Airlift in 1948, his story, he believed, would have been markedly different.

  Though he never proselytised unlike many of his comrades, Hobsbawm did not leave the party after 1956. It may be that partly because of his political affiliations, he did not get promotion to a professorship until 1970.

  According to Hobsbawm the historian's task, "is not simply to discover the past but to explain it, and in doing so to provide a link with the present." For Hobsbawm, history is a cumulative, collective enterprise to uncover "the patterns and mechanisms" that have transformed the world.
  Historians commonly have diverse viewpoints; indeed, partisanship or commitment (to Marxism and socialism, in Hobsbawm's case) this possibly injects new creative energy into research and prevents the field from turning inward and becoming ossified.

  Hobsbawm's later writings display a general pessimism and estrangement, arising from his sense of how far humanity had slipped from the nineteenth century and its expectations of civility and human progress.
  The start of World War I in 1914 (even more than the Russian Revolution in 1917) represented, in Hobsbawm's estimation, the great historical turning point separating an age of human progress from one of increased barbarism.
  Reflecting on mankind's trajectory from the Sarajevo of 1914 to the Sarajevo of the fall of Yugoslavia -- total warfare, the state sanctioned genocides of Nazism and Stalinism, the annihilatory madness of the Cold War arms race, and the latest monstrosities -- he declares his unwavering commitment to the ideas and values of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as "one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness."
  The Enlightenment may not be fashionable ("a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs," Hobsbawm jokes) but it is the only basis, he insists, on which "to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this Earth, and for the assertion and defence of their human rights as persons." And "the worst of it is that we have got used to the inhuman. We have learned to tolerate the intolerable."

  This commitment also throws light on the combative, inflexible tone of his Marxism, now curiously linked to a certain nostalgia for past civility. If Marxism no longer supplies Hobsbawm with a political vision, neither is it for him simply a theory of historical development, the best tool to be found for making sense of the past. With its positivist values and clear affirmation of progress in history, Marxism is central to his moral and cultural critique, linking him firmly to that "Enlightenment project" dedicated to rationalism and human improvement.
  Whether or not we agree with Hobsbawm's historical judgments or share his fears for the future, his voice remains loud and clear.

  Marx seemed to him the best guide for understanding the mechanisms of historical change in the modern world, and he repeatedly affirms that he has since then discovered no comparable analytic tool. His analysis of Marxist concepts and his subtle and flexible use of them in his writing -- abundantly illustrated in several of these essays -- has been enormously influential. In this collection, however, the most recent essay on "Marx and History" dates from 1983 and so it addresses neither recent critiques nor his personal reactions to the collapse of the Soviet Union and other recent changes that, in the eyes of many historians, have diminished the working class as an historical actor.

  As the Communist walls were coming down in 1989, Hobsbawm was often asked to explain his continued commitment. Typically, he replied both as a conviction historian - 'I think the movement has achieved at least one absolutely major thing, and that includes the Soviet Union, namely the defeat of fascism,' - and as a rose-tinted loyalist: 'I don't wish to be untrue to my past or comrades of mine, a lot of them dead, some of them killed by their own side, whom I've admired [as] models to follow, in their unselfishness.'

  His landmark trilogy on the nineteenth century synthesised myriad competing social swells into great epochal waves: the Ages of Revolution, and of Capital, and of Empire. He has characterised his own time and tide as the Age of Extremes, the tempestuous force of which conspired to deposit him on the shore of the present as the Last Marxist; still, he refuses to believe himself beached. One old friend observes: 'Eric has long ago worked out his precise intellectual position and he's quite happy there, thank you very much.'

  These four volumes are probably the most widely admired of his works -- not simply because of their erudition and bold analysis, but for the author's conviction that historians must write large-scale interpretations of the past without minimizing its diversity and complexity and, at the same time, make them readable, jargon-free, and accessible to non-professionals. If more scholars have recently taken up the challenge of historical synthesis, it is due in no small part to Hobsbawm's example.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage


The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.

Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
.
Spirituality & the wider world
.
Some Social Theory and insights
.
The Unfolding of History
.
The Vienna Declaration
.
Framework Convention on National minorities



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Eric Hobsbawm
A Marxist historian