Saturday, 6 October 2012

In Defence of Eric Hobsbawm

by Billie Downer
Eric Hobsbawm, in 2011
(image: Daily Telegraph)
The death of historian Eric Hobsbawm, aged 95, on 1st October 2012, has led to many flattering tributes, including a two-hour BBC documentary, but also sparked debate among admirers and critics. 

A scathing report by A.N. Wilson of The Daily Mail, attacking Hobsbawm's Marxism, prophesied that 'Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace', criticizing his books as 'little better than propaganda' and condemning his actions in 1939, when Hobsbawm co-wrote a pamphlet defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact's plan to carve up Poland. 

How fair is Wilson's view?
Historians are people and therefore inherently products of their time. Hobsbawm's steadfast Marxist views, criticized by Wilson, stemmed from his life experiences. Hobsbawm lived through the collapse of capitalism during the Great Depression, and he therefore desired a different, more successful economic and political system. 
Also, as a 15-year old Jewish boy growing up in Germany, he faced persecution from the Nazi Party. Opposing Hitler, in 1931, Hobsbawm joined a group that was a natural enemy to the Nazis: The Association of Socialist Pupils, an offshoot of the Young Communist League of Germany, which, for a Jewish schoolboy at this time, was a logical (but also brave) decision. Communism also offered Hobsbawm a sense of community within a society in which, as a Jew, he was considered alien. What is more, to belong to the Communist Party was to show a sense of loyalty to, and solidarity with, friends who had suffered and would suffer more, offering a collective sense that the struggle for a better world was not in vain, that a better society would eventually come.  
While he studied at Cambridge in the 1930s, Marxism was popular and fashionable as a respectable intellectual theory of social and economic development. Had any of us been at school and university in Britain in the 1930s, we might have been shaped by Marxism and subsequently defended it as completely as Hobsbawm.
Therefore, his Marxist views were understandable, and all Wilson is criticizing is Hobsbawm's dedication to his beliefs --- a dedication which should warrant admiration rather than criticism. Controversial views (for example his excuses for the genocide perpetrated by Stalin) do not remove from the great contribution Hobsbawm made to our study of history. His most widely known books include his trilogy about the nineteenth century (The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire: 1875-1914) and his history of the twentieth century (The Age of Extremes: 1914-1989).

These works have been hugely popular and influential, offering views and perspectives that were unconventional at the time --- not an account of rulers but of the majority of the population. Hobsbawm was driven to write about the inequalities of the past because he wanted to address the inequalities of the present --- his motivation appeared to be, first and foremost, the people. His legacy will continue in the shape of a thriving and outward-looking historical influence.
Despite what critics say, Hobsbawm remains one of the greatest historians of our time.

1 comment:

  1. Comment from Dave Allen:

    I'm with Billie - a good post this. I'm not sure I'm equipped to say much about such an eminent historian, but two thoughts did occur. Among the recent tributes was a reminder that Hobsbawm wrote in the 'Age of Extremes' how in the late 20th century, "most young men and women grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians ... more essential". It's an observation that accords with my experience over the past twenty years of teaching various aspects of cultural history to succeeding years of undergraduates and I think it's more pronounced in the 21st Century than when he wrote it initially.

    The other aspect of his work that delighted me for decades (before I knew it was his) is the book by Francis Newton called "The Jazz Scene" which was published 50+ years ago and carries some interesting information about British jazz fans in those far-off, pre-Beatles days. It was only relatively recently I learned that Newton was in fact Hobsbawm, writing under his 'nom de jazz'


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