Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

Marxist historian dies at the age of 95.

The Marxist historian and intellectual Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95. Raised in Vienna and Berlin, Hobsbawm came to Britain in 1933, when his Jewish family fled the Nazis. He read history at Cambridge and served in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War.

Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party in 1936, remaining a member after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, an event which led many of his contemporaries to leave the party. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hobsbawm was a key figure in the "Eurocommunist" current inside the CPGB that gathered around the party's theoretical journal, Marxism Today. His 1978 essay in that organ, "The Forward March of Labour Halted", inaugurated a highly influential revisionist analysis of the strength of the working-class movement in Britain.

His work as an academic historian of the 19th and 20th centuries, including such books as The Age of Revolution and The Age of Extremes, is among the finest fruits of the Marxist tradition in historiography. The late Tony Judt wrote of Hobsbawm:

Hobsbawm doesn’t just know more than other historians. He writes better, too: there is none of the fussy “theorizing” or grandiloquent rhetorical narcissism of some of his younger British colleagues (none of the busy teams of graduate researchers, either—he does his own reading). His style is clean and clear. Like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Christopher Hill, his erstwhile companions in the British Communist Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm is a master of English prose. He writes intelligible history for literate readers.

For ten years, between 1956 and 1966, Hobsbawm also moonlighted as the New Statesman's jazz critic, writing under the pseudonym "Francis Newton". This summer, the magazine republished an article of his from 1960, looking back on developments in jazz during the preceding decade.

Hobsbawm remained active as a writer well into his nineties. His final book, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, was published last year. I spoke to Hobsbawm about the book in January 2011. Of the fate of Marx's work, he said:

Marx, I suppose, was saved by the collapse of the Soviet Union - but not necessarily Marxism, because the Soviet Union was a Marxist state only of a kind. It is quite clear that, for some time, the great bulk of people interested in Marx and Marxism were critical of the Soviet Union andregarded it as a diversion from the original path. On the other hand, you've got to remember that Marxism, as a political as well as an intellectual phenomenon, depends on the political atmosphere. And all socialists were hurt to some extent by the fall of the Soviet Union, simply because the example of having some part of the world which claimed to be socialist inspired them, and had inspired them for most of the 20th century. It wasn't until the beginning of this century that interest in Marx revived again.

Eric Hobsbawm in January 1976 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder