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.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State