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
Show Hide image

Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem