The Enlightenment values of Eric Hobsbawm

Remembering a historian who tried to keep historical change in the spotlight.

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976
Eric Hobsbawm in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

In July 2002, Eric Hobsbawm, who died on 1 October at the age of 95, gave a lecture at the Institute of Historical Research in London. It was entitled “A Life in History”. The phrase referred ostensibly to his long career as a professional historian but it also evoked Hobsbawm’s sense of himself as someone who’d had the good fortune to live in “interesting times” (a phrase he used as the title of a memoir published in the same year).

Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917 to an Anglo-Jewish father and Austrian Jewish mother, and spent the early part of his childhood in Vienna. Both his parents died young and in 1931 he moved, with his sister, to live with an aunt and uncle in Berlin. He arrived in the German capital, he wrote later, “as the world economy collapsed . . . [That was] the historic moment that decided the shape both of the 20th century and of my life.”

It was in the gathering chaos of Berlin in the early 1930s, as Hitler prepared to take power, that the adolescent Hobsbawm made a political commitment to the Communist Party that he took with him to Britain, where the family moved in 1933. And it was a commitment that he would never recant – not after the shock of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, nor after rumours of the horrors of Stalinism began to spread and not after Nikita Khrushchev corroborated those rumours in his “secret” speech to the 20th congress of the Soviet party in February 1956.

By the time news of Khrushchev’s speech reached the west, Hobsbawm was a leading light in the Communist Party Historians’ Group; Christopher Hill, E P Thompson, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton were also members.

The books these men would write in the following decades – including Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (1962), the first volume of his majestic trilogy on the “long 19th century”, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) – are among the finest fruits of the Marxist tradition in historiography; indeed, they’re among the finest works of history written in English in any tradition in the second half of the 20th century. But in 1956, the group became the focus of opposition to the leadership of the British Communist Party, whose response to Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, and to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, they deemed wholly inadequate.

On the verge

Looking back on this period 30 years later, Hobsbawm told an interviewer that “everyone was living . . . the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown”. For most of the other members of the Historians’ Group, the upshot of that nervous episode was departure from the party. Hobsbawm, however, stayed put.

He was asked many times why he remained, a question that in his last years he tended to dismiss grumpily as a “cold war” one. The closest he came to an answer was in the memoir, Interesting Times, where he presents his enduring fidelity to the party as a biographical rather than a political imperative. “It was . . . for someone who joined the movement where I came from and when I did, quite simply more difficult to break with the Party than for those who came later and from elsewhere.” Remaining in the party was, as the late Tony Judt put it, a way for Hobsbawm to “keep faith with his adolescent self”.

But that isn’t the whole story. In a radio interview he gave last year to the historian Simon Schama, Hobsbawm reiterated his belief in the principles of the Enlightenment, what he called “18th-century” values (his “long 19th century” having begun in 1789, with the French Revolution).

It’s clear, too, that he understood his unwavering support for the Soviet experiment, for all its moral compromises, as the expression of an Enlightenment faith in the ability of human beings to remake the world in the image of abstract ideals.

You see this cast of mind in the 2002 lecture, when Hobsbawm discusses, with mandarin disdain, the kind of “history from below” that emerged in the 1970s. This was history as a means not of “interpreting or even changing the world” but of “collective self-discovery” – a way for previously marginalised groups to write themselves into the historical narrative. And it carried with it huge risks, for it threatened to undermine the “universality of the universe of discourse that is the essence of history as a scholarly and intellectual discipline”.

He would observe later that the “big transformative questions”, questions about the role played by “great crises” in historical change, “have generally been forgotten by historians”. Hobsbawm is best remembered as someone who tried to keep them in the spotlight.

To read a selection of Eric Hobsbawm’s writing for the New Statesman, visit: newstatesman.com/writers/eric_hobsbawm.