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The Enlightenment values of Eric Hobsbawm

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

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:

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

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis