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.