Ten years on from the death of historian Eric Hobsbawm, Tom Taylor analyses his legacy, from his historical work to his commitment to Communist ideology.
Hobsbawm never appeared to be a man of self-doubt. He pursued, and succeeded, in carving out a historical career of great success, even in the climate of the Cold War, where his Marxism inevitably held him back. Yet he stacked his bookshelves with the foreign editions of his own work, which, as he stated, were a ‘reminder that an old cosmopolitan had not entirely failed in 50 years of trying to communicate history to the world’s readers’. It’s somewhat humbling to know that a historian of Hobsbawm’s standards could still doubt his own abilities.
Tony Judt stated that on everything Hobsbawm ‘touched he wrote much better’. His extensive research on Revolution, particularly the dual revolution, which formed his ‘The Age of Revolution’, was a more thorough work than his fellow historians and evidenced his ability to write engaging and reasoned prose. His work shone a light on the books of fellow historians, but not necessarily in a good way. His studies on the notion of revolution emphasised the importance of empirical rationale in history and left books such as Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Revolution’, a work primarily interested in a priori wonderings, lacking the analytical edge necessary to parallel his research.
He was an esteemed commentator on international affairs; his book ‘The Age of Empire’ shone light on the role imperialism played in cultivating Western society. His insight on global affairs was unparalleled and yet he still played a role in contributing to domestic affairs in his adopted nation: England. He often spoke on the British left, detailing their perpetual struggles to find political resonance amongst the majority. Hobsbawm himself was a member of this group, a committed Communist Party member from 1936 for around the next 50 years, it led MI5 to take out a file on him and prevent him from getting certain jobs, such as some academic posts or a role within the BBC. Despite his positioning on the left of British politics, he still managed to find some favour amongst others, most notably Neil Kinnock. Hobsbawm’s politics became more pessimistic as he aged and he stated that socialism was no longer the natural ideology of the working class by the late 1970s. He believed that a white-collar labour aristocracy had become more prominent following the decline of the industrial working class and Kinnock seized this to move the Labour Party away from sectionalist disputes over class politics with the Bennite camp. Hobsbawm often wrote fondly of Neil Kinnock, noting that no matter his limitations, he was the leader who saved the Labour Party from the sectarians and ensured its future.
Hobsbawm’s commitment to Communism blighted his career. His detractors posit that it affected his judgement, although I dispute this as good historians who don’t write from a certain innate ideological lense, however minimal, are few and far between and often struggle to deliver stimulating prose. They say that his Communism leaves a stain on his morals, which is a more difficult point to overlook. Tony Judt notes that Hobsbawm often overlooked the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, as it represented an aspiration he couldn’t let go: that socialism was never simply a dream. Thus he stayed in the Communist Party through these atrocities and although he stopped being an active campaigner he never cancelled his membership.
Despite his flaws, which he did have, Hobsbawm remains one of the most skilled historians of the past century. His exhaustive research and tonic prose allowed him to craft true masterpieces, unrivalled by many historians of his day. His persistence in the Communist party, albeit a negative, acts as a metaphor for his unequivocal desire to decipher history.
Tom Taylor is a writer, with award-winning pieces detailing the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Nagorno-Karabakh war. He is also a proud Mancunian and History student. He tweets at @tomwstaylor.
Cover image from Rob Ward, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.