A few weeks before he passed away, Eric Hobsbawm
and his wife invited Romila Thapar to the historian’s 95th birthday party in London. John Williams played the guitar. The gathered companions drank to the great man’s health. He was convivial and had all his wits about him—as seems evident in the pictures below. A century seemed possible ...
In her obituary below, Romila Thapar recounts what Hobsbawm’s work meant to her, and its intellectual legacy more broadly.
REMEMBERING ERIC HOBSBAWM
Eric Hobsbawm was the kind of historian whose work, although largely on the last three centuries of European history, was relevant even to those of us who work on a different space and time. The process of historical investigation for him was not restricted to a narrow engagement with a specific subject, but with having to situate it in an extensive horizon involving many peoples and ideas. This vision and the logical interconnections that he made were in part due to his unusual intellectual reach and in part to his creative use of Marxist analyses. These not only gave him a starting point for asking questions but also allowed him to bring his formidable intellectual perceptions of the past to bear on his historical generalisations. Historical writing was for him both an intellectual enterprise and an extension of understanding the mainsprings of human actions.
As an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the mid-1950s, I was advised to attend Eric Hobsbawm’s lectures on Political Theory at Birkbeck College in the University of London. The first few lectures were on Utopian and Scientific Socialism. They were stunning in their lucidity and sparked off connections that made me think beyond the boundaries of a single discipline. I was too awestruck to start a conversation with him. Gradually this changed when some of us joined in with students who gathered round him for coffee in the Birkbeck cafeteria.
I subsequently discovered among my friends some who had migrated from Vienna in 1939 and knew him in London. Meeting him through these friends introduced me to another dimension of my understanding of Europe—the awareness of what had been a Central European intellectual tradition with Vienna as its hub, and its closeness to French and German intellectual life, rather than the British alone. Brought up as I was in an Indian Cantonment culture, I was more familiar with the British tradition than others among non-Indian cultures. Hobsbawm was quintessentially the Central European intellectual, which in part explains his expansive intellectual vision. At he pointed out on a later occasion, British Marxism was more focused on the social sciences whereas continental Marxism by comparison gave greater space to questions of culture and philosophy.
Eric had a nomadic childhood. Born in Alexandria to a British Jewish father and a central European mother, his schooling took him first to Vienna and then to Berlin and subsequently to England in the 1930s when it became difficult for Jews to survive in Germany. In Berlin he recognised the fascism of the Nazis, not just their anti-Jewish activities but also their negation of the normal freedom of a citizen. He became a communist, seeing in socialism the only answer to fascism. This commitment remained with him all his life, even though in later years he was criticised for not resigning from the Communist Party of Great Britain (popularly known as the CPGB), when the USSR crushed the uprising in Hungary in 1956.
A scholarship to Cambridge to study history introduced him to a group of young historians, enthusiasts in their discovery of Marxism, who were trying to introduce the new social and economic history to readers more familiar with political and diplomatic history. They called themselves the British Historians Group to which the qualifier was added, of the CPGB. The group included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, George Rude, E.P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, and some others. Their analyses of British history turned this history round, as it were, with analyses of class consciousness, property relations, and prevailing systems of religious belief and learning. The discipline took a new form. Hobsbawm was also elected to the more eclectic group, exploring ideas, who called themselves ‘The Apostles’ and counted as their members, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, J.M. Keynes, and E.M. Forster. Incidentally, this was also about the time that another group in Cambridge—Anthony Blunt et al.—were recruited as Soviet spies. Evidently, the British historians were seen as too independent by the USSR.
The British Historians Group started publishing the now well-known journal, Past and Present, in 1952. The modernisers of history could use it to express their views and reach a wider readership, as indeed they did. It carried a variety of views emanating from Marxist analyses and related thinking, incorporating the connection of history to other social sciences. In later years it reflected other ways of thought that had entered the study of history, not all of which incidentally had the approval of the founders of the journal. Inevitably there were controversies, as for example on the question of whether history was to be largely a narrative of the past, or was to explain the past as well, or on the changes that post-modernism could introduce into writing history. Hobsbawm’s criticism of such approaches was that they did not ask questions and provide explanations, which for him was fundamental to historical research. The journal hosted debates. They were also keen to bring in comparative history and to publish articles on non-European subjects. Just when I completed my doctorate, Past and Present published my first article on Ashoka.
This group of historians, as well as some others such as Richard Cobb and Keith Thomas, were supportive of our attempts to introduce social and economic history at our universities, as at Delhi University, for example. They came to India turn by turn during the late 1960s and 1970s, to give lectures and hold discussions on changing historical perspectives. This coincided with the period when Indian history, and especially pre-modern history, was being slowly liberated from the confines of Indology into the freedom of a social science.
Over the years since then, and trying to keep up with some at least of Hobsbawm’s publications, one has seen him emerge as what many scholars would regard as the pre-eminent historian of modern Europe. This was no mean achievement for a Marxist historian, as there were, and still are, enough people who are ready to dismiss Marxist historians without a serious attempt to understand what they have written.
It was problematic for Marxists to be appointed to prestigious academic positions with whiffs of McCarthyism wafting over from the US with the coming of the Cold War. Hobsbawm was appointed to Birkbeck College and chose to remain there all his professional life, not least perhaps because it had became a significant centre of inter-disciplinary research which was new to the British academic scene. This included the theories being put forward by Marxist scientists such as J.D. Bernal, who worked there, and J.B.S. Haldane, L. Hogben, and J. Needham, who frequently gathered there.
As a modern historian his major work has been the tetralogy: The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962), The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (1975) The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987), which he referred to as the long nineteenth century, and to which he added a fourth, The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 (1994), which he described as the short twentieth century. Acclaimed by historians of modern European history, across a range of ideological positions, these books have been described as showing an awareness of the deep structures of society and the nature of historical change. Not that the acclamation overlooked what some have thought of as political weaknesses, though these were largely confined to The Age of Extremes. Events in Asia, for instance, could have been less marginal to this history. It is repeatedly reiterated that he glossed over the horrors of Stalinism in the USSR, and that he was somewhat dismissive of China. And yet in his essays of this period he was extremely critical of Stalinism.
Alongside the tetralogy, and in other books and essays, his writing was seminal to historical writing in our times. His initial work had been on the Fabian Society and then on labour movements, Labour’s Turning Point (1948). From this he moved to another theme, examining archival and oral sources relating to peasant protests in England and in some areas of Sicily and Spain. Two books based on this, which were widely read in other parts of the world as well, and especially in Latin America, were Primitive Rebels (1959), and Bandits (1969). These drew attention to the generally ignored protests of rural secret societies that tended to be localised, and sometimes reflected millenarian cultures. Such protests, he argued, occur in many parts of the world among the poor and especially at times of emerging capitalism. One could add that they occur with other major historical changes of earlier periods as well. The concept of social banditry is now familiar to Indian historians. Folk literature if viewed from this perspective may result in innovative suggestions, especially during the twilight of the medieval in the eighteenth century, or even currently where such movements are taking place in relatively remote areas.
The Invention of Tradition (1982) was a collection of essays by various scholars, edited by Hobsbawm together with Terence Ranger. Its long introduction argues that much of tradition, as indeed social identity as well, is invented and changes through the generations. Contemporary political movements draw on the myths implicit in these supposedly older traditions to claim legitimacy which gives them the sanction to direct the movements. In a sense this also touches on Max Weber’s argument about the way forms of legitimacy change with the requirements of the time as well as drawing on a presumed past. Few historians today regard ‘tradition’ as self-generated, unchanging, and continuous, preferring to explain how and why it began, who were its authors, and what its purpose. Although this book was not the only work on the subject it did tend to make the discussion more focused.
A selection of his essays, early and late, was put together and published in 1997 as On History. The range is again extensive, some essays making a deeper impact than others. Nationalism and history was the subject of Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990), but in the essay his succinct statement is worth discussion: “history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past it can always be invented.”Among the examples he discusses are Mortimer Wheeler’s book, Five Thousand Years of Pakistan, where 5000 years are more impressive than 46, and the dispute over the Babri Masjid. I recall a lecture that he gave at Columbia University in New York in 2004 where he discussed the Babri Masjid issue with clarity and precision as a process in creating a myth crucial to a political message at a particular time. Myth is reinforced by claiming it as social memory, but this too is constructed—as it need not be what actually happened but what people think had happened.
Nationalism forces historians to become political actors, he says. They have to present the counter-arguments for those wishing to know them, even if such people are few. We in this country have seen this debate spill over into the controversy over history textbooks, and more recently over other textbooks. Nationalism can also go towards endorsing identity culture and become identity nationalism, pertaining to a particular community. Then the requirement is identity history which can end up in anachronism, omission, and falsehoods. This can only be countered by a sharp dichotomy between fact and fiction and the supremacy of evidence, and the historian’s function as a ‘myth-slayer’. “History is being invented in vast quantities … It’s more important now to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before.’
In an early essay on what historians owe to Marx, he considers the changes in historiography a hundred years after Ranke. Among those underlined by Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Hobsbawm quotes, were a turn towards social and economic history, social forces as explanations of change and class consciousness. Hobsbawm argues that this was the transformation of history into a social science. He comes down heavily on those who describe historical materialism as economic determinism, dismissing this view as a form of vulgar Marxism, other elements of which he lists as mechanical applications of the notions of base and superstructure, class struggle, and historical inevitability.
Essays of both historiographical and general interest feature in a more recently published collection, How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (2011). Included here is his Introduction to an earlier book, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, which had clarified some of my fog about modes of production. In discussing epochs of historical development his primary point is that the modes do not necessarily have to be accepted as they are described at any one given point in Marx’s work, since Marx and Engels continued to revise and refine them, as he shows. They were not envisaged as a single ladder which all societies climb, rung by rung at different speeds, eventually arriving at the top. The Asiatic Mode he rather dismisses, referring to Karl Wittfogel’s version and the Chinese Communist Party’s support of it, and mentioning its inclusion and exclusion in Soviet writing, and refers to the views of E.M.S. Namboodiripad and D.D. Kosambi in passing. He has more to say on the famous debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in various parts of the world from Japan to the United States. The theory of historical materialism he says requires only that there be a succession of modes and not necessarily of a predetermined order; but of course, whatever the form, it has to be supported with factual evidence. It is worth recalling that flexibility in envisaging variant modes has led some Marxists working on pre-modern societies, such as Emmanuel Terray and Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, to explore early societies in interesting ways.
Among the more provocative essays in this collection are those on the influence of Marxism in Europe from 1880 to 2000. What interested me most is the one on the era of anti-fascism where he discusses the impact of intellectuals as migrants, swelling the numbers of the existing Left and giving another direction to European culture and thought. He also underlines the rejection by the Left, but rather sotto voce, of socialist realism, despite its acclaim in the USSR, and the cultivation of jazz despite strong Soviet disapproval. Hobsbawm’s own interests ran contrary to Soviet definitions of culture. He had a small but impressive collection of Indian miniature painting (far removed from socialist realism), which he had picked up in various flea-markets and at affordable sales in the 1950s. In later years he regretted that he could not afford their inflated prices, but saw them in exhibitions. His interest in jazz (Dixieland) began in his student days when it was a novelty in Britain. He was the jazz critic for the New Statesman writing under the pseudonym of Francis Newton—taken from the name Frankie Newton who was the drummer for Billie Holliday, and a Left sympathizer. Jazz for him was the ‘unanswerable sound’, so he had little use for rock and pop. His book, The Jazz Scene (1959), is among the more perceptive books on jazz and jazz musicians.
Hobsbawm writes that the context of Marxism in the late twentieth century was so different from earlier times that its specific character in the anti-fascist era has to be underlined, particularly as Marxists since the 1960s have had access to something like ‘a giant super-market of Marxisms’. There was a need for a fundamental rethinking of Marxist analysis which became possible only when the increasingly dogmatic orthodoxy of Marxism in the USSR broke up and the assumed superiority of political authority over scientific statement was opposed. Small educated groups began to discuss what they saw as problems. I remember attending the Dialectics of Liberation Conference in London during a long summer month in 1967 where such groups were addressing each other. The pluralism was palpable. This he describes as the radical wave in the core capitalist countries, and was concerned that their efforts would hardly dent capitalism or fascism. Yet the pluralism to some degree reflected a changed historical context.
And then there were his memoirs, Interesting Times (2002). The title he said came from an old Chinese saying, that if you wished to curse someone you wished them to live in interesting times. The book captures his trajectory both as a historian and as a Marxist. Extra-curricula activities (although he would not have seen them as such) were advising Neil Kinnock of the British Labour Party or Lula da Silva in Brazil, with varying effect. There were friendships with thoughtful people from many places. Being invited to their home always held the excitement not just of Marlene’s welcome but also some surprise as to who might be coming for dinner – it could be Pierre Bourdieu or it could be Immanuel Wallerstein. He writes of being distanced from the CPGB and being more attuned to the thinking of the Italian CP and perhaps therefore of Euro-Communism. He did not hesitate to take positions where necessary in his historical writing that were contrary to various CPs, which is in part why his historical writing was of the best. Staying on in the CPGB, he says, was not an endorsement of Stalinism but a holding on to the promise of the October Revolution. Perhaps it was a futile dream. In 2009 he stated that socialism had failed, and now capitalism was bankrupt, so what comes next? Ultimately his historical writing has not changed the world, but it has undoubtedly helped us to understand the world.
THIS OBITUARY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE EPW OF 17 NOVEMBER 2012.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE REPRODUCED COURTESY ROMILA THAPAR.