A Tribute to Eric Hobsbawm: 1917 - 2012

By Jon WienerOctober 4, 2012

A Tribute to Eric Hobsbawm: 1917 - 2012

Jon Wiener, who wrote about Eric Hobsbawm's How to Change the World for us in November, 2011, remembers the historian who, he says, had "always been a hero of mine."

ERIC HOBSBAWM, WHO DIED OCTOBER 1 at age 95, was one of the world’s greatest historians, and also a Marxist. He was not just an academic — he was also a lifelong Communist with a capital “C,” a full-fledged member of the Party since his teenage years. Unlike most of his comrades, he didn’t leave the Party in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, or after the Soviets’ repression of the Hungarian uprising; he didn’t leave in 1968 when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring; he stayed until the end. Hobsbawm mentioned his long Party membership in his final book, How to Change the World, but didn’t really answer one of the big questions about his life: “Why the CP?”

For that you need to go to his wonderful memoir, Interesting Times, published in 2002. As a teenager, Hobsbawm lived in Berlin for two terrifying years, 1932–33, when Hitler seized power. It was there that young Eric joined a Communist youth group, campaigned for the CP candidates in what would be the last elections of the Weimar Republic, and marched in the Communists’ final anti-Nazi demonstration in 1933 before the Party was banned and its members sent to concentration camps. That time in Berlin, he would write, “made me a lifelong communist … even though that project has demonstrably failed, and as I now know, was bound to fail.” His family sent him to live with relatives in London, and, from 1933-39, the relatives sent him to Paris to spend the summers. In 1936 he witnessed firsthand the electoral victory of the Popular Front, which the Communists supported, and then took part in the last great mass demonstration of the interwar European left, Bastille Day in 1936, when all of popular Paris took to the streets.

If Hobsbawm got an early start at left-wing politics, he was a late bloomer as a historian. He started publishing books only in his forties, and, as he wrote in his memoir, “By the time I could actually call myself ‘professor’ in Britain, I was in my middle fifties […] At that stage for most of us the promise is in the past, and so is such achievement as it has produced.” But not for Hobsbawm. The most successful, and probably the best, of his 16 books — The Age of Extremes 1914-1991, the final volume in his ambitious three-part history of the world since the French Revolution — wasn’t published until 1994, when he was 77. Young historians, take note: your best work lies in your future!

His first book, Primitive Rebels, was published in 1959, and his second, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, in 1962; both were widely read not only on the left but by generations of college students. The first provided an unforgettable account of “social bandits” in nineteenth- and twentiethth-century Italy and Spain, men the law regarded as criminals but who were seen as heroes in their peasant communities; the second conveyed the big picture of sweeping social transformation in Europe. He went on to write more than a dozen vivid and compelling studies of the politics and history of the capitalist world, making him one of the most recognizable Marxist icons today. Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play Rock ‘n’ Roll features a young Czech student at a British university arguing about Communist Party politics with his professor, an unrepentant party member who seems a lot like Hobsbawm.

Full disclosure: even though I grew up as part of the New Left that dismissed the CP as authoritarian, conservative, and out of touch, Hobsbawm himself has always been a hero of mine. I still remember him at dinner in my kitchen in 1981 after a conference at UC Irvine when the news came that Reagan had been shot. We gathered around the TV and Hobsbawm said matter-of-factly, “I hope it wasn’t a leftist.” Hobsbawm had returned to New York before we found out that John Hinckley’s motivation had not been fomenting revolution but impressing Jodie Foster.

In his memoir, Hobsbawm recalled one of the politically best times of his life: 1978, at the Genoa Festa de l’Unità, the peak of the popularity and power of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the party’s annual festival and political rally. Hobsbawm recalls that festival as “an unforgettable occasion of oratory in the vast amphitheatre above the blue sea, food-loaded tables in great marquees full of family parties and the greetings of friends, and hopeful communist leaders chatting and joking in the hotel lounge.” His guides had fought in the Resistance, and the Party’s full-time politicians at that point tended to be intellectuals and writers. That year the Communist vote equaled the vote of the Christian Democrats, “the party of permanent government,” at 34 percent. It was an historic triumph for the PCI, which then had “massive strongholds” in the north, in prosperous and beautiful Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia-Romagna. Communism in Italy had proven itself to be “a huge and deeply-rooted movement,” and Hobsbawm became an enthusiastic advocate for the PCI’s anti-Stalinist politics, “Euro-communism.”

You might think that a lifelong member of the Communist Party like Hobsbawm would tend toward the doctrinaire and dogmatic where revolution is concerned, but he didn’t. He was dismissive of Party positions. He was also trenchant in his observations of the failure of Europe’s socialist parties. If the working class was ever going to remake society, Hobsbawm argued in his last work, it would have done so in Western Europe in the 1970s, when proletarians constituted the largest proportion of the population and the electorate, and social democratic governments ruled much of Europe. But this is exactly when the working class of the capitalist core began its decline. Globalization undermined its economic position, and anti-immigrant politics sapped its political unity. (Sound familiar?)

Hobsbawm remained firm to the end in his conviction that “human needs cannot be satisfied by the market,” and that capitalism is a historical phenomenon — which means it is not permanent, that its dynamism points to more and deeper crises to come. The current crisis has once again suggested to millions of people that “capitalism is not the answer, but the question.” What are we then to make of this historical question, and how exactly do we resolve it?

How to Change the World was an optimistic title that seemed to hold out the promise of some kind of answer. But Hobsbawm’s final work was not a call to today’s working class, which in the end he diagnosed as “helpless.” In fact, he argued that the most likely working-class politics in the coming era will not be some version of socialism but rather “ethnic nationalism:” an attempt to fight globalization and mass unemployment through anti-immigrant (and anti-Chinese) policies. So, if a rebellion from today’s working class isn’t going to “change the world,” how exactly do we change it? The Communist Manifesto, Hobsbawm pointed out, did mention one alternative ending to the succession of capitalist crises: not proletarian revolution, but rather “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Given what we’re seeing today, with a profound weakening of the working class among contending forces, this “common ruin” seems like a possible scenario, and perhaps even a likely one. Hobsbawm wrote brilliantly about the history of capitalism — now we will have to figure out the rest without him.


Adapted from "The Age of Revolution."

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!