Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History

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Richard Evans’s biography of the late, great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm rightly recognises his subject’s towering intellect and brilliance as a scholar and teacher. It is full of fascinating, rich and often amusing vignettes, and Hobsbawm’s life and work is in general brilliantly contextualised, as one would expect given Evans’s honed skills as a social historian of modern Europe.

In a sense, the “short 20th century”, especially the period of the 1930s in Weimar Germany and then as a “Red” at Cambridge University and Hobsbawm’s life during the Second World War and aftermath, is vividly brought to life through Evans’s use of previously unpublished sources, such as his own diaries and the MI5 file kept on him. As a result the work repays the (substantial) investment of time it takes to read it.

We learn something of how Hobsbawm’s early love of literature and his aims to be a writer evolved into a commitment to the discipline of history, though not how this was an experience he shared with many other leading members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group (which helped explain why they could write so well). Like Hobsbawm, Evans has a healthy hostility to once fashionable postmodern approaches to history writing, and he quotes his subject telling one group of postmodern academics wishing to attend his research seminar series in New York that “once you are serious, you want to talk about something real, then you can come in”.

Evans neatly draws out some of the continuities in Hobsbawm’s politics over the decades, and many of the underlying contradictions. We see the teenage self-described “bourgeois Bolshevik” realising in his diaries that, with the great depression of the 1930s and with fascism on the rise, he was “living in a time of overwhelming, inexhaustible, incomprehensible interest … No other period of world history can be compared to ours”.

We see the elder world-famous historian musing in his later years on how he can retain any of his credentials as a self-described “old Bolshevik” given he had now won his place as, in his own words, “an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment”.

Politically speaking, Evans’s work underlines this embrace of Hobsbawm by the “cultural establishment” — it gives us an “Eric Hobsbawm” rendered safe for the bourgeoisie. Evans does find a few pages for the CP Historians’ Group, but he is clearly much more interested in one of its legacies, the now very prestigious academic historical journal Past and Present.

What is regrettably missing is a full sense of why the life of someone who was simply a very successful professional historian should matter to those who are not also other professional historians. For this, Evans would have had to delve deeper and more critically into Hobsbawm’s politics — particularly when they took him outside the seminar room and lecture theatre — and more carefully examined how Marxism fundamentally shaped his historical work.

It is a pity that Evans seems supremely uninterested in Hobsbawm’s wider political activism and involvement in social movements which he took part in — from anti-fascism in the 1930s, to CND and anti-racism in the 1950s, to the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and his trade unionism.

For all of the weaknesses of his soft-Stalinist Eurocommunist politics, there is another more subversive and “dangerous” side to Hobsbawm which sadly finds little echo in Evans’s work but can still be found by readers turning to Hobsbawm’s masterly historical writings themselves.