Episode 13 – Eric Hobsbawm

The team returns (minus Harriet) for another stab at this podcasting thing. With a slightly revised format, Linda, Martin and Gareth discuss their “favourite” event from the week before diving into the work of the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Hobsbawm is a controversial figure as well as a renowned one. His defence of Soviet Communism drew sharp criticism, even in the days following his death. But this was matched by an outpouring of tributes to his writing, his technique and his skill as a public-facing historian. A man of contradictions, Hobsbawm was considered to be the greatest historian of his generation. What legacy does he have, and what methodological problems does his work raise?

We also discuss:

Blood donation – how on 4 March 1985 the Food and Drug Administration approved a new blood test for AIDS.

Gerardus Mercator – the famous map-maker who was born on 5 March 1512.

The Beveridge Report – in honour of Sir William Beveridge who was born on 5 March 1879.

If you have a suggestion for who we should feature in a future podcast, want to correct factual errors, or generally just get in touch with us, you can: via e-mail, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Gareth (@MillieQED) and Linda (@MillaisDoll) are also on Twitter. Martin refuses to lower himself to such things.

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 – 2012)

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt on 9th June 1917. He was described as the greatest British historian of the post-war era, but he was also one of the most controversial.
Born into a Jewish family in then-British Egypt, Hobsbawm moved to Vienna, capital of the newly-created republic of Austria and then later to Berlin, in Weimar Germany. It is in these German republics that he is said to have been converted to Marxism by the gangs of youngsters joining either fascist or communist youth organisations.

His parents died when he was young, leaving Eric to be brought up by his uncle. In 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power, his adopted family crossed the Channel to London. He learnt English quickly, and was able to gain a scholarship to King’s College Cambridge in 1935.

Hobsbawm achieved a starred first in his History degree, and quickly established himself with academics such as Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson in a new group of left-wing historians who focused on “history from below” rather than the military and state-centred histories that were already well-established. Like the Annales school which preceded them, the “workshop” style investigated the wider trends of working class and peasant behaviour to understand historical processes. It also tried to move historical debate out of the academy and apply it to the lived experiences of ordinary people. For instance, in his book Bandits, Hobsbawm argues that the creation of the “outlaw” as a cultural figure was a pre-proletarian form of resistance.

His commitment to the political left and his style of history brought him many admirers in the political and academic fields. The Labour Party drew extensively on his expertise and later his daughter’s. He was made a companion of honour by Tony Blair in 1998. Although some felt him to be aloof as an academic (notably Dennis Skinner who derided him as “Bloody ‘Obsbawm”), his work on working class and agrarian struggles won him many admirers.

Many undergraduates of the late 1990s and early 2000s will have also been brought into contact with Hobsbawm through his four-part series The Age Of… in which a grand narrative of modern world history is told through four stages – The Age of Revolution (1789 – 1848, published 1962), The Age of Capital (1848 – 1875, published 1975), The Age of Empire (1875 – 1914, published 1987) and The Age of Extremes (1914 – 1991, published 1994). As a general overview of European, white history these serve as an excellent left-wing introduction, although there are some significant problems with Extremes, particularly in his treatment of Marxist-Leninist states in Eastern Europe.

The Daily Mail didn't pull its punches after Hobsbawm's death. Though a paper that proclaimed its support for Hitler in the 1930s should probably keep its mouth shut.Hobsbawm remained a committed communist throughout his life, even after events such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1940), Khruschev’s condemnation of Stalin (c. 1953), the Hungarian Revolution (1956), the Prague Spring (1968), Perastroika (c. 1986) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) had successively shown the brutality, political instability and impracticality of the Marxist-Leninist system. Worse, in many people’s eyes, he dismissed the number of deaths caused by the Soviet regime, either by denying that the figures were very high or by openly admitting that if it took 20 million deaths to achieve true socialism, then it was a price worth paying.

It is impossible, I believe, to excuse this behaviour. Certainly the right-wing press in Britain had a field day on his death re-exposing his shocking views on Soviet murder. One can, though, put his views into context. A central European Jew, born into the aftermath of World War One saw the liberal capitalist world collapse. As unemployment sky-rocketed and hyper-inflation destroyed the fledgling German economy, he had the choice between anti-Semitic fascism or revolutionary communism. Like many of his generation, he chose the latter, using his skill as an academic to expose the historical processes by which capitalism had oppressed the working classes. Where he differs – and where his views become impossible to excuse – is that once the realities of the Soviet Union were clearly exposed, he continued to support the Communist Party rather than renegotiate his political expression of his left-wing beliefs. He defended his behaviour by saying that he could not turn his back on the Party, for he would be turning his back on the millions who had died to protect the working classes. But, again, this seems difficult to accept from a contemporary perspective.

Despite these flaws in his interpretation of late-twentieth-century history his earlier works remain popular and will be fixtures on undergraduate reading lists for some time to come. Whatever the Daily Mail may say of him, he was an important historian whose work remains valid. Even Niall Ferguson, a notorious right-wing historian, has defended Hobsbawm’s work while condemning his personal politics.

Eric Hobsbawm died 1st October 2012 at the age of 95 after a long illness.

Let’s end, as ever on a quotation. This time from Labour leader Ed Miliband.

“His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives.

“But he was not simply an academic, he cared deeply about the political direction of the country.

“He was also a lovely man, with whom I had some of the most stimulating and challenging conversations about politics and the world. My thoughts are with his wife, Marlene, his children and all his family.”

Further Reading

Aside from an obligatory nod to Hobsbawm’s Wikipedia entry, it is worth reading his obituaries from some of the leading newspapers.

The Mail (very anti)
The Telegraph (somewhat anti)
The Independent (pro)
The Guardian (pro)

And Finally…

Harriet has not forgotten us…


Main image courtesy of Wikicommons.

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