A s a 17- year-old London school child, Eric Hobsbawm solemnly confided to his journal in 1934: “I am an intellectual through and through– with all the weak point of an intellectual– inhibitions, complexes and so on” It’s a charming look– part self-criticism, part self-importance, part the recognisable tendency of the bookish teenage young boy to rationalize Trouble With Women. Hobsbawm went on to end up being a professor, a political master and eventually something of a nationwide treasure. However for the rest of his long life (he died in 2012), he stayed above all an intellectual, in numerous of the senses of that protean term.
As a youth, he was something of a prodigy. Growing up in an Anglo-Austrian Jewish family in Vienna, Berlin and London, he was bilingual in English and German, later on acquiring above reproach French and ultimately great Italian, more than passable Spanish and Portuguese, and a smattering of other languages. He checked out everything he might get his hands on (as so typically, public libraries play an unsung role), so that when he increased to Cambridge in 1936 the word was that “there’s a freshman in King’s who understands about whatever”. He properly carried off all the prizes: starred firsts, editor of Granta, a member of the choose intellectual society the Apostles. When he graduated in the summertime of 1939, it appeared he had the world at his feet.
The world, nevertheless, had other things on its mind. Hobsbawm did not have a great war. He never saw action; he never ever accomplished a commission; he never even got a foreign posting. His military career stalled at the undizzy peak of being an NCO in the Education Corps at camps in rural England, and even then he appeared to be constantly falling foul of the authorities. Why this waste of such striking talents?
Richard Evans’s remarkably well-researched bio has the ability to document the obvious answer. As a member of the Communist celebration of Excellent Britain, Hobsbawm came under surveillance by MI5, who blocked his advancement. (Biographers of other people may concern want their subjects had been similarly suspect: in this case the British state has supplied the biographer with a cornucopia of evidence, including diligently logged accounts of Hobsbawm’s movements and records of conversations at the bugged headquarters of the CPGB.)
Even after the break out of peace, Hobsbawm’s profession did not succeed as one may have expected. He didn’t get the academic tasks he most desired; he twice had books rejected by publishers. He likewise had an extended period of thrashing about emotionally after a short, dissatisfied very first marital relationship. In the late 1950 s he was more typically to be found in the bars and jazz clubs of Soho than the typical haunts of recognized academics. It is constantly essential to keep in mind (and possibly take cheer from) the reality that the exceptionally respected Hobsbawm did not release his first book until he was42 However, characteristically, he had actually currently stimulated two worthwhile long-running historiographical disputes with original short articles on the “general crisis” of 17 th-century Europe and on the requirement of living of the British working class during the commercial revolution.
In political terms, what most mattered to the young Hobsbawm, and continued to matter, was the spirit of the Popular Front as a kind of resistance to fascism in the 1930 s. At the time, the Communist celebration appeared the most robust and clear-headed aspect in this coalition, certainly as seen from early 1930 s Berlin (where Hobsbawm lived for two years in his mid-teens). But it was the sense of being mobilised, belonging to a motion, that had actually stirred and completely marked him. As he confided to his journal in 1950: “For us there is no life suitable for a human lacking participating in a movement like ours,” though we do occasionally get glimpses of him in more sardonic mode, as in his later observation about the intentions of one comrade for signing up with a delegation to go to Cuba that he was “not without an interest in foreign nooky”.
Thereafter, Hobsbawm was often at chances with the orthodoxies of the Moscow-subservient leadership of the Communist party of Excellent Britain, and a noticeably semi-detached member after1956 As Evans rightly observes: “Eric desired to have his cake and consume it. On the one hand he was wedded at an extremely deep psychological level to the idea of belonging to the communist motion, however on the other hand he was absolutely not prepared to send to the discipline the party required.” Judgments of Hobsbawm’s consistency and even probity on this matter have varied– he was subject to strong criticism for never ever officially resigning from the party– however loyalty to anti-fascist commitments formed in the 1930 s and fidelity to his vocation as an independent-minded intellectual seem to me intelligible, even admirable, in themselves. Often the logical stringency of the all cake/no cake perfectionists doesn’t adequately take into account the human requirement for crumbs of comfort.
He had actually not set out to become a professional historian; indeed, at one point he considered becoming a full-time organiser for the celebration. And although his early work fell in the scholastic sub-field of financial history, its motivation was mostly political. For Hobsbawm, when it comes to numerous on the left in his generation, the concern that required addressing was the increase and supremacy of capitalism: he later showed that he selected financial history as his field mostly since it was the only intellectual area in the academic world at the time where he could pursue his genuine interests in relations between “base” and “superstructure” in explaining social modification. Emotionally, his sympathies were with commercialism’s victims and opponents. Among his early declined books explained industrialism as “likely the most devastating historical change which has actually overwhelmed the common people of the world”, and he started to cultivate his interest in the forms of often unorganised or disguised resistance to it, especially forms of “social banditry” in the countryside. This resulted in the publication of his prominent book Primitive Rebels in 1959, which he followed up with his exceptionally popular The Age of Revolutions in1962 After that, the rest is, in every sense, history.
One of the most familiar activities of a historian is drawing out valuable metal from the deep mines of unpublished materials held in archives. However Hobsbawm himself was never an archive hound: his preferred technique was to check out an amazing range of printed sources in several languages and then produce an initial and difficult analysis out of them. Reflecting in aging on his own practice, he stated: “I would most like to describe myself as a sort of guerilla historian, who doesn’t so much march straight towards his objective behind the artillery fire of the archives, as attack it from the flanking bushes with the Kalashnikov of concepts.” Maybe a scholar who was always attempting to ward off charges of being too soft on the Soviet Union might have succeeded to pick another metaphor, however this self-description does record something important about Hobsbawm’s work, something that represents its capability to generate fruitful debate. It likewise suggests to me that, for all the splendour of his four study volumes on history from 1789 to 1991, he was often at his finest in essays and posts, carrying out among his guerilla raids on accepted analyses, while doing so causing no little civilian casualties on a variety of sacred cows. Evans observes that “essay collections are seldom bestsellers”, but while massive narratives may bring off the literary prizes, there’s generally more hard thinking per square inch in essays, and a few of Hobsbawm’s finest and most influential work is in these much shorter kinds.
This is an immensely excellent bio, quarried from substantial original research study in archive collections in (appropriately) a number of countries. Evans, a distinguished historian of modern Germany, provides clear and educated accounts of the numerous historiographical and other controversies that Hobsbawm was involved in, from time to time gently remedying the old master’s memory in the light of the documentary record. Drawing on Hobsbawm’s large collection of personal papers, diaries and unpublished works, he gives a richly in-depth picture of his topic’s first 4 decades (if you wish to know the names of the towns in between which the young Hobsbawm hitchhiked in France in the 1930 s, Evans is your guy), along with a considerate, if inevitably more selective, story of his later profession.
While giving due acknowledgment to the different aspects of his topic’s life, it is clear that Evans is most strongly drawn by the truth that Hobsbawm became Top Historian, the figure who at the time of his death “had for some years been the best-known and most widely check out historian on the planet”. This biography puts substantial focus on huge advances and virile sales figures: a place in the bestseller charts figures as the last consecration. Hobsbawm’s success in these terms was truly extraordinary. Brazil was, for intricate reasons, the nation where he took pleasure in the most significant star status, and the translation of his history of the ” brief”20 th century, Age of Extremes, “topped the bestseller lists in Brazil in 1995, not simply the non-fiction however the general lists, consisting of all books of every kind”. In other places, his success was not quite on this scale, but his books were translated into 30 languages and offered hundreds of thousands of copies.
It is certainly real that Hobsbawm was possessed of no little literary vanity, and he greatly enjoyed his worldwide celeb in his later years. It is also true that he non-stop chivvied representatives and publishers about the terms of his contracts and the marketing of his books. So in commemorating him as, above all, an academic historian who became a worldwide literary star, Evans is not being incorrect to the character of his topic’s later profession. However sales figures are, obviously, not always a sign of intellectual quality in themselves, and there are other ways to be an excellent and essential historian (two proposals with which, in their basic kind, I’m sure Evans would concur). There are definitely other methods in which to be a significant intellectual and political figure.
In Hobsbawm’s case, a few of those methods involved a degree of prominence in the mainstream media– the place of his “the long march of Labour stopped” thesis in the formation of New Labour is an obvious case in point. But some did not. For example, Evans has extremely little to say about Hobsbawm’s long analytical introduction to the translation of sections of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, published in 1964 as Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, remarking rather dismissively that “the book was of interest mainly to Marxists”. This might run the risk of downplaying the centrality of Hobsbawm’s dense, powerful introduction to so much of the radical theorising that flourished in the later 1960 s and 70 s– and anyhow, might not an essential piece of theorising that reads largely by those who share its concerns be at least as important an intellectual contribution as a more popular historical study read by lots of thousands? When mentioning a late collection of pieces on Marx and Marxism (which includes original work on the advancement of Marxism not hitherto published in English), Evans appears more soaked up by the book’s failure to appeal to business publishers in the United States than by the intellectual weight of some of its contents.
There is no factor to begrudge Hobsbawm his evident enjoyment in his success. He ended up being a traditional example of “the outsider as expert”. We can even smile when he encouraged himself, if no one else, that he accepted the award of the Companion of Honour in 1998 because it would have pleased his mother. However we shouldn’t lose sight of the more uncomfortable, dissident, un popular Hobsbawm, whose uneasy intelligence and unbribable scepticism led him to cause flutters in dovecotes of all political colors. For instance, in a talk on Radio 3 in 1972, well prior to completion of the Vietnam war, Hobsbawm was magnificently unsparing: “History will not forgive those who laid waste the nations of Indo-China for a generation, who expelled, mangled, corrupted and massacred individuals for the sake of the estimations of poker-players. Or those who provided assistance, nevertheless inefficient. Or perhaps those who kept their mouths shut when they need to have cried out in outrage.”
The United States government right away put pressure on the BBC to air a rebuttal of this “one-sided” account. When that occurs, you know you should be doing something right, something (in the scriptural expression) “more valuable than rubies”– and more valuable than royalties, too.
– Stefan Collini’s The Classic Imagination: History in English Criticism is released by O xford. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History is published by Little, Brown (₤25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 3336846 Free UK p & p over ₤15, online orders only. Phone orders min p & p of ₤ 1.99