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Historian, not prophet

Eric Hobsbawm, like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, was an upholder of the tradition of British radical historiography

To say Hobsbawm, for anyone interested in 1950s historical writing, was to say British Marxist historian. This term today may seem an oxymoron, but in those days defined an ambitious and fruitful trend in historical studies.

All the writers in that group being interested in the great processes of history, none of them succumbed to the temptation or practice of bending reality to make it fit into theory. The British Marxist historians were heirs to the empirical idiom, rather than to strict orthodoxy. As such, they were fine writers who knew how to tell a story.

Eric Hobsbawm, like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, was an upholder of the tradition of British radical historiography, for which they claimed an origin in none other than Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, and Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England. From this radical tradition they inherited the view from below, in the sense of the close study of the lifestyles, customs, beliefs, experiences, organizations and struggles of the oppressed classes.

Hobsbawm titled one book Worlds of Labour (significantly in the plural). It included some memorable chapters, such as that on the aristocracy of labor, which supplied material for widespread debate in the academic world, and then in the political one as well.

British Marxist historiography also showed its strength in what sociology was to define as great structural processes. An overarching ambition drove an endeavor aimed at interpretation of historical processes, which has left us indispensable works on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and on the development of capitalism itself.

Applauded for some of the best of these works, Hobsbawm - who gobbled up knowledge and could write on anything - undertook the task of explaining the historical process of the modern Western world, dividing it into three great eras, those of revolution, capitalism and empire: three volumes covering what he called the "long 19th century," from the French Revolution to the Great War.

Born in the year of the Russian Revolution, and witness to the rise of the Nazis, he early joined the Communist party, which to him embodied a phase in the historical process he described, and would bring with it the socialist revolution, midwife to a new historical era which, as he wrote in the 1970s, had already begun with the Soviet revolution: a path down which, sooner or later, the rest of humanity was to walk.

Unrepentant Marxist

An eminent historian but not much of a prophet, Hobsbawm lived in the conviction that the Russian revolution was the fairly near future of humanity practically until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, by which time the group of British Marxist historians were only a memory.

A memory, except for Hobsbawm who, unlike his comrades, did not turn out the light after the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet tanks. In fact he never turned it out, for when he decided to write the history of the "short 20th century," the age that began with the Great War and ended with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, his mind remained fascinated, not so much by the future as by the past that was not and might have been; by everything that in his youth he dreamed was the future of humanity - in other words, The Romance of Communism, as Tony Judt titled a review of The Age of Extremes. Hobsbawm never wished to reflect on the fact, obvious enough, that communism, once in power, had liquidated that empirical language, that view from below, that radical heritage and that Marxist impulse to which, in equal parts, he owed his greatness as a historian.

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