Eric J. Hobsbawm, who died on Monday at the age of 95, was the most influential Marxist historian of the contemporary age and one of the greatest and most encyclopaedic scholars in the humanities and social sciences. He had an extraordinary mastery of detail of historical events and contemporary politics, especially when these concerned the Left.
Hobsbawm was perhaps the last survivor of the Communist Historians’ Group in Britain which made a seminal contribution to the writing of history.
His great quartet — The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 — is part of the intellectual equipment of progressive people and of (that special category that Hobsbawm himself characterised as) “the intelligent layperson” the world over. He gave the world a wide range of terms and concepts. These include his work on the “invention of tradition,” on the part played by the crowd in history, on “primitive rebels,” and on “social banditry.”
Hobsbawm’s reputation was not that of a British historian, it was truly international. He was respected in Europe and Latin America, about whose history and politics he wrote extensively. His last work, at the age of 94, How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism – 1840-2011, is a gem of a book which helped many to rediscover Marx and to understand Marxism in a fresh light.
Hobsbawm was born in the year of the Russian Revolution, 1917 and joined the Communist Party in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. He never gave up his sense of political partisanship. His heterodox views on Marxism were not acceptable to many in the communist parties, but there is no doubt that he remained an influential and sympathetic critic of existing socialism in the 20th century. However, he never renounced his communist past and his lifelong commitment to the Left cause.
When I last met Eric Hobsbawm in November 2011 at his house in London, he was frailer than before. But his mind was alert and curious as ever. In the hour I spent with him, he spoke in detail about politics and the Left in India and then went on to discuss events around the world, including developments in Latin America. It was a typical Hobsbawmian tour d’horizon.
The world of progressive scholarship and ideas has lost an indomitable intellectual.
(The author is General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).)