The passing of Eric Hobsbawm on October 1 severs one of the last, and strongest, links between the mostly tragic and at times heroic era of the early and mid-20th century—the subject of his last major book, The Age of Extremes (1994)—and the intellectual and the political world we inhabit today.
His death is a reminder that many of the debates, beliefs, and passions that animate us now have roots in the great struggles of the 20th century between capitalism and communism, and fascism and liberal democracy. Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian, helped explain the convoluted links between that past and our present.
Part of his brilliance came from his enormous reach. He seemed to know almost everything about the modern world as well as earlier times. His first major historical work was a two-part essay on the “Crisis of the Seventeenth Century,” published in 1954. Echoes of its arguments can still be found in the work of scholars of early modern Europe. The essay grew out of efforts among members of the Historians’ Group of the British Communist Party to understand the transition from feudalism to capitalism: Figuring out that transition was a first step in grasping how the next big transition—from capitalism to communism—could happen. The aim, then, was not to analyze the past for its own sake, but to figure out how the world around us came into being and, if possible, how to navigate and improve it.
Hobsbawm was, in this sense, a modernist at heart. His writings on Bandits (1969) and Primitive Rebels (1959) were not about nostalgia but about the conflict between these people on the margins and the relentless progress of modern capitalism. He harbored no longing for tradition or quirky survivals, but was more interested in how traditions were invented and deployed for use in the present. The Invention of Tradition (1983), which he edited with Terence Ranger, and his analysis of nationalism—Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990)—put this critical stance toward the imagined past brilliantly on display.
His interest in how we got to our present state motivated both his three-volume history of the 19th century—The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), and The Age of Empire (1987)—and his single volume on the short 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1994), which covers the years 1914 to 1991. These masterful books were global in scope long before the fashion for world history, and they succeeded not because they set out to be all-inclusive but because they developed an argument with global implications. The trilogy on the 19th century was about the rise and consolidation, and the transforming effects, of the “dual revolution” produced by the roughly simultaneous and interacting growth of capitalism and mass democracy. In the years just before 1914, those transformations had led to an age of empire encompassing the world and set the major powers on a collision course that led to the “age of catastrophe” between 1914 and 1945.
This crisis of the 20th century is the subject of Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, but it was also the making of Hobsbawm himself. As an orphan living with relatives in Berlin in the early 1930s, he saw the rise of Nazism up close and in response became a communist as a teenager, marching against the Nazis even after they seized power. He soon escaped to join other relatives in England, where he became a more normal schoolboy, but his time in Berlin influenced his ideas and political commitments. He joined the British Communist Party while a student in Cambridge, and he never left it. It was his world, perhaps even his family, and it shaped his approach to history. Hobsbawm has been much criticized for not leaving the party when so many others—including friends and comrades among the Historians’ Group—decided they could not support the Soviet Union and what it stood for.
The charge looms large in assessing Hobsbawm’s legacy, and it needs to be taken seriously. But how? He himself addressed the issue at length in his arresting memoir, Interesting Times (2002), even if his answers did not entirely satisfy his critics. He convincingly writes of his time in Berlin as having “left the deepest impression on my life” and explains that “in the crisis-saturated atmosphere of Berlin in 1931-33 … political innocence was impossible.” That context forced one to take a stand in what was arguably the greatest cause of the era—the struggle against fascism.
His case for not rethinking or repudiating that commitment to communism later seems more labored. Hobsbawm chose, he says, to remain loyal to who and what he was and did not want to give aid and comfort to former enemies by conceding that they were right. He did admit that in becoming “a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and, as I now know, was bound to fail…,” he had bet on the wrong horse. Should he have been more self-critical? Perhaps. But that is asking a lot.
And it is not clear that a firmer break with communism, rather than the gradual detachment that occurred, would have made Hobsbawm a better historian. It was, after all, his Marxism that gave him the “totalizing” vision that informed his work and allowed him to make the connections among economics, politics, and culture that so distinguish his scholarship.
Was there another perspective that would have been so productive? Arguably not, or not at the time and perhaps still not yet. There were, presumably, costs that came with his politics: He never quite reckoned with the destructive effects of the Soviet Union on the causes with which he so obviously identified. Nor did he ever come to terms with those features of the United States, and postwar capitalism more broadly, that led the West to prevail in the cold war. Still, we can be assured that others will tell those stories; in the meantime, we can treasure the history that Hobsbawm has bequeathed to us.
James E. Cronin is a professor of history at Boston College.