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Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012.

When Eric Hobsbawm died on 1 October 2012, at 95, he left a unique and remarkable legacy. He was one of the world's most renowned Marxist historians, an outstanding intellectual and university teacher. A distinguished scholar and polyglot (speaking and publishing in several languages), his major books have been translated into some 50 languages and have reached an audience in Britain, Europe and across the world. Among a flood of international tributes, Ed Miliband, Leader of the British Labour Party, acclaimed Hobsbawm--a friend of his father, Professor Ralph Miliband--as a great academic "who brought history out of its ivory tower and into people's lives."

For nearly half a century, Eric Hobsbawm, a Fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was associated with Birkbeck College, London University. The former Victorian Mechanics Institute--with in nocte consilium ("study at night") emblazoned above its portal--remains the home of university study in London for part-time mature-age students. Today, the College website displays interviews and video excerpts outlining Eric Hobsbawm's long career: History lecturer (1947), Reader (1959) Professor (1970), Emeritus Professor (1982) and, finally, President (2002-12), the honour he cherished most. In tribute to his outstanding achievements, the newly established Hobsbawm Scholarships will help support postgraduate history students at Birkbeck College.

Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on 9 June 1917--in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was the son of Jewish parents and the grandson of a Polish Jew and cabinet maker who had migrated from Warsaw to the East End of London in the 1870s. During World War I, Hobsbawm's British father, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum, had married Nellie Grun, a young middle-class Viennese, in neutral Switzerland in 1916. A small clerical error on Eric's birth certificate in 1917 had altered his surname to Hobsbawm (his birth was also wrong by a single day). In 1919, the family settled in Vienna, where they experienced very hard times. By his mid-teens, Eric had the shock of losing both his parents to ill-health--in 1927 and 1929. Adopted by his maternal aunt, Gretl, and paternal uncle, Sidney, the family eventually moved to Berlin. It proved the major formative point in Eric's early life; an experience that shaped his political consciousness. In January 1933, returning from school at the Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, Eric saw the newspaper headlines announcing Hitler's election as Chancellor. Hobsbawm was recruited into the student wing of the German Communist Party. Later at Birkbeck, he recalled that, for a politically active young Jew in Berlin in the early 1930s, there was little choice about one's political direction.

By 1934 his uncle had moved the family to England, where Eric attended Marylebone Grammar school in London. Two years later, he was awarded a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where he gained a starred first after war service--first in the Royal Engineers and then in the Education Corps. His studies were completed at Cambridge where his PhD on Fabianism and the Fabians 1884--1914 was supervised by M. M. Postan. From 1949 until 1955 he was a Fellow at King's College.

In 1947, Eric gained his first tenured post at Birkbeck College, University of London, tutoring adult students between 6.00pm and 9.00pm. Research and writing consumed most of his daytime hours, though Ronnie Scott's and other London jazz clubs were close by after teaching. For ten years he was the jazz critic of the New Statesman, writing under the pseudonym, Francis Newton. Yet, despite impressive scholarship and a growing world-wide reputation in the post-war years of the Cold War, Hobsbawm did not gain a readership until 1959. When Chris Wrigley (now Professor of Modern History, University of Nottingham) enrolled as one of Eric's postgraduates at Birkbeck in 1968, it was widely believed that internal politics had blocked Hobsbawm's promotion to a professorship. Eric was finally awarded a personal chair in 1970.

In his personal life, his first marriage in 1943 to Muriel Seaman had been dissolved in 1951. His second marriage, in 1962, to Marlene Schwarz provided a very happy family life with their two children, Julia and Andy, in their Hampstead home. Eric also had a son, Joshua Bennathan, from a previous relationship. At Birkbeck College, Hobsbawm enjoyed a popular reputation as an inspirational teacher with a distinctive personal style. "Supposing I am one of those students at Birkbeck," he later observed. "You work all day long and then you have two-hour lectures. Can I keep you awake? And that was the test." Quite often his reputation preceded him. He had already made his mark with an influential collection of essays, Labouring Men (1964), and his Industry and Empire (1968), a highly important economic history of Britain, 1750-1960s.

I first met Eric on the BA History Degree course in 1969 when he led a tour of the college library. Famously, he occupied the 8.00-9.00pm slot on Mondays, presenting original and entertaining lectures on European history to large groups. I had rarely experienced lecturing of this quality delivered with authority and insight, nor do I recall anyone leaving before the end of each session. In fact, some who had dropped out of their degree studies returned to Birkbeck just to hear Eric's lectures. At the time, we didn't appreciate that we were hearing the significant building blocks of a marvellous and best-selling tetralogy. This project had opened with the Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962), exploring the concept of the "dual revolution" (the French Revolution and the British industrial revolution). It was followed by two splendid studies, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (1975) and The Age of Imperialism 1875-1914 (1987) that demonstrated his erudition and mastery of prose. In The Age of Extremes 1914-91 (1994) he broadened his panoramic scholarship to explore the turbulent twentieth century he had witnessed and lived through.

Hobsbawm was a stimulating, even awesome, supervisor. At his packed PhD seminar held in a narrow room at the Institute of Historical Research, it was always "first come, first seated"--otherwise standing room or floor space only. Like Chris Wrigley, I found Eric at first "friendly, yet unintentionally a little intimidating." Chris remembers Eric as a thoughtful and considerate critic whose helpful comments broadened his doctoral research immeasurably. Researching the Lib-Lab period of British Labour movement in the late nineteenth century, I witnessed at first hand his encyclopaedic knowledge, perceptive understanding and remarkable powers of synthesis that brought new perspectives to one's research. As others have observed, Eric Hobsbawm was literally interested in everything. In particular, he possessed an eagle eye for the original idea and distinctive detail. Under his kind guidance, my doctoral studies finally took off during a hot summer in 1977. I was dispatched to research "Labour politics and working-class magistrates in the 1880s and 1890s." Eric added my paper to his autumn seminar programme, resulting in a journal article.

In the post-war era, Eric Hobsbawm made major and highly seminal contributions to the transformation of British labour history. He had been one of the driving forces of the Communist Party Historians Group. Along with Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, Hobsbawm pioneered "history from below," focussing on the lives of working people and the class struggle, rather than the previously institutional and organisational labour history associated with early important pioneers, such as the Webbs and G. D. H. Cole. In 1952 Hobsbawm was one of the founding editors of Past and Present and remained always highly significant in the development of that august journal. In 1960, he was also a founder of The Society for the Study of Labour History, later becoming President. His essays such as "Methodism and the Working-Class" and "the Labour Aristocracy," initiated important debates among labour historians. In particular, Hobsbawm engaged in the long-running controversy on the "social conditions of the industrial revolution," arguing the "pessimist" case against Max Hartwell's defence of the "optimist" cause. For many years, the Open University used the recording of this important debate as part of its study materials for humanities students. Hobsbawm's first book Labour's Turning Point (1948) was an edited collection of documents. He also broadened the scope of his interest in the past with books on social banditry and peasant studies, including Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969), based on research visits to the Mediterranean and Latin America. He became particularly well-known in Italy and South America, enjoying an influential friendship with the Brazilian President "Lula" (Luis Inacio da Silva).

Hobsbawm's continued membership of the Communist Party remained a controversial issue that often appeared to dog his life, particularly after the Soviet invasions of Hungary, in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, in 1968, when others left the party. In his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2003), he acknowledged he was quite often identified "as being a professor who likes jazz and who remained in the Communist Party longer than most." On the BBC radio programme, Desert Island Discs, his eight choices embraced classical music as well as the jazz of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. The presenter Sue Lawley immediately challenged Hobsbawm's steadfast loyalty to Communism, particularly after the revelations of the evils of Stalinism.

In an interview with Professor Simon Schama, Hobsbawm later observed that his membership of the communist Party was a question always raised in Britain and Europe but never, for example, in South America. For Hobsbawm, the October 1917 Revolution remained the focal "point of his political universe." Essentially a central European by upbringing, Hobsbawm's communism was forged during the break-up of the Weimar Republic and the Depression years when very strong loyalties were established. In his autobiography, Eric also admitted to an element of personal pride in seeking to make his mark in life as a member of the Communist Party. However, he did allow his membership to lapse shortly before the demise of the party and the Soviet Union.

In 1978 Hobsbawm gave the annual Marx Memorial Lecture on "The Forward March of Labour Halted?" Published in Marxism Today, it opened up a major debate on trade union sectionalism, Labour's declining electoral support, and the party's future. From 1983, Hobsbawm (though not a member of the Labour Party), supported the new party leader, Neil Kinnock, in his attempts to modernise the party. In his memoirs, where Hobsbawm discussed his views on Labour politics in the 1980s, he acknowledged that Kinnock "had saved the Labour Party from the sectarians" with the expulsion of the Trotskyite "Militancy Tendency" in 1985. However, Hobsbawm decried journalists' epithets of him as "Kinnock's guru."

Among the many honours and honorary degrees he received, in 1998 he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour, bestowed for outstanding achievement in the arts, literature, music, science, politics or religion. In 2003 he received the Balzan Prize (for his major historical writings on twentieth-century European history) and used the 250,000[pounds sterling] award to establish a research project on the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe.

Throughout a long life, Eric Hobsbawm remained a highly industrious and productive historian as well as a sought-after speaker for public events, such as Ken Livingstone's "Progressive London" conferences. In more recent years, his prolific output included On History (1997); Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007); and How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism (2011). In a final work, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (published posthumously in 2013), Hobsbawm applies both intellectual acuity and humour to explore an eclectic range of subjects, from music festivals to left-wing scientists and Jewish history. The most memorable essay, perhaps, is his skilful dissection of the long-lasting myth of the lone cowboy in the popular culture of the United States cinema and the novel. Highly readable, it is a magnificent exposition in his final book.

I am grateful to Professor Chris Wrigley for sharing his recollections of Eric Hobsbawm.

John Shepherd is Professor of Modern History, University of Huddersfield. He was a part-time student (BA and PhD) at Birkbeck College, University of London from 1969-1980.

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Author:Shepherd, John
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2013
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