The life of the late British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm is subject of Richard J. Evans’ newest book Eric Hobsbawm – A Life in History (2019). Evans is a scholar of Nazi Germany and like Hobsbawm, a former professor at Cambridge University.
Before I start to analyze Evans’ book, I must make a personal note: My attachment to Hobsbawm’s work is not only intellectual but emotional. The first substantial book on history read by me was his The Age of Extremes about the “short twentieth century.” And after that summer of 2005, I read the other three tomes of his series about the world after the French and Industrial revolutions till the fall of the Soviet regime. In a way, he lit the spark of my interest in history.
Although Hobsbawm was a fantastic writer and his prose is beyond criticism, he never struck me as insightful as other leftist historians like Gabriel Kolko or William Appleman Williams. Maybe that is due to the limitations of the Marxist historiography, too keen to economic determinism, or because — as young people tend to do — I failed with my first love.
However, Hobsbawm was undeniably an influential public historian and intellectual, capable of polarizing opinions and making arguments of high complexity intelligible. Evans’ book manages to present very well the historian and the intellectual, but goes further and shows the human side of the historian that even those who read Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times won’t know.
Evans’ greatest achievement was to deliver to his reader a Hobsbawm virtually unknown, to open the door to the mind and soul of a man that had an extraordinary life and, by doing so, Evans gave us a sense of intimacy that a historian rarely achieves. He, for example, calls Hobsbawm by his first name, Eric, throughout — something that I have never seen before in this kind of biography — and makes it clear how childhood experiences and family saga in Austria and Germany between the wars and the Great Depression in England were instrumental in shaping Hobsbawm’s mind.
Allowing Hobsbawm’s voice to be heard through the pages of the book — and in no small extent letting him tell the story — the great triumph of Evans’ work was to be able to write a sentimental biography, without being sentimentalist, about another historian who wrote his own autobiography. This is an achievement that belongs much more to the writer than to the historian, and in my opinion, this is worthy of warm applause.
On the other hand, even avoiding value judgments, Evans showed how Hobsbawm would self-impose a constant logical juggling, trying to reconcile the role of a historian with that of an engaged member of the British Communist Party and failing in both ways. Hobsbawm, for example, always exhibited high levels of indignation towards everything that refers to Adolf Hitler, but he does so not because he disagrees with the Nazi leader’s means, but because Hitler was not Josef Stalin.
The book also makes a great deal about the debates in which Hobsbawm took part, and what is evident is that virtually every time he had to confront historians of other intellectual schools — T. S. Ashton, Hugh Trevor-Roper and François Furret — his historical materialism failed miserably.
Problems with historical materialism did not escape the mind of the highly learned Hobsbawm, though he often preferred ideological blindness. In The Age of Empires, he is obliged to admit that behind the colonial expansion laid an anti-capitalist logic — contrary to the Marxist-Leninist creed of the exploitation theory –and in another book we see Hobsbawm analyze the proletariat English based on culture instead of economic relations as a Marxist should have done.
In many aspects, the intellectual fragility of Hobsbawm was palpable, and his critics have never made great efforts to show how severely wrong he was. Sir Roger Scruton did not need more than a few pages in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands to demolish him, and Michel Ignatieff easily walled him up regarding his commitment to communist democide.
And despite all his shortcomings, we can see Hobsbawm take a bold stand in favor of freedom of expression in colleges at a time when the politically correct rule had begun to make the academic environment a mental gulag — which is undoubtedly ironic since he was a Stalinist. The advent of academic postmodernism put Hobsbawm face to face with the criticism of feminists who did not see room for gender issues in his historical materialism, and Edward Said decided that Hobsbawm was an accomplice of oppression because his historiography was Eurocentric and, therefore, too white.
Hobsbawm, by his turn, punched back, and when The New School for Social Research — where he was a professor at the time — offered him a celebration for his eightieth birthday, he took the opportunity to bash the School’s administration for its commitment to the ideologies that were destroying the teaching of history.
Hobsbawm went on the attack again when conservative historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was dismissed from the Department of Women’s Studies that she had founded at Emory University. Fox-Genovese was the renowned historian Eugene Genovese’s wife who, like him, had begun as a Marxist but ended up converted to Catholicism and become a conservative. Hobsbawm, who was friends with both, publicly denounced the madness that had taken over the left in the academic circles and the witch hunting he was witnessing.
Evans’s book is an exquisite biography and will surely please its readers. The prose is of a high level, and there is no simplification whatsoever; Hobsbawm is presented as a complex and contradictory figure, and somehow represents an epitaph of the communist intellectual of the twentieth century. In my opinion, the book could have dealt more with the life of the public intellectual and less with details of his private life. That said, to read this book is obligatory not only for the lovers of history but for those who like a good and sensitive reading as well.
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