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Oct 01, 2021

Remembering Eric Hobsbawm Who Made History Reading Delightful With His Wit

The master historian passed away at the age of 95 on October 1, 2012. "In an era of narrow specialists, Eric Hobsbawm remains the supreme generalist," said Sir Keith Thomas, himself an accomplished historian.
Photo courtesy: Pantheon Books

Probably his last piece of writing published in Eric Hobsbawm’s own lifetime was the obituary he wrote for The Guardian of the noted British academic Dorothy Wedderburn, formerly principal, Bedford/Royal Holloway College, University of London. The short article is classic Hobsbawm – crisp, poised and completely unsentimental, though his sense of loss at the passing of a dear friend comes across quite unmistakably.

“She was also a socialist, university principal, enemy of all self-advertisement and an untypical member of the community of ‘the great and the good’…” Almost in the same breath, but this time tongue firmly in cheek, he goes on to say: “A notably attractive woman, Dorothy continued to take her appearance seriously. At the lunch with which Royal Holloway celebrated her 80th birthday, she reserved a table for her Knightsbridge hairdressers…” But he rounds off his tribute with great warmth: “For her survivors, her greatest gift was her friendship.”

These lines came from a man who was confined to his hospital bed with terminal illness: the obit appeared only 10 days before Hobsbawm’s own death on October 1, 2012 at the age of 95. Clearly, those 95 years sat lightly on Hobsbawm, as his many friends and admirers  – and even those who disagreed with his worldview, sometimes violently  – remembered in print after his passing.

Indeed, just as he could never be pigeon-holed as a particular kind of historian – social, cultural, political, anthropological, or even economic (though his early specialisation had been in economic history) – so also his writing never followed a template, which is why it seldom failed to delight or surprise readers.

Recall how he begins the first part of his magisterial The Age of… trilogy on the 19th century, The Age of Revolution (1962) by pointing out to the reader that many of the commonest words in our current-day vocabulary are all coinages or adaptations of the period (1789-1848) with which the book deals. The examples he cites include not only ‘industry’, ‘industrialist’, ‘factory’, ‘middle class’, ‘working class’, ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ but also ‘nationalist’, ‘scientist’, ‘engineer’, ‘railway’, ‘crisis’, ‘strike’ and ‘proletariat’ – and even ‘journalism’, ‘ideology’, ‘aristocracy’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

“To imagine the modern world without these words (i.e. without the things and concepts for which they provide names),” the historian reminds us in his introduction, “is to measure the profundity of the revolution which broke out between 1789 and 1848, and forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture and metallurgy, writing, the city and the state.”

After this insight comes another piece of inspired history-writing, with Hobsbawm making the piquant observation in the book’s first chapter that “(t)he first thing to note about the world of the 1780s is that it was at once much smaller and much larger than ours”. A fascinating exposition of the ‘smaller-larger’ duality follows. Hobsbawm reminds us that, for the late 18th century human, the ‘known world’ was infinitely smaller than the geography we recognise as our world today.

“Outside of a few areas, – in several continents they did not reach more than a few miles inland from the coast – the map of the world consisted of white spaces crossed by the marked trails of traders or explorers”. Then there were the additional facts of (a) the earth being inhabited then by no more than a third of the world’s population in the mid-20th entury; as well as of (b) men, on the whole, being distinctly shorter and lighter than their modern-day brothers. [“(I)n one canton on the Ligurian coast, 72 per cent of the recruits (to the army) in 1792-99 were less than 1.50 metres (5 ft. 2 in.) tall.”] Yet, if the world was in many respects smaller, “the sheer difficulty or uncertainty of communication made it in practice much vaster than it is today”.

Examples: between 1760 and the end of the century the journey from London to Glasgow had no doubt been shortened considerably, but from the 10 or 12 days it used to take earlier, it still took no fewer than sixty-two hours now. On the other hand, “the news of the fall of the Bastille reached the populace of Madrid within thirteen days, but in Peronne, (a French town) a bare 133 kilometres from the capital, ‘the news from Paris’ was not received until the 28th (of July 1789)”. (Both Paris and Madrid being national capitals, they had somewhat faster – and decidedly more reliable – mail links with one another than those that Paris happened to have with a provincial backwater such as Peronne.).

What these remarks do is to locate the reader’s perspective firmly in pre-revolutionary Europe, equipping her with the wherewithal to fathom the depth of the momentous changes that the ‘dual revolution’ – the Industrial and the French revolutions – engendered.

Or consider the ‘Overture’ to Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, the concluding volume of the trilogy, where we are told how a young Viennese woman and a young male English immigrant of Polish-Russian origin happened to find themselves during 1913-14 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. There they met by chance, fell in love, and were eventually married. The marriage, though, took place in Zurich, because, as citizens of two combatant nations in the Great War, the marriage of these two young people could be solemnised neither in Austria nor in England, but only in neutral Switzerland.

“It is extremely improbable that such an encounter would have happened in such a place, or would have led to the marriage between two such people, in any period of history earlier than the one with which this book deals. Readers ought to be able to discover why.”

The two young lovers, it turns out, were Hobsbawm’s parents. The historian thus launches on his narrative of a portentous period (1875-1914) of world history via an audacious plunge into an individual’s – in this case his own – personal history.

As remarkable as such a project of history writing undoubtedly is, it also speaks of Hobsbawm’s extraordinarily sure grasp of the diverse elements that make up history’s big picture. One imagines this is what Sir Keith Thomas, himself an accomplished historian, had in mind when he said: “In an era of narrow specialists, Eric Hobsbawm remains the supreme generalist”. And when the Guardian confessed to a sense of “terrified admiration” at Hobsbawm’s felicity with “basic themes (which he) illustrates…with a wealth of reference”, it may also have been referring to the same Hobsbawm trait.

What sets him apart

Few historians in recent memory knew as well as Eric Hobsbawm how to combine personal histories of individuals with histories of communities, indeed of whole historical epochs in which past and present blend seamlessly even as a perspective, for the future never fails to emerge from the narrative, if only in broad outline. It is for a reason that Hobsbawm gave to his autobiography – Interesting Timesthe subtitle A Twentieth-Century Life, for, in a very real sense, the autobiography is a companion volume to his magnum opus, The Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century. He makes that point clear in his preface to the autobiography:

In one sense this book is the flip side of The Age of Extremes: “not world history illustrated by the experiences of an individual, but world history shaping that experience, or rather offering a shifting but always limited set of choices from which, to adapt Karl Marx’s phrase, “men make (their lives)… (not) just as they please, …(nor) under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” and, one might add, by the world around them.”

Also read: Eric Hobsbawm, the Historian Who Lived Through Some of the Most ‘Interesting Times’

But Hobsbawm’s virtuosity as a painter of the big picture takes nothing away from his other formidable skillsets, namely his ability to engage with highly specialised fields of historical inquiry and with startlingly new themes, though he always stayed well clear of the ‘narrow specialisation’ of which Keith Thomas spoke. Indeed, there are several branches of history of which Hobsbawm is recognised to have been the originator and first conceptualiser –  ‘social banditry’ and the ‘invented’ tradition being two such fields.

With his 1958 monograph Primitive Rebels, he helped create the framework for a systematic study of grassroots social resistance movements  – spearheaded by ‘social bandits’ – in pre-capitalist, predominantly rural, societies not shaped by any political ideology. This later paved the way for rich and varied research into non-political social resistance traditions in different geographies in several major European, as well as other, languages, by many practitioners of cultural history and social anthropology, and Hobsbawm himself helped this work along through his books Bandits and Captain Swing, as also via many papers, articles and seminars devoted to this broad theme.

The study of  ‘invented traditions’ is another fascinating inquiry that Hobsbawm pioneered, and later guided and shaped, notably through the 1983 collection of essays entitled The Invention of Tradition which he edited and wrote extensive portions of. This work foregrounds some of the widely recognised social and political ‘traditions’ which “appear or claim to be old (but) are, in fact, often quite recent in origin and sometimes (even) invented”. This phenomenon is particularly on view in the accoutrements and rituals associated with the ideas of the nation and nationalism, and in the legitimisation of the institutions or cultural appurtenances of Zionism, Scottish Highland Tradition and the martial arts of Japan. The study shows that the sharp distinction we are apt to make between ‘tradition’ and modernity is often illusory at best, and sometimes no more than a clever cultural construct of fairly recent vintage.

Which brings us to Hobsbawm’s life-long fascination with the uncommon, the unusual – a function of his unending curiosity about all that is human, and of his never-failing zest for prising open seeming enigmas – qualities that set him apart from most other professional historians of the modern era. Indeed, his 1998 book of essays entitled Uncommon People –Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz is a treasure-house of stories and low-downs on the out-of-the-ordinary, the little-known, the beguiling and the tantalising – and also the macabre. (Only his posthumous book of essays called Fractured Times comes anywhere close in the dazzling variety of the subjects and themes it provides treatments of.)

Eric Hobsbawm’s grave in Highgate Cemetary, north London. Photo: Ethan Doyle White/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The 26 pieces anthologised in this book invoke Political Shoemakers, The Rules of Violence, Revolution and Sex, Victorian Values, May 1968, The Caruso of Jazz, Count Basie, The Machine-Breakers, 500 Years of Columbus, The Left’s Megaphone and Billie Holiday, among others. They present a coruscating kaleidoscope of colours and motifs, but the common thread that runs through most of these essays is a sense of how ordinary, unremarkable human beings are shaped by their past and present, and how they, in turn, shape their societies and history. Here, for instance, is how Hobsbawm begins his delightful study of political shoemakers in early-industrial Europe:

“The political radicalism of nineteenth-century shoemakers is proverbial. Social historians of a variety of persuasions have described the phenomenon and assumed it needed no explanation. A historian of the German Revolution of 1848, for example, concluded that it was ‘not accidental’ that shoemakers ‘played a dominant role in the activities of the people’. Historians of the ‘Swing’ riots in England referred to the shoemakers’ ‘notorious radicalism’ and Jacques Rougerie accounted for the shoemakers’ prominence in the Paris Commune by referring to their ‘traditional militancy’.”

The essay then goes on to examine the roots of this radicalism and the social soil it came out from, as well as the reasons why the 19th century shoemaker could afford to be fiercely independent of given societal wisdom, interspersing the narrative with anecdotes real and apocryphal. The essay on the Sicilian ‘social bandit’ Salvatore Guiliano (1922-50), on the other hand, is a withering review of Mario Puzo’s 1984 pseudo-historical novel The Sicilian and is a sociological investigation, political commentary and devastating badinage in equal measure. (The American Mafia’s “substitution of private violence for state authority”, Hobsbawm avers, “is as American as apple pie”.)

Uncommon People is studded with many gems but, having started this article with Hobsbawm’s elegant obituary on Dorothy Wedderburn, I will close by looking at another astute obit – Epitaph for a Villain: Roy Cohn. Cohn, a “well-connected New York shyster lawyer living .. ‘in a matrix of crime and unethical conduct’… in the 1970s became a major New York ‘in’ celebrity, (and) in the 1980s a friend of the Reagans (what else?).” Equally to the point, Cohn was one of Senator McCarthy’s fast-talking, amoral, witch-hunting attorneys – “a genuine prince of darkness” if there was one – who revelled in his spirit of  ‘built-in contrariness’.

“A life-long Democrat, he bragged about shafting his party’s 1972 presidential campaign. A Jew, he ran with anti-Semites: a spectacularly visible cruising gay, he took his boyfriends to meetings where he campaigned against homosexual rights.”

And, when the end came,

“(h)e died as he had lived, jumping the queue over other Aids victims. The best that can be said of him is that, born in any other country, he would not have become what he did. In no other country would he have received a presidential telegram in hospital (“Nancy and I are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers”). But when he died, even Reagan’s White House kept shtum.”

A historian’s writing rarely comes more sumptuous than this.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic and translator. He has published a book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.

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