A Tribute to Eric Hobsbawm

‘If one thinker left a major in­delible mark on the twen­tieth cen­tury, it was Karl Marx’ Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his last book ‘How to Change the World’ pub­lished in 2011. Perry Anderson en­titles his re­view of Eric’s auto­bi­o­graphy ‘Interesting Times’, ‘The age of Eric Hobsbawm’. Both are right. Different ver­sions of Marxism and its dis­tor­tions con­di­tioned the ‘short’ 20th cen­tury, Eric’s life spanned and doc­u­mented. At the birthday party for his 90th, the Birkbeck History Department offered him a 1917 bottle of port. 1917 was the year of his birth and of the October re­volu­tion. I came to Communism he ex­plained ‘as a Central European in the col­lapsing Weimar Republic. I still be­long to the tail end of the first gen­er­a­tion of Communists, the ones for whom the October re­volu­tion was the central point of ref­er­ence in the polit­ical uni­verse.’ The October re­volu­tion marked his life, and Eric’s his­tori­ography is the found­a­tion stone of the British his­tor­ical discipline.

Eric was born in Alexandria, spent his early years in Vienna, and went with his sister to live in Berlin in 1931 after both his par­ents died. There, he wit­nessed the last years of the Weimar re­public and wit­nessed the Nazi seizure of power. In his auto­bi­o­graphy, he ob­served that “in the crisis-​saturated at­mo­sphere of Berlin in 1931 – 33… polit­ical in­no­cence was im­possible”. From 1933, Britain be­came his home. After studying in Cambridge (where he was elected into the Cambridge Apostles) he found his in­tel­lec­tual home in the Department of History at Birkbeck College where he was based from 1947 on­wards, be­coming the College President until his death. Birkbeck, which is part of the University of London, already had a strong tra­di­tion for being polit­ic­ally rad­ical and an in­tel­lec­tual power­house (other famous teachers in­cluded J. D. Bernal and Rosalind Franklin, both famous crys­tal­lo­graphers, the poet T. S. Eliot, Robert Browning the great clas­si­cist and cam­paigner against the Colonels dic­tat­or­ship and the polit­ical the­orist Paul Hirst amongst others). At Birkbeck, Eric forged the rad­ical his­tory that was to make his name. He was pas­sionate about the working class and cham­pioned so­cial his­tory be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able. He fam­ously propag­ated the idea that na­tions are “in­vented tra­di­tions” and brought to life the voices of working people, in­cluding ban­dits, factory workers, and trade unionists.

Hobsbawm was a Renaissance man, like Marx him­self. He spoke seven lan­guages, his know­ledge was en­cyc­lo­paedic and his memory of people, events and ideas im­mense. Meeting Eric was a little daunting. His aus­tere gaunt face and stooping frame gave the im­pres­sion of a rather re­mote and cold man. It was not true. On Bastille Day 1936, with the Popular Front in power, he drove through Paris in a trance and drank and danced till dawn. He pro­posed to his second wife Marlene at a Bob Dylan con­cert in the 60s and wrote under the pseud­onym Francis Newton a monthly jazz column for the New Statesman for ten years. He was one of the last men to hear the Ellington band and re­ported that the Duke ‘melted’ the middle-​aged San Francisco pro­fes­sionals like ‘tra­di­tional brides.’

When Joanna ar­rived at Birkbeck in 1992, Eric was 75 years old but he was a dy­namic pres­ence in the History de­part­ment. At his age, he might have been ex­pected to have re­tired to a gentle life of reading and gardening. This was not the case. He trav­elled the world giving lec­tures on the most dif­ferent topics. His con­tinuous phys­ical and in­tel­lec­tual per­eg­rin­a­tions meant that he was ‘a mi­grant bird at home in the arctic and the tropic, over­flying the world.’ Eric was al­ways keen to meet col­leagues, who would come from all over the world. Following the long-​standing tra­di­tion at Birkbeck, he was also a keen teacher. His of­fice was next door to Joanna’s and she would fre­quently eaves­drop on his pas­sionate de­bates with stu­dents and col­leagues. He was no snob: he would listen as gen­er­ously, and re­spond as earn­estly, to first year stu­dents as to fellow Professors. Inevitably, de­bate spilled into the cor­ridor or the col­lege bar. His love and know­ledge of wine was huge and the in­tel­lec­tual soirees in his Hampstead house le­gendary. Students loved being taught by Eric and his lec­ture rooms were al­ways full. It was un­der­stand­able. Eric would speak in his 90s like a young man, keen to pass on his his­tor­ical know­ledge and ex­cited about the pos­sib­ility (cer­tainty dis­ap­peared around 1990) of rad­ical change. His life re­minds us that moral and cog­nitive un­der­standing can be achieved only by sub­jecting the fa­miliar into the most searching cri­tique coming from the alien and ‘other’.

When Joanna was ap­pointed to a full pro­fess­or­ship, the Master of the College in­vited Eric to in­tro­duce her. Inaugural lec­tures are nerve-​wracking at the best of times, but having Eric in­tro­du­cing someone was one of the most daunting events of her life. But Eric was as gen­erous as al­ways. Not only did he seam­lessly weave to­gether per­sonal stories he had gleaned about Joanna’s life with broader so­cial and polit­ical con­texts (some­thing he was to do to great ac­claim on his own auto­bi­o­graphy) but he also joined friends and family at the dinner af­ter­wards. There, the great Marxist and atheist happened to sit next to her par­ents, who had worked all their life as Christian mis­sion­aries in Africa, Solomon Islands, Haiti, and else­where. We held our breath, ex­pecting fire­works. Three hours later, they were still en­gaged in quiet but pas­sionate de­bate about the nature of cap­it­alism, and the fu­ture for so­cial justice.

Costas joined Birkbeck in 1992 to es­tab­lish the School of Law. As soon as he heard the news of his ap­point­ment he rang Eric for ad­vice. ‘You must be ef­fi­cient first,’ he said and ‘only if you suc­ceed in this dif­fi­cult task can you be rad­ical. Radicals have to be twice as good in what they do.’ The ad­vice came from his ex­per­i­ence. He had the courage to take dis­sident po­s­i­tions des­pite the price he had to pay and his great suc­cess. He did not apo­lo­gise for staying in the Communist Party until its de­mise in 1992. Loyalty and pride are the char­ac­ter­istics of great men.

Eric never doubted that in­terest in Marx would re­turn after the ‘end of his­tory’ phase had it­self ended. If we are to have any chance of suc­cess in the twenty-​first cen­tury ‘we have to ask Marx’s ques­tions’ he wrote in 2011. ‘Social in­justice still needs to be de­nounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.’ We cannot think of any wiser words at this point.

Costas Douzinas is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College. His book Rizospastiki Politiki and Nomiki Filosofia is pub­lished this month by Ekdoseis Nissos.

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck College. Her book Fovos: Stigmiotypa apo ton polit­ismo tou 19ou kai 20ou aiona is pub­lished by Ekdoseis Savalas.

  1 comment for “A Tribute to Eric Hobsbawm

  1. Eric Heinze
    5 October 2012 at 7:47 am

    Might Derrida have marveled at the stu­di­ously sur­gical re­moval of the nox­ious pol­lutant (tens of mil­lions of lives bru­tal­ised as a merely in­ev­it­able foot­note to his­tory) from the hy­gien­ic­ally pristine purity (“His life re­minds us that moral and cog­nit­ive under­stand­ing can be achieved only by sub­ject­ing the famil­iar into the most search­ing cri­tique com­ing from the alien and ‘other’”)? “Searching cri­tique” can be such an amorphous beast…

    Just a Friday-​morning query.

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