A Tribute to Eric Hobsbawm

by | 5 Oct 2012

‘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

  1. 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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