“Merely to recount the course of events, even on a world-wide scale, is unlikely to result in a better understanding of the forces at play in the world today unless we are aware at the same time of the underlying structural changes. What we require first of all is a new framework and new terms of reference.” - Geoffrey Barraclough.
Britain’s most important modern historian passed away the morning of October 1 at the age of 95 in London. Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant analyses of both the modern and contemporary world fundamentally changed the study of history and inexorably challenged the rigid and intractable perspectives of many of his colleagues and adversaries. A free-thinking Marxist, Hobsbawm cultivated a strong following early in his career despite his obdurate and unpopular support of Britain’s Communist Party. He castigated the revitalized “New” Labour Party of the 1990’s and provided new historical foundations for many contemporary political theorists and historians.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917, he then spent his early years raised in Jewish enclaves in Vienna and Berlin. His family left for London during Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. This rich background helped Hobsbawm cultivate a deep, and at times polemical devotion to German Marxism and its multifarious global forms. Hobsbawm weathered periods of controversy by publishing several of the seminal texts in the analysis of the modern world. His magnum opus, a four-part collection on the modern world, began in 1962 with the publication of The Age of Revolution, culminating in 1994’s The Age of Extremes. His stirring narrative style offered a fresh investigation on an historical period often mired in ideological biases and wilful ignorance. Hobsbawm, although dutifully Marxist, carefully and unsympathetically developed a unique brand of scholarship devoted to unhinging historical analysis from the spectres of Orientalism, generalization, and colonial revisionism. He wrote extensively about Modern Britain and Europe before examining globalization and the role of Marxism in the post-financial crises maelstrom.
In addition to producing some of the seminal historical texts of the contemporary era, Hobsbawm remained actively engaged in politics. This often included the role of arbiter between “New” Labour politicians (he was called “Tony Blair Thatcher in trousers”) and its Fabian roots. He remained staunchly Marxist through the boom and bust years of Conservative and Labour governments. He unabashedly critiqued loyal politicians politically oriented towards the Labour Left for failing to do more for Britain poverty-stricken and marginalized communities.
His shining achievement, however, has been the global transmission of his ideas in the changing face of academic thought. As scholars tend towards revisionist and ideologically driven historical accounts, Hobsbawm’s work remained consistent, yet not overindulgent in his own political sympathies. Hobsbawm completed the arc established earlier in the 20th century by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, whose respective accounts contributed enormously to the historical canon. He admirably added to their richness depth and surpassed them in the quality of his writings. His influence on many new scholars and theorists across all political spectrums remains a poignant epitaph to one of history’s great scholars.
George Barraclough wrote in 1964 about the necessity of a new framework for historical analysis. This new framework advanced history into a new and exciting paradigm. His loss is global and perhaps, in this era of revisionism and ideological slants, ushers in a new and deficient form of the craft he so adeptly and devotedly remade.