Pavel Tomar

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans, London: Little Brown, 2019; pp xiii + 785, ?954 (hardcover).

In 1920, when Viennese writer Karl Kraus was informed that Leon Trotsky had saved the October Revolution by organising a Red Army, his shocked reaction was: “(w)ho would have expected that of Herr Bronstein from Café Central!” It was unbelievable to see someone displaying such delicate cultural taste and yet be able to get involved in a war effort of epic proportions. It might seem ironical to observe a similar ideological reception of Eric Hobsbawm, not the least because the historian himself was fond of Karl Kraus’s writings and a first edition copy of Kraus’s work was part of his will, but such a reckoning does indeed seem to have plagued him from the very beginning when he tried to establish himself in the interwar years in London as a young and talented polyglot from Vienna whose Jewish family had moved there from Egypt, till the very end of his life when he became an intellectual superstar. Ramachandra Guha exemplified this approach by distinguishing between Hobsbawm the historian and Hobsbawm the Marxist, a sanitised version of the former being preferable to the latter (Guha 2012). The idea is that Eric Hobsbawm was a great historian not because of, but in spite of his belief in Marxism. As this excellently researched biography by the eminent historian Richard J Evans (who specialises on Third Reich) demonstrates, this seemingly benign notion blocked Hobsbawm’s access to jobs and promotion in his younger days, and later it disguised itself as political correctness in order to diminish the critical implications of his scholarship. The challenge is to recognise the role of Marxism in the scholarship of Hobsbawm, something which he himself was proud of.

Evans’s deeply sympathetic and extremely detailed work touches upon this question by focusing on the making of Hobsbawm’s persona. He writes that “(Hobsbawm’s) writing and his life meshed seamlessly together, and the personal and professional were two sides of the same coin” (p 383). Probably owing to the nature of his approach or a reluctance to discuss private life or both, Hobsbawm provided us with only fleeting glimpses into his turmoil of youth in Interesting Times—a work which was more of a personalised account of the century he lived in than his autobiography (Hobsbawm 2003). Evans’s biography is on full throttle concerning those details, however, and goes on to assert that the themes which the great historian picked up to write about in the beginning of his career came to him not only because of his outlook but also through his social interactions, be it his relationship with a sex worker on the streets of London or a conversation with a country peasant in a remote corner of Italy.

If Marxism inspired Hobsbawm to look towards the coming of the industrial proletariat in the 19th century, his own hitch-hikings and late-night forays on to the “jazz scene” made visible to him other marginalised strata which could not have been left out of the very heterodox project of social history that he pioneered along with fellow Marxist historians who were part of the Communist Party Historians’ Group. As Hobsbawm himself wrote in Interesting Times, the decision to pursue history as a career came about because of his deep attraction to the world of literature; the kind of Marxist social history he pioneered later on appeared to be the only satisfactory interpretation as distinct both from non-Marxist approaches as well as from a vulgar Marxist reductionism. In doing so, he had to swim against the current of not only traditional historiography but also had to revise the Marxist model from its reified rigidities. All this is very well-documented in academic historiography, but the value that Evans attaches to Hobsbawm’s own personal experiences in his intellectual emergence is crucial and certainly adds a significant new piece of information.

Marxism and Popular Culture

Although, towards its end, the biography somewhat uncritically relents to popular opinion to say that Hobsbawm the historian was sometimes prone to be carried away by Hobsbawm the Marxist (p 543), ironically while discussing Marxist critiques of his works, as if Marxism entirely belied any form of historical inquiry as such, it nonetheless recognises the evolution of Hobsbawm’s line of thought as distinct from the ideology of the party whose lifelong member he remained. So, while he lost out on several career opportunities, especially twice at Cambridge for his identification as communist, he was simultaneously having a row with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) leadership which was blindly uncritical towards the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). Later on, he is said to have advised a doctoral student against joining the communist party as it would result in wastage of energy in fighting the Stalinist orthodoxy.

Bringing such contradictions forward is the singular achievement of this biography and it does so using remarkable sources, such as his “party autobiography” and, astonishingly, the secret service files about him compiled by MI5 (possible in a large measure due to the bugging of the CPGB headquarters), which remained inaccessible to Hobsbawm even while writing Interesting Times. Although he remained a quintessentially European intellectual, the internationalism of his Marxist outlook deserves mentioning, shaped in no uncertain terms also by the cosmopolitanism of his early days which led him to Berlin and Paris, and finally to London. It is curious to see him being called Eurocentric, when in fact Hobsbawm’s economic historical work brought out the centrality of colonial exploitation in fuelling the Industrial Revolution (however unsatisfactorily explained by him). If one has to look for extreme examples of the defiance of Eurocentrism, then one does not have to look too far beyond Hobsbawm’s own party’s (CPGB) members who were arrested in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, or the figure of his friend Victor Kiernan whose Indian adventures are too well known. No other political tendency arising from Europe has been as involved with the colonial question as Marxism—a fact that has perhaps been of its own unmaking in the aftermath of decolonisation—and yet it has been often charged of Eurocentrism by the postcolonialists. In this respect especially, Indian readers would have been gratified with some more details of his connection with India, a few of which are mentioned and seem quite fascinating. Some other day, a work of history charged with British Marxist historiography’s connection to the colonial world might prove to become a fascinating subject of exploration, as is indeed one of the appropriately titled works, The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel, a talented comrade of Hobsbawm’s (Samuel 2016).

Simply as introduction to the historian’s works alone, Evans’s biography of Hobsbawm is exceptionable, although the discussion of his writings is methodologically located in its treatment of the evolution of Hobsbawm’s own personality: from a precocious bookworm to a passionate communist activist in his teens to an emotionally distraught lonely figure after the failure of his first marriage to an internationally acclaimed historian, and so on. The scars of his childhood poverty, which provided an additional reason for his espousal of Marxism allowing him to take pride in it than being ashamed by it, were never to go away even in his old age when he remained thrifty as ever. Being a man of family values, his early adventures seem thrilling enough. As a brilliant teacher and a writer, his position needs little commenting. Since he was never ashamed of his Jewish identity, his criticism of Israel and deliberate leaving out of the holocaust to the academic holocaust industry in his writings become quite a challenge for those who might be looking to dismiss his writings as dogmatically Marxist. Perhaps no other work comes as close to defining him as his most “unmarxist” one—The Jazz Scene, written under a pseudonym and only compiled as a book with the real name of the author much later (Hobsbawm 1993). The background to this work provided him with not only a crucial source of income in early days but also opened up an avenue outside of politics and academics. All this is brought out in this biography quite beautifully. Hobsbawm’s wholehearted espousal of this aspect of popular culture posits him in direct contrast to someone like Adorno, providing another area of a fascinating comparative study of Marxist attitudes to popular culture.

Evans’s admiration for the great historian is reflected in not only the excellent summaries of his works but also in his measuring up of those works against the weight of contemporary historiography, unsurprisingly bringing out the long-lasting nature of Hobsbawm’s various theses, such as the deteriorating condition of labour in the early phase of industrialisation. What made Hobsbawm fascinating to read was not only the breadth of his scale but also a deft attention to details. His ability to write out “grand narratives,” as it were, in addition to highly detailed accounts of the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism were his hallmarks, and contrasted him with the empirically richer but smaller canvas of Edward Thompson, with whom he had a comradely rivalry. Yet the story of his later work Age of Extremes is a poignant one: his post-mortem of what he had famously called as “short 20th century” was hailed everywhere but in France, where his work was seen as apologetics than an analysis, and its translation was effectively blocked from publication. However, Evans’s work is notable for not just being a supreme introduction to Hobsbawm’s writings but also to all kinds of reception of those works. As a by-product, it also provides a much-needed glimpse into the political economy of the publishing industry, which appears today more commodified than ever.

Somewhat tragically, therefore, Hobsbawm’s famous call for social history to transform itself into the “history of society” and his own lifelong engagement with labour history seem to have become reified into the very structures Hobsbawm had to fight against in his youth. He was perspicuous enough, to note from this biography, of the transformation that was to take place within the Labour Party, in its evolution from a party of the working class to a party of the phantasmagorical middle class—an entity with whom Hobsbawm’s association outlasted that with the CPGB—but he seems to have laid too many hopes with the New Labour. If he was heralded as its “guru,” it was only possible in his giving up of the communist dream, something which he seems to have signalled after the USSR’s dissolution. His tragic heroism was that he was never apologetic about his espousal of communism and the retention of the membership of the CPGB, despite practically giving up on the latter after 1956. He did belatedly attempt a historical account of the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, an episode which deeply concerned him at its time and nearly got him expelled from the CPGB (Hobsbabwm 2006). Does it then necessarily appear as a surprise that he was advised to stay in the communist party by no one else than a Trotskyist, Isaac Deutscher?

Excellent Interpretation

His project failed, but the individual succeeded. History could not be changed, but it was interpreted well. Could it have been different—the other way around, as he himself put it? Whatever the answer maybe, in Evans’s accomplished hands we have the celebration of a brilliant intellectual, deservingly so. This is an excellent biography, not least for its sources but also for its almost cinematic presentation. It demonstrates not only the greatness of Hobsbawm as a historian and a person, but also the excellence of his biographer.

Pavel Tomar ( has submitted his PhD thesis at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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