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Eric J. Hobsbawm – on his 90th Birthday

The publishers Allen Lane have launched a new Penguin History of Europe, in which Tim Blanning, professor of history at Cambridge, has just published the volume covering the period 1648 to 1815, for which he has chosen the title The Pursuit of Glory. According to the review by Sir Keith Thomas, Blanning inclines to the view of this whole period as the age of powerful monarchs and aristocrats, who ruled over an ignorant and exploited peasantry, fought cruel wars for their own glory, built magnificent palaces and gardens, and were restored in 1815 with nearly all their powers intact. (The Guardian, 9 June 2007)

We have here another sharp reminder of the extent to which the political climate of the present can determine historians' interpretation of the past, and of how, in consequence, the work of the generation of historians to which Eric Hobsbawm belongs, is now often looked upon as rather unfashionable. As he himself has passed his 90th birthday in June of this year, this opportunity of calling to mind some aspects of his work and achievement should not be missed.

Eric Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin, where he witnessed the rise to power of the National Socialists. His participation in the anti-Nazi struggles brought him into the ranks of the Communist Party which, though it lost this fight, did not lose its hope that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had inaugurated a new and for the oppressed a more hopeful era of human history. He emigrated to England, and was able to read history at Cambridge, where Professor Postan lectured on the sort of topics which would interest a young Marxist student of history. After graduating, he was awarded a Cambridge Fellowship before the rigidities resulting from the Cold War prevented any historians known for their Marxist approach from being appointed to academic posts. Later, his reputation firmly established, he was appointed to Birkbeck College, London, where mature students are taught in evening courses.

During his early years as a university teacher, Eric Hobsbawm was, together with Christopher Hill, the most influential member of the British Communist Party's Historians' Group, founded in 1946. The aim of the Group was to prepare the ground for a more radical social transformation than that envisaged by the post-1945 Labour Government, by disseminating among the British people and especially in the labour movement an awareness of the radical and revolutionary traditions which had evolved in the course of the historical struggles against oppression and for democracy. Hobsbawm specialised in the history of the labour movement in the 19th century. His first publication was an edition of extracts from relevant contemporary sources, Labour's Turning Point 1880-1900 (1948), which already bears the hallmark of all his subsequent publications, whether purely academic or addressed to a wider audience – scholarly integrity and informed realism:

Yet the [labour] movement in Britain did advance towards Socialism, though perhaps more slowly and very much more incompletely than some historians have assumed. (Introduction, p. xxiv)

Participants of the Linz Conferences will remember this integrity and realism as the main characteristics of Hobsbawm's keynote introductions to the discussions on labour movement history at the ninth and thirty-fifth conferences in 1973 and 1999. (Tagungsberichte 7, pp. 1-34a; Tagungsberichte 34, pp. 11-23)

One currently rather unfashionable aspect of Eric Hobsbawm's work is the breadth of his horizon. In all his works he takes in the world beyond Europe, and looks for the significant resemblances and analogies, while making the necessary qualifications where required in the light of the exception. In his pathbreaking book Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels (1959), in whose activities he recognised a primitive form of social protest, the striking similarities of his case studies, drawn from widely different regions, encouraged him to generalise "with very great confidence" (p. 14). It is this confident ability to generalise, coupled with the readiness to qualify where necessary, which makes Hobsbawm's chef d'oeuvre, the Tetralogy covering two centuries of modern history, The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994), the unique achievement it is. It depicts the bourgeois triumph over traditional social orders, and attempts to explain the failure of the socialist challenge to bourgeois society, the challenge to which he has himself been committed all his life. This is macrohistory of the highest order, which will survive unscathed the currently fashionable microhistoric trend.

With regard to the changing trends and fashions in historical interpretation, Eric Hobsbawm used the occasion of the bicentenary of the French Revolution to examine the recent developments in the interpretation of this historic turning point. In the twenty or so years before 1989, it had become quite common among both Anglo-American and French historians to deny that the French Revolution had been a significant turning point at all, and to speak of changes only in political culture and symbolism, while continuity was asserted with regard to the economy and society of France. In his Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution (1990), Hobsbawm was able to demonstrate that this dramatic change in interpretation does not derive from any new facts having been unearthed by historical research and resulting in a change to the overall picture. It is simply a reflection of the social and political changes which had accompanied the transition from the Third and Fourth to the Fifth Republic. (Ch. 4: Surviving Revision, pp.91-113)

Eric Hobsbawm has made a truly extraordinary contribution both to historical scholarship and to the knowledge and ideas the labour movement will need, if it should once more take it into its mind to resume its forward march, which has been halted too long. We wish him retrospectively many happy returns and look forward to his next book.

Ernst Wangermann
University of Salzburg, Austria
(July 2007)