Fuelling on Evans, 'Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History'

Richard J. Evans
Mathias Fuelling

Richard J. Evans. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 800 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-045964-2.

Reviewed by Mathias Fuelling (Temple University) Published on H-Nationalism (June, 2019) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (Sam Houston State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53734

The Ecstasy of Influence: On Eric Hobsbawm

What stands out most immediately in Richard Evanss new biography is that Eric Hobsbawm was a people person. Marc Bloch’s old adage from The Historian’s Craft, “I am a historian. Therefore, I love life,” applied particularly well to him. He had lunch with Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1950s. He was friends with Indira Gandhi when they were both studying at Cambridge in the 1930s. Giorgio Napolitano, president of Italy from 2006 to 2015, was a former student and later friend. He hosted at his home a rogues gallery of the greatest twentieth-century intellectuals and historians: Amartya Sen, Carlo Ginzburg, Eugene Genovese, Ivan Berend, Eric Foner, Arno Mayer, Charles Tilly, Immanuel Wallerstein, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He was on friendly terms with such ideological opposites as Isaac Deutscher and Niall Ferguson. During the Spanish Civil War he hitchhiked through Pyrenees from France to Spain and talked with Spanish Anarchists. He interviewed peasant farmers in Italy, Korea, Argentina, Algeria, France, and Brazil. In his later life he regularly rode the bus in London with the British Labor politician Michael Foot. He was friends with former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, who has read all of his books. He clashed intellectually with A. J. P Taylor, Isaiah Berlin, Hugh Trevor Roper, and Francois Furet. Ira Katznelson gave the kaddish at his funeral. Hobsbawm’s influence was so great that even his local postman, delivering condolence letters after his death, wrote one: “I liked his work and just wanted to send my condolences” (p. 649).

He was fluent in German, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. He loved music, moonlighting as a jazz critic for many years, with a picture of Billie Holiday hanging in his home office, while also being a devoted attendee of classical concerts and opera. He traveled widely across Europe, the Americas, and India. While he was dying in the hospital he realized he had nothing to read and so had his daughter pick up a book for him. She brought him Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). It was one of the last books he ever read. His review: it featured too much marital bed-hopping (p. 643). Perhaps even more than music he loved literature, compulsively reading novels, particularly those in the detective and crime genres. He lost his virginity in Berlin at a brothel. In his life he had many lovers, at one time taking part in a long-running ménage à trois and at another dating a sex worker who lived in Soho, before settling down and remaining married for forty-nine years until his death. In his later life he became famous for the parties he threw at his home and the creature comforts he developed. Once asked how he squared all this with his political ideology, he justified himself with the immortal line, “If you are on a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class” (p. 488).

Yet beyond the pleasures of learning the delightful trivia of twentieth-century intellectual life, why should one read or care about the life and work of Eric Hobsbawm? Indeed, from today’s point of view Hobsbawm in many ways seems backward, even a dinosaur, and that of a particularly ancient strain. He criticized what he called political correctness and what we today might call social justice. He saw “feminism, greens, rainbow coalitions, gays/lesbians etc.,” as “the opposite of Marxist,” as they only offered “radicalization, mindless, libertarian and often basically individualist (i.e. anti-social)” developments. “1968 radicalism provided and provides no basis for progressive politics” (p. 598). He was dismissive about the history and importance of sub-Saharan Africa, telling one of his students who worked on the region, “Well, you know, it’s not as if all places are equally important. Some just quite clearly aren’t” (p. 659). Almost all of his work had an extreme Eurocentric position. Gender and women are almost nonexistent in his works. He also conducted little archival research, considering himself a historian “who doesn’t so much march directly towards his goal behind the artillery fire of the archives, as attack it from the flanking bushes with the Kalashnikov of ideas” (p. 658).

However, Evans shows that what immortalizes Hobsbawm and makes his life and work worth reading about is precisely those same elements that make him a dinosaur. Focusing on class relations and the effects of industrialization, rather than on race or gender, he could show the massive scope of the Industrial Revolution, its epochal economic consequences, and its effects for both good and ill on the lives of hundreds of millions of laboring people. His Eurocentrism allowed him to show how Europe came to dominate the world in the nineteenth century and how what occurred on the smallest continent had global effects that are with us today. His preference for synthesis above archive allowed him to bring together massive amounts of information from secondary works to create original and provocative analyses on the entire scope of the modern world. Some of his arguments and concepts have become so accepted and fundamental as to seem banal, like reading Shakespeare and claiming how derivative he is without knowing that all the derivations come from him. “The Long Nineteenth Century,” “The Invention of Tradition,” “The Dual Revolution,” “Primitive Rebels,” have an aphoristic, even prophetic ring to them, but the ideas contained within their short phrasing changed the way the history of the modern world is understood. Eric Hobsbawm may be a dinosaur, but intellectually we are all descendants of him.

Richard Evans’s research for the biography is thorough, perhaps too thorough. This is foremost a comprehensive intellectual biography, focused on the development of Hobsbawm’s ideas and work. No school paper, no project, no book goes unexamined. His obsessive tracking of the minute twists and turns of Hobsbawm’s writing process, publishing experiences, and conference travel is enough at times to tire even the most dedicated reader. He has heaped up such a weighty mountain of facts that at times it threatens to collapse into trivialities. Biography is a notoriously difficult genre to write in and it seems that Evans has chosen the throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach. It is a subtle irony, to read such a dense and fine-grained and archivally based biography of a man famous for his smooth prose, synthesis of secondary work, and turn of phrase. However, Evans’s mass of information does all serve the purpose of giving an excellent, though as mentioned above exhaustive, view of Hobsbawm’s intellectual development. Evans had full access to all of Hobsbawm’s personal papers, supplementing it with interviews of the surviving members of Hobsbawm’s family and his friends. Evans has also done an exhaustive reading of all of Hobsbawm’s work. The most fascinating part of the biography is that covering Hobsbawm’s early years, up until the beginning of his academic career. Evans relies heavily on young Hobsbawm’s diary here, showing us the fascinating intellectual and political landscape of a great mind. The flow of the work is pleasant and for the academic reader it is rewarding to learn the scale of Hobsbawm’s intellectual curiosity and projects.

Coming away from Evans’s biography, one concludes that Hobsbawm’s greatest strength and also his greatest weakness was his extreme loyalty and dedication, both personal and intellectual. Once Hobsbawm made you his friend he stuck with you, despite everything. This led him to be a champion, advocate, and mentor for many historians and intellectuals, resulting in the wide range of connections and friends that he had across his life. But it could also end up putting him in hot water, as when he defended Charles Tilly when he left the New School under controversial circumstances, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese after she was fired from the directorship of the Women’s Studies Program at Emory University over her increasingly conservative political views, deeming her firing the result of political correctness run amuck (pp. 596-97).

Intellectually it was the same. In his teenage years he dedicated himself to Marxism, from which he never wavered. He read The Communist Manifesto at the age of fifteen in 1932 in Berlin, right on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power. In just two years, by the time he was seventeen, he had read the first volume of Capital (1867), The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (1885), The Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), The Civil War in France (1871), Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909) and Imperialism (1917), and Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) (p. 57). He was in essence a Stalinist in his teenage years and early twenties, denying the existence of the Holodomor, accepting the party line that the Soviet purges of the late 1930s were justified in response to a fifth-column threat, and he applauded the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in 1940 (pp. 59, 200). But he was not to remain such. During his life he would move far from the old Stalinist orthodoxy of the 1930s, becoming an ecumenical Marxist and socialist in a broad sense. He never wavered though from his original ideological commitment. He wrote in his teenage diaries that he was set on becoming a Marxist intellectual and so he did become one. If one can say that there are lives lived with purpose, Hobsbawm’s was one. This intellectual dedication often got him in hot water and continues to do so after his death.

A common critique of Hobsbawm is to call him a Stalinist, something that might have been appropriate when he was nineteen in 1937 but which is utterly false by the time he began to write history, given his dissent from the Communist Party and his heterodox theoretical ideas. A stronger critique of Hobsbawm is his continued membership in the Communist Party post-1956 and the invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s official acknowledgement of Stalin’s crimes. Hobsbawm, however, was after 1956 really only a member in name only. He clashed immensely with the leadership of the British party, which at one point was set to expel him but decided not to do so in order not to make him an intellectual martyr. From the late 1950s on, he existed in an internal exile within the party, a kind of token heretic.

He was not a revolutionary, hardly ever attending meetings or handing out party literature, as members were required to do. His membership in the party despite everything was fueled by his stubborn loyalty—in this case seemingly most likely to the dream of a utopian egalitarian future he had held as a young man and the dream that had pushed him to join the party in the first place. As Hobsbawm admitted to his editor for his memoir, “his lifelong adherence to Communism was a ‘tribal matter’ more than anything else” (p. 614). Hobsbawm was also influenced in his decision to stay in the party by an admonition from Isaac Deutscher, who told Hobsbawm in 1956, “You must not leave the Party.… I let myself be expelled in 1932 and have regretted it ever since” (p. 353). Yet as Evans shows, after WWII Hobsbawm spent far more time actively campaigning for the Labour Party in various elections than he ever did for the Communist Party in any capacity. He became intimately involved with the Eurocommunist movement of the 1970s, and in the 1980s through his writings even became heralded as an intellectual leader of the third way movement within the Labour Party.

Hobsbawm did seem to revel in the contrarian take though, stirring up his opponents just for the sake of it, as at a dinner party in 1949 when he claimed that “there are more political prisoners in the United States today than there are in Czechoslovakia,” a wildly false statement given the purges taking place in Czechoslovakia at that time (pp. 308-09). He also was on the record stating that the events of 1989 were worse in their effects than those of 1918, a bold statement at the least (p. 595). And of course his infamous statement in a 1994 BBC interview with David Rieff, that the deaths of up to twenty million people might have been justified if true utopian communism had been established (p. 590). Yet from Evans’s biography it appears that communism played much less of a role in Hobsbawm’s writing and research than one would think. Of course the lodestones of Hobsbawm’s work were the nature of the working and underclasses and the process of capitalist expansion, but one need not be a hardline communist for that to be the case. Hobsbawm’s communism broadened by the time of the beginning of his historical career into a wide-ranging socialism and critical Marxism that bears little resemblance to any communist orthodoxy. In sum, he was a lifelong committed socialist but once past his teenage years Hobsbawm was never the boogeyman of Stalinism or of intellectual hypocrisy post 1956 that his critics portray him as.

The heart of Hobsbawm’s work, the part that will survive long after the rest is forgotten, is his quadrilogy of works on the history of the modern world from 1789 to 1991. It has the narrative structure of a tragedy. The first three volumes show the battle between labor and capital fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the revolutionary ideologies bursting forth from the French Revolution, culminating on the eve of WWI with global empires fueled by capitalism and an opposing global revolutionary movement born out of the struggle of workers against capitalism, communism. The years from 1789 to 1914 are then a discreet historical period characterized by common material and ideological processes, “the long nineteenth century.” The final volume, from WWI to the end of communism, showed the titanic clash in the twentieth century of these ideologies and processes that had their origins in the nineteenth, culminating in the collapse of communism and socialism, and the revolutionary dream of a better world that been born almost exactly two hundred years earlier in the storming of the Bastille. The quadrilogy was then, while Hobsbawm could not have known it when he started the first volume in the late 1950s, a chronicle of the failure of his own politics and hopes. It was also a history of the period in which Europe, for better or for worse, likely for the worst, was the fulcrum point of the history of the world, and of its accompanying downfall when the final great European ideology, communism, collapsed. Eurocentric yet global, detailed yet flowing, ideological yet expansive, the quadrilogy still provides one of the greatest historical interpretations of the state of the world over the last two hundred years, and what the stakes were.

Hobsbawm is now one of the world’s best-selling and most read historians. His works have been translated into dozens of languages and sold tens of millions of copies. A testament to his global appeal and approach, his works have sold the most in Brazil of any country. All of his books are still in print and tens of thousands read him every year. To read Hobsbawm then is not just to learn the history of the modern world but to learn how millions of people across the world understand that history. In this sense Hobsbawm has become, in his own words, “like a historical monument” (p. 624). His wide personal relationships across academia also point to his importance, through which he was connected to almost every major dispute and development in the field of history in the twentieth century. To steal a phrase of Emerson’s, Hobsbawm was a representative man of the twentieth-century Western intelligentsia. Few other intellectuals, certainly no other historians, have had such a massive impact on the popular consciousness and historical understanding outside of academia than Hobsbawm.

If someone were to ask an historian today where to begin a study of history between 1789 and the collapse of communism, for many the answer would be that they must first read Hobsbawm. This reviewer certainly cut his teeth beginning the study of history with a reading of Hobsbawm’s quadrilogy. This will be true for decades to come—perhaps, dare one say, even centuries. Hobsbawm himself believed that his work would become obsolete, that only those works of history which “attained the status of literature, like Gibbon, Macaulay or Michelet,” survived in the long term (p. 659). While he did not think his work had achieved such a rank, it is the opinion of this reviewer that he certainly is at least in the running. It is fitting that he now is the subject of a biography by Richard Evans, one of the finest historians of modern Europe. This biography, earlier quibbles aside, is definitive and essential reading, not just for those interested in Hobsbawm, but for a fine study of high intellectual life in the twentieth century in general and its effects on how history is understood and practiced today. Hobsbawm did not just travel first class on the ship of the modern world; he changed how that ship is understood and perhaps even the direction of its course. A life such as his is worth reading about.

Citation: Mathias Fuelling. Review of Evans, Richard J., Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53734

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