Eric Hobsbawm

Thyago Nogueira (Journal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the Historian's Biography

The end of the book by Richard Evans – renowned British historian based at the University of Cambridge and author of a celebrated trilogy on the Third Reich – is reached, with the discovery that there are many places, landscapes and languages ​​that intersect in the biography of Eric Hobsbawn (1917-2012). Grandson of Polish Jews who settled in London in the mid-1870s; son of an English father and an Austrian mother of Jewish origin; young man who was born in Alexandria and lived in Vienna, Berlin and London. All these displacements are engraved in the history of his name: from his grandfather's "Obstbaum", which became, at an immigration center in London, his father's "Hobsbaum", to the "Hobsbawm" assigned, by some distraction from university bodies. , to the Cambridge student.

Displacements that shaped the life of a young orphan at the age of fourteen whose family was limited (besides his sister three years younger, Nancy) to uncles, great-uncles and cousins ​​spread across Austria, Germany and England. After the death of his mother, Nelly, in 1931, Hobsbawm found himself in incessant transit between the homes of more or less distant relatives and acquaintances. As if that were not enough, all the insecurity that permeated the first years of his life was reinforced by the anti-Semitic wave that only increased in Europe in the 1930s and by a physical appearance that was a permanent source of discomfort.

But what Evans shows (and this is one of the highlights of his argument) is how young Eric sought to overcome all these insecurities through passionate engagement in activities and spaces through which he could redefine himself: first, with the Boy Scouts, then after the death of his father, Leopold, in 1929 and, later (and until the end), with intellectual life and the communist movement. At least these were Hobsbawm's expectations in his early years: against the frail and gangly appearance, the person of the intellectual; against loneliness in a scattered family, the camaraderie and solidarity of fellow party members; against the uncertainties and insecurities engendered by a materially unfavorable origin and the threat of persecution, the strength of a movement that promised a new world.

Of all these engagements, the one with communist theory and movement was arguably the most important. And, for that, the historical context of Berlin in the 1930s, in which Hobsbawm lived between 1931 and 1933, was decisive, above all. of Weimar, but also the resistance offered by the German communist movement, capable of bringing together 130 thousand people in a demonstration held in January 1933, which Hobsbawm himself attended. According to Evans, the attraction to communism was perhaps just a matter of time for a young man living at that juncture, with his roots and penchant for intellectual life and the world of culture.

And it was this passionate affiliation that led him to opt, when he entered Cambridge in 1936, for the History course – the discipline that seemed to him more suited to the use of a materialist approach. However, it would not take long for this relationship of forces to be reversed, with the Marxist intellectual and professional historian taking precedence over the communist militant.

Although he never formally left the Communist Party of Great Britain (even in the aftermath of the 1956 crisis), Hobsbawm always remained a outsider in the party ranks. This, however, did not prevent him from suffering the consequences of such a political commitment in a world plunged into the Cold War, above all the surveillance of the British secret service and the obstacles imposed on his academic path, which resulted in an accomplished career, from 1947 until retirement in 1982 in Birkbeck College, from the University of London.

The complex interaction between political and intellectual paths that is revealed in Hobsbawm's trajectory is not, however, a singularity of his case – on the contrary, it signals the always difficult relationship that communism maintained with English intellectual life. Another indication can be found in the trajectory of the Group of Historians of the Communist Party, the space in which Hobsbawm's party activities were concentrated.

Although it was established in 1938 with an overtly political purpose – to contribute to the formation of workers aware of the historical achievements of their class and to undertake investigations into the history of the communist party and movement –, even so, this group (formed, among others, , by Edward Thompson, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill and John Morris) was quickly isolated by party bureaucracy. Its activities were soon restricted to holding productive meetings and debates and, in the end, the group's greatest legacy (and nothing could be more significant than that) was the creation, in 1952, of the magazine Past & Present, designed as a British version of the Annals (and still in circulation today).

But if it is true that the roles of the historian and the intellectual have gained more and more space in relation to that of the militant, it is equally true that, despite all the mishaps in political action, the theoretical influence of Marxism has never disappeared. More than that, the analytical and methodological approach provided by Marxism is what explains, to a large extent, the path that Hobsbawm took in his intellectual trajectory and the enormous importance that his work conquered.

Since his doctoral thesis on the Fabian Society (completed in 1950), Hobsbawm has opposed the prevailing forms of political and diplomatic history at the time – that is, the narratives of great figures and the evolution of national states. For him, it was important to write a materialist history, capable of apprehending the importance of economic conditions (which never meant falling back into deterministic or reductionist readings). Therefore, it was a question of choosing the development of capitalism as the main object of analysis, which, in turn, implied addressing the various dimensions of this process (economic, political, artistic, scientific, geographical), its global reach and the growing relationship of interdependence between nations engendered by it.

It is this perspective – at the same time comprehensive and synthetic – which gives the innovative tone to some of his classics, such as the three volumes of his history of Europe from the second half of the XNUMXth century to the beginning of the XNUMXth: The age of revolutions (1962) the age of capital (1975) and the age of empires (1987)

If Hobsbawm's work benefited from the mobilization of the Marxist theoretical arsenal, that, even so, does not explain everything. After all, all historians coming from the Communist Party rested on the same basis. As Evans persuasively reveals, what makes Hobsbawm's contribution unique – in relation not only to more traditional historiography, but also to other representatives of British Marxist historiography – is the look that goes beyond the limits of the English world.

Hobsbawm displays an ease with European culture practically absent in the other exponents of English Marxism. A particularity that already manifests itself in the young (and voracious) reader of English, French and German literature and that set the tone for the career of the historian who circulated in the main academic circles on both sides of the Atlantic and who formed throughout his life a relationship of interlocutors which included Carl Schorske, Eugene Genovese, Charles Tilly, Michelle Perrot, Jacques Revel, Carlo Ginzburg, Arno Mayer, Immanuel Wallerstein, and many others, spanning from Eastern Europe to Latin America.

A cosmopolitan and far-reaching vision that allowed Hobsbawm, moreover, to break with the limits of the most orthodox Marxism, either by recognizing in the popular movements of Latin America of the 1960s the most promising revolutionary force of the time, or by dedicating himself, in books such as primitive rebels (1959) and Bandidos (1969), to the study of socially marginalized actors hitherto ignored by theoretical contributions concentrated on the traditional working class.

Another feature that differentiates Hobsbawm from other representatives of English Marxism is the investment he made in his academic career. Coexisting with the revolutionary communist militant, there was always present the historian who persisted diligently in his professional path: defending a doctoral thesis whose results were published in prestigious magazines; regularly attending congresses and meetings in the area; assuming the front line in institutional and organizational activities. Which in fact valued not only the titles won but also the recognition given by the most traditional academic institutions in the country, such as the prestigious british academy, the pinnacle of any career in the arts and humanities, and which Hobsbawm joined in 1976.

Hobsbawm's importance only grew in the last decades of his life. Not only for the consecration of the historian celebrated worldwide and recognized as one of the main responsible for reconfiguring his area of ​​activity, but also (and increasingly) as a reference of the British left. As Evans points out, Hobsbawm is one of the fathers (if not o father) of the New Labor of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, having launched the theoretical bases of a project of reformulation of the British left when, mainly from the end of the 1970s, it started to defend the formation of a broad coalition capable of articulating the forces contrary to Thatcherism – for him, the enemy to be defeated.

Proof of his antisectarianism and intellectual independence, the Hobsbawm who defended a broader and more moderate political front against the advance of neoliberalism is the same who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1980s to the 1990s, reaffirmed his affiliation with Marxism and to communism.As highlighted by Evans (and declared by the biographer himself, especially in interviews with major media outlets in which the questioning was recurrent), Hobsbawm's affiliation with communism lasted throughout his life because it was more than a political or theoretical.

Because it was as a communist that he matured intellectually and emotionally; it was within the party and its institutions that the first and most lasting affective ties were tied. It was in communism that young Eric found his support. There was no other way the ninety-year-old Hobsbawm could see himself. He had no doubt that the communist experience in the XNUMXth century (including the deviations and crimes committed) should be examined in depth. But, for him at least, this could only be done from the point of view of a communist.

Hobsbawm's political and intellectual lives ran side by side until his death at the age of 95 in October 2012. His body was cremated in a ceremony that concluded with the execution of the International. His ashes, buried under an issue of London Review of Books, Highgate Cemetery, in North London, in a tomb a few meters to the right of Marx's tomb.

*Ugo Rivetti is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of São Paulo.



Richard J. Evans. Eric Hobsbawm. A Life in History. London, Little Brown, 2019, 785 pages.


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