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Eric Hobsbawm, one of our greatest historians, passed away Monday at the grand old age of ninety-five. He was an unabashed man of the left, and his work is an absolute must for understanding our times.
Hobsbawm’s crowning achievement was his four-volume series on the modern world, spanning from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He dedicated many years of his life to this project, with the last volume in this grand sweep appearing more than three decades after the first one. And Hobsbawm had diverse interests, writing on subjects ranging from jazz to banditry. Underlining his work was a hope that there was a better way.
“The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the ‘capabilities’ of all through collective action,” Hobsbawm wrote for The Guardian in 2009. “But that means, it must mean, public nonprofit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain.”
His books were globally consumed, with translations in forty-some languages. On his ninety-fifth birthday in June, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Lula, the former head of Brazil, sent their greetings. Hobsbawm was much beloved in Britain, with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband paying him fulsome tribute on his passing. (There was little love lost between him and Tony Blair, though, with Hobsbawm once saying about Blair: “Labour prime ministers who glory in trying to be warlords—subordinate warlords particularly—certainly stick in my gullet.”) Even an imperial apologist such as British historian Niall Ferguson grudgingly acknowledged Hobsbawm’s importance, saying that his quartet was “the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.”
Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin before being forced to move to England due to Hitler. Hobsbawm spent his teaching career at Birkbeck University in London, where he retired as the institution’s president.
The most controversial part of Hobsbawm’s biography was his long commitment to Soviet communism. He did make a late break with the Soviet Union, but his association with it put him on the defensive.
I “never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia,” even if I believed in the early days that “a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine,” The Guardian quotes him as saying. “Thanks to the breakdown of the West, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”
His hope for communism does not overshadow his work. I’ve read several of his books, including two volumes of the quartet, and the only place where the Soviet Union makes a prominent appearance is in “The Age of Extremes,” where Hobsbawm does condemn Stalin’s atrocities while stopping short of a full-throated denunciation. Otherwise, when you’re reading his work, you’re in the company of an extremely lucid guide who wears his erudition lightly on his sleeve.
Hobsbawm lived long enough to see a wave of uprisings convulse the world again.
"It was an enormous joy to discover once again that it's possible for people to get down in the streets, to demonstrate, to overthrow governments," Hobsbawm told the BBC last December, exulting in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. “It reminds me of 1848—another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time.”
As an unrepentant Marxist, Hobsbawm kept his faith in the progress of humanity -- and in collective action -- till the end.
“Whatever ideological logo we choose for” the new system, “it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action,” he wrote in The Guardian two years ago. “And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.”
By explaining what had happened in our past, Hobsbawm tried to show the way to the future. He will be missed.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Nonviolence Strategist Gets Deserved Recognition."
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