Historical Figures

Eric Hobsbawm

Last updated:2022-07-25

Perhaps it is early to assess Eric Hobsbawm's contribution to contemporary historiography, when two years have not yet passed since the death of him. Surprising, however, the repercussion that the news of his death had in the international media (not only English), accompanied by praising portraits in the published obituaries. It is unusual for newspapers to devote so much space to a historian, and the vast majority of them rated Hobsbawm as one of the most important historians of the 20th century. All highlighted, without exception, his Marxist approach to history and his communist militancy. And it is that Hobsbawm's ideological approaches, which he maintained even after the fall of the Soviet regime, are one of the most outstanding features of his works.

The central axis around which I have tried to organize the history of the century is the triumph and transformation of capitalism in the specific form of bourgeois society in its liberal version ”. With this quote we can summarize the main object of study of Hobsbawm. His interest in the capitalist system runs through all his writings and ends up becoming the center around which his interpretation of Contemporary History revolves.

Given the proximity of his death, we still do not have enough perspective to accurately analyze the thought of the English historian. We will not include, therefore, a section dedicated to developing his historiographical approaches, as we have been doing in the other chapters, and we will limit ourselves to exposing the most outstanding biographical data of him and the citation of his most relevant works. /p>

Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His father was an English merchant and his mother a middle-class Austrian woman, who moved to Vienna shortly after Eric was born (1919). He remained in this city until his mother died in 1931 (two years earlier his father had died) and, together with his sister, they settled in Berlin, where other relatives lived. It will be in the German capital where he reads Marx and approaches the communist ideology. In 1933 the family returned to England and three years later, thanks to a scholarship, Hobsbawm began his studies at King's College in Cambridge.

In World War II, and like a large group of English university students of history or classical culture (Toynbee, for example), he offered to work in the services but, given his political affinities that he had not tried to hide during his studies, he was rejected. He eventually joined the Corps of Engineers as a sapper and worked on the construction of the coastal defenses of the East Anglia region.

After the war ended, he resumed his studies and focused his thesis on the Fabian society. Obtained a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, in 1947 he began teaching at Birkbeck College in London, a center with which he will be associated for the rest of his life (he ended up being its president). During these years he maintained an active role within the Communist Party and was one of the founders of the so-called Communist Party Historians Group, which brought together prominent figures in English historiography. In 1952 he will contribute decisively to the appearance of the magazine Past and Present , whose presidency he also held.

Hobsbawm's first work to come to light was Labour's Turning Point:Extracts from Contemporary Sources (1948), but recognition did not come to him until 1959 after the publication of Primitive Rebels:Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th centuries . In the latter he discusses the “‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ forms of social upheaval ” that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as banditry, the Mafia, the rural secret societies of southern Europe, the religious sects of workers and some others, which in most cases had had to remain outside the law to survive. The interest in these social movements also lies in their practical importance, since, as Hobsbawm himself points out in the introduction to his book, "[...] men and women such as those who form the subject of this book constitute the vast majority of many, perhaps the most, countries today, and their acquisition of political consciousness has made our century the most revolutionary in history ”.

In his first works we already observe several of the elements that accompanied Hobsbawm throughout his historical production:the importance of economic phenomena and of the popular masses and the pre-eminence of the study of social movements. He recovered this same theme in the Bandits books. and Captain Swing (both published in 1969).

In 1962 he published the first volume of a series of books that would bring him international fame :The Age of Revolution:Europe 1789-1848 . His goal, in Hobsbawm's words, was not to offer " a detailed narrative, but an interpretation and what the French call haute vulgarisation ”. He addressed it to some recipients that he himself defined in these terms:the "ideal reader will be the theoretically trained, the intelligent and cultured citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wants to know how and why the world has become what it is today and where it is going ”. The English historian sought a double purpose with this work:on the one hand, to explain the triumph of liberal and bourgeois ideals after the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, as well as the changes that they brought with them on nineteenth-century society, culture and economy; and, on the other, to analyze the appearance of “the forces that a century after 1848 would turn expansion into contraction ”.

In 1975 what we could call the second “part” of the series appeared:The Age of Capital:1848-1875 , dedicated to the consolidation of the capitalist system in this century. After the failure of the revolutionary movements of 1848, Europe plunged into a period of political stability that brought about extraordinary progress in industry and economic activities. Hobsbawm studies the triumphant bourgeoisie and the new social order and ideas that were implanted, without forgetting the cataclysm that the new world economy meant “for the millions of poor who, transported to a new world, often across borders and oceans , they had to change their lives ”.

In the interval of thirteen years between one Era Hobsbawm was also working on other topics related to the economy, the Industrial Revolution, and its connection with the empires that emerged (or consolidated) during the 19th and 20th centuries. From them were born the works Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (1965) or Industry and Empire:From 1750 to the Present Day (1968).

During the seventies, in the midst of the Cold War, he maintained his communist philosophy although he would come to admit the impossibility of reaching some premises of Marxist thought. His international prestige made him a loose verse within the rigid nomenclature of the Communist Party, as evidenced by the fact that his works were never published in the Soviet Union. With the change of the decade he approached the Labor Party and actively participated in the making of the Third Way that will bring Tony Blair to power.

In 1983 and 1984 he wrote two important books, the first of which was entitled The Invention of Tradition . It is a compilation of articles written by himself and other historians in which he defines “invented tradition” as the “group of practices, normally governed by openly or tacitly accepted rules and of a symbolic or ritual nature, that they seek to inculcate certain values ​​or norms of behavior through their repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past ”. In Worlds of Labour:further studies in the history of labour deals with the working classes between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, as well as their situation within society and consciousness, the ways of life and the movements that owe their existence to them.

In 1987 he published the last volume of the series dedicated to the “long nineteenth century”: The Age of Empire:1875–1914 . As Hobsbawm himself explains in his preface, “[…] what I have tried to achieve in this work, as well as in the two volumes that preceded it (The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 and The Age of Capital, 1848-1875), is to understand and explain a world in the process of revolutionary transformation, to search for the roots of the present in the soil of the past, and especially to see the past as a coherent whole rather than (as we are so often forced to see it as a consequence of historical specialization) as an accumulation of different themes ”.

The last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were, for the English historian, marked by a series of paradoxes:it was a period of peace but it led to two world wars; the military and economic power of some nations allowed the creation of an aura of stability at the international level but at the same time brought with it the germ of movements that will destroy said stability; and the consolidation of liberal approaches, with the appearance of democracies, meant the liquidation of bourgeois liberalism as a political force. All these phenomena are addressed by Hobsbawm, in whose understanding, this system "as it reaches its apogee, falls victim to the contradictions inherent in its progress ”.

At the end of his life Hobsbawm focused his efforts on recovering Marxist ideology (through books such as: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto:a modern edition and How to Change the World:Tales of Marx and Marxism ) and in attacking the capitalist system, whose end he considered to be near. In fact, his work The Age of Extremes:the short twentieth century, 1914–1991 , more than a study of the 20th century, aims to predict the fall of capitalism:“[…] And this is what has been happening since the middle of the century. Under the effects of the extraordinary economic explosion registered during the golden age and in the subsequent years, with the consequent social and cultural changes, the most profound revolution that has occurred in society since the Stone Age, these foundations have begun to crack. em> ”.

Among his latest books, On History stands out in which he brings together conferences and unpublished articles that delve into his way of understanding and conceiving history, attacking relativists (“[…] I think that without the distinction between what is and what is not, there cannot be story ”) and explaining once again his Marxist approaches (“ Without Marx, no special interest in history would have awakened in me ”). He also wrote his autobiography Interesting Times:a twentieth-Century life .

Hobsbawm's political affiliation has not prevented him from obtaining almost unanimous recognition for his historical work. He has also been one of the great popularizers of the history of our time and has managed to get the public interested (and read) history again:his works reach the rank of best-sellers, which is helped by the affordable way of presenting the facts and explanations without falling into the erudition and complexity of this discipline.

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