history, marxist, Age, Revolution, Capital, Empire, Extremes
[Eric Hobsbawm, historian]
marxist historian, biography, historiography, Karl Marx, Marxism

Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Eric Hobsbawm

  Age of the Sage ~ Home   |   Explore our site   |   Download Wisdoms  

Eric Hobsbawm
Marxist historian

  Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria to a middle-class Jewish family in June 1917. Between the world wars, the family moved first to Vienna and then to Berlin.
  He long retained a memory of himself as a 14-year-old boy who read on a newspaper board the headline announcing the accession of the Third Reich. 'Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first-hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically,' he said. 'This is still there in me. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be.'

  Hobsbawm's parents both died during the Depression and he and his sister were taken in by his uncle, who worked for a Berlin branch of a Hollywood, USA, based firm. Soon thereafter, the family moved to England, following his uncle's job, and for three years, Hobsbawm experienced what he has rarely felt since - that history was happening without him. He was bored and dislocated by the transition from the intensities of pre-war Germany to the complacencies of a south London grammar school. It was not until he got to Cambridge that he sensed he could carry on with the conversations that he'd started in Berlin.

  Hobsbawm has defined and explained the progress of the last century as mankind learning to 'live in expectation of apocalypse'. He responded to those intimations in himself by joining the Communist Party. He would, he says, certainly have become a member earlier, but that his uncle was 'rather stiff' on the subject. 'He used to say, "You kids don't know what you are letting yourselves in for".' Hobsbawm smiles now, seeing his life unspooling in that prophecy. 'He was right, of course.'

  You could imagine that the gangling young émigré, uprooted and orphaned, might have been attracted to the certainties of the party as a surrogate family and consequently begin to explain the strength of the attachment as a powerfully emotional as well as an intellectual one. Looking back, he suggests that 'probably that kind of security was one of the appeals', but also that he 'never felt short of family... it was more that you just felt things were going to pieces, and you felt it needed a revolution to re-create it, to put it back together'.

  After the war, these political commitments no longer seemed quite so innocent. Hobsbawm applied for a series of Oxbridge jobs, and was 'turned down right, left and centre' He fetched up instead, happily, at Birkbeck where the student body was part-time, lectures were held in the evenings and the challenge among the faculty was to keep its audience awake in the graveyard slot between eight and nine. Hobsbawm, by all accounts, achieved this effortlessly and sustained his intellectual energy after hours.
  Hobsbawm considered that, given his sympathy for communism, he got into academia 'under the wire'; a year later, after the Berlin Airlift in 1948, his story, he believed, would have been markedly different.

  Though he never proselytised unlike many of his comrades, Hobsbawm did not leave the party after 1956. It may be that partly because of his political affiliations, he did not get promotion to a professorship until 1970.

  According to Hobsbawm the historian's task, "is not simply to discover the past but to explain it, and in doing so to provide a link with the present." For Hobsbawm, history is a cumulative, collective enterprise to uncover "the patterns and mechanisms" that have transformed the world.
  Historians commonly have diverse viewpoints; indeed, partisanship or commitment (to Marxism and socialism, in Hobsbawm's case) this possibly injects new creative energy into research and prevents the field from turning inward and becoming ossified.

  Hobsbawm's later writings display a general pessimism and estrangement, arising from his sense of how far humanity had slipped from the nineteenth century and its expectations of civility and human progress.
  The start of World War I in 1914 (even more than the Russian Revolution in 1917) represented, in Hobsbawm's estimation, the great historical turning point separating an age of human progress from one of increased barbarism.
  Reflecting on mankind's trajectory from the Sarajevo of 1914 to the Sarajevo of the fall of Yugoslavia -- total warfare, the state sanctioned genocides of Nazism and Stalinism, the annihilatory madness of the Cold War arms race, and the latest monstrosities -- he declares his unwavering commitment to the ideas and values of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as "one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness."
  The Enlightenment may not be fashionable ("a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs," Hobsbawm jokes) but it is the only basis, he insists, on which "to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this Earth, and for the assertion and defence of their human rights as persons." And "the worst of it is that we have got used to the inhuman. We have learned to tolerate the intolerable."

  This commitment also throws light on the combative, inflexible tone of his Marxism, now curiously linked to a certain nostalgia for past civility. If Marxism no longer supplies Hobsbawm with a political vision, neither is it for him simply a theory of historical development, the best tool to be found for making sense of the past. With its positivist values and clear affirmation of progress in history, Marxism is central to his moral and cultural critique, linking him firmly to that "Enlightenment project" dedicated to rationalism and human improvement.
  Whether or not we agree with Hobsbawm's historical judgments or share his fears for the future, his voice remains loud and clear.

  Marx seemed to him the best guide for understanding the mechanisms of historical change in the modern world, and he repeatedly affirms that he has since then discovered no comparable analytic tool. His analysis of Marxist concepts and his subtle and flexible use of them in his writing -- abundantly illustrated in several of these essays -- has been enormously influential. In this collection, however, the most recent essay on "Marx and History" dates from 1983 and so it addresses neither recent critiques nor his personal reactions to the collapse of the Soviet Union and other recent changes that, in the eyes of many historians, have diminished the working class as an historical actor.

  As the Communist walls were coming down in 1989, Hobsbawm was often asked to explain his continued commitment. Typically, he replied both as a conviction historian - 'I think the movement has achieved at least one absolutely major thing, and that includes the Soviet Union, namely the defeat of fascism,' - and as a rose-tinted loyalist: 'I don't wish to be untrue to my past or comrades of mine, a lot of them dead, some of them killed by their own side, whom I've admired [as] models to follow, in their unselfishness.'

  His landmark trilogy on the nineteenth century synthesised myriad competing social swells into great epochal waves: the Ages of Revolution, and of Capital, and of Empire. He has characterised his own time and tide as the Age of Extremes, the tempestuous force of which conspired to deposit him on the shore of the present as the Last Marxist; still, he refuses to believe himself beached. One old friend observes: 'Eric has long ago worked out his precise intellectual position and he's quite happy there, thank you very much.'

  These four volumes are probably the most widely admired of his works -- not simply because of their erudition and bold analysis, but for the author's conviction that historians must write large-scale interpretations of the past without minimizing its diversity and complexity and, at the same time, make them readable, jargon-free, and accessible to non-professionals. If more scholars have recently taken up the challenge of historical synthesis, it is due in no small part to Hobsbawm's example.

content alerter

Many of our visitors seem to find the content of one of our pages -

Which is about Human Nature, (and 'Very Possibly' related matters)

- to be particularly fascinating!!!

There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare

"…can we possibly refuse to admit that there exist in each of us the same generic parts and characteristics as are found in the state? For I presume the state has not received them from any other source. It would be ridiculous to imagine that the presence of the spirited element in cities is not to be traced to individuals, wherever this character is imputed to the people, as it is to the natives of Thrace, and Scythia, and generally speaking, of the northern countries; or the love of knowledge, which would be chiefly attributed to our own country; or the love of riches, which people would especially connect with the Phoenicians and the Egyptians.
From Plato's most famous work ~ The Republic ~ detailing conversations entered into by his friend, and teacher, Socrates

Please click for more detail . . .

Pythagoras was a prominent figure in the intellectual life of the Greek world of the sixth century B.C.
Alongside his genuine contributions to mathematics and geometry Pythogoras is also considered to have recognised that there was evidently a "Tripartite" complexity to Human Nature:-
 Pythagoras who, according to Heraclides of Pontus, the pupil of Plato and a learned man of the first rank, came, the story goes, to Philus and with a wealth of learning and words discussed certain subjects with Leon the ruler of the Philasians. And Leon after wondering at his talent and eloquence asked him to name the art in which he put most reliance. But Pythagoras said that for his part he had no acquaintance with any art, but was a philosopher. Leon was astonished at the novelty of the term and asked who philosophers were and in what they differed from the rest of the world.

 Pythagoras, the story continues, replied that the life of man seemed to him to resemble the festival which was celebrated with most magnificent games before a concourse collected from the whole of Greece. For at this festival some men whose bodies had been trained sought to win the glorious distinction of a crown, others were attracted by the prospect of making gains by buying or selling, whilst there was on the other hand a certain class, and that quite the best class of free-born men, who looked neither for applause no gain, but came for the sake of the spectacle and closely watched what was done and how it was done: So also we, as though we had come from some city to a kind of crowded festival, leaving in like fashion another life and nature of being, entered upon this life, and some were slaves of ambition, some of money; there were a special few who, counting all else as nothing, ardently contemplated the nature of things. These men he would call "lovers of wisdom" (for that is the meaning of the word philo-sopher).

page content divider

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
In William H. Gilman (ed.) The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol II, 1822-1826, 305

page content divider

In what is perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous essay - 'History' - we read such things as:-
… There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. …

… We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, -- must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. …

… In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. …

page content divider

"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."
R. G. Collingwood

To access our page about Human Nature, (and 'Very Possibly' related matters), - please click here:-

Human Nature (and the Courses of History?)

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.

Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
Spirituality & the wider world
Some Social Theory and insights
The Unfolding of History
The Vienna Declaration
Framework Convention on National minorities

Return to start of
Eric Hobsbawm
A Marxist historian