Tribune, 5 October 2012
Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at the age of 95, was the last survivor of an extraordinary generation of British Marxist historians who first developed their ideas in the late 1940s and early 1950s as members of the Communist Party Historians Group – among them Christopher Hill, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Raphael Samuel. John Saville and George Rude.
The group broke up after its majority left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 – but Hobsbawm stuck to the CP to the very bitter end in 1991, and never apologised for his decision to do so.
Perhaps it had something to do with his experience as an adolescent. Born into a Jewish family in Egypt in 1917, he spent his early childhood in Vienna before his parents died and he moved to Berlin with an uncle – where he witnessed at first hand the violence of the Nazi party as it rose to power, escaping to Britain in 1933. The story is told well in his 2002 memoir, Interesting Times.
For Hobsbawm, until his death, the hopes of 1917 and the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism always still trumped the crimes of the Soviet regime, and there was little in 20th-century history (pre-1956 at least) on which he did not take a line that in the end was sympathetic to the official Soviet position at the time. He remained hostile to the anarchists in the Spanish civil war and the 1956 revolutionaries in Hungary and evasive about the Moscow show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939-41 even in his most recent writing.
But he was much more than an apologist for Stalinism. In the CP after 1956, though hardly an active member, he took a reform-communist position, criticising the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and then in the 1970s becoming the leading Anglophone advocate of the Eurocommunism of the Italian Communist Party. He and Stuart Hall played a crucial role in developing a left critique of the militant workerism of the traditional left in the Labour Party, the CP and the trade unions in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour government, which in turn inspired both the Labour soft left and the Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s – though the idea that he was somehow responsible for New Labour is quite ridiculous (and something he rejected).
What he will be remembered for above all are his books on world history, epic works of synthesis covering giant swaths of time and geography but never lacking in telling anecdotes. Whatever their lacunae, they are brilliant accounts of the growth and crises of global capitalism.
But just as thrilling are Hobsbawm’s more focused works, essays on small aspects of social history that are an utter delight to read even when they’re wrong.
Hobsbawm’s students remember him as kind and generous as a teacher, and he was indeed a lovely man. He will always be a subject of controversy because he never said sorry for being a communist. But he will be missed.