Arts and Culture

In praise of a leftist who brought lost voices to life

Tristram Hunt

The breadth of Eric Hobsbawm's work and the reach of his intellect was always startling.

Eric Hobsbawm. (Eckehard Schulz, AP)

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 - 2012)

In the foothills of Hampstead Heath, north London, where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used to take their afternoon strolls, stands the home of Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm. To enter their drawing room for a conversation with Eric Hobs­bawm was to be transported back to the great ideological struggles of the extreme 20th century. Here was where ideas mattered, history had a purpose and politics was important. And one could have no more generous, humane, rigorous and involved a guide than the late Hobsbawm.

The breadth of his work and the reach of his intellect was always startling. Right to the end of his days he stayed up to date with scholarship, never failed to flay an opponent and continued to write.

Afternoon-tea conversation with Hobsbawm could range from the achievements of President Lula da Silva of Brazil to the limitations of Isaiah Berlin as a historian, the unfortunate collapse of the Communist Party in West Bengal to what the late sociologist and Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband would have made of his boys, David and Ed.

But his lifetime's achievement was to transform the study of history in Britain. He was part of a postwar generation that rescued the subject from parochialism and dry-as-dust empiricism to shed new light on the past – from the history of social protest to the invention of tradition and the impact of jazz.

For Hobsbawm, history had to be part of the conversation of the present. He fitted well into the English historical tradition of writing popular history books for an educated public. He was part of the practice of historical writing stretching back to Thomas Babington Macaulay and GM Trevelyan, alongside his peers AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. His 19th-century series on industry and empire and his bestselling account of the 20th century provided the kind of global history for a broad readership few scholars have been able to match.

Social history and structure
His most important contribution was to open up the study of class and economy within the British academy. His membership of the Communist Party historians' group and his involvement with the French Annales school of historians led him to emphasise the role of social history and structure in any comprehensive account of the past. Social history, for Hobsbawm, had to be part of the broader political project of the left – bringing to life lost voices and placing the lived reality of the people centre stage. But ­Hobsbawm was never a crass materialist – he always believed in the importance of the history of ideas, none more so than Marxism.

Hobsbawm was one of Marxism's finest scholars. On day one of any course I teach on Marxism I give the students Hobsbawm to read. He explained its intellectual origins, historical function and 20th-century failings like few others could.

I last saw Hobsbawm at a lunch at the House of Commons. Over coffee Labour leader Ed Miliband came to pay his regards and in the mix of history and politics and an appreciation of the past in the actions of the present there was an affirmation of ­Hobsbawm's work.

But Hobsbawm being Hobsbawm, he immediately complained that Miliband was not being nearly radical enough. There was always more work to be done, more criticism needed, more understanding shared. Hobsbawm was an Enlightenment giant whose passing marks a sad pulling away from the 20th century and all it entailed. Eric John Ernest Hobs-bawm, died on October 1, aged 95 © Guardian News & Media 2012

Tristram Hunt is a Labour MP. He teaches modern British history at the University of London

Topics In This Section

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus