Hobsbawm was one of the last of an extraordinary generation of British intellectuals moulded by the Depression, the struggle against fascism, the faltering of Empire and the hopes inspired by Labour coming to power after the war. In particular, his generation of historians – Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson – changed the way history was taught and written.
His monument will probably be the four ages – The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Imperialism and The Age of Extremes – which he produced over 30 years.
By chance, the first of these had just come out when I was an undergraduate in the US and the new paperback was our assigned reading to kick off the European history survey. It captured my imagination and made Hobsbawm my role-model ever after.
The Age of Extremes picks up on Hobsbawm's own time, which he saw as a titanic struggle lived through the prism of the history of ideas, of industry and labour, of class relationships and of course politics, to capture modernity.
There is no better introduction to the idea of the modern, its rise and fall, its glories and its horrors, than his work. Even his idea of a "short 20th century" from the onset of World War I to the collapse of the Soviet Union is now a cliché.
Google measures the number of scholarly references these days in terms of hits. Most of us academics would be thrilled to have 1 000 hits. No less than seven of Hobsbawm's books are so listed and The Invention of Tradition, which he co-edited with the Africanist Terry Ranger, has an almost implausible 10 000+.
Who writes about colonialism or nationalism without reference to this key critical text?
Yet Hobsbawm was in his 70s when he worked on it and in general did not find it easy to come to terms with so-called post-colonialism or post-modernism. His first book Primitive Rebels, which highlighted the lives and ideas of rebels against society before the rise of industry, trade unions and socialist organisations, had an equally electric effect half a century ago.
Hobsbawm was a student of the great medieval economic historian MM Postan at Cambridge, and in economic history too made an impressive contribution with his marvellous synthesis of the rise and decline of Britain as an industrial power, industry and empire, still an unbeatable summary and his essays on how guild-style skilled workmen's associations were replaced by mass industrial unions in late l9th century Britain, in Labouring Men. This is a staggering range of classics.
It is worth highlighting how unlike Hobsbawm as a model are the key pointers to which budding historians today are directed. He wrote largely books not articles. He defined his audience as a general public, cultured and interested in ideas. And he was above all the man who made the connections and put things together: the great synthesiser.
Before his time, while economic history had made a start, the historical stage was mostly occupied by historians of wars, diplomacy and high politics and by the unconscious dominance of nationalities and bounded nation-states.
Hobsbawm's generation promoted social history, the lived experience of the great majority and took a critical look at what previously had been assumed. He had the ability not only to integrate the social and the economic but also the history of ideas and intellectual activity, a developed but previously insular field.
His Age books are filled with perceptions about scientists, philosophers, artists and musicians, as well as the common man (and woman). For him, the parallel of the emergence from the twin revolutions – the French and Industrial Revolutions – of forms and ideas of modernity, the consequent struggles and eventually the fragmentation and collapse of many of the hopes and dreams that went with these revolutions was modernity in the arts, the rise and fall of the avant-garde.
From the perspective of South Africa, one limitation of Hobsbawm, his eurocentricity, is obvious. He became more and more interested over time in the history of Latin America, which after all speaks languages he could understand – Spanish and Portuguese. But his insights on Asia were limited and he had little to say about Africa; his Age of Imperialism was very much about the imperialists. Nor was he that interested in the United States. In a way this is justified given his hypothesis but it does date his work in terms of carrying on beyond his 1991 conclusion of the "short 20th century". It is becoming hard to understand our world in this way now: hard not just for Asians or Africans – but obviously for everyone.
As to Hobsbawm's life, his absorbing, very successful memoir written in his mid-80s, Interesting Times, tells the story best. He spent his early years in Austria and Germany, the product of a marriage between a rather intellectual daughter of an Austrian merchant with Middle Eastern interests and the brother of an English employee of a colonial Posts & Telegraphs service – who met in Egypt.
Before and just after Hitler came to power, he was an orphaned teenage Communist activist in Berlin, whisked away to safety by an English uncle. He had going for him an early excitement about books and many forms of cultural activity and a sense of political engagement and struggle that encompassed Britain where he lived his life, and central Europe, closer perhaps to his heart.
In his mature years he had a fruitful and enjoyable life and had enough respect for social democracy that he made a late splash in the Labour Party of Neil Kinnock counselling against what he saw as the threatened dominance of the far left in the 80s. This he felt would alienate the mass of Labour voters. But in the end he found Tony Blair to be more or less Margaret Thatcher in trousers and his views became gradually more pessimistic about the future.
Interesting Times devotes much attention to the most controversial thing about him, his lifelong commitment to not merely socialist transformation but the tradition of the Communist Party, the great passion of his youth.
He came in time to see the dark side of Soviet politics but, maybe more importantly for him, that the Soviet Union was a dead end. Hobsbawm discussed but did not dwell on the worst of Stalin's crimes but then neither did he devote himself to the Holocaust, which killed numerous relatives on the Austrian side, or the worst of what the Nazis got up to. This wasn't what engaged him ever as an historian. Moreover, he felt that to join the shrill and usually very generously rewarded God that Failed crowd would have been a betrayal of his beliefs; he never formally resigned from the British Communist Party, which eventually dissolved. He continued to feel close bonds to people with related histories and to the more deviant Communist parties of Italy and Spain. Consequently the nasty obituaries he received in the right-wing press in England this year speak for themselves.
Hobsbawm's achievements as a historian were not something separate from his political beliefs. Firstly, due to his failure to get a prestigious academic job at the onset – probably due to blackballing by Postan and others – he had a teaching career at Birkbeck College in London that specialised in adult education, an excellent site for honing his particular skills. It is interestingly only after the personal crisis posed for him by the revelations of Khrushchev and the tragic story of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 that he began to publish his books in middle age.
Second, his understanding of Marxism in the sense of investigating the ups and downs of capitalist enterprise, class struggles, revolutions and the central importance of the economy to social development, an economic history that very much included labour, was inseparable from his insights. His great curiosity, his capacity to have a thoughtful angle on all kinds of phenomena, was also not separable from the commitment in his politics. It is likely that, even though the discipline of history has been overtaken to such an extent by the cult of supposedly scientific research and the conservative politics of the present have brought back from the woodwork all of what Hobsbawm called the "old pre-1950 historians" stand-bys, his work will live on the shelves of those who want to think about a bigger picture for a long time.
Bill Freund is emeritus professor of economic history and development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.