Eric Hobsbawm’s histories

Hogsbjerg, Christian

Publisher:  International Socialism
Date Written:  09/01/2018
Year Published:  2018  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22009

Eric Hobsbawm was the author of, among many other works, a classic quartet on modern world history, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes. Hobsbawm was widely respected as one of the greatest historians of the left and one of the greatest historians of the 20th century more generally.



The making of a Marxist historian in the age of catastrophe

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, on 9 June 1917, Hobsbawm was the grandson of a Jewish immigrant cabinet maker from Russian-Poland who moved to London in the 1870s. His English-born father Leopold Percy Hobsbaum met his Austrian mother Nelly Grün in 1913 while working in colonial Egypt, and when they registered Eric's birth at the British Consulate his surname was misspelled "Hobsbawm". After the war, amid the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they moved to Vienna where Eric attended elementary school. Hobsbawm recognised that he grew up in a milieu "now virtually extinct, the Jewish middle class culture of central Europe after the First World War", and "under the triple impact of the collapse of the bourgeois world in 1914, the October Revolution and antisemitism". Amid the catastrophe of the post-1914 world, October 1917 shone like a beacon and it was through the lens of October that Hobsbawm witnessed the Viennese workers' riots and the burning of the Palace of Justice in 1927 and the German general election of 1930, when Hitler’s Nazis came second to the Social Democrats (SPD).

In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, Hobsbawm's father died suddenly of a heart attack and in 1931 his mother died of a lung disease. His uncle Sidney moved Eric and his sister Nancy to Berlin, where Hobsbawm was soon radicalised by economic collapse, mass unemployment and the rise of the Nazis. In the circumstances of a decaying liberalism, young Jewish intellectuals:

became either communists or some equivalent form of revolutionary Marxists, or if we chose our own version of blood-and-soil nationalism, Zionists. But even the great bulk of young intellectual Zionists saw themselves as some sort of revolutionary Marxist nationalists. There was virtually no other choice. We did not make a commitment against bourgeois society and capitalism, since it patently seemed to be on its last legs. We simply chose a future rather than no future, which meant revolution…a new world rather than no world. The great October Revolution and Soviet Russia proved to us that such a new world was possible, perhaps that it was already functioning… If it was to be the future it had to work, so we thought it did.
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