The Age of Eric Hobsbawm

The first serious history book I ever read was Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, by Eric Hobsbawm. My father had ordered a copy from The Softback Preview, a mail order book club of a type itself now confined to the history books. I was fourteen. I hadn’t heard of Marxism apart from its bizarre inclusion on a poster about world religions outside a classroom at school.

As a child and young teenager I had of course been witness to the end of what Hobsbawm was calling ‘the short twentieth century’. The first news events I remember all seemed to revolve around the collapse of the Soviet Empire. I was unaware of the theory being posited by critics as diverse as Francis Fukuyama and Jean Baudrillard that we had reached ‘the end of history’, only of the fact that somehow a small chunk of the Berlin Wall had made its way to the some family friends’ mantelpiece in a Brecon council house. This unlikely objet d’art was a symbol of a time soundtracked by the Scorpions’ song ‘Wind of Change’. I thought history must always be like this: a relentless succession of events that allowed you to stay up late to watch Michael Buerk or Martyn Lewis read the News on television.

1991, the year Eric Hobsbawm brings the curtain down on the short twentieth century, was indeed a watershed. But it wasn’t an ending. The collapse of Soviet communism ended the Cold War and the period of Capitalism Versus Communism as the century’s dominant ideological narrative. Taking the long view, Hobsbawm predicted it would be seen as no more significant than the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or the Crusades. Although he didn’t like to admit it directly, of course, the year did also undeniably mark an ending for Western Marxist historians like Hobsbawm who had bought into the central Marxian vision of the end of capitalism.

But this paradox was not uppermost in my mind when I read Age of Extremes aged fourteen. I was far more struck with the way in which a supremely knowledgeable historian began a 600-page tome with the claim that, for him, The Short Twentieth Century was also an autobiography. Scanning the contents, it seemed absurd for the writer to have claimed to have ‘lived through’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Wall Street Crash, the Nuremberg rallies, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the end of the Raj, the Cultural Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the first moon landing, the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, the end of apartheid and the shelling of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war. It was a neat conceit, beginning and ending three quarters of a century of world history in the same city, but Hobsbawm had not literally ‘been there’ at each and every juncture.

The only time I ever encountered Hobsbawm in the flesh was at the Hay Festival in 2008, when he introduced the Raymond Williams lecture given by Dai Smith. The historian was wheeled onstage, a frail but feisty nonagenarian. I was disappointed not, like many of his rightwing critics, by his stubborn adherence to Marxism, but by the percentage of his conversation that day which seemed to revolve around experiences and people he knew at Cambridge University in the long-distant past. Hobsbawm’s anecdotes were interesting and entertaining; the man himself warm, wise and witty. It was just that, if he was really a revolutionary, why wasn’t there more talk about being at the barricades?

But back in the mid-nineties, it was precisely Hobsbawm’s personal recollections that hit me. ‘For this author,’ Hobsbawm had written, ‘the 30 January 1933 is not simply an otherwise arbitrary date when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but a winter afternoon in Berlin when a fifteen-year-old and his younger sister were on the way home from neighbouring schools in Wilmersdorf to Halensee and, somewhere on the way, saw the headline.’ As a Jewish teenager living in Germany, the implications for Hobsbawm personally were momentous, let alone the significance of this event to the world. If I had felt the enormity of events at the Brandenburg Gate or Tiananmen Square watching a 14-inch Hitachi in the front room of a prefabricated bungalow deep in rural Wales, how much more would the young Eric Hobsbawm have felt the ramifications and resonances of global events in 1933, being, as he was, so much closer and more relevant to the scene of the main action.

It wasn’t just ‘one old historian’, of course. Hobsbawm was quick to point out. ‘Over huge stretches of the globe everybody over a certain age, irrespective of their personal background and life-story, has passed through the same central experiences.’ The Short Twentieth Century, of course, was born out of its first period, 1914-45, two world wars, a short boom and a long bust. Hobsbawm calls it ‘The Age of Catastrophe’. The ‘Social Revolution’ of 1945-90 came afterward. I thought of my own grandparents, all four born in the decade after Hobsbawm, and the unprecedented pace of change they had witnessed in their lives.

Their childhoods were spent in poor neighbourhoods of British port cities during the Great Depression; their teenage years had been laid to waste by the Second World War. One grandfather served in the merchant navy; a belated war medal arrived when during the years of glasnost and perestroika President Gorbachev recognised his role in relieving the suffering of the Russian people on the Dervish convoys to Archangel. My other grandfather served his National Service in the new ‘West Germany’ after the war; his only silverware was some Nazi cutlery he brought back as a souvenir. Both came home to marry in an age of austerity, to bring up large families in the 1950s and 60s. By the time my own parents met, in 1976, the world was an entirely different place.

And so it was that Hobsbawm achieved his goal of convincing ‘the ordinary general reader with an interest in the modern world’ of the burning relevance of history. In ‘Why Read the Classics?’ Italo Calvino writes that ‘Youth endows every reading, as it does every experience, with unique flavour and significance.’ Age of Extremes, like all such readings, went some way to hardwiring significant sections of my brain.

Hobsbawm’s death this week at the age of 95 has opened up the same old Left/Right wounds that characterised the century he lived through. The Guardian claimed for him ‘a global reach’ and ‘a unique position in the country’s intellectual life’; The Daily Telegraph called him a ‘foreign guru’ whose ‘dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure’ made him a ‘dubious figure’ whose ilk nevertheless ‘dominate[s] the soft culture of the BBC and our universities.’ On both sides, sadly predictable stuff.

On the part of the Telegraph and a queue of anti-leftists on the comment threads, it is also misguided: on page 504 of Age of Extremes Hobsbawm uses precisely the word ‘murderous’ to describe the ‘dictatorships’ of Stalin and Mao, along with the phrase ‘megalomaniac tyrranies’ to describe the communism of Ceaucescu and Kim Il-Sung. Of course Hobsbawm was a Marxist to the bitter end, and that fact alone makes him, automatically, a highly contentious figure, in death as in life.

But for all that he was renowned primarily as a historian of the nineteenth century and a disciple of Marx, for me his genius will always be as a human being who lived through almost uniquely tumultuous times, having both the intellect and the skill to interpret the twentieth century for the general reader (the ‘general reader’ is often used almost pejoratively; to me, it just means people who are interested in understanding the world). Hobsbawm offered both hindsight and foresight while the world rumbled on around him; this alone makes him a consummate historian.

Perhaps it was fitting that as news filtered through – as it always seems to do these days, via the social networks – of Hobsbawm’s passing, the BBC were broadcasting ‘Masters of Money’. Stephanie Flanders’ documentary was an analysis of how, of all the economic theorists of the last two hundred years – the long nineteenth century stretching past the short twentieth and spilling into the twentyfirst – including Keynes and Hayek, Karl Marx has still perhaps come closest to identifying the ills at the root of our current socio-economic afflictions. It owed much to what turned out to have been Hobsbawm’s last book, written in his ninety-fourth year.

How to Change the World was an unabashedly Marxist take on the state we are in right now. The Age of Hobsbawm, it turned out, stretched beyond even that of the Short Twentieth Century. Even Niall Ferguson, at the other end of the political spectrum, agrees that ‘Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation’, arguing that ‘[h]is quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.’

And interestingly, despite his dependence on uncompromising leftism, Hobsbawm’s own analysis of what is wrong with the world lies not primarily in economic systems – although those of course, it goes without saying, the man would have liked to have changed – but in personal relationships. After outlining the end of Eurocentricism and the advent of globalisation as the most significant broad sweep developments of the twentieth century, Hobsbawm characterises ‘the most disturbing [transformation]’ as ‘the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and with it, incidentally, the snapping of the links between generations, that is to say, between past and present.’

Returning to Hobsbawm’s words now, I think again of my grandparents growing up in the Liverpool and Bristol of the 1930s. Those children would not recognise ‘the values of a-social individualism’ and the ‘society consisting of an otherwise unconnected assemblage of individuals pursuing only their own gratification… profit, pleasure’ that Hobsbawm describes. Sadly, they would recognise it only too well in their later lives, such is the way the world became: ‘particularly,’ as Hobsbawm notes, in ‘the most developed countries of the western version of capitalism’.

Before he died, my maternal grandfather was fond of finishing any discussion of current affairs, public or personal, with a resigned mantra: ‘I’m glad I’m going out, not coming in’. The future, as far as he could see, was a bleak prospect for me, and even bleaker for his great-grandchildren, born not like he was into depression and war but into unprecedented prosperity and comfort.

What was perhaps most surprising about Eric Hobsbawm, as a historian and as a man, was that for all his many faults, and despite having lived through such a turbulent, oppressive century, he remained an optimist about humanity. Nobody in their right mind thinks Soviet Russia was any kind of utopia; nobody in their right mind thinks Eric Hobsbawm thought this either. The core idea to which the historian remained true was that the ‘victory’ of capitalism was a defeat for humanity; he believed that there must be a better way.

And with almost two decades of hindsight, we can read the conclusion of Age of Extremes as remarkably prescient. ‘The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the environment, that is to say, the material foundations of human life. The structures of human societies themselves, including even some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the point of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the human past. Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change.’ This was a man who, whilst being – as my grandfather would have it – on his way out, wrote a book called How to Change the World. The Age of Hobsbawm is over. The future starts now.