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  • Eric Hobsbawm:an appreciation (9 June 1917 - 1 October 2012)
  • Bill Freund (bio)

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Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, died in London where he lived most of his life at the great age of 95 on October 1, writing perfectly lucidly and effectively almost to the end. He 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, Edward Thompson at the peak, 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 America 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 twentieth 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 [End Page 1] nationalism without reference to this key critical text? Yet Hobsbawm was in his 70s when he worked on it and in general he 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, 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. The parallel for him 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...


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