Eric J Hobsbawm Bibliography Sample

Biography

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm (usually known as "Eric Hobsbawm" or "E. J. Hobsbawm"), CH, FBA, (born 9 June 1917) is a British Marxist historian and author.

Life

Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Leopold Percy Obstbaum and Nelly Grün, both Jewish, and he grew up in Vienna and Berlin. A clerical error at birth altered his surname from Obstbaum to Hobsbawm. Although the family lived in German-speaking countries, his parents spoke to him and his younger sister Nancy in English. His father died in 1929, and he started working as an au pair and English tutor. He became an orphan at age 14 upon the death of his mother. Subsequently, he and Nancy were adopted by his maternal aunt, Gretl, and paternal uncle, Sidney, who married and had a son named Peter. They all moved to London in 1933.

Hobsbawm married twice. His first wife was Muriel Seaman, whom he married in 1943 and divorced in 1951. His second marriage was to Marlene Schwarz, with whom he has two children, Julia Hobsbawm and Andy Hobsbawm. Julia is chief executive of Hobsbawm Media and Marketing and a visiting professor of public relations at the College of Communication, University of the Arts London. He also has a son, Joshua, from a previous relationship.

He is a Marxist and was a long-standing member of the now defunct Communist Party of Great Britain and the associated Communist Party Historians Group. He is president of Birkbeck, University of London. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1998. In 2003 he was awarded the Balzan Prize for European History since 1900 "For his brilliant analysis of the troubled history of twentieth-century Europe and for his ability to combine in-depth historical research with great literary talent."

Politics

Hobsbawm joined the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Association of Socialist Pupils), an offshoot of the Young Communist League of Germany, in Berlin in 1931 and the Communist party in 1936, supporting both the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. He was a member of the Communist Party Historians Group from 1946 to 1956. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 marked the end of the Communist Party Historian's Group and led most of its members to remove themselves from the British Communist Party. Hobsbawm, uniquely among his colleagues, remained in the Party. Yet he denounced the USSR's crimes and abuses as early as 1956 (Daily Worker, November 18, 1956). In the same article he characterized the Polish and the Hungarian uprisings as "revolts of workers and intellectuals against bureaucracies and pseudo-communist political systems". Writing in the Daily Worker in late 1956, Hobsbawm argued that "Whilst approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible."

Later he came to support the Eurocommunist faction in the CPGB. In "The Forward March of Labour Halted?", originally a Marxism Today article published in September 1978, he argued that the working class was inevitably losing its central role in society, and that Left parties could no longer appeal only to this class; a controversial viewpoint in a period of trade union militancy. Hobsbawm supported Neil Kinnock's transformation of the British Labour Party from 1983. Until the cessation of publication in 1991, he contributed to the magazine Marxism Today. Since the 1960s his politics have taken a more moderate turn, as Hobsbawm came to recognize that his hopes were unlikely to be realized, and no longer advocates "socialist systems of the Soviet type". Yet, he remains firmly entrenched on the left, and thinks the long-term outlooks for humanity are 'bleak'.

Academic life

He was educated at Prinz-Heinrich-Gymnasium Berlin (today Friedrich-List-School), St Marylebone Grammar School (now defunct) and King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in history on the Fabian Society. He was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. During World War II, he served in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Educational Corps.

In 1947, he became a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London. He became reader in 1959, professor between 1970–1982 and an Emeritus professor of history 1982. He was a fellow between 1949-1955 at King's College, Cambridge.

He was a visiting professor at Stanford in the 1960s. In 1970, he was appointed professor and in 1978 he became a Fellow of the British Academy. He is an honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He retired in 1982 but stayed as visiting professor at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan between 1984-1997. He is currently President of Birkbeck, University of London and Professor Emeritus in The New School for Social Research in the Political Science department. It is said that he speaks English, German, French, Spanish and Italian, and that he reads Dutch, Portuguese and even Catalan.

One of Hobsbawm's interests is the development of traditions. His work is a study of their social construction in the context of the nation state. He argues that many traditions are invented by national elites to justify the existence and importance of their respective nation states.

Works

Hobsbawm has written extensively on many subjects as one of Britain's most prominent historians. As a Marxist historiographer he has focused on analysis of the "dual revolution" (the political French revolution and the industrial British revolution). He sees their effect as a driving force behind the predominant trend towards liberal capitalism today. Another recurring theme in his work has been social banditry, a phenomenon that Hobsbawm has tried to place within the confines of relevant societal and historical context thus countering the traditional view of it being a spontaneous and unpredictable form of primitive rebellion.

Outside of his academic historical writing, Hobsbawm has written a regular column (under the pseudonym 'Francis Newton' – taken from the name of Billie Holiday's communist trumpet player, Frankie Newton) for the New Statesman as a jazz critic, and time to time over popular music such as with his "Beatles and before" article. He has published numerous essays in various intellectual journals, dealing with subjects like barbarity in the modern age to the troubles of labour movements and the conflict between anarchism and communism. His most recent publications are the autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007) and On Empire (2008).

Reputation

Thirty years ago Hobsbawm was described as "arguably our greatest living historian — not only Britain's, but the world's." James Joll wrote in The New York Review of Books that "Eric Hobsbawm's nineteenth century trilogy is one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades." Tony Judt, director of the Erich Maria Remarque Institute at New York University, argued that Hobsbawm's tendency to disparage any nationalist movement as passing and irrational weakened his grasp of parts of the 20th century. Judt however, also wrote that "Hobsbawm is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. Hobsbawm doesn't just know more than other historians, he writes better, too." In Neal Ascherson's view "Eric's Jewishness increased his sensitivity about nationalism. He's the original happy cosmopolitan, who's benefited from being able to move freely."

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Eric Hobsbawm has written a book which has been rightly acclaimed as setting the standard for accounts of the Twentieth Century. We can expect such books to proliferate as we approach the end of the millennium. Few will be able to match the powerful analysis and broad sweep of this book. Others may display more mastery of the specialist historical literature (into which, Hobsbawm acknowledges, he has only dipped) but they will be hard put to address so confidently all the great issues that have occupied intellectual talents over the century, taking in the arts and sciences as readily as economics and politics. Hobsbawm is best approached as much as a political theorist as an historian.

For Hobsbawm the Age of Extremes follows those of Revolution, Capitalism and Empire on which he has already written at length and with great distinction. This age is further subdivided into `The Age of Catastrophe' (1914-50), `The Golden Age' (1950-75), and `The Landslide' (1975 to 1991 and beyond). Neither the periodization nor the labelling are particularly felicitous. Hobsbawm has confined himself to the `short Twentieth Century' marked by the start of the first world war and concluding with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990's. In practice he allows his analysis to move on beyond 1991 and he is well aware of the political forces that need to be understood if 1914 is to be explained. Neither 1950 nor 1975 are obvious punctuation points. While the economic growth between these two points might just be termed `golden', if not for all, it is hardly convincing to describe the period since 1975 as a `landslide', as if things have been rolling steadily down hill since that point. Such an image does not do justice to a much more complex picture.

It is only from a very particular perspective that the last quarter of this century appears as a significant retreat on the third. Hobsbawm has such a perspective. This is in part because he was born three years into his period, and thankfully still survives it. His narrative is sprinkled (although not liberally) with occasional reminiscences. More important is the fact that ideologically speaking, Hobsbawm backed the losing side. He was an active communist for many years and remains notoriously unrepentant. To be sure, he accepts that communism failed to deliver the goods, but capitalism only survived by the skin of its teeth. When communism seemed full of promise, capitalism had to learn to revise itself in order to escape the depression. During the first decades of the cold war the two systems played a sort of score draw, with the competition obliging them both to raise their economic game. While communism faltered, Hobsbawm appears to be saying, capitalism too lost its bearings. Completing this book in the immediate post-cold-war period, he sensed a prospect not of the triumph of democratic capitalism, but a form of anarchy, incapable of producing the conditions for a healthy environment and social stability.

The book opens with a sample of twelve observations on the century, which produce a contrast between its massacres and wars, and the leaps forward in science and technology, between the nobility of the cherished ideals that have inspired so many people to attempt to create a better world, and the persistence of the forces of unreason and irrationality that have continued to thwart them. A century which includes two world wars, Stalinism and the holocaust, not to mention numerous other acts of genocide and oppression, deserves the extremist label. However, whether this remain an age of extremism is less clear, and represents the large question raised by Hobsbawm.

He assumes that capitalism is such an unruly force that it is inherently extremist if allowed to operate unchecked, and this is what he fears has now been allowed to happen as a result of the failure of socialism to sustain itself and develop as a credible model. Socialism, in all its guises, helped identify a role for the state in the management of human affairs. Without this guidance, market forces will continue to wreak ecological and social havoc and will not be subjected to responsible human direction.

Such a gloomy analysis flows naturally from the progressive political tradition, to which Hobsbawm remains attached. Part of this is a disdain for the leading capitalist state, the United States, which is treated unsympathetically throughout, leading to an inadequate grasp of why the `American way’ continues to have such an impact. A more fundamental aspect of this tradition is the view of the state as the natural focus for analytical attention and the best hope for improving the human condition, for reconstructing economic activity in the name of a more just society. The course of enlightened change depended on gaining control of the instruments of coercion and hegemony: without these no political struggle could be won.

The experience of the Twentieth Century has undermined confidence in the state, and this has reinforced the contrary philosophy of liberal individualism against which Hobsbawm wishes to argue. To those of this contrary persuasion, not only has the state's potential for good hardly been fully realised, but also that economic growth has come in spite of the state. Certainly we have been left in no doubt of the malign role of the state when its means of violence are turned against its own people, or against another, equally endowed state, in a cataclysmic war.

The modern state was a product of the ever-increasing demands of warfare - building up the population and industrial capacity, to provide ever more men and materiel for the battlefield, improving science and technology to ensure a steady stream of new types of weapons, refining the broadcasting and print media to generate popular support. Even the early stirrings of the welfare state were prompted by the need for a healthier and better motivated army. What progressive theorists hoped was that the mobilization and directional capacities of the state, as demonstrated in two world wars, could be redirected to more positive purposes.

The most substantial attempt to demonstrate just what might be achieved by a determined political elite in full command of the state apparatus, came once the Bolsheviks established themselves in Russia after the revolution in 1917. Communist rule had its achievements. It took Russia through civil war and famine and then a bitter, bloody war with the Nazis. It raised living standards and introduced heavy industry. Yet the achievements came at an enormous cost. Whether or not the Great Terror was an inevitable consequence of a vanguard party, a proposition Hobsbawm dismisses, it certainly provided the opportunity for Stalin.

The problem for communist theorists for the four decades after the Russian revolution was to provide an historical rationalization for the use of oppressive means to advance the needs of the people; the problem for them in more recent decades has been to explain why the needs of the people were still not being advanced and how the Soviet system fell into cynicism, stagnation and eventual collapse. When the people got their chance to give a verdict on communism it was thumbs down. In August 1991, virtually at the end of Hobsbawm's period, the Old Guard in the Kremlin proved that they could no longer even organize a decent coup. To add salt to the Soviet wound, if people had acquired any ideological conviction over the years of communist rule it was of the innate superiority of capitalism as an economic system.

While it was undoubtedly the case that capitalism got through its mid-century crises through judicious state intervention, it seems to have prospered over the last couple of decades through the steady weakening of state controls. Erstwhile social democrat parties have come to respect if not yet quite love the free market. The most formidable opponents of capitalism are now to be found among precisely those elements against which socialists once recoiled in horror - romantic nationalists and religious fundamentalists, both in their own ways seeking to preserve spiritual values in the face of a materialist onslaught.

Hobsbawm fears a free-market capitalism that no longer faces a stiff ideological challenge from the left (or the right) and is thus under no obligation to control its excesses. Writing just a few years after the end of the cold war he captures much of the post-euphoric mood. Having rejoiced at the end of the cold war and the liberation of societies from the communist grip people were startled at the costs of the transition from socialism to capitalism (one for which few theorists had prepared us) and the apparently sudden outbreak of ethnic violence and, in the case of the Gulf, even old-fashioned warfare.

A few years on things look a little calmer and Hobsbawm’s gloom seems overdone. Of course, events in Russia remain critical and the potential for a sudden lurch into darkness remains. Given the existence of so many nuclear weapons, though the arsenals are being reduced and withdrawn from the front-line) it is hard ever to feel completely secure. Attempts to assert the primacy of political will over economic development, especially in the drive towards economic and monetary union in Europe, look distinctly shaky, and there is now an increasing acceptance, grudging in some cases but enthusiastic in others, that global communications and markets have reduced the capacity of government to shape the economic destinies of their people, even while they have increased the capacities of individuals.

Perhaps the real difficulty is that the new political agenda, appropriate for the next millennium, remains curiously unformed. The state is not withering away, and there remains no better vehicle for controlling organized violence or expressing the character and the concerns of a particular society, but the nature of its competence in the economic sphere and its tolerable intrusion into civil society are being redefined. This process seems to be more the consequence of a series of small decisions than the product of a clear political programme. Great powers no longer expect to fight each other, dominate international affairs, or aggrandize themselves at the expense of others, but the corollary of this is that they are not sure as to the range of their interests and responsibilities in the pursuit of a wider peace and stability. Multilateral organizations have yet to show themselves to be able to cope with those global problems that cannot be handled at the level of the state, and the implications of new forms of institutional arrangements are uncertain.

Hobsbawm is wary of liberal triumphalism. He will never be convinced that unconstrained free enterprise can work to the common good, and he comprehends the distinctiveness of individual cultures and political systems sufficiently to know that, even if liberal capitalism was a recipe for a good society, not all can mix together the right ingredients in the right mixture at the right time. Nonetheless, while liberalism may not yet work as a universal ideology it is the great survivor of the Twentieth Century. It continues to show how enterprise can be rewarded, authoritarianism subverted and cultural experiments can continue.

It is hard to celebrate a century which has seen so much misery and tragedy imposed in the name of failed ideologies. This book exudes an added melancholy because Hobsbawm came late to appreciating the shortcomings of one of these ideologies and has yet to appreciate the quality of the one ideology that has shown itself thus far to be best able to reflect human aspirations and adapt to changing circumstances.

Author's Response

Posted: Thu, 06/08/2009 - 14:04

The main problem of contemporary history is to see it at a distance. Lawrence Freedman appears to have passed through at lest three moods since 1989, to judge by his observations: euphoria, followed by a "post-euphoric mood" and a less gloomy phase "a few years on". It is impossible to write the history of the twentieth century, and not very useful to criticize it, in terms of such short- term reactions. Can we really believe that readers in 2047 will see Freedman's '`While liberalism may not yet work as a universal ideology, it is the great survivor of the Twentieth century" as a historical judgment and not as a political credo? Even today the odds that it will emerge as "the "great survivor" cannot be more than evens, and most bookmakers would offer odds against the proposition that it is on the way to working as a universal ideology.

Because he is primarily concerned to make a case for his political beliefs ("liberal individualism") Freedman thinks 1 should also be "best approached as much as a political theorist as a historian" However, The Age of Extremes was written as a warning to those who see this century's history in terms of a priori ideologies, e.g. as a tug-of-war between "the state" and "the individual" reinforced by the market. As my book points out, the state extended its range, Power and functions almost continuously from the mid-eighteenth century to the last third of the twentieth, across the ideology and politics of all régimes. Its growth has thus sometimes been consistent with political or economic liberalism, singly or in combination, sometimes not. After the Great Slump its growth reinforced an liberal democracy while promoting an unprecedented economic upsurge in capitalist economies. History gives no warrant for the belief that in this century "economic growth has come in Spite of the state", or that the economic miracles, from Spain in the West to Japan and Korea or Taiwan in the East were a triumph of laissez-faire.

Whether or not this secular trend was primarily due to the demands of warfare, as Freedman holds, it could and also was "redirected to more positive purposes" in the welfare states of the Golden Age. These were more than the hope of Freedman's progressive theorists - actually, in Britain, largely Liberals - T.H Marshall's "social citizenship", culmination of the progress from the achievement of civil and political rights, was realized in some respects. ( The current projects to dismantle social rights are not a victory for either the liberal or the individualist ideals.} Freedman is naturally appalled by the pathological extremes of state growth which grew out of the era of global breakdown (my "Age of Catastrophe"), and notably by Soviet Communism. But a view of state development which implies that it has a built-in tendency to travel "the road to serfdom' belongs to political rhetoric, not history.

Since the early 1970s we have been living in a new era, whose uncertain prospects Freedman recognizes. He may regard them with less worry than I do, but we both stand too close to the present for historical judgment. Yet while I will not die in the last ditch for my name for this, still unconcluded, period ("The Landslide"), few economic historians will doubt that we have Passed a major turning-point in world history. (By the way, few of them would agree with Freedman that the late 1940s and the early 1970s do not mark "obvious punctuation points") Compared to that "Golden Age" the post-l973 years have been an era of uncertainties, instabilities and difficulties for capitalism, some new, some - like the revival of serious economic crises and permanent mass unemployment in Europe- once familiar. My argument was not that the global economic system is "rolling steadily downhill" - indeed I specifically predict another great leap forward (pp. 570-71), but that it is no longer possible to believe, as it was in the heyday of the "Golden Age" that a way had been found to solve, or at least to minimize, the economic, social and political problems which had convulsed capitalist society in its "Age of Catastrophe". The historically novel retreat of the state, which Freedman notes, the rise of a virtual free market anarchism, far beyond what even the nineteenth century USA would have considered acceptable to serious political influence, make it more difficult to confront these problems.

How they are to be dealt with is a matter for political debate on which, I hope, The Age of Extremes throws light, but which it specifically refuses to enter. Freedman seems to think that solution lies in "unconstrained free enterprise", presumably because he assumes that its success in maximizing economic growth ( which may be true since 1973 but was not true for most of the century) will somehow also maximize welfare. But historians know better. As the Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel has recently pointed out, "the conflict between vigorous economic growth and very limited improvements or reversals in the nutritional status and health of the majority of the {U.S.) population suggests that the modernization of the nineteenth century was a mixed blessing for those who lived through it."(1) Thanks to public limitations on the free market, it was a much more unmixed blessing for most people in the developed world in the golden third quarter of this century - and even, in a very modest way, in those other parts of the world where bombs from outside and dictatorial lunacy from inside did not bring unnecessary catastrophe.

Since we cannot return to that era, and some (including, it seems, Freedman) would not want us to, it is not implausible to look into the future with misgiving. Those who do so, like myself, hope we are mistaken.

March 1997

(1) Robert W.Fogel, "When Will Humanity Finally Escape From Chronic Malnutrition?" ( The Nestlé Lecture on the Developing World, London 1997) p 6the

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