Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2012  



Eric J. Hobsbawm, 1917-2012


by Peter Byrne


In memoriam



(Swans - October 8, 2012)   Eric Hobsbawm, the historian whose scope and pertinency was unrivaled, is dead at ninety-five. He was born in Alexandria to Jewish immigrants who came to Britain in the 1870s and went to Egypt in 1914. He spent his childhood in the stormy Vienna and Berlin of the 1920s and died in London, where he wrote and taught all his life. His main contribution as a historian was to mine the rich and hitherto untapped vein of working men's history. Mentioning his name in London in the 1960s was enough to raise serious hopes of reinvigorating socialism in the Labour Party. I had reason to know. I became the owner of a rickety 1850s house in Camden Town, bought cheap because it was uninhabitable. I asked my friends if they knew a builder who could put the plumbing right and make the lights work. They were unanimous in their recommendation. A jack-of-all trades, habitué of a local pub, had actually worked on the home of Eric J. Hobsbawm. The connection was enough to make the handy man, Ernie by name, a figure of awe for inner city Lefties. It was enough for me not to take Ernie and his family to task when they left me broke and my house little better than they found it. I held my peace and meditated what Hobsbawm had written about the British working class: "They were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people."

Hobsbawm's death has been met with a stirring of old rancors. The gist is that he was great despite himself. The man wrote a pile of books, some of which will be relevant for a century. Yet his obituaries dwell on his exchange with an overheated TV interviewer. This smooth-talker in a sweat kept putting the question to him whether social progress could justify the death of twenty-million people. If you ask a stupid question, you get the answer you deserve. Now they want to engrave it on his tombstone. Hobsbawm would not board the turncoat bandwagon after 1989. In Weimar Berlin as a boy, he found enough strength in Marxism and the Communist Party to get him through the coming cataclysm and make him a historian. It was a debt he would not renege on. Let those who reproach him for not scuttling his ideals tell us what they believe in with Hobsbawm's intensity. In Interesting Times he wrote: "The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me. I have abandoned, nay rejected it, but it has not been obliterated."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 8, 2012