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Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012

Eric Hobsbawm died early this morning at the age of 95. Reviewing his essay collection How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 in the LRB last year, Terry Eagleton wrote: ‘Its author has lived through so much of the political turbulence he portrays that it is easy to fantasise that History itself is speaking here, in its wry, all-seeing, dispassionate wisdom.’ In 1994, Edward Said wrote:

A powerful and unsettling book, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes brings to a close the series of historical studies he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, and followed in 1975 and 1987 respectively with The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Hobsbawm could have approached – much less achieved – the consistently high level of these volumes: taken together, they represent one of the summits of historical writing in the postwar period. Hobsbawm is cool where others are hot and noisy; he is ironic and dispassionate where others would have been either angry or heedless; he is discriminatingly observant and subtle where on the same ground other historians would have resorted to clichés or to totalistic system. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Hobsbawm’s achievement in these four books is the poise he maintains throughout. Neither too innocent nor too knowing and cynical, he restores one’s faith in the idea of rational investigation; and in a prose that is as supple and sure as the gait of a brilliant middle-distance runner, he traces the emergence, consolidation, triumph and eclipse of modernity itself – in particular, the amazing persistence of capitalism (its apologists, practitioners, theoreticians and opponents) within it.

Hobsbawm wrote a couple of dozen pieces for the LRB. The first of them in 1981 on ‘people’s history’, the last, on Tony Judt, in April this year. They included three diaries: on his Weimar childhood, on his years as a jazz critic and on meeting Gorbachev.

Comments on “Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012”

  1. rafshari says:

    A close friend emailed me this morning informing me about the news. He had such a brilliant life, leaving behind what is to my mind the most significant body of historical writings of our time. I had started reading his works many years ago. Without his writings my life as a student of history would have been very different. His work gave credence to all of us who in one way or another thought of ourselves as being “Marxist.” It was only yesterday, the day after his passing, that I was giving a common lecture in an undergraduate class on the rise of nation and nationalism in the post Napoleonic Europe. I shared with my students a quotation from the late Professor Hobsbawn: “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers …are to heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.” I diverted and talked about him. He was gone the day before. Today, I carried his last book How to Change the World in my hand as I walked around the campus. I will always cherish his works. Reza Afshari, New York

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