Was Eric Hobsbawm interested in himself? Not, I think, so very much. He had a more than healthy ego and enough self-knowledge to admit it, but all his curiosity was turned outward – towards problems, politics, literatures, languages, landscapes. Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’
Untrammelled curiosity is an excellent quality in a historian – none better – but it has to be turned inward if one attempts autobiography. At the insistence of his friends, publisher and agent, Hobsbawm did write an autobiography, but Interesting Times, published in 2002, when he was 85, is almost comically unrevealing. He writes movingly about his early years in Vienna, but four-fifths of the book is The Age of Extremes (1994) written over again, with the author’s location included. Significant personal events, even those that devastated him, are mentioned so briefly that any but the most attentive reader would miss them. His first marriage in 1943 is dropped into the middle of a paragraph about the reasons he preferred London to Cambridge; its break-up in 1950 appears in another paragraph about ‘the darkest period of public anti-communism, the years of the Korean War’. Hobsbawm mentions being ‘acutely unhappy’ in the early 1950s but skitters away from any further revelations. He reminds himself of the difference between historical and autobiographical questions and then hares off to tackle the former.
This means that Richard Evans had an untilled field before him. Based on unrestricted access to Hobsbawm’s personal archive, this is one of those doorstopper biographies that can get published in Britain even when the subject is a historian. It clocks in at 662 pages of text and another eighty or so of notes. No stone goes unturned, but the book tilts towards the early life, with four chapters (259 pages) on the last fifty (yes, fifty) years, but five chapters (351 pages) on the three decades between 1933, when the 16-year-old Eric arrived in Britain, and 1962, the year of his second marriage and of the publication of The Age of Revolution, his first bestseller and the model for all his later work. Evans does a workmanlike job with those later years, but his real contribution is to have pieced together an account of the more conflicted early decades, and to have done his best – given that he is not one of nature’s biographers – to elucidate what he calls Hobsbawm’s ‘inner life’. I very much doubt this is the last word on Hobsbawm – after all, A.J.P. Taylor’s students and admirers found it necessary to produce three biographies of that earlier celebrity historian – but anyone coming afterwards will have to start from Evans’s prodigious and revelatory work.
Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917, the product of a chance meeting in 1913 between Percy Hobsbawm, the son of Jewish immigrants to Britain from Poland, who had followed his brother Ernest into a job with the British-run Egyptian postal service, and Nelly Grün, a cultured and attractive young woman from a family of assimilated Viennese Jews. Nelly was visiting her uncle as a reward for graduating from high school, ‘still a fairly unusual achievement for girls in central Europe’, her son would write more than seventy years later, using his parents’ encounter to introduce the themes of economic entanglement and global expansion that underpin The Age of Empire (1987). Percy and Nelly married in 1915 in neutral Switzerland – their nations being at war – and then returned to Egypt. In 1918 they moved to Vienna, where Eric’s sister, Nancy, was born in 1920.
Family connections and the sterling Percy brought from Egypt allowed a comfortable existence for a time, but the move was a disaster. How was an English clerk to find work in inflation-ridden Vienna? Eric was never clear quite what his father did (Evans isn’t clear either), and the family moved steadily downwards, to poorer neighbourhoods and more cramped apartments, until Percy died suddenly in 1929. Then the real trouble started, though Nelly did her best. Left with two children to support, she found translation work with the firm that had published her novel (yes, she had published a novel) and then a job with a trading concern – thereby gaining, fortunately, the health insurance she needed when she began spitting blood. Percy’s brother Sidney had married Nelly’s sister Gretl and they took Nancy off to Berlin, where Sidney had found a job with a motion picture company; Eric was left in Vienna, boarding with a woman in exchange for giving English lessons to her son, and visiting his mother in one or another sanatorium. He was a cerebral, bookish child, living ‘his own, very intense life’, his mother reported. Nelly Hobsbawm died on 15 July 1931, when Eric was just 14.
He was bereft. He had been much closer to his mother than he was to his father, her influence being, in his own words, ‘above all moral’. It was also lasting. In Interesting Times he concluded that he had ‘clearly chosen to forget’ much about his father – the origin, possibly, of a capacity for repression that would serve him well. But he always remembered his mother: ‘I took her seriously.’ Nelly was entirely truthful with Eric and so he trusted her judgment; he deferred to her wishes even when he disagreed. He would later read her novel and poems and conclude that – while gracefully written and betraying a wide range of classical German influences – her work was not really ‘first class’. Perhaps not, but she was only in her mid-thirties when she died, and her son was judging her against Goethe or Hölderlin. I am not sure how many very bright teenage boys would consider placing their mothers in those ranks.
Eric went to join Sidney, Gretl and Nancy in Berlin, where he was enrolled in the Prinz-Heinrichs-Gymnasium around the corner from the family home in the suburb of Lichterfelde. He spent only two years in Berlin, but they were decisive ones: the death throes of the Weimar Republic, a period of emboldened Nazi violence and communist counter-mobilisation. This was the world in which Hobsbawm – with a few companions – began to identify as a communist, where he first read Marx, where he first tried to stand up for his views. He took part in the Communist Party’s last legal demonstration following the Nazis’ seizure of power, an experience he recalled in his autobiography as comparable to sex in its melding of ‘bodily experience and intense emotion’. Shortly afterwards, Uncle Sidney moved the family back to London.
We know about this childhood from Interesting Times; more surprising are the years that followed. Over three chapters – one on Hobsbawm’s three years at St Marylebone Grammar School for Boys, one on his three years at Cambridge, and one on his six pointless years of army service – we see Hobsbawm fashioning himself as a communist intellectual, with the emphasis initially very much on ‘intellectual’. Through his teenage years, he read ‘incessantly’, ‘voraciously’: Marx and Engels and Lenin, but also an impossibly wide range of serious literature in three languages. He kept track in a diary, and the lists are daunting. In February 1935, for example, deciding to read some drama, he raced through Aeschylus, Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Chekhov, Dekker, Dryden, Ford, Heywood, Jonson, Marston, Massinger, Middleton, Marlowe, O’Neill, Sophocles, Strindberg and Webster; in March he went on to Coleridge, Chaucer, Fielding and Petronius, and then had a go at Proust, Mann, Boswell and David Hume. He took a turn through French literature then doubled back to the English Romantics. He read Cicero and Virgil, Gibbon and Congreve, Goethe and Nestroy, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy, Mikhail Sholokhov and T.E. Lawrence, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf – this is just a small sampling. Basically, he read his way through the Marylebone public library.
He periodically put this marathon on hold to sprint through examinations. What on earth was he doing? Fending off the boredom of teenage life, of course, and achieving the deep and broad knowledge of European high culture that his mother would have approved, but also honing a habit of confident, instant evaluation. He didn’t write long analyses of these authors, but he did grade them: I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism was ‘good’; Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism ‘very good’. (His sister, Nancy, by contrast, was proving to be ‘mediocre … even typically mediocre’.) And he was training himself to write: poems in German, sketches on nature, plans for seizing power in Britain (‘Blow up the Great North Road’) and some ecstatic love letters to Marxism. ‘I want to dedicate myself to it,’ he wrote aged 17. ‘I want to dive into it as into the sea, and drown in it. I want to love it, passionately … and yet spiritually. Like one loves a woman.’
At this stage, and as that language reveals, this commitment was fairly abstract. So long as he was living under his aunt and uncle’s roof, he deferred to their wishes and kept his politics in check. But in December 1935 he sat the examination for King’s College, Cambridge in history (mostly, Evans suggests, because some of his best results were in that subject), was awarded a scholarship more than adequate for his needs, and spent the summer of 1936 tramping around France and Spain. By the time he showed up at Cambridge that autumn, he was already unusual: in his knowledge, range, languages, Continental connections, political commitments (he joined the party at this point) and, frankly, intellectual confidence. Still grading away, he gave most of the dons poor marks: the Tudor historian was ‘second rate’; most were ‘mediocre’; only the brilliant and cosmopolitan Mounia Postan, who had read Marx, was someone Hobsbawm would later ‘gladly acknowledge as my teacher’ – the student nicely giving the tutor a first.
He was now free to place the emphasis on ‘communist’ as much as ‘intellectual’, interacting mostly with a group of cosmopolitan and international students, some of whom became leading politicians in their countries. But while he would argue the night away, he neither shared the love of secrecy and homosexuality of the (slightly older) Cambridge Spies nor was willing to do any of the humdrum tasks – like selling the paper – required of party members. He edited the Granta, not a party paper; he wrote picaresque portraits of Cambridge personalities, not manifestos. And in the summers he went off to the Continent, later writing up his experiences under a pseudonym. Evans uses those writings very effectively as a guide to Hobsbawm’s development but also treats them as a literal record – pointing out, for example, that while he remembered losing his virginity in a mirrored room in a Paris brothel in the summer of 1937, he had actually had an earlier sexual encounter that summer with a ‘rather ugly’ exiled German girl with a pock-marked face and an Eton crop.
Perhaps, but I can’t be the only person who uses a pseudonym as a licence to embellish. These accounts are tricky: they read as writing exercises, not reportage. One snippet notes, for example, the irony of
three so-called communists, members of the greatest movement in the world’s history, the men who have found what Archimedes was looking for, the men who will bend the earth as though it were made of tin-plate and mould it like plastic, arguing about bad dance bands in a second-rate whorehouse. Not even a classy one. Not even the tone of betraying the working class properly.
This is revelatory, certainly, but less about what Hobsbawm is doing – hanging out with other horny young communists in the sort of Parisian brothel even a student can afford – than of his urge to treat experience as copy, and his ambivalence towards the social privilege he both coveted and deplored. If you’re going to betray the working class, note, you should do so ‘properly’. If you’re going to go to a whorehouse, better a ‘first-rate’ one. Hobsbawm had by this point met plenty of young people who had radical opinions (as he did) but had been born to wealth and privilege (as he had not). For his whole life, he would stubbornly defend his communist convictions and just as stubbornly crave every mark of status and honour.
How did he become a historian? Evans dates the transformation from his return to Cambridge as a postgraduate student in 1946; I’m not sure I agree. True, Hobsbawm received his PhD in 1951 and held a junior research fellowship at King’s for the next three years. What is striking, though, is how rocky his career path was and how incomplete his transformation. His doctoral thesis on the Fabians was judged ‘slick, superficial and pretentious’ by R.H. Tawney and turned down by Cambridge University Press; a second book on the rise of the wage-earner was contracted in 1954 to Hutchinson but rejected after submission. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Hobsbawm would apply for posts at Cambridge and Oxford but never secure one. He would go on to spend almost forty years at Birkbeck, the University of London’s college for mature students.
Evans does a good job of disentangling the various factors that hampered his advance. In Interesting Times, Hobsbawm implies that he was blackballed for his communist views, and Evans confirms that judgment, showing how some assessors, reviewers and promotion committees objected to his communist loyalties or his Marxist approach. But they also objected to his lack of interest in archival research – the foundation for most breakthroughs in the field of history, and understandably the main criterion for evaluation and promotion. But Hobsbawm was drawn more to argument than to discovery; he also wanted a wider audience. He began pitching ideas for talks to the BBC as early as 1946 (that is, as a first-year graduate student), which Evans reads as evidence of his desire to ‘make his work accessible and available to the wider public’ but is better seen as a jobbing entrepreneurialism, since he had at this stage no scholarly ‘work’ to share. He also chose to live mostly in London, and in February 1947 accepted a lectureship in economic and social history at Birkbeck – sensible moves for a man with a London-based wife, but clear violations of the requirement that funded PhD students reside in Cambridge (Cambridge allowed him to remain a registered research student but he was required to surrender his scholarship). His PhD dissertation was initially rejected because he hadn’t bothered to comply with the rules about its format. This is not the behaviour of a scholar bent on a research career.
Those academic rebuffs hurt, reminding him that – his double starred first notwithstanding – the university ‘did not want me’. The end of his first marriage in 1950 hardly helped his self-confidence, and Evans’s account of it makes for painful reading. Hobsbawm had married Muriel Seaman, a fellow communist he had met at the LSE. He knew she was ‘not ideal’ but had ‘got used to her’; grading as usual, he hoped she’d ‘soon be very good’. Fatally, he tried to turn her into an intellectual comrade, sharing his writing and asking for her views, only to find that ‘she was afraid of me intellectually, like so many.’ As talk grew difficult the relationship became mostly sexual – and it was on these grounds that Muriel hit back, taking a lover and turning her husband out. The break was messy and protracted, and Eric had no one and nothing to help him through it.
Except, of course, for communism. During these difficult years, political convictions provided community and a sense of purpose. Evans doesn’t sugarcoat the intellectual gymnastics Hobsbawm performed to defend the Stalinist show trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Soviet invasion of Finland, but neither does he underplay the vibrant and intellectually heterodox spirit that animated the Communist Party Historians Group and the founding of Past & Present, still a leading history journal. The Soviet invasion of Hungary – the workers’ state crushing a popular movement – threw that group into crisis and most of Hobsbawm’s fellow-travellers (E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) left the party then or soon afterwards. Hobsbawm did not, concluding that the Soviet invasion, however agonising, was a necessary step in light of the danger of counter-revolution: ‘If we had been in the position of the Soviet government, we should have intervened.’
Hobsbawm was asked, over and over, to explain that decision – especially after the Cold War ended, when it really didn’t matter any more. And, over and over, he gave the same (three) answers: that he had formed an intense attachment to communism in Berlin in his youth; that that attachment was to the party in its most sectarian ‘class against class’ mode and not its popular front phase; and that he was ‘strongly repelled’ by the thought of joining other recanting ex-communists – he was thinking, presumably, of American neocons rather than his Past & Present colleagues. Evans repeats these explanations, and they ring true, but in Interesting Times Hobsbawm added that pride too played a part: ‘I could prove myself to myself by succeeding as a known communist.’ His communism made every establishment accolade more impressive; it also explained every failure. And if Hobsbawm didn’t leave the party, Evans makes clear that he did to a degree lose his faith. He took full part in the CPHG’s sharp criticisms of the party leadership; he refused to repudiate his erstwhile colleagues. It was as if he were daring the party to expel him. Internal debates over whether to do so lasted until 1959.
By 1956, then, Hobsbawm had lost his elite academic position, his wife, his parents (and his beloved Aunt Gretl), and the political church that had been his home for two decades. I think that unmooring finally turned him into a historian. His friends and family might find the chapter Evans devotes to these years a bit too revealing. He had serious affairs with two married women, the first a French artist married to a sociologist (who condoned the affair) and the second a mature student at Birkbeck who could not be persuaded to leave her husband but with whom he had a son. To make some extra money, he began writing a jazz column (as Francis Newton) for the New Statesman and then branched out to analyse strip clubs; he befriended a part-time prostitute with whom he occasionally slept. As in his youth, he used those experiences as copy, sketching the Soho ‘chicks’ and ‘cats’ among whom he passed his time.
But he was also, historically, venturing beyond Fabians and labouring men to grapple with those on the losing side of history’s progressive march. He spent even more time on the Continent, and in 1959 published Primitive Rebels, a tightly written and astonishingly creative examination of Spanish anarchists, Italian fascists, millenarians and other ‘social bandits’. Although cast in a Marxist frame – the social bandits are firmly identified as ‘archaic’ – in this book Hobsbawm was in a sense breaking free of a determinism he had taken for granted and ascribing rationality and agency to actors usually thought too backward to merit attention. Primitive Rebels was his most original book and his own favourite: as Evans notes, ‘his life among the marginal, deviant and nonconformist denizens of the Soho clubs, his critical appreciation of jazz as a form of unorganised cultural rebellion, and his historical studies of bandits, millenarians, anarchists, Luddites and other “primitive rebels”, were all of a piece: his writing and his life meshed seamlessly together.’ The book (finally) made his name, but he never wrote anything so surprising again. Instead, he signed with David Higham’s literary agency and agreed to produce a volume on the ‘age of revolution’ for George Weidenfeld’s projected History of Civilisation. That book appeared in 1962, the year Hobsbawm turned 45 and the year he remarried.
Evans devotes his four final chapters to the fifty years that followed. He tells that story chronologically – as biographers do – but the component threads of Hobsbawm’s life and growing fame are easily teased apart. His happy second marriage was its stable foundation. English but Vienna-born, multilingual, cultured and highly competent (she had worked for the United Nations in Italy and Congo), Marlene Schwarz took Eric fully in hand. Two children were born in quick succession, and the family settled into a solid bourgeois life – first in Hobsbawm’s London flat, then in a house in Clapham shared with Alan Sillitoe, then in a six-bedroom semi-detached house in Hampstead. Disarmingly, in Interesting Times, Hobsbawm disclaimed much responsibility for his own prosperity: he was just part of a lucky generation for whom ‘postwar life was an escalator which, without any special effort, took us higher than we had ever expected to be.’ He could comfortably support his family on his mid-scale academic salary; one could buy a house in Hampstead for just under £20,000. Hobsbawm shared the convenient domestic incompetence of men of his age and class, but his children remember him as a not inattentive, if often absent, father. The family enjoyed summer holidays in the Croesor Valley in Wales until Welsh nationalism’s own primitive rebels began targeting holiday homes and forced them southwards.
Looking back on those years, Hobsbawm was struck by how little time he gave to politics. Unlike Thompson, he did not give up writing history to combat nuclear weapons; unlike Bourdieu he did not lead marches. Some politicians became friends (he got the bus with Michael Foot; Gordon Brown was a dinner guest) and in the late 1970s and 1980s he would catalyse a fierce and consequential debate about the future of the Labour Party through interventions in Marxism Today (interventions that were blamed for – and that Hobsbawm later blamed himself for – laying the foundations for Blairism), but in essence he led an academic’s life. Or, more precisely, a writer’s life, as his evening teaching responsibilities left his days entirely free. In 1947, Hobsbawm had excused his acceptance of the Birkbeck post by explaining that teaching preparations never took him more than two hours a week, and while he was an inspiring classroom presence, he always adroitly ducked administrative jobs. Evans tells a story of Hobsbawm backing the young Roderick Floud for a professorial chair mostly, Floud later realised, so he wouldn’t have to be head of department himself. It will be hard for today’s young academics, groaning under research assessments and short-term contracts at below the living wage, to read these passages.
Hobsbawm did what he loved best: he read, travelled, talked and wrote. His Birkbeck teaching proved a perfect foundation for that writing. Industry and Empire, delivered five years late and published in 1968, was based – as The Age of Revolution had been – on his lectures. Always intellectually promiscuous and alert to opportunities, he brought out other books – The Jazz Scene, Captain Swing with George Rudé (who mostly did the research) – but he had begun to write to formula. The Age of Capital, which appeared in 1975, mirrored the two-part structure (‘developments’ and ‘results’) of The Age of Revolution; so did The Age of Empire, which appeared in 1987, just before he turned seventy. The books were uniformly lauded as major achievements, especially as it became clear they had become a series. They evoked predictable criticisms: David Landes complained of his pessimism about industrialisation, Edward Said of his Eurocentrism, Catherine Hall of his neglect of women and gender, Tony Judt, after The Age of Extremes appeared in 1994, of his disdain for the protean force of nationalism and his gingerly treatment of the Soviet Union’s crimes. Controversy just helped sales, and Hobsbawm never paid much attention to criticism.
Academics will find Evans’s account of how Hobsbawm turned his books into a ‘brand’ very revealing. University expansion in the 1960s meant there were ever larger numbers of student readers for books that could synthesise the multinational mess of 19th-century European history and (better still) could do it in a thematic, engaging, but quite obviously left-wing way. The uniform format and age-of-this-or-that titles added to the books’ marketability: people buying ‘a Hobsbawm’ knew what they were getting – a well-paced, sharply argued, not-too-short-and-not-too-long account of a defined historical period, Western-centric but set in a global context, Marxisant but not mindlessly deterministic. It was a winning formula, and Hobsbawm made it pay. In 1978, just after he turned sixty, his earnings from his books surpassed his income from teaching, and that disparity continued to grow. Hobsbawm often delivered late, but Bruce Hunter, his agent for most of this later period, negotiated hard over translations, world rights and advances. In 1987, when Weidenfeld offered an advance of £100,000 (about six or seven times a new lecturer’s salary) for what became The Age of Extremes, his agents turned it down and put the proposal out to bid instead.
His readership was from the outset a global one, and it expanded steadily. Hobsbawm knew the United States was an important market, telling his agent in 1978 that he needed a paperback American publisher for The Age of Capital with ‘links with the many radical dons aged 30-35 who would prescribe a Hobsbawm’. But virtually all his books appeared in dozens of languages: indeed, the translations were so numerous, and so expected, that he was able to paint Gallimard’s unwillingness to bring out a French edition of The Age of Extremes almost as censorship, an elitist plot to deprive the French people of a chance to read the works of historians, as he put it in a combative lecture, ‘who did not enjoy the favour of the fashionable orthodoxies of the 1990s’. (Brought out by a Belgian publisher, the French-language edition sold forty thousand copies.) Hobsbawm’s multilingualism, his readiness to travel and promote his books, helped sales too. Latin America, where he became a left icon, provided an especially receptive audience. Hobsbawm had sold 600,000 copies of earlier works in Brazil before The Age of Extremes was published; it sold another 265,000 copies. In 1987, thirty years after a friend caught sight of Hobsbawm interviewing a peasant in an Italian field, another friend caught sight of a shambling figure who ‘walked like Eric Hobsbawm’ in the street outside a tea-room in Seoul. The friend rushed out to find ‘it was indeed Eric.’ He was there to see his publisher.
Accolades of all kinds followed hard on commercial success. Hobsbawm became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, an honorary fellow of King’s in 1973, a fellow of the British Academy in 1976, and joined the Athenaeum in 1983. There were so many honorary degrees that Evans doesn’t bother to list them. Hobsbawm quite liked to see himself as an insurgent outsider and had the wit to realise that his problem now was ‘how to keep my bona fides as an old Bolshevik’ with ‘the Establishment … clasping me to its international bosom’. But he lost that battle, mostly because his heart wasn’t in it. The historian Peter Brown recalled his saying defensively that one had to join things to change them, but noted that Hobsbawm ‘made not the slightest move to change anything’ – behaviour Evans too readily excuses as an aversion to ‘scheming and plotting’, as if some minimal effort to open up the insiderish redoubts of British culture should really be seen that way. By 1997, when Hobsbawm accepted his appointment as a Companion of Honour because the CH, unlike a knighthood, was for the nation’s ‘awkward squad’, he was making a distinction comprehensible only to those so far inside the elite as to have entirely lost sight of its borders.
I am not criticising Hobsbawm for his snobbery and his delight in establishment credentials. That would be ridiculous: after all, in a minor, woman’s sort of way I’m a member of the establishment myself. All I am saying is that those of us in elite institutions ought to have a slightly less self-deluded sense of the way they operate and indeed of the ways we sustain them. Hobsbawm’s life can help us understand these things – although biography, with its necessary focus on the individual agent, isn’t really the right medium for such an investigation. Evans shows us how Hobsbawm produced the work that won him international acclaim, but one could tell that story differently, describing how a particular constellation of events – the rise of left movements in Latin America, the temporary intellectual cachet of English Marxism, the development of international publishing empires, and Hobsbawm’s wide range and writerly craft – produced the phenomenon that became ‘Eric Hobsbawm’. (Emile Chabal tells that story in an essay in Aeon.) One could tell another story about what the shower of accolades and prizes that descended on him in later life reveals about the way a liberal elite at once renews and legitimises itself.
At the end of his book, Evans pauses to let us overhear Hobsbawm take stock of his own significance. Rightly, he placed himself within a wider European effort – the Annales School in France, the Bielefeld historians in Germany – to connect history to the social sciences; rightly, too, he thought his own contribution had been mostly to bring that analytical approach to readers who were not professional historians. It’s hard to overstate how important that was: put bluntly, Hobsbawm taught two generations of students and general readers across the world to see history not as one-damn-thing-after-another but as a matter of theme and process, cause and effect, advance and retreat, ‘developments’ and ‘results’. Evans gently points out what Hobsbawm left out of that synthetic project – Africa, popular culture, women – but those criticisms rather miss the point. Hobsbawm was, as he said in The Age of Empire, writing out ‘the unfolding of an argument’, and that argument takes as given that, when it comes to historical significance, economics matters more than culture, men more than women, the West more than the Rest. His omissions were constitutive, not lapses. Redoing Hobsbawm, in other words, would involve taking on those core assumptions.
In extreme old age, when he concluded he couldn’t write books any more, Hobsbawm proposed a series of posthumous essay collections; he also made plans to donate his papers (with appropriate tax write-offs). Being the kind of guy he was, he also planned his memorial service and funeral. He didn’t want the former held in Birkbeck, because there were no appropriate rooms; he thought it would be nice if Gordon Brown said a few words. He picked the speakers and the music for the funeral – Mozart’s tear-jerker ‘Soave sia il vento’, the ‘Internationale’ – and wanted Ira Katznelson, who had arranged for his long post-Birkbeck teaching stint at the New School, to say Kaddish. The left establishment assembled, and his daughter placed a copy of the most recent issue of the LRB on his casket. When I read that, I very nearly pulled out of reviewing this book.
But I didn’t, because for all of his contradictions and blindnesses, his clever adaptation to the marketplace and the establishment’s clever appropriation of him, I closed Evans’s biography really liking Eric Hobsbawm. Something about him allowed him to rise above those uses. I think that was not his ostensible communism, which never affected his lifestyle and so was easily overlooked in the end, but rather his human decency, his capacious curiosity and his cosmopolitanism. One friend of mine, who joined Birkbeck as a young lecturer when Hobsbawm still had an office there, said that he offered a model of how to grow old well – in contrast to so many other dons, who just grew more resentful and crabbed. Hobsbawm would stop by his office and ask about his work, and if he usually tried to show that he knew more about your subject than you did, he always left you more enthusiastic and in better heart. That’s a tribute with which many of us would be content.