Chronicling the Age of Hobsbawm: A Q&A With Historian Richard Evans
For many years, Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was the world’s best-known academic historian. Translated into more than 50 languages, most of his more than 30 titles have never gone out of print. Just in Brazil, his books have sold close to a million copies. Concepts first coined by Hobsbawm—the social bandit, the long 19th century, the invention of tradition—have become household phrases and spawned entire fields of research. His magisterial trilogy on the period from 1789 to 1914, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire, continues to shape our understanding of the era. His account of the “short twentieth century,” The Age of Extremes, which he published when he was 77, cemented his worldwide fame.
Born as a British citizen of Jewish parents in Alexandria, Egypt, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin. His father died when Eric was 12; two years later, he lost his mother. After moving to England in 1933, in 1936 he joined King’s College, Cambridge, to study history. He spent World War II as an officer in the British army. His first major book, Primitive Rebels, on social bandits and other forms of primitive class struggle, appeared in 1959.In the 1950s and ’60s, he combined his academic work with a productive sideline as a jazz critic, publishing under a pseudonym.
Hobsbawm wrote in an engaging, literary style for the broadest possible audience. Few historians have matched his ability to combine sweeping synthesis with telling detail, or to condense the essence of an era in a pithy trope. Strongly influenced by the Annales school, he was a committed Marxist who combined his academic work with steadfast political militancy. Hobsbawm first joined the Communist Party as a teenager in Germany, where he witnessed the rise of Nazism first-hand. He was a card-carrying—though critical and increasingly unenthusiastic—member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) until its demise in 1991.
Less than seven years after Hobsbawm’s death, his fellow historian Richard Evans, a onetime colleague of Eric’s at Birkbeck College, has published Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, a 750-page, intimate, and sympathetic portrait based on a rich trove of diaries, letters, and interviews—as well as a hefty box of files amassed by MI5, Britain’s domestic secret service, which for many years kept close tabs on a man they saw as a subversive propagandist. Ironically, as MI5’s secret recordings of conversations in the central CPGB office made clear, Hobsbawm’s own party leaders, too, saw him with a good deal of suspicion. (Of all the Communist parties in Western Europe, the British was perhaps least hospitable to intellectuals.)
Evans (born in Woodford, Essex, in 1947), who retired as Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge in 2014, is a prominent historian of Germany; his monumental history of 19th-century Europe, The Pursuit of Power, came out in 2016. The Hobsbawm book took him five years to write. “I’ve found that biography is a lot easier to do than history,” he told me when we spoke over the phone in March. “In history you must invent the subject, decide where its boundaries are, and structure your argument. In a biography, that’s all given. I had to work fast, because I was very keen to put the book in the hands of Hobsbawm’s widow, Marlene, who is now 86. Fortunately, that worked out as planned.”
Sebastiaan Faber: “Eric was a man who loved life and lived it to the full,” you write in your introduction, adding: “The more I have read his writings…the more I have come to admire and respect him not just as an historian but as a person, and wish I had got to know him better when he was alive.” Has his ghost been a member of your household for the past five years?
Richard Evans: Yes. My wife got rather irritated there. She didn’t really like Hobsbawm’s attitude towards women—and I can quite see why.
SF: You are a historian of Germany. Did writing this biography teach you anything you didn’t know about your own country?
RE: I learned a lot about the extreme insignificance of the Communist Party of Great Britain, not to mention its dogmatic Stalinism. And going through the files of MI5 was an extraordinary experience. They were so hopelessly incompetent! They went chasing after Hobsbawm, who was an entirely innocuous intellectual. Yet while they were busy opening Hobsbawm’s mail, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt were betraying significant state secrets to the Russians. The Cambridge Five got away with their spying for such a long time because they were “good chaps,” of impeccable British Establishment credentials. Hobsbawm, on the other hand, was an outsider.
SF: You speak admiringly of Hobsbawm’s writing style, relating it to his passion for literature, which he read widely in several languages. Did his sheer stylistic brilliance ever serve to mask other weaknesses?
RE: To the contrary. Precisely because his arguments are always tremendously clear, they invite you to challenge them. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why his work has been so widely used in teaching. After all, you want your students to debate and discuss the ideas and arguments they read about, not simply to ingest them uncritically. Hobsbawm is perfect for that. They can read his arguments and say: “Wait a minute, I am not sure I agree with that.”
SF: But hasn’t his continued presence over more than 50 years, in scholarship and in the classroom, worked as a force of inertia?
RE: No, it hasn’t—for much the same reasons. Hobsbawm’s ideas are so fruitful that they continue to be debated and discussed today. Even his earliest contributions—his idea of the general crisis of the 17th century, for example, which he put forth in the early 1950s, or the notion of social banditry, from the late 1950s—continue to inform research in one way or another.
SF: You could say, then, that he’s been seminal rather than hegemonic.
RE: That’s a very good way of putting it, yes.
SF: Let’s talk about Hobsbawm’s Marxism. In the final analysis, would you say his politics are a strength, or rather a weakness?
RE: Well, you first have to distinguish his Marxism from his communism. He was, as I write in the book, a communist with a small “c.” He was never very loyal to the Communist Party. In fact, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he broke with it in all but name, although he had deep emotional reasons for remaining a member of the party at least in formal terms.
In his work as an historian, his Marxism enabled him to sort out and organize the chaotic material we historians have to confront. I think he did that very successfully and provocatively, albeit not always persuasively. Over time, his Marxism became more diluted. Any time there was a competition between the theory and the evidence, the evidence won out. That’s precisely why, I think, he continued to be such a great historian. It’s also important to remember that he was always more than a Marxist. From the outset, he was strongly influenced by the Annales school of social and cultural historians in France. An early work like The Age of Revolution is really a merger of the two schools.
SF: Hobsbawm long avoided writing about the 20th century. In his review of The Age of Extremes, Tony Judt suggested that this was in part because writing about his own century would increase the tension you just described between the theory and the evidence.
RE: I think Judt is right on that point.
SF: Does that make The Age of Extremes a different or weaker work than his 19th-century trilogy?
RE: While it was his most popular, best-selling book, translated into 30 languages, I do think it’s weaker. In The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm tries to come to terms with the failure of the Communist cause that he supported through his life. And I am not sure he entirely succeeds in that effort. In addition, many of his prejudices come through. He is not very good at dealing with the history of women and feminism, for example, due, in large part, to his Marxism. The same is true of modern culture, particularly modernist art. He was quite prejudiced against that.
SF: Was he ever able to see those limitations as part of his own ideology, in a Marxist sense?
RE: I don’t think so. In The Age of Empire, which came out in 1987, he feels obliged to include a chapter on women, but you can see it’s half-hearted and it’s clearly the weakest chapter in the book. Of course, he recognized his limitations to some degree—but he wasn’t very committed to overcoming them.
SF: For a Marxist and anti-capitalist, the Hobsbawm that emerges from your book was actually quite entrepreneurial. He was very interested in the promotion of his books, for example, and, especially later in life, managed to negotiate lucrative contracts and advances.
RE: You have to remember that he was brought up in Vienna and Berlin in what you might call genteel poverty. His family were all failed businessmen—so it’s no surprise, in a way, that he thought capitalism was doomed. When he was a teenager, his relative poverty was a source of embarrassment. He had a secondhand bike that was so old and decrepit that he went to school early and hid it around the corner so that his schoolmates didn’t have to see it. His shoes were so full of holes that he felt the snow coming in. That sense of financial precariousness never left him. He never stopped being thrifty and worrying about money, even when he was making a great deal of it.
SF: For liberal and conservative commentators like Michael Ignatieff, Hobsbawm’s life-long commitment to communism has long been an enigma, if not a glaring moral flaw. The question returns in some of the reviews of your biography. You show that, as an historian, Hobsbawm gradually drifted away from Marxist categories such as class. At the same time, in British political life, he became much more involved with Labour than with the CPGB. In his 2002 memoir, Interesting Times, Hobsbawm explains his continued commitment to communism as a form of loyalty to the person he was in Berlin in the early 1930s. You have a slightly different take.
RE: I think that, in a sense, communism with a small “c” was hard-wired into his sense of identity: He acquired it when he was 15 or 16, in the formative period of his personality. In Berlin, he sees the Communist movement as by far the most active and passionate opponent of Hitler and Nazism. Also, as I just said, he felt poor, and the Communists made a virtue of being poor.
SF: You also suggest that, orphaned as he was at 14, the party gave him a structure, a community, and a sense of belonging that his family could no longer provide for him.
RE: That is right. Actually, after his father’s death, while still in Vienna, he first joined the Boy Scouts. When he got to Berlin, Communism seemed to have more appeal. There is a wonderfully introspective moment in his diaries where he confesses: “I am an intellectual through and through. With all the weaknesses of an intellectual—inhibitions, complexes etc.” But then, he asks himself, what would he, as an intellectual, do when the revolution came? The only thing he can come up with, is: “Be prepared!”—which, of course, is the motto of the Boy Scout movement.
SF: Did he manifest any remnant of his Boy Scout identity later in life?
RE: No—he was hopeless at most of the things that Scouts are supposed to do, like tying knots and being practical. [Laughs]
SF: The idea of Communism as an ersatz family sounds a bit like the notion, espoused by some former Communists like Arthur Koestler or François Furet, of Communism as a secular faith. For those who later wrote against “the God that failed,” renouncing their political past became an act of moral integrity. Hobsbawm, on the other hand, seems rather to have seen staying loyal to his former self as a form of moral integrity.
RE: It’s true that he refused to repudiate his earlier self. He didn’t want to join the ranks of ex-Communists, like Furet, who denounced the creed they once believed in. Nor did he need to. In truth, he was never a dogmatic enough Communist. He never abandoned his independence of thought for the sake of the party. Furet was an absolutely dogmatic Stalinist, so it’s not surprising that he felt the need to repudiate the time when he surrendered his mental and intellectual independence. Hobsbawm never did.
SF: In fact, the Hobsbawm you describe is always on the edge of communities, never fully in or out.
RE: He liked to be an insider—but not quite. He was an outsider in the Communist movement. He was an outsider in the jazz scene. He even was one in the British establishment, although he ended up being a member of the Athenaeum Club, the British Academy, and all the rest of it.
SF: The same is true of his younger years…
RE: He was a Jew, living in a 1920s Vienna that was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. In both Vienna and Berlin, he was known at school as “the English boy,” der Engländer, because he was a British citizen and his family spoke English at home. Yet he had perfect German—spoken, as I later discovered, in a thick Austrian accent, which was rather strange coming from him. In German, in fact, he sounded very working class.
SF: Speaking of accents, how would you characterize his spoken English?
RE: Just like his spoken French, it was rather old-fashioned. He spoke a very clear, clipped English, but without any definable English accent, really. He had the unusual habit of saying par-ti-cu-lahr-ly, where we say per-ti-ker-ly. And he’d end some sentences with an Edwardian, “what, what?” as in: “Tony Blair is a Thatcher in trousers, what, what?” It may well have been the English version of the German phrase nicht wahr? But it did sound very odd.
SF: In February, Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker about “The Decline of Historical Thinking,” noting the “steep decline in history graduates” at US universities. “A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history,” he wrote, “is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.” In the age of Trump and Brexit, has Hobsbawm’s death left a void?
RE: I don’t think so. I am a member of the jury of the Wolfson History Prize and we go through a round of books every year written by people who live in Britain, granting the prize to scholarship that is readable and reaches a wide audience. I haven’t seen any decline in quality there. But I do think that the situation is somewhat different in the States, given the rise in humanities departments of postmodernism and poststructuralism, along with their skepticism about knowing the truth about the past. If you can’t know anything about the past, why on earth should you bother to study it?
SF: In the 1970s and ’80s, Hobsbawm’s became an important public voice in relation to British domestic politics, and the Labour Party in particular. If he were alive today, what would he have to say about Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit?
RE: He would have hated them both. He despised sectarianism. He believed in the broad left. He came to hate [longtime Labour MP and party leader in the early 1970s] Tony Benn, for example, because he split the Labour Party. And Corbyn is clearly splitting Labour, too. Secondly, Hobsbawm loathed nationalism—and nationalism is behind Brexit in every sphere. Even so-called Lexit, the left-wing version of Brexit, espouses a kind of nationalism. Corbyn wants his socialism in one country. I don’t think Eric Hobsbawm would have approved.