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."