Jon Wiener on Eric Hobsbawm

Historians in the News

Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. He is a contributing editor to The Nation and hosts a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

ERIC HOBSBAWM, WHO DIED OCTOBER 1 at age 95, was one of the world’s greatest historians, and also a Marxist. He was not just an academic — he was also a lifelong Communist with a capital “C,” a full-fledged member of the Party since his teenage years. Unlike most of his comrades, he didn’t leave the Party in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, or after the Soviets’ repression of the Hungarian uprising; he didn’t leave in 1968 when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring; he stayed until the end. Hobsbawm mentioned his long Party membership in his final book, How to Change the World, but didn’t really answer one of the big questions about his life: “Why the CP?”

For that you need to go to his wonderful memoir, Interesting Times, published in 2002. As a teenager, Hobsbawm lived in Berlin for two terrifying years, 1932–33, when Hitler seized power. It was there that young Eric joined a Communist youth group, campaigned for the CP candidates in what would be the last elections of the Weimar Republic, and marched in the Communists’ final anti-Nazi demonstration in 1933 before the Party was banned and its members sent to concentration camps. That time in Berlin, he would write, “made me a lifelong communist … even though that project has demonstrably failed, and as I now know, was bound to fail.” His family sent him to live with relatives in London, and, from 1933-39, the relatives sent him to Paris to spend the summers. In 1936 he witnessed firsthand the electoral victory of the Popular Front, which the Communists supported, and then took part in the last great mass demonstration of the interwar European left, Bastille Day in 1936, when all of popular Paris took to the streets.

If Hobsbawm got an early start at left-wing politics, he was a late bloomer as a historian. He started publishing books only in his forties, and, as he wrote in his memoir, “By the time I could actually call myself ‘professor’ in Britain, I was in my middle fifties […] At that stage for most of us the promise is in the past, and so is such achievement as it has produced.” But not for Hobsbawm. The most successful, and probably the best, of his 16 books — The Age of Extremes 1914-1991, the final volume in his ambitious three-part history of the world since the French Revolution — wasn’t published until 1994, when he was 77. Young historians, take note: your best work lies in your future!...

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