Obituary: Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 Erudite critic of capitalism

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Eric Hobsbawm was one of the UK's leading historians and one of the most significant intellectuals of the past half century. His life and works were shaped by his emotional commitment to radical socialism.

In his autobiography, published when he was 85, Eric Hobsbawm said: "I belong to the generation for whom the October Revolution represented the hope of the world."

He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, at Alexandria in Egypt, then a British protectorate.

But his father, a British tradesman, and his mother, an Austrian writer, both died during the Depression in central Europe.

Eric Hobsbawm was a 14-year-old orphan, living with his uncle in Berlin, when he joined the Communist Party.

In his 80s, he reflected: "Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first-hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be."

Jazz lover

He came to Britain in 1933, went to school in London and won a scholarship to Cambridge, where the Soviet Union had many admirers.

There was a wartime marriage which did not last but Hobsbawm reckoned he was lucky to secure his first post as a history lecturer, at Birkbeck College in London, just before the Berlin crisis of 1948 and the height of the Cold War.

Eric Hobsbawm as a young man Eric Hobsbawm as a young man

But it was partly because of his political affiliation that he had to wait until 1970 before he was promoted to professor.

He published his first major work, Primitive Rebels, in 1959, about southern European bandits, while, under the pseudonym Francis Newton, he was also the New Statesman's jazz critic for several years and later wrote The Jazz Scene.

In the 1960s, Eric Hobsbawm married again and began to establish an international standing as a historian.

This reputation rests largely on four works; The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, Empire, and his 1994 History of the 20th Century, The Age of Extremes, which has been translated into about 40 languages.

Hungary

His books focused not on kings, queens and statesmen, but on the economic and social forces underpinning them.

Hobsbawm said he had lived "through almost all of the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history".

But, in a startling assertion, he argued that Communism was of "limited historical interest" compared to the gigantic success of the capitalist "mixed economy" from the mid-1950s to 1973, which he described as "the most profound revolution in society since the Stone Age".

Eric Hobsbawm came under fire for his reluctance to condemn the excesses of Communist totalitarianism.

Hungarian uprising The Hungarian uprising radically changed his views

Although he was still a card-carrying member of the British Communist Party until shortly before it was wound up in 1991, he said he had effectively ceased to be a member in 1956 when Soviet tanks crushed the uprising in Hungary and Khrushchev laid bare the evils of Stalinism.

But rejecting the ideal in which he had invested so much emotion was clearly a painful experience.

In 1998, the Blair government made him a Companion of Honour and while Hobsbawm said it was "better to have a Labour government than not," he was critical of the conduct of the "war on terrorism" and accused the United States of trying to "recolonise" the world.

Eric Hobsbawm said Communism had done the world a service by defeating fascism and to the end of his days he insisted that criticising capitalism was as important as ever.

"Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought," he said. "The world will not get better on its own."

You can click on Hobsbawm: A Life in History to hear BBC Radio 4's programme.

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