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On the Death of a Radical Historian: Eric Hobsbawm

Matthew Cole 1 October 2012

It is with deep sorrow that we mourn the death of distinguished historian and comrade, Eric Hobsbawm. Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution, he remained steadfast in his intellectual rigour and politics until the end, and his four-volume history of Europe will remain a key reference point for the generations to come. Perry Anderson's essay on Hobsbawm in Spectrum, offers an insight into his communism:

'Politically,' he says, having joined the CP [Communist Party] in 1936, he belongs to the era of the Popular Front, that pursued an alliance between capital and labour which has determined his strategic thinking to this day; 'emotionally', however, as a teenage convert in the Berlin of 1932, he remained tied to the original revolutionary agenda of Bolshevism.

Hobsbawm dedicated his life to the work of scholarship and is unmatched in the breadth or depth of his knowledge of 19th and 20th century history. With wisdom that only a near-centenarian could bestow, Hobsbawm reflects, via an interview from 2010 in the New Left Review, on some of the most important questions of our time and offers some parting insights:

The big problem is a very general one. By palaeontological standards the human species has transformed its existence at astonishing speed, but the rate of change has varied enormously. Sometimes it has moved very slowly, sometimes very fast, sometimes controlled, sometimes not. Clearly this implies a growing control over nature, but we should not claim to know whither this is leading us. Marxists have rightly focused on changes in the mode of production and their social relations as the generators of historical change. However, if we think in terms of how 'men make their own history', the great question is this: historically, communities and social systems have aimed at stabilization and reproduction, creating mechanisms to keep at bay disturbing leaps into the unknown. Resistance to the imposition of change from outside is still a major factor in world politics today. How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development? Marxist historians might profitably investigate the operations of this basic contradiction between the mechanisms bringing about change and those geared to resist it.

Visit the New Left Review the read the interveiw in full.