Blog post

Keep the flag flying: Eric Hobsbawm on Radio 4

Huw Lemmey18 April 2012

I still believe in the old values of the 18th Century Enlightenment; in Reason, in education, in the improvement, if not the perfectability, of human beings, and in the attempts, at any rate, to establish "liberty, equality, fraternity", or "life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness" or any other these other marvellous slogans which we owe to the late 18th Century.

BBC's Archive on 4 special feature on historian Eric Hobsbawm opens with his own words, spoken to Desert Island Discs in 1995. The programme, an hour-long profile of the outspoken Marxist historian, was presented by Simon Schama and laid out the story of Hobsbawm's colourful life: a life which has traced a line alongside the great fissures and faults of 20th Century. The esteemed author, who celebrates his 95th birthday this year, also talks about the life-changing effect that reading The Communist Manifesto had upon him at an early age. That influence continues to this day: eighty years after first picking up Marx's text in his school library, Hobsbawm has written the introduction to a new, modern edition of the Manifesto.

Accompanied by a rich archive of interviews with Hobsbawm from the BBC archives, Schama discusses Hobsbawm's activism and career from his involvement as a teen with the KPD resistance to Nazism in 1930's Germany, through his life at the heights of British academia. The programme also focuses on Hobsbawm's often controversial political affiliation with the Communist Party of Great Britain, remaining a member until its dissolution in 1991, long after many comrades had left following the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Talking about his early political development, he highlights the moment when we was first turned on to Marxism, at the height of a vicious, street-and-ballot struggle between the Communist Party of Germany and a nascent Nazi threat:

That period in Berlin shaped my life. Without this I simply wouldn't be what I am now. It was one of the masters at school who, in fact, turned me into a Marxist. I explained to him that I was a communist and we needed a revolution, and he asked me a few questions and said "You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Kindly go to the school library and see what you can find." And then I discovered The Communist Manifesto, and that was it... Can you imagine at the age of fifteen, reading The Communist Manifesto, the first few pages, and I said "This is it".

This astonishing and often very touching profile gives a remarkable insight into the influence Hobsbawm had; as Schama admits, even those who weren't members of the Communist Party Historian's Group, or supporters of the democratic centralist communist ideology, were "intoxicated" by the opening up of historical study engendered by what Hobsbawm calls "social-cum-intellectual-cum-structural history". Hobsbawm, alongside other great social historians such as Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, changed the way history was approached: not through a knowledge of Kings and Queens, or an understanding of the causes of Great Wars, but in the everyday struggles and entertainments of the vast majority of normal, working people whose lives produce and reflect the great social changes of world history.

Visit BBC iPlayer to listen to the programme Hobsbawm: A Life in History.