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Pioneer of Marxist Social History

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans, London: Little Brown, 2019; pp xiii + 785, 954 (hardcover).

In 1920, when Viennese writer Karl Kraus was informed that Leon Trotsky had saved the October Revolution by organising a Red Army, his shocked reaction was: “(w)ho would have expected that of Herr Bronstein from Café Central!” It was unbelievable to see someone displaying such delicate cultural taste and yet be able to get involved in a war effort of epic proportions. It might seem ironical to observe a similar ideological reception of Eric Hobsbawm, not the least because the historian himself was fond of Karl Kraus’s writings and a first edition copy of Kraus’s work was part of his will, but such a reckoning does indeed seem to have plagued him from the very beginning when he tried to establish himself in the interwar years in London as a young and talented polyglot from Vienna whose Jewish family had moved there from Egypt, till the very end of his life when he became an intellectual superstar. Ramachandra Guha exemplified this approach by distinguishing between Hobsbawm the historian and Hobsbawm the Marxist, a sanitised version of the former being preferable to the latter (Guha 2012). The idea is that Eric Hobsbawm was a great historian not because of, but in spite of his belief in Marxism. As this excellently researched biography by the eminent historian Richard J Evans (who specialises on Third Reich) demonstrates, this seemingly benign notion blocked Hobsbawm’s access to jobs and promotion in his younger days, and later it disguised itself as political correctness in order to diminish the critical implications of his scholarship. The challenge is to recognise the role of Marxism in the scholarship of Hobsbawm, something which he himself was proud of.

Evans’s deeply sympathetic and extre­mely detailed work touches upon this question by focusing on the making of Hobsbawm’s persona. He writes that “(Hobsbawm’s) writing and his life meshed seamlessly together, and the personal and professional were two sides of the same coin” (p 383). Probably owing to the nature of his approach or a reluctance to discuss private life or both, Hobsbawm provided us with only fleeting glimpses into his turmoil of youth in Interesting Times—a work which was more of a personalised account of the century he lived in than his autobiography (Hobsbawm 2003). Evans’s biography is on full throttle concerning those details, however, and goes on to assert that the themes which the great historian picked up to write about in the beginning of his career came to him not only because of his outlook but also through his social interactions, be it his relationship with a sex worker on the streets of London or a conversation with a country peasant
in a remote corner of Italy.

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Updated On : 27th Oct, 2020

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