A Diaspora of One

A new biography of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm downplays his Jewishness and attempts to soften his radicalism.

Gabriel Winant
July 29, 2019
Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, is the subject of a new biography.

Discussed in this essay: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, by Richard J. Evans. Oxford University Press, 2019. 800 pages.

AN ORPHAN is a diaspora of one, carrying an enormous burden of memory. Before he became the indispensable historian of the rise of industrial capitalism and its nemesis, the socialist movement—before he was known by millions of readers worldwide for his historical omniscience and his obdurate refusal to quit the Communist Party—Eric Hobsbawm was a Jewish boy in teetering interwar Europe, lost and mainly alone, displaced from one country, then another. He never stopped trying to understand what had happened. Like the Angel of History in Walter Benjamin’s famous vision, Hobsbawm’s face was turned toward the past. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote of the Angel, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” 

So it was for Hobsbawm, who died in 2012. He wasn’t a historian of the Holocaust, or of fascism, or even of the ideology to which he subscribed—communism—as if these were objects that could be considered in isolation, like ships in bottles. He wanted to tell the story of the crisis of bourgeois civilization whole, beginning centuries before and stretching long after the climactic epoch between the French and Russian revolutions. 

Hobsbawm was born in Egypt in 1917 to a British-Jewish father and an Austrian-Jewish mother. (The name once had been “Obstbaum,” then was anglicized to “Hobsbaum,” and was finally transformed into “Hobsbawm” by a British clerical error.) He spent his childhood in Vienna until his parents died in quick succession over two years, from heart attack and lung disease. Young Hobsbawm then had to make his own world. In the early 1930s, he went to live with relatives in Berlin, where, as a young teenager, he initiated his lifelong commitment to left-wing politics, demonstrating and leafletting against the ascendant fascists and joining the Communist Party. Richard J. Evans, in his new biography, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, offers an unequivocal psychological account of this moment: “Eric, emotionally adrift after the death of his parents, also found in the Communist Party a substitute family, giving him a sense of identity that was to prove over the long run a central part of his emotional constitution.” Asked many years later why he never quit, he explained, “I don’t wish to be untrue to my past or to friends and comrades of mine . . . it’s the view of someone who became politicized in 1931 and 1932 in Berlin and who has never forgotten it.”

After Hobsbawm fled with his relatives to Britain in 1933, he was separated from this emotional anchor. Although he was already a citizen (thanks to his father), he stood on the outside of things. Later, he referred to his young self as “a sort of extra-terrestrial.” He couldn’t play cricket. He hated his new school’s uniform, against which he “waged a persistent guerrilla war.” Gawky, brainy, foreign, and by his own lights “ugly as sin,” Hobsbawm lived his life in a solitary fashion. In museums and theaters, in his voluminous diaries, and in books—so many books—Hobsbawm preserved in himself the memory of the world he’d fled, and sought to understand its meaning. An arrogant intellectual, a rootless cosmopolitan, and a Jewish Bolshevik, he appears as the target for whom the triple parentheses was created, the personality type whose perceived inadequacies inspired the invention of the tough Sabra. 

Evans seems to miss much of this. When Hobsbawm’s Jewishness announces itself explicitly, the biographer often seems off-balance, apparently seeing it as a quaint background for which the historian retained a nostalgic fondness, but not as a real structuring force in his life. Evans at one point calls Hobsbawm’s Jewish identity “residual,” though he later admits it was “more than merely residual.” He cites the claim of a friend that Hobsbawm was unconcerned about the disappearance of Yiddish and that his Jewishness “didn’t matter that much.” He suggests several times that Hobsbawm’s relationship to his background mainly flowed from his mother’s injunction never to be ashamed of it—hardly a positive presence in his makeup. If Evans recognizes the deeper, subtler Jewish resonances in the narrative, he is generally too squeamish to say so. 

Where his delicacy on the Jewish question helps Evans assimilate Hobsbawm ethnically, his relationship to Hobsbawm’s ideology recuperates the generally unrepentant Marxist into something more politically palatable. Doing publicity, Evans has claimed that Hobsbawm “would have hated” Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn—conveniently, Evans’s own positions. Evans bases this claim on Hobsbawm’s hostility to Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn in the specific context of the early 1980s, while ignoring the historian’s political commentary near the end of his life—as when he wrote, in a new introduction to the The Communist Manifesto, that the choice remained “socialism or barbarism,” or when, in an article in The Guardian, he demanded a Labour Party leadership that would make London something other than “a paradise for the ultra-rich.” Worse still, Evans crossed a picket line at the University of London to promote the book, an affront so egregious to Hobsbawm’s legacy as to call the whole enterprise into question. Evans—a knighted “Regius Professor” at Cambridge (a chair endowed by the monarch)—seems in such moments to embody the liberal wing of the British academic elite, the very social set whose hostility to Hobsbawm shaped his career decisively, repeatedly blocking him from appointments at Oxford and Cambridge for his outré views and personality. It was over the objections of this crowd, who saw him as pushy and opinionated, that he had to establish the value of his work. Given this, the book has a whiff of cooptation.

On the other hand, the biography is a delight. Evans is extremely thorough, and his main character is great company. Reading the book is like lingering at a party with someone who can’t stop talking, but knows everything. While Corey Robin, in his review of Evans’s biography for The New Yorker, complains that the book is overburdened with mundane details, it’s difficult to know how else we might actually approach Hobsbawm, otherwise an Olympian figure. His gaze took in centuries and continents, and his range of knowledge seemed infinite. He spoke with equal fluency on everything from feudal land regimes to the labor movement to jazz—on which he wrote an entire book, under the pseudonym “Francis Newton.” But if we find him as an orphan, a refugee (a term he rejected), and a militant, complete with ego needs, financial pressures, and petty ambitions, we may join him briefly—or not so briefly; the book is 800 pages—on his mountaintop.

AFTER HIS SOLITARY LATE ADOLESCENCE in London, Hobsbawm began to come into his own as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he quickly acquired a reputation as the “freshman who knows everything.” He edited and wrote satire for Granta when it was still a student magazine, and participated in student socialist activities, duly defending the Moscow trials and the Hitler-Stalin pact in the late 1930s—along with the rest of the Communist Party line. 

The war did little to interrupt the life that Hobsbawm had already begun to build. A self-described inadequate soldier, he took every opportunity to propagandize to his fellows, which attracted the interest of MI5 and resulted in repeated transfers and chastisements. “I got my balls chewed off by the colonel,” he wrote on one occasion, after agitating excessively for the opening of a second front in 1942 to relieve pressure on the Soviets. Indeed, confined to Britain, Hobsbawm seemed to absorb the enormity of what was happening largely through the perspective of the Red Army—in tribute to which he scribbled a number of poems in his diary. (Evans, evincing mild surprise at Hobsbawm’s persistent Jewishness, notes that one was entitled “Kaddish for a Russian Soldier.”) 

Other than an unhappy and ultimately short-lived marriage to a Party comrade entered into during the war, Hobsbawm picked up in 1946 almost exactly where he’d left off. At age 28, he re-enrolled at Cambridge and resumed work on his PhD under the supervision of Mounia Postan, the Bessarabian-Jewish economic historian whom Hobsbawm had, as an undergraduate, deemed “the only man among the generally mediocre bunch [of Cambridge’s faculty] . . . whom I gladly acknowledge as my teacher.” Unsurprisingly, Hobsbawm did not try particularly hard to ingratiate himself to elite British academe. He stood out. He wore white gym shoes when he taught in the evenings at Birkbeck, the adult education college of the University of London. He liked to offer observations in his lectures from the perspective of a sex worker he dated—“my friend, the prostitute.” He expressed strong opinions, even at the cost of gentility. The writer Neal Ascherson recalls turning up as an undergraduate at a dressy Cambridge party, wearing his medal from the brutal counterinsurgency in Malaya. When the two were introduced, Hobsbawm told him, “You should be ashamed to wear that.” On top of his unrepentant politics and professional insouciance, Hobsbawm frequented a bohemian London cultural world, had an affair with a married, polyamorous French woman, and haunted jazz clubs constantly. 

Given his lack of interest in placating his superiors, Hobsbawm’s professional rise was somewhat less than meteoric. He did not succeed in publishing his dissertation or the book that followed, which both encountered potent resistance from turf-guarding older dons of the social-democratic persuasion. His critical dissertation on the Fabian Society never saw the light of day, thanks to historian R.H. Tawney (an ethical Christian socialist) and economist Gerald Shove, who complained that his own “memory of the Fabians bore no relation to Hobsbawm’s analysis.” Next, Hobsbawm tried a project called The Rise of the Wage-Worker, arguing that industrialization was “almost certainly the most catastrophic historical change which has overwhelmed the common people of the world.” The publisher rejected the book on the grounds that it ought to “be written without any point of view.”

So Hobsbawm cut loose. He found his intellectual home not in the official spaces of the academy, but in the Communist Party Historians’ Group. Together, the group laid the basis for a transformation of historical scholarship around the world. In part this was due to the influence of their individual works: E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in particular launched whole fields of inquiry by laying down a template for scholarship in which ordinary people appeared as makers of their own history. But it was also a collective endeavor. The group founded a new historical journal, Past & Present, today among the most widely read worldwide. (Thankfully, Hobsbawm talked down a colleague who wanted to call it the Bulletin of Marxist Historical Studies.) Hobsbawm’s first contribution was an article on the Luddites, in which he attacked the then-common view of them as a “pointless, frenzied” mob, and showed how workers’ machine-breaking functioned as informal collective bargaining. To this he soon added a pair of pieces on the breakdown of feudalism and the “general crisis of the European economy in the seventeenth century.” In 22 pages, Hobsbawm offered a unified economic explanation of a wave of rebellions across Europe and the crisis of the old regime—a glimpse of the sweeping style of Marxist historical narrative that would make him famous.

At the end of the 1950s, at the age of 42, Hobsbawm published the first of his eventual two dozen books. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries surveys the worlds of anarchists, millenarians, bandits, and mobs, mainly in the Mediterranean. Hobsbawm writes in the introduction:

The men and women with whom this book is concerned differ from Englishmen in that they have not been born into the world of capitalism as a Tyneside engineer, with four generations of trade unionism at his back, was born into it. They come into it as first-generation immigrants, or what is even more catastrophic, it comes to them from outside.

Moving beyond the obvious industrial subjects—here gestured at with the fourth-generation union shipbuilder—Hobsbawm escaped the censorious hostility of the older scholars who had blocked his progress. In doing so, he opened himself onto the world. He was looking, he said, for Europe’s equivalents of anti-colonial revolutionaries like Kenya’s Mau Mau. “Men and women such as those with whom this book deals,” he writes, “form the large majority in many, perhaps in most, countries even today, and their acquisition of political consciousness has made our century the most revolutionary in history.”

In his insistence that Europe’s economic and political ascension in world history did not place European history separate from or above the rest of the world, Hobsbawm made himself the world’s historian. From within the heart of the old imperialist order, he gave an account of things in which revolutionaries in subjugated places could see themselves. As he put it at one point, “I would like to describe myself as a kind of guerrilla historian, who doesn’t so much march directly towards his goal behind the artillery fire of the archives, as attack it from the flanking bushes with the Kalashnikov of ideas.”

UNABLE TO ASSIMILATE HIMSELF into the genteel world of English academic socialism, Hobsbawm instead took shelter in Marxism, becoming a historian of global capitalist processes and global revolutionary tendencies. In 1962, he published The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, the first of the series of four books for which he is best known, covering the “long nineteenth” and “short twentieth” centuries. Each entry offered a totalizing account of world history, beginning with changes in economic structure and moving upward into the spheres of society, politics, and culture. The Age of Revolution pinpointed the beginning of modern history in the “dual revolution” occurring in the late 18th century with the overthrow of the French monarchy and the emergence of British industrialization—the “twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.” Something had changed deep in the structure of European society, which would be obvious, Hobsbawm wrote, from the perspective of the year 3000 or a “Chinese or African observer.”

While Hobsbawm’s work was always Eurocentric, he had no interest in attributing the modern world to some unique genius of European culture. His next book, Industry and Empire, quite firmly explained British industrialization as the product of exploitation of overseas possessions. For this, Hobsbawm’s critics called him doctrinaire, blind to the unparalleled virtues of the West. His work, accused one, presented Britain “as Lenin sees us.” For Hobsbawm, it was the nationalists who were the true victims of doctrine. A good historian, Hobsbawm argued, could not be a nationalist—an ideology that “requires too much belief in what is patently not so.” The nation and its associated narratives were, as he showed in his book Nations and Nationalism, constructions of the modern world, projected eternally backward in time to justify latter-day inequalities. 

For this hostility to Europe’s self-justifications, Hobsbawm gained broad followings around the world. His books have been translated into dozens of languages, and many have never gone out of print—with particularly striking success in the global South, especially Latin America. Nearly one million copies of his books have sold in Brazil alone, where two rival presidents in a row described him as an important influence.

He also became a sage to socialists and social democrats the world over—often proffering, it must be said, regrettable advice. Beginning with a famous essay in 1978, “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”, Hobsbawm became one of the first to suggest a political alliance between the traditional working-class base of socialism and the liberal middle class: the formula for Blairism and its equivalents. Hobsbawm correctly observed that the industrial proletariat would never be able to command political power on its own, but utterly failed to grasp the significance of feminism, Black radicalism, and the other “new social movements” of the 1970s, and so did not see any alternative to pivoting toward the center. He later rued the results, though not enough to turn down an appointment to the Order of the Companions of Honour by Tony Blair, who correctly calculated that Hobsbawm’s conscience would prevent him from accepting a full knighthood.

The classic feeling of exile is deracination or ghostliness, but Hobsbawm quite happily and fully belonged everywhere he went. In her review of Evans’s biography in the London Review of Books, the historian Susan Pedersen observed that Hobsbawm had a strange quality of personal ubiquity. She opens with an incident in the book, with friends of Hobsbawm’s on holiday in southern Italy in 1957. One sees “two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’” A similar scene occurs in 1987—Hobsbawm spotted by a friend outside a tea room in Seoul. He even appeared in fictional form in a John le Carré novel, though the writer (a former MI5 officer) claimed that he had not intended a reference to the historian—the name “Hobsbawn” had simply popped into his prose.

This was not just a quirk of personality, or simply an accompaniment to his extraordinary commercial success. Hobsbawm embodied the spirit of Jewish universalism. While he craved professional validation and financial success, he had no respect for the accumulated orthodoxies of his parochial colleagues and no patience for the falsehoods of national tradition—including Zionism, which he described as “low-level ethnic cleansing.” He saw the world from the vantage of someone who had found that he had no place in it—no place, that is, but revolutionary internationalism, which is everywhere. After his teenage years, Hobsbawm was never really homeless, and never really stood alone. He forced his way through the closed gates of bourgeois Europe, becoming both its great chronicler and its scholarly nemesis. He spent his life answering the oldest question of diaspora: how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? In Babylon, it was a lamentation. But Hobsbawm found an answer in red Berlin, his own Jerusalem. Before he died in 2012, he asked for his funeral to include a recitation of the Kaddish, some Schubert, some Mozart, and the Internationale. 

Gabriel Winant is a historian, currently writing a book on care work and the Rust Belt.