It is the rare historian whose obituary merits inclusion on the home page of a major newspaper’s website, but Eric Hobsbawm, dead today at the age of 95, was hardly an ordinary sort. Toiling ceaselessly in the thickets of Marxism long after the school had fallen into disrepute, Hobsbawm nevertheless produced some magisterial works — tackling the fate of post-Bastille Europe in such works as Age of Revolution and Age of Extremes. For generations of young left-wing students, Hobsbawm was the guide par excellence to the forces driving history.
As a writer, too, Hobsbawm was first-rate: assured enough in his style to moonlight as a jazz critic for the New Statesman while scribbling for the Communist Party of Great Britain’s house organ,Marxism Today. For some, Hobsbawm’s refusal to join the intellectual exodus out of Western European Communist parties after the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was an act of moral cowardice. Perhaps so, but one gesture can hardly blot a brilliant career.
The year of Hobsbawm’s birth, the Bolsheviks seized power in Saint Petersburg. Through Stalin’s purges, the tanks in Budapest, the Great Leap Forward, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eric Hobsbawm remained unshakeable in his belief of Marxism’s emancipatory potential. In that most bitterly disappointing century, to have Hobsbawm was to remember that all was not, in fact, lost.