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Eric Hobsbawm dies

[1]If Eric Hobsbawm [2] had died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death at the age of 95, Hobsbawm had a achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life. In his later years Hobsbawm became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind, recognised if not endorsed on the right as well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown.

Unlike some others, Hobsbawm achieved this wider recognition without in any major way revolting against either Marxism or Marx. In his 94th year he published How to Change the World, a vigorous defence of Marx’s continuing relevance in the aftermath of the banking collapse of 2008-10. What is more, he achieved his culminating reputation at a time when the socialist ideas and projects that animated so much of his writing for well over half a century were in historic disarray, and worse – as he himself was always unflinchingly aware.

In a profession notorious for microscopic preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority. To the last, Hobsbawm considered himself to be essentially a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad and unusually cosmopolitan.

The sheer scope of his interest in the past, and his exceptional command of what he knew, continued to humble those who talked to him and those who read him, most of all in the four-volume Age of… series in which he distilled the history [3] of the capitalist world from 1789 to 1991. “Hobsbawm’s capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs,” wrote Neal Ascherson wrote. Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis, so well displayed in that four-volume project, he was unrivalled.

Continue reading in theguardian [4]