[Marxism] Eric Hobsbawm tribute

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 18 08:30:45 MDT 2012

LRB Vol. 34 No. 20 · 25 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm

by Karl Miller

I am not an economic historian, which did not prevent me from being 
friends with Eric Hobsbawm for many years. It keeps me from opinionating 
here about his work as a historian, a more than economic historian, in 
fact, who wrote for a wide public. But it doesn’t stop me from writing 
about him in a personal way, with recourse to memories.

My first memory of him lingers in my cells as located in a Cambridge 
college, Caius, just after the war, and after lunch, over coffee. Two 
undergraduates were there, Neal Ascherson and myself, and someone 
academically senior but disinclined to pull rank: this was Eric, lean, 
fair-haired, Jewish-looking, German-looking, lumber-shirted, trousers 
arrested by a leather belt. By his own seniors he had earlier been 
deprived of promotion, because of his communism. He (like Neal) was very 
impressive. Cambridge was asking, while refusing to promote him: ‘Is 
there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?’

He was far from the first communist I had met, and far from the 
stereotype that had become familiar – a threatening austerity relieved 
at times by a self-conscious cheerfulness. There seemed to loom from his 
talk that afternoon what were to be the qualities of his later ‘Age of’ 
books: a command of detail and of scope, of structure and of sweep. 
There were choice, past-piercing details like the one he was to release 
on the page: ‘the number of letters sent in Britain at the outbreak of 
the wars against Bonaparte was perhaps two per annum for each 
inhabitant, but about 42 in the first half of the 1880s.’ It may have 
been on this occasion that he observed that British cities tended to 
have two major football teams, not only one, and that this meant 
something. Some cities don’t, I reflected, while beginning to grasp the 
appeal of sociology, then in its heyday. It was a prime stroke of luck 
to meet these two men – the writer and the scholar, as it might appear, 
but in each case both. A sustained flow of memories survives for me from 
the time when I was literary editor of the New Statesman and he was the 
paper’s jazz critic – known to his fans as Francis Newton – and a 
regular book reviewer. He was presently to move into full ‘synoptic 
power’, in Neal’s expression, working away at his serial account of the 
20th century and its surrounding decades. No one young could have 
managed this account, but its foundations were laid in the writings and 
dedicated teachings that preceded it from his early days. He was not the 
kind of scholar who shuts himself up in the one big book. Eric was also 
an aesthete. Francis Newton was palpably musical, including 
classical-musical. I was to find out that Eric’s engagement with the 
arts was extensive and sometimes surprising. I should, of course, have 
known. Perhaps it was the word ‘economic’ that misled me.

Several years ago I was with him in a sunny, leafy garden. As I sat 
before him in his Oxford and Cambridge straw hat (or not – I certainly 
recall his wife Marlene’s referring to such garments in fine satiric 
vein), I spoke eagerly to him of my new admiration for the stories of 
our Canadian contemporary Alice Munro – only to learn that he already 
shared it. I felt as if I was sitting at his feet. There can’t have been 
many Oxford and Cambridge dons who might have said the same at that point.

Another surprise involved another female writer. When he was 90, he gave 
me a birthday present of the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, the Regency 
courtesan. This is a work which he had fathomed that I might want to 
read. I had wanted to. But there was no communion here between an older 
man’s prurience and my own. I think of Harriette’s autobiography 
(rumoured to have been written by her publisher) as a well-written 
serious work, as much a work of social history, a study of class and of 
sisterly relations not in all respects incongruous with the age of Jane 
Austen, as a pillow book. It’s true that it was once ragingly popular. 
But I can imagine it as a footnote in Eric’s Age of Revolution.

When he was 94, he gave me another present, in the shape of a 
sympathetic letter on the publication of a book I’d written, with 
chapters on the countryside and its writers. It’s a very interesting 
letter, and one which is highly revealing and forthcoming of Eric. His 
sympathy with my efforts proved to know certain bounds, in which an 
aspect of his nature was disclosed, and an urban Englishman, a very 
Francis Newton, emerged, an English gentleman who liked to end his 
sentences with an interrogative ‘what’. The letter admits:

     A priori I’m not the ideal reader of your book. I am a 
megalopolitan who has never lived in a city of less than a million, 
except Cambridge which I didn’t like as a town. I can’t remember ever 
handling, as against watching, lambs, calves or foals, and Marlene can 
tell you how little I care for gardening or growing things. So while I 
am a passionate intermittent countryman in the metropolitan mode (‘I 
couldn’t stand London if I didn’t have that place of refuge in 
wherever’), I really have no organic connection with the country as a 
place where they produce things, or for that matter with rural pastoral. 
I can’t even say that I go overboard for literary graves.

This must be to underrate his house on the Anglo-Welsh border. He proceeds:

     As for the Celtic bits, are you really sure that Trevor-Roper was 
so wrong about the shortage of (English-language) poetry in Scotland, 
balladry aside? Could it be due to the tension between English as 
actually spoken in Scotland, which couldn’t become a generally written 
idiom, and the standard English which did? The German-Swiss, in a 
similar bind, never even tried to turn Schwyzerdütsch into a literary 

This is to set aside, as Hugh Trevor-Roper did, the poetry which Scots 
people wrote in Scots, and which was not without a generally written 
idiom. It is to set Burns aside, something Soviet Russia failed to do. 
And the Ballads are written in Scots (as well as Anglo-Scots). As for 
the perceived weaknesses of the Scottish history of modern times, Eric 
had always put them down to ‘the enthusiasm of Scots nationalism for 
anti-English mythology’.

His attitude to nationalism was complex. He knew its power and had felt 
its pain. He was aware of what it had done to halt the spread of 
communism and he was opposed to the policies of Israeli Zionism: the 
opposition was scarcely mentioned in obituaries, and did not halt his 
progress in later life to a worldwide celebrity.

One of the most impassioned pieces he did for a paper I edited was a 
defence of civil service practice as constituted by the Trevelyan 
reforms of the Victorian period. He can’t have relished the 
blackguarding of the civil service which Labour leaders like Harold 
Wilson and Tony Blair thought it wise to go in for. He was as decent as 
he was dialectical, and this intervention was a clue to his kindly 
English patriotism. But it was not the only sort of patriot he was. He 
was and remained a patriot of the Left, as doesn’t need saying. When 
Stalin fell from grace and the Soviet Union from sovereignty, he 
explained why he did not quit the Communist Party somewhere along that 
line. He did not leave because the party had once been his family, 
during the hard, wandering times he and his real family had endured from 
his birth in the throes of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. He 
worked hard for the British party and was eventually close to its 
summit, while also an antagonist of the Stalinist rearguard that held on 
after the Second World War. It was startling to see him quoted recently 
as saying that some Sappers he was with during the war had caused him to 
feel that the British working class ‘were not very clever, except for 
the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people’. He could be 
synoptically sharp with persons and categories of person, but no one who 
saw much of him can have doubted his feeling for working-class folk and 
for the sufferings of poverty. One of the most dismal prejudices to be 
encountered in Anglo-America has been its worsening failure to imagine 
how decent people could choose to be communists in the 1930s.

Eric has also explained why many may choose to be Marxists again. We may 
return to asking Marx’s questions, even if we no longer believe, as 
perhaps in his own case, in the Soviet model of socialism. His own late 
fame may be a portent of such a future. Old left-wing sages have been 
popular before now, and this is all the more likely to happen at a time 
when the government is intent on destroying the welfare state and 
subsidising the rich – to an extent that has people crying out for 
guidance and exclaiming: ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ This must be a 
part, but not all, of why we mourn his death. What I especially want to 
say about him here is that the better I knew him the more I grew 
conscious of his good heart; his sterling qualities, his gravity of 
mind, were evident from the outset, but it may be that something more 
was in store. His eighties and nineties were just a little of an 
apotheosis, quite independently of his consolidated fame.

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