An intellectual biography of Eric Hobsbawm

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology

Abstract

Eric Hobsbawm was undoubtedly one of the most important English-language historians of the twentieth-century. His books were hugely successful and his ideas were discussed far beyond the confines of British academia. At the same time, he was the archetypal intellectual. He remained a specialist in his discipline but he participated actively in civic and political debates about contemporary British, European and global politics. He was not an activist but his commitments and his ideas reflected the intense politicisation and lingering utopias of the twentieth century. There are few historians whose ideas have been discussed by Peruvian trade unionists, Italian Eurocommunists and Cuban Communist ideologues, but the universal Marxist themes that underpinned Hobsbawm's writing made his work accessible to very diverse audiences.

This multiplicity of contexts makes it particularly difficult to build a unified and chronological picture. I have therefore chosen instead to organise the project around three common themes that illuminate Hobsbawm's development as a public figure.

The first is the role of the intellectual in British public life. In the twentieth century, the British have often been reticent about the notion of the intellectual, but Hobsbawm's unusual trajectory - he was brought up in interwar Austria and Germany - meant that he had a different view of public and political engagement. In Britain he was first and foremost a historian, but elsewhere he was called upon to speak intelligently about topical subjects that were only tangentially related to his professional interests. Hobsbawm thus offers a unique insight into the way the twentieth-century European intellectual was formed and shaped.

The second theme is the global imagination of twentieth-century Marxist politics. This means taking seriously, not simply the economic and social implications of Hobsbawm's Marxism, but also its ethical dimensions. Rather than returning to hackneyed debates about whether Hobsbawm's lifelong commitment to Communism was 'good' or 'bad', I want to bring to bear new global and transnational perspectives on the study of the intellectual history of Marxism by emphasising how he used Marxism to help him weave historical stories that influenced hundreds of thousands of readers the world over.

The third theme is historical writing. Through a close reading of Hobsbawm's Ages tetralogy and his other textbooks, I will investigate the stylistic underpinnings of English-language history writing. Amongst other things, I will explore Hobsbawm's interest in science and economics; the influence of continental European social scientific writing of the 1930s, 40s and 50s; and the importance of his career as a teacher. I will also consider the way he marketed his books: Hobsbawm had a remarkable talent for self-promotion and the commercial underpinnings of his history writing played an important role in his success.

These three themes will allow me to explore the foundations of Hobsbawm's thought, his intellectual trajectory, and the relationship between his personal commitments and his public engagement. They will make it possible for me to compare him with his contemporaries and draw out the common threads that brought together a broad and transnational constellation of twentieth-century Marxist intellectuals. And, crucially, they will help us understand why Hobsbawm was able to contribute to the right debates at the right time. Without this, it is impossible to explain the progression of his ideas and his astonishing long-term impact.

Planned Impact

There are two key beneficiaries of my proposed research.

1) The general public (including school and university students)

In today's digital environment, the first port of call for the vast majority of intellectual debate and activity is the internet. However, Eric Hobsbawm did not maintain his own digital presence, which means that information about his life and work is currently scattered across open-source websites (such as Wikipedia) and journalistic essays or obituaries. In order to fill this gap, I will develop an Eric Hobsbawm resource website as an integral part of this research project.

The website will include a full bibliography with hyperlinks, biographical information and a range of additional links. Once it is up and running, the website will supplant other sources of information on the internet about Hobsbawm. It will be regularly updated after the end of the project and it will be available in English, French, Spanish and Italian, thereby extending its reach to a global audience. There will also be the opportunity for other scholars pursuing research in related areas to contribute their reflections. Over time, the website will develop into a reliable and powerful open-access resource for scholars, students and the general public.

2) Journalists, left-wing activists and left-wing activist organisations/institutions/politicians

Hobsbawm had a long and tempestuous relationship with the political Left. His Communist convictions were frequently challenged, not just by opponents but also by sympathisers. Indeed, more than one generation of young left-wing activists built their political identities in opposition to him and the ideas he represented. Some of the political battles with which he was involved - for example, over the invasion of Hungary in 1956 - have now become the subject of historical scholarship. Yet others remain live today - for example, the question of whether the left should emphasise economic exploitation or identity politics.

Of course, the historian's job is not to take sides - and I do not intend to do so. But Hobsbawm's unique position as witness and commentator gives me the opportunity to connect my research directly to contemporary debates. In the first instance, I will do this by building on my existing media and press experience in order to publish a series of short articles and essays about Hobsbawm's writings and their present-day relevance (approximately one article per month). These will appear in a variety of mainstream forums (eg. The Guardian, Libération), as well as more niche publications (eg. Jacobin Magazine), and I will aim to publish in a number of different countries/languages.

I will also develop emerging collaborations with institutions that have an association with the left (eg. the People's History Museum in Manchester, the Istituto Gramsci in Rome, and the Fondation Jean Jaurès in Paris). This engagement with the political community will have a threefold benefit. It will allow me to disseminate my research; it will make it possible for me to think through Hobsbawm's legacy; and it will also contribute directly to some of the most urgent contemporary debates surrounding inequality, economic crisis, political fragmentation and the future of the left.

Publications


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