Books interview with Richard J Evans: “For Hobsbawm, communism was a matter of life and death”

Richard J Evans talks to Rob Attar about his new biography of the world-renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and discusses the legacy of his work today

Richard Evans. (Photo by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Born in Alexandria in 1917, Eric Hobsbawm spent his youth in Vienna and Berlin, witnessing the rise of Nazism, before moving to Britain in 1933. He studied history at Cambridge and became a lecturer at Birkbeck in London. His books, notably The Age Of… series, which covered the years 1789–1991, were global bestsellers, making Hobsbawm one of the world’s best-known and most influential historians. He was a lifelong communist, and his ideology infused his research and writing. Hobsbawm’s other great love was the jazz scene, which he chronicled for the New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton. He died in 2012 and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery, close to the tomb of Karl Marx.


Q: Your book is titled A Life in History. How far did Hobsbawm’s life shape the history that he produced?

A: One of the central arguments of my biography is that there is a dovetailing of Eric’s personal life and the subjects he wrote about. For instance, in the 1940s, when he was a very committed communist in many ways, he wrote about the rise of organised labour in the industrial revolution. But in the mid-1950s, when he broke in all but name with the Communist party in Britain and started to move in the bohemian world of Soho, he became interested in writing about deviant and marginal people in history. It was no longer about the rise of the wage worker, but about millenarians and bandits – what he called ‘primitive rebels’.

Q: Hobsbawm’s communism was a huge part of who he was. When did this begin for him?

A: He was born in 1917 – coincidentally the year of the Russian Revolution – and grew up in Vienna. His parents died when he was quite young, so he was looked after by an uncle and aunt in Berlin. He was there in the early 1930s, when the Weimar republic was falling apart, and the choice in the high schools at that time was really between Nazism and communism. It was a much more extreme version of our own time, with the centre having fallen apart.

Eric couldn’t possibly have become a Nazi. For one thing he was a British citizen, and for another he was Jewish. So he gravitated towards the Communist party and, though he didn’t actually join it until he was at Cambridge in 1936, he had become intellectually and ideologically a Marxist.

I always call him a communist with a small ‘c’ because, despite his ideological commitment, he never did the sort of things communists are supposed to do: only write for communist journals, sell the Daily Worker on the street corner, etc.

Q: Why did he decide to become a historian rather than pursuing a career in politics?

A: Eric proved to be very good at history in school and then read it at Cambridge from 1936–39. He got married during the war and felt that he needed to earn a living. So he got this job as a history lecturer at Birkbeck in London. Previously he’d thought of becoming a poet, but I’ve read some of his poems from during the war and they are truly terrible! He also applied to the BBC for a full-time job but they turned him down. He even considered working for the Daily Mail, but thought better of it.

Eric did think about working as a propagandist for the communists, but in the end he was unwilling to give up his independence of mind. So he plumped for history because he knew he was good at it and found it fascinating in many ways.

Q: In the book you describe how Hobsbawm was monitored by MI5. What was it about him that they deemed to be dangerous?

A: MI5 began to be interested in him during the war, when Eric served in the Army Education Corps. There, one of Eric’s jobs was to put up wall newspapers to keep the troops informed. One of his superiors read the newspapers and felt they were too leftwing: in particular, they were arguing for a second front. (One of Stalin’s demands was that the western Allies should relieve the pressure on the Soviet armies by invading western Europe.) Eric’s partisanship was felt to be inconvenient, and so he was reported to MI5 and they started their files on him. I think he suspected that somebody was spying on him, but he never really found out until a good deal later that it was MI5.

Eric was a very kind man. He wasn’t a good hater, like many historians are

Once MI5 had him on their radar they didn’t feel they should stop monitoring him, but he was pretty harmless really. And all the time Eric was being monitored, the Cambridge spies were literally getting away with murder. I think it’s because Eric didn’t seem quite British – he wasn’t a classic English public schoolboy like the Cambridge spies were.

Q: What was it about Hobsbawm that made him a historian of note?

A: I think it was his ability to develop new concepts and methods, to pose big, challenging questions and to illustrate and explain them with all kinds of wonderful detail. One example of these concepts was the general crisis of the 17th century. In the 1950s, he argued that if you looked right across Europe, from the English Civil War to the Thirty Years’ War, there was a general crisis of the feudal economy and society that caused massive disruptions and conflicts. This ignited a very long debate that is still rumbling on today.

Another of these concepts was the invention of tradition: that traditions do not go back to time immemorial, but some are actually invented. Eric’s interest in this was sparked by the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Cambridge, which seemed traditional but was actually a very recent creation. In fact, we only just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Q: Hobsbawm’s books were extremely popular abroad, notably in Brazil. What do you think explains this?

A: I think it is because he had this British way with words. Eric approached history not just as an intellectual exercise but also as a way of making the parts come alive through literary style. And that’s quite unusual outside the UK. We have this literary tradition of historical writing that goes back to Macaulay and Gibbon, and which has stood us in very good stead as British historians making an impact abroad.

Q: Hobsbawm’s success meant he was able to live a very comfortable life. How did he square that with the fact that he was a man of the left?

A: As a child Eric went through periods of acute poverty. He recalled, for example, how in Vienna he had had to walk through the snow in a pair of old shoes that let the water in. And in Berlin, he had been so ashamed of his old second-hand bike that he would get to school early so he could hide it away. Eric was always very conscious of economic insecurity, even in old age when he was earning a lot of money from his books.

I don’t think this was a question Eric asked himself very much. He avoided thinking about the fact he was a Marxist who was making hundreds of thousands from his books. The Age of Extremes sold 265,000 copies in Brazil alone, for example.

There’s a nice quote I got from someone who knew Eric and was surprised at how comfortable and bourgeois his house was. She asked him how he squared it, and he said: “Well, if you’re going down with the ship, you might as well go down first class!”

Q: Hobsbawm was often criticised for his communist beliefs. Was he blind to the worst excesses of communism in practice?

A: Eric came to communism in Berlin, where it was a matter of life and death. Communism was something that was part of his identity: he experienced the communist movement as a substitute family. There’s a very interesting phone call recorded by MI5 in 1957, where the communists had started to threaten Eric with expulsion, and he kind of broke down and said: “Please, you can’t do that” – even though at the time he was leading a campaign for the British Communist party leadership to reform themselves and admit that Stalinism was wrong.

There was a war within Eric between this small ‘c’ communist commitment and the recognition of the crimes of Stalin and Stalinism in particular. And I don’t think this war was ever quite resolved. It’s one of the fascinating things about The Age of Extremes, his history of the short 20th century. He’s trying to come to terms with the evils of Stalinism, and it’s quite difficult for someone who has been as committed as Eric has during his life.

Q: You met Hobsbawm on several occasions. What kind of man was he?

A: I only knew him in his later years, through Birkbeck, where I taught from 1989–98. I always felt somewhat in awe of him, because he knew so much more than I did about anything we could talk about. But he was fascinating to talk to, and he knew so many people and had all kinds of views which were often quite surprising. He was also a very kind man and, as far as I could see, entirely without malice. He never indulged in malicious gossip of the sort that’s far too common in universities. He wasn’t a good hater, like too many historians are. It’s striking that everybody who knew him speaks very warmly about him.

Q: Is Hobsbawm still required reading for historians and students in the 21st century?

A: It is remarkable that his books are all still in print. Walk into any university bookshop and you will see The Age of Revolution there on the history shelves. That was published in 1962. How many other historians’ books from so long ago are still required reading on university history courses? I think the reason his books have lasted is because they have these challenging hypotheses that you can discuss in a seminar, but are beautifully written and carry the reader forward. Eric still has a direct influence on history students who read his work, and they should continue to do so.

Sir Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous books, including In Defence of History (Granta, 1997), The Coming of the Third Reich (Allen Lane, 2003) and The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (Allen Lane, 2016). 

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Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans (Little, Brown, 800 pages, £35)